Episode 41: Gay Timmons, Founder and President of Oh, Oh Organic

While Gay Timmons’ official title reads President of Oh, Oh Organics, one might argue to have it changed to Organic Beauty Fairy Godmother. As founder of North America’s only cosmetic ingredient distributor solely dedicated to organic and sustainable ingredients, she’s made the clean beauty dreams of countless brands a tangible reality.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey, everyone. It's Jodi Katz, your host for Where Brains Meet Beauty. This podcast is my side hustle. I do have a day job. I am the founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency. We are an omni-channel branding agency hyper-focus on the beauty and wellness industries. Today's guest on our show is Gay Timmons. She is a huge force in natural beauty, and we're excited that she's a guest on our show. If you didn't yet catch it, please check out last week's episode with Jeannie Jarnot. She's the founder of Beauty Heroes. I hope you enjoy the show.
Okay, everybody. I am so excited to say that we are joined today by Gay Timmons. She's the founder of Oh, Oh Organic. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty.
Gay TimmonsThank you for having me.
Jodi KatzLet's start with you telling us what Oh, Oh Organic Inc. is all about.
Gay TimmonsWe are the only cosmetic ingredient distributor in North America solely dedicated to organic and sustainable ingredients. It has to be certified and it has to come from green chemistry if it's a synthetic. It has to meet all the rules of the various organic and natural standards that have been published. We do a lot of distribution. As a result of starting that business before people were very knowledgeable or keyed into the whole green and clean thing, I ended up doing a lot of consulting, because I had to help people learn how to formulate and how to figure out what ingredients worked for them, and what sustainable and organic and natural mean. We cover a wide scope of things.
Jodi KatzYou started this business 17 years ago.
Gay TimmonsYeah, 2000.
Jodi KatzWhat were you doing before that?
Gay TimmonsI was doing a similar thing for food ingredients. I was living on a small, organic farm and doing growing and processing of organic food ingredients. I was consolidating containers of both finished organic products and organic ingredients, and shipping them out to the far east, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand. I really worked with distributors in those countries, primarily. I kind of shifted from food to cosmetics.
Jodi KatzWhy?
Gay TimmonsI have little kids, and I went through a divorce, and I had to differentiate what I was doing from what my ex-husband was doing because of conflicts with the business. And I thought, "Hm, cosmetics. That's going to be the next big organic thing," I said 17 years ago. 10 years later, it started to work.
Jodi KatzYeah. You know, I meet so many founders who were really too early. They were doing something too good, too soon. They're, I guess at this stage or two years ago, still pretty beaten down. And then all of a sudden, retailers started calling. Customers started calling. What was it like in the first 10 years?
Gay TimmonsIt was really hard. I always laugh. One of my old colleagues from the food side, I said, "Well, we doubled," and he goes, "That's pretty easy when you start at zero." That's absolutely true. I had to find other ways. That's why I did a lot of consulting, and I still did consulting and various kinds of work in the organic industry on the food side. Helping people get certified, whatever they needed me to do. That allowed me to earn enough money to bankroll my growing little distribution business.
Jodi KatzAnd you own this business solely?
Gay TimmonsYes.
Jodi KatzWow, congratulations.
Gay TimmonsI don't owe anybody any money, which is a nice feeling.
Jodi KatzIs this the type of business where you need investors and loans to drive the business forward?
Gay TimmonsI'm at the point now where I have a line of credit, and we're raising that, actually, next week. So I need a little more flexibility in a line of credit, but at this point I don't, because I move through the product pretty quickly. Plus about half of the companies that I represent, I work as a broker. They're sending the invoices and collecting on the invoice.
Jodi KatzSo you're able to keep it lean on your end.
Gay TimmonsRight.
Jodi KatzAnd still be the center of this industry, basically.
Gay TimmonsRight. I have revenue both from commission, consulting, and actual repackaging and reselling of products that I bring in.
Jodi KatzRight. This is highly specialized, and my guess is there's many people like you in the non-green and clean space, right?
Gay TimmonsYes.
