I got the idea to start Rebels Refinery, my men’s skincare line, back when my 20-year-old partying ways were starting to catch up with me. My skin was suffering and I started stealing my mother’s moisturizer because everything in the drugstores seemed chemically intensive or the packaging was unattractive. I was young enough and naïve enough to think I could compete with multi-million dollar conglomerates, so I decided to start my own men’s skincare company.

Tip 1: Get a mentor

But to take it from an idea to the $10-million-plus company it is today, the credit really goes to a very generous business mentor — David Simnick from SoapBox Soaps.

Early in our business history, we went on Dragon’s Den and, to our surprise, we charmed Arlene Dickinson into a five-per-cent royalty deal. I spent two years working in office space in the basement of her building, but I wasn’t good at asking for advice and, ultimately, we secured a deal with Hudson’s Bay and bought ourselves out of the Dragon’s Den deal.

From that experience, I’ve learned that though you can be working very hard all the time, you may not be working smartly. And asking for help is part of working smartly.

Today, we continue to be thankful for our first big break — sales of our premium men’s skincare line that includes facewash, scrub, moisturizer and an under-eye roller to all 1,800 Target outlets in the United States. We also sell our products, namely our hugely popular Rebel Rose Geometric Lip Balm, to Indigo. In addition, in August, our products will be in all 1,000 Ulta Beauty outlets in the U.S. (Ulta is similar to Sephora in Canada). And there’s more coming on stream. We are negotiating with companies such as the Netherlands’ Ahold Delhaize, which boasts 6,500 locations, and Douglas.eu, which has more than 2,000.

Those breaks, and their cascading effect, have come because we have a great product, and because we’ve gotten consistently sound advice. If I were to do it all over again and give really good advice to others, I’d suggest getting a mentor within your industry. David Simnick is in the same industry as us, but our customer bases are different so he doesn’t see us as direct competition.

He has sold his products in Target, CVS, Walmart and Walgreens and he’s given us invaluable advice on what brokers to use to sell to certain retailers. And there’s another bit of advice: Use brokers rather than going direct to retailers. These brokers are walking through the retailers’ doors every day. They’re a known quantity and they’re good at what they do.

Tip 2: Discount retailers in foreign countries: A cash flow alternative

Getting good advice is my No. 1 tip, but I credit a popular off-price retailer with keeping us going in the lean times. When cash flow was low and necessary, and inventory was high, I would lean on them to sell overstock or products for which we were changing the packaging. I only ever sent them a few SKUs, but it did get us through some slow times.

You might worry that it’s not good for your brand to be selling in a discount retailer, but if you need cash flow and you need to get rid of stock that’s just sitting there, it’s one thing you could consider. These types of stores are also in a lot of markets, so you can ship to countries you don’t consider to be your targets and then it won’t hurt your brand. I used to sell to an off-price chain in the U.S. and the UK when I was focused on Canada. They want your product at very low prices, but they move a lot of stock, so in that sense, they come in handy, provided they’re interested in your brand. The one we dealt with was also extremely easy to work with.

Tip 3: Trade shows are key

I also recommend attending trade shows — the big ones. They cost a lot more, but they also yield better results than cheaper ones. In retrospect, I wish I’d done more trade shows.

Although we’ve been at it for four years, we’re really just hitting our stride now. There’s a weird acceleration of growth where you can go from $1 million in sales to $10 million within a couple of years.

And that growth path continues to look positive. Last year, we doubled in size and this year, we expect to grow between five and six times over last year. The year after that, we’re projecting growth of two to three times next year’s size. For the first few years, our staff consisted of an intern and me. Now we have 10 full-time employees. That will grow as the company does.

Tip 4: Customs brokers are smart spending

One final piece of advice: Make sure you have really good customs brokers for importing into Canada and exporting out. For the small amount a customs broker costs, it’s worth every penny. They can really save you in times of trouble. 

And be tenacious

One quality every exporter should possess is tenacity — and a great product. You’ll always figure it out if you’re tenacious enough.