How does Heather Urquhart, founder of huna Natural Apothecary, describe being a winner of Venture’Challenge and participant of Innovate Manitoba’s Launch’Pad Entrepreneur Accelerator Program (LEAP)?
In two words: Life changing. Urquhart’s natural organic skincare company took first place at the 2016 Lift’Off Venture’Challenge. The top prize at Innovate Manitoba’s signature annual event included $10,000 cash, plus $100,000 non-dilutive funding and participation in the LEAP program. LEAP is a pilot project funded by the Province of Manitoba that brings together knowledge, tools and capital to help program participants build a global business as quickly as possible.
Innovate Manitoba president, Jan Lederman said, “The accelerated 12-month timeline is made possible through the cash injection as well as the in-depth support of world-class advisors. This is an incredible opportunity for these startups to get to market faster and on a much larger scale.”
Added Lederman, “The structure of LEAP, which includes distinct milestone requirements, has helped lift huna from a great idea with a small sales channel, no retail customers, and no solid business plan to a totally scalable global business.”
Bootcamp Training Pays Off
To gain entry into Venture’Challenge, Urquhart first attended the gruelling three-day Launch’Pad Bootcamp. “The bootcamp leaders challenged me to become an Entrepreneur and CEO of a global beauty brand rather than a small business owner,” she said. “That shift in mindset changed everything for me.”
It hasn’t always been easy. Jeff Amerine, founding principal, Startup Junkie Consulting, and a long time coach for Bootcamp is also Urquhart’s primary LEAP mentor. He said, “Heather has demonstrated resilience, tenacity, and grit over the past year. We all challenged her in significant ways during that initial Launch’Pad engagement. Entrepreneurs who were not serious might have folded under the pressure. Heather rose to the occasion and has excelled since by winning Lift’Off and knocking down meaningful milestones to reduce risk and add value.”
Urquhart shared how the combination of the cash injection, advisors and resources made available through LEAP has helped to escalate the development and growth of huna.
“In addition to solid recurring sales revenue from our website business, we now have four solid retail partners and several more to come Canada wide. We’ll also be launching in the U.S. in 2018 or sooner,” she said. “But most exciting, we now have a solid business model and strategy in place. We have a fully validated concept and a strong product market fit.”
Getting a LEAP Ahead
The mentorship support and funding provided through LEAP helped Urquhart maximize the niche for her luxury skincare products. In addition to the cash and non-dilutive funding prizes, Urquhart was able to take advantage of over $50,000 in relevant global market research and industry reports (through Innovate Manitoba’s Market Intelligence program), which helped to identify a clear target customer and aided the development of a route-to-market strategy. “Now I know exactly who we’re talking to, where they are, and how to engage with them about our products.”
She said that if that funding hadn’t been available, her entry into the market would have been much slower.
A critical component of LEAP is the milestones that the participants are required to set with their Innovate Manitoba mentors. All eyes are on the startups to ensure they achieve these milestones. The first wave of funding that huna received was approximately $30,000 that Urquhart used to secure industry relevant experts, primarily through outsourcing. This included help with regulation, social and digital media development, business planning and strategy. She has also leveraged volunteer students from Red River College’s International Second Degree Program as work placements, to support huna with relevant expertise while providing a global perspective.
The next wave of LEAP financing, around $40,000, will be used to achieve additional milestones in the areas of regulation, corporate governance and finance that are required to launch globally.
Urquhart said that focusing on the LEAP milestones are what have helped her put together a solid growth and scaling plan that has covered everything from manufacturing and production to distribution. “Based on this, I now know exactly how we’re going to scale huna to become a sustainable, global entity.”
When asked the most important thing that LEAP has done for her business, Urquhart said, “It has pushed me to think bigger. This can be very difficult when you’re a small brand.” She again attributes this mindset shift to mentors who she said urged her to challenge herself to think bigger and then to think bigger again.
“They also encouraged me to ‘Just get out there and do it. Don’t be afraid, throw it out there, see how it goes, pivot and try it again’.”
Setting up for Investors and Online Presence
What are the next steps for Urquhart and huna? Now in the execution stage of the four stages of LEAP (Intake, Kickstart, Execution, Graduation), Urquhart said that the company is moving toward becoming totally scalable. To date, it has used the non-dilutive funding through LEAP but is focused on becoming investor-ready. “We know that investors are going to want to see significant revenue growth of a scalable, global business with demonstrated results so we’re trying to get the highest valuation possible.”
The company is also updating its web presence to be more e-commerce friendly to meet the needs of its expanding online customer base.
Urquhart’s parting thoughts for Innovate Manitoba for putting all of this together? “I would not be where I am right now without them,” she said. “I probably would still be struggling along, but instead, I now have clear direction and focus and all the right supports.”
Reaching for Success
She admits to being a little overwhelmed with recent successes, such as being recognized as one of the feature beauty brands in Canada’s first holistic beauty expo being held in Toronto in May.
“Every once in a while, I step back and it’s like whoa, we’ve come a long way.”
Mentor Amerine sees even greater things ahead for Urquhart and huna as a result of LEAP, but also her own developing skills as a founder and CEO.
“Heather has taken full advantage of the LEAP program. She asks great questions and applies a now well tuned ‘founder-filter’ to the various inputs she gets,” he said.
“This is a skill that often differentiates founders who are able to break through and those who don’t. I’m optimistic that Heather will build a fantastic and sustainable company.”