This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
Butters Hygienics Co. founder Jerome Stuart Nichols calls his business "one of the rare success stories" to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased demand for hygiene products has accelerated the growth of Nichols' Ypsilanti-based company, which specializes in handmade, plant-based cosmetic and hygiene products.
Nichols says that in 2019, the company's revenue was about $53,000. In 2020, that increased to about $200,000. His staff also grew from three to six over the course of 2020, and the company is expanding its product line.
"I'd say about 50% of that growth was due to COVID-19," Nichols says. "Bath and body products started selling like crazy, and our sales went through the roof."
Nichols started the company in the summer of 2016 with one product, a vegan lubricant and body moisturizer. Nichols says that's still what the company is best known for and that it makes up about 50% of the company's business, though the product line has expanded to include other skin care products and lip balm.
Nichols developed the original lubricant product after spending five years as a full-time sex worker, and later as a sexual health educator. He says he tried at least 50 different brands of lubricant, and he felt they all had the same problems.
"It's cold, it's sticky, it dries weird, and it doesn't really feel as natural as you'd want it to," he says. "I wanted to create something powerful, multi-faceted, versatile, and 100% vegan."
The name of the company is a nod to a quirky viral video of a white woman complaining that Black people are "hiding the butters," in reference to ingredients like cocoa and shea butters that are used in many bath and beauty products marketed to African-Americans.
"One thing I want to do with Butters Hygienics is share this cultural knowledge with other people," Nichols says. "There's a very ancestral African-American knowledge streak that goes through all my recipes."
In the beginning, Nichols sold his product person-to-person through word of mouth. He says he had to do very little promotion and let the products speak for themselves. He sold at the Ypsilanti Farmers Market and some small maker faires in the early years, but began making inroads into retail stores. Butters Hygienics products are now available in more than 20 stores in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
While Nichols' staff has grown, he still retains decision-making power over most aspects of the business, including how the products are packaged. He says he likes to "rethink" products people already love and "give them that Jerome touch."
Nichols also says it's important for small businesses to "take control of your product pipeline" and make sure they have alternative sources for all the materials they need. That has been especially true during the pandemic, when there were many shipping delays for hand sanitizer and other highly sought-after cleaning supplies.
"I had to drive 4,000 miles in about two months, going around getting ingredients, to get around delays in shipping and make sure I had what I needed for Black Friday," he says. "Business would have suffered and I would have lost $3,000 worth of sales if I had not bought a car in March, knowing I would need that control over the speed things could get to me."
Nichols says that no matter how small your business is, it's important to have a team of people who can help you.
"You need to find people who can give you ideas and support, who can keep the plates spinning when you're not around," he says. "Even if it's just a one-person business, you need a partner, a friend, a community online, or a freelancer who does your books. The number-one thing that can help you is having good people around you."
He notes that running a small business is a risk, but it's necessary to do the scary thing sometimes, to spend more money or more time, or work toward a big goal that will grow the business.
"If you're making more than $10,000 doing something, it's really worth it to go back and invest into what you're doing, even though it might be scary," he says.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Doug Coombe.