Love + Leche’s Handmade Products Enriched by VAF Investment
The Northern New Mexico community is central to Love + Leche, a natural personal-care product company launched in 2005 in Santa Fe. CEO Daven Lee sources her ingredients—beeswax and goats’ milk—as well as professional services locally, a commitment to the local economy.
“I’m all about community and connection,” said Lee. “What I love about my business is finding different ways to partner with local providers.”
In addition to buying beeswax for her company’s signature lotion bars from Santa Fe’s Buckin’ Bee Honey, she is part of a local goat-milking co-op, where she milks twice a month. The milk goes directly into her handmade soap.
“Goat’s milk is very mild, so a soap made with it is great for sensitive skin, babies, and people with allergies,” Lee said.
After ten years in the business, Lee changed the name of the company (formerly known as Milk + Honey) to Love + Leche. During the transition, she consulted with Regional Development Corporation (RDC) staff to strategize ways to break into new markets. The RDC is an economic development organization focused on creating and retaining jobs and attracting additional revenue to the Northern New Mexico region.
Though Love + Leche’s products were locally known and popular with Santa Fe Farmers’ Market consumers, Lee wanted to capitalize on the broader knitting market. Her beeswax-based lotion bars had been selling very well to knitters, and was represented in retail accounts in various states. She consulted with the RDC to pursue some market research that would help her increase her market share with knitting shops nationwide.
Armed with the research, Lee was mentored by the RDC and advised to focus on one market at a time. She began attending trade shows and retail shows across the country, and added critical wholesale accounts to her growing business. For companies like Love + Leche, wholesale accounts often provide reliable income year-round.
When asked why her lotion bars proved so popular with the knitting market in particular, Lee responded “There were already other lotion bars available so I didn’t have to educate people on what they were.” Her lotion bars absorb quickly, so knitters can get back to work right away without getting oils on the fiber.
With an eye on future markets that Love + Leche might be able to enter, the RDC encouraged Lee to apply to the Venture Acceleration Fund (VAF). The VAF is the only program in Northern New Mexico that provides seed money for early-stage startups and growth-oriented businesses that lack the collateral for debt financing. Administered by the RDC since its inception in 2006, the VAF is funded primarily by Los Alamos National Security (LANS) with additional support from Los Alamos County, Santa Fe County, City of Santa Fe Economic Development and New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).
Love + Leche was announced as one of the VAF awardees in the 2014 disbursement, a big boost for Lee’s small business. She had applied with the goal of allocating funds toward marketing, which she did after receiving the award. She knew she had to increase traffic to her website now that her business was selling to retail shops outside the local market. And, she realized she needed to tell her unique story a little better on the site.
To that end, she developed two videos for the website with the VAF investment. These videos proved to be important in both telling the story of her company, increasing brand awareness and driving traffic to the site. Lee realized that she had found an ideal way to introduce new products to new markets with the videos. Since the videos launched, Love + Leche has benefitted from an increase in online sales. In 2016, website sales jumped $12,000 over the previous year, and as far as wholesale sales go, in 2017, there has been a 28% increase over the same period in 2016.
Next up, Lee has her eye on the gardening market. “It’s the number-one hobby in the country,” she said. She will be taking what she learned from the market research provided by the RDC and applying it to this new market. And, when the time is right, she will likely repeat the success she found with the VAF-funded videos on her site to introduce her products to gardeners across the country.