Our realtor was apologetic. Jess Edelstein had been on a string of calls while marching my husband and I from condo to row house to townhouse in Center City, Philadelphia. As we paused in a Society Hill courtyard, she explained the cause of her distraction: a natural deodorant business she was trying to launch with her best friend. Edelstein handed me an unprepossessing gray sample jar with a green lion's head on the lid. The metal-gray cream looked like something from an art store and smelled like something from a candle shop. Later, I gave it to my daughter and forgot about it.
That was August 2014. Recently, I learned that Edelstein's company, PiperWai, is on track to make $6 million to $8 million by year's end. On a scorching day only a deodorant mogul could love, I left the air-conditioned sanctuary that Edelstein had sold us to learn about her company's out-of-nowhere success. It's an entrepreneurial Cinderella tale with four sharks as the collective fairy godmother.
Edelstein and an employee operate out of a snug WeWork office in Philadelphia's hipsterized Northern Liberties neighborhood. Her business partner, Sarah Ribner, occupies a similar space in New York City, along with their other employee and an intern. That--aside from a growing contingent of co-packers--is the whole of PiperWai. "Our bookkeeper is always saying, 'You guys don't spend any money,'" says Edelstein, a slender, dark-haired woman who decorates and accessorizes in teal, the company color. "At the moment, we don't need to."
The partners, both 27, haven't always been so disciplined. Their very first venture was unprofitable. That would be the lemonade stand they set up in a park by Ribner's home during a fourth-grade play date. "We knew other kids had lemonade stands and we wanted ours to stand out, so we added a touch of ginger," says Edelstein. "Her parents were a little bit annoyed that the ingredients cost more than we made in sales."
The friends grew up together in Philadelphia dreaming of million-dollar ideas that never got off the ground. They parted for college. After graduation, Ribner worked in real-estate finance in New York City while Edelstein returned to Philadelphia. She hopped among part-time jobs ("I was pretty much a Millennial cliché") before seeking financial stability in the form of a real estate license.
In 2013, Edelstein went on a healthy-lifestyle-and-DIY kick. In her apartment kitchen she crafted all-natural soaps, moisturizers, home remedies, and cleaning products. She was particularly pleased with a cream deodorant you dab on with your fingers. Other natural brands she had tried, she says, "did not last more than a couple of hours, or gave me eczema or itchy red rashes."
The product included ingredients like tapioca starch and essential oils. But charcoal was the linchpin. "I was researching charcoal because I had an upset stomach," says Edelstein. "It's really absorbent. Poison control recommends that you take it if you ingest something you are not supposed to. I had this light bulb moment where I realized, 'Huh. I should put this in deodorant.'"
Edelstein gave some to Ribner, also a natural product devotee, to take on a trip to South America. Soon, Ribner was FaceTiming Edelstein from an internet café in Guyana, effusing over the deodorant's effectiveness. By conversation's end, they had decided to start a company.
With $2,000 from Edelstein's parents, the pair incorporated, set up a website, and bought ingredients to whip up test batches of the deodorant in a community kitchen. Edelstein became president of the nascent business; Ribner, vice president. They cold called retailers and made a few sales. Bloggers picked up the story, attracting stores from out of town.
Then, in the summer of 2014, the subscription service Conscious Box sent out 2,500 samples of PiperWai to its customers along with offers for a flash sale on full jars, which retail for $12. When 1,500 people responded, Edelstein and Ribner were immediately profitable--and swamped.
Retail and online customers--many of them repeat business--sent the women back again and again to the kitchen. In a converted closet in Edelstein's apartment, they used pastry piping bags to squeeze the cream into 2-ounce jars. "We were working in snowstorms and in heat when there was no air conditioning," says Edelstein. When each batch was done, "we would put on some Taylor Swift and have a dance party."
Edelstein was selling real estate at this point and Ribner had returned to New York for the MBA program at Columbia. They were moving 300 to 500 jars of PiperWai a month, but "it was still a side hustle," says Edelstein.
One day, Ribner got an email from her mother about a Shark Tank open casting call at an NAACP convention in Philadelphia. "I was like, 'Yeah. Why not?' " says Edelstein. "If we had a dollar for every time someone told us we should go on Shark Tank, we wouldn't have had to go on Shark Tank." By July 2015, they were in Los Angeles, filming. Barbara Corcoran picked up 25 percent of PiperWai for $50,000.
With their December airdate approaching, the founders asked Corcoran's team how much inventory to prepare for the anticipated sales bump. "We said we think we should make 50,000 jars," says Edelstein. "They said no, it is better to be more conservative. So we made 10,000 jars. We sold out of those while we were still on TV." By 2 a.m., PiperWai had logged $250,000. It cracked $1 million 10 days later.
Unfortunately, ramping up production in mid-December proved impossible. Edelstein and Ribner sent customers "a big rambling email saying, 'We are sorry. We made you this little card. You can print it out and put it in the stocking saying it is coming in January,' " says Edelstein. "We got a very, very angry response. A lot of people wanted refunds. A lot of people claimed we were ruining Christmas."
The inventory challenge
Irate gift givers notwithstanding, orders of the deodorant continued to snowball. The founders didn't get their back orders under control until April. They had started using a co-packer after Conscious Box; they brought on a second and are starting with a third. Inventory constraints are the sole reason fast growth isn't meteoric, says Edelstein. The company has 75 retail accounts around the country--most of them boutiques and specialty stores--with a waiting list of over 300.
Tara Carroll, owner of Old Souls, a high-end outdoor store in Cold Springs, New York, started selling PiperWai two years ago after encountering it in Conscious Box. "Once they were on Shark Tank, it became difficult to get, although I think the drought is over," says Carroll. "We have had people come up from [New York City] specifically to buy PiperWai. A lot of customers buy more than one because they give it to their friends."
With the new co-packers, PiperWai expects to fill online orders quicker than the two-to-four weeks currently promised. It will also be able to satisfy demand from retailers like LuckyVitamin.com, which is selling 1,200 jars a week and wants more. LuckyVitamin was the company's largest account until this month, when GNC came on board. "When we have enough jars to maintain those big wholesale relationships, we will open up more doors," says Edelstein.
The partners still sell 60 percent direct through their website, where they play a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse with unauthorized resellers. Based on current demand, Edelstein cites 100,000 jars a month as a reasonable sales projection. She expects interest to spike again with the launch of a stick applicator in December. PiperWai has never spent money on advertising.
The partners' goal is to build a natural beauty and personal-care company with sustainably sourced, made-in the-U.S.A. products. The name PiperWai (a mash-up of the Edelstein family dog and the Wai Wai tribe of Guyana, where Ribner first used the product) is meant "to sound like a cosmetics brand but not pigeonhole us into deodorant," says Edelstein. They are working with a commercial chemist on undisclosed new products to debut in 2017.
As for an exit strategy, PiperWai "was built for acquisition," says Edelstein.
"My big goal in life, regardless of whether PiperWai took off or not, was to be a homeowner before I was 30," says Edelstein. In July, she bought herself a house. "It was a huge proud moment for me," she says. "I was my own realtor."