By Diane Mastrull
The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Perhaps no one is more surprised that Barbara Gettes is building a business than Gettes herself.
“I was supposed to teach,” the 38-year-old said of the plan she had while attending Keene State College in New Hampshire, from which she graduated in 2000.
But a less-than-stellar academic performance led her to the road, instead. She toured throughout the United States and Russia with a folk band, the Spinning Leaves, which went on to release three albums.
Then came travel fatigue and a need “to ground myself,” Gettes said. She turned to making all sorts of things in her kitchen, including sauerkraut, yogurt, bread, and medicinal and herbal blends.
“It ended up being my coping mechanism when my dad was sick,” she said.
Andrew Gettes succumbed to cancer in fall 2010. By the following spring, one of his daughter’s creations had developed a fan base at concerts and craft shows: a lip balm made from local beeswax and raw honey, and olive, lavender, and tea tree oil.
“I didn’t like to play Barbies when I was little, but I liked to play witch,” she said, explaining her affinity for concocting.
She landed two small retail accounts in Philadelphia for her U-Bee-Well balm, and then came a big break: Anthropologie started carrying it in 55 stores.
To her Anthropologie pitch, which a friend with connections to the hip retailer helped arrange, Gettes brought lip treatment and samples of her music.
“I was saying, ‘I want you to distribute my records,'” Gettes recalled recently. “I didn’t want to have a lip-balm company.”
This mother of a 2-year-old daughter, whose father she lives with in unwedded bliss, is a free spirit.
“I have really rejected shopping and consumerism for so long, I felt it was the antithesis to be put into the central offices of Anthropologie,” she said. “It took me over a year after getting connected with them to get my heart in it.”
In the meantime, she was mentored by several entrepreneurial heavyweights, including David Schlessinger, founder of Five Below, Encore Books and Zany Brainy. They met through a mutual friend in Santa Fe, N.M.
Today, U-Bee-Well is sold in about 100 independent retail stores and is available for wholesale at U-Bee-Well.com. Ten percent of proceeds go to beekeepers for queen-bee-rearing initiatives.
Sales were $12,000 in 2015, down from $15,000 in 2014, when U-Bee-Well joined the ranks of high-profile swag included in gift bags to Emmy nominees and presenters.
Gettes attributed the revenue dip to losing the Anthropologie account when the chain brought in new buyers, and to a time-consuming search for property for a commercial kitchen and garden, where she hopes to grow ingredients and raise bees.
“I think her business has great potential as the world, especially the younger generation, really cares about buying truly natural products and supporting earth-friendly causes,” said Schlessinger, a self-described nature lover.
Part of his advice to her: to surround herself with seasoned businesspeople.
She has partnered with Jeff Paz, 33, a Philadelphia musician and band manager who for more than 10 years managed operations at two equipment companies.
In U-Bee-Well, Paz said, he saw “an amazing opportunity … to really make a difference. The product represents everything sustainable business represents, and something I wanted.”
He anticipates U-Bee-Well moving out of Gettes’ kitchen by June and, with an expanded product line, surpassing $1 million in sales within five years. Current profit margin is about 85 percent, Paz said.
An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raised $5,000, which Gettes used on website development; a $5,000 loan helped pay for a computer.
For Gettes, who considers herself more a “dreamer” than a businesswoman, her lip balm has become a satisfying means to a gratifying goal.
“It’s become really clear to me that product is the most promising way we can effect change on this planet,” she said. “It’s become my activism, really.”