Jodi KatzThey're moving things from one place to another, selling them, reselling them, middle man, or whatever we call it, right?
Gay TimmonsRight.
Jodi KatzAre there a lot of people as focused on this industry in this way of tracking ingredients and understanding the supply chain as you are? Or is this pretty rare now?
Gay TimmonsIn the organic space or-
Jodi KatzYeah.
Gay Timmons... the natural nature? I'd say I'm pretty unique in that. I divide it between two kinds of companies. There are a lot of websites that are dedicated, like Mountain Rose Herb only does certified organic. I think they have a few things that are not organic, but they do not serve or provide the kind of support you need for documentation and regulation if you're a cosmetic manufacturer. And there are a lot of companies that are much more focused on being a web space, web-driven business. They may have many, many customers and sell four ounces or eight ounces. We don't do that. We support brands, labs, manufacturers who have a need for long-term regulatory support, reliability, and availability of ingredients, and work collaboratively so that when a brand comes in, they know if a brand says, "We're scaling up and we want to use organic and natural ingredients," they know they can call me and get some suggestions. I've gotten to the point now where I literally just send packages of suggested ingredients, because they might be interesting or they may just be appropriate for that particular brand.
Jodi KatzSo you can service the large strategics, the multinationals…?
Gay TimmonsYeah. I work with everybody from Estee Lauder down to people who make soap in their garage.
Jodi KatzRight. This is so fascinating. Let's switch gears a little bit. We are recording a podcast, and we're in the studio space right now. You told me that you're a lover of podcasts.
Gay TimmonsI am, absolutely.
Jodi KatzWhat do you love listening to?
Gay TimmonsI like listening to stuff that has nothing to do with my business, but does support me entrepreneurially, I would say. I listen to a lot of ... As I told you earlier, I started off listening to comedy and just people who ... A lot of comedians have podcasts, just to lighten the mood. But as I've found things, I really like Kara Swisher, who's a tech reporter. But she interviews all of the entrepreneur founders in Silicon Valley, and just listening to how they did what they did, even though the outcome is very different. A lot of the management information is very, very useful. I love it. Plus, she's smart as a whip, so she's always fun to listen to.
I'm political, so I love listening to the political podcast. I like listening to The Axe Files, because it's like a history lesson, because he'll interview for an hour people from all walks of government, both sides of the tracks, from very liberal to the complete opposite. You really get people's perspectives, and I really enjoy that. And I listen to a lot of science.
Jodi KatzMm-hmm (affirmative). I'm so glad that we have you here today. I'm sure many of our listeners who are very interested in green beauty are wondering in their heads the question I'm going to ask next, which is, what is the language that makes sense for this industry? Not everything can be organic, so is it natural? Is it green? Is it clean? What language are you using around this that makes sense to you?
Gay TimmonsI break things down. You need functional ingredients to have certain kinds of products, obviously. The vast majority of products are going to have some kind of a synthetic. I look at things that are minimally processed that are certified organic that come from food, and they contribute a certain ... all of the oils, the emollients; there's a lot of naturally occurring constituents in those kinds of ingredients that bring a lot of power to a product. But at the same time, if you need a wax and you want a vegan wax, you can't use beeswax, so maybe you need a hydrogenated wax. If that's done within using green chemistry from an organic or a natural material, then so much the better, because you're using renewable raw materials. Using green chemistry to synthesize your ingredient.
I talk about good and bad synthetics. From my perspective, green chemistry is where we're going, and green chemistry is a measuring line. There's the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry. It was a paper written in the '90s by a couple of guys. John Warner is one of them, so you can google it pretty easily. Then the other side are things that we need to start really looking at, whether they're having a negative effect on the environment or some kind of concerns about toxicity. There are a lot of things that accumulate in the environment, but they don't hurt humans. We need to really start looking at those, because it's really hard to get some of that stuff out of our water.
Jodi KatzRight.
