IN THE NEXT CXO episode, we talked with the socially minded, newly rebranded personal care company The Mad Optimist. Founded by three millennials—Mohammed M. Mahdi, CEO; Anthony Duncan, CMO; and Mohammed A. Mahdi, COO—the Mad Optimist aims to use business as an engine for social change.
Rooted in the Humanities
The three friends and Indiana University graduates bring strong backgrounds in the humanities and culture to their business. Mohammed M. studied psychology; Duncan, linguistics; and Mohammed A. , political science. They’re aiming to make business more enlightened, intelligent and socially just.
Mohammed M. explains, “Our values and message are about, ‘How can we do business better?’” It’s a message they recently refined in collaboration with design agency LPK. But they started off simply as vegans looking for a basic personal care staple that fit into their lifestyles.
Cleaning Up Personal Care
“When we first started making soap, we didn’t know what went into it,” Mohammed M. explains, “so we decided to look it up. That’s when we realized there’s a lot of animal fats, such as pork lard, in soap. These are all ingredients we personally made the decision not to eat, and here we were rubbing this all over our bodies.”Advertisement
Duncan adds, “You’ll see sodium tallowate listed on a lot of soap labels, and that’s essentially a product of animal fat.” Mohammed A. remarks that while the soap companies aren’t hiding that they use sodium tallowate, there are many fellow vegans who don’t realize many soaps contain animal-based ingredients.
The trio started making soap they could feel good about using and selling that soap to give options to like-minded vegans at local farmers markets.
Product Development as a Social Responsibility
“We want to create products that everyone can use,” Mohammed A. says. “It’s important to us to not create products that only are for a select few.”
Duncan adds, “For example, we had one customer say that they have a gluten sensitivity—even with their skin. So Mohammed M. did a lot of research on how to create a certified gluten-free product for them, and we did it even though it was more expensive to make.”
Mohammed A. adds, “We also run a GMP grade manufacturing facility, even though we’re not required to. For the longest time, we didn’t share our manufacturing quality story because we thought this is the normal way everyone should do business. We thought, Why would people want to know that we wear beard and hair nets or do all of our processing on stainless steel? But then a lot of people who visited our facility informed us that what we are doing is above and beyond, and we had to let our customers know.”
For Mohammed M., it’s all about meeting unmet needs versus marketing products for the sake of profits. As a psychology scholar, Mohammed M. wasn’t always a fan of marketing as a discipline. “I never really liked this aspect of convincing customers to buy something they don’t need,” he explains. “Because we now have a message that I can stand behind, I can say I like marketing.” Brother Mohammed A. notes, “This is a unique comment coming from him that he likes marketing because we’ve had a lot of conversations up until six in the morning about marketing.”Advertisement
It’s About Values Not Soap
This goes back to using business as an engine for social change. “When we looked at growing our business beyond being a local soap vendor, we had to sit down and think very hard about what sets us apart,” Mohammed M. recalls. “So, there are some product-based characteristics that set us apart including the way we make our soap and how a custom-made soap is instantly ready versus requiring 30 to 60 days to cure. There’s our personalization business, where you can buy customized body care. But LPK helped us get to our essence.” Duncan adds, “They helped us see that what made us unique are our values and the implementation of those values.”
Mohammed M. continues, “They absorbed everything that we are and helped us tell our story perfectly, which is something we struggled with because we are too close to it.” Duncan adds that working with LPK also helped set them on the path to understanding that their customers weren’t buying just high-end personal care from them, they were buying into a philosophy.
Eliminating Brand Confusion
Realizing that their company’s primary differentiator was the founders’ values empowered Duncan and the Mahdi brothers to consider consolidating their personal care branding under one name, The Mad Optimist.
“One of the big problems that LPK helped us with is understanding what we have,” Mohammed M. explains. As the company grew, so did the brand names it operated under. Mohammed M. continues, “We have Soapy Soap Company. We have Sabun. We have designyoursoap.com. We even have domains such as dollarlipclub.com. There is so much going on, and customers were getting confused, especially when we would do something like including a free Sabun lip balm or Soapy Soap Company mini soap in a designmysoap.com order.”
Duncan concurs, “It was very disconnected in branding but I think that’s part of a lot of former startups’ experiences. For example, how we came to designmysoap.com was part of a successful stint in the Brandery in Cincinnati. They were very intrigued by the idea of creating and delivering completely customized and personalized soap, so we quickly put up a designmysoap.com as a proof of concept.”Advertisement
The trio is quick to state that going through the Brandery was a very positive experience for them. Mohammed M. comments, “Going through the Brandery helped us understand that emailing our customer is a good thing,”
Duncan says they use email and social media to update customers about new products and scents but they also use it to create a conversation and community around the trio’s values, from delivering high quality vegan products to a flat compensation model.
Every Job Matters
“We feel that if everyone has a sense of responsibility and ownership in the company that it will run more smoothly,” Mohammed A. explains. “Every position is a very integral part of the business, be it maintenance, janitorial or marketing, because everything works together. For example, if we don’t have janitorial services then the place would be a mess.”
Brother Mohammed M. adds, “Having equal pay creates an environment of focusing on the task and the overall mission. It’s not about worrying about getting the next big raise.” Duncan remarks, “We are a body care business, but body care is the vehicle through which we’re implementing all these socially minded business practices.”
Mohammed A. realizes this is a wildly optimistic viewpoint. “I did a pitch competition a couple of weeks ago, and a judge basically said one reason you weren’t picked is that some investors think paying employees, including yourselves, the same is very risky. But I say that having a business is risky. While people have their opinions, we’re very hopeful that this business model will work.”
Re-Imagined Brand Design
To reflect and celebrate their mad optimism, the brand is launching a redesigned brand personality and identity. From packaging to the website, the new branding celebrates happiness and the connectedness between all living things. It also delivers a more premium experience with every order.
“We just pack orders in corrugated boxes, put our stickers on everything with our brand icon with the three guys,” Mohammed A. explains. The brand experience is very functional. People got their product in a timely manner, and it arrived safely. With these new boxes that just came in, the design by LPK will give people an amazing brand experience. It conveys joy with the illustrations and the taglines such as happy body, happy soul.”
The new branding will also be reflected in the product label, which will all be done on demand and in house using a new tabletop color printer designed for industrial applications. In addition to producing personalized product labels in house, Mohammed M. notes that on-demand label printing will help them execute quickly when they notice product trends in specific states. He is especially excited about the new printing equipment because it represents a jump in quality from their previous label printer and even commercially printed labels they tested. In true Mad Optimist fashion, he even offers to share his hard-earned knowledge about printing labels in house with other brand owners, especially those also within the personal care field.
Duncan adds, “Ideally, we want to become an example and have other businesses copy our business model, whether it’s trying out equal pay, a sliding scale for product purchase or any of our other ideals.”
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