This post originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com - #Growing Your Business
Amanda Chantal Bacon is used to seeing eyes roll when she talks about her products. (Sex Dust, as an example.) But when business is booming, who has time to care?
15+ min read
A January chill tunnels through the streets of Manhattan as Amanda Chantal Bacon walks into ABC Kitchen early for lunch with investors, shaking off Los Angeles jet lag and her most recent troll. Before she got on the plane, the 35-year-old founder of Moon Juice says, she spotted a comment on the company Instagram: “This person was cursing, ‘I don’t like your content anymore. I used to buy you; now I don’t. Get your shit together, Amanda Chantal Bacon.’ ”
She’s thinking about it still, but she’s not stuck on it. Bacon is, in the booming parallel universe of alternative medicine–slash-wellness that’s been defined by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, one of the most visible stars outside of Paltrow herself. And she has other things on her mind. Investors to check in with. Stores to visit. Plus, she volunteers, “My boobs are fantastic!” (She’s a radiant four months pregnant.)
As an entrepreneur, Bacon is as offbeat as the herbal supplements her buzzy company makes, a medley of exotic ingredients that have led to $20 million in annual sales, and placements in Sephora, Nordstrom, and Urban Outfitters. For her, talk of trolls, money, and boobs over ginger soup is business as usual—because her success (and celebrity) seems to stem from an ability to combine retail savvy with unabashed oversharing.
Sitting at lunch, cozied up in a baggy, faux-mothy sweater that brings out her lapis eyes, Bacon shows a confidence honed from years of blowing off haters. One might even say she’s fed them fodder. This is a founder who describes her company as “a cosmic beacon.” She drops astrological references (“It’s probably my Scorpio rising”) as easily as she talks capitalization and revenue. Her face appears constantly in the press. Her wedding cake (baked with Sex Dust, one of her products) became a news story. When someone stole a giant pink crystal from one of her stores, she begged for its return on Instagram and chided: “You do not want the energy of a stolen crystal, please trust me!” — which, of course, got more than 890 likes.
But while Moon Juice has perked up the staid domain of herbal remedies with a playful infusion of a haute woo-woo and wacky cool, the backlash has been cruel and, at times, very personal; Bacon has been accused of being pretentious, narcissistic, in a bubble, and far worse. She has also been overlooked as a businesswoman who has built a strong company. And to her own personal great shock, all of this has given her a resiliency she didn’t realize she had. Her skin has grown as thick as it is glowing.
Got something to say? she asks. Bring it.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Moon Juice
The origins of Moon Juice trace back to when Bacon was a girl hiding among the fabric rolls of Betsey Johnson, waiting for her mother, who was CEO of the iconic fashion brand, to finish work. In those days, Bacon struggled with chronic respiratory problems, for which doctors stuffed her with medications that didn’t help. So at age five, her mom took her to a practitioner of Ayurveda, a system of medicine with roots in ancient India that emphasizes diet, breathing, and herbal remedies. He said the fix was simple: Cut sugar, wheat, and dairy from her diet. It was the ’80s. There was no gluten-free section at the grocery, no almond milk in the deli. But she got creative, and the diet worked. “The change was radical,” says Bacon.
In her teenage years, she did teenage things: She ditched the restrictions of her youth and loaded up on candy, cigarettes, and pot. She also ditched college to travel the world, and then, in her 20s, she joined the food industry — attending the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and landing a job running the line at Lucques, a fine-dining restaurant in Los Angeles. But her health deteriorated. She struggled with crippling allergies and what would later be diagnosed as Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease. Then she remembered her old Ayurvedic diet and went on a three-week green-juice cleanse. “There was a huge shift in my mood, in my energy, in my libido,” she says. “I was so excited, so pumped.”
Now she had found a purpose: The diet would direct her life. “I wanted to tell everyone, ‘You guys; it’s crazy. I have felt like shit for so long,’ ” she says. “I was Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch.”
Bacon started studying what are known as adaptogens — substances in plants and fungi said to help mitigate the effects of stress on the body — and putting them in nut milk and smoothies. The drinks were just for her, but they became so time-consuming to make that she joked she might as well open a juice shop. “I kept repeating the joke,” says Bacon, “and it started to seem like a really good idea.” She crunched the numbers and decided she could open with $150,000. Her mother was skeptical but loaned her the money. And Bacon got to work.