Gay TimmonsThat kind of thing. That's how I look at it. I think that we, as an industry, we need to have that conversation to answer your question collectively. I work with NOHBA, which is the Natural and Organic Health and Beauty Alliance. It's NOHBA.org. We are putting together a working group to come up with best practices to break down what is natural, what falls under the heading of green chemistry. Organic is defined under law for the agricultural components, and then there's private standard. We've done a lot of work around that language. It's available to us. Maybe we can take some of those models, transfer them over as we start talking about natural a little more effectively. And then there's the whole issue of sustainability, which is another one. I don't think it's just changing light bulbs and lightening your packaging. I think there's a lot for us to do environmentally.
Jodi KatzI was introduced to you, thankfully, through Ashley Prange, the founder of Au Naturale, who's a client and a friend. Ashley is super involved and she's part of NOHBA with you.
Gay TimmonsRight. Yeah, she's on our board.
Jodi KatzI've been hearing about Ashley's point of view on this for over a year now, and I'm in this industry, and I have many other clients who would be ... maybe they're green and clean, whatever we want to call it. I'm confused. I'm in this industry, working with people who are on the front lines, literally going to D.C. and going to the fields and meeting with everybody in between. I think our customer is way, way, way more confused than I am, right?
Gay TimmonsYeah.
Jodi KatzI try to make buckets for our clients around if you are a brand that's valuing, I guess, green chemistry, although that's not a term that my clients have been using. If you value sustainability, if you value green and clean or you value natural, you value organics, we try to bucket the customer. There's the exceptionally educated customer, who might be reading everything that you write, basically, or your peers, and really focused on every little detail, like the supply chain, where it came from, how it's extracted. Things that most people don't know. That's one bucket, and it's a very small, but a vocal, bucket.
Gay TimmonsRight.
Jodi KatzThen there might be people who are really making lifestyle changes based on their health. A pregnancy or a cancer scare, something like that-
Gay TimmonsThat's the biggest component-
Jodi Katz... that's sort of life-changing.
Gay Timmons... I would say, of change.
Jodi KatzAnd then there's other people who are like, "I want to do good. I just want to make good choices. I don't know what those choices are. I need some guidance."
Gay TimmonsRight.
Jodi KatzI think two of those groups are doing a lot of research, even if they're confused, they're actively researching. I think the majority of people who are consumers in this space, they just want to do good and they want to feel good. What kind of guidance would you give to them as they're trying to make decisions around what products to use, what brands to trust? How can they enter this world and think that they're able to make any sort of good decision for themselves and their families?
Gay TimmonsIt's really, really, hard. I completely agree. I think you can break it down into a couple of approaches. One is if you have profound concerns about health, a certified organic product is probably your safest choice. Let me back up a minute and say I feel like when people say green clean, organic, natural, all that, I think those are all pointing towards safe.
Jodi KatzMm-hmm (affirmative), yes.
Gay TimmonsWe all want to know that we're using products that are good for us. And then I think other people go further on and want it to be good for the environment as well, like you've indicated.
Jodi KatzRight. Priority number one is safety for myself and my family.
Gay TimmonsRight. So-
Jodi KatzPriority number two is-
Gay TimmonsThe environment.
Jodi Katz... doing good in the world.
Gay TimmonsRight. Organic is going to be your first choice, and there's two choices there. There's a food standard, which has a limited array of products. There are private standards, Ecocert, which will increasingly have the ... Excuse me. Cosmos seal on it. C-o-s-m-o-s. And that's green chemistry and organic raw materials.
Jodi KatzOkay, let me pause. Ecocert. I know Ecocert, and there is an Ecocert seal, and I've worked with brands who have an Ecocert seal. You're saying that there's some other seal?
Gay TimmonsThey're going to turn that into Cosmos, because what happened was there were six different standards. Ecocert, Soil association, one out of Italy, one out of Germany, et cetera. They harmonized and created the Cosmos seal. It takes people a while to change their labels, so I think it's this year ‘17 and ‘18, most people when they go through their inspection, if they're with any of those other standards, will convert to Cosmos. There's that for super high concern. And that will address environment and safety.
