Amy Welsman has been struck by serendipity more than once in business. The first time was getting in on the ground floor as the first hire at Knix, a Canadian apparel brand that Welsman helped grow from a small start-up into one of the biggest VC-backed underwear brands, alongside Kim Kardashian’s Skims and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty. After Welsman left Knix in 2017, she had the novel idea to develop a hand sanitizer that didn’t reek of alcohol or dry out your hands … right before a global pandemic made hand sanitizer a hot commodity.
Launched in January 2021, Paume is an environmentally friendly luxury hand care brand best known for its hydrating, pleasant-smelling hand sanitizer. BeautyMatter caught up with Paume founder and CEO Amy Welsman to find out how she took a utilitarian product and made it into a beauty product—redefining an entire category in the process.
Paume’s pre-pandemic beginnings
Paume wasn’t born out of a pandemic, although the timing feels strangely like kismet. Welsman actually had the idea to create a better hand sanitizer after she had her first child, Eleanor, in 2019. With family and friends coming in and out of their house bringing in pathogens that could threaten her newborn’s vulnerable immune system, she had a bottle of hand sanitizer in every room and on her person at any given time.
“It’s a time in your life where you’re so aware of hand hygiene,” Welsman tells BeautyMatter. “It was at that point that I was noticing so much change happening in other body care categories, like in deodorant and haircare. It was this real shift from utility products to the intersection or the combination of beauty and utility.”
In late 2019 and early 2020, the beauty boom was expanding way beyond color cosmetics and skincare. Body, wellness, and sexual health brands were all taking a cue from beauty brands, incorporating plant-based formulations and beautiful, aesthetic-worthy packaging that consumers would be proud to display on their shelf. Welsman saw a white space in the market with hand sanitizer, which had yet to be given the beauty brand treatment.
“From a formulation perspective, why isn't there a product on the market that smells good, that actually moisturizes your hands, and isn't terrible to use?”
Welsman was putting together a business plan for what would later become Paume when the spread of COVID-19 spurred an unheard-of demand for hand sanitizer, selling it out in stores across the nation. Alcohol brands and cosmetics labs started making hand sanitizer to meet the frenzied demand for hand sanitizer, which became as important to keep on hand (pun intended) as face masks.
“The pandemic hit and it was like this green light,” recalls Welsman. “Now is the time. If there’s any message from above that’s going to push you off a cliff, that’s it.”
“Keep in mind, I had to come up with the concept before the pandemic. I had made up my mind that I was going to redefine this category, and suddenly, as I was developing the brand, I was watching the entire category evolve and become supersaturated.”
Welsman knew she had to move fast if she wanted to catch the hand sanitizer revolution wave.
Product development and design
The product development and design process took about a year. Nearly all labs offer a sanitizer off the shelf, but Welsman decided to develop a better, custom formulation with clean, plant-based ingredients and a natural scent (versus synthetic).
“I was determined to make a formula that actually hydrated the skin,” said Welsman. “I was very much inspired by the Aesops of the world. I wanted a really rich, botanical scent that would give you this burst of fragrance and then gently fade away.”
The scent Paume landed on is a blend of four essential oils—cedar, lemon, rosemary, and lavender—which also happen to beautifully mask the scent of the alcohol. The emollient that gives Paume’s hand sanitizer its moisturizing effect is derived from the safflower plant. The ingredient has a time-lapse effect, providing long-lasting hydration.
The refillable pump bottles were designed with the help of an industrial design firm. Inspired by the Sonos speaker and Vitruvi diffuser, Welsman wanted something that seamlessly integrated into any space, no matter the style of the room.
“Design was how we were going to differentiate ourselves,” said Welsman. “We always talk about the power and emotional impact of human touch. The category was so sterile, so we really wanted the brand to speak to the actual benefits of human touch and what it means to interact with the world with clean hands. That fed into the design: soft lines, rounded edges, with everything being very soft and inviting.”
Retail partnerships and investments
With demand for hand sanitizer soaring in early 2020, Paume faced little difficulty securing initial funding—around $350,000 CAD ($273,000 in US dollars).
“Everyone unanimously knew there was nothing good really yet on the market, and they wanted something better,” Welsman said of her founding investors.
Paume had equal good fortune getting into retail stores. The brand secured a six-month exclusive partnership with Indigo, Canada's largest book, gift, and specialty toy store, with over 100 storefronts. Welsman sent an early sample to the buyer and the deal was inked before Paume even officially launched.
“They were a real partner in our launch,” Welsman said of the retailer. “They served as sort of our launching pad in a way because we were suddenly on the shelf and in so many doors that people were really seeing the brand. It really helped with building brand awareness out of the gate.”
In the US, Welsman continued to seek out strategic retail partnerships. The brand launched in the states within the first year, landing at Maisonette and The Webster and eventually getting in the doors at Credo and The Detox Market. Welsman repeatedly emphasized the role that wholesale partnerships played in Paume’s rapid success.
“I always knew that wholesale would be a part of our strategy, just because it has helped so much with brand awareness out of the gate,” she says. “Being on the shelf in the physical world is really important, especially for a product like ours. There's a reason why Sephora exists: people want to feel touch, smell, and, experience these products.”
