Ep #90 | An Ongoing Evolution



Cary Caster, BS, LMT, CCA is a Botanist, Licensed Massage Therapist and Certified Clinical Aromatherapist who is on a mission to help people be their best self every day. She believes that people can take their health and wellness into their own hands by incorporating the healing benefits of therapeutic quality essential oils. Cary is the founder and expert behind 21 Drops, an essential oil therapy company, and shares her devotion to healing by having sat on the board of the Alliance of International Aromatherapists for 6 years. She has been featured as an essential oil expert in the Huffington Post, Vanity Fair and Martha Stewart Living, among others, as well as being a contributing editor to every issue of Yoga Digest magazine. Cary has also offered continuing education classes in Aromatherapy at the University of Miami’s iCAMP program and throughout the country.



Shantel: Hey, Cary. Welcome to the Imagine More Podcast.

Cary: Well, thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Shantel: Of course. We're excited to learn more about your company. I'm secretly wishing I was also in Delray at the beach with you right now. But we're excited to have you on the show and chat about your journey.

Cary: Thanks.

Shantel: Yeah.

Cary: Thank you. I appreciate that. Yes.

Shantel: To kick things off, why don't we start with share with the listeners a little bit more about 21 Drops.


Cary: Yeah. So 21 Drops was an idea that I had because I got a little bit frustrated about the quality of essential oils here in the U.S. I was fortunate that I've been studying and using essential oils for over 30 years, and my formal training was back almost 20 years ago in London when I took a year certification and then went on to be more advanced and clinically certified. When I came back to the U.S. and saw essential oils on the bottom of the health food store shelves getting dusty and nobody knew what to do with them, and even my early years before I became more formally trained, I realized how much I had misused them. So I wanted to simplify the process of using essential oils by having them pre-blended and safely diluted for use throughout the day because most oils that people find in stores are concentrates, and you would never want to put a concentrate directly onto the skin. And this was something I learned from the very beginning. I'm like, "Oh my god. I've been doing that," rubbing it on my baby's feet and doing all this stuff that I shouldn't be doing. So there really needed to be, I felt, a simplified solution and easy to use, on the go, no mixing, no blending, no dilution. So all of our 21 Drops blends are pre-blended and safely diluted to take the guess work out of the consumer.

Shantel: Wow. Well, already I'm like shoot, I've been also using them incorrectly. Hopefully it's not too harmful because ... This is maybe more of a personal question, but I'm curious, if you can help educate some other listeners who maybe curious as well. But I have one of the kind of essential oil bottles in the shower, and I just drop it in the steam before getting in. Is that harmful to do?

Cary: No. That's actually one of the best ways to be effective in your inhalation. Inhalation is the most direct. The exciting thing and why essential oils are so active is because molecules are so minute that they actually are one of the few things that when we breath in can pass through the blood brain barrier of the olfactory bulb, right to the brain. It's the quickest delivery system. And so what people don't always appreciate and understand is that the chemical components of an oil not just lavender but it's the chemical makeup of lavender that has probably over 100 different chemical components, and some of those are calming and soothing to our nervous system. So they is this lock and key system that really inhale the oils. There's all these little mini receptor sites that have these lock and key sites, and when the molecules fit into those sites, they send messages throughout the body. And then telling the body either to be stimulated or things like peppermint are calming, with things like lavender or sandalwood. So each particular oil has its own makeup of these components, and inhalation by creating that steam and having the oils in the vapor to inhale is a very direct way. You can do our blends are in a roll-on carrier. So they also do get easily absorbed into the skin. But then it does go through the blood and gets filtered out through the liver. So even when you roll them on, you want to always take that nice big inhalation because it's really through the olfaction and why we call it a aroma therapy is because it's the smell affecting the olfactory bulb.

Shantel: Well that's so interesting. So what is the most common use for the aroma therapy or the oils, excuse me?

Cary: It's pretty much can be anything and everything. I think most people consider there's probably two main things that people use essential oils for. They always hear about lavender being relaxing and then things like peppermint and rosemary being stimulating. So even in the body, there's many things that can happen in the body. But it's either speeding things up or slowing things down. The essential oils are very useful tools in that way. So again things like lavender, caramel, those things are calming and soothing. They have esters. And then there's also things that are stimulating to the system. Again, on the other hand, there are things that essential oils are for for like the breathe and for opening the lung and clarifying sinuses. It's pretty much just anything. Essential oils are depending on the oil can be useful for so many things. There's wonderful skin healing. Things that are actually topically healing to the skin. It's pretty much endless. So I don't know. You probably just have to do like a Google search, what's the main thing, but I know our number one seller is sleep for our company. 21 Drops our sleep blend is definitely a repeat buy and our top sell for sure. We use sandalwood, which by itself is known to help create an alpha state. Very expensive oil. But it's very effective. And then ylang-ylang and palmarosa working all three of those oils working together to settle anxiousness and over-active mind.

