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Steph Claire Smith and Laura Henshaw first crossed paths working as models at Melbourne Fashion Week six years ago. With a shared desire to teach others to lead a healthier lifestyle in an accessible way and promote body positivity, they launched an e-book of good-for-you recipes that inspired tens of thousands of people. Today, their FMCG product range is stocked in supermarkets nationally, and their passion project Keep It Cleaner has grown into a wellness app serving a new workout, meals and wellness content each day, and a cult following of hundreds of thousands of women who want to love the skin they’re in.
To celebrate NSW Small Business Month, we sat down with Steph and Laura to unpack their meteoric rise.
Keep It Cleaner (KIC) started as a passion project to share healthy recipes and exercise tips. How did you take it from an e-book to the booming digital and FMCG brand it is today?
Laura: One of the biggest things was timing. The health and fitness industry is so saturated now (which is great!), however it wasn’t at the time we launched, so the e-book sold so well. It really resonated with people. Staying true to our original core values at KIC has been so important. We’ve been able to scale up, but a lot of our original community members have stayed with us because they feel so loyal to the KIC brand and story.
Between KIC and your personal accounts, you’ve amassed over two million Instagram followers. We all start from zero, so how did you achieve this amazing growth? What advice would you give others looking to build Instagram profiles?
Steph: We were really fortunate that we had our own profiles to work with and had built our personal brands before building the KIC community.
One thing that’s really worked for the both of us from a business and personal brand perspective is being really true to ourselves. You can try new things and mix it up, but at the end of the day, the most beautiful thing we all have is how different we are. And that’s the case for businesses, too.
Try to give back to the community that’s following you. We’ve always been so honest with them and it’s always worked in our favour. We’ve never put ourselves above anyone else, we were two girls who gave it a crack and went along for the ride. We’re so open to learning and don’t pretend to know everything.
We’ve also found (and seen in other companies) that when you get to know the founder behind the brand, you often want to support that brand even more.
Do you think it’s important to be building a personal brand on Instagram alongside a business brand? How do you decide what content you share on each platform?
Laura: When you put a face behind a brand, you’re not just seen as a brand or business, but as a person. Customers are not just buying into the brand but buying into you and your life. KIC is us. It’s our values, it’s what we live every day, which is why it’s so easy for us to share.
The KIC page is a little more polished than our personal pages, we have two team members who run that page with a lot of time and thought because we want to offer a lot of value to people who come to that page. Our personal pages are a lot less time consuming as we’re not the type of people to spend three hours on a photoshoot (not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
How did you know when it was time to extend KIC into products and the app?
Steph: We had the e-book for a year before we launched a subscription website. This created a community of people making the recipes, and Laura and I wanted to keep in touch with them and give them more. We were both into fitness and were asked about it a lot.
From there, we met with a subscription company and launched KIC Girls that had recipes, workouts and community. That’s where we fell in love with the idea of this being more than a passion project. Around this time, we stepped back from the other work we were doing because KIC was so rewarding and filling us with so much joy.
At that time, we met with our business partners in the grocery business. They asked us to be on board to be ambassadors for a product, but as we chatted the conversation led to us developing a product. We wanted to develop a small line of products that we felt were lacking in the supermarket. It was so weird and surreal when it launched in Coles!
About 18 months ago we launched the KIC app. We just loved working on KIC Girls, so we left the subscription company and started our own app and built a team. It’s been five years, so while so much has happened, it wasn’t overnight.
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The social landscape has changed so much, and it can be hard to keep innovating in such a saturated market. What’s resonating with your community right now?
Laura: Instagram has completely changed in the last six years. When we started you could still grow your brand organically. It’s not impossible now but it’s a lot harder.
Content has shifted from being aspirational to inspirational. We’re lucky that real and authentic content is on trend because that’s what we do.
As a business it’s so important to be aware of what’s going on in the world. 2020 has caused the biggest shift online, people are looking for wholesome, authentic and funny content – inspiration and substance.
From the very beginning the messaging of your health and fitness brand has been to train to feel good, not look good. You’ve both spoken a lot about the challenges you faced growing up as models in the industry, was this what drove you to have such strong conviction in what you stood for as a brand?
Steph: Yes, it has everything to do with our personal experiences. We both had really unhealthy experiences with our body and exercise when we first started modelling. Our mind was totally focused on it because it’s such a competitive industry. It’s hard to get used to getting repeatedly looked down upon or told you’re not worthy or need to lose weight.
The more we opened up about our experiences, the more we saw that so many other women and men didn’t feel good in their own skin. At the time, the health industry was so focused on calorie counting and exercise, and training was all about getting results.
That works for some people, but for others that’s incredibly triggering. Because we went through that same journey, we want to make sure we are reaching our audience early enough so they don’t go on that journey, or they can change their mindset around it.
If you have a message based on personal experience, that’s when your authenticity can show through and you can bring something special to a business.
How do you deal with negativity online?
Laura: I couldn’t get through it without Steph. When you try and act with the best intentions and when what you do is so connected to who you are, negativity can be even harder, because you really start to question yourself. So, you need that person to call to put it into reality. As humans we go to that one negative comment rather than look at all the positive.
It’s important to remind yourself that negativity is all proportionate as you grow. Your negative comments will increase, but so will the positive.
What’s been the best investment you’ve made in your business to date?
Steph: Our team has been the most incredible investment. We’ve been so fortunate we’ve been able to survive this year when so many others haven’t, and we’ve even been able to make two hires. We couldn’t be happier with every single one of them, they really love the brand and its values. Our team need to love, listen and respect the KIC community as much as we do, because when we listen to our community feedback it helps us with decision-making.
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Your roles are so reliant on being active online. Are you able to switch off from social media in your downtime?
Laura: It’s so much easier since we’ve been able to hire people and let go of the things that are not our strengths. Because we’ve worked with each other for so long, we’ve been able to balance each other and take the load off one another.
How do you balance offering value to your community and growing your audience versus being a profitable business?
Steph: If you’re a business page only talking about what you do, people will get sick of it. It’s all about a balance. Our goal is to reach as many people as we can and have them enjoy a healthy lifestyle. If they don’t it with KIC, that doesn’t matter to us. We are just about making the world a happier place. The only reason we have a price on the subscription is so we can pay for a team and marketing to grow the business. We’ve ensured KIC stays as affordable as possible for the value it brings.
For more small business success stories, and tips on growing you business on social media, check out our small business hub.
NSW Small Business Month is a festival held in October that brings together all levels of government and industry leaders to support the small business community. Subscribe to stay in the loop about upcoming news on the NSW Small Business Month festival in 2021.