Alice Kim of Hanalei Company on collaborative processes that inspire great work

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Describe your business in a few words?

At Hanalei Company, we create gentle, restorative skincare products, inspired by Hawaii’s lush, tropical landscape and native botanicals, infusing everything we do with the spirit of Aloha.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

While working in New York, my husband, Vira, and I both had a dream that existed somewhere outside of the corporate sphere. This dream inspired us to create our first cosmetics company, Elizabeth Mott, in 2010. Shortly after, we relocated back to Vira’s home in Honolulu, Hawaii, and because of our experience in the beauty industry that came from starting Elizabeth Mott, we felt confident enough and extremely inspired to start Hanalei Company.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

I’ve always had an interest in beauty, and actually worked in fashion in New York before we founded Hanalei. I worked as a buyer for fashion brands such as Aeropostale, Club Monaco, Mulberry, and Calvin Klein, and later in design for brands such as Macy’s and Forever 21.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

My parents were entrepreneurs, so watching them as I was growing up helped me to feel like I could do it too. I knew eventually I wanted to start my business.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

When we first launched, we thought we could just partner with bloggers and do some events and our product would instantly go viral, once everyone saw it! Of course, that’s not how it went, and it took us several years to realize that our first product wasn’t very good.

This caused us to pivot our direction a bit, and we launched other products. We focused a lot on social media and word of mouth, partnering with influencers and others with large audiences where we could get our products and brand in front of a lot of people. We also did a lot of online advertising using pay per click (PPC).

Eventually, these efforts paid off, and what we know as Hanalei and Elizabeth Mott today was born!

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

Like any small business, we experienced growing pains when it came to hiring and scaling in the beginning. Vira and I wore many hats, and we quickly learned that we couldn’t scale without building a team and learning to delegate. Basing our company in Hawaii also proved to be a challenge: the applicant pool is small and mostly experienced in tourism. Because it was difficult to find employees with extensive, or any, beauty experience here in Hawaii, we began recruiting from local colleges and provided extensive on-the-job training.

We’ve found that communication is key to our team working effectively, so we include all staff in relevant meetings and in our decision-making process—that includes our interns. When our employees feel that they have a stake in company decisions, they are much more motivated to see things through. They care about the future of the company because they are involved in the direction we take. This collaborative process opened up more opportunities for us in the beauty world.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

Professionally, being able to create 2 successful brands and not having to go back to the corporate world to work for someone else. I’m also proud of being able to help create jobs here locally in Hawaii.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

Most of our full time hires have been interns for us. While we do interviews, we find the best way to determine capabilities and “fit” has been to actually work with the prospective candidate.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The current situation with COVID-19 has been incredibly tough as an entrepreneur. Certain sales channels have dropped to zero, including our wholesale and airline business, which means we’ve been forced to adapt and focus on our e-commerce and digital strategies more than ever before. This has been such an unprecedented time due to people losing their jobs in the US economy and certain industries shutting down completely. As an entrepreneur, there isn’t a manual for this, covering how to react when these situations arise. Luckily, we had already been diversifying our sales channels and utilizing digital platforms to promote the brand before the pandemic happened. There were some challenges with implementing changes quickly and driving ambiguity, but with incredible support and hard work from my team, we were able to adapt to this “new normal.”

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

We are launching skincare lines for both brands, including an Aloe E Face Cleanser for Hanalei (pictured above), and a Hydrating Hyaluronic Toner for Elizabeth Mott. We’re really excited to diversify our product catalog a bit this year and introduce people to a new way to take care of their skin.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

Be flexible, you can’t tell the future. Be able to pivot and try different things. This past year has shown that you can’t plan for everything.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

Don’t be too invested in your product or idea. If it’s a bad idea or product, admit your mistake and move on and try something different.

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

Just having perspective and being grateful for what you have, and being thankful for my health, my family’s health, and the business managing to survive the pandemic.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

As a business owner, you really don’t have work/life balance, as the business consumes your thoughts. I try to practice self-care to offset the stress of running a business. I workout, meditate and eat healthy. However, we do believe in having work/life balance for my employees, so we have a generous holiday, vacation and sick day policy. And we try to encourage them to work only 9-5 during the weekdays (no weekends), and try not to answer emails after hours.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I used to be a personal trainer. During grad school, I became a personal trainer at NY Sports Club in Manhattan.

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

Keep a to-do list of what you want to accomplish today.

Prioritize tasks before you start your day.

Block out time on your calendar (no calls or meetings) to get things done.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

Being an Entreprenista means owning a business that empowers women to be their best selves. Our team is mostly made up of women, and we make it our goal to empower women in ever way we can. We believe in natural beauty and bringing out the best in that for everyone who tries our products.

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