In Conversation with Stephanie Morimoto of Asutra
Describe your business in a few words?
Asutra believes self-care isn’t selfish, it’s important. A fave of tennis legend Venus Williams, Asutra offers natural remedies for pain, sleep and rejuvenation.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
We as women often multi-task intensely and care for others at the expense of ourselves. As a woman who lived this way, and burned out in crazy jobs, I’ve seen firsthand the importance of truly caring for yourself – on purpose.
This led me to Asutra. At Asutra, we’re passionate about helping people take care of themselves on purpose so they can get the most out of life – what we call active self care. Asutra offers over 50 organic, natural products – from natural solutions to help with pain relief and sleep to skincare to bath & body – so you can care for yourself the way you want.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I’ve done a lot of different things! I started as an English teacher in Japan, then advised Fortune 100 companies as a McKinsey consultant, then took what I learned at McKinsey to help women of color start small businesses. I spent a dozen years in the nonprofit education space, where I fundraised $500 million and grew partnerships 3-4X to train teachers and principals. In between all that, I did a consulting stint for Alice Waters at her Chez Panisse Foundation and led the transition team for the incoming Commissioner of Education for the state of Tennessee.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I didn’t always know in my brain, but I felt it in my soul. My grandparents and parents are very entrepreneurial. My grandmother on my mom’s side came to the US from Indonesia, and when she arrived she could only find work as a seamstress. Over time she built a pattern-making business that worked with big fashion brands. My grandpa on my dad’s side and my parents were doctors and dentists who built their own practices from the ground up. So I grew up with entrepreneurship as a way of life. Even when I worked in bigger organizations, I was always drawn to building the new department or initiative that had never existed.
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?
We were incredibly fortunate to have tennis champion Venus Williams approach us to get involved. She was a customer, using our pain relief creams as part of her training regimen. She loved our active self care mission and focus on natural ingredients and accessible pricing and joined Team Asutra as our Chief Brand Officer.
Honestly, it wasn’t our plan to establish a celebrity partnership. But one thing you learn as an entrepreneur is luck plays a huge role! So with Venus on board, we focused on 3 things.
#1: Working with Venus to raise awareness. Venus posts on social media and does press interviews to teach a broader audience about Asutra and the importance of active self care.
#2: Dominating specific Google searches. Asutra products feature ingredients with functional benefits – for example, magnesium, which research shows helps relieve muscle cramps and creates a sense of wellness and calm. For people already searching about these needs, we want Asutra to be the top solution.
#3: Getting and sharing reviews. Our customers write passionate reviews – sometimes they even call us or mail us hand-written letters! For people new to Asutra, reading about how we’ve helped others with pain or sleep, or why someone loves our body scrubs or silk sleep masks, helps them make the leap to try a brand that’s new to them.
Overall it’s worked out well, but we’re always learning and improving.
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?
We’ve bootstrapped the business so we’re a lean team. We rely on agency partners who bring deep expertise in certain areas, like Google ads or PR – and can do so at a high ROI. But it’s really difficult as an entrepreneur to find effective agencies when there are so many out there. Early on, we picked some agencies that could not deliver the ROI we sought. I learned 3 important lessons.
#1. Talk to the account manager who will work with your brand, not just the salesperson who is often very impressive but doesn’t do the day to day implementation.
#2. When interviewing agencies, get case studies of and references from other clients. Ask about the measurable results the agency delivered and make sure the agency can articulate a specific approach they use to get those results.
#3. Fire faster. There were a couple of times where I felt like things weren’t going in the right direction but I wanted to give the agency one more chance. I should have cut the cord sooner.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
I’m really proud that Asutra is a go-to for many people to take care of themselves. People tell us how they can finally get a good night’s sleep, or relieve some stress, when using our products. We recently did a customer survey, and when asked who they would turn to if Asutra didn’t exist anymore, most people said they couldn’t think of another brand they’d go to. That was incredible to hear.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
This is a particular passion of mine, having hired hundreds of people over the years! Two tips.
#1. Assess if the person embodies your organization’s core values. For example, one of our core values at Asutra is “One Team, One Goal”. I ask candidates in interviews to explain what that means to them and tell me about specific times they’ve demonstrated this value.
#2. Give candidates real-life exercises to do before you hire them so you can determine if they bring the right skills and judgment. For example, if I’m hiring a customer service rep I will have them write email responses to real customer questions.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’ve been very fortunate. Because most of our business is through e-commerce, we were able to keep going when so much was shut down. People who could afford to were – and still are – shopping more online. And folks are looking for self care.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
We want to give people more tips on how they can incorporate self care into their daily lives, especially since more people are looking to be healthier given the pandemic. There’s also a lot going on politically and socially right now that’s impacting people’s mental health. Self care isn’t just about taking a bath. It’s about taking care of your mind, body and soul and being intentional about it. As women, it’s also about finding joy in elevating those routines so that we can be all the things we want to be, and often must be. We don’t have to feel guilty about giving ourselves that time and space.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
Whew, just one?! This has been quite the year. If I had to pick one lesson as an entrepreneur, I’d say being willing to pivot. Our original goal for 2020 was to double our bricks-and-mortar retail distribution, but obviously that didn’t make much sense once the pandemic hit. So we pivoted and doubled down on improving our customer experience on our website, and that paid off.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
I’m a risk taker and very open to change. Often entrepreneurs advise you to fail fast. I have no problem with that! What I should have done differently at times is had a more methodical approach to testing one change at a time so we could measure the impact of that one change before moving onto the next one.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
I’m very grateful to have an amazing husband and team. My husband runs his own company too but in a totally different field. So we can geek out on business questions together while understanding the stresses we’re each under – but we can also help each other relax and recharge. My team is incredible. We’re a very diverse team AND really embody our “One Team, One Goal” core value. We focus on not only taking care of our customers but also taking care of each other.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
This has been a lifelong struggle for me, honestly. I used to think I wanted this even balance between work and life. Now I realize what I value most is control over my destiny and flexibility. Instead of an even balance, I like being able to choose what I do and when I do it. I love what I do at Asutra, so if that means choosing to do a podcast interview at 7pm or plan inventory late one night to land a partnership, I’m okay with that. And then I can also choose to do Pilates and start my work day at 10am.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I preserve 30 pounds of peaches every summer to eat throughout Chicago winters.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
#1. Create an action plan – and stick to it. Every Friday afternoon I write my action plan for the following week – the 2-3 big goals I want to accomplish that week, and the tasks I will do each day to achieve them. Be realistic about what you can do each day given the calls or meetings on your schedule.
#2. Take mini-breaks. I read this interesting article that the ideal work-break cycle is 22 minutes of work, 8 minutes of rest. That’s too choppy for me but I like to work for an hour or two, then take a walk outside or walk around our warehouse to check in with the team – something away from a screen and active.
#3. Do your email at scheduled times. Email can be a time suck. I mute the sound so I don’t hear a chime when it comes in. Then I only read and respond to emails during a few blocks during the day.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
Lifting up other women. I love connecting with other entreprenistas and finding ways to help each other through sharing advice, making connections or collaborating.