Been referenced as the 'Elon Musk of organic skincare'. Jenise Lee is the founder of CertClean and Purpicks. Jenise is launching her second startup, PurPicks.com - reviews platform like TripAdvisor for nontoxic skincare products. The site already has the largest database of organic skincare products and has thousands of product reviews.
Three years ago, she introduced CertClean which is now North America's largest certification of its kind; thousands of safer beauty and personal care products are marked with the CertClean certification.
In 2017, Jenise was honoured as one of Canada's top sustainability leader, named Canada's Top 100 health influencers alongside Sophie Trudeau and Wayne Gretzky, and nominated for the Governor General's Innovation Award.
Highlights of the episode:
Purpicks - https://www.purpicks.com/
CertClean - https://reviews.certclean.com/
Jenise Lee's Linkedin - https://ca.linkedin.com/in/jeniselee
[01:09] How did CertClean started?
[03:32] Why is there a need for certificate?
[05:20] Why do we need customer reviews?
[07:35] Where is Purpicks now?
[11:34] We are inviting all green beauty blogger and creating affiliate link marketing
[13:40] Griefing and being a founder
[16:29] Helping healthy people avoid chemicals
[17:49] Self doubt and confidence and coping with grief
[21:46] What is one of your biggest learnings?
[24:35] Micro decisions all matter
[26:31] What is the type of world you are trying to create with Purpicks?
[28:36] Pitching cancer market sizes and eco market
Listen to this episode now:
Read the transcription:
[0:31] Maiko: In today's episode I speak to Jenise Lee, founder of Purpicks. Purpicks is what Janise calls the TripAdvisor for green beauty products, an online reviews platform that helps people navigate the crowded market for organic and non-toxic skincare products. With more organic cosmetic brands popping up all the time, Jenise hopes the website can help people like her make better decisions about which cosmetics to buy. Before starting Purpicks, Jenise started the cosmetics certification label circling. She's based in Toronto and joins me today. It's great to have you on the show.
[01:08] Jenise: Thanks so much for having me.
[01:10] Maiko: Thank you. How did it all start? How did it start with circling, what was circling and what was the problem that you first tried to solve with it?
[01:18] Jenise: Well, I guess I've even more background story. I grew up being allergic to peanuts and back in the day when no one else was allergic, so I had to read product labels like to save my life. And then fast forward, a lot of my friends would ask me, hey, Jenise, what do you think of this product? What do you think of this product because I could avoid harmful chemicals because I also have a chemical engineering degree, and I've been an environmentalist all my life. So, I could see firsthand there were so many women who wanted to buy healthier products, but just didn't know how, because they didn't have the science background or the time to learn. And yet at the same time, I saw all these brands that existed, they couldn't find it these people and so I really thought that was the problem. I was like, how do I, you know, these groups, these big groups exist, and they couldn't find one another, how could I help?
[02:07] Maiko: So that's what gave you the inspiration to start circling initially?
[02:12] Jenise: Well, I guess to how the actual certification came into play, I did this thing, I just picked up the phone and I called a lot of brands and I asked them, hey, how do you spend your time? You know, what keeps you up at night? If you had a magic wand, you know, what do you want done? Why do you spend your time on this? Why do you spend your money on that? I was really trying to understand their head-space and how they manage their operations every day and what their problems were. Because I didn't, I was not a brand owner, you know, I didn't know exactly what the problem was. And then I came up with varying ideas and different business models that didn't work. And then one day I was explaining to my mother, what clean tech meant. And I was like, oh, clean tech is just an umbrella term for technology, that's greener, that's more efficient, that's just better for the world. And I said, ah, that's what we need in the beauty sector. And so, I said, hey, what about an umbrella term? What about, then it evolved into a seal of approval and a certification. And I called all the brands that I had spoken to prior, and said, hey, what do you think of this idea and they loved it. And so, I also said, well, I'm only going build it if you also pay me to do it. And so, that's how the certification came to be.
