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The Aussie ‘Yes Men’ behind an international skincare giant

Meet the two UTS graduates behind the world’s second largest natural beauty brand, Yes To Carrots.

Calling their mutimillion dollar business ‘Yes To’ was all about being positive and it has served co-founders Ido Leffler and Lance Kalish well. Unlike many other natural, earth-friendly companies who are always saying no (to animal testing, artificial colours – you know the drill), their award-winning “light green” company is all about what’s good, not bad.

Sydney boys Kalish and Leffler, both 34, are positively bursting with passion and enthusiasm for their business. And like many successful partnerships, these are two very different characters who complement each other perfectly. Leffler is the jet-setting and uber-charming ‘face of’ who wears orange (for carrots) every day.

“I wore orange for our first meeting with Walgreens, our first US retail partner,” says Leffler. “The meeting was so impactful that I decided to wear orange every day to remind me of where we started and where we can grow. Plus it seems to make people smile!”

Dynamic duo

More traditional Kalish is the numbers and strategy man. It’s clear their roles are equally important and their relationship is based on a strong friendship and respect for each other’s strengths. Both graduates of UTS, the duo met in 1997 while playing soccer in the Sydney suburbs. They became great friends, later starting a consultancy together to help businesses looking to export, working with several beauty and skincare brands. They spotted a gap in the market and started Yes To, a natural, affordable, unisex skincare line “that actually works” in 2006. They started with products made from organic carrots, later moving on to cucumbers, blueberries and tomatoes. They initially opened offices in Tel Aviv and Sydney with the proceeds from selling part of their consultancy.

The business started with a big idea, a lot of debt, crossed fingers and risk, always just managing to fulfill initial orders and keep promises. Like the time when the Home Shopping Network (HSN) wanted 45,000 skincare gift sets in 60 days and they needed an extra $50,000 to get them manufactured so they maxed out six credit cards. Their success since in the States, where they are now headquartered in San Francisco, has been remarkable, and fast. The brand is now sold in 28,000 stores in 29 countries (with 75 percent of business from the USA) and is second only to Burt’s Bees in terms of global natural beauty brand sales. But only now are they really setting their sights on the Australian market. Their products are currently sold here in Priceline, David Jones and Coles.

The pair’s dynamic is incredibly important, says Kalish. “Ido and I have very different backgrounds and skills. I come from a professional, finance and accounting background, and Ido comes from a sales, brand and marketing background. The two skill sets have perfectly complemented each other. Ido initially concentrated on flying around the world getting us into retailers and developing the brand look and feel, and I focused on being the anchor, managing the office, and implementing and executing the sales and work that Ido was bringing in!”

True entrepreneurs

Different as they are, they both believe they’re true entrepreneurs, in a time when the term is thrown around a little too freely. “We are as pure an entrepreneur as you get,” says Kalish. “We had a vision, took huge risks at extremely high personal costs, and refused to stop going until we achieved it. You can learn to be a good businessman, but I certainly believe that you need to be born with those qualities in order to be a successful entrepreneur.”

In the USA, Yes To is sold in major retailers such as Target, Walmart and Walgreens. There’s also a sizeable business in Europe where Yes To has an exclusive agreement with premium skincare retailer Sephora in 15 countries. “Our Australian business is still a very small part of our whole business but strategically plays a significant role,” says Kalish. “I recently moved back to Australia to manage the market directly. We believe the growth and future of natural beauty products in Australia is ready to explode, now that retailers such as Priceline, Coles and David Jones are getting behind these products in a big way.”

Yes To has been growing its revenue by more than 50 percent per year for the last three years and has been profitable for the last two, at above industry average profit margins. It’s just the beginning though, according to Leffler.

Being male in the female-dominated beauty industry hasn’t held them back at all either. “Thankfully we have very savvy wives who became our first product testing volunteers! Also, all of our products are unisex, so we get to be customers too,” says Leffler.

Work/life balance

Both men, who are fathers these days, credit their then girlfriends’ (now wives’) support as being instrumental in getting the business off the ground when things were tough. Leffler says: “We could not have done any of this without our families’ support, loyalty and fun-loving spirit!” Indeed, for the first few years, Leffler was travelling 200 days out of 365, quickly getting platinum frequent flyer status on five different airlines. “Today, as we have children, a large part of the Yes To way of life is a very positive work/life balance,” he adds. “Our wives and children have supported us mentally, emotionally and morally as we grew this company at lightning speed! Today we are able to sit back a little more and enjoy the special moments with them, which is a huge gift.”

