303 TL Robinson: Bootstrapped Breakout Success
TL Robinson is the founder of MASS EDEN, a fast-growing body care brand for skin-sensitive and health conscious consumers who won’t sacrifice on quality or compromise their personal identity. Learn how “accidental entrepreneur” TL has bootstrapped a successful online boutique specializing in green beauty and skincare products in only 2 years, and how best to turn your “side hustle” passion into a growing business.
Melinda Wittstock: TL, welcome to Wings.
TL Robinson: Hi, Melinda. Thank you for having me.
Melinda Wittstock: It's lovely to have you on the show as well. I'm always intrigued by people who are accidental entrepreneurs. I happen to think that a lot of the best companies are actually created by people who just saw a problem and they just took it upon themselves to go out and solve it and become, thereby, an accidental entrepreneur. Tell me: What was that moment, what was the, “Ah-ha,” where you're like, “Oh, my God, I just have to go out and fix this?”
TL Robinson: Yeah, it was one of those things where I was really struggling with my health. There was a multi-year journey where I wasn't feeling well. Physicians weren't necessarily able to figure out what was going on, and I got to a point where I thought, “Okay, I need to start living my best life regardless of how I feel. I'm going to eat cake, buy the dress, take the trip.”
I was in a space where I got an opportunity to go to Cuba and learn about their architecture, food, art, and culture. It was while I was on vacation to Cuba that I was at one of the resorts, and one of the workers at the resort was listening to me complain about my skin. I had sensitive skin, I had broken out. It was highly reactive at the time.
She gave me local products off the farm. I tried those products and it was within hours my skin was soothed. I didn't have the irritation or the burning. Within 24 hours, my breakouts had healed and the discoloration was mild. I'm just thinking, “I'm on vacation. I'm reducing my stress. I'm not focused about work.” I attributed it to that.
I continued to use the products for the remainder of the trip. Everything was fine. When I get back to the States, my skin goes crazy again. At that time, I went back to using my own products. It was shortly after that time that I was back at the doctor. They were able to figure out things that were going on, and a lot of it was allergies and sensitivity was just one of the issues that I was having.
That's where I started doing research and learned that what you put in your body is just as important as what you put on your body. A lot of the ingredients in the products that we're consuming regularly are triggering. A lot of them are impacting our health.
So, I went on this journey just to really understand my problems more and accidentally happened upon green beauty. Specifically, green beauty for people with sensitive skin. That's really how it started. It was talking to more people who have similar issues to myself, me being at home, concocting things in my kitchen and sharing it with folks, and we're receiving or realizing improved results in our skin. I thought, “This is a bigger market that's really being missed.”
When people say products are for sensitive skin, sensitive skin is [inaudible [spp-timestamp time="00:11:46"]. It's just not you have sensitive skin or you don't. There are different triggers for different people and for myself. I realized that there was still a gap in the market that needed to be solved.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, gosh. It always starts with us, and what's so interesting is that, often, a challenge that we have is actually the silver lining. It's the thing that we want to hide, or the thing that we're unhappy with, or the challenge, or the gap, or the lack, or whatever, is often the clue to actually finding and stepping into our true purpose. The thing that we were really, really meant to do in the world. Do you agree?
TL Robinson: I absolutely agree. Before that, I was a woman in tech. I worked in the finance industry. I knew I was going to climb up the ladder and have a corner office and I was going to retire out of that space. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would own my own company. Never did I think that it would be in the beauty sector or in the body care sector, but it was definitely the problems that I was having that led me to this space.
Even working full time, it became something that I became obsessed by. That calling just took over and here I am. So, it was definitely a need that needed to be filled, that helped me identify my purpose. I can tell you: Knowing my purpose, I am the happiest that I've ever been.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, so where do you see … This is the big vision question. You have this brand. You're solving problems for lots of people and, potentially, many, many more because you have a nice, big, addressable market. People are increasingly demanding green products, or natural products, pure ingredients, all of that.
