Over the course of the last decade, countless industries have been reinvented, or given a millennial facelift, if you will. You can try on glasses at home, have just about anything delivered to your door, and even the unsexiest of things we buy (like braces and contacts or cleaning supplies) have been made over in a chicer, younger image. One stone left unturned? Bug spray — and the accouterments of an outdoorsy trip. That’s how Nichole Powell got the idea for her company, Kinfield, which launched just last summer with three products, including an extremely Instagrammable deet-free bug spray.
But when she got the idea, she’d spent three years at an e-comm fashion company. That is to say, she’d never worked on product formulation. Through a process of ditching the concept of “dumb questions” (there really are none!) and Googling literally everything, Powell successfully created a company that makes “great essentials for the great outdoors.” We sat down to discuss how she did it, what makes Kinfield’s bug spray so unique, and the eternal truth that even the most successful people have to Google stuff.
What were you doing before you started Kinfield?
I grew up in Minnesota, and I always knew I wanted to go see the world. After I graduated, I moved out to California and started my career in tech, which was a fascinating experience. This was 2012 and it was really the early days of what we now know as the tech bubble. It was incredible to be there and feel a part of this hugely exciting time in San Francisco. I was working in marketing at a tech company, so it was learning marketing within a $4 billion business, which was wild.
But I was really looking for a creative outlet, so I started freelancing on the side, doing writing and photography for brands. Eventually, I ended up leaving tech to take some time out to travel. I’d always had this dream of doing a solo trip and it was like, ‘Okay, now seems like a good time.’ When I got back to the Bay area, I wound up connecting with the founding team of Modern Citizen, a women’s fashion eCommerce company.
I went and joined them as their first full-time hire. I originally got hired, sort of, loosely to do marketing, but as any early-stage founder or team will tell you, that means wearing 17 different hats. I was at Modern Citizen for three years. My role evolved eventually to head of business development, so I was really responsible for figuring out how to grow and build the company. I learned a lot from my time there and eventually decided I wanted to start my own company.
I think it’s truly a testament to the team at Modern Citizen, too, that they created an environment that then later made me say, “Okay, I think I want to continue doing this.” Because startup life is not for many people. It’s a really unique set of circumstances, and it requires a very unique set of skills. Honestly, it can be hard and lonely, but it’s also the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.
So how exactly did you get the idea for Kinfield?
Separately, I was still traveling in my free time. I was going camping in Yosemite with a group of friends, and I was packing for this trip and was bringing along all of these like beautifully designed, properly created skin care products. As I was packing, literally throwing things on my bed, I remember putting in all of these like, my skin care products, and then putting all of my outdoor things on there at the same time. And I realized that all of the products that I was packing were the same things that I had grown up using.
I was looking at it and I was thinking, ‘So my face cleanser isn’t the same apricot scrub that I used when I was 12, but I’m still using the same lime green aloe gel and the same aerosol container of insect repellent. Why has one of these categories evolved into being clean and thoughtfully designed and transparent and not the other?’ With a product like bug spray, there was no transparency. Not only is it not in environmentally friendly packaging, I have no idea who makes these products, and the ingredients are 20 percent DEET, 80 percent “other ingredients.”
I then went into a period of almost six months of just listening, where I started asking other people within my community of women in the Bay area all sorts of questions, like when you go camping, when you go hiking, what are you using? Where are you buying those products? What do you think about them? What would you rather see? Just really trying to understand what other people’s experiences were there.
What did you learn?
They wanted things that were clean. When they were finding clean products, though, they weren’t efficacious, and they wanted a combination of both — which I don’t think is asking too much. They also found that the brands that were there didn’t really speak to them. The options were either these faceless, huge brands that are really promoting this ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ version of the outdoors. Or, you have these homespun options like, the things that you buy from farmer’s markets or from random Amazon hobby brands. There was no modern brand that spoke to the way that most people get outdoors — which is to say in a far more recreational way.
What do you mean by that?
For example, a brand that spoke to the person who’s going on picnics in the park and day hikes. It doesn’t mean buying a product and then having to go trekking in the Amazon for three weeks. You can buy it because you just want to go glamping in the Hamptons. That’s fine, too. We like to call it being “outdoorsy-ish.”
What should people should know about conventional bug sprays?
First and foremost, for me, I think ingredient transparency is really important. Most conventional repellents are actually not legally required to disclose what is in their formulas. Repellents are considered pesticides, which is to say that they’re governed by the Environmental Protection Agency, rather than the Food And Drug Agency. The FDA requires that all products and ingredients are fully listed, but the EPA makes exceptions.
I felt that as a consumer, you should know everything that is going on to your body. I wanted to find clean ingredients that were going to be just as efficacious without causing harm elsewhere. For example, we know that DEET is incredibly toxic to aquatic life. I personally started feeling really guilty any time I was using bug spray. Not only did I just not like the smell or the feel, but on top of that, if I’m wearing it and then I’m camping and I go jumping in a lake, now I have to feel guilty because that’s something that I know is toxic, that is now polluting this very environment that I’m ostensibly here to enjoy.
How did you develop Kinfield to be different?