[03:31] Maiko: Great. Why isn't that as simple as just buying the products that say, organic on them and trusting that? Why was there a need at a time to create something that certifies that? Weren’t there any other certifications or like, how would people usually identify these products?
[03:49] Jenise: Ah, that's such a great question. So, the term organic is a really difficult word because it's a term that we used for food, you know how that Apple was grown right? How it was, you know, the pesticides or the lack of used, to grow it, you know how it was ship and how it was transported, it dictates that that apple's organic. And then we use that term in the beauty skincare sector, but the difficulty is that the ingredients we use in skincare is not the same as food, some formulations just, even if it contains is not harmful, it's still not organic. So, it's just a really gray area and then when there's no governance on the term organic in the beauty sector, like there is in the food. So, it's governed by advertising laws. If one ingredient is organic, the entire product can be labeled organic. And so. the same goes for the term natural, so if shampoo, you know the main ingredient is usually water, all water-based shampoos can be legally called natural tomorrow. So, that's the landscape that I was playing in, so a lot of big brands were saying organic this, natural that and it's really just green-washing and it is confusing to consumers to know what's good and what's not. So yeah, that's why, so circling was North America's first certification of its kind, where it's not about its organic content or natural content, it doesn't contain harmful chemicals.
[05:17] Maiko: So, how many brands actually achieved certification? How many did you actually label Cert Clean in the end?
[05:23] Jenise: We have about a few thousand products with the certification.
[5:27] Maiko: And you ran that I think for a couple of years and it's still live as far as I can see but you shifted your personal focus a bit towards a new project called Purpicks, which is, as I said earlier, basically a TripAdvisor for green cosmetics for clean and organic cosmetics. Why did you see the need for that? Why wasn't it enough to have a label but why did you need like these customer reviews as well? And can you talk us a bit about that transition?
[5:59] Jenise: Yeah, so when you understand my head space of, I was really just focused on the problem, how do I help the health-conscious women buy the better products that are better? So, the certification helps them, help the brands, how do I say it, you know, their sales cycle is really long, they took a lot of time and effort to educate women on ingredients and why the formulation was better. The certification shortened their sales cycle, because in an instant, people can say, hey, this one really should have been vetted by third party. But what is really difficult for brands in the beauty sector, is to convey that their products work. And I learned that when I was talking to women are like, oh, here's a Cert Clean certification, here are all the products that are certified. And every woman would then say, Jenise, so what do you use? What do you recommend? And I'm like, oh crap, you know, we vet the ingredients, the formulations we don't know that actually performed. So, an ingredient, right a lipstick could be, you know, have the best ingredients and edible ingredients, and, you know, might last for like 12 seconds on your lips.
[07:05] Jenise: And so, when I realized very quickly, it's women, in order to feel empowered or to feel confidence, to buy, they need to know that the products work. And so, I also knew, like as a woman and you know being Asian, I'm like what works for my hair type does not work for other ethnicities hair type. So, I said this, you know, this problem has to be solved. So, yeah, then the review site was born.
[07:31] Maiko: Amazing. Now you both collect the data and certify green brands as well as collect customer reviews. Talk us a bit about where you are today with the product and how people are using it and maybe some of the successes you celebrated as an entrepreneur.
[07:47] Jenise: Yeah, we grew very fast, very early. You know, I was able to raise pre-seed capital of $50,000 after a few weeks of coming up with this idea for this reviews platform because I really weaseled my way in to meet with these investors, like I really just made my way in. Before I even had, when I just had an idea and I didn't even have a minimum viable product, so I had a meeting secured, I had six weeks ahead to show them that I was onto something. And I was able to onboard I think, 3 or 600, several hundred products on the site. And then I asked the brands, I said, hey, write an email to a couple of your loyal customers, do a social media post and get people to write reviews on there on the site. And within three weeks, we got over 300 reviews for zero dollars of zero marketing dollars. And so, that's how I pitched it, I said brands need this, consumers need this, It costs zero dollars to drive traffic and for reviews because all the brands know that they need this site. So, I got a yes from an investor and several weeks after the idea. So that I would say was successful.
