Cleaning products are known to work because they smell good. But what if they didn’t have a scent at all? And, more than that, what if they were produced locally, considering their impact on the environment and within a system of refilling to avoid unnecessary packaging disposal?
That is the core of The Unscented Company, founded by Anie Rouleau in 2011. Since then, the company has become a powerful trendsetter on the market and an inspiring example for all entrepreneurs.
When you were growing up as a young woman, what did you think you’d be doing later in life as a career?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of entrepreneurs. Both my parents were entrepreneurs. I remember my dad coming back from work and saying, ’You know what? I wanna start my own business’, and my mom, without thinking about it, took the picnic table, brought it inside, put a phone on it, and said, ’Bernard, this is your new office’.
And for me as an entrepreneur today, I realized that she made it sound so easy to do that with absolutely no money. That was my first encounter with entrepreneurship. Another thing that I witnessed while growing up is that both my parents had businesses, but my father one day took my brother and me, and we did door to door to raise some money, and he bought a house with $2,800, which was not a very big house back then, but still.
And it was in 1975 when they had a Cambodian family come and live in Saint-Isidore-de-Laprairie, where we were born. For me, then, the entrepreneur was not only someone who could support his family by creating a business, but it was definitely someone in the community that could do good. Also, the community looked up to my father and mother to take care of the Christmas Parade or to take care of anything in the village. And I said that is exactly what I am going to do with my life, ’I will become an entrepreneur’. And that is pretty much the only thing I know how to do.
What were your role models? Specifically, women role models around you that also inspired you as a woman leader.
Back then, if I look, my mom was the person that I looked up to because she was strong. She definitely was behind my father’s business.
She was the accountant. Not being an accountant out of profession or education, but definitely knew how to manage not only the cash flow but the money for my dad to, one morning, get up and go get whatever he needed. Back then, I didn’t have a lot of role models. I am 53 years old today, and 30 years ago, in the US, in the electrical field, I was pretty much alone.
That was probably an asset that I used to my advantage. But I definitely did not have any other women I could sit down with as much as my lawyers and my accountants and all of my team. From sales to customer service. It was very male-dominated and I never encountered any women at any of my customers in four years. Today it’s different. Obviously today, in Quebec, it’s a very good place to be a woman entrepreneur.
Was it difficult to get your company off the ground? Were there any specific challenges in finding the right suppliers and manufacturers for this product?
Ten years ago, when I started the business and I would say, ’Hey, would you like to buy eco-friendly cleaning products?’ They would answer, ’No. It doesn’t clean, and it’s too expensive’. So that was the thing, right? And second, well, it’s unscented. If it doesn’t smell lavender or lemon, it’s not clean. So the performance of the product was associated with the fragrance.
Oh, by the way, why don’t you bring back your bottle? I will refill it’. We are going to save some bottles from going to the landfill. And that was three strikes. It was definitely something that people couldn’t understand. I was focusing and getting a niche with unscented products, with eco-friendly products.
Ten years ago, it was challenging. But, for me, with my business plan in my head, I needed to stick with it. I could have compromised on my value, low it every single morning because everyone wanted me to add grapefruit or any sort of fragrance, but I knew, deep down, that the environment would be of importance down the road.
The tipping point was when Greta [Thunberg, activist] walked in the streets. And the households said, ’You know what? It might be time to start thinking about what you were using on a daily basis’.
I started with the cleaning supply or the household cleaners, the laundry detergents, and now I have personal care. Hand soap, lotion, and now the hair care product. I’m in different places in the household. That was my mindset. I wanted to be in your bathroom, in your laundry, in your kitchen, and now I am launching the baby and kids line.
Are you someone who makes decisions based on intuition, on data, or is it really a mix of the two?
Oh, that was not data-driven at all. It was really intuition. That’s one of my weakest points. I don’t use data enough. When you start a business, even if you don’t know about what it takes… I’m not a chemist. I did not know how to build laundry detergent, soaps and dish soap.
But I picked up the phone, contacted L’Association des Chimistes du Québec and found great people to support me, and I realized that you can’t be good at everything and know everything. There are great people around you that you can actually sit down, start your business, and along the way… It just grows organically, and I relied on my intuition and I relied on the people around me to help me out, as much as love money, all the way down to technical issues.
Maybe that’s the entrepreneurial quality that you need, not to be afraid to just ask when you don’t know. I think that’s probably one of my strongest attributes, but definitely not the data, which now is available.
What kind of network system did you find throughout your journey?
Well, if anyone thinks you build a business alone, you’re completely wrong. You really need your network. And network starts with your industry. I don’t see them as competitors. I see them as our industry colleagues. It’s important to know your industry and to reach out to your industry. I don’t think they’re going to share trade secrets, but they’re definitely going to talk about the industry.
