Beauty Store Business magazine - September, 2019

Executive Q&A: Jeff Shardell of Humble Brands

A former Google executive simplified his life and founded Humble Brands, which offers healthy deodorants with organic ingredients and more.

Jeff Shardell, founder and president of Humble Brands–a natural personal care product company featuring deodorants made with just four to five recognizable, organic, non-GMO ingredients–is on a mission to educate consumers about the connection between deodorants and health.

After founding gloss.com, one of the first online beauty retailers, and later selling it to Estée Lauder and then serving at Google for nearly a decade as the senior director of new business development, Shardell sought to simplify his life and detoxify his body. The idea for Humble Brands came to him after he became aware of the absorption of potentially harmful chemicals found in conventional deodorants, so he decided to switch to a natural deodorant.

Today, Humble Brands is sold online, at natural retailers and in specialty beauty stores. The unique and naturally scented unisex formulas (Texas Cedarwood & Grapefruit, Lavender & Holy Basil and Palo Santo, Frankincense & Vanilla) incorporate only what’s essential–and nothing more. The idea of shedding excess and living simply is the driving force behind the brand. And so far, it’s resonating with consumers. Reviews show that they appreciate the simple, understandable ingredients, natural scent and that it works. Having recently expanded product offerings with hemp oil-based body lotions and, soon, hemp oil serum and lip balm, this humble brand is poised for big growth.

Beauty Store Business: How was the idea for Humble Brands hatched?
Jeff Shardell: I had my career in the corporate world in technology. Most recently, I ran business development at Google. I had been there for nine years and when I left, I decided it was time to detoxify my life. I realized that what you put on your body is as important as what you put in your body, from a health perspective. About 60 percent of what goes on your skin gets into your body. And some people say almost 100 percent of what’s applied to your armpits gets absorbed because the armpits have larger pores. That’s why people feel there’s this connection between conventional antiperspirants and diseases like Alzheimer’s and breast cancer. So I kind of stumbled on that as the first big thing to detoxify. I sought to replace my traditional antiperspirant with something that was better and all natural.

How long did it take you to find the base formula for your deodorants?
Over the course of six months, probably 25 or 30 iterations.

What’s unique about them?
We use non-GMO, organic ingredients. You’ll see a lot of companies that have natural deodorants, but they still use conventional ingredients. I tried a lot of the natural deodorants that were out there at the time, and they didn’t work. They masked my body odor, but they didn’t get rid of it. When I began formulating, I used two main ingredients–baking soda, which neutralizes odor, and corn starch, which absorbs a lot of the sweat. At the end of the day though, the formula had a cakiness to it. I needed additional ingredients to act as a binding agent for those two powders. I didn’t really want to use paraffin, which is a petroleum-based product. I tried soy, but there were concerns about soy and what it might do from an estrogen perspective. I ended up going with what Mother Nature provides, which is beeswax. That has worked the best.

“I tried a lot of natural deodorants that were out there at the time, and they didn't work. They masked my body odor, but they didn't get rid of it.”

Does that make your product a non-vegan product?
Unfortunately, it does. If you are a strict vegan, then beeswax is something that is definitely verboten. We are planning to make a vegan product. We haven’t really figured it out yet, but we are experimenting with it.

Why did you choose the name Humble?
People talk about the '80s as being the age of excess. In some ways, that carried over to the '90s and 2000s with the internet. I definitely cut my teeth on the internet. That’s where I spent a big part of my career, and I have a soft spot for it. However, I was trying to really simplify my life in a lot of ways, get back to what’s really important and shed the excess. That’s how Humble came about. I was just trying to lead a more humble life.

There’s a fellow you may have heard of, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. One of his quotes, which I love–and I’m probably not going to say it correctly–is, "You know you’ve developed the right product when you can’t take anything else away from it." So many manufacturers try to add so many ingredients to whatever they are developing. I wanted to try to create a company where we add as few ingredients as possible, but still have our products work just as well, if not better, than products with numerous ingredients. I feel that is also giving a nod to the whole idea of being humble: creating a product or products with as few ingredients as possible.

Is your packaging eco-friendly?
Right now, our packaging is plastic. And it’s recyclable. We have been exploring a couple of different options. We are exploring using ocean-bound plastic–capturing discarded plastic before it gets to the ocean.

