Brianne West isn't a fan of the overvalued capital raising structure common in Silicon Valley - raising money for money's sake. And while her company is no stranger to outside investment, having secured more than $1.3 million in the past 10 years, the CEO of eco-friendly cosmetics company Ethique says she is hesitant to take on any more.
The Christchurch-based business is familiar with investors trying to throw capital at it, but being financially sustainable on its own in the long run - as well as environmentally sustainable - is just as important for West.
The 35-year-old biochemist, who started the solid shampoo and cosmetics bar business from her flat while studying at university, is on a mission to divert plastic from landfill while cleaning hair and bodies.
Ethique, which West says is worth more than $100 million, has already saved 20 million plastic bottles from landfill and has plans to hit half a billion by 2030.
The Covid-19 pandemic has done little to stunt the company's growth, and she says it is on track to become a billion-dollar business within the decade.
As the pandemic hit in 2020, Ethique completed a large investment round, with most of its 300 shareholders selling out for "excellent returns". West describes the round as one of the most successful equity crowdfunding exits in the world.
"There is a lot of interest in Ethique, both consumer and otherwise investor; we're constantly turning down investment," West tells the Business Herald.
"Our new investor injected a large [undisclosed] amount of cash and we don't foresee the need to raise anytime soon.
"You see a lot of companies in America, it's the Silicon Valley way, they raise and raise, raise hundreds of millions, burn through it and then raise another couple of hundred million and all of a sudden they have got these insane valuations. I think a lot of it is smoke and mirrors, I think a lot of things are overvalued, but that isn't the way we want to run Ethique. We have wanted it to be financially sustainable as well, and not [part of] the boom and bust, which you see so many of those companies go through."
Future investment is not in the company's plans, though West says she would consider it if a too-good-to-miss opportunity popped up in a market such as Asia.
West was born in the Isle of Man, between Ireland and Wales, and moved to New Zealand with her parents at the age of 6. She lived in Dunedin for a few years before moving to Queenstown, where she spent most of her childhood and adolescence.
She moved to Christchurch - which she now calls home - at age 18 to study biochemistry at the University of Canterbury.
West has always been entrepreneurial. An only child, she had to be creative about making her entertainment, once turning her child minder's house into an art gallery and trying to entice people in off the street to look at her drawings.
She began various businesses in her youth, including decorating cakes, but her first proper business was at age 19: a "regular cosmetics company" called Pure and confectionery company Tub. She sold both while at university, before finding herself rushed off her feet after founding Ethique in 2012.
The idea for Ethique was born out of the realisation that she wanted to do more than sell products.
"I believe, and have believed for as long as I can remember, that businesses will change the world if applied correctly," she says.
"That's where the combination of my two passions came in: wanting to save the world to look after animals and applying science to do so, and then the excitement and creativity that is business, all of it culminated into Ethique really.
"It wasn't some grand plan. I just thought I could help rid the world of some plastic bottles by creating some solid shampoo but I wanted to operate this business as ethically as humanly possible."
Having sold her two previous businesses for less than $100,000 all up, she did not have much money as most of the proceeds went to paying off debt.
When Ethique began, West was buying $100 worth of ingredients each week and funding it through cashflow. After about a year and a half, it became a serious business.
"I had one team member at that point who saved me many times simply by wrapping products and shipping out orders from her home.
"I was living with my boyfriend at the time - it was just him and I at that point - and the whole house had turned into an Ethique factory, her whole house had turned into an Ethique wrapping factory; it was at the point where it was either stop this because it is becoming too big or take the next big step and make it a real business.
"I entered a university competition called Entré 85K Competition - $85,000 worth of prizes, I made it into the finals. Through the competition I was then paired with two mentors who were both phenomenal and we had to create a business plan that I still have now ... and a pitch. I was terrified, paralytically terrified, of public speaking and the pitch was a disaster.
"I didn't win but one of the mentors at the end became my business partner and injected a bit of capital into the company, and with that vote of confidence and some learnings the competition had taught me, I then went and signed a lease on a small unit, which we turned into the Ethique lab, hired a couple of team members and went from there."
That was 2014, and by mid-2015 Ethique had run out of money from that initial seed round.
It raised equity by crowdfunding, shortly after that was made legal in October 2015, and got $200,000 from 152 shareholders in 10 days. That funded the business into its new branding, which is still used today, and gave West the scope to hire an operations manager who is now the chief operating officer.