This was early 2011 and ahead of the juice-shop curve. “Nobody wanted a $9 bitter green juice,” says Bacon. “Nobody wanted a $12 smoothie that didn’t have a frozen banana in it.” And certainly, nobody had heard of the weird-sounding ingredients Bacon had organized her life around and now wanted to evangelize to the masses. But she was Tom Cruise on the couch, and she hurled herself into sourcing ingredients, buying equipment, scouting locations. She signed a lease on a 500-square-foot space in nearby Venice for less than $2,000 a month, and within days — surprise! — discovered she was six weeks pregnant. “I was not married. I was not in a stable or happy relationship. And I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into,” she says. “Starting a business at 27 is daunting enough, but to also know you’re going to be a single mother?”
What happened next was the fortune of a perfectly timed product-market fit, as the wellness movement was bubbling up, with Los Angeles as one of its centers. On January 23, 2012, Bacon opened her shop with counter staff she hired off Craigslist and her four-month-old son, Rohan, in tow. She named the place Moon Juice and sold drinks along with herbal blends she packaged in jars that looked meant for face cream. Each blend, a powdered mixture of dried ingredients she called “dust,” carried an evocative name like Sex Dust or Brain Dust, and promised to improve a portion of the user’s life (say, their libido or their thinking power). That day she opened, locals arrived out of curiosity. Japanese tourists snapped photos. The shop sold out before closing. And the fast popularity would help fuel her to quickly open two more stores.
But the real game-changer, it would seem, was the rise of Bacon’s personal profile. Before long, she made an appearance on Goop.com — photographed inches from Gwyneth Paltrow, as the two women looked hard at work making something called “sex bark.” (“Moon Juice is magic,” the site would declare.) Soon Bacon was something of an L.A. celebrity, and she started receiving national press, including a piece in Elle in which she detailed what she ate in a day. It all seemed fun and harmless. But then, nine months after the Elle piece ran, everything went sideways.
In early February 2016, Bacon was driving to her son’s school to pick him up when she noticed a cluster of moms outside. “They were whispering, and they were definitely whispering about me,” she says. “Then my phone started blowing up with people texting, ‘Have you seen this?’ ‘You all right?’ I was like, What is going on?”
Bacon got her son into the Prius and opened a YouTube link someone had sent. As she hit “play” on a video that was fast on its way to more than a million Facebook views, a bearded dude with a hairy chest filled the screen and, in the most mocking precious patois, began impersonating her. “I’m Amanda Chantal Bacon, and I invented Moon Juice,” he said. Then he went on to read most of the Elle food diary.
The article had been nothing more than a long series of quotes from Bacon, in which she rattles off what she consumes every day. At 8 a.m., for example, she explains that she drinks a chi in the car, which “contains more than 25 grams of plant protein, thanks to vanilla mushroom protein and stone-ground almond butter, and also has the super endocrine, brain, immunity, and libido-boosting powers of Brain Dust, cordyceps, reishi, maca, and Shilajit resin.” It goes on like that, every few hours detailing another elaborate grouping. She’d written it in a dash, just one more item on her to-do list — and it hadn’t occurred to her that, to anyone outside her wellness community, this diet seemed a kind of self-parody.
Somehow, after nine months of quietly sitting on the internet, the piece had found an unintended audience — and they were mocking it, condemning it, and had plenty to say about her personally. Bacon has always been a hypersensitive person, she says, and so as she watched this video in the car, she began to also watch herself for a response. “And there was this sudden moment like: Oh my God. Am I going to cry? Get angry? Am I going to shut down? Am I OK? What’s going to happen?
“But then it was the oddest thing,” she says. “I just didn’t care.” It felt like being in freefall when the parachute opens: calm, safe, the destination inevitable. “For some reason, I didn’t take it personally — which I have to tell you, truly, was a shock.”
Instead, she saw it through the lens of an entrepreneur. The viral reaction was also a lot of honest feedback. It was data.
She drove home and, emboldened, began reading everything. She was trending on Twitter, with some implying that her son needed to be saved from this insane woman. “And there was a whole thread that I wouldn’t be a single mother if I had given steak to my baby daddy so his dick could get hard,” Bacon says.
