1-on-1 Interview with Will von Bernuth, Owner of Block Island Organics
You wouldn’t necessarily expect there to be a lot of emotion involved in running a business, but Will von Bernuth argues otherwise. From the humble beginnings of his sunblock skincare startup company, Block Island Organics, Bernuth has had his share of the ups and downs that he says are part and parcel of owning, operating, and marketing a small business with co-owners—who just so happen to be his sister and wife. Starting something from just an idea can be daunting, but Bernuth says it’s possible, especially with the helpful resource of a business school network of alumni and professors.
Because of an early interest in computer science, Bernuth earned his Bachelors of Science in Management degree (with a minor in Computer Science) from Tulane University. He went on to earn his Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree years later from UCLA’s Anderson School of Business.
A draw towards entrepreneurship and inspiration from his business-minded father led Bernuth away from working in the video game industry and back to school to earn his business degree. His desire for a career change and a wish to own his own business happened at just the right time—his sister was looking to start a line of safe, natural, organic suncare products.
Bernuth is often quoted and interviewed in such business publications as CIO, NerdWallet, Rescue a CEO, Wrike, and Hearpreneur about topics regarding owning a business with family, dispensing entrepreneurial tips, and using social media to market. Much of his helpful advice has to do with balancing the sometimes rocky road of owning your own business and how important it is to keep your goals in mind, even in the face of failure or disappointment.
Enjoy our full interview with Will von Bernuth to find out how (and why) he decided to go back to school, change careers, and devote himself to being a small business owner.
eLearners: Discuss your background and education. What first led you to earn your business degrees (both undergraduate and masters) and then move on to opening your own business?
WVB: As an undergraduate, I wasn't sure what to study at first. I was interested in both business and computer science. Looking at the offerings from Tulane University, it seemed to make sense to minor in one and major in another so that is what I did. I minored in Computer Science and majored in Finance. My interest in Computer Science actually stemmed from childhood playing video games. It's something I was always interested in and eventually an industry I worked in. My interest in finance probably came from my dad. He was a businessman, although not involved in finance, and I thought finance would be the best way to get a basic business understanding.
For my MBA, I wanted a career change and felt it was a great way to achieve this. I was working in the internet industry in New York City and wanted to work in the video game industry. Most of that industry is in California so I applied to UCLA business school as a way to get myself to California. I also felt the degree would expand my business knowledge and help me network into the video game industry. This proved correct as after business school I worked for Vivendi Games and later Activision Blizzard.
As far as moving on to my own business, this is something I'd always wanted to do. After working for various companies large and small, obtaining a business degree, and reaching a point in my life I felt comfortable with, I thought it was time to take the leap and start my own business. Fortuitously, my sister was starting a business at the time and asked for my help. This led to Block Island Organics that started out of her spa on Block Island, Rhode Island.
eLearners: What role did you education play in starting your own business and in maintaining that business upon its success?
WVB: It really gave me a solid foundation to start from. The basic knowledge of all the areas needed - marketing, PR, accounting, finance and so on. I definitely learned a lot by doing but having the education was also a big help and confidence boost.
On top of that, the alumni network is a big help. When there's an area I don't understand or have questions about, I can reach out to my alumni network for help. Through this network, I've talked with other entrepreneurs, e-commerce experts, product marketing experts and more.
eLearners: Talk a little bit about Block Island Organics and what makes it different than other sunblock skincare products. How did you come up with and then develop the idea for it?
WVB: It actually started with my sister. She had a spa on Block Island, Rhode Island called Koru Eco Spa. At the time there were not many good natural sunscreens available. She was looking for sunscreens to carry in her spa but most were overly thick and pasty. This is where the idea generated from and early on she asked me to help her with it. We're actually a family company that is majority women owned. The business is run by myself, my wife (Kelly Hsiao) and my sister (Lauren von Bernuth).
It took us a bit longer than we wanted to develop the product. It's a long process of developing a formula, trying it out, re-developing, testing and finally manufacturing. As a startup company, this took a while to get a formula we liked. Now, we are very proud of our sunscreen formula. We actually just launched a redeveloped one. It's a zinc only UV filter (the safest and broadest spectrum), lightweight, easily spreadable and moisturizing.
All of this fits with our belief that a product has to be both good for you and easy to use. We believe even if a product's formula is fantastic, if it doesn't go on well people won't use it. Thus we strive to do both: great formula and easy use.
