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The Formula for Building a Cult-Favorite Skincare Line

Julie Clarke, founder of Province Apothecary with some of the natural skincare products she and her team created.

Navigating the world of skincare is a treacherous journey. Despite the ample amount of information on active ingredients and chemical compounds, you can only discover how it affects your skin after use. This constant trial and error process is complicated even more for those with skin conditions. For Julie Clark, who experienced a lifelong case of eczema, it was paramount to take matters into her own hands and find natural alternatives to steroid creams.

 

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In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Julie on how she turned natural remedies into her business Province Apothecary and grew it into a cult-favorite skincare brand loved by Gwyneth Paltrow and Vogue magazine. From balancing responsibilities as a new mom to rebuilding her retail business when COVID-19 hit, Julie shares the realities of continually adapting and scaling as a founder.

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Failure is a crucial ingredient in product development

Wanting to avoid the harmful side effects and dependency of prescribed medication for her skin, Julie started experimenting with natural ingredients to make her own skincare remedies. “I hit a point where I was tired of using steroids on my skin,” she recalls. 

Found of Province Apothecary, Julie Clarke.
As a lifelong eczema sufferer, Julie Clarke turned her search for natural remedies turned into a business. Province Apothecary

By immersing herself in the aisles of health food stores and perusing natural ingredients for her experiments, Julie started to make her own products. Unfortunately, her enthusiasm wasn’t met with a mirroring reception. “It was a total failure,” Julie says. “I put toasted sesame oil in some lip balms and tried to give them to friends, and no one wanted to use them.”

The failed attempts didn’t deter Julie; instead, it motivated her to learn even more. “That showed me that I needed to find a mentor or teacher to teach me how to make skincare,” Julie says. Enrolling into school for aromatherapy, holistic health, and aesthetics came next, and Julie gained the essential knowledge to blend products and treat clients at her school. The taste of working in skincare vitalized Julie’s desires and solidified her decision to pursue it as a career. “ I just fell in love with doing it all and just wanted that to be my life,” Julie says.

An array of Province Apothecary products arranged on a glass tray.
Julie’s use of ingredients from each Canadian province inspired the name Province Apothecary. Province Apothecary

As Julie graduated from school, she began her services on a small scale by seeing more clients at her home and they would ask to purchase the products used during treatments. Their demands put Julie back into developing products and inspired her to start Province Apothecary. “I wanted to source from every province in Canada because I was thinking about how local ingredients would help with the seasonal changes, and that’s where the name comes from,” says Julie. 

Online sales driven by offline interactions 

In 2010 at the beginning of Province Apothecary, Julie started her online store right away and wanted to sell directly to customers. She quickly realized that the skincare category, unlike other direct-to-consumer products, required additional context and trust-building before customers were willing to give her products a try. “I started a website and no one came,” says Julie. “That made me realize that I needed to get out and start talking to people.” 

A custom serum being made by a Province Apothecary employee.
Building trust in-person and sharing her story allowed Julie to drive sales to her online store. Province Apothecary

Dedicating her time to pop-up events and farmers’ markets allowed Julie to meet potential customers and share the stories behind her formulas. In addition to demonstrations, Julie also gave out discount cards for those who visited her to make additional purchases online. “I found interacting in person with people was the best way to introduce them to the product,” says Julie.

A model using a balm from Province Apothecary.
Discounts given out during in-person events motivated customers to purchase gifts, and a snowball effect took place on Province Apothecary’s sales. Province Apothecary
Julie’s initial investment into in-person events also led up to the holiday season, which amplified her efforts. “I gave incentives to buy gifts, they would buy products for their friends, and that first holiday season was the biggest one I'd ever experienced,” says Julie. This combination of discounts and the gifting season allowed Julie to build a solid foundation for Province Apothecary to move into the next phase of business.

The butterfly effect of public relations and content creation

A quick internet search on Province Apothecary will result in glowing reviews and gift guide features from Vogue, the Today Show, InStyle, and so many other notable outlets. Even Gwyneth Paltrow is a fan and includes Province Apothecary products on her Goop online shop. 

Despite the glamorous state of Province Apothecary’s press coverage, building up the company’s presence came from humble beginnings. During the early days of her business journey, Julie received advice to get represented by a public relations agency as soon as possible. Being a smaller business with limited resources, Julie had to find alternative ways to fund her public relations investment. “I didn't have any money to put into press, but I kept waitressing to be able to afford a PR agent,” Julie shares. 

