SMALL BUSINESS SUCCESS

06.07.2006

Eco Lips Featured in Small Business Success Magazine

LIP SERVICE

Organic entrepreneurs find natural beauty is the only way to go.

Steve Shriver wouldn’t rank his mouth anywhere near Mick Jagger-size, but he readily admits his lips are big enough to necessitate lip balm fanaticism. Luckily, he met Andrea Danielson in 1995, a college student whose hobbies included creating her own lip balm. Danielson cured his lip qualms with pure, natural ingredients, consistent with her earth-friendly, people-friendly ideals. She and serial entrepreneur Shriver built a private-label natural body care company that same year. Two years later, they tied the knot.

With one successful union secured, the Shrivers’ friendship with their sales reps, Jim King 39, and wife Maxine Irving, 33, led to another a few years later. King, who had an environmentally-friendly promotional products business, used Irving’s professional downhill mountain biking connection to promote the Shrivers’ private-label balm. King’s vision, that natural products would begin crossing over to the mainstream, coupled with an obsession for lip balm, led him to approach Shriver with a proposition: to brand a line of all-natural lip balm like no other. In 2003, Steve and Andrea - now 33 and 35, respectively - sold their company and joined King and Irving to do just that.

Getting Eco Lips on the market was no easy feat. “It’s a very competitive segment,” says Steve. “Unfortunately, we had caused that, as about half the competition in the natural products industry was from our [private labeling].”

However, Eco Lips did have at least one competitive advantage: 95 percent of the lip balms on the market are petroleum-based. Petroleum “just creates a barrier; it really doesn’t let anything in or out,” explains Steve. In contrast, “the organic vegetable oils we use actually attract and retain the moisture your lips naturally create.”

The company’s organic focus proved to be especially helpful in getting the finished product - SPF 15 berry and mint balms - on store shelves, according to Steve. “Being the only company in the natural products industry focused solely on lip care gave us an added strength and focus,” he says. King and Irving, who used to live in Seal Beach, California, began getting Eco Lips into the local stores, while the Shrivers did the same in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Eco Lips is based.

The partners’ first big break came from REI - and soon a myriad of stores joined in, ranging from grocery and natural food stores to convenience stores and bookstores. Still, the shotgun approach wasn’t building strong consumer awareness, so the founders refocused on just the natural products industry. “It’s a long-term approach,” says Steve. “When the timing’s right, it will slowly make its way to the masses.”

Today, Steve estimates Eco Lips (www.ecolips.com) is distributed in about 2,500 stores nationwide. Half of Eco Lips’ business is through international distributorships, with its strongest market in the United Kingdom. “Organic is much bigger outside the U.S., says Steve, who projects 2006 sales of about $1.4 million.

The Eco Lips line has expanded to seven balms, ranging from a hemp balm to a vegan balm, and accessories include the top-selling carabiner clip. David Letterman even recently high-lighted Eco Lips on his late-night show and has increased consumer interest - thus paving the way for the introduction of Eco Lips’ eighth balm: a caffeine-infused balm including green tea and vitamin B that is absorbed through your lips. And according to Steve, he’s got yet another advantage working in his favor: “We think the big guys are bogged down, while we are able to be truly innovative.”

April Y. Pennington is a writer for Entrepeneur magazine.