From Grape Seeds Come Beauty–and a Business: A Chat with The Grapeseed Co.’s Kristin Fraser Cotte
(All photos by Matt Graves; copyright Osmosis Online and Matt Graves)
Kristin Fraser Cotte was thinking about the environment from a pretty early age. As a child, for instance, her mother and a group of “earth-loving friends” operated a food co-op out of the family’s barn.
But it was during a two-year voyage in a small sailboat with her future husband Peter that really got her thinking about how people impact the earth.
“I became acutely aware of how much water I was consuming, how much trash I was creating, the energy that was needed to run our systems,” she reminisces.
Today, Kristin is the founder and CEO of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based bath & body products business The Grapeseed Company. It’s a business that seems to encapsulate both the green zeitgeist and aspirational beauty of this mid-sized, coastal city. The Grapeseed Company produces high-quality products dedicated to personal beauty and health, created with certified organic and local ingredients, centering on that potent, antioxidant-rich byproduct of nearby winemakers, the grape seed.
Taking the leap into entrepreneurship is a daunting proposition, at least to the uninitiated. But for Kristin, it turns out, The Grapeseed Co. was not even her first entrepreneurial exercise. In fact, she started her first business at the age of 14.
We caught up with Kristin, who shed took the time to shed some light on her background and on The Grapeseed Co.’s rather exotic origins.
Osmosis Online: Where did you grow up?
Kristin Fraser Cotte: I grew up in a suburb of Boston. My life pretty much revolved around competitive swimming from age 5-22. I went to Syracuse University on a swimming scholarship and moved back to Boston for graduate school.
OO: And at what point did you embark on your first entrepreneurial enterprise?
Kristin: I started my first business at age 14, teaching swim lessons in my backyard pool. With the help of my dad, mom and sister, Fraser Aquatics grew to over 250 students within five summers and ultimately provided me with the cash to leave Boston in a 30-foot sailboat with my boyfriend, Peter in 2000.
OO: And that was the first step in your eventual move to California?
Kristin: I moved to Santa Barbara eight years ago, after Peter and I got engaged and sold our boat in the Caribbean. We knew we didn’t want to return to Boston, so we each came up with the top three places we’d want to live. Santa Barbara was the first place both of us agreed on. After closing on the boat in St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), we flew back to Boston, packed a U-Haul, and drove out here in February 2002.
OO: And how did you come up with the idea behind The Grapeseed Co?
Kristin: When we arrived in the Caribbean Islands, I observed local women turning their plentiful supply of coconuts into lotions and soap.
During the long ocean passages, I had been studying aromatherapy, essential oils, medicinal plants, and formulating natural personal care products. [Accordingly], I was really interested in learning more about how they were using their local resource to create healthy personal care products.
After our two-year sailing adventure, Peter and I settled in Santa Barbara and began to learn about wine. I started formulating scrubs with grape seeds, a byproduct of the winemaking process. A spark went off when friends tried the products; I combined my passion with a local resource and The Grapeseed Co. was born.
OO: Did you have a science or artisan craft-type background, or anything other than passion to help you prepare for it?
Kristin: Creativity is my passion. My mom is a quilter, and I grew up playing in her sewing room making clothes and quilts for my dolls. I have always loved creating things and I love to cook. I’ve never really been into using recipes, and love to experiment and create my own. This transcends very well into formulating spa products. Since my formulas are based on natural, plant-derived ingredients, I always am telling people what I do is more like cooking than chemistry!
OO: What made you pull the trigger on being a small business owner? Did you know what you were getting into?
Kristin: I have to laugh at this… NO!!! I knew I was not satisfied in my current job; I had a MS degree in a very specific field and nowhere to grow or move in my school district. I also knew it was really challenging for the school district to find qualified people to do my job and they valued me as an employee. I went into the Assistant Superintendent of Goleta Schools and was honest with him. I told him I wanted to start a business and asked if he’d consider employing me part-time, with the hopes of getting a steady paycheck while launching my biz. Thankfully, he agreed. I worked part-time for three years before making the leap to full time for The Grapeseed Co. I was even able to leave my job on a “leave-of-absence” for 2 years under my tenured contract, so it felt “safe” for me to make the leap.
OO: And how did you handle the initial challenges back then? What surprised you?
Kristin: It was not easy; I was juggling two jobs that both felt fulltime. On school days, I spent my breaks and lunches returning sales emails and calls. I got up at 5 a.m. to pack orders before heading into school and formulated products on the weekends. I began to look at things differently and turned my less-than-ideal situation into an opportunity to learn business strategies and techniques from my day job. I became a contract negotiator for the Goleta teachers union and gained valuable skills I use to this day when drafting business contracts.
Financially, major bootstrapping was how Peter and I survived. Santa Barbara is not a cheap place to live, but we were committed to finding a way to stay here, buy a home and make it work while growing the business. We cut way back on our personal budget, took advantage of buying a foreclosed home, and turned my original investment on Grapeseed into more sales to grow the company organically.
I haven’t grown super fast, but I have complete ownership and control of my company, am profitable, and do not owe anyone anything five years in. This whole journey is both a surprise and success for me.
To sum it up I’d say that good old hard work and bootstrapping have been my “secrets to success.”
For more information on The Grapeseed Company, please check out its Web site.