How a Former Banker Turned Pastry Chef Whipped Up Cult-Favorite Skincare — Podcasts (2021)

Before Kate McLeod founded her namesake skincare company, she took many turns in her career. From Wall Street to culinary to entrepreneurship, Kate McLeod followed her intuition to build a business that combines her skills and interests. On This episode of Shopify Masters, Kate talks about leaving behind investment banking to create waste-free body care products, managing retail relationships, and the realities of being a mom and a founder. 

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Show Notes

The art of applying French pastry skills to skincare

Shuang: For those who are unfamiliar, tell us what a body stone is.

Kate: The Body Stone is a solid cocoa butter based moisturizer and it melts on contact with warm, dry skin. In my opinion, cocoa butter is the best thing that you can put on your body. It’s filled with the vitamins and nutrients to really give you that nourished moisturized skin. But if you’ve ever seen raw cocoa butter, it’s rock hard. I wanted to make the cocoa butter enhance that application process. 

  Kate McLeod dressed in a black turtleneck holding a Body Stone within her kitchen.
Kate McLeod’s hero product, the Body Stone was born in the kitchen where Kate mixed in her interest in yoga and experience with culinary to create a zero-waste moisturizer.  Kate McLeod  

Shuang: And it’s such a beautiful product because, at the end of it, you don’t have a plastic bottle or any waste.

Kate: No, nothing like that. A big part of my journey was my time in the kitchen. By training, I am a Pastry Chef, and the Body Stone was born in my kitchen. I used both ingredients that were in my kitchen cabinet, and when it came time to store the stone and package it, I really didn’t know beauty but I did know food and I knew what I used in my kitchen. So every Body Stone is wrapped in this gorgeous hand-cut piece of linen. It’s the thickest cheesecloth, and that is what I had in my kitchen. A lot of our customers say that they use the cloth at the end as a makeup remover wipe, finding other uses. The stone itself will melt down eventually into nothing, and at those last few bits, you can throw them in a hot bath.

Then the actual container that we sell the Body Stone in, it’s a bamboo canister. The lid swivels open and the Body Stone gets tucked inside. I remember very early on, walking out of a Packaging Fair in Flat Iron, in tears because no one would speak to me. And I had this product and I didn’t know how to package it. And everyone had these high minimum order quantities and told me there was nothing for a body product that you had to take in and out of something and keep it clean. And they told me to put it in a deodorant stick and just make it.

And I didn’t like that idea. And I remember I went home and made myself a cup of hot chocolate, that’s my comfort food. I love cocoa, and I was looking around my kitchen and I spotted a spice canister, and it was a bamboo spice canister. I literally opened up my computer and stumbled into Alibaba and within a week I had found someone who would do a small order for me. And a few months later 500 Bamboo canisters showed up on my doorstep in Williamsburg and then the journey began from there. The bamboo canister is reusable. We sell stones in refill boxes that you can recycle. So there’s no plastic. No waste at the bottom of a bottle. 

Shuang: It seems like culinary skills and investment banking experiences all play a part in building your business. What was that pivotal point when you started to create the Body Stone? 

Kate: So long story short, I ended up back in New York in 2015. It was so different from 2008 when I got a job at Goldman. I definitely had an ego. I was a little cocky about it and felt like I knew what I was doing and I had a network. And here I was back in 2015, and I felt very small and scared, with no direction, and no job and a lot of my friends have left and I discovered yoga and I cried on so many yoga mats.

Then I met my sister-in-law Deb. We developed a very close relationship, and a couple months later she saw me putting lotion on and she was like, “What are you putting on your body?” She’s someone that wouldn’t even use white paper towels because they’re bleached. She really knew where her food came from, where everything came from. And she handed me this little jar of raw cocoa butter and a lot of people think of cocoa butter as these cocoa butter lotions that we’re familiar with in big pharmacies. The truth about those lotions is actually there’s only really two to five percent cocoa butter in those lotions. It’s really watered down with lots of fillers. I never really considered putting it on my body in that raw hardened state and she wouldn’t let me put it in the microwave because it was in a plastic container. So she was like, “No, go and spend some time with yourself.”And the deeper meaning of that went right over my head at the time but I remember I worked it into my skin and the next day, my feet, knees, and elbows were transformed. I thought, “There’s got to be an easier way to use this stuff.”

