This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series featuring interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Trinity Mouzon Wofford first got into wellness through her mother, who suffers from an autoimmune disease. When Wofford was a teenager, her mother went to see a more holistically minded physician who offered alternative treatments, which Wofford says, fueled a massive improvement in her mother’s symptoms.
“That really inspired me, and I decided medicine would be my career path,” Wofford says. And she was a premed student at New York University—up until the moment she heard that her mother had been forced to stop seeing that doctor because she couldn’t afford it anymore: “I realized that I didn’t want to practice holistic care just for the folks who could comfortably afford it without insurance. Following graduation, I sort of ‘fell’ into a marketing career at a tech startup in the city. I absolutely loved it—the brand building, startup life—but I knew I had to come back to the wellness piece.”
That led to Golde, a superfood health and beauty brand, which Wofford founded in 2017. It is available direct-to-consumer online but also at Sephora, Goop, The Wing, and more retail partners.
Wofford shared more with Fortune this week about her first few years in business and the hurdles she has encountered so far, including what it has been like running a wellness startup during a pandemic.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: The wellness industry is hotter than ever, but it’s also crowded. What inspired the launch of Golde? What makes it stand apart?
Wofford: Golde was inspired by my own experiences as a consumer in the wellness space. I felt really caught between that sort of crunchy, granola stuff I’d grown up with in New York’s Hudson Valley, and the new trending prestige offerings that I simply couldn’t afford. Golde is really the first wellness brand to be centered in community, which is huge.
Our consumers are largely Generation Z and millennial women who feel the same way I did: They’re eagerly building out their self-care routines, but they’re still searching for a brand that really speaks to their values. Our products are affordable and simple. Our mission isn’t weight loss or detox; it’s for every member of our community to feel like their best selves.
Based on the art direction of the website and the product packaging, Golde looks ideal for the social media generation. How has technology shaped the development of Golde?
My cofounder, Issey Kobori, and I do all of the art direction and packaging design ourselves. I think that is a big piece of Golde’s success; it feels like it authentically speaks to that generation because it was created for and by us. You can put as many experts in a room to try to define what young folks want out of their wellness experience, but you can’t reverse engineer authenticity.
Social media has been a massive factor in our success to date. We self-funded our business for over three years, and so we had no choice but to rely 100% on organic word of mouth. When we launched in 2017, Instagram was really the ideal channel for that. Within our first year, we had retail inquiries from Goop, Sephora, Nordstrom, and Urban Outfitters. So many of them told me that they had found out about us while browsing through Instagram. Today, that’s still our biggest channel for discovery.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced in the last year? What surprised you the most?
As a largely self-funded business, cash flow is always a hurdle. I don’t mind paying myself bottom of the barrel wages, but it’s tough when you start to build out a team and need to make sure they have the resources they need to be successful. The past year was a lot of telling folks: “Yeah, we’ll be able to invest in something like that one day.”
What’s really surprised me the most is the extent to which our community will rally behind us, which has really been our saving grace considering that we haven’t raised millions in venture capital funding to date. They know we’re a small business, and they will show up in droves to support anything we put out there.
What kind of feedback have you received from your customers? Are there any particular wellness products that seem to resonate the most? Anywhere you’d found you need to make adjustments?
Everything we do is a test-and-learn opportunity. In 2019, we expanded into skin care with the launch of two topical face masks made with 100% pure superfood powders. We weren’t sure what the reaction would be.
Today, the Clean Greens mask, in particular, continues to be one of our top sellers. We’ve made a lot of packaging tweaks over the past few years. Most recently we rebranded our Turmeric Tonics to Superfood Lattes, which has been a huge hit. It was extremely nerve-racking to make a change like that, but we’ve found that in wellness the best thing you can do is make your product easy to understand. We’ve consciously tweaked anything that felt a little too “woo woo.”
Over the past several days, there has been a much stronger and more concerted effort on social media to encourage consumers to support black-owned businesses. At the same time, there is the worry that while this might offer a much-needed sales bump during an economic downturn, nonblack consumers will not commit to this effort in the long term. What can other members of the business community do to amplify and sustain support for black-owned businesses?
Word of mouth is an insanely powerful thing. Since this movement started, we have sustained 10 times our usual sales numbers. The other day I was DM-ing with Kourtney Kardashian. It’s bananas.
To me, it really proves the power of conversation and network recommendations. Yes, this can be powerful for mega-influencers, but it’s also extremely effective on the micro-sale, with the type of recommendations you might make to a friend or family member. Talking about black-owned brands is a meaningful place to start.
That said, there is so much more to do. Black entrepreneurs need equal access to capital and business resources. We’ve been ignored in the mainstream business community in spite of the rise of other movements celebrating female founders. These female founders are overwhelmingly white and of high-SES [socioeconomic status] backgrounds, so it sort of defeats the idea of celebrating diversity through that initiative. We all need to hold ourselves accountable to level that playing field.
It’s not just about “doing what’s right.” It’s about ensuring that tomorrow’s businesses have the toolbox they need to speak to an increasingly diverse country. How many businesses have faced outrage in the past few months due to exposure of racial inequalities in their operations? How much of that could have been avoided by all of us making a conscious effort to empower diverse teams?
Obviously, amid the coronavirus pandemic, consumers’ purchasing habits and practices are going to change. How does Golde plan to adjust its business plan for the immediate future?
Because we’re in the wellness and beauty space, we actually saw a big increase in our online business following the rise of COVID-19. Folks want to be able to have their favorite matcha latte at home, or they’re looking for immunity boosters.
The challenge, of course, was navigating relationships with our brick-and-mortar retail partners, so many of whom have been struggling through this time. We really pivoted toward leaning into our digital channels, and it’s helped us rise to this exceedingly unprecedented occasion. Because we have so much experience staying lean, we are already profitable. A lot of brands freaked out when the economy started to fall because it meant that outside investor funding had dried up. We have no issues with hunkering down.
I think the brands that show the greatest resiliency during this time will be the ones with one, an extremely dedicated digital community that will rally behind them through good times and bad, and two, the ability to pivot to an ultra-lean capital plan that prioritizes profits without overly sacrificing growth opportunities.
At the same time, how does a shutdown of this nature affect the future of the business, from product development to raising capital?
We were raising our first round of investor capital when the pandemic shut everything down. It was a small round to begin with, and then we ended up only closing 10% of what we had planned on. That sucked, but we knew how to keep it lean. The money we raised has gone into development of a few new SKUs that we’re really excited to be launching in the near-ish future.
As an entrepreneur, unexpected things are always happening, so this just felt like another situation to push through. In hindsight, I’m glad it worked out this way. We had just enough capital to put into much-needed expansion opportunities, and the rest can be raised down the road at a higher valuation than what we could command this past spring.
Looking beyond the post-pandemic era—which could be anywhere from a year to a few years from now—how do you plan to grow Golde and what do you want the business to look like five years from now?
We’re really centered on community-powered wellness. Every decision we make comes back to the community, and what they’re looking for. We want to get them more involved in the business, because it really is a collaborative process at this point. Product development is the next big thing that we want to bring everyone into. Accessibility is at our core, so retail expansion is another one that we’re very excited about. We want everyone to know and love Golde.
More must-read lifestyle coverage from Fortune:
- The cofounders of kitchen concierge startup The Culinistas on the importance of listening to your customers
- The CEO of e.l.f. Cosmetics on beauty behind face masks
- 5 new books to read in June
- The global liquor industry might not fully recover for another five years
- WATCH: How the battered food-service industry is weathering the coronavirus