Anne Oliver was 15 when her parents moved the family to the US from Vietnam. Before she started going to school, her dad passed away. When she graduated from high school, her mom died, leaving her alone in a new country. “At 19, I lost both parents,” she said. “It’s been a journey. I had to survive on my own.”
Oliver suffered from postpartum depression after her son was born. She searched for something—anything—to alleviate the symptoms, which included brain fog, irritability, and insomnia, among other things. Oliver consulted various practitioners. A doctor she went to told her she needed to take drugs, but she was breastfeeding her son, who was three months old at the time, and she didn’t want to stop.
Finally, another doctor suggested she use saffron, which has been known for its therapeutic properties for centuries in India and Tibet. Oliver experimented with saffron as an ingredient in skincare products. “I’ve always been in love with beauty,” Oliver said. “When I was in Vietnam, I discovered YouTube and Michelle Phan. I was drawn to her content because she was someone with a last name I could recognize.
“I’m still very in love with makeup and skincare,” Oliver said. “I follow a lot of the developments, but I never thought I would build my own brand. It’s always been just a hobby. When I had my son at 22, and got postpartum depression, I asked the doctor for a natural alternative and he recommended saffron and drinking it as tea. I knew nothing about saffron; in the Vietnamese culture, we don’t cook with saffron.”
After a while, Oliver discovered that there’s a medicinal grade of saffron called Super Negin saffron. She began using it for tea, and “It helped me sleep better,” she said. “It’s a unique ingredient in skincare. It’s very light and has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, so it's very calming and soothing. It contains vitamin C and it's really a great brightening agent.”
At the same time that Oliver was struggling with hormones wreaking havoc on her equilibrium, the hormones began taking a toll on her skin. “My skin became very sensitive,” she said. “The saffron calmed and soothed it. It was different than the serums on the market, which were very harsh.”
Oliver decided to launch a skincare line directed at women with postpartum depression. The first product that launched in the House of M collection “was for myself,” Oliver said. “It was a saffron serum. I don't have a lot of time and I have really sensitive skin. It improved the look and the texture of my skin.”
According to Oliver, saffron is known to be a mood enhancer. “I use it to help me sleep,” she said. “It’s not like melatonin. It puts you into a deep sleep, and unlike melatonin, you wake up feeling refreshed and not groggy.”
In addition to the serum, House of M has launched a sleeping mask and a power exfoliant. “We’re coming out with a sheet mask next month as well as a cleansing system comprised of a cleansing balm and cleansing gel coming in the fall.
“In the beginning, I used the savings that my husband and I were saving for the down payment for our first house,” Oliver said. I really wanted to supply the manufacturer with our own raw materials, so after going through the postpartum journey I wanted to use the quality of saffron that helped me, and that was very difficult because not many manufacturers do extraction in-house.”
“After we got over that hump, we had our formula for the first trial run,” Oliver said. “It wasn't a full production line, but it was enough for us to get started.” In the beginning Oliver had to be content with the basic packaging supplied by the manufacturer. To make it more personal, she slapped a House of M sticker on each box. After she saved up for the first batch, she was able to invest in custom packaging. “Since day one, I've always been very scrappy and we use what we have,” she said. “Every penny that we make, I put it back in the business to perfect everything and launch new products.”
For the past four years, House of M has been 100% bootstrapped. “I feel like now is a good time to get distribution with retailers,” she said. “We’re on track to get into more stores this year. We need the funding to help with the inventory and marketing for each retailer, and for launching more products.”
House of M is sold at nordstrom.com, and is rolling out in the summer to all Nordstrom doors. The brand is set to launch at Neiman Marcus, in stores and online, and at the end of the year, Oliver hopes that Sephora will open its doors to the brand. She’s in talks with the beauty specialty chain.
To scale the business, Oliver leaned into her community of Vietnamese families and businesses for House of M’s first seed round, and she discovered that they were willing to invest. It was around the time that Silicon Valley Bank imploded. “When Silicon Valley Bank went down, I was actually in San Francisco receiving an award and I saw the commotion happening before my eyes.”
“Right after that, I heard from a few venture capital firms,” she added. “They’re not investing In any CBG brands and they're even reining back on the tech side as well. I think they've been doing that all year, but because of the Silicon Valley Bank debacle, they’re putting a stop right now on everything.”
“If I was like other brands that rely heavily on venture capital and investment firms, it would be extremely difficult to make it in this climate right now,” Oliver added. “However, we’re fortunate that when I started the seed round, I started with the Vietnamese community. Being a Vietnamese immigrant, they had the opportunity to watch us grow from nothing to something in the past four years.”
Oliver said House of M actually sold out three times at Nordstrom. “As soon as we announced our round, we had the community's support and had the community rally around and invest in our business,” she added. “So far we have $2 million funded already out of a goal of $5 million. That's really because of angel investors in the community, who have been successful and built up their careers.”
“They have money to invest,” Oliver said. “Most of the time, they rely on real estate or stocks and bonds. It was a great opportunity for them to invest in a high-growth beauty brand. I really wanted to highlight the fact that, now more than ever, people need to rely on the community. It's a cliché, but it's true. It's been the biggest driving force for us, and we wanted to highlight what could be a newer way to fundraise instead of relying on big firms, whose terms are horrible, too. Through my experience, I would say, leaning into the community is probably a better route right now.”
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