They see their employees as family too. “The Yes To culture is one of the most important pillars of our success,” says Leffler. “From the beginning, we view hiring people as adopting them, not just employing them, which has helped us to build a family and create a fun atmosphere around the office. As a result the team is empowered and excited to come in every day.”

Kalish adds: “The past two years have been very different to the initial ones. We hired some rockstars in our office in San Francisco to take over running the day-to-day operations and help with all the travel and this freed up a lot of time for us. Nowadays I am abroad about two months of the year and Ido has gone down from about 200 days traveling to about 100 days a year; a huge improvement!”

Meet the two UTS graduates behind the world’s second largest natural beauty brand, Yes To Carrots.

Export lessons

When it comes to mistakes, exporting has probably been the steepest learning curve with the most important lessons. “The biggest challenge was allocating enough time and resources for each new market we opened up,” says Kalish. “We wanted to devote the same amount of attention and passion into every market, but with a small team initially and pure distance, we just couldn’t be everywhere at once! I wish we could have hired our old selves to assist us in those days to maximise every new market launch!”

They also learn a lot from doing something very simple that many businesses neglect: asking their customers what they think. Yes To prides itself on being a customer-centric company, with its dedicated group of brand loyal fans who they call VICs (Very Important Carrots). “Every two months we host a video conference where we invite the VICs to learn more about the products and the company culture, and most importantly we ask them what products they’d like for us to launch and how we can improve our existing items,” says Leffler.

There have been countless awards for the business over the years, but perhaps most significantly they’ve been named Most Ethical Cosmetic Brand by PETA, the largest animal rights group in the world, for two out of the last three years. Kalish says: “We like to call our typical Yes To consumer someone who is ‘light green’. This is someone who is educated and taking steps in their life to lead a greener, healthier lifestyle.”

The initial excitement in starting the business hasn’t diluted at all in five years and Kalish says he feels extremely proud of their success so far. “I still get a huge thrill out of seeing a Yes To product on any retailer shelf, because I know how much blood, sweat and tears went into getting it there!” His advice to Aussie start-ups is to think global from the very beginning. “I think that by nature, Australians are very entrepreneurial and small business entrepreneurs have been very successful here. However, in order for Australians to make a huge international impact, they need to think global, take advantage of good old fashioned Aussie gusto and take additional risks necessary to become truly significant on the international stage.”

Say yes!

Leffler, who is one of the most charismatic and smiley people you’ll ever meet, says: “Yes is the most powerful word in the world. It’s incredible what can be achieved if you start and end your day on a positive note. Our competitors are often large companies with a much longer process to say ‘yes.’ In contrast, Yes To is a positively driven, fast-moving company, which our retailers love!”

These two never sit still, even when they’re not working, and downtime has nothing to do with lying on a beach doing nothing. “One would think that with all the travel we do that we would love to sit still but this could not be further from the truth,” says Leffler. “At any given moment we are travelling to a sandy beach, game reserve, mega-city, or awesome snowboarding mountain. We are also big foodies and love to try any exotic meal that you throw at us!” They like to give back too, with part of the proceeds from every product sold going to the Yes To Seed Fund, which gives children fun and engaging ways to connect with Mother Nature.

What’s next? “In 2012 we will launch in six new countries, launch a significant number of new products and implement one of our largest Yes To Seed Fund initiatives to date,” says Leffler. “We’ll also continue our plans to become Australia’s favourite natural beauty brand.”

Lance and Ido’s top three pieces of advice for business owners

1)    Emails are for introduction and follow-up. Real business needs to be done face-to-face.

2)    Never say no to a meeting. You never know where it might lead because opportunities never come about exactly the way you think they should.

3)    Build and invest in real and genuine relationships with your customers and suppliers. The trust factor you develop from genuine relationships will earn you far more down the line then plain dollars ever will.

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Jen Bishop

Jen Bishop

Jen was the publisher at Loyalty Media and editor of Dynamic Business, Australia's largest circulating small business magazine, from 2008 until 2012. She is now a full-time blogger at The Interiors Addict.

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