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California North Portside Blog

Ask Jim. A Q&A with CN Founder, Jim Miller.

Posted by Onur Aybar on

A lifetime of work in large retail with the most notable brands in existence. Developing amazing skincare for over 24 years. Entrepreneurship, leadership, creativity, savvy... ever wondered what it takes to achieve success in the long run? Ask CN Founder, Jim Miller.

I joined California North in 2011 as we were coming out of one of the worst economic downturns in decades. Unlike many other companies, we were still alive and kicking, as nimble as ever. The years since have been exciting. You've probably seen a lot of my work as customers, fans, followers, without realizing it. I thought about the work that we all, as individuals and teams put in to any task, business or hobby and realized that the most dynamic of persons go unbeknown even though their work is a part of many daily routines, inspirations and enjoyments. Many of you encounter our products every day. As a skincare brand we know that, but have you ever wondered about the history of that bottle of shampoo you're using? Where it came from? Who it came from? And what inspired the entire thing?

I had the opportunity to ask our customers to submit questions for a special sit down with my colleague, the Founder and CEO of California North Skincare, Jim Miller, to discuss all things skincare, entrepreneurship and the future. Here's the conversation that ensued. -OA

You founded California North over 24 years ago now. Did you have an “aha” moment that led you into the skincare business, or was it a business you always saw yourself in? 

Honestly, it all began after seeing a need for men’s skincare, men quietly buying women’s brands, so it attracted me. I was shopping up north of Sausalito and came across a skincare store and wandered in. I noticed men in the store, but they were not buying women’s products, as sold in the store. Instead, they were buying product in generic bottles. No noticeable branding. Being a merchant and retailer, I couldn’t help but ask the store’s owner what they were buying. She explained to me that men wanted quality skincare but not as she sold it, for women, so she came up with her own solution which was to pour women’s products into generic bottles for men. I knew there had to be a better way to service the market and what I saw was proof in concept that men did want quality skincare. They just weren’t finding it easily. 

California North was born in my mind at that moment to solve a problem. As we evolved, the passion for the products grew and I set about building California North into a great skincare brand for everyone, men and women. So at the start of it I really wasn’t sure where we would be going, but we proved that there was a problem to be solved and we’ve found our niche along the way.

What was your professional experience prior to founding California North?  

I began my career as a buyer for Abraham & Straus in New York, in many areas, and then with Allied stores, followed by great involvement with The Limited Stores and Victoria’s Secret. I was in charge of stores and operations for Victoria’s Secret, and a bunch of field merchandising.

We hear so much about start ups today, and being based in Sausalito just a stones throw from San Francisco where many reside, what was it like to be a start up twenty four years ago?  

It was very exciting! This was really before the days of media in our pockets, on our screens in just about every part of our lives, so the comparison to most tech-oriented companies launching today is probably not the best, but we had a mission just like anyone starting a business today-a problem to solve, and we set out to do just that. 

We started in Sausalito, California where we built out a building in Scoonmaker Pt. Marina, and jumped into the sun care and skincare business.We had a learning curve, but everything we did was fun and successful. Our initial location doubled as a retail store, allowing us get close to our customers, which helped us build great products and receive feedback. Feedback and talking to your customers is so important. It’s nice to see emphasis on that in the marketplace today. Technology makes that aspect very easy these days.

What were the first products you developed? Are any of them still produced today?  

Razor Shavecream, Gelskin Scrub, Gelskin Wash, Sea Blast Shampoo, Self Tanner, O2xygen, and yes, all are still produced today!

I remember California North as an outdoor oriented brand in the 1990’s. Do your current products still stay true to that original image?  

We do. Outdoor or indoor activities drive us. I like to run, so much so that I almost clobbered myself running the Dipsea, a local race over Mt. Tam, but I didn’t burn in the sun thanks to our SpF’s!

"Active people are infectious and we really take inspiration from them in formulating products."