Shantel: Well, I'll have to check that out, and I hope that we can after a few minutes get into ... I have so many questions on how the quality and all of that, how you mix them, and how you kind of concocted the formulas. But I'd love to learn a little bit more on the business side. So you recognize that there was a gap in the industry. You saw an opportunity to create a new business. What was kind of that first step for you in doing so? And then how did you attract customers?


Cary: Yeah. So when I decided that I was interested in launching a brand, I went to Health and Beauty Expo up in New York at the Javits Center, and there they have all these packaging suppliers and of course with most conferences you have lectures. And I went to hear a few different people speaking about building a brand, and one of the speakers was very impressive. Of course, I created with the aid of a relative who was good on online sales, we created a request for proposal, an RFP, about doing the initial first step, so developing the packaging, the messaging, etc. And put it out there to a few different companies and basically hitched our wagon to one particular company. And just start taking the steps. What's the packaging look like, who's our customer, etc. What am I trying to address? And yeah, off to the races.

Shantel: Did you come from kind of this holistic background in the past or this was a new-

Cary: No, no. This is, to be honest, was a late in life career for me in that I had been studying, and my background actually was in plant science and botany and studying ethnobotany, which is the use of plants by indigenous cultures around the globe and always having this affinity towards nature's ability to heal. And when I found essential oils early in my career, actually in raising my own children. My oldest daughter's 31 and so it was even when I was pregnant with her that I first started using essential oils. So I've been doing this for a very long time, and then actually even got my massage license because I was very interested in how the oils affected the physiology of the body because my botanical background helped me to understand that plant chemistry that I didn't have the physiology to understand more of how the plant chemistry affected the body's chemistry. So then I was fortunate that I lived in London for one full year back in 2002, and took a full year certification in aromatherapy. Came back and took an advanced certification in aromatherapy, then went to France for a clinical certification in aromatherapy before I even thought about launching the brand. So I've had thousands and thousands of hours of education. I've sat on the board of the Alliance of the International Aromatherapists for six years, which is the full-term commitment. So I take aromatherapy very, very seriously, and I think there's really a lot to learn and it really is a science. And it's a little concerning that so many people have jumped on the bandwagon on the one hand and just that it is very prolific as MLM organization, which is great. I think oils should be in the hands of many people, but I just know for myself who also did it as an MLM 25 years ago that the more educated I became, the more I realized I had done wrong, and that was really part of the reason to create the brand. I want to make it safe and easy for people without having to go through all the years of education and mistakes that I made that I learned with my coursework that I had done. Does that make sense?

Shantel: Yeah. Absolutely. Do you find that because of this education and sixth sense of training that is a very unique selling proposition to your customers because you are such a thought leader in this space?


Cary: You would hope so. I have that opportunity to share that information when the spa business that I do the trainings with. So that's very helpful. I don't think the public ... Maybe I haven't marketed myself that way. I'm not very good at promoting myself as much as the brand. But maybe that's something I will consider. But I think the main point of difference with 21 Drops is maybe not so much my education but what I have learned is required to validate quality, which is gas chromatography mass spectrometry testing of the oils before we go into production. What that is is we have essential oils created from the plant material but also there's a lot of adulteration and these chemical components that we smell like lavender can also be created in a laboratory. So it's very hard to know if in fact what you're smelling or applying to your skin is in fact a true plant derived essential oil that has never been adulterated. So the only way to do that is to have the NAT sample or a sample of your larger order tested with a third party testing, and that is something that we require before we ever go into production is the quality of the oil from third party testing. And we have those test results on our website. It's just an integrity piece that I personally couldn't have my companies name on the product unless I knew I have to sleep at night. I've sold hundreds of thousands of products, and I want to be sure. And I want people to experience the real benefit. I use therapeutic quality essential oils because my blends are meant to have a therapeutic effect even though we can't make any strong claims. But still, you're not going to have really good result if you don't have really good quality oils.

Shantel: You said a few words in there that I would not be able to repeat about how you test. I mean, that is fantastic. I love how you touched on the integrity piece. It sounds like an integral core value for you and the company and what you're selling. I just had no idea that the oils that I have may just be chemicals as opposed to-

Cary: Mm-hmm .

Shantel: It's kind of scary.

Cary: Yeah.

Shantel: And there's not any sort of stamp that goes on ... Kind of like the FDA-

Cary: Yeah, that's the interesting thing. Here in the U.S., we don't have that type of regulation. In France where sort of aromatherapy ... There was research at the turn of the century because of the perfume industry being in the heart of Grasse in France and the whole industry being more evolved there, they just have a much higher standard to begin with. And so it's just something that I guess I was taught in my education right from the get go that that's just a requirement. Unfortunately, here in the U.S., because there is such thing as food grade and cosmetic grade oils and fragrance, that there is no way to really distinguish those things because there is no really therapeutic grade. It's just a therapeutic quality that you can only identify by having this extra third-party testing that meets an international compliance standard.

Shantel: Do you see your industry shifting in that direction one day?

Cary: I really do. I mean, I think it's going to be very hard to be honest with the two multi-billion-dollar MLM companies that are dominating the industry. But in that, for myself who's involved with and goes to conferences every year with people who are doing research in the industry and who are using them in clinical settings, in hospital settings as research, these people are concerned about what's happening in the U.S. with the MLM situation and just the fact alone that these people are not necessarily qualified. They have zero requirements for education to be using essential oils or to be recommending them to others. It's one thing if you want to use them yourself as I did on my own family and friends with disclaimer, but to be pushing this onto others without a full formal education in the industry. The people at the Alliance of International Aromatherapists as well as NAHA, National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists, the idea would be to try to have it at least be certified just like a massage therapists has to go through I think today it's up to 400 hours or an esthetician or a hair salon stylists. There should be some minimum basic requirement for people to be educated on safety and basic chemistry of essential oils to be using them and implementing them on others.

Shantel: Mm-hmm. That's good to hear that there's conversations like that happening, and what does MLM mean?

Cary: I'm sorry multi-level marketing.

Shantel: Gotcha. Okay. I would love to learn a little bit more about production. So you got the great idea, and then what was that next step? Where are you producing?


Cary: Well, production is an ongoing evolution, certainly with quantities increasing or production used to be in my home. I started in the laundry room, then the garage, then when you have clients like Sephora that you need to have full on laboratory and production and a manufacturer that has stability testing, all kinds of requirements for regulation. So you really just need to work with different manufacturers once you get to a certain level of clientele that you're selling to. There's requirements on many levels. So it's an ongoing assessment and reevaluation and many changes unfortunately. Even in my eight years, I think I've gone through four or five different manufacturers and even possibly looking for another one right now. The other part was that in the beginning years, I spent so much money on organic ingredients and didn't realize that my manufacturer had to be certified organic so they could be producing certain other products within their facility, even if it wasn't going to ever come in contact with my product. So there's so many things that I learned unfortunately after the fact. So now we are in fact certified organic. Our manufacturer was certified organic. So that's a requirement if we are going to even move and change our manufacturing, you want to make sure you have somebody who's going to be certified organic, if you want your product to be USDA certified organic or eco cert. So those are also new learnings and findings. For production wise, we try to do small sampling on our own website to see what sells and doesn't sell. Then we scale up and hopefully have other retailers that want to bring in some of the new products we're creating. So it's an ongoing evolution process.

Shantel: Sounds like lots of learning along the way too.

Cary: Oh yeah.

Shantel: What does your day to day look like now?

Cary: Oh, boy. Right this minute we are excited because we're launching a test with Costco of a sleep set, the sleep duo. We took our obviously sleeping, our number seller, we put it into two different form factors. One is a body lotion and one is a room and pillow mist. So we're literally producing that right now, labeling, putting the pallets together. So that's coordinating those pieces, dealing with the labeling, also EU compliance. We were fortunate that we sold in Costco the last two years with another set and now some of the international Costco's are interested. But they have a whole other set of regulations that we're working towards. So there's just a matter of I do a lot of production, fulfillment, basic overall operations, marketing. I work weekly meetings with the marketing team, with web development, with social media development. So it's really pretty much the whole gamut.

Shantel: Is there one hat that you wear that you love the most, and/or if you're interested in sharing, the least?

Cary: The least is definitely anything to do with legal and finance.

Shantel: Who does like that?

Cary: Yeah, exactly. Revealing contracts and things like that are not my area. My favorite would certainly be product development. I have so many things I would love to put out more in the pipeline. It's interesting when I did my first aromatherapy class 20-some years ago, we basically said take everything in your bathroom right now and let's make it ourselves. So even with my children growing up 30 years ago, I would buy just the bulk castile, the organic castile soap, and then I would use the different oils. One for the morning and one for the evening for bath time and whether it be a body lotion or shampoo, something to clean the counter with, a toothpaste. Basically anything and everything in the home you can make with essential oils with natural ingredients. So from the very get go, my home was transferred into pretty much making my own products. So just being able to show those eventually and doing more product development where things right now, of course CBD is the new exciting ingredient on the market. We do incorporate it into a pain relief balm that I had been selling already, but now we've added the CBD. So hoping to make that more available commercially. So it's definitely a product development is the exciting part of me. Getting more good products out there.

Shantel: Well, I heard names like Costco and Sephora, which is amazing. How did you get those partnerships?


Cary: Well, when we first launched eight years ago, we hired a PR firm. We were very lucky because at the time there weren't that many aromatherapy brands, and I think our packaging was pretty spectacular. So we really caught the eye of a lot of the big book editors in the beauty space and have basically a placement every single month for the whole first year that we launched. And I think Sephora saw us in one of those magazines and called us. I can't tell you how many products they say they see every week, every day, and they called us. We did not call them or approach them. They had said, "We wanted to do aromatherapy, and we really love the way you've presented it." The only problem there really was that it was the fragrance buyer that found us, and while they said they were going to be creating more of a natural area in the stores, again this was eight years ago that hadn't quite yet formalized that. So we were actually put into the fragrance area. Essential oils and aromatherapy for digestion or for congestion or sleep even for that matter doesn't sit very well by Tom Ford perfume or Chanel perfume. So it was a good partnership for a while, but it didn't last. A lot of lessons learned. As far as Costco's concerned, we always have sales reps representing our brand, and that particular sales rep at the time did a basket of multi brands that she represents. And at the same time, a friend of the buyers had seen us in Core Yoga. So yeah. So it's just a little bit of a luck and getting your name out there and reaching out to these different buyers at all times. Some of them work with brokers so it's limiting on what exposure you can have. But that was definitely one of our good breaks for sure, and they've been an amazing partnership to be working with.

Shantel: That is amazing. Well, congratulations on that. I just have a few more questions to wrap things up. The first is kind of in the same vain as that. Are most of your, the base revenue stream B2B in those partnerships or quite a bit B2C online?

Cary: Well for us it's definitely B2B. We really didn't seem to spend or market online the way we had hoped to, although that's now being totally resurgent. We're redoing our website. We're starting to do more with Amazon and more paid advertising, which we really never did at any great extent. So I'm excited to see the results of all of that coming up within the next few months. Nobody can buy your product if they don't know you're out there, and they don't know you're out there if you don't spend the marketing dollars. And so we never really did. By the time we had all our hard learnings the first three or four years, we sort of just kept getting by more than the big push to spread the word. So now that we had a great year last year with the help of our Costco order, now we have some extra additional resources to spend on ramping up some of these other avenues, which we're very excited by.

Shantel: You also imagine that these big orders, which initially you may not be at that scale yet, so you have to figure that out. So to devote to try then figure out a whole other subset to market to I imagine could be challenging.

Cary: Yes.

Shantel: What's next for you and the brand?

Cary: Well, getting the sleep set out there while developing more of our sales overseas with some of the Costco's overseas. They show a great interest in bringing the brand into their markets as well. More product development and developing our online sales actually is a big piece of it. We're even looking to maybe do some TV and radio ads. So I'm looking forward to that.

Shantel: Well, how can people learn more about 21 Drops and our listeners learn more about your story and your brand?

Cary: Yeah, well please just go to 21Drops.com, our website, Facebook we're picking up again or Instagram. We have Twitter, although we have not been that active with Twitter. Yes, all of those avenues you'll be seeing big changes going forward, which we're really excited by.

Shantel: Well, we'll certainly be sure to follow along and include the links in the show notes. But thank you so much, Cary, for being on the show. We really appreciate your time.

Cary: Thank you. Thank you for having me.