[9:00] Jenise: And then since then we have thousands of reviews now, we're growing 50% month over month in terms of traffic. So, I think it just shows how this was missing in the marketplace. And I've just recently come up with the analogy of comparing the organic beauty sector to online mattresses of all things. So, the way I explain it is, you know, 5, 10 years ago, no one bought mattresses online, no one thought about it. If I had it passports of the world can then, how did they convert interested buyers to actual buyers, when these people could never test or touch these products in real life? And it was because there was a whole lot of content, a lot of review sites, a lot of product comparison sites, so that people didn't feel the need to actually lie on the bed mattress to buy. They were equipped with enough information. So, Purpicks is the start of that.
[09:54] Maiko: So, you're basically trying to make that happen in the beauty industry, that people feel like they can confidently buy a product online without having to actually test it in the shop?
[10:05] Jenise: Yeah, you know, I spoke to hundreds of women about this and try to really understand their head space, and no one really just said, no one said, like when I asked them, why do you not buy safer alternatives? No one said vanity. And I wish that they did because it would have saved me a lot of time. You know, they would say, oh, it's not accessible, they don't know what it is, you know? But at the end of the day, when we know that something is amazing, and it works, and it will deliver to our expectations, we will buy. So yeah, women, we are just apprehensive, when we can't test or try or smell any of these products. You know, we need a little bit more information to be persuaded to buy online.
[10:46] Maiko: Amazing. Can you talk us through some of your future plans? What is still to come with Purpicks and where do you want to take this?
[10:54] Jenise: Yeah, that's such an exciting question for me. We're building Purpicks to be the most powerful recommendations engine for organic skincare, so that someone of, you know whether you're very fair, blonde or redhead to black with really high curls, it's, you can still find the best product for you. That's where we're going. So, we're starting to collect profile data points, and to correlate them with manufacturing data, and then trying to also understand the sentiment of the reviews and put that all together. So, that's really exciting. We're also getting all the green beauty bloggers together in a community to create content on Purpicks. Because right now, a lot of the bloggers, if you can imagine, they're so niche, they're really hard to be found as well online. So, not only are the brands hard to find online, the bloggers are hard to find online, so we're really just the aggregator. So, an aggregator reviews, aggregator of organic nontoxic beauty products, aggregator of content and green beauty bloggers. The really exciting thing on the back that we're working on is, affiliate links. Are you familiar with affiliate links?
[12:01] Maiko: Yeah, I think for everybody listening, it's those links that people on the web can use to refer to products and then make a bit of a cut on the sale, I guess, right?
[12:12] Jenise: Perfect. Yeah, you say it better than I can. Yeah. And that's, its affiliate links was the key to how online mattresses grew. That's how the bloggers got incentivized to create these reviews and product comparison sites because they would get a commission after, if they were to drive sales. So, right now that's missing in this sector. So, I'm building that to help the entire ecosystem make sense to work because a lot of brands right now, they have such limited marketing budget, and they have created such beautiful formulations. But they can't compete with the big brands in terms of marketing, but there's no way to incentivize the green beauty bloggers to create more and more content either. Right now, all the green beauty bloggers, most of them are doing it because they're advocating for sustainable living, advocating for organic living. And they're creating beautiful content and beautiful photography as a hobby, when they really could and should be paid for their work, because they're super critical in the sector.
[13:17] Maiko: Let me move on a bit towards your founders’ journey and your journey as a founder from really first starting out and we always have people listening that are looking to start their own companies. I watched your talk at Tech Toronto online, and you started with the story of when you first started, Cert Clean, actually, your brother died, so you went through a period of grief and obviously this very tragic period of your life and at the same time being a startup founder. Can you talk us through that a bit? How you coped with that? I mean, for most of us even just being a founder alone is challenging enough, and I can only imagine how challenging it can be in that situation. How did you deal with that situation?
