In our brand spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with Leah Fanning, owner of Natural Earth Paint. Natural Earth Paint sells natural and non-toxic art supplies, craft kits and face paints for children through fine artists, is based in Ashland, Oregon, and has been in business for nine years. Shop paint here.
Abound: Why did you decide to start this business? Why this business and not a different one?
Leah: I had been living in an earthen cob house in Southern Oregon when I was first introduced to natural earth pigments, which we used to plaster our walls. I had been a full-time artist for 15 years at that point and had always wanted to find a replacement for my toxic oil paints, but I’d never found an alternative.
There was nothing available online and my teachers in art school had never taught us anything about non-toxic options. Then one day I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, and within a week found out that I would be having my first one-woman art show a few days before my due date. So I would need to paint full time throughout my pregnancy!
I quickly disposed of all of my toxic art supplies and dove into researching an alternative. Necessity pushed me to quickly figure it out. There was almost nothing online except one artist in Arizona who made natural paints for his own art and he recommended an out-of-print book on collecting earth pigments in nature.
This book led to finding other paint-making books from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and beyond. I was hooked and within a few weeks, I was exploring the woods of Oregon and Northern CA, harvesting green, red, yellow and orange pigments in creek beds, road cuts and abandoned quarries.
There was a lot of trial and error in my steep learning curve but I found it fascinating that the highest quality and most archival paintings in the world from the prehistoric people to Rembrandt and the Old Masters were all painted with 100% natural and non-toxic supplies.
I also researched new, scientific developments in non-toxic materials and over that first year figured out a non-toxic and superior quality alternative for every toxic one that I had always used.
After using these natural materials and techniques for my own art for about 2 years, I started experimenting making natural children’s paints for my growing baby too. One day, I was quietly nursing my son, Django, in our tiny cabin in the woods and it literally hit me in a flash, a true aha moment, that I should create a business to share what I had learned and re-discovered!
I was so excited about it, I felt like I was going to explode, it felt so right and so meant to be. I anxiously waited for Django to finish nursing and then jumped up and ran to the computer to see if the url naturalearthpaint.com was taken, it wasn’t!
I had been researching the ingredients in conventional children’s paints and face paints at the time and was utterly shocked at the harsh toxins and chemicals in almost all of these supplies. So everything seemed to conspire and lead me right to the path that I was meant to take.
Abound: How did you make your first prototype? What changes have you made to your product since then?
Leah: I spent a year conducting multiple trades with all of my friends. I had no funding or capital so I gave my abstract paintings to my talented friends to design our paint kit boxes, graphic design, website design, logo design, etc.
Our packaging has all changed since our first prototype after hearing from retailers what type of box or presentation sells best in retail stores. We continually add new products and improve our existing recipes and formulations as we get feedback from customers requesting different properties and qualities.
Abound: How do you make your product? Yourself? A manufacturer? What’s your process like?
Leah: We manufacture everything in house in our solar powered facility in Oregon. Everything is hand-crafted and mixed in small batches by a small, wonderful group and our main focus is quality and sustainability. All of our packaging is biodegradable, recycled and locally made and our ingredients are organic and of the highest quality.
Abound: What’s your day to day like? Do you have any favorite and least favorite parts?
Leah: My day to day mostly involves business related admin tasks and managing our warehouse and employees, but my favorite thing to do is creating new things that the world needs, that the Earth needs and that people need. I love working with chemists and developing and formulating much needed non-toxic art supplies that do not currently exist.
I never stop getting excited about teaching people about natural art materials and how you can create higher quality and more archival paintings with absolutely nothing toxic, using all plant and earth-based ingredients.
Most people have the misperception that if it’s natural or eco-friendly it must not be as permanent or radiant or as high a quality but it’s actually the opposite. The education part of this job is always fun and watching people’s eyes light up.
Abound: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
Leah: I had no initial investment and started with no money and very gradually built the business each year, putting in what little money I made with my own art, and doing trades for services and still growing in sales 25% each year just through word of mouth.
Abound: Where was the first place you started selling your product?
Leah: Our website was first and then a local toy store was second.
Abound: Where do you sell your product now?
Leah: We sell our products all over the world with distributors throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, etc. We also sell them in stores throughout the U.S. including toy stores, art supplies stores, health food stores, museum gift shops, eco gift shops, costume shops and more.
Abound: Where would you love to sell your products in the future?
Leah: We would love to be in more small brick and mortar stores throughout the U.S.
Abound: Do you have a favorite product? If so, which one?
Leah: Our very first product was the Natural Earth Paint Kit which is still my favorite. An incredibly versatile, water-based, natural paint that has radiant colors and can be painted on all surfaces (wood, rocks, fabric, glass, pumpkins, eggs, etc.). It’s used by all ages from 3-90.
Abound: What’s your marketing like? Is social media an important part of your business? If so, how?
Leah: Yes, we use Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest and we also send out a monthly newsletter and create Youtube tutorial videos using our paint.
Abound: What are some of the most frustrating challenges and/or moments you’ve had with Natural Earth Paint?
Leah: There’s always the moments of burnout when I’m working 60-80 hours/ week and late into the night after my son has gone to sleep. But the thing that gets me through is that my passion for our products and the future of our business never waivers.
There are so many new products that I’m excited to invent and share with the world, that I’m always enthused about the next step and the next phase of our evolution.
Abound: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with Natural Earth Paint?
Leah: Our greatest achievement is that our sales have grown 25% every year for almost 10 years, simply by word of mouth. It shows the quality and integrity of our products and mission. I’m also proud of the fact that we stay true to buying local, paying a living wage, using eco-friendly packaging, using the highest quality ingredients, etc.
We would have much higher profit and financial stability if we had everything made in China, but I’m proud that we stay true to our mission and vision.
Abound: What advice do you have for people who want to sell a product?
Leah: I would suggest only starting a business if you have a very strong passion for what you’re selling or teaching or creating. Otherwise, it’s so easy to get burned out and give up if that’s not there.
Abound: Is there any business advice or quotes you’ve heard that you think about often?
Leah: Right in front of my computer monitor I have a few quotes that I read all day…
“I can be relaxed while being productive.” “I have enough time.” “Relax your shoulders, soften your heart, do your best.”
Abound: What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
Leah: I’ve loved having complete control of my schedule (even though I work constantly) and flexibility because I was able to be with my son as he grew up and never had to hire babysitters or after school care. And I can plan trips or vacations at any time. I also simply love creating new things and then releasing them into the world, I have since I was a small child.