By Sara Bauknecht Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Lani Lazzari started her all-natural, handmade body and face scrub line Simple Sugars at age 11 in the basement of her family's Fox Chapel home. She created the concoction out of ingredients from the kitchen to help ease her eczema, but even back then there were signs that the scrubs could evolve into something more.
"From the beginning I knew," says Lazzari's mom, Gina. "I knew we had something that could be big."
Her mother's intuition has panned out. This year marks the 10th anniversary for her daughter's company, which now includes nearly a couple dozen employees and has products in about 700 retailers across the country (plus two in Canada).
In the past few years, Simple Sugars' sales have surged from $80,000 in 2012 to nearly $2 million in 2014, due in part to a significant bump in business after the brand was featured in March 2013 on the ABC reality TV show "Shark Tank" and secured an investment from Dallas Mavericks owner and fellow Pittsburgh native Mark Cuban. To increase production efficiency and keep up with demand, its headquarters relocated this year from a 1,700 square-foot storefront to a 10,000 square-foot facility.
"I've almost been doing this for half my life at this point," says Lani Lazzari, Simple Sugars' owner and CEO, who's now 21. "It was always my goal to turn this into a business."
As a teen, she grew the company slowly but steadily, learning how to balance her studies with her sugar scrubs. She studied independently her junior year so she could devote more time to expanding the budding business' retail reach. After high school she deferred a spot at George Washington University to focus full time on Simple Sugars, a decision that proved to be necessary once her segment on "Shark Tank" aired.
"We did $600,000 in three days," Lazzari recalls.
These days the business still enjoys the occasional $20,000-$30,000 spike in sales when ABC or CNBC re-airs a Simple Sugars episode, but Lazzari has had to come up with ways to keep revenue flowing without relying on the "Shark Tank" effect.
To give customers an incentive to order and reorder scrubs from www.simplesugarsscrub.com , Simple Sugars launched a customer loyalty program called the Super Smooth Club.
"That was a big focus for us over the past year because our repeat customers are extremely important to us," Lazzari says.
"We did a lot of research and looked at what other (companies) were doing, and also kept in mind what our goals were."
The three-tiered program (made up of the silver, gold and pink levels) rewards returning customers with discounts and special gifts such as a T-shirt or bath towel once they've spent a certain amount of money on the site.
Another big initiative has been the website redesign, which is expected to launch at the end of the month. Its new layout will place more emphasis on the customer loyalty program (giving members a portal where they can log in and review their points and incentives), as well as spotlight customer testimonials, video content and Simple Sugars' brother brand Smooth for Men.
In August, Lazzari plans to roll out a new look for the Smooth for Men line, which offers the same natural formula but in more masculine packaging and fragrances.
"The men's line is very exciting for us because that's a really quickly growing market," she says. "We're excited to get into that space because this product fits really well with men's routines" because it's a one-step scrub that can be used for cleansing, shaving and moisturizing.
She strives to keep the women's line fresh by complementing classic scents such as strawberry, vanilla and coconut with seasonal ones (pumpkin for autumn, sugar and spice during the holidays and lemonade in the summer, to name a few) that are offered for a limited time. The brand also recently released its new sun scrub, which contains aloe and green tea extracts to help soothe sunburned skin.
Lazzari works closely with her mom, Simple Sugars' vice president, to develop the brand.
"We have completely complementary skill sets," her mom says. "I'm the super enthusiastic, creative, over-the-top one, and she's the one who can rein it back and stay focused."
Business partner Cuban, who holds a 33 percent stake in the company, is always just an email away when Lazzari needs advice. "He's very reachable ... and he's there when we need something, but at the same time he doesn't come in and try to run our business," Lani Lazzari says. "His support has continued from the beginning."
At Simple Sugars, success not only is measured in sales, but also in the satisfaction that employees find in the work that they do. Inside the headquarters, decor is splashed with the brand's vibrant color scheme, lots of pink!, and painted on the walls are the company's core values: laugh a lot, own your mistakes, positivity only, no complaining, work should be 98 percent fun, good enough is never good enough, etc.
"I think every company has its own core values, but I feel like ours are different in a more fun way and more relaxed, and we have a better relationship with each other from top to bottom because of it," says Caroline Keefer, Simple Sugars' customer loyalty "guru" and marketing assistant who joined the business about two years ago.
Lazzari's ability to balance being personable with employees as well as professional helps make her an effective leader, Keefer adds.
"She just radiates this vibe about her that she knows what she's doing and she should be in charge, and I love that about her. And she's still a laid-back, normal person."
Birthday celebrations and in-office parties also help to foster an upbeat work environment, says Trista Thiessen, whose title is "queen" of customer care.
"We take pride in doing things differently," Gina Lazzari says. "If you really pay attention and are able to engage employees, you can accomplish amazing things."