This is part of a special series, Startup Year One, in which startup founders are interviewed about the key lessons they learned immediately after their company's first year of operation.
Aishwarya Iyer and her family emigrated to the United States from India when she was only six months old in the 1980s, and she grew up mostly in Houston, Texas. Iyer says she should be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer – but she really wanted to break mold.
Iyer attended New York University and studied at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She started her career at L’Oreal under the Lancôme brand and worked for a number of startups with venture capital support in communications and public affairs.
Iyer has since founded her own company, Brightland, a handmade brand for extra virgin olive oil.
Fortune recently spoke to Iyer to learn more about the startup's first fiscal year, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, and plans for next year.
For reasons of clarity, the following interview was compressed and edited slightly.
Aishwarya Iyer, CEO of BrightlandPhotograph courtesy of Brightland
Happiness: Olive oil is one of those staples for the kitchen that practically everyone has, but it's not necessarily a business that everyone can get into. Similar to wine, it has a long history associated with family businesses. What inspired Brightland's launch? And how does it differ from what's still on the market?
Iyer: When I met my partner in New York City in 2014 and started cooking at home, we both had persistent, uncomfortable stomach pains. After the obvious culprits like bread, cheese, and even spices were cut out, all that was left was olive oil. The discovery inspired some research, and I quickly found that almost 70% of the olive oil consumed by Americans is already rotten or rancid due to a fraudulent industry with little to no transparency. I was determined to illuminate the dark industry.
So I turned my career and set about creating a bold, heightened, and understandable pantry staple solution, starting with olive oil. I moved to Los Angeles and learned and researched the local olive oil industry that is emerging here in California.
Brightland was officially launched in 2018. We work with family businesses that practice organic practices, pay fair wages, and produce extra virgin olive oil. We also made a conscious decision to focus on design. Our bottles don't look like traditional olive oils. Now we're in the process of launching our first category outside of olive oil, and we're using the same sourcing framework, finding the right nutrient-rich farm partner, using fresh fruit, and incorporating design into everything we do in the world.
Brightland sources its olives by hand from a single-farm California farm and then processes them into specially blended oils. Courtesy of Brightland
What does an average day look like for you as the founder and CEO of your own brand?
We are a very small team and at the moment we are all lucky enough to be able to work remotely from home. We don't have Slack by nature, and it's a decision I made early on after working in companies that clearly didn't understand the limits. I decided to implement Slack as a workplace tool as long as possible. So we pick up the phone and call each other or send emails.
A typical day could be reviewing editorial and social content, discussing product roadmaps, inventory projections and schedules with our manager, looking at our [profit and loss] and budgets, talking to customers through social networks, and calling with To make brand partners. Reviewing new website designs and developer changes, and of course recipe and product tests, before we launch anything new.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced in the first year? What surprised you the most?
I booted the company in the first 12 months and raised no outside capital – no friends and family, angels, etc. – so we had to be incredibly scratchy with everything from creative and marketing to inventory planning and cash flow. I thought that was the hardest part of the business, but it was actually my mind.
I had to stop thinking from a "scarcity" mentality to an "abundance" mentality, and that was a big change that was quite challenging – and continues to be challenging when you're surrounded by incessant noise, especially social ones Media. It is incredibly important for an entrepreneur to live in abundance because then you can make decisions that are positive, optimistic and in line with your values. Working from a shortage leads to short-term, panicked FOMO thinking and decisions that ultimately harm the brand and the business, and it is tiring when the entrepreneur comes from this place.
While the pandemic continues, the outlook for retailers looks only worse, but food is generally recession-proof. Nevertheless, Brightland could be seen as a premium product for consumers. Does Brightland plan to adjust its business plan for the immediate future?
We have always been a DTC first company with strategic retail partners we work with. When COVID started we lost some large [orders] from some retail partners, but we saw an increase on our DTC channel. As people are at home and cooking more, we have launched a digital content series called "On The Bright Side", in which we organize cooking episodes, questions and answers with experts in wine, cheese, tea, etc. and living watercolor paintings. to serve as a place for something positive and soothing.
The duo collection: "Awake" and "Alive" is supplied in 375 milliliter glass bottles that are UV-coated to protect the olive oil from harmful light. Courtesy of Brightland
How has the economic standstill affected the future of business at the same time, from product development to capital raising?
Shutting down has slowed things down for us internally. In a way, we have really been able to concentrate, and in other ways, everything in our supply chain is slower. We're currently working on three new products, and sourcing samples, working with our partners, farms, suppliers, and working as a remote team have definitely slowed down the usual sprinting process.
If you look beyond the post-pandemic, which can be from one year to a few years, how do you plan to grow Brightland and what should the business look like in five years?
Before we become a larger organization, we want to lay some foundations. We are actively building an intersectional framework for environmental protection that applies to all hires, creatives, partnerships, newsrooms, alliances and Brightland's overall business strategy. Intersectional environmental protection is an integrative version of environmental protection that works to protect both people and the planet. We were so inspired by the work of Leah Thomas, an intersectional environmental activist who officially coined the term.
We also advocated the concept of analog and digital. I am firmly convinced that we are far too addicted to our cell phones. As a brand, we always encourage our customers and the community to take a step back, spend time without devices in their kitchens and enjoy simple, everyday moments at home.
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