Shizu Okusa has built Apothékary into a $20 million wellness business, boosted by people craving herbal health alternatives. Weary of wine and cannabis, they've flocked to the company's herbal remedies for stress, gut health and immunity. But Okusa, who grew up on a farm in British Columbia, started her career at Goldman Sachs, then worked in agriculture in Africa, thinks a rebrand can make the company's health offerings even more appealing. She tells D2C Insider what's behind the changes.
D2C Insider: How did Apothékary get started?
Shizu Okusa: I was born in Vancouver, and my parents are immigrants, a very traditional Japanese family. They wanted me to get a good, stable job. So after college, I worked on Wall Street, trading distressed bonds at Goldman Sachs. I learned a lot about capital, but my whole heart wasn't there. So I quit and moved to Mozambique, helping small farmers and entrepreneurs raise money for farms. Then I joined the World Bank in Washington D.C., and while I was there, I started Jrink, a juicing company. I sold it in 2019, and by that time, it had 14 storefronts and about 120 employees. I started Apothékary in 2020. And it exploded right from the get-go.
D2C Insider: It's easy to see that any wellness brand launched into the pandemic had a better-than-average shot. What is it about Apothékary that was so appealing?
Okusa: Yes, we launched in January, and then came COVID in March. Preventative medicine became a whole new category in people's heads. It made sense to me because Japanese culture focuses on prevention, not a quick reaction and reaching for a pill. We kept iterating based on feedback and started calling ourselves "Mother Nature's Farmacy." We've been primarily D2C and are looking at moving into retail locations this year.
D2C Insider: Many people say D2C is dead, and this shift to retail is essential. Do you agree?
Okusa: Not at all. D2C may not be right for companies that have very low margins. And since COVID, 360-degree marketing has become so much more important. But herbal medicine is a new category for the average Western consumer, so a ton of education is required. I can show someone a bottle of reishi, but they're going to be like, "What is that? How do I take it? When do I use it? Where does it come from?" It's a lot different than selling lipstick. Our pop-ups have taught us that for us, the cost of acquisition and retention is higher in retail than it is online. For our kind of product, digital is more scalable.
D2C Insider: Why do retail at all?
Okusa: After this early adoption curve, when we become more of a mass-market product, and people are more aware of holistic medicine, we expect that to change. People will become more aware of how adaptogens work over the next two to three years. That's how we're timing our retail expansion.
D2C Insider: What are customers most interested in?
Okusa: People are interested in plant-based medicine that helps them avoid alcohol and cannabis. Herbs are the next step, backed by science. And they work without many of the repercussions that drugs have.
D2C Insider: How do people find you?
Okusa: Our whole business model has been about swapping this for that. So If people look for natural melatonin, we pop up because we offer alternatives to melatonin that won't leave you groggy or have synthetic ingredients. Our Do Not Disturb blend has things like mucuna and holy basil. If people search for something like "alternatives to alcohol," they find us. Post-COVID, there's been a huge rise in sober curiosity. So we meet people as they come to us with a specific problem.
D2C Insider: What are you hoping the rebranding will do?
Okusa: First and foremost, we've got a new website. The original was built by yours truly, and it's never been reverse-engineered for actual customer needs. FAQs are more prominent, addressing questions like "How do I make them dissolve?" There are more how-to videos.
There's an assessment quiz that's unique and in-depth, reviewing digestive, sleep and skin routines and recommending more personalized starter kits. And we're using new packaging. The first bottles were from my juice company and had tiny openings -- you couldn't fit a spoon in. The new ones are much more intentional, with a cube shape that lets a half-teaspoon in. And it takes us closer to zero waste.
About a third of our business is subscription, so we're moving toward a refill system so people can refill the jar at home. It's much cheaper for them and more sustainable.
D2C Insider: Obviously, you hope it boosts sales. What else might it change?
Okusa: I expect our business to grow 50% this year, but this isn't just about a revenue boost. The success is more in lifetime value and retention. We're making it easier for people to use more of the product. And we're adding more variety to the starter packs. We're making it easier for busy people to know exactly where to start instead of figuring out 45 different products.
D2C Insider: Who is your target audience?
Okusa: About 60% of our customers are young professional women between 25 to 44. But there's a big chunk between 40 and 70, about 25%. The rest are men and Gen Z.