There are a lot of people who are what I call self-described organic. You know? They think they're doing a good job, and for the most part, usually they are. We're offering a service through NOHBA where we're going to review their label and point out anything that they may want to be changing in the future.
Jodi KatzThis will be a service to brands and manufacturers.
Gay TimmonsRight. For basically a label review. It's mainly just looking at their ingredient statement. We don't even need the formula; we just need to know what's in there, and then we can say, "These are the things you may want to think about and be aware of."
Jodi KatzIs that a free service to the organizations, or they pay for this?
Gay TimmonsNo, they're going to pay for it. It'll be discounted for members, because we have to have a regulatory scientist look at it.
Jodi KatzGot it, okay.
Gay TimmonsWe have a valuable person doing this, but it's not ... I think it'll be $40 for a label.
Jodi KatzOh, that's amazing.
Gay TimmonsI think that's a great next step, and I think that's the majority of products out there. Everybody out there is doing this for passion. They really are. They're committed. They do the absolute best they can. But as entrepreneurs, we all learn as we go along. So I think we all have to learn together and allow those brands to evolve.
Jodi KatzRight. I do think that there's ... I meet many impassioned people who are really just trying to do their best, right? Develop brands and products that are safe and trusted. But I think the challenge for the consumer is that there's plenty of other companies that are using these words as a marketing contact, right? That's the true confusion, I think. Oh, I saw an article somewhere. I read something. I feel informed. Then I go to the drug store and I see the same words on these products from these behemoth global corporations. Oh, so I can trust these? I think there's just so much confusion.
Gay TimmonsYeah.
Jodi KatzDo you think that both entrepreneurs and the large multinational corporations are going to want to take part in making safer products, making more sustainable products?
Gay TimmonsI think they are. I think that's why they're buying some of those brands. L'Oreal has been doing that for probably the last 10 years. They bought actual organic branded companies and organic ingredients companies in Europe. Not so much here.
Jodi KatzOh, so they're trying to be more vertical?
Gay TimmonsYes, I think they're ... Yeah. And I think they're also trying to learn from those companies. I know when you go to IBE, Indie Beauty Expo, and other shows, you'll see the large brands looking to try and figure out what are these people doing? Because it's such a vibrant part of the cosmetic industry, which is also the part that makes it so much fun.
Anyway, I think that. Organic, certified, and then that second category. Even if they just look at the ingredient statement and they feel like they're seeing that a large majority of the ingredients are organic and natural, they're probably at least supporting farmers that we need, and pushing the development of this industry forward because they're creating a demand for those kinds of ingredients. And then after that, I think you have to just kind of depend on the internet, to a certain extent. But that is hard. There are a lot of people who write a lot of stuff.
Jodi KatzThat's right.
Gay TimmonsAs my southern mother would say, "Bless their hearts." And they're not necessarily completely informed about how ingredients are made, and that is super technical. People don't know how you make oil. People don't know where their food comes from, so how can they know where their ingredients in a cosmetic come from?
Jodi KatzRight. There was just a few weeks ago, or maybe a few months ago at this point, this article someone sent me about aloe being banned in California.
Gay TimmonsIt was a prop 65.
Jodi KatzOkay.
Gay TimmonsThat was actually a real simple thing.
Jodi KatzOnce again, as a confused industry person, I immediately emailed Ashley. I'm like, "Why would this be ... What's wrong with aloe?" Can you walk us through what that is all about?
Gay TimmonsYeah. Aloe plants are extremely complex, and they are little factories. They create all their own chemicals inside of them. So aloe on the outside has a skin, and a layer portion of that skin has a material, and I can't remember the name of the chemical in it, but basically, if you remove that ... It's bright yellow. If you remove that and you have what's called decolorized aloe, then that problematic chemical is gone. Most aloe that's used in cosmetics is decolorized aloe.
Occasionally, and again, this goes back to that overzealous organic or overzealous natural. People want complete, whole aloe, and that's a problematic one. What the prop 65 law actually says is that anything that is decolorized is okay. If it is not, you have to put a prop 65 warning on it because of the potential for having that chemical that is native to the plant.
