In this Q&A, we caught up with Shizu Okusa, founder & CEO of Apothékary, a marketplace for herbal supplements supporting optimal wellness. A second-time founder, Shizu discusses how she’s scaling up her omnichannel “farmacy” concept, and why education is foundational to the brand.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on at Apothékary?
Shizu Okusa: Apothékary is Mother Nature’s “farmacy.”
We offer clean and unadulterated herbal alternatives to over-the-counter supplements and quick fixes, often ridden with synthetic ingredients and additives. Bridging the East and West, we strive to replace the medicine cabinet with the wellness cabinet backed by over 5K years of science and ritual.
Our clinical herbalists formulate our products using their specialized knowledge and ongoing dedicated reviews of the evolving body of clinical research on plant-based therapies.
Unlike other supplement companies, Apothékary offers both breadth and depth of product and needs for the customer, allowing our herbalists then to advise customers on a full herbal regimen, from morning to night, to support their daily wellness needs.
How did you come up with the idea? What key insight led you to pursue this opportunity?
SO: There were several things happening at the same time in 2019 that got me to my ‘aha!’ moment.
I was exiting my first company, JRINK, a cold-pressed juice business based in DC, and also going through my own journey of mental health — one that kale juice wasn’t going to solve.
I was seeking natural therapies for myself and couldn’t find any, in particular, for supporting my stress and ability to fall asleep at night. All I could find was valerian root and melatonin at CVS or Walgreens, and that in itself looked sketchy.
The second factor was that I was buying souvenirs for my parents, and they LOVE gifts or “healthy things” from the US.
My dad had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and glaucoma, and my mom suffered from years of chronic insomnia and back pain, so I wanted to get them some supplements that could support their wellness (vs. popping pills left and right). Unfortunately, I just couldn’t find any brands or products I could get behind, especially since I grew up in a family that was anti-medicine — my parents assumed I’d form a dependence on anything I took.
For both personal and family reasons, and having already been an entrepreneur in the wellness world for roughly eight years, I knew that there was a huge opportunity here. Ultimately, Apothékary is creating the first-ever platform and brand for getting natural plant medicine that is accessible, playful, and modern.
How did you turn your idea into a company?
SO: Apothékary was a continuation of my journey as a wellness entrepreneur. My first company, a juice company, was more about my physical nutrition and health, while this company is more about mental health and performance.
So, it almost felt like a natural extension of my journey as a founder, albeit the scalability for Apothékary is significantly larger. That fact, in particular, was important to me — I can make a larger impact with every piece of effort I put in.
So, we started selling in pop-ups around DC. By doing in-person tests first, we got enough data about which key products to invest in, the demographic of our customers, the types of questions they had, etc. It set the foundation for how we built our digital experience, investing heavily in email and classes, all around education.
Then COVID happened, and I think many people realized how important wellness is to their happiness. We fill a large gap right now where people are seeking cleaner and natural forms of medicine but didn’t have a great understanding of the why or how.
It has taken over four years to build the strong brand we have now. You can’t just create that overnight.
Of note, we’re not venture-backed, and that’s always been intentional — ownership and preserving equity for employees was important to me after lessons learned earlier in my career.
To date, all of our funding has come from a diversified group of angel and family office money, as well as debt we’ve taken on to maintain a healthy amount of leverage to grow shareholder value without over-diluting.
In each small round, I try to be very clear about what the money will be used for in order to get to the next big milestone or inflection point, then I reassess again when we get there.
Being profitable allows you to raise money purely for growth, and it’s best to try to hit that profitability mark before pouring the jet fuel on it.
How big can this get? What’s the addressable market and how do you go about capturing it?
SO: The global wellness market has nearly doubled in size, nearing ~$7T, and it’s not slowing down. There are significant tailwinds behind our back: the ongoing mental health crisis, a shift towards better-for-you ingredients, and a secular movement away from traditional drug stores to more specialty.
But while the market is massive, the wellness market here is still pretty nascent (speaking from a retailer’s perspective). Thus, we’re still very focused on our core direct channels and physical and digital product R&D cycle. At the moment, this is primarily dedicated toward US sales, but we do have eyes towards expanding in Europe and Asia in the next one to two years.
Overall, we have an ambitious product roadmap bringing new formats that have not yet existed in the US, making investments into technology and AI to support our education needs, and ultimately, planning to build a $100M business in the next three to five years.
Who is the core customer? How are you acquiring customers? And how will you grow the customer base?
SO: Our core customer is a working young professional in their mid-30s to 60s. He/she is very focused on optimizing their everyday life, from getting the best sleep, nutrition, skin, sex, and energy possible. They turn to Apothékary for a better way to heal and feel their best selves, swapping out old patterns and habits like melatonin, alcohol, energy drinks, sugar, laxatives, and more.
We are primarily subscription- and online-based today, supporting our customers like a “farmacy” would. Thankfully, we are finally at the scale where three of our educators work full-time doing 15-minute product consultation calls (about 30–35 a day, each), and that allows for better 1:1 engagement and understanding of our most valuable customers’ needs.
For the last 20 months, we have also been working on a rebrand, which finally launched just recently.
Plus, we’re excited to launch in select retailers around the world this year, starting with Selfridges in London, whom we’ve had an incredible partnership with over the years. You can also expect to see us on more shelves and through hundreds of doors by year-end (stay tuned!).
Looking at your road map, what are some of the milestones you’re targeting over the next 3-6 months?
SO: We have a lot planned over the next few years! Over the next two years, we’ll launch over 10 new physical products, over 50 new features on the digital side, and soon, clinical trials and more offline engagement.
We’ve doubled our revenue consistently since launching the business, 5x’d our email and SMS list to over 500K unique individuals, and have consistently remained profitable.
I also think we still have a lot to do on the education front, but I’m also really excited about sharing more about my Japanese heritage via the company. In Q1 of next year, we hope to bring our community to Kyoto to showcase the healing traditions of the East, from chadō to ikebana.
We’re pursuing these type of opportunities because we know people want more than just XYZ product; they want it to resonate and to feel something toward it. So, storytelling and more in-person community initiatives will definitely be a core part of our investments in the near-term.
We have loved doing collaborative partnerships with our friends at [solidcore], Remedy Place, and The Class, so you can expect more of that — and be on the lookout for our pop-up in New York this fall!
Anything else you’d like to share with readers?
SO: I think it can be very easy to fall into a trap of comparison, but I have truly come to learn that it’s a “you vs. you” journey in entrepreneurship.
Especially in the ever-changing and fast-growing market that is health & wellness, there’s a place and market opportunity for everyone. I’m so excited for what’s to come for all members of the broader Fitt Insider community, and I’m happy to share notes or talk shop anytime.
If you’re interested in having your company featured in our Startup Q&A series, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.