So I thought “Okay. Let me just pretend that the cocoa butter is chocolate couverture.” And use my pastry experience to tackle this idea. Instead of making a ganache or a truffle filling, which would be a 50/50 chocolate butter mix, let’s see if I can do that with cocoa butter and instead of adding butter from my refrigerator, I added in essential oils. I had this mixture and I used to pour it into jars. And I would dig it out with a wooden spoon and keep it next to the shower. Eventually, I wanted to share it with people and I moved to pouring the formula into my old silicone baking mold and I got it to firm up and it worked and people liked it, and that was the first version of the stone.

Finding your better half in business 

Shuang: Let’s talk about how you went from experimenting in your own kitchen to actually approaching businesses to carry your product and making it into a product for other people to use.

Kate: There were so many twists and turns there. Again, you never know who you’re going to end up speaking with. I looked up a custom mold manufacturer because I couldn’t afford all these molds produced overseas and that led me to this amazing man in Long Island City. He’s an incredible person who used to make all the Statue of Liberty’s for the tourist shops Without him my brand would not exist. I would not be here. But he helped me make the mold. Then, frankly, my husband gave me a little push out the door. I remember for a long time we couldn’t eat at our table because it was just covered with all different prototypes of these things I’m using. And then the first 500 Bamboo canisters came in. I remember I was literally making every stone in my kitchen at this point, and I bought a medical grade refrigerator to store the Body Stones so I wasn’t contaminating my kitchen. I had a sterile working environment and I have the canisters. 

Then someone introduced me to the owner of a beauty shop, down in Tribeca. And I went in with a stone and a canister wrapped in linen, no label. And I remember I told her about it. And it was a Clean Beauty store, and the store owner really liked it and said, “I have nothing like this on my shelves.” She took 20 and we sold them in a day. And she took 40 that weekend and she sold them. And I remember before the weekend was out. We didn’t even have a label on it. And then, what she didn’t tell me because she couldn’t guarantee it. But she gave one to Naomi Watts. And Naomi Watts put it in this blog called “Into the Gloss” the next month. And that definitely got attention. And I was literally still making them in my kitchen. And that was both amazingly exciting because I had orders coming in from all over the world. And it was also really scary because I was hand pouring them and I had no help. And after I got through those orders, I literally took the website down. 

 Kate credits her partner Nichola Gray for being her ideal business partner and pivotal for scaling the business.
Kate credits her partner Nichola Gray for being her ideal business partner and pivotal for scaling the business. Kate McLeod  

Shuang: Tell us about your business partner and why having Nichola was so pivotal? 

Kate: She’s such an incredible human being, but she sat down at a table, at one of my favorite cafes. She met me and we were complete strangers. And I pitched her my idea and she listened. She really listened and she didn’t listen with an ear for why this would not work. She listened with curiosity and genuine interest and let that curiosity lead her to ask questions. And took it home and tried it. And was into it and you can just tell when someone’s being real with you. 

A mutual friend introduced me to Nichola. And that was really when things began. And with Nichola, we got out of my kitchen. We set up, what we call affectionately, the Butter Atelier. Our first workshop was in Dumbo. And, Nichola got it. She believed in the idea but more than anything she believed in me. And she has a very different skill set than mine. She has been a consultant and gone to business school. And we just took a leap of faith on each other. The spring of 2018, I just spoke to anyone who would listen and I just blind emailed people and I showed up for meetings. And we had stumbled upon Shopify.

We had used one of your basic themes. What I realized at the time was that none of my taxes were set up properly on this competitor’s platform. And I discovered Shopify handled the taxes. And you also have the Shopify POS. And when I say I literally talk to anyone. I mean I would always take an UberPool home at night because getting from Dumbo to Williamsburg and I would literally try to see if people would buy the stone? And I would ring people up. They’ll be like, “How am I paying you? Do I Venmo you?” and I’m like, no, no! I’ve got my cash register and I pull out my Shopify POS clip and put it in. Shopify enabled me to start this business. 

The celebrity stepping stone to retail relationships

Shuang: Now your products are in Anthropology and Goop, how did you go about building all these retail relationships?

Kate: We did not actually have PR until a couple of months about and we went years without it. We were purely word of mouth and we’re bootstrapped for the first two years. And it was just about finding who would talk to me. And I would guess domain handles and email out to different buyers or editors and just try and get it in front of people’s faces. 

For Anthropologie, I’ll never forget when we got that email. They actually reached out to us, and it was a full-circle moment. I used to work at Anthropology when I was in college and that’s one of my favorite stores. And when they reached out I literally remember I got on the phone with a buyer and I told her so many stories. 