Looking back over the past 10 years, West says her journey in business reached a tipping point after a feature in Forbes magazine, which sent the business viral.
"I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but we really did - we were in media outlets all around the world. It was bananas, but it resulted in lots of orders, and then Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher shared it on Facebook, which just added to the craziness. We were a team of four at that point, making about 100 bars a day so it was hard, stressful, fun, but there were lots of tears and lots of stress."
West says she had always heard it is best not to expand operations overseas and explore international distribution until you are profitable in your home country, but she instead hopped on a plane to the United States to explore opportunities in early 2017, launching into overseas markets soon afterwards.
Ethique ran its global operations from New Zealand until early 2021.
The US and New Zealand are now Ethique's largest markets, closely followed by Japan, Australia and Britain. It is present in 22 markets and its products are sold in 6000 stores.
In June 2017, Ethique ran a second equity crowdfunding round, raising $500,000 in 90 minutes. It has also carried out some angel investing rounds, and has raised a total of $1.3m in investor capital since its inception.
West has lofty plans for the company to become a billion-dollar brand, achievable she says, through growing its business in new global markets and launching new product categories.
Ethique recently launched a range of lipsticks and is expected to expand further into makeup.
"To say that Ethique has grown past my wildest ambitions is an understatement," says West. "It has grown bigger than I ever thought it would, but not bigger than I ever hoped it would.
"I want Ethique to be a billion-dollar brand and I believe it will be."
That target will be a reality within five to 10 years, she says. The other goal on her list is for Ethique to be named one of New Zealand's most-trusted brands.
"The trend for sustainability and genuinely sustainable products and brands is not going anywhere anytime soon. It is growing, you can see that in the likes of plant-based meat, all of that sort of thing is charging ahead, particularly in the United States. People are demanding better from brands and not just in sustainability, but accountability, transparency, fair supply chains ... Ethique is answering a lot of what consumers are asking for, and we have since day one."
West says Covid has been both a blessing in disguise and a hindrance - in equal parts.
The inability to travel overseas to do business in person over the past two years has forced the company to put teams on the ground in both the US and Britain.
And while the pandemic has caused all sorts of supply chain headaches when it comes to getting products out of the country, it has not hurt the firm's sales.
Ethique's online business had grown "dramatically" since the onset of the pandemic, and now accounts for 50 per cent of revenue compared with 30 per cent before Covid-19 struck.
Ethique is a private company and does not disclose any financial information. However, West says sales are above forecasts and on track to meet the target of $1 billion.
Since January, the company has grown from a team of eight to 25.
West laughs when asked if she has plans to take Ethique public. She says she can't "think of anything worse", and the paperwork needed to list on a stock exchange is enough on its own to put her off.
"People who take companies public are incredibly brave. The paperwork? No. Not for me. Just terrifying the amount of compliance required."
She would rather fill her time by establishing new businesses, she says, applying lessons learnt from Ethique.
She is interested in establishing regenerative businesses, and is setting up an investing and mentoring company with the hope of getting into impact investing.
The Ethique Foundation
As well as working on start-ups, West has established the Ethique Foundation, which launched in early April after nine years in the making.
Based at Ethique's Ōtautahi HQ in Christchurch, the foundation has earmarked $10 million - 2 per cent of Ethique's sales - to donate to non-profit groups focused on contributing to a healthier planet and a fairer world, through innovation and regeneration.
Its immediate focus will be donating funds to organisations working on ocean conservation, and in July it will launch the Ethique Fellowship, a year-long programme to provide women with financial, educational and network assistance "to support them as they create impactful change with scalable business ideas".
West says the goal was always to have a stand-alone, independently operated philanthropic arm to Ethique that donated funds to organisations helping the planet. She settled on donating to ocean conservation because of her personal passion for the sea and marine biology, and the fact it is "incredibly important to planetary health".
"The overarching goal is to drive the planet forward and protect 30 per cent of the oceans by 2030, which is a huge initiative, created and championed by a bunch of non-profits. One of our big keystone charities is Mission Blue, who have been championing that for a long time."
West says Ethique had "inspired a bit of a movement within the cosmetics industry", encouraging mainstream brands to release solid product bars in the past 12 months.
"That is testament to the fact that consumers are demanding better options, and that's where I see Ethique's biggest impact.
"Yes we want to save half a billion plastic bottles by 2030, yes that's a big impact, but what's a much bigger impact is if we change the industry and inspire other brands to do better and offer consumers more, and show brands it can be done."