All the signs are really good, but you've also got a very competitive marketplace as well. When you look, say, TL, five years out, 10 years out, 20 years out, where do you see yourself?
TL Robinson: That's a great question. Putting all that together to your point, it is a saturated market and it is very competitive. A lot of people want to know about your story. Through social media, we can connect with strangers. We can sympathize and empathize with strangers. That's really what has helped my brand to grow and get more awareness, is people hearing my story. Not just with the sensitive skin, but my health journey and how that has evolved.
I say all of that to say it's sharing myself. Not beyond just body care and beauty, but talking about wellness, mental wellness, physical wellness, emotional and social wellness as well. So, with all of that, it's our blog that's moving in the space of sharing wellness and how it impacts our body and our skin, and how, when we're not well, our skin is triggered.
But also, with the brand, and the products, and the blog, is being a public speaker and talking about the other aspects of my life where wellness can be impacted, my go-to, my mantra, my ethos and how I stay centered to overcome some of those obstacles and really connect with people in that way.
When I look five, 10, 20 years out, it's not just selling products. It's definitely being a public speaker. It's definitely putting out materials that helps people connect the dots through the circle of wellness, through body care, through food. And how to be healthier, how to be stronger, and how to have better relationships, and a more satisfying life.
Melinda Wittstock: That's a beautiful, beautiful vision. That's a mission. It's more than a business. To me, it sounds like it's a movement. One of the things that I see more and more …
It used to be that companies were just purely transactional. Now, to stand out from the crowd and to really grow and build customers that truly love you, it's really got to be a higher purpose than just a product. It's got to be an idea or a mission that other people can galvanize around, that you can co-create together and go solve big problems. I think business is becoming almost a canvas where we can solve a lot of really, really big problems.
TL Robinson: Absolutely. We can absolutely solve big problems, absolutely build relationships. Absolutely we can change and evolve our society and patterns of behavior through business, and being vulnerable, and sharing our stories.
That's exactly what I'm looking for. For myself, growing up with sensitive skin, I really gave up on appearances. My mom and my sister's so beautiful and had amazing skin, and that just wasn't my story. You grow up feeling like a ugly duckling and not going outside or not wanting to show your face because you're so inflamed and broken out.
The beauty in that is I learned to be comfortable in my imperfect skin. I tell people, “You are imperfectly perfect, and that's okay.” It's really sharing that message, and it's being an accidental entrepreneur. A lot of times, I forget to sell the products, I'm so busy connecting [inaudible [spp-timestamp time="00:17:13"] my story. People went, “Wait a minute. Shouldn't you sell? What's your price?” I'm like, “Oh, yes. I have products for sale.” But through connecting with people, that resonates better. I build stronger relationships.
I will tell you, I, a couple years ago, was sponsoring an event before my products had even hit the marketplace yet. Someone recognized me on the street and I didn't have any product with me, no branding. She remembered my face and my story and she purchased products. Now she is an Emmy-winning person and she shares my products and my story with other people who are now engaged with the brand. I wasn't even selling.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. That's interesting because you're enabling and allowing your customers and potential customers to grow the brand with you, to join you in a shared mission.
TL Robinson: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: This really is the way, actually, to sell these days. It's not even selling. It's enrolling. I see so many people … The people who do this really well on social media are, yeah, exactly what you say, TL: creating a really strong brand affinity by actually caring about their customers to the point where they're actually having conversations with their customers.
They're actually talking to their customers. Not just assuming that, if they build it, their customers will be there, but actually taking the time to cultivate, get to know them, understand them, do all those things. That's really the way marketing is done these days.
But, of course, there's challenges in that. It's time-consuming. How do you organize your day between all the stuff you've got to do and getting out there and really being the face, and the voice, and having those customer conversations?
TL Robinson: I will tell you, it's time-consuming and it is costly, especially if you're a startup. For my business, I funded my business myself. You have to get legitimacy, you have to get buy-in, you have to get a following really before companies will put in that large investment in you and your brand.
