How Robyn Smith, founder of Faithful to Nature, built the well-known ecommerce business into a thriving natural empire
At age 25, Robyn Smith was working as an innovation consultant based in London. ‘I had a great job,’ Robyn admits, ‘yet, work needed more flow with my personal values. I grew up on a farm in the Eastern Cape, so I always had a natural grounding.’
‘One day,’ Robyn tells, ‘I’d been standing in a chemist in the UK, looking for a night cream and I didn’t want to be duped by fancy packaging. A lightbulb suddenly went on – I started looking closely at the ingredient list. At the time, I was using what was supposed to be a natural beauty brand, but when I turned the product over, I didn’t see a single botanical listing. It turned out that the product wasn’t natural at all. That’s what started my personal journey into ingredient integrity and natural products.’
Leaving the jet-set life behind, in 2006, Robyn moved back to South Africa to become an entrepreneur. It would not be an easy road.
‘At the time, there was a misunderstanding about what makes a product “natural”,’ Robyn explains. ‘If a product contained one popular botanical such as aloe or rooibos – even if that natural ingredient was contained in a synthetic soup – the product was still considered “natural”. Many South African products continue to market themselves as natural, even though they are very far from it.’
Although certain global brands were able to make their customers a promise about ingredient integrity, Robyn notes, there had never been a retailer making such a promise about all the brands it stocked. ‘It sounds quite cheesy,’ Robyn admits, ‘but never in the history of retail had there been a store that said to its clients “We’ll do all the worrying and research for you about the products we stock.”’
At the outset, it was hard to get full ingredient lists out of suppliers, but Robyn refused to stock any products without one. ‘We then also started checking the ingredient lists for any products with any controversial ingredients, or potential toxicity. I believe that every single person has a right to know what is in every product they buy and bring into their homes. It sounds obvious. Yet, in many instances, manufacturers don’t include full ingredient lists with products or lie about what they contain.’
A rocky road
In the early days of the business, one of the biggest challenges was cashflow, Robyn notes. ‘Most ecommerce businesses have a hockey-stick business model – they’re slow to generate profit.’ Debts mounted quickly.
‘I kept being told close the business,’ Robyn shares. ‘Traditional accountants didn’t understand what we were doing. I ended up getting divorced. My ex-husband’s family said, “Close the business.” My own family said, “Close the business.” Everyone was saying, “Close the business.” But I knew I was onto something good because of the customer retention rates and the feedback we received – page-long love letters. When I looked at the goodwill towards us, and the fact that every month was our best month in terms of revenue, I knew I couldn’t close the business. But I had little support at that time – business-wise, emotionally and financially. It was a difficult time.’
A growth partner steps in
‘What impressed us was the work Robyn had done on her own and the growth she had achieved,’ says Peter Allerstorfer, co-founder and managing director of Silvertree Internet Holdings. Having chosen Silvertree over a number of other potential investors, Robyn has been working with the team for over four years. ‘Basically, what Robyn had built from a business that she had started out of her own house was very impressive.’
‘When I drew up initial business plans, I saw the business growing at 30-40 % year-on-year at this stage, but instead we’ve seen growth of 50-60%,’ Robyn explains. ‘Silvertree’s investment has allowed us to grow with the market. In South Africa, both the natural and ecommerce markets are growing – and we’re expanding our share of both.’
Silvertree has focused on providing strategic, financial and operational support to the business – a holistic approach that is paying dividends. ‘For example, on Silvertree’s advice and with their operational support, we’ve migrated Faithful to Nature to a more professional ecommerce platform,’ Robyn notes. ‘Before, we never had access to professional designers or developers – but that has now changed as Silvertree gave us access to their developers and resources, allowing us to present far more professionally to the market.’
In addition to the ecommerce re-platforming, working with Silvertree has also meant access to economies of scale from a marketing perspective – key in today’s digitally-saturated environment. ‘Given we’re involved in multiple consumer-facing brands, we’re able to provide economies of scale to our companies, as well as offering our support and access to a large number of media channels,’ Allerstorfer explains, adding that backing of this kind often translates into greater market relevance.
A more hands-on approach
Silvertree’s role further deepened in 2017, after Allerstorfer stepped in as interim CEO. Needing to dedicate more time to her family, passionate founder Robyn needed someone she could trust behind the scenes. ‘It has been a great journey working with Robyn and seeing the business grow,’ Allerstorfer notes. ‘We’re able to take a step back together, reflecting on the business and seeing where it should go next.’
‘Had I not taken an Investment growth partner like Silvertree on-board, the growth we’ve seen on the Faithful to Nature brand would never have been possible,’ Robyn concludes. Robyn goes on to explain her appreciation of the fact that the Silvertree team has always been highly respectful of the brand she has built, its uniqueness, and her vision for the future – supporting, but never interfering. ‘The reason why I decided to work with Silvertree at the outset was that they communicated clearly to me that their role was not to interfere with the brand. They understood that Faithful to Nature is unique.’