By Karen van Kampen
In March 2017, 23-year-old Connie Lo and Laura Burget put together $4,000 in savings and launched Three Ships in Connie’s kitchen, hand making and hand-labelling natural beauty products. A month later, they landed their first retailer with an order of 40 packages of cleansing wipes.
“I was floored,” says Connie, remembering how she raced to tell a colleague at her day job, “We just got our first order for more than a unit!” From that initial small order, the duo had big ambitions. “We always knew that we wanted to make this a massive company,” says Laura. “We believe in this mission,” adds Connie. “It’s a brand that people need.”
Today, Three Ships is sold in approximately 1,000 stores across North America including Whole Foods, Hudson’s Bay and more than 500 Target locations in the U.S. Getting into Target “was definitely a mission,” says Connie, which included a year of cold calls and reintroducing herself to the buyer outside the men’s room at a trade show. “Laura and I started this business with a lot of determination and hustle.”
The pair are also being recognized for their vision and hard work. As co-founders of Three Ships, Connie and Laura were the 2020 winners of the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub Micro-Business Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours entrepreneurs who own and operate a small but impactful business.
From the first time they met for a quick sushi dinner that turned into a three-hour business meeting, Connie and Laura knew they shared the same entrepreneurial vision. As a young girl, Connie joined her dad on business trips, watching him sell, pitch and negotiate for his cookware business. “That’s when I fell in love with the idea of running my own business,” she says. During the third year of her commerce degree at Queen’s University, Connie was co-chair of the Queen’s Entrepreneurs’ Competition and was exposed to start-ups pitching their brands. Then Connie met Laura and found her own innovative idea.
As a chemical engineering student at the University of Toronto, Laura ran two businesses: an on-campus retail bookstore and a College Pro house painting franchise, both with eight employees. In her fourth year, Laura started brainstorming business ideas for a start-up after graduation. At the same time, she began using natural skincare products and was frustrated by how expensive and misleading they were, with brands purporting to be natural, sustainable or green without evidence to back up their claims.
When Laura proposed the idea of a clean, affordable skincare line, Connie knew they were onto something big. As a “skintellectual” who researches the ingredients and science behind skincare products, Connie understood the confusion and lack of transparency in the beauty industry. When they launched Three Ships in the spring of 2017, “Our mission was to be the most transparent natural beauty brand in the world,” says Connie.
What the pair lacked in financing, they made up for in grit and hard work, spending evenings and weekends mixing, pouring and labelling products in Connie’s kitchen. “We were literally measuring things out by the teaspoon and individual drops of essential oils,” says Laura. Then they carried the finished products on the streetcar to Laura’s apartment, where she shipped everything out to customers.
As long as you have thick skin, you learn this stuff along the way.
In the early days, the pair lugged suitcases of products to farmers’ markets and craft shows, making much needed cash to keep the business afloat. Even though their margins would have been higher with a B2B model, Connie and Laura always stuck with an omni-channel approach. “When it comes to skincare and cosmetics, people like to be able to smell, touch and feel the product before committing to a new brand online,” says Connie. There is also the brand reputation and trust factor when brands are sold in reputable stores.
While the business was starting out, Connie worked in marketing and sales at Kimberly-Clark and Laura had a sales position at a software company. During off hours, Laura worked on product development and packaging design while Connie went door-to-door in downtown Toronto with samples and a price list. Connie remembers walking into Urban Outfitters and learning from a sales associate that the retail store didn’t deal with buying. She would have to contact the merchandising team in the U.S.
“As long as you have thick skin, you learn this stuff along the way,” says Connie, adding that it’s important not to give up. Several years later, Urban Outfitters contacted Three Ships, and will start carrying their natural beauty products this spring.
It wasn’t easy negotiating with large retailers at the age of 23, says Connie. Being young and without financial backing or connections in the beauty space, Connie and Laura worked hard to fight imposter syndrome. “I think what helped was really just doing it,” says Connie, adding, “I don’t think it ever fully goes away because the challenges that you face as you’re growing a business are always changing.”
In late 2018, they moved out of Connie’s kitchen and started working with three contract manufacturers, keeping up with growing demand while staying true to their affordable, all-natural brand. “Our level of transparency is what sets us apart,” says Connie. Their target audience of 25- to 35-year-old conscious consumers can search the ingredients glossary on their website, and all products remain under $40 USD. Connie and Laura remember being unable to afford the natural beauty products on the market when they launched Three Ships, “So we would never want to stray from this original founding problem,” says Connie.
Looking to the future, Laura and Connie are focused on retail expansion, growth in current stores and new product rollouts. “It’s going to be an exciting year of product launches every two months,” says Laura. “We have big ambitions.”