So, you have to believe in yourself, you have to stick with it, and you have to put in the time. A lot of my time is trying to reach as many people as possible. Gone are the days of door-to-door salesmanship. It's going to events and programs where their ethos matches mine, or is at least tangential to mine in the green space and in the wellness space.
It is being a sponsor to events, it is getting up on stages and talking and telling my story, it's sponsoring other programs and products, it's uplifting other entrepreneurs in their brands, and just a simple thank you or shout out on social media allows me to get 10, to 100, to 150,000 people to see my brand who have never seen it before.
So, really, it's through relationships, it's through connecting. Then, once you get the following, once you get the sales and you generate the revenue, then you can go more traditional means, like your newspaper, or your TV commercials, or nontraditional. Now, the new thing is paying influencers good. Again, it's really connecting with people who align with the brand and moving in that space.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. You've got to be willing to be a bit scrappy.
TL Robinson: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: Just get out there and make mistakes. When you were first starting out, were you worried that, “Oh, what if I can't do this? What if I make a mistake?” Or did you get it right from the beginning, like, “Yes. I'm going to make mistakes, but mistakes are learning?”
TL Robinson: I accepted the mistakes early on. Coming from corporate, you have to be resilient. You have to fail fast and you have to dust yourself off.
Melinda Wittstock: You do. This is true. This is the entrepreneurial DNA, so this is so funny that you're an accidental entrepreneur, TL, because you're so entrepreneurial. Because the failing is part of the fun, actually.
TL Robinson: It is. It's not fun when you-
Melinda Wittstock: It's not fun, but it is. It's certainly fun when you look back on it, but it's fun in this way. It's a mindset shift. If you already know that it's going to happen anyway because there's more that you don't know than you do, especially at an early stage of a company, but really at any stage … It just requires a bit of humility. You just take it as feedback. It's like market research.
TL Robinson: Yes. As market research, and you hope you don't lose a lot of money behind the fail.
Melinda Wittstock: You hope you don't lose a lot. That's the other thing, too: being prudent about where you put your resources.
I want to ask you, you just mentioned that you've been bootstrapping your company. You've invested in your own company, and that's hard. Did you have a little bit of a nest egg to put into it before you started it, or did you just go for it?
TL Robinson: Well, it was twofold. I had money ever since I started working. I had money tucked away and there's always an emergency reserve. When this calling got greater than what I could fight off and I knew I was leaving corporate America, I just took the leap of faith.
I kept saying, “Okay, a little bit, maybe a month from now, I'll give my notice and then I'll work maybe a couple months, and then I'll leave.” It was literally I woke up one morning and said, “I have to make the jump now.”
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. It happens like that. It's just a feeling, a sudden, “Okay, that's it. So, no, I've just got to go for it.” It's sad because a lot of people have that but they ignore it.
TL Robinson: It's tough because we get comfortable. Not everyone has an entrepreneur in the family, or they do have one that is having certain levels of success where you can live day to day and pay your bills and not have to have that stress. I think people have a certain perception that entrepreneurship is easy and you're going to [crosstalk [spp-timestamp time="00:23:07"].
Melinda Wittstock: Sorry. I'm laughing because it's not.
TL Robinson: It's not. How am I going to pay for this? Or, I only have $20,000 in the bank, but my marketing budget for these events is $35,000. Where is that 15 going to come from, because I've only budgeted this much for the month? How am I going to make this work? I still have to pay my bills, I still have to eat. You have to figure it out.
You have to figure out it and you have to ask for help. You have to use your team. Figure it out. You have to believe in yourself and your brand and what you're working for. If you have to go hungry and not eat that steak dinner that you're accustomed to eating, don't eat it.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, no, it's true. It's just getting all of that balanced. So, as a little girl, were you tenacious in this way that you are now? Has this always been your mindset or is this something that you learned along the way?
TL Robinson: I will say I was tenacious as a little girl. I was definitely the thinker. I do not lie green peas, so of course, there were times when my parents would put it in front of me. They're like, “There are kids that are starving for green peas,” and my response would be, “Well, let's package it and send it to them and get me something else.”
