In this ‘With Tracy’ interview I got to chat with Raquela Cheesmond, founder of innovative new skincare brand, Etymologie ( based in Canada. With a background in science, a passion for natural ingredients and a problematic skin, Raquela shares her inspiration and challenges setting up and running a skincare business.

What inspired you to start your own business?
I have always had very problematic skin and have spent thousands of dollars on the latest dermatological treatments and expensive facials. I was on medication for years, with little to no success. All these treatments were drying, harsh, even burning, so making sure my products were gentle was an absolute must. I set out to create skin-care products that work in harmony with your skin to give positive, long-term results over time, rather than just a quick fix.

Was there a defining moment?
During my university studies I completed a thesis on cosmetic formulation in Milan with Dr Luigi Rigano (a world leader in cosmetic chemistry), with a focus on natural and organic ingredients, and plant-based preservatives. I was also selected as a finalist in a University entrepreneurship competition, with just a sketch and product ideas, and no physical products, sales or anything tangible to show! This validation was a defining moment – it made me realise that maybe I could start a company and there would be demand for my products and brand messaging.

What is the story behind the name Etymologie?
Etymology means the origin of words and is perfect name for my company as part of our philosophy is based on being inspired by traditional beauty rituals and ingredients from around the world, then re-imagining them into modern, high-performance scientific formulas. This concept is very true to our brand message: we merge the old with the new, and the natural with the scientific, whilst continuously being inspired by the geographical and cultural origins of the ingredients we use.

What were your first steps in making it happen?
With a background in science, my first step was to begin creating the formulas – before I even had a name for the company, I had the first permutations of our formulations. Product development will always come first for Etymologie, as we are committed to building a reputation for robust science, luxury natural formulas and sustainability.

Did you have support and how has this helped you?
I had support from friends and family, the Dobson Centre at McGill University and you! My friends and family have been very supportive in trying the products, and giving their feedback and also helping provide funding to start the company. My father has been very helpful in a mentorship role as he has extensive business development experience as a venture capital partner, and as head of finance at a global company. Having you as a mentor has also been so helpful as you are aware of all the growing pains a small business can experience and give the most relevant, practical advice, specific to the beauty industry. Finally, going through McGill’s Dobson cup entrepreneurship competition was a great help and support, as I created my first business plan and had it challenged by a panel of expert judges.

Developing skincare is a complex process – can you explain a little of how it works, the science behind it and process?
Again, I always like to start with the formulations. My process is first to research the ingredients and their skincare applications, in both scientific journals and traditional folklore. Then, depending on intended application, I’ll decide what active ingredients I’d like to use and at what concentrations, then it’s into the lab to test out the first versions of a new formula.

My friends, family and I are the first guinea pigs when testing new formulas. Once I’m happy with a formula, I’ll test the products with a focus group consisting of 30-40 women of different ages and ethnicities and get them to evaluate the products based on: organoleptic properties (sensory aspects of the product: colour, smell, thickness, spreadability, texture), product efficacy based on product description (does it do what it says on the bottle), and whether or not the product causes irritation. From tester feedback we’ll make small changes to the products, and do another round of consumer testing before finalizing the formula.

Once I’m satisfied with the performance the products undergo 3 months of stability testing at three temperatures (4C (control), 21C (room temperature) and 42C (high temperature, which decreases the time a product will be stable and is meant to suggest a 1 year period at room temperature) where physical (pH, viscosity, emulsion stability), and sensory properties are evaluated multiple times a day to ensure they do not change over time, and the product’s functionality remains optimum over its intended shelf-life. The preservation system also needs to be challenged, which involves exposing the products to species of key microorganisms that could possibly contaminate the products. If the microorganisms fail to grow to significant levels in the products, the preservation system is effective and no changes need to be made.

Using ingredients from sustainable, ethical producers is extremely important to us, so part of the challenge is finding good, reliable suppliers that produce high-quality ingredients. As part of our quality control, we third party test our EcoCert certified organic botanical ingredients, to make sure they contain no fertilizers or pesticides and that they are uncontaminated. We are committed to using no synthetic fillers, emulsifiers or preservatives in our formulas, instead turning to plant extracts and derivatives to fulfil these roles.

Where is your business based? What are the pros and cons about your location?
Etymologie is based in Montreal, Canada. Being based in Quebec is very interesting, as French is the primary language in an English speaking country. Beauty and skincare trends in Montreal remain largely based on traditional French beauty routines, with the natural and organic skincare market in Quebec offering tremendous opportunities. Education will play a huge role in our marketing strategy. As part of customer engagement we think it’s important to bring education into the everyday product process – as part of this we will respond to any educational questions from customers through our blog and directly on social media. Specifically we want to generate customer interest in the benefits of using natural and organic products for the skin, how to use these products in conjunction with existing skincare routines, or how to replace existing skincare routines entirely.

