Devout users of chemical-free skincare products often have a similar story – they turn to natural ingredients after experiencing a terrible reaction to the chemicals found in many everyday products. Megan Larsen, founder of skincare range Sodashi, has heard this story a thousand times. Launched in 1999, Sodashi is one of Australia’s most successful skincare exports, supplying some of the world’s top luxury spas – including Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons and Shangri-La. The extensive range of face, body and hair products – which range from $40 to $500 – have become popular for their concentrated mix of high-quality plant essence, which Sodashi says have regenerative effects for the skin.
“To be honest,” says Larsen, “when I started developing the skincare products I wasn’t even thinking anything large. But that can so easily happen, I think with any form of entrepreneurship you’re pushing the envelope.” At 18, Larsen left her native New Zealand to study beauty therapy in Sydney. She liked elements of the course but quickly realised it wasn’t for her. In 1994 she started a natural-therapy centre in Perth and decided to do a short course in aromatherapy, which took her to France. “I got completely inspired by what pure and real aromatherapy was,” she says. “I came back and was just fuelled with this passion and vision to create skincare products.”
As with most of these stories, things started out small for Larsen, who began by creating homemade remedies for herself, using a combination of biochemistry, aromatherapy and Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) principles. A close family friend, a biochemist, helped with testing the formulas, and today still advises Larsen on the science side of things. “People who were coming into my natural therapies store would ask what I was using,” she says. “So I started to introduce them to these unlabelled little brown jars of creams.” Her first ever product, the Rejuvenating Face and Neck Moisturiser, remains Sodashi’s bestseller.
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There were few Australian companies doing chemical-free skincare in the ’90s, and in 2001 The Siam Hotel in Bangkok approached Larsen about using her range at its spa. “That was really a huge deal for me,” she says. “All of a sudden I had to get serious. It wasn’t something that was coming off my kitchen bench anymore – it was something that was actually being manufactured – we had to have proper structures and procedures, and all of those things that go with taking something from a vision in to a reality.”
It was important to Larsen that manufacturing remained in Australia, so she started her own facility in Fremantle where she remained in control of the entire process, overseeing the sourcing of ingredients right through to the packaging.
When it comes to doing business, Larsen is pragmatic. In 2007, Sodashi was set to release its high-end Samadara line – then the financial crisis hit. Larsen decided to hold off, not prepared for something she had worked on for years to go unnoticed. “We really had Samadara in a long development phase,” she says. “I’m so personally attached to every one of the Sodashi products. I don’t want to put something out there that isn’t going to do what I say it’s going to do. So first of all we made sure we took the time to get it right and then we made sure that we released it at the right time.”
Larsen now lives in Sydney, something, she says she could never have done if it were not for her close-knit team of 19 in Perth (she still visits each month). “There is a point at which you have to trust others,” says Larsen, who encourages staff to meditate for 20 minutes a day. “I think that’s a challenge for a lot of founders; to trust that people may not do it your way but they will do it, and with your guidance and your communication they should stay aligned with your vision … When I created Sodashi, I created a workspace that I’d want to work in – that’s what everyone has the opportunity to do when starting a business. It’s really important to give your team a strong foundation and a happy and healthy workspace.”