By Jessica Ainlay, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s Content Strategist
From Downtown Brooklyn, I hopped the B57 bus to Bushwick and proceeded past block after gritty block of wide, vacant streets, cement buildings and corrugated tin roofs.
The colorful Bushwick street art is a relief on these otherwise bleak set of blocks.
No one passes me on foot until I get to the street where Mullein & Sparrow is located. I head up to their workshop and the grit is immediately washed away by smells of lavender, patchouli, and spearmint baths salts.
The glow of the afternoon light is not yet glaring, it warms the room. Essential oils line the walls behind the stool where I sit and chat with the ladies of Mullein & Sparrow, the winners of our Make It in BK Makers Edition pitch contest.
Read about the next Make It in Brooklyn pitch contest here.
India-born, NYC-raised Brooklynite founder Anit Hora started an herbal company out of her Bushwick apartment in 2012. Then an herbalist, she made tinctures and salves, after quitting her not-as-glamorous-as-you’d-think fashion designer career, giving in to her wanderlust, traveling the world and returning inspired to learn to become an herbalist, instead.
While traveling through South America, she discovered herbals and teas being used in ways she had never seen in the US. Argentina and Peru used herbals for healing - which she was fascinated by - but it was the beauty products that sold once she got back home.
So she shifted from herbs to beauty products with her company Mullein & Sparrow, taking on her second employee in 2015 and her third later that year.
When the three women came to pitch at our Make It in Brooklyn Pitch Contest: Maker’s Edition, they had already managed to lock in wholesale clients like Anthropologie, One Kings Lane, Gilt and BHLDN.
Their pitch was polished and practical, impressing the five pitch contest judges who unanimously voted to grant Mullein & Sparrow the $5,000 cash prize, plus a one-month WeWork membership.
When I caught up with them in their Bushwick workspace a month later, I asked:
Does the $5,000 make much of an impact when you have such a strong client base already?
Anit: Oh, without a doubt. We have great customers, but this gave us cash flow to buy at economies of scale. We bought enough raw materials in bulk for a couple of months at a time with that $5,000. It was really exciting.
That’s great to hear. Your workshop smells so good! Are you enjoying your Bushwick space?
Oh, well, thanks! We’re actually moving to Greenpoint. We'll still be based in Brooklyn - it’s important to us to keep our products made in Brooklyn, but we just need more space, in spite of how expensive rent is now.
Speaking of the high rent issue, do you think you could you start your same business today in Brooklyn vs in the past?
Oh sure! Yes. There is a lot more support here than there was five years. Second, the Brooklyn brand is stronger than ever nowadays, whereas in 2012 there was not such a ‘Brooklyn’ brand to fall back on.
We’re working with a Japanese company right now that wants us to explicitly state Made in Brooklyn on all bottles. But it’s really the resources. You guys at the Partnership, other pitch contests, SBS (Small Business Services), the Brooklyn Chamber can help you find financing, or import/export advice. I'd also recommend entrepreneurs to go to General Assembly classes and pitch as often as you can at pitch contests - even just to perfect your pitch.
Did the pitch contest help you in any other ways aside from the cash?
The connections and follow-ups from the event were so great, and we even had a VC reach out! We prefer bootstrapping, though. We need to control our vision so the company remains aligned with the direction we want it to go in, not handed down by people who don’t see what we go through every day.
What does it take to make it, not just here in Brooklyn, but as a startup in general?
Perseverance. You are going to screw up all the time. Say ‘Oops’ and keep going.
It’s okay to make mistakes. You have to know that or you’ll never succeed.
Measured risks. Having employees has made me be more structured. If I don’t take risks, we don’t grow. But my risks affect more people now, so I have to take measured risks.
I'd also say - chutzpah. You have to have that special something to stand out among so many great ideas here in Brooklyn. The creative community definitely supports you, but you also have to differentiate yourself. But I call up entrepreneurs I don’t know who have done things I want to do and I ask them how they did it - usually most are completely willing to help, too.
The last thing I’ll say is that while I’d love to be out on a farm, growing herbs, instead we’re in the city, surrounded by concrete and it’s really a sign of what it’s like to have a startup in Brooklyn. It’s a gritty place, and you have to really want it to succeed here.
What’s next for you?
We are going to rebrand with a more luxurious feel to attract higher end retailers and national accounts. Artisanal, handmade products got us this far, but we can’t scale that way. We have to move toward the future, so instead of remaining a cool indie brand, we have to scale.
Good luck to Mullein & Sparrow in all your future pursuits!