So how are things going with your business? 
We spent about a year developing our first range of daily skincare essentials: a cleanser, hydrating serum, antioxidant oil (our moisturizer) and our multi-purpose Moringa Oil. We soft launched online in January and so far have had excellent feedback on our products. Our biggest challenge has been getting brand recognition and acceptance, and distinguishing our brand through its commitment to science, sustainability and female empowerment.

What is your vision for the future of your business?
My vision for Etymologie is to grow the business with a core focus on producing innovative products, and continuously working to make the business more sustainable. Etymologie’s mission is to create innovative products that improve skin health, and reduce our environmental footprint through a commitment to sustainable ingredient sourcing, packaging and production methods.

Our Moringa Oil, for example, comes from an EcoCert Certified farm in South Africa, where the seeds are crushed and cold-pressed to produce the oil we use, old twigs and branches are used to power the oil-extraction machinery, and the leaves are dried and turned into a nutritional dense supplement which is donated to local schools to help local school children have a balanced diet – over 70% of those involved in the harvest and production of the Moringa oil are women, so you can see why we’re so happy to work this supplier. We also donate 2$ from the sale of each Moringa Oil to Artistri Sud, a Montreal – based NGO that helps empower women artisans in South America through entrepreneurship training.

This goes beyond just topical products. What we eat (or don’t eat) and the daily lifestyle habits we have, have a huge impact on the quality of our skin and overall wellbeing.
We intend to explore cross-over/complimentary products that promote skin health. These include ingestible products, in the form of functional foods or Natural Health Supplements that will improve the skin from within, such as micronutrient dense foods, stress relieving and hormone balancing foods and extracts and, extracts that improve gut probiotic function and digestion, as this is intimately linked with skin health and appearance.

What have been your main challenges so far and how have your over come them?
During product development and production we faced some supply and contamination issues, which was a challenge to meet the stringent tests that we had set. I’m happy to report we have solved these issues and now have network of high-quality, reliable suppliers, who produce our organic botanicals and give back to their local communities.

Part of our commitment to quality comes from the suppliers we choose to work with. Our focus is on EcoCert certified organic and natural ingredients, sourcing our botanical ingredients from fair-trade farms that actively employ women in the harvest and production of these plant oils and extracts.

How are you feeling about 2018?
My goal for Etymologie in 2018 is to refine our marketing strategy to better engage with our target customers. We’re focused on 4 channels; growing a community of local brand followers in our home base of Montreal and Canada, social media marketing, email marketing and pop-up shops and trade shows. We continue to receive excellent product feedback from the results people are seeing in their skin, though our main challenge remains innovating a new brand concept into the market place, and forming local retail partnerships so we have physical points of sale in our home market.

Is there any advice you would offer anyone setting up a business?
It’s true when people say things will take longer and cost more than you think they will! You need to constantly review your business and marketing strategy, and not be afraid to try something new. For example in marketing, we are continuing to test different channels – blogging, social media, email marketing, trade-shows and pop-up shops – to see where we get the most engagement. I’d also say, focus on what’s important long-term and don’t get distracted by urgent tasks, there is a distinction to be made between things that are urgent and things that are important

Finally, what’s been extremely helpful for me is networking in person. So much work is done online now, without ever meeting face to face. Networking in person and building connections is always a good idea – you never know who you’ll meet and how you might be able to collaborate together in the future. For example, I was invited to participate in an International Women’s Day photo shoot in Montreal, highlighting local women entrepreneurs. It was very helpful to meet other women with the same challenges and goals as me and I’ll be collaborating with many of them later in the year to cross-promote our businesses.

How did we meet?
I had the pleasure of meeting Tracy through a school connection; Piera Van de Wiel and I attended the same high school. Piera is doing work focused on female empowerment in the arts in New York, as a singer, writer, actor and producer and we are collaborating on something later this year focused on empowering women. Tracy has so helpful in a mentorship role, helping me clarify ideas and giving very practical advice based on her extensive experience working in the beauty industry; she knows all the challenges, growing pains and potential problems that can arise, so has been of great assistance in pointing me in the right direction and highlighting key areas where I should focus my efforts at this early stage.

If you would like to find out more about mentoring or would like to share your story please contact me – Tracy for a chat.