Just say Yes: Ido Leffler & Lance Kalish
It's not enough to make a profit, say entrepreneurs Lance Kalish and Ido Leffler. You also need a purpose.
27 January 2016
Yes To Inc may be a multimillion-dollar business and the number two natural beauty brand in the biggest market in the world but founders Lance Kalish and Ido Leffler regard it as a "stepping stone" to their ultimate goal of social change.
The two men, who met at UTS Business School in the late 1990s, are perhaps even more proud of the "for purpose, for profit" businesses Yoobi and Cheeky that have grown out of the success of US-based Yes To.
Yoobi and Cheeky sell school and office stationery and disposable tableware, respectively, but also make matching donations of school supplies and meals to disadvantaged children in North America – helping millions in just two years.
"There are three pillars of business that we follow, which underwrite all the businesses we have today," says Kalish, "and that's incredible people, kick-ass products and awesome causes."
Kalish and partner Ido Leffler, who met as students at UTS Business School, received the prestigious Chancellor's Award for Excellence at the 2015 UTS Alumni Awards for their entrepreneurship, determination and passion for social change.
"Lance and Ido have created a wonderful business model, with giving back to the community at its core," Chancellor Professor Vicki Sara said in announcing the award. "They provide an outstanding example to other entrepreneurs on the power of business to create positive change."
The pair also directs a portion of the profits from their natural beauty products business to the Yes To Seed Fund, which supports programs teaching children about nutrition and healthy living through projects such as micro-farms in Africa and organic school gardens.
School supply brand Yoobi operates on a "one for one" model, so that every time someone buys any Yoobi item, a Yoobi school item is added to a Yoobi pack for a disadvantaged child.
One million children in the US have now received a year's school supplies from Yoobi under the scheme. Likewise, with every Cheeky tableware product sold, a meal is donated to someone in need – amounting to 5 million meals in its first year.
"This is the type of business we believe people should operate today – with social responsibility and purpose"
Kalish announced at the UTS Alumni Awards that from 2016 Yoobi will be stocked in Australia by Officeworks, with The Smith Family as the local giving partner.
"This is the type of business we believe people should operate today – with social responsibility and purpose," Kalish says. "We always felt that finding a purpose for our business was as important as driving a profit."
Leffler adds: "We sincerely hope that this will become the new way that everyone does business in the future."
With Yoobi and Cheeky, consumers understand that every time they purchase a product they are giving as well. "It creates a whole new dynamic around consumer behaviour," Leffler says.
Kalish and Leffler each graduated with a Bachelor of Business in 2000, initially going their separate ways – Kalish to the corporate finance division of PWC and Leffler overseas to work in his family's natural products business in Indonesia and India.
They met again two years later. "I had learned a lot at PWC but was keen to do something entrepreneurial," Kalish recalls. "Ido was back in Australia and had learned while in Asia that there was a real opportunity to help local health and beauty brands go international.
"I was coming into it from a very corporate finance angle and he had the very strong sales and marketing experience, and a kind of raw entrepreneurial character. We found we were particularly compatible as business partners."
Their first venture was a brand management consultancy that after three years was representing 75 health and beauty brands.
An investor encouraged the pair to use their industry-specific knowledge and experience to start their own brand. Supported by seed funding, in 2006 they came up with Yes To Carrots skin care, the first in what would become a line of "super-natural" products made with fruits and vegetables.
That same year they were introduced to a buyer at the US pharmacy chain Walgreens who, won over by their youthful exuberance, offered them an online-only sales trial.
"Anyone else would have said, 'Walgreens? That's too big.' The business wasn't even six months old," recalls Leffler. "We had no idea how we were going to do it, but we were the 'Yes To' company – so we said yes."
The trial resulted in a $3 million order for the full range of Yes To products, for all of Walgreens' 6000 stores.
"To be honest, we had no idea how we were going to do it but we said yes anyway," Leffler says. "We didn't make much money from that opening order, but we felt if we could get onto the shelves that would be a big stepping stone in growing the business."
In 2008 the pair took the plunge again – "We were the fastest growing brand in the world's largest market" – raising $14 million and gaining the backing of two San Francisco-based private equity firms.
"We found a way to create businesses that give back in everything they do, every day"
Today, Yes To products sell in 25,000 stores – including CVS, Walmart and Target – in 15 countries. As well as Yes to Carrots the range includes a salad of upbeat product names such as Yes to Blueberries, