How I Did It: Kristin Fraser Cotte, Founder of The Grapeseed Company

GrapeseedTeam

I became an accidental entrepreneur at 14. Competitive swimming was my life at that time, and what started as a confirmation service project teaching an eight year old girl with Down Syndrome how to swim ballooned into a real business.

Across the local community, people asked me to teach their children, so I started a swim school in my parents’ backyard the following summer.

With the help of my father (an attorney), mother and sister (also swimmers), we developed an entirely word-of-mouth business that grew to over 200 families each summer.

The swim school taught me valuable lessons at a young age: how to teach effectively, manage time, manage challenging personalities, and run a business with family members.

I made good money and was able to save, a lot. I hung up my swim goggles after college and moved back to Boston for graduate school and began my career in education (also the first time I wasn’t working for myself).

I hadn’t thought much of the significance of not working for myself until meeting my future husband, Peter, who shared with me his dream to fix up his boat and sail to the Caribbean.

Excited to join this adventure, I quickly and unequivocally said “yes!” Dating changed from restaurants to trips to West Marine, emptying our wallets as we learned to outfit a sailboat for cruising.

We wired electric systems to run off of solar panels, sewed sail covers and installed our own head (read: toilet), and countless other dirty work to prepare for life at sea.

It was challenging, but we loved it — working for ourselves and building our dream. Less than a year later, we quit our jobs and set sail from Salem, MA to the Caribbean.

What first seemed like hitting pause on my career proved to be my greatest adventure and foundation for future entrepreneurial endeavors.

Our two year voyage on the tiny sailboat deepened my understanding of our impact on the earth — we conserved energy, water, and resources every moment of every day.

I became acutely aware of how much water we consumed, how much trash we made, the energy needed to run our systems, and what a luxury fresh food was.

Problem-solving was part of our every day and sailors are much like entrepreneurs– savvy, creative and welcoming to other like-minded birds.

Through chats at docks and boatie bars, and research whenever we got near an internet cafe, we found solutions that were very green and DIY.

THE SEED THAT STARTED GRAPESEED CO.

Stores weren’t commonplace among the remote islands we sailed to, so I started making skin care products from cooking oils we had aboard and native fruits and plants.

Thus began my fascination, research and formulation of natural ingredients, personal care products and ultimately, The Grapeseed Company.

We landed in Santa Barbara after our sailing adventure, and began to appreciate wine and the age-old process of creating it. We saw winemakers throwing away grapeseeds after crush each fall.

I started researching benefits of grapeseeds and thought, “How about creating skin care from the wine maker’s byproduct?” We set out to turn trash into treasure.

NEGOTIATING MY WAY

With $2,000 left from my swim school savings, I started Grapeseed Company with Just three hand-made products — scrub, massage oil and lip balm. It evolved from personal use and gifts to selling at local artisan fairs.

During that time, I negotiated a deal with my employer to start working part-time. I first went down to 80%, then 50% over three years from my career in elementary Special Education.

Juggling my day job and dream job made me a “part-time entrepreneur” and I was getting half-assed results. I’d have a taste of success at Grapeseed, then have to abandon it to go back to my day job.

NO ROOM FOR FAILURE

Fear of failure, financial hardship and stress kept me from going all in with Grapeseed. And I was unhappy in my day job, feeling like there was nowhere to grow or go.

Not unlike the last time I’d stepped out of my career and onto the sailboat, I knew I had to leave for a new adventure…and that I was probably a little crazy to do so.

But the stakes were even higher — I gave up my tenured job and steady salary just after we’d purchased our first home and the economy tanked in 2008. There wasn’t much room for failure, which was exactly the fire I needed to succeed.

I started working from home full time and hired our first employee in 2009. Within a year, we negotiated free sublet space from a business that had and an extra office and kitchen, but six months later, they needed that space back.

So in July 2010, I signed the lease on our first store in Santa Barbara. A year later, we opened a second store and new manufacturing facility in Carpinteria, CA and have been honored as the fastest growing company of the year by Savor the Success, participated in celebrity gifting at the Oscars GBK Gift Lounge, released 16 new products, formulated a spa line for a new Orient Express resort and launched over 40 products in Whole Foods Markets.

LESSONS FOR SUCCESS

I am most proud of the amazing team we built (now seven strong!) and that we’ve continued to self-fund growth through multiple revenue streams.

I’m a DIY girl, so one of the most important things I’ve learned is that no one can do it alone; it takes a solid team to build a stellar company.

Empower your employees to be as excellent as the brand you’ve built. If they feel invested and empowered in your company’s growth, the sky is the limit!

Another important lesson is to view everything as a learning experience. Successes, failures — it doesn’t matter; there is an important learning opportunity and sometimes it takes someone else to help you realize that.

Nourish and appreciate relationships that give you solid, helpful, constructive feedback. Building a business from the ground up is extremely hard work; be realistic about what you can handle and embrace learning something new every day.

I’ve learned so many amazing lessons (the hard way) building Grapeseed and am excited to launch a new business this summer, Cultivate Your Niche.

This is my passion project; teaching others the lessons we’ve learned the hard way to develop niche, artisan products and create, launch and grow the business of your dreams!

About the Author

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Kristin Fraser Cotte is the founder and CEO at The Grapeseed Company, creating botanical beauty from wine made fresh in Santa Barbara, California. The Grapeseed Company's niche products and unique business model have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Health, The LA Times, Shape, Women's Health, Edible Magazine and more. This summer Kristin is launching Cultivate Your Niche to teach others how to create, launch and grow the business of your dreams.

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