Jodi KatzGot it.
Gay TimmonsIt's that simple.
Jodi KatzIt's that simple, yet that confusing, right?
Gay TimmonsYeah, but it's that technical, really.
Jodi KatzRight.
Gay TimmonsAnd because the way we label cosmetic ingredients, I don't even think there's an INCI name, which is the ingredient name for cosmetic ingredients, that says decolorized. There's 14 different names in the INCI dictionary for aloe vera gel, last I counted, which is crazy.
Jodi KatzYeah. Okay, so the different names are because I can extract different ways? Is that ...
Gay TimmonsNo, it's because of the way that the dictionary was created over the first 50 years of its life. They've standardized things now, so you can't have that many named for a particular product. But I think they left a lot of them grandfathered in.
Jodi KatzOkay. Let's shift gears a little bit, now that my brain is spinning. I'm trying to understand everything and digest it. Okay, so you are a preeminent expert in this space. You work with giant companies, large manufacturers, and small brands. How do you do all of this? I'm assuming you're a pretty lean organization.
Gay TimmonsYeah.
Jodi KatzHow do you fit all the time in for this, for NOHBA, for speaking engagements and things like that?
Gay TimmonsI have an incredible team. We're not huge. There's six of us now. But I work a lot. I probably work six days a week pretty consistently, and I work long days. But I also have fun. I have to say that going from all of the stuff I had done historically into the cosmetic world, all of a sudden I went from working with all men to all women. It's so much fun. I love it so much more. It's so great. It's really a pleasure, and it's really fun for me to see these young women being so inspired and working with these really interesting ideas, and their marketing is beautiful. They're just really working hard. All I say to all of my customers is, "I just want you to be successful. If there's anything I can bring to that, I will."
I try to be as efficient as I can. You pay people to do things so that you can do other things, and hopefully, you have a revenue stream in there so that it makes sense. I'm not a Silicon Valley company. You know, we don't have debt, and we didn't have to borrow tons and tons of money. It just works out. Plus, the organic industry is relatively small. And I have been doing this a long time, so I'm pretty efficient. Doesn't take me a long time to get most things done. We have a lot of stuff. I think I have 160 or something blogs where I've written about the aloe vera issue, about if somebody buys oil that says it's sunflower oil RBD, what does that mean? I have a lot of little technical blogs I can refer people to on my website so that I don't have to reexplain things over and over.
Jodi KatzRight. Do you travel the world to visit where these ingredients come from?
Gay TimmonsYes, I do.
Jodi KatzHow often are you globetrotting?
Gay TimmonsI'm trying not to globetrot too much, but my kids are both almost out of college. I've got one that will graduate in May. And the other one's out and launched. So I mean, Europe, I'll go to In Cosmetics in April and then I'll go see one of my suppliers in Madrid. And then I'm hoping to go to Morocco to see my argan supplier. I went to Ecuador I guess two years ago, and I'd really like to go back, but I think I'm going to wait until 2019 to go. It's a long trip to South America. Wonderful, amazing, and that's where I work with palm, a really amazing project with over 200 farmers for palm production. A lot of family farms and that's sort of the thing I love at that end of it. I try to only do one really big trip once a year, maybe twice a year.
Jodi KatzDo you ever get overwhelmed with your mission? The sense of do all these baby steps add up to big steps?
Gay TimmonsYeah. I don't get ... What I'm saying is yes, they do add up, and no, I don't get overwhelmed. I've been doing this a long time, and I'm not young, so I think I have a little more patience, number one. Number two, I am inherently optimistic. I just really am, and I also feel like if you give people the tools to connect the dots, they'll do it. That does create more work in a way. That's why we created NOHBA, because I felt like we needed a method to bring people into a space to discuss this very special area and then help it grow with some structure and some consensus. I think consensus on the landscape of how you talk about a product category is really, really important. And I know exactly what it did with organic food, so I've got a really strong model to look at. So I don't feel overwhelmed, because I feel like I have a sort of a historical foundation to work from.
