Laura Henshaw and Steph Claire Smith don’t subscribe to conventional business wisdom. Not only have they successfully built health empire Keep It Cleaner (KIC) by mixing business with pleasure as best friends, but the former-models-turned-tech-entrepreneurs have a Google search to thank for their early success.
“It was six years ago,” Laura tells Sylvia Jeffreys in the final episode of Future Women and AIA Australia’s Next Generation Innovators podcast. “It started with an ebook called ‘Keep It Clean’. I had a blog at the time with all my healthy recipes, I loved doing that on the side of uni and Steph had quite a big following at that point. She was always asked what she was eating and she really liked my recipes on my blog. We’d spoken about doing something together, but didn’t know what it would be. We’d both gone through the modelling industry. Our idea of ‘healthy’ had been morphed because we grew up in healthy families and I loved sport and I loved eating food, but the modelling industry really changed my idea of that. I started focusing on food and calorie counting and exercising to make myself look a certain way because of the pressures from the overseas market. And I think when we came back to Australia we were both trying to get out of that mindset, because we hadn’t been in it our whole lives. It’s amazing, up until [the age of] 18 I never even knew what the word ‘diet’ was, but then I fell so deep down the hole of putting so much pressure on myself. We came together over that.
“At the time the health industry was growing which was amazing, but it was very much diet focused and ‘healthy’ kind of seemed really hard. The recipes were really complicated, they had so many ingredients, it was expensive to make it. Steph and I just wanted to show people that health can be about balance, you don’t have to be a chef to make healthy recipes. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it can be affordable and easy, and that’s where my recipes started and that was Steph’s idea in her head too. We thought, why don’t we make an ebook? We literally just Googled how to do it and we made it. We styled it, and we did all the cooking. Now I know on cookbook shoots that’s not what you do! You shoot 10 recipes a day, you have a whole team. We shot 37 recipes in one day with a flash camera!”
That initial ebook may feel “tragic” to Laura now, five years on, but the pair’s amateur approach paid off, helping lay the foundations for something huge.
“The initial response was amazing,” she explains. “We were really overwhelmed by it, we didn’t think people would buy it, but quite a lot of people did. The girls, they were making our recipes and sharing pictures online and that’s how our brand started to grow. I think it was because usually when you make a recipe from a cookbook, yours looks like an interpretation of it, usually a worse version! But with our ebook, the photos and our styling wasn’t that great so people were making it and their creations looked better than ours so they wanted to share it to show how easy it was.”
A basic subscription website followed, and then an online programme, all the while the two 20-year-olds were relying on a simple financial model they’d learned as children to fund KIC.
“Steph and I have grown up as huge savers, so that’s been really helpful for us, so everything we’ve done we’ve saved to do the next project,” Laura says. “We got sponsors for the ebook and their sponsorship funded production. Looking back I’m like, ‘that was really smart of us’ but I think it was the fact that we didn’t have the money to do it so we were like, ‘how can we make it work?’ We thought if we could put some brands in that we love it would work really well. So we did. That funded the ebook, the ebook funded the website and from there we worked with another business on the programme.”
Last year, Laura and Steph decided to go it alone once again. Using their gut instinct to steer their strategy, the pair hired their own team of developers, along with a team of six to work on the programme, and spearheaded the now globally-successful KIC app. This approach wasn’t without its critics, something self-confessed “people pleaser” Laura has had to “build a thicker skin” to overcome.
“We were told by a few people that we probably couldn’t do it,” she says. “It would be too hard, tech is so complicated and we were just two 25-year-old girls. In our minds I suppose you always believe in yourself and you think you can do it. But, when you have so many people telling you that it’s really hard and you might not be able to do it and things will go wrong, it puts that thought in your mind that it’s not going to work, it’s not going to go right. But when we launched we had an amazing retention, all the girls from the old programme came on to the new one and more. And we had thousands of girls sign up all around the world which was incredible. They loved the app. That was just so special that we’d gone out and done it. It’s one thing to like your own product but when other people like it as well, that’s so special.”
The KIC community is certainly on board, with more and more subscribers every month signing up for the pair’s daily workouts, healthy recipes and guided meditations. But just how do they thrive in an increasingly saturated market?
“Our point of difference has been that health is about balance,” Laura says. “We felt that there wasn’t a programme out there that didn’t push the weight loss message. We knew that for us – and for me personally because of what I’d been through with my bad relationship with food and exercise – I knew that things like calorie counting and transformations were quite triggering and it stopped me from focusing on health as we should be, which is just to feel empowered and strong and confident in all aspects of your life.
“If girls stay on the programme for a month or two months, that doesn’t matter to us as long as they learn small things that they can implement long term that are sustainable. That’s what’s important. It’s not about cutting everything out and only eating chicken and broccoli every day – but trying to make small changes to be a healthier you at the same time.”
And that friendship, how has it endured the ups and downs of building a business? It’s simple: don’t overthink it.
“When we started even though we had our business hat on to get the sponsors, we weren’t thinking in that way that it would become a business and our full time job,” Laura explains. “So we’ve never sat down and said, ‘here are the rules’ and laid that down. But, I think the reason that it’s worked so well – it can obviously go either way with business and friendship and a lot of people said you shouldn’t mix them – but Steph and I have so much respect for each other. I think the most important thing is to respect each other because then when you communicate in any way, whether that’s constructive feedback or whatever, if that respect is there, it’s always going to be received in a nice way because you know the other person is coming from a good place because they care about the business. It’s nice, it’s nice to have someone, especially in the industry that we work in, that you can trust a hundred thousand percent and has your back no matter what. I can’t imagine doing it without her.”
If you needed further proof that the outdated adage of mixing business with pleasure doesn’t apply here, Laura is speaking to Sylvia from Melbourne where she’s been organising Claire’s hens party.
“Steph and I will have a wine tonight, we’ll have hot chips, we’ll have chocolate,” she says. “That’s okay, it’s all about balance and enjoying life.”
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