Client Feature: Make This Universe

As mentioned in our podcast episode with Deanna Utroske on 2018-2019 beauty trends, DIY and customizable beauty has seen a growth in popularity over the last few years. People have greater access to raw ingredients, and DIY recipes are easy to come by. With the parallel trend of sustainable living- such as the ‘zero waste’ movement- many people have started to create their own basic skincare at home in order to reduce their reliance on single-use packaging.

With this trend in mind, we thought we’d feature one of our fabulous formulation clients that I’m so proud of: Make This Universe! We’ve been working closely with Jessye Grundingh- a product designer and the founder of MTU- since late last year to develop their deodorant formulation. In an arguably saturated market, their product promises to be a stand-out thanks to their unique customer base: DIY-ers!

As a formulator, it was a unique challenge to formulate something flexible enough to provide people with a fully customizable product, which still works great in every iteration. With their first DIY kit now online, we thought we’d sit down with the founder to talk about her story, the inspiration behind the brand and plans for the future of MTU. I hope that Jessye’s story will be an inspiration for other indie founders - she’s made some incredible traction and I can’t wait to see where her business grows.

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Origin stories play a huge role in the natural beauty industry: the founder’s story is often integral to positioning the products. I’m sure your customers will be curious to know a bit more about you and what brought you to this industry. Can you tell us a bit more about how you got here?

I do think that to understand MTU, you have to understand the journey I have been on since moving from Cape Town to Toronto to study industrial design in 2012.

Industrial designers have an interesting skill set: we’re taught to pinpoint niche trends in different industries, using them to brainstorm possibilities for disruption. We can also physically make things. This combination makes us deeply optimistic that things can change for the better, because our job involves improving everyday products for consumers on a small scale- and also imagining possible futures on a large scale. We have this tacit knowledge that the physical world can be re-created in a way that has a positive impact. I think even just the name of the business- Make This Universe- reflects that optimism.

Image by  Jennifer Lyon

Image by Jennifer Lyon

I am also very passionate about products that enable people to live more sustainability. Although extremely limited, I do think consumers have power to curb the effects of climate change. My graduating project at OCAD was a kitchen tool and app that promoted plant-based diets- a project I won the thesis medal for. That was the beginning of my desire to create habit-forming products that use great design to promote sustainable habits.

Then on a personal level, I am also just super obsessed with making things. Every time I’m shopping, I ask myself whether I could just make the product I am about to buy. I have accumulated so many tools over the years for making things myself, including sergers, drills, every knitting needle and crochet hook imaginable and a full ceramics set-up.

On top of all that, I also have a degree in Pure Math- and was a maths tutor for many years who was very passionate about promoting STEM subjects to my students- especially the “creative” students who felt that science and humanities were somehow opposites.

So, considering my background in STEM education, product design and personal passion for DIY- you can imagine my *extreme* excitement when I discovered DIY Beauty through a friend who was making her own deodorant. Slowly but surely, I started looking at all my cosmetics products (especially the simpler anhydrous formulations) and wondering if I could just rip them off, stop the ridiculous accumulation of packaging and customize things for myself. So, in classic Jessye style, I bought a tonne of specialized ingredients and started trying DIY recipes at home.

Ultimately, I was disappointed both with the products, the lengthy & confusing research process and the struggle to source ingredients in small quantities. I started looking for a kit to make the learning curve a little bit simpler and a lot more rewarding.

When I couldn’t find a cute DIY Skincare brand that felt accessible, educational and approachable, I knew there was a unique market opportunity.

So, now that we understand a bit more about your personal journey- what took this from just a good idea to a reality: an incorporated business with its first product on the way?

Honestly, I feel like Make This Universe started itself, because the overall vision came to me so quickly. I wrote the basic business outline in an application for an entrepreneurship course that I submitted on the same day I left my first company. I think it was quite clear in my mind as I had spent so much time googling something that didn’t exist, which gave me the space to imagine what it could be.

After the course, Make This Universe went from idea to reality pretty quickly. The process of selling the shares in my first business left me feeling like a huge failure, but gave me the capital I needed to start afresh. It forced me to get real with myself and consider what my skill set had been building towards, what all the lessons added up to.

Starting a DIY Skincare brand just made sense to me- both from a business perspective and from a personal desire to have a brand that, at its core, is about creation, change, growth and empowerment through education.

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The only issue was, I had no idea how to start a skincare brand! I realised pretty quickly I needed a professional to develop the products, as the blog recipes for the most popular DIY project- natural deodorant- just didn’t cut it. They weren’t the right texture (many were pit pastes) and so the application wasn’t as convenient as store-bought natural deodorant sticks. They were not formulated with desirable packaging in mind. Most importantly, so many didn’t work or caused burns due to the use of baking soda.