I've always thought there's an option. There's another option out there. But, as you get older, and as you work, and you have different experiences, you become tenacious in a different way. I've learned that I have to do some of the things that I don't want to do now in order to do what I want to do later. So, if someone put peas in front of me right now, I'd probably eat them.
Melinda Wittstock: I find it fascinating, though, because I think there are a lot of clues to our future selves in our childhood.
TL Robinson: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: The things that we like to do. I know I was this master producer. I'd have these big shows, and I'd go around the neighborhood and ask people to prepay for them, this kind of thing. I find I do that now through so many of my startups. It's this whole thing. What was it for you when you were a kid that you were doing? I could just picture you being industrious, making something. Was that what you were like?
TL Robinson: I was like that, and it's funny that you say that. Because I keep a daily journal to process my thoughts, and my progress over time, and also action items that I need to do the next day.
I was putting in an entry in the journal talking about myself as a little kid, and I remember playing with the dolls and my Barbie, and I was never focused on my Ken doll. I was never focused on Barbie being married or the kids. Barbie had a business. Barbie had a condo. My Barbie had suits and briefcases, and Barbie went to work. Barbie had an ice cream shop, Barbie sold condominiums. The little houses that she lived in, I would sell them to the other dolls.
That's how I was as a kid. I look now, I think I was always an entrepreneur. I always knew that I was going to wear multiple hats, and I would be in different spaces. So, yeah, that was me as a kid.
Melinda Wittstock: That's fantastic. I love that. How do you juggle everything in your life? Your business, all the other stuff that you do? Is it work/life balance, or is it more like work/life integration?
TL Robinson: I would say I would call it a balance. There definitely is an integration, and that's where the people in my life … I had to be up front about the flexibility.
Anyone who is in a relationship with an entrepreneur has to understand that traditional hours and behaviors, they're not there. Maybe I'm talking to someone in India and I'm up at [spp-timestamp time="2:00"] AM. Maybe I'm talking to someone in Amsterdam or the UK and those are the hours. Maybe dinner is not always going to be us eating together at [spp-timestamp time="7:00"]. Maybe I'm going to be traveling Monday through Thursday, or I'm gone two weeks straight, and I'm home for a certain period of time.
There has to be those allowances. But, as the person that is building the dream, there has to be the willingness to hear the difficult feedback about not being present. So, it's about communication, it's about flexibility, and it's about being outside of the box with expectations of time commitments and always being present for every moment.
It's about the balance and it's also about integration, and maybe it's bringing those people in your life with you so they can see exactly what it is and get a better understanding of what's happening. Therefore, they can have greater flexibility.
Melinda Wittstock: That's wonderful. Take me back to your days in tech, because of course, there are not a lot of women in tech.
TL Robinson: Right.
Melinda Wittstock: There are certainly not a lot of women of color in tech. It's a major problem. What attracted you to the tech industry to begin with and helped you persevere within it, succeed within it?
TL Robinson: I did not start in tech. I will say, I have an undergrad degree in Economics and a minor in Financial Planning. I was in the finance industry and I started out as an analyst. Then, from being a data analyst, did really well with finding problems pretty quickly within our operations group, so then I got promoted and allowed to go to training for project management.
Did project management in the operations group, helped with system integrations and updates, helped them be more efficient in operations. Then someone said, “Hey, you really understand the processes, the people, it seems like you really understand our products. Let's tap you for product management.”
Okay, so I went through the training, the certifications for that and then went into product. It was not just physical products, but as we moved into the digital age, it was digital products as well. Then it became products in the digital space, and then understanding the products in the digital space, I got an opportunity to build products because I understood the data, I understood the customer, I understood the people who were working in operations.
It was really an experiment, and I did well. It just evolved from there. It was really showing up, doing the work, putting in the time, doing well, and just getting tapped to evolve in that digital space. Really, developing digital products and helping facilitate the development of those products and ideating was something I fell in love with. I just thought, “This feels like home.”