There was also a lot of focus on the cost of her products. “To stock up for her pre-breakfast,” snarked one writer on The Frisky, “it costs almost as much as it does for my husband and I to feed ourselves for an entire month.” A Jezebel piece titled “I Have Never Heard of, Much Less Eaten, Any of the Foods in This Juice Lady’s Diary” was even less kind. And the bearded dude on YouTube had kept a running tally of costs on his video, so that every time he read one of the ingredients that Bacon had consumed, a ka-chinging cash register added its full-unit price to a tally until it rested at $1,210.97. Good points, she realized: Moon Juice seemed elitist. It felt unattainable, and it sounded disgusting (and maybe like snake oil). And who was she to be delivering health advice? She came off like a spaced-out, privileged hippie chick. “At the heart of it all, they were really good questions,” she says. “And questions I wanted to answer. In a weird way it actually reinvigorated and inspired me.”
The other thing she noticed? Her company’s website had crashed. Moon Juice sales were through the roof—and the spike didn’t let up, leading employees to work double shifts for the next four months to get product out the door. “The whole thing,” Bacon says, “pushed us to grow to the next phase.”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Moon Juice
Bacon’s business had begun with nut milks and juices, and so, as she contemplated how to scale, she first thought to mass-produce the drinks. But after some testing, she abandoned the effort. Shelf-stable versions of her drinks tasted only so-so, and Bacon didn’t want to devalue her brand that way. So she shifted her focus to the dusts, those jarred herbal powders. “The dusts had seemed far-out when I first started selling them in the shops, a niche thing,” she says. But by 2016, they were catching on — doing well in the stores and online. Here, she realized, was a bigger opportunity: She could build on them and target stressed-out consumers across America.
To make this happen, Bacon needed cash. And as it turned out, being internet-famous did not hurt her chances. “We actually begged for an introduction,” says Amanda Eilian, cofounder of Able, an investment fund with a portfolio that includes The Wing, Goop, and Maven. “Pioneers get arrows in their backs, and Amanda is a pioneer.” She and her partner, Lisa Blau, closed their first investment in December 2016. (They declined to share specifics, but Blau says their average initial check size is $200,000.) In total, Bacon raised more than $7 million.
Funds in hand, Bacon hunkered down to build a team and develop new products. Along the way, she started to address some of the questions that had come up from the Elle backlash, like complaints about Moon Juice being expensive. She was making dusts out of organic ingredients, which kept costs high, but she saw two ways to improve: She could bring down other costs, like in packaging and shipping. She could also start a more intentional conversation with her consumers about the value they get for their money, and get them to compare what they spent on highlights and manicures against a $38 jar of adaptogenic herbs.
Then it was time to go for the jugular. Rather than limit herself to the wellness market, she decided to expand into beauty, which can be less price-sensitive. Customers had been asking for it, and, bottom line, gorgeous looks are an easier sell than stress reduction. Bacon figured she would create a line of topical products and, from there, lead customers into the idea that how you look starts with what you put in your body—developing edible dusts and supplements that claim to improve skin, complexion, and more. But how and where to sell these products? That decision would address head-on much of the criticism she’d gotten about being in a Hollywood bubble. “It was a wakeup call that Moon Juice can’t just be little boutiques in New York and L.A. and celebrities,” she says. “My end goal was to help as many people as I can. And the people who come through the doors of Sephora and Nordstrom, that’s not an elitist crowd.”
In 2016, Bacon had never set foot in a Sephora — she’d seen it, frankly, as “the most toxic place on Earth.” But she now realized it was exactly where she needed to be. Buyers at the chain had been watching her, too, as they’d seen their customers becoming more interested in “ingestible beauty.” “We met with Amanda, and we were totally sold on the brand,” says Priya Venkatesh, senior vice president of merchandising, skincare, and hair at Sephora. “Everything from the packaging to the formulas to the brand story was alluring to the customer; it was a new perspective, and it was exciting.”
A year and a half after surviving the internet hailstorm, Moon Juice launched on Sephora.com, followed by the stores. Today the chain carries 15 Moon Juice products, both online and in the stores, including an exclusive adaptogenic exfoliant and plumping jelly serum. Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, and boutique stores around the country also carry the brand. Most exciting for Bacon is her new product SuperYou, Moon Juice’s first vitamin-like capsule. It promises to lower stress, and Bacon sees it as a gateway to a whole kingdom of other wellness supplements. Unlike the dusts and juices, she figures, everyone takes pills.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Moon Juice
Moon Juice may be a particularly famous herbal supplement, but it’s a small player in a thriving industry. Herbal products are one of the fastest-growing segments of the country’s $31 billion supplement industry, according to IBISWorld, which predicts an increase to $33.6 billion over the next four years. And any entrepreneur in the industry will be bedeviled by this question: But does your product work?