I think it’s important to be realistic when you’re asking people to try new, sustainable habits. You need to make your product as convenient and desirable as possible, and if it takes a bit more time (as with a DIY project), it needs to be a really positive experience that makes the extra time worth it. So, I knew I had to formulate something that not only worked, but had the best application possible, and packaging that rivalled the store-bought options.

I would say the day I started to see the true potential of MTU was the day I found you, Jen! After our initial conversations about formulation, I started learning about all the misinformation in green and “natural” beauty. That’s when the real opportunity for a DIY Skincare brand with a science angle (i.e professionally formulated products) really solidified for me, as DIY is all about learning something new anyway. What better way to talk about misinformation around ingredients and health, than to do it through a DIY project?

Do you think DIY beauty is necessarily more sustainable that alternative options (i.e just buying the product)?

I think to have a product-based business that claims to promote sustainability, you also have to come to terms with how growth capitalism contributes to climate change, and be willing to build a business based on the idea of a triple bottom line- at the very least. Once I incorporated the educational aspect into our social media presence, I immediately felt MTU could still offer something of value to our online followers, without it needing to be transactional.

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So, I felt much more comfortable with starting the brand once I realised it could bring value to anyone looking to be a more conscious consumer, even if they just read a few of our informative instagram posts. This is what I think my customers ultimate goal is- to be better informed when it comes to purchasing products.

So, my short answer is yes. My kits, although plastic-free, do require more packaging than the average natural deodorant, but I have a strong belief- based on experience- that once you’ve physically made something, your understanding of it’s VALUE changes. There is actually a documented phenomenon called The IKEA Effect, where people feel something is more valuable IF they’ve helped build and create it.

I want people to see the value- the resources required from packaging and materials to labour- in their skincare and cosmetics products. I don’t think it’s sustainable for us to keep consuming the way we do, half-finishing a shampoo bottle before we switch to something we think may work better based on marketing claims we don’t understand. We need to be more conscious of what we buy, and I think having something on your bathroom shelf that you’ve handmade for yourself- or gifted to a friend- makes you realise that everything on your shelf should be that precious. I also believe you’re more likely to treat the product with care, finish it all the way to the bottom, clean out the packaging to be properly recycled etc. If you’ve had a hand in making it and customizing it, you feel more responsible for it.

If our kits allow people to simplify their product regime by focusing on a few key items that they really value, I believe that would have a positive effect. The best case scenario would be for people to become more self-sufficient and actually get into making their own consumables, re-using old packaging or exploring refill options.

That’s also why workshops are a key part of our business right now, as we give people our actual formulations to take home so that they could potentially become totally self-sufficient when it comes to certain skincare products. Do I think it’s realistic for everyone to make their own daily consumables? Probably not. But I do think our DIY kits can promote a new way of thinking about our everyday consumables as things to be treated and bought with care.

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Now that you’ve launched, what has your journey been like so far in terms of starting this business (ups and downs, first events etc)? Do you have any tips for readers out there who are thinking about starting a brand in the same space?

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I started this business on a comparatively small budget. Since there are no clear competitors in my particular niche (DIY kits), I didn’t want to hedge my bets that I would sell X amount of product- so I didn’t go the traditional Private Label route. This means slightly more work for me, but less is on the line as I remain very flexible and responsive. Which makes my main path quiet clear: developing my relationship to my customers. Because it’s a DIY company, I don’t even think of people who buy our kits as customers, I think of them more as co-creators because they’re actually a huge part of the formula! They make it all real.

There have been many ups and downs since I officially started MTU in January. Some markets I have attended have felt like failures, as I am learning where my customers shop- and don’t shop!

Which brings me to my last point- I find I need to learn lessons myself to really internalize them. I have to make small mistakes to avoid bigger ones. So that makes my daily work quite challenging, as I am essentially stress-testing my business and product as quickly as possible in order to make improvements. For me, it doesn’t matter how many books I read or podcasts I listen to- I generally need to fail in order to understand why something doesn’t work and how to adapt. So, get ready to fail constantly if you’re planning on putting something out into the world!

Where do you see MTU in the next few years?

Without giving away too much, I would love to expand into more categories as I know I have customers interested in different DIY projects. I could see us formulating DIY kits for haircare, basic anhydrous Skincare and potentially other consumable products that are beneficial to create at home in terms of the environmental impact.

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