09/28/2012 03:15 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

MOMPRENEURS: Basketball Coach Now Winning In Bath & Body Biz

Ayo Hart has been coaching high school basketball for eighteen years but now she's showing a softer side with the launch of her Dolphin Organics bath and body line.

Ayo and her husband began working on the concept and formulas for their organic products in 2010 and officially launched the biz in June 2011.

Ayo explains why they launched:

"Nigel's mum (Ayo's mother in law) was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.   Her oncologist gave her a list of products/ingredients to steer clear of and we were shocked to find so many of the listed ingredients in our own cabinets.   The next year, his father passed away after a short, intense battle with cancer.   Considering his parents were farmers and ate mostly what they grew themselves, it caused us to take some more serious consideration as to what was going on their bodies every day.   Nigel literally went through our cabinets with a large trash bag and cleared out half of our young daughters' (6 year old twins) products from their bathroom.  He started by making soap with the girls, and then we couldn't find shampoos that were truly all natural but worked with their curly hair so we created our own." 

Ayo feels that although the transition from basketball coach to bath & body business may not seem "natural," it is completely authentic with how she lives her life, which is with passion for good health. Ayo explains how her coaching experience helped her through the challenging times of biz start up:  

"One thing about being an athlete and a coach is that I am competitive by nature.   I have a 'never give up, anything can happen' attitude about life in general and this has helped me to get over the hump that nearly every new company hits when you're trying to build a brand.   All odds seem against you, but it's like being down 10 in the fourth quarter and you put on the press to claw your way back in the game." 

When Ayo and her husband truly felt this void in the marketpalce, they decided to reach out to other moms and see if they felt it too.

"There were so many brands out there, I wanted to be sure others were experiencing the void I was in the natural skin and hair care market.   Once we knew we were on to something,  we enlisted a branding and marketing consultant firm to figure out how to best place our product for sale.  One of the biggest challenges was actually creating a formula that worked.  We wanted to stay true to our mission of creating the highest quality product with the highest possible organic content.  Meeting the stringent legal standards for organic personal care items was a challenge.   We reformulated nearly a dozen times.  During the conversations with moms around the country, we quickly realized that there was confusion even over the difference between "natural" and "organic".   This was the most common question at our launch parties from state to state.   The other challenge has been getting the word out about our product with the limited marketing budget that we have.   We're going against bigger, more established brands who have the capability to flood the media with ads.  We're the best unknown product on the market."

Their biz timeline:

Launched at NPAM Natural Products Association Marketplace June 2011 Las Vegas.  
Introduced SImply Citrus line and SPF32 mineral sunscreen at Natural Products Expo West - March 2012. We spent the entire year after launch strengthening our brand through consumer expos and social media, growing our connections with our Dolphin Moms and continuing our R&D including our newest teen line - DO Naturals.

"In just this past year, these shows have given us tremendous exposure. Retail buyers and industry members are definitely recognizing us for the standard we have set in the industry.   Our dedication to truth in labeling is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise muddled universe of 'green washing'. Where brands simply slap "natural" on the label without homage to any industry-recognized standards. We were recently named Delicious Living Magazine's 2012 Best Kids Skin Care line, and other media outlets are loving the way we set up our ingredients label."

Moms Helping Moms:

Ayo had received tremendous feedback from other moms that she set up an official network of Dolphin Moms™ with whom she continues to engage.

"Before we launched, we pulled together dozens of mothers diverse in geographic distribution, skin and hair type, age of children, etc... and talked with them about what they were using, what they liked and didn't like about their products.  They sampled our products beforehand and gave us honest feedback on texture, packaging, web design etc.  Our Dolphin Moms™ group has grown to 47 now and we're constantly engaging them."

Organically Growing the Line:

Over the past year, Ayo's daughters presented them with a reason to expand their line.

"The girls have started reading and generally becoming more aware of all that Dolphin Organics entailed. They were unhappy to say the least with the word "baby" on their products. They were on the bus with fifth graders and considered themselves real "big girls"   They started complaining about having to use baby shampoo, and I was faced with a dilemma.   I had to admit, with them swimming all the time and running around getting grubby, I wanted a little more oomph in their products, but I wasn't ready to jump to the adult lines and throw caution to the wind.  We started working with a group of young tweens, teens and their mothers and began the work to what has now become our newest line - DO Naturals - a full line of skin and hair care products for teens and young adults.  With DO Naturals, we have remained true to our mission to avoid all harsh chemicals and have added only the ingredients necessary to add efficacy to our conditioning products and shampoos to cleanse away chlorine, sweat and other remnants of a full day of play.  We formulated with as many plant-based ingredients as possible and have continued to add scent only with all natural and organic extracts.  In our efforts to educate young girls on ingredients and help them make informed decisions, we expanded on our label design with the DO Naturals teen line to include information on the source and purpose of each ingredient. The brand mission is to help young girls make healthier choices about the products they use as well as educate and encourage them to live healthier lifestyles all around.    We want teens and young adults to get involved in their communities, to exercise and eat healthy and to stick with natural products as much as possible. We set the example by creating the most gentle product lines, minimizing our carbon footprint in all that we do here at Dolphin Organics and donating a portion of all of our proceeds from DO Naturals to Friends of Karen a non-profit organization which provides support and advocacy for critically-ill children and their families."

Ayo's Advice to Other Mompreneurs:

  • If you have an idea to provide folks with something they can't otherwise get, go for it! 
  • It is very difficult to get a startup going so you must be passionate about what you're doing and have to be driven by more than just the finances of it all.  
  • Surround yourself with people who are as passionate about your business as you are.   It takes a team - even if it's just two people - to get something done effectively.   Enlist like-minded people to help you reach your goals
  • Find a mentor.   Someone who has been on the journey which you are about to begin.   Someone who can look at your project with objective fresh eyes
  • Grow slowly.   Opportunities may come along that seem too good to pass up, but make sure you can deliver on what you promise

Overcoming the Distribution Challenge:

I think the issue of distribution remains a hurdle for most natural products - particularly startups. I am currently at Expo East, and if I speak with ten buyers, eight of them want to know if I'm under distribution. The stores really want to deal with distributors, but the distributors' margins and buy-in discounts are prohibitive for most small companies. Unlike conventional products, our margins are not as high, so we're battling to grow our brand with less wiggle room. If a natural brand can secure an amenable contract with a distributor, it's one of the quickest ways to build brand identity. However, it is not always a necessity. We retained several independent brokers following Expo West who have opened doors in stores across the country for us.  This has also freed me up to focus more on brand development and customer service while brokers service our retail accounts.  I do continue to stay heavily involved in the communications with our customers and hope to always have a finger on the day-to-day operations.  On a national scale, we opted to work with KeHe as the terms were more amenable to our balance sheet.   Although the reach is not as far as UNFI, we feel it will be a good, gentle introduction into the world of distribution without breaking the bank.   It is still a tight rope we walk, but the shipping charges of products as heavy as shampoos and lotions is too much of a cost for us to bear and a huge expense to incur for individual customers who are frequent shoppers.  I anticipate that making the lines more readily available will build brand recognition and allow us to capture audiences otherwise out of reach. The other factor that made distribution more viable was the addition of our new Norfolk Lavender line.   A gentle addition of lavender is a perfect way to start the crisp fall season, and the larger portfolio make distribution more of a successful prospect.   My aim is to make Dolphin Organics a brand that parents turn to for their families to grow with."

With this much progress in just one year, I can only imagine where Ayo Hart and Dolphin Organics will be positioned in 2013. Her fierce dedication to her family's health has led to another win for Ayo, this time in the game of retail.