Melinda Wittstock: That's wonderful. I love that, that you just, with every opportunity, saw the opportunity and you took it. It's very entrepreneurial, I have to say, TL. It's the proverbial, “How hard can it be?”
TL Robinson: Yeah. [crosstalk [spp-timestamp time="00:30:35"]
Melinda Wittstock: Just jump in.
TL Robinson: Yeah. I didn't doubt myself. I felt like if someone saw something in me and was willing to give me an opportunity, then I'm going to take it and do my best. I also realized that me being successful wasn't just about me; it was about the people who were promoting me. My allies, my mentors.
But I also thought about the young girls and young girls of color who were coming behind me. I knew all the work that I was doing would create a perception for those people in the next wave. I wanted to give them a softer path.
Melinda Wittstock: So, you really were walking your talk in terms of lifting as you climb, which is one of the missions of Wings, hence the name “Wings.” Because I think we, as women, all do better when we're coming at it in a collaborative way with each other.
TL Robinson: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: We're promoting other women, buying from other women, investing in other women, and bringing other women up with us as we climb. We lift as we climb. So, what a wonderful thing. I think when you do that for others, others do that for you.
TL Robinson: Yeah, and like I said, I was lucky that I had that. But I've also come across women who were not in that same spirit. They were drunk off of possible power. They were already in the higher ranks, they already were in the boys' club.
They perceived that they were seen as equals and they could not find a way to pull other women up. I definitely came across the challenges, the disappointment, and to be honest, the heartbreak of coming across women who were not about helping.
Melinda Wittstock: It is like heartbreak, isn't it? It's funny how this works out. Women who are in that queen bee mode of scarcity, like, “Okay, if I'm here …” They think there's only room for one or a handful when that's actually really not true.
TL Robinson: Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: I think it's changing, but I still encounter women who even talk about being abundance thinkers, but then their actions are not in alignment with the words yet.
TL Robinson: That's where I had to learn to get comfortable with “no.” I had to get comfortable with everyone is not my friend, and that's disappointing as well, because I want to be friendly with everyone. I want to try to help as many people as possible, but I have to protect myself.
It's really doing the work and taking more time to learn people so I can build authentic relationships and know that I'm in a safe space with my network, that I will extend things to them and I will get them exposure, and that they may do the same thing for me when they can. Knowing that I can help someone today and maybe they can't help me, and that's okay, but five years later, maybe they're thinking about me, and that's an opportunity. It's okay.
Melinda Wittstock: How wonderful. Gosh, I feel like I could talk to you for a really long time. TL, you'll have to come back on the podcast in another year or so. I'm going to want to know just all the massive markets that you've conquered. Where are your products available? Where can people get them?
TL Robinson: People can access the body care products and access our blog at masseden.com. That is M-A-S-S-E-D-E-N.com. If they subscribe to the blog on the page, they get 15% off their first purchase.
Melinda Wittstock: That's wonderful. They're all sold online?
TL Robinson: They are all sold online via our Eden eBoutique.
Melinda Wittstock: That's fantastic. Is it something that is an aspiration of yours to be able to get into stores like Whole Foods, or Ulta Beauty, or folks like that?
TL Robinson: It would be great to get into the stores, but right now, it's really understanding the personas, people that we need to reach, because for me, one of the misconceptions that I'm hoping to dispel is that people who use green beauty products, or green body care products, or eat natural and organic foods are not tree-hugging hippies that only wear [inaudible [spp-timestamp time="00:34:45"].
You can be mainstream. You can be very sexy. You can be a diva. You can dress down. You can be a professional athlete. This is really about health and making healthier options. It's not about who you are. So, for us, it's about creating products for people who aren't going to compromise their identity because we don't want people to do that, but we don't want them to sacrifice quality and efficacy, either. That's why we have a very simple look and feel. It's about our users, it's not about the price. It's about how they feel and improving their health.
Melinda Wittstock: This is so, so true. Well, thank you so much for a lovely interview and putting on your wings and flying with us today.
TL Robinson: Thank you. I had a great time and I appreciate the opportunity to share my story and share the brand with people. Thank you.