What is your social strategy for Humble Brands?
We are increasing our social media presence mostly using Facebook and Instagram. We are launching a couple programs that will be announced soon. The first allows our customers a way to post an image on Instagram of themselves using Humble products or referencing Humble products–and when they do it, we make a donation. It’s a way to get the word out, have fun and direct some of our profits back into a number of charitable causes. We also have a partnership with musician and ex-pro surfer Donavon Frankenreiter. In a number of collaborative campaigns, we will have contests on Instagram where people can win prizes–and a big grand prize. So, it provides a way for us to create fun and increase brand awareness to a community that cares about nature and health.

Tell us more about Humble Brands' collaboration with musician Donavon Frankenreiter. How did that come about?
We’ve only done a soft launch with Donavon–we haven’t done a big push yet. What I can tell you though is people love, love, love the signature scent we created with him. It’s a combination of Palo Santo, frankincense and vanilla. And it has skyrocketed up there next to one of our best-selling scents. He’s currently touring and working on projects. There will be more upcoming. It’s a deep partnership–not just a one-time or two-time thing.

I spend part of the year on the North Shore of Kauai. Donavon lives pretty close by. We’ve just gotten to know each other and we’ve become friends. And in our friendship, we’ve talked about different causes out there and realized we share many of the same concerns. For example, we are both concerned about sea plastics and doing what we can do to eliminate them. Also, we like the Surfrider Foundation and working with them to detoxify the coral reefs. So we thought there could be a fun way for us to work together, promote the brand and help generate support for meaningful causes.

What do you want beauty retailers to know about your brand?
Several things. I want retailers to know we use only organic, non-GMO ingredients–and that the majority of what your customers put on their skin is going to be absorbed into their bodies. Also, we try to ensure that our ingredients are as healthy as possible for the consumer. Most natural deodorants still have a list of 10 or 12 ingredients, and consumers may not easily recognize what they are. Our deodorants have four to five simple ingredients that most any consumer will recognize. It’s stuff you likely have in your kitchen and probably cook with! We are trying to be as transparent as possible with the ingredients we use in our products. Second, we have come up with something that really works well from an efficacy perspective.

“Google is a company heavily driven by analytics. I think it's important to tap into that ... But at the same time, I also know the importance of trusting your gut.”

How has your experience as the cofounder of online beauty retailer gloss.com helped you with Humble?
Well, it was a different era. Gloss was late '90s/early 2000s. Surprisingly, when we started gloss.com roughly 18 years ago, it was hard for women to find a place online to buy makeup. The landscape was very different. We had a product that was small and easy to ship, needed regular replenishing and had a fairly high price point. I’ve applied the same concept to Humble; we have a product that needs to be replenished frequently and is small and easy to ship.

How did earning a degree in meteorology and business and your experience at Google shape your business philosophy?
From a meteorology perspective, I used heavy math and analytics. Google is a company heavily driven by analytics. I think it’s important to tap into that–looking at analytics, figuring out what it is telling you and what you should do next. But at the same time, I also know the importance of trusting your gut. There are times when the analysis is telling you one thing, but your gut is telling you something slightly different. I listen to it. Depending on the situation, sometimes the gut may win out or sometimes the analytics win out. I try to balance both of those when making decisions.

You were an extreme weather chaser. What did chasing tornadoes teach you about business?
It taught me to always look at my backside, and not to just look ahead. When you chase storms you tend to get fixated on an area of the storm called the bear cage. That’s where all the action happens–the tornado, intense rain and hail. When you chase, you look forward at the bear cage. There have been times when I’ve been too focused on it, not realizing that there’s a small tornado spinning up behind me. So I’d say, it taught me to focus on the goal, but to always still keep an eye on the sides and behind. You don’t know what’s going to happen from a competitive perspective. And you don’t know what’s going to happen from an industry trends perspective. I learned to keep my peripheral vision going as much as I can and not get too myopic in my direction.

What kind of culture are you aiming to create at Humble Brands?
I try to get people on board who are definitely tapped into the concept of using natural ingredients and incorporating them into their lives. The other is creating a company of self-starters–people who can make informed decisions and make them well. The team I managed at Google was pretty large and anyone who is a manager there knows it can be hard if everyone you manage comes to you for a decision.

When will you feel like Humble has succeeded?
I don’t know. Come to me in a year and maybe I’ll tell you [laughs]. I keep moving the goal out further! ... We as a company do our part to raise awareness so that people can make healthier personal care changes in their lives. I don’t know how to track it, but I feel like success will be when that message reaches significantly more people.

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[Photos courtesy of Jeff Shardell]