And I think we’re all better off. I have a mindset that if we help each other in the industry, we will improve the industry. In my line of products, the entire industry needs to pull together because we have major changes to do.
After that, friends, colleagues and family… Everyone has connections. And I would say government support. I don’t go see these people only when I’m in need of cash. I go see them because I need them to help me with my business plan, and they’re available.
Is it viable today to have a business that includes a contribution to reducing an environmental footprint in a specific industry as part of its business plan?
Without a doubt, for sure. I think we can be profitable and sustainable. Today, you have to incorporate sustainability into your business practice. As a B Corp-certified business, as a Women Company-certified business, I did set up my focus and my objectives. We want to make sure to reduce our plastic footprint, but also to be able to be socially involved. For me, that was very important.
Also, ‘socially involved’ means not necessarily just giving money to a nonprofit, but making sure my ecosystem is local. Let’s say today 86% of my supply ship is within 500 kilometres of my head office in Ville-Émard. That is something important to me.
Does that cost a little bit more, more money? Absolutely. But I’m not into this business to maximize profit, but to create value. And that is a very different approach to business.
What do you think you personally bring to your role as a leader? What are the characteristics that make you a leader on a daily basis, ultimately something that benefits your team?
I think, as a leader, to be able to control the workload and to be able to really identify the business structure. So who does what and what role, with what function that helps the entire business.
My vision, internally, as a business structure, has helped grow the business without putting pressure. I don’t like to work under pressure – maybe that’s why I’m still 100% owner of this business. With my colleagues and everyone I work with at the office, I want to make sure that their work environment is the best one for them to flourish and grow professionally.
I lead with my door open, and feeling that I want to make sure that it’s a great environment for everyone. It’s probably a style with empathy. It would be very human, I do not micromanage. I hate being micromanaged, so I tend to give a lot of flexibility and autonomy.
I hope they see that a leader is not only someone that wakes up at four o’clock in the morning and works until midnight and sends emails on weekends. I hope they see that we can grow a business on our values. We can still remain true to ourselves, true to our mission, come to work and be happy.
What is your vision for growth? And what is your approach to setting objectives for growth and how do you manage it within the company?
I think the first thing, you have got to be ready for growth. I think your tipping point has to be ready as much as the production, your team, and your structure. This is what I have been doing for the past ten years. It’s getting ready for the next step. I am so ready to move and grow the business because I really focused on the foundation, in making sure it was. I could not build my house if my foundation was not really well-structured.
I know it might sound a bit weird, but I am controlling growth. I will reach out to a customer that I can handle. I’m not gonna reach out to the ones like the Walmart of this world or that I know I won’t be able to support. I kind of control it because I know the US is big, but there’s definitely a market for me.
When did it feel real for you? When did you realize you were relevant in the US market?
The trigger point happened when Gwyneth Paltrow came to Montreal and said that she wanted to meet me to bring the Unscented Company on Goop.com. And I said, ‘Why?’ And she says, ‘Well, you know what? I detox my body, I detox my hair, I need to detox my home’. And that’s when I said ‘I’ve got something’. Because, in Quebec with an English name, it was tough, but I knew that the name had to resonate throughout Canada and the US. That’s why I chose an English name.
When she showed up in 2019 and said, ’I’m gonna bring your brand on Goop’, it made me feel like I had something. Maybe I was expecting that big break to come from someone I knew or someone I had crossed paths with before, but not at all. It came from nowhere and there she was in front of us, and then I knew, I felt like I had a business.
What are your top two or top three pieces of advices to entrepreneurs who are considering starting a business, and possibly something that also combines that commitment to a social cause?
Well, I don’t think you can start a business today without being socially and environmentally responsible. I think by 2025, if you don’t have those considerations in your business plan, you will be old-fashioned, period. I do believe that consumers, investors, bankers and I believe ultimately all the employees will want to join your team will want to contribute to a company that creates a positive value.
And we are still at the beginning. I don’t think we’ve really touched on how important it will be to attract talent, retain talent, and definitely get some money without it.
I think you need to build your business plan on your values. But you need to have your social and environmental objectives really embedded into your business model. I don’t think it’s a choice today, and I think it makes the business so much more interesting also because it is an aspect of the business that you might not have thought about.
But that creates value for everyone. It’s not just about the product. You are actually creating value in your industry. If I would say something, I think we’re all willing to help. A lot of people are willing to help and to reach out. Make sure to reach out and people do get back to you.
Listen to our full podcast interview with Anie Rouleau, Founder of The Unscented Company HERE.