Another activity I’ve participated in over the years; On Russian Hill in San Francisco, I would join casual Tai Chi instructors in practicing moves.Still banging around today, the body does ache a bit, but I believe the key to life is learning and moving. Staying active runs oxygenated blood around and through our organs, keeping us fluid and alert. It’s a personal goal of mine to be active each day. Not too long ago I took up Krav Maga, which was a fun experience. I was the oldest guy in the room, but I got the most respect at the end of the day, and was the most bruised!. 

Our customers use our products in so many different ways outdoors, to moisturize at altitude, to protect themselves from wind, surfers hang on their boards and don’t burn using our Spf’s, beachgoers as well, and even our Self Tanner has become a hit worldwide as a great tanning alternative to help avoid too much sun! 

Protection from the salt air and sun in our climate of Northern California is something we have put into our products, from moisture to simply shaving or washing with our products. We are an outdoor society and environment here, and love the climate. That mindset goes directly into the products and makes them perfect for outdoor activities anywhere in the world.

What has changed the most in your approach to skincare since those early days?

Making products that cleanse and protect is important, and making sure the products are safe, especially with the many new regulations. All of our products have tested safe for consumers, so we just keep working forward continually improving our approach to create healthy, highly effective products.

In making skincare, what is the most enjoyable aspect of bringing a new product to market, and by comparison, what is the worst part about it?  

Identifying the need for a product and developing the function first is exciting. When you’ve truly solved a need or anticipated a future need and created a product that does a great job it’s such a great feeling. 

Dealing with regulations are time consuming, which are ongoing for us, but our products have worked well for years without issues. In that regard, the regulations seem a bit overdone for us since we already take great care in our formulations, but we do what is asked to stay current. The only thing worse is not timing things correctly when producing product, and having any additional delays for our customers. Meeting demand is a constant give and take when a product really hits the mark.

Out of your complete line of products, which is the most well known to the public or as a customer favorite?

I would say our Self Tanner, which really broke out while being featured on the Today Show with Maria Shriver, and then O2xygen fragrances for men and women. Both products have a tremendous following.

What product is your personal favorite?  

Gelskin Wash, great scent to wash with in the a.m., and great for the face and body, followed by the light lasting scent of O2xygen to go out into the work day.

As health conscious consumers become more aware of product ingredients, many brands have begun to use natural ingredients and remove others such as parabens and dyes. How do you balance natural ingredients with scientific must have ingredients in formulating California North products?  

We have not had to make many revisions over the years, but we have removed parabens and dyes from our newest runs. The key is to use the Best of Science and Nature, which we have been doing since our beginning. We actually feature that statement on all of our packaging, as it’s so important to our approach.

It is difficult to make products for long term use and export that are totally natural. The problem is they do go bad. They go rancid. 

Our approach is an educated one where we incorporate the best possible natural ingredients with the best possible scientific ingredients to come up with safe, highly effective products that are guaranteed to last for one full year.

In the past few years I’ve noticed a shift in California North branding and packaging design, even three letters on bottles now. What inspired these changes, usability, is it a new company ethos?

We have always referred to our products in short hand, AMO for action moisturizer, GSW for gelskin wash, etc. As we age, and as consumers have given us feedback, we have added these large size letters to the containers, to help in the shower! 

It makes it easier to identify what you are using, and not use Razor Shavecream as shampoo as some customers have reported! Our apologies to anyone who has ever inadvertently done something similar (laughing). A few team members are also very guilty of using one product instead of another. 

So the abbreviations are now for usability as are the pump bottles. They allow easier application of products and you can actually lock them closed for travel, which was another bit of feedback we responded to.

Our design and advertising philosophy is also experimental. We absorb feedback and feel confident reinventing ourselves as we progress and evolve as a business. It’s part of the fun of being in business.

Are California North products 100% made in the U.S.A.?

Yes they are. We buy components made in the U.S. and all formulas are made in the different U.S. labs that we partner with. We love the U.S. and support the growth of our economy to create jobs for Americans by buying and selling American.

I’ve often read that California North is a cruelty free company, what does that label stand for?  

To put it simply, for us it means, No animal testing, period. 

Long ago we investigated and then requested from our labs that ingredients and our finished products only be tested on humans.We are early members of Born Free American and the Beauty Without Bunnies Program.