Before Kinfield, I had never formulated products before. And really, nothing prepares you to start a company like starting a company. But I knew that I needed to have really smart advisors. I needed to be working with great team partners. So the first thing that I did when starting the company was actually go to source our citronella. I knew that repellent was one of the first problems that I wanted to solve from a product perspective, and the only time it ever used a DEET-free insect repellent that had worked was an essential oil blend that I used while traveling in Indonesia.
Ingredients are a huge differentiator for us. We try to be very transparent, we back everything we do up with science. Our development for the repellent took 14 months. We worked with a lab in the UK to be able to do efficacy testing, specifically with aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Those are the mosquitoes that carry Zika, dengue, and yellow fever. I needed to know that this repellent would going to work against those mosquitoes, and I did not want to put anything on the market until we had the evidence to support it.
So I was like, ‘okay, I’m going to go back and figure out what was in that and be able to source that, and then bring that back.’ Then once I had sourced that, I was like, how do you even begin to go about finding a lab? I was like, do you just google it? What do you even do? To find a really good research and development team is tough. Oftentimes, they actually don’t want to be found. It kind of operates in this world and they’re like, if you are good enough, you’ll find ways to get to them. If not, then you’re not worth their time anyway.
So I ended up connecting with Gay Timmons, who is truly a legend within the sustainable and organic ingredient world. Her company Oh, Oh, Organic, supports many of the labs and brands that make many of the organic and sustainable skincare beauty lines that you see on the market today.
How did you get connected to her?
She was speaking at an event and I tracked her down in San Francisco and was just like, ‘Hi, I have many questions.’ She took pity on me and gave me her email address, and then ended up meeting her for coffee and then she later came on as an advisor to the brand. No one person is ever going to know everything, so it’s about finding the advisors, team members, investors, and partners who are going to be able to fill in your gaps for you.
So, then you set out to actually develop the bug spray?
We really exist to try to get more people outdoors. That comes from this place of recognizing that there’s real scientific evidence that shows that when people spend even 15 minutes outdoors a day, are mentally and emotionally more physically fit. So, if we can inspire people to get out there more and create products that allow them to stay outside longer, then that’s us in a small, small way being able to contribute towards creating a happier, healthier society.
In the landscape of all of the products that people use outdoors, I felt like there were a lot of amazing brands that were working on sun care. But there wasn’t much when it came to repellent. I’d tried everything and nothing works. So we started with the Golden Hour deet-free repellent, but really, we’re thinking about all the products that you use from the moment you step outside your front door.
So the first three products that we launched with, were a repellent, but then we also have Sunday Spray, which is our after sun aloe spray. It’s a cooling mist, you can use it on your face or your body. It’s actually named Sunday spray, because when I lived in San Francisco, if a Saturday was a beautiful day, you’d find everyone in the parks. If I had a dollar for every time I would then wake up the next day and be like, “oh I didn’t apply SPF as much as I thought I did.”
So I wanted to create something that helps your skin recover, keep cool in the moment, all those good things. Then, finally, Waterbalm is designed to provide the convenience that you would need in a recreational environment. It’s a stick format, so it’s something that you can, for example, if you’re skiing, you can put it on without taking your gloves off. I want everything we create to be convenient, travel-friendly, and able to solve for a variety of things all at once.
Kinfield also makes a big effort to be sustainable. What does that look like?
I incorporated Kinfield as a benefit corporation from day one, specifically to preserve our ability to be able to make decisions — from start to finish — with sustainability in mind. To give you an example, one of our ingredients in Waterbalm is a butylene glycol, which is a really great, readily available nontoxic ingredient we chose to use instead of a wax so that it would be really lightweight. The problem with butylene glycol is that most forms of it are derived from petroleum, which is a fossil fuel.
But using something that’s coming from a fossil fuel? That didn’t work for us. So, we looked at it as a team, and then we started this manhunt around the world to try to find a form of butylene glycol that wasn’t derived from petroleum. We ended up finding a version of it that is derived from corn sugar, fermented corn sugar, almost like a kombucha, in Europe. It’s a more expensive version of that raw material, but it allows us to be able to make that product keeping with the values and the integrity that we want to have the brand stand for.
We also recently launched a take back program for customers to send empty beauty products or skin care products in, and we’ll take care of recycling them. Finally, if you order something from the website, you get the outside box which is made from sustainable forestry initiative product materials, and then our products come in a 100 percent cotton produce bag that can then be used for grocery shopping and what have you. We don’t have any external cartons that just get thrown away, there’s no excess packaging. We specifically chose a lightweight bottle that would be able to withstand shipping things so that we wouldn’t be creating excess waste in the process of shipping.
What was one of the biggest lessons you learned starting this company?
I think one of the things that can be learned quite quickly as a founder is to check your ego at the door. I just completely got over the idea of having dumb questions. I have asked so many “dumb questions” over the course of building this company, and I still do. I’m in a group chat where we always ask, ‘what’s everyone Googling today?’ It’s literally a group of women where everyone’s very successful in their careers and doing really amazing things. You see these women and you’re just like, ‘oh my gosh, you have everything together.’ But even they are group chatting with their girlfriends being like, so today I had to Google ‘how much do sales reps get paid?’
What are the things that are always in your backpack?
I top my face oils with Waterbalm to seal it all in. The sodium hyaluronate in this formula helps all moisture absorb really well. The combination of Waterbalm and a great face oil means you’re pretty much set for any environment.
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