Jodi KatzRight. I would like to be more patient. I have a hard time with it.
Gay TimmonsWait until your kids are older. Wait until high school. Do you have any that age yet?
Jodi KatzNo, they're both elementary school.
Gay TimmonsYeah. It's interesting.
Jodi KatzI think it's a really valuable trait for running your own business, to just be patient and just continue moving forward and not analyze every single tiny step, and just keep moving forward.
Gay TimmonsRight. It's that, but I also think you have to problem solve.
Jodi KatzRight.
Gay TimmonsI don't look at anything as a ... When somebody gets upset, I'm not good at drama. It's like okay, let's identify the problem and let's come up with a couple of solutions, and we'll try one or two of them, and we'll tweak it and make it work. That's really become my management style as I've had more people come into my organization. When you're on your own, it's harder to be patient in a way, because you're the main player, so you can get impatient with yourself. But when you have to communicate to other people, you're sort of forced to either have unhappy employees or figure it out in a proactive way.
Jodi KatzYeah, I'd probably say I'm fairly patient with my team. I'm very impatient with myself, right?
Gay TimmonsYeah, right there.
Jodi KatzI'm much harder on myself. My last question for you about this industry that you are really and truly an expert in, where do you see it evolving in the next five to 10 years?
Gay TimmonsI'm seeing it explode right now, and I think that there will be greater clarity on exactly what the terms mean. I think we'll come to some consensus. I think that as the brands mature and their messages become clearer, that consumers will feel more comfortable. The last statistic I saw is that this is, especially in this space, it's the millennial buyer who's driving it. They're 47% of the, I guess the, buying demographic right now. That's pretty significant. As they mature, you're going to see real growth in that area.
We're growing at a pretty good clip and I think most of the brands that I work with are growing anywhere from 10 to 100% a year. It's kind of crazy for some of them. I see huge demand. And then every time somebody gets pregnant, as you said earlier, they stop and go, "Oh. Should I use this? What am I going to do?" You know? I think it makes changes, and then at the other end of things, if somebody gets sick, they start looking seriously at the kinds of products they're using.
Jodi KatzRight. Why haven't you started your own brand?
Gay TimmonsI don't like working with the consuming public. When you talk about patience, I don't have patience for that. I have patience for entrepreneurs. I have patience for scientists and formulators, and I love working on the farm side. I've got a lot of great ideas, because I've seen a lot of people make a lot of mistakes. But I have no interest in creating a brand, really. I make stuff for my husband or for myself. That's about it. My kids.
Jodi KatzDo you see one segment of the industry growing more rapidly in the future, like hair versus skin and versus color, versus fragrance?
Gay TimmonsI think the fragrance industry is changing a lot, and I'm seeing that just in the fragrance houses that I work with, because I sell ingredients to some of them, and I also represent a fragrance house. I think that the hardest one is going to be hair care, because of the synthetics you have to have for conditioning and for [crosstalk 00:31:17]-
Jodi KatzYou mean that nice slip and glide?
Gay TimmonsOh yeah, that beautiful hair in the commercial. That thing that hair does in all commercials, where the move their head around. Yeah. I think that's the hardest thing to do, because that's a really particular kind of chemistry, and it's not the nicest chemistry in terms of the environment. That's the hardest one to do. The other thing is preservatives, although I'm working with a physicist right now who just has patented what I believe will be the first certified organic preservative.
Jodi KatzWow.
Gay TimmonsYeah, I'm really excited. We've run challenge tests. All that looks good. Now we have to play with it a little bit more, but another month or so, we'll launch it.
Jodi KatzWow, that's so fabulous.
Gay TimmonsYeah.
Jodi KatzWell, thank you, Gay. This has been so informative and for sure, a must-listen-to episode for anyone who's a formulator or interested in where the natural space is going. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us today. And for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Gay. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes, and for updates about the show, please follow us on Instagram at Base Beauty Creative Agency.
For our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes, and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram at Where Brains Meet Beauty Podcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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