Whenever I have a question or need help with a product, I often get a response from you, personally. Is it really you?

Yes, it is! It helps us to personally receive and respond to comments about our products. What entrepreneur doesn’t appreciate any attention to their brands and/or the products they create? In creating products you always feel a personal obligation to listen, learn and respond to your customers, and that’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing.

With the popularity of social media these days, I’ve noticed that California North keeps a low profile overall. Will we see more of you out there? 

This is a question I’ve gotten a few times. We are not rushing along to build a social presence that is not real and organically grown. It takes more time to be seen in the maze that exists online, but we persevere and are interested to engage with our customers and followers. We are offering free products, and free delivery on some products through customer drawings for example, as we reach milestones on sites like Facebook. Fun and exciting for our customers and us. We just see more value in growing at whatever pace our customers feel comfortable engaging with us. As long as customers want us out there, we will definitely be. Just don’t expect us to throw marketing in your face everyday. We’d rather talk, listen and learn in fun ways. 

A fun thing we have been doing is showcasing photography of our area on social media and we’ve got great responses. We may eventually showcase creative work as a whole as we grow.

After such a long time in business, what does the future hold for California North Skincare? Will we see the brand continue to evolve and reinvent itself?  

I think that functional products, well accepted, have a life of their own, so they will continue to sell. We desire more development in the sun category, hair categories, and always packaging. The future is bright as we develop more and more export as well. In general, we'll continue to go where the business takes us and where the customer needs us to go in product development.

You’ve had a long career in retail spanning back over four decades, what is the most exciting change you’ve experienced in your own career?

Managing divisions for merchandise in Department stores was very exciting. I traveled the world obtaining unique offerings to bring back to the consumer, but then specialty stores took the lead, and that change allowed me to work in dynamic nationwide businesses aiding in their growth, which was also an exciting task. So I’ve had a lot of exciting changes in my early days and thereon with my own company. 

No matter what we do in business, whether product or services we are in the people business. Spending many years in specialty stores, I understand the benefit of regions and districts, where if they are not individually doing well, often the company can not. Exciting change was to see an organization come together with involved leadership. I believe our country would be better off with so called regions, in this case States, retaining moneys and the power to create competition on all levels that other states would learn from. 50 states competing for excellence and managing their budgets. What a dream, and a Federal Government smaller, dedicated to protecting us from within and from without. The business model of independent regions is perfect for independent, competitive states. That would strengthen our country and put people back to work.

And on that topic, what is the biggest change you’ve seen in consumers?

Consumers want quality, function, and value.We have become a value driven society, one that is growing in huge numbers online.

The biggest change is going to your computer instead of going to the mall. I worry about malls, the amount of real estate, the monthly rents, and the need for consumer traffic. I feel that malls will have to change dramatically as the buying disposable clothing trends down in favor of a European approach, buying less, buying quality, and keeping it! 

Malls can become more community centers offering much more in the way of service businesses, even translating to smaller scale housing which is being tested in many countries, and will provide more affordable housing. Hard to see people in congested areas, gassing up and running to the mall for the newest seasonal merchandise, with the major successful change to a digital online world.

What advice would you give to young people, entrepreneurs, or anyone hoping to go into business?

"Find your passion, stay focused on your initial motivation, don’t borrow a lot of money, and let the product or service prove its value."

Make sure you develop what is truly needed or desired and you will be successful!

Why did you decide not to sell your product in retail stores?

Simple answer, it’s very expensive to do so. We began with Nordstrom in 1993, later with Macy’s, but during that time we sold many department stores across the country as well. We decided to back away during the economic downturn in 2008-2010, and converted to direct to consumer, still shipping to independent retailers, but ramping up export.

For now we are happy with our approach and always exploring more ways to bring California North Skincare to the public. We cannot say that we'll never revisit a large retail presence if the situation suits us, but the landscape is a tough one for our style of operation. 

Anything you would like to add?

It's been a lot of fun and thanks to our customers, friends, fans, everyone for submitting your questions. We'll do this again soon.

Jim Miller, Founder and CEO of California North Skincare.