Compared with pharmaceutical drugs, supplements are poorly regulated. There’s no requirement to prove they work (though there are limits on what benefits they can claim to have), and it’s nearly impossible to actually test this stuff with the kind of randomized, controlled, double-blind studies that are considered definitive. This is in large part because the whole supplement industry sits on an IP fault line: You can’t patent a rose or a tree or the other kinds of natural ingredients that herbal supplements are made from. “The estimated average cost of developing a drug that ultimately achieves FDA approval is about a billion dollars now,” says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. Even if Bacon could pony up that kind of money to do definitive trials on the ingredients she uses, every other company could then use her findings to come out with their own competing version.
That’s why many herbal supplements, including Moon Juice, draw from traditions that carry a built-in trust. Bacon’s ingredients have been staples of Ayurvedic and Chinese medicines for centuries. Although science hasn’t proven their value in humans, Katz does say that some small studies in animals and cell cultures have found that they induce a calming effect. And Katz’s colleague Joshua Levitt, a naturopathic physician and clinical preceptor for the Yale School of Medicine, has been using the same herbs with his patients for decades. “They’re fantastic,” he says. “And I think they’re especially appropriate now with all the challenges of the modern world.” Entrepreneur asked him to review SuperYou, and he described the supplement as “a straight-up adaptogenic formula” — though he couldn’t evaluate Moon Juice’s other products, because, unlike SuperYou, their exact ingredient formulas aren’t listed.
Bacon knows she still has a lot of convincing to do. The supplements industry is rife with quality-control problems — from purity and potency to contaminants. She spends about 40 percent of her R&D budget on testing her products both in-house and at third-party labs, and wants to do whatever she can to distinguish herself from brands that aren’t as rigorous. “It’s so hard to see that,” she says. So this will be the next conversation she hopes to have with consumers.
These days, Bacon spends a lot of time on the road in malls across the country, educating Sephora staff and talking to shoppers. (Sephora doesn’t share sales figures, but Venkatesh says consumer response is “very encouraging.”) Meanwhile, a steady stream of customers are signing up for SuperYou subscriptions, according to Bacon (“I handwrite these people love letters,” she says) and Moon Juice is close to 100 employees, 70 percent of them women. New products are coming this year, including a supplement for “super hair,” and so Bacon has taken out a moderate loan to carry her to the next big raise, which she plans to do when sales reach $50 million a year. “I would rather take on a loan now than give up a bunch of equity at this point,” she says. “With that, I don’t get to grow as fast.”
The internet hordes have largely left her alone lately, minus the one-off haters on social media. “That’s not to say there won’t be a resurgence at any moment,” Bacon says. “This article could trigger some new rage. I assume that as long as I keep having this provocative conversation about wellness, there are going to be uncomfortable moments. And I assume that I’ll take it all in stride.” And she is still listening. For example, that comment on Instagram from the person who now despises her content? “I hate to give life to a troll, but it’s like, Yeah, I hear you,” she says. “The site’s content has become a little dry. It’s hard to keep being creative. And we’ve got to do something about it.”
She’s also winning over unexpected fans. For example, there’s that bearded dude from YouTube — the one that mocked her Elle story. His name is Jarrett Sleeper, and today he admits he wasn’t actually all that upset at Bacon back then. “It’s just funny to think of someone who’s lived in this bubble so long that they truly believe they’re telling a relatable story,” he says. In fact, he’s totally into alternative medicine; his mother is a yoga teacher. And in the past few months, he spent $106 on, of all things, Moon Juice. Yes. “I go to the Silver Lake shop when I’m sick,” he says, naming one of Bacon’s L.A. locations. “I love that stuff. It works.”
Hearing this relayed at her lunch with investors, Bacon sits there in the loud din of the busy restaurant and takes it in with a slow smile and a calm vigilance. “That’s awesome,” she says. Chalk it up to the adaptogens.