[14:02] Jenise: Oh, yeah, it was awful, it was really hard. You know, even when I think back about it makes me sad, like, I'm clearly now just thinking about it. I think you're right. I think entrepreneurship is really hard on its good day, entrepreneurship, you know, it's lonely, it's isolating. You know, a lot of the peers when you're starting out, you're the only one who started the entrepreneurship journey, so they don't necessarily understand what you're going through, and that includes family. I also remember, you know, into my entrepreneurship journey, every time I would see extended family, they would say, hey, Jenise, how's your job search, how's the job hunt going? And it was so frustrating, I'm like, I am not unemployed. Well, I am, right, but I'm not looking for a job. You know, so it was just even that, so on a good day, the startup life is hard. Yeah, when you couple that with grief, you know, I was trying to start the certification when my brother was sick, you know, so that was hard because I tried to spend a lot of time with him and try to have energy to do the startup stuff, which meant that it was even lonelier. Because no one understood what it meant to see your brother died and no one knew how hard the startup life was. So, I also then was also a solo printer, because I didn't, you know, it was very difficult for me to wrap my head around working with somebody else who could understand me and given the pace that I could work, it didn't seem fair.
[15:51] Jenise: But I think, what I think you know, what got me through it was that throughout this entire journey, I was just very centered, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I did my MBA, you know, I have a chemical engineering degree, I worked as an engineering consultant, I have an MBA, you know, I had a lot of options. But it felt really right to solve this problem. And given the fact that both my aunt and my brother died from cancer, this just, to me was the thing that had to be done. You know, how many people get diagnosed with cancer and wonder what gave it to them? And then they do a detox, right? They wonder if it was their deodorant and they go, then organic everything, from food to personal care to, you know, to everything. And I said, why do we need to wait until it's so bad to change? You know, how can I help all the healthy people today to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals? You know, and I'm starting with skincare, it's a product that we've used it on our bodies since we were born, you know, until really the day we die, and skin is our largest organ. So, why don't we feed and nourish our skin better with chemicals that are not questionable? So, I think, so all in all, it was just, I mean, that's my heart was breaking at the time. I was also very grateful and very happy to take the decision to do this.
[17:30] Maiko: Did you have moments where you said, is it even worth pursuing this or as you said before, it gave you even more of a drive to say, hey, this is a problem I need to solve? Because obviously--
[17:44] Jenise: Yeah, I never thought of quitting, I don't think I ever thought of quitting. It was at early days when I came up with a certification idea, there was a lot of self-doubt, a lot of, you know, I didn't have the confidence to start, I said, oh, who am I to create this certification? But luckily, I had also a lot of great mentors and advisors who would say, hey, Jenise who are you not to do this, right? I like, I've been reading labels all my life, I have the academic background, I have the professional industry background and experience, so, the moment I decided to do it and realized I was the one to do it, I never looked back. Yeah, to this day.
[18:28] Maiko: Amazing. It's great to hear that journey and, you know, being exposed to so many founders being one myself as well, I just know how hard to journey can be on itself. So, it's great to hear how you kept persistent, even in those dark days.
[18:45] Jenise: I think I should also probably note, you know, for the listeners who are going through some tough issues, it's that, at that time, I chose to spend time with my brother, instead of struggling with the startup. That was a very clear decision. It was, I didn't care of a newsletter didn't get sent out, I don't care that I'm not working on social media, I don't care if I'm not picking the brands happy. You know that I'm not communicating as much. I was like, this is my time to spend time with my brother. And I think, because I made that decision, and I still did the best that I could with the leftover time and energy that I had, it felt right. And so, when my brother died, I didn't regret how I spent my time. And I think-- yeah, because I made the right decision. You know, I didn't, it was a struggle, but I didn't struggle with, you know, it wasn't when I was with him, I was very present, or I tried to be, you know, as much as I could. And it was very intentional. So yeah, after his death, I wasn't-- I was very at peace with it, because I think I did right by me and I did right by him. And so, for anyone else, yeah, you can do both, you just need to know when to prioritize what.