Julie Clarke at a desk preparing a product for her skincare line Province Apothecary.
Julie had to wait tables to afford a PR agent, but the investment paid off in glowing reviews. Province Apothecary

Julie’s scrappiness paid off, as one coverage led to another. Province Apothecary’s products spoke for itself, and investing in public relations helped to get the conversation started with editors, customers, and even retailers. “Someone would see us in a magazine or a newspaper and reach out to us to carry us,” Julie says. “It helped to expand the brand quickly.”

A flat lay of Province Apothecary products along with fresh flowers and other ingredients.
Reviews and press coverage blossomed over time as it allows Province Apothecary to reach an amplified amount of users and media outlets. Province Apothecary

Parallel to the investment in public relations was Julie’s dedication to creating content for Province Apothecary. The timely, consistent, and educational content on Province Apothecary’s blog and social media channels makes it easier for outlets to discover their brand. Their creative visual assets also make it easier for journalists to feature them with ready-to-use images and video. 

At the heart of the content is Julie’s desire to share useful skincare information. “I’ve been there. I hated my skin because I didn't understand why it was sore and bleeding all the time,” recalls Julie. “The more education we offer in our content, the more we can help people take care of themselves.” 

The intricacies of entering motherhood as a founder 

During Black Friday Cyber Monday 2019, while most founders were preparing for the major sales season, Julie was also preparing for motherhood. Juggling Province Apothecary and this milestone came with unexpected challenges. “Honestly, I didn't do a great job,” Julie says. “I thought I could start working three months after my baby was born. I couldn't imagine what was required as a mom.” 

Julie Clarke the founder of Province Apothecary using some of her products to showcase her daily skincare routine.
Readjusting her maternity leave and workload has allowed Julie to find a balance between work and home life. Province Apothecary

As time went on, Julie found her footing by readjusting her maternity leave and workload. “I've asked for more support from my team and tried to delegate as much as I can,” Julie says. “Trying to be the supermom, covering it up and telling them it's so easy is just not who I am.” She finds the balance of work and home life by staying transparent with her team and accepting the challenges. “Working after not sleeping all night has been challenging,” Julie shares. “I try to be really upfront with my team and share how I'm feeling or how I'm doing so that they're aware of my mental state.” 

Beyond work, Julie is finding solace in getting to know other moms. “I always ask my mom friends for advice,” Julie says. “It's all about figuring what works for you and taking it day by day.” Knowing how others have forged a path has helped Julie find her own. “I always just think about all the other moms out there and use them as an inspiration,” Julie says. 

Reformulating the business for a new reality 

Like virtually every business, Julie’s plans for Province Apothecary got derailed in 2020. “We were aiming to double the size of our business and were on the projection of doing that until March, when COVID hit,” Julie says. Faced with lockdowns, the in-person treatments and retail operations for Province Apothecary had to stop. “It destroyed the business,” says Julie. 

An aesthetician applying a face mask onto a client at Province Apothecary's retail location.
The notable in-person treatments offered by Province Apothecary had to be significantly altered after COVID-19 Province Apothecary

The retail store’s temporary closure forced Julie to downsize her team and focus solely on the online business. “There were only three of us doing the whole business for about a month. It was terrible,” Julie says. Working through the added stress and responsibilities, Province Apothecary required more of Julie’s time as the business reverted to startup mode again. “I was joking that we started a new business that already existed before. We just had to figure out how to make it work again,” Julie says.

A hand antiseptic gel from Province Apothecary.
When COVID-19 hit, Province Apothecary adapted by running like a startup again. Julie was able to bring back her full workforce in time for the holiday season. Province Apothecary

Adjusting their service space by adding safety shields and supplying full PPE for practitioners, treatments took place again. The return of the entire team also comes just in time for this year’s holiday season. Julie is also adapting to offering additional products like antiseptic hand cleansers and additional tools like facial cups for customers to carry out treatments at home.

Tweaking and adjusting to find the ideal business formula 

Much like developing a formula for her products, Julie’s business journey is all about tweaking and adjusting to her current environment, while staying focused on her mission of solving skin issues. With her strong resilience , it’s no wonder that Julie built a cult-favorite skincare brand that survives the challenges of the ever changing business environment.