To that end, we also believe skin care should be simple. In fact we believe skin care really is sun care and vice versa. There are three things you need: sun care during the day, a cleanser at night to remove build up and a moisturizer after cleansing to restore the skin's balance. It's really that simple and it's why we recently released an Organic Purifying Facial Cleanser and an Organic Revitalizing Night Cream.
eLearners: What are some of the challenges you faced while founding Block Island Organics and how did you overcome them?
WVB: The biggest challenges were formulating the products, getting them manufactured and marketing them. They still remain challenges.
Formulating sunscreen is difficult because there are so many variables. On top of that, all sunscreens are considered over-the-counter (OTC) drugs by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means you have to do a lot of testing plus have them manufactured in a FDA licensed facility. Finding a facility that would work with a small business was difficult. Mostly it took a lot of grunt phone work. Calling around all over the country, testing formulas, re-formulating and finally manufacturing.
Marketing also remains a challenge. As a small company, we have a limited budget so we try to find all the low cost and/or free marketing we can. It leads me to believe there are two ways to do marketing: you can either pay your way into the industry with a large budget or do a lot of daily grunt work to get the word out. For us, it's been the grunt work. It can be tiring and tedious but works in the long run.
eLearners: Talk about your different roles in the business community (entrepreneur, business owner, voice in social media, online marketer) and how one informs others.
WVB: Tough question. I don't actually think these are different roles. If you are running a company, particularly a small one, they are all one and the same. You have to have your hat in every ring. Yes, we divide up these responsibilities between the three of us and that is actually a critical thing to do so you are not stepping on toes and operating efficiently but we all have to understand what's going on. We need a holistic strategy where product development impacts marketing (online, social, and even offline) which is all impacted by budgets and finances.
eLearners: How does social media factor into your business plan/development?
WVB: Social media is big for us as it's essentially a free or low cost area of marketing. It's a way to get the news about our products out, communicate our company values, talk with customers and have a bit of fun.
I will say it's definitely not as viral as it used to be. The social networks want you to pay for distribution now. I don't think this is unexpected though. These companies need to grow their revenues, too. At the moment, we don't pay for distribution as our budgets don't allow for it but you never know.
eLearners: Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit and if so, how has it contributed to your success?
WVB: Yes, always a bit. I worked for startups before business school and tried a few other small-scale ideas before Block Island Organics. To me the big thing it contributed to is experience and confidence. It's unlikely that your first try at entrepreneurship will be hugely successful. It might be but it's no guarantee. The big thing you do get though is experience. What works and what doesn't work. What you like and don't like. All of this feeds into each new business. It's still no guarantee for success, but it certainly helps avoid pitfalls.
eLearners: Do you think it is a good time to go into business or business administration? If so, why?
WVB: I think there is no good or bad time. I think if you want to do it, you should. Trying to time a good time vs. a bad time is like trying to time the financial markets - over the long run it's very hard to beat using this method. I'd say if business is something you are interested in, then go for it. If it's your own startup and you are concerned about finances, maybe start it on the side. See what you can get going on the weekends and at nights.
eLearners: In your opinion, what type of person is ideal for starting her or his own business? What skills and attributes do you find contribute to success in the business world?
WVB: The biggest skill is emotional fortitude. I always say this and believe it's 100% true. Starting a business, you are going to have high highs and low lows. It's like riding an emotional rollercoaster that can change day-by-day or even hour-by-hour. It's best to recognize this up front and be ready to deal with it because even the most successful entrepreneurs go through these ups and downs. The challenge is to continue forward when you are at a low point.
eLearners: What advice do you have for business students and those who aspire to one day start their own business? How can students prepare themselves for some of the biggest challenges?
WVB: I'd advise using your time as a student to explore businesses you'd like to start. I did not do that but looking back wish I had. Not only do you have the time to do this but also access to professors and other school resources. There's a ton of expertise and people are usually willing to help.
I'd also advise getting a general background in the fundamentals of business: marketing, finance, accounting, operations and so forth. When you start a business, you're going to need to tackle all these areas. As you grow, you may hire people in these areas but at first you're going to need to know how to do them. That's not to say you have to be an expert in these areas. What you need is to be comfortable enough to try doing them. You'll definitely make mistakes and learn a ton on the job. The education background can give you the confidence to make that effort.
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