The stone is just so different that people would give it to people who they didn’t know what to get. People who could get anything and that’s how it was very well received at Goop. That’s how it got into Naomi Watts’ hands. It’s also how it got into Lily Aldridge’s hands. Within the first few months, after we had launched, she put it on Vogue magazine as her belly moisturizer of choice when she was pregnant. So I’m assuming Anthropologie saw us in one of these articles.

Favorite tools and apps for scaling her business 

Shuang: You went through so many iterations of your website. Have there been favorite tools and apps that you really enjoyed?

Kate: We actually just upgraded to Shopify Plus. And that was a company milestone. Where it finally made sense financially. And we’re so excited and already on Shopify Plus. For example, my product in the hottest of months in the South can occasionally soften because it is a product that melts on contact. But what’s so amazing about Shopify flows is that we’re able to identify customers that live in hotter regions. We can send them proactive emails that are like, “Remember when your package arrives go out and get it right away and don’t let it sit in your mailbox.” Those black mailboxes can get up to 140 degrees inside. They’re like slow cookers. It’s amazing to be able to help our customer experience. 

  Kate McLeod working on her computer and in the foreground, there’s a batch of packaged Body Stones.
In addition to Shopify POS, Kate McLeod credits Shopify Capital for allowing the business to work through a large payment when scaling the business. Kate McLeod  

We’re fully bootstrapped. And there was a particularly hard period last summer. We’re scaling and we’re doing very well but there’s a lot of costs that go into scaling, the ingredients, our canister, and other raw elements. It got tight but really tight for a couple of months and we realized that Shopify Capital was an option. And we applied and the money hit our account within 24 hours. We were able to pay a large bill for packaging. And that led into the holiday season, where we really started playing with paid ads on social media. And we got some amazing press pieces, and our business really exploded and took off from there. That was really big for us. We were really grateful that it was there.

Juggling motherhood and expansion plans during COVID

Shuang: You mentioned that Nichola and yourself are both moms, how did COVID impact your business and work-life balance? 

Kate: When the pandemic hit I had a six-month-old. And I was being really hard on myself. I figured I should have been feeling like myself again. And that was just not the case for me. And I would read these articles online. I would just torture myself with these articles where it was like, “oh yeah by six months I felt like I bounced back.” I was really having a difficult time balancing, spending time with my baby, and building a business. I remember my mornings had no routine, and then the pandemic hit. And I think that is the big silver lining for me. When I no longer had to do that morning commute to the office, and my family and I, left the city. We went up in the Hudson Valley, and it just felt like this massive reset. It grounded us as a family and gave us so much more time as a family to spend time together and the business. I’m so grateful that this has been established as this new norm. It’s priceless, as a mom, that in between calls you know when I finish this conversation. I’m literally looking outside right now and Ollie is running through puddles, it’s raining today, and his yellow rain boots. And he could be an ad for rain boots right now. And he’s just stomping some puddles and I can see that. That’s amazing to me. That’s just so great. And I’m having this conversation with you and that to me, I feel so blessed.

 Kate McLeod along with her son, playing in a living room setting.
Despite all of the challenges of COVID and motherhood, Kate’s grateful for a newfound balance while working from home. Kate McLeod  

And I’ll go outside and I have to run over to the workshop which is 10 minutes away because we’re expanding. We’re taking on more space in the workshop and I’ll run outside and I’ll give him a hug. And I’ll get in the car and I’ll go meet Nichola at the workshop. And it’s just like how lucky am I? That’s insane. And we’re so blessed that during the pandemic we moved upstate. And we’ve embraced and been embraced by the community up here. We’ve grown our team, our production team from two to over 15, over this past year.

Shuang: I noticed that you guys are expanding into accessories and beyond, what are some exciting plans for the future that you can share?

Kate:  I think I’m on version nine of my baby balm cream and I don’t know if I’ll ever come out, but you are right, we are expanding. We just launched our dry brush, and the dry brush is really the partner. It is the perfect pair to the stone. And the routine is dry brush, shower, then use the body stone. And then dry brush it primes the skin. Your skin is your largest organ. It’s porous getting back to the fact that, yes, the body stone is very nourishing to the soul and to the spirit. But it is also very nourishing to the physical body. The dry brush helps exfoliate. 

I definitely have a lineup of products that I would love to introduce but we’ve done things very slowly, very, very thoughtfully. There is intention behind every element of the packaging. There is intention behind every new scent or accessory that we release. That’s one of the pillars of our brand. And so, we’ll follow that, and see where it goes. But there are some exciting things that I think you’ll see coming in 2022 or maybe even the end of 2021, that might move to different parts of the body. Might use two different types of applications, and I’m very excited to see where it goes. It’s a very fun journey.

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