In a post-Glossier world, Welsman says it’s difficult to build a brand with a pure DTC strategy. Cost to acquire customers is high. From a strategic and economic perspective, the margins are actually better out of the gate with wholesale than they are with DTC. According to Welsman, when you factor in the cost to acquire that customer, the brand is often losing money.
After just over six months in the Canadian and American markets, Welsman raised a second pre-seed capital round last summer (which kicked off the week she found out she was pregnant with her second) totaling $750K. Today, Paume’s sales are split nearly 50/50 between the two countries, with the brand focused on global expansion in the upcoming year.
Building a micro-niche brand
While many luxury brands have hand sanitizers (Aesop, Beautycounter, and Byredo, to name a few), Paume is among the first to specialize in hand sanitizer, and the first to give it a luxury, aesthetic-worthy spin. This is part of a wider trend in the beauty and wellness space where brands are establishing themselves within a niche before expanding into a larger category. Brands like Act+Acre launched with scalp-focused products before expanding into haircare. Similarly, Fur focused on pubic grooming products before launching body care. Welsman cites these examples, saying that they served as a sort of proof-of-concept for Paume.
“We’re seeing the rise of these micro-niche brands, and they're all trying to have a unique point of view,” explains Welsman. “I knew that that was so key to our success, especially as I was seeing this particular category get so saturated in the early stages of a pandemic. For me, I had to figure out how we could distinguish ourselves. That's why we focused on the in-home experience, the refillable pump, and the aesthetic of the brand.”
The trend of these micro-niche brands is also in line with the consumer’s demand for fewer, better products: 10-step skincare routines are out, and minimal, simple self-care is in.
“I like to purchase from specialists because I know I'm getting something really good versus something that a bigger brand just happens to make,” says Welsman. “I want to go right to the source, to the expert. That’s certainly a trend that I'm seeing overall in the industry.”
Paume’s sustainability standards
In recent years, the new rules of brand building dictate that your brand must have a plan for sustainable and socially conscious growth. In the case of Paume, Welsman knew that sustainability would be a tricky topic to navigate.
“I think when you decide out of the gate to have a sustainable approach to your brand, it's a bit of a landmine because it's hard to be perfect,” she says. “No matter what, you're creating waste, whether it's in the carbon emissions a brand produces or in the packaging. Our approach from the beginning is asking ourselves, ‘What's our best?’”
While the consumer demand for sustainable products is certainly there, the packaging industry is scrambling to catch up and manufacture solutions that are both affordable and effective.
“There were things I was going to compromise on and things that I wasn't,” says Welsman. “It had to fit into the other goals of the business. Whatever packaging we chose, it had to suit the aesthetic we were going for.”
Paume faced a unique packaging challenge because of the high alcohol content in the formula.
“[Using] biodegradable materials was always the intention, but they’re not very stable with the alcohol. So [we did] need those extra layers in the packaging, which affects the sustainability.”
Currently, Paume uses 65-75% PCR in the brand’s smaller packaging materials, like bottles, pumps, and tubes. The brand sells refillable bags of its hand sanitizer, which uses 60% less plastic than a bottle. This minimizes the number of new bottles that the brand makes, which is great from a sustainability angle, but also great from a supply chain and economic perspective. The refill bags are less expensive to make, hold more product, and last longer.
Additionally, Paume has partnered with rePurpose Global to achieve its Plastic Neutral Certification. A percentage of each sale goes towards removing and recovering as much plastic waste from the environment as the brand puts out. With this partnership, each Paume product carries a Net Zero Plastic Footprint. Welsman shares that the brand is hoping to achieve a plastic-negative status in 2023.
Leading a niche category to new heights
Since launching with the brand’s signature Antibacterial Gel Travel Hand Sanitizer just over a year ago, Paume has expanded the line to include an Exfoliating Hand Wash and Probiotic Hand Cream. In the coming months, the brand plans to release a cuticle product and an SPF made specifically for the hands.
“We're now looking beyond just sanitizer at hand care in general,” Welsman tells BeautyMatter. “As a niche category, it really lacks leadership. There isn't a defined brand you think of when you think of hand care, so that's where we're hoping to lead.”
Welsman hopes to get the brand inside a large, mass retailer by early next year. Reflecting on the brand’s success, she says it’s been a long, hard journey that’s taught her how to be resilient in the face of challenges and mistakes.
“Especially as a sole founder, it can be very isolating and you absorb all the stress of whatever is happening,” she says. “The first two years are the hardest just getting a product off the ground and building that awareness, that momentum. You have to make people fall in love with you, essentially.”
The success of Paume proves that building a brand within a niche isn’t limiting. While cutthroat competition and an influx of celebrity beauty brands are still duking it out to see who wins share of the market when it comes to your face, there’s still plenty of blue ocean to explore in body care.
After launching a well-timed hand sanitizer brand during a global pandemic (while raising two toddlers, no less) and successfully expanding into the larger hand care category, it’s apparent that Welsman has luck on her side.
“I have a sense that things happen for a reason and timing is everything,” she says of her star-crossed good fortune. “When you’re open-minded and fluid, interesting things happen.”
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