[20:13] Maiko: I think that's great advice. I mean, for any founder, I think we know how stressful that journey can be and there is this generally accepted opinion that you almost have to give up almost everything to start a company. And I think, does the real truth actually opposed to that, that's like, you need to get your priorities straight, right? So, you don't want to live your life in a way that you're going to regret things, not having spent time with your family, not having right spend time with loved ones, and instead generated some more subscribers to your email list instead, which you know, in the long term is much less meaningful, right. So, that's great to hear that as well, right, that you were able to continue but not at the expense of not being able to spend time with your family and with your brother.
[21:06] Jenise: I think you say it. Well, a lot of the times when we only talk about startup and entrepreneurship, a lot of the times we say to someone who's on the fence of saying, you know, you don't want to live with regret of not trying, you know, so just do it. You hear a lot of that. But life isn't just, you know, it's so much more complicated and so much more complex. So yeah, you don't want to regret not living your life's purpose or not, you don't want to regret not seeing what you could do and what problems you can solve. But you don't want to regret other aspects of your life, right? Like you said, spending time with family and loved ones, especially when it matters.
[21:44] Maiko: It's amazing to see the journey you have made since then, obviously you really built up both the platforms Cert Clean and Purpicks to a really nice degree that people can actually use it, you have a lot of, thousands of reviews on there. And you're making an impact on people actually choosing the healthier alternative and that's great to see. And it's great that you're able to pull this off, and you're still pulling it off every day, so that's a really great story to hear. Another question I would love to discuss briefly is, what was one of your biggest learnings throughout this journey? Was there anything that you can advise people that are looking to start their own company? What did you learn from all this so far?
[22:27] Jenise: Wow, a ton. I think I'm a different human being now than when I first started. I think very early days, like I mentioned already, there was a lot of self-doubt lurking within me. There was a lot of self-doubt and so I would read a lot of the business books, a lot of the startup books, absorb all that, you know, what skills do I need, but then I realized it's not, I had to really think about it and said, you know, it's not business acumen, it's not whether I could create a marketing funnel, you know, it's confidence. Then I just did a 180 and I just read a whole lot of mindset books, on how to build confidence, how to visualize, how to, you know, have a healthy start to the day. So, from you know, I used to struggle to even get up at 8, 8:30, so now I'm up at 6, I'm at the gym at 6:30, you know, I meditate, I visualize, I do all of that now and it's been a very powerful change. So, if I were to tell my younger self what to do, I would have focused a whole lot more on building confidence and a healthy mindset much earlier on. Because I felt that you never want to make decisions out of fear. So, right, so fear of failure, fear of success, whatever it may be, you know, that has to stop. You know, you have to see things with clarity and not fear.
[23:53] Jenise: So, I think I would have saved myself a lot of time had I just been a little bit more confident and had trust the process, just like confidence, just like trusting the process, trusting that if whatever I embark on, like a new initiative or a new pilot, that even if it were to fail, I want to fail fast and learn faster and that, trust the process that I will learn so much more from it, as opposed to spending time to think about it, mulling over, you know, trying to get more data that's never going to happen in the startup world as you know, and just to make faster, better decisions earlier on, and that has to come from confidence. So yeah, and then I think it's learning that micro decisions all matter. So, every little decision that you make compounds to whether you succeed or not, like the fact that now I wake up at 6, I literally feel like I have three more extra hours in the day and by noon, I'm very proud of my entire day already. And then the rest of the day are bonus hours to do even more work. That took a lot of effort to get there, you know, the mindset to choose to live that way. Oh my god, I am a different person, it's funny to reflect on that.
So yeah, make really healthy decisions for yourself to grow a really healthy mind. Because your brain needs to think and make decisions with a lot of clarity.
[25:23] Maiko: That's great advice. How many years has it been since he first started? Remind me of that.
[25:28] Jenise: Oh, my God, I lie about this number all the time. But so, because if, you know, I don't necessarily usually want to talk about my brother's death. So, then I would say, hey, I started this three years ago or five years ago, you know, but really, I graduated from my MBA six, seven years ago, and I wanted to embark on the entrepreneurship journey, but literally, I think a week or two before I graduated, both my brother and my aunt were diagnosed, I learned about the diagnosis of both my brother's and my aunt's cancer. So then, you know, I lived with my aunt for three months before she passed, then I lived with my brother for three years before he passed, you know, all trying to do this stuff. So, it could, you know, I could say six years, or I could say, three years.
[26:17] Maiko: In any case, it has been a long journey, you have come a long way and I think the last question I'd like to ask you about the next 10 years, which might even seem hard to imagine where you could go in the next 10 years, but the question is, over the next 10 years, what's the type of world that you're trying to create with Purpicks or whatever might come next? What's kind of your mission and where you want to take all this?
[26:45] Jenise: Yeah, you do ask tough questions. Ten years is quite far away but I am certain going to be in the environmental sector, for certain it's going to intersect with women in business. I think it's been such a powerful experience working with predominantly women makers who consciously chose to formulate to make better products for their families. And to see them grow beyond their communities has been powerful and I want to continue doing that. I want to somehow tie that in with women in the developing world. So, I'm not quite sure what that looks like, but it's going to happen. I think there's going to be a book in the making, having worked with so many women makers in the environmental sector, I could see a lot of the same patterns in their head space and even just business acumen, you know, talking about their marketing funnels and things like that and their strategy, whether that comes, it's probably going to come in the form of a book or even maybe an accelerator of some kind, helping these brands grow and creating a fund. A fund that specifically focuses on prevention of cancer, or other illnesses like it.
[27:59] Jenise: So, really, just how do we reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals? What kind of businesses are actually doing that versus I remember hearing a pitch and it was, I mean, the idea is brilliant, and I won't go into details, but it's to help cancer patients. But the way that they pitch the market opportunity, you know, you and I know when you pitch market size, you want it to be big, and you want it to be growing year over year. So, his market size because its cancer patients was emphasizing on the growth of cancer year over year and therefore, right, we should fund his business and my heart like, part of me died for a millisecond. It's like, how are we going to continue funding companies that bank on people getting sick, as a way for it to be a very strong viable company, whereas I want to fund companies the other way around. We need to stop this from happening.
[28:58] Jenise: So, yeah, I can probably imagine Purpicks to also go into the Eco fashion sector as well. Like whether it could probably be a completely separate platform, but people would want to know, you know, is this dress fit for somebody with big breasts, small chested, small frame, long legs, you know, like, so right now that also that kind of information is really hard to grasp online. So, a lot of women who want to buy fashion online and want to support sustainability, they don't know if it's going to fit. So, I want to solve that problem as well. So, anything in the Eco sector to help people buy at scale for a positive impact is where I think you'll see me.
[29:37] Maiko: Amazing, it's great to listen to this and definitely sounds like there's no lack of plans. I think even if you end up doing half of them, you will have accomplished a lot, you've already done it. So, thanks very much for joining me today. Thanks for showing your journey as a founder and your very personal story and it was great to have you on today.
[29:58] Jenise: Thanks so much for having me and asking me the tough questions. And I think it is important to share that story because a lot of the time, as founders and CEOs, it's difficult to be vulnerable to share that we're not, you know, because we have to always put our badass hat on, you know? And so, you know, for all the listeners who are starting out, you know, who don't have the money or the time, who have children or who have someone you know, to care for, it's that, my journey was not easy, so I do believe that you can do it too. I do.
[30:32] Maiko: That's a great way to end. Thank you very much for these words, and all the best for your journey. Thanks for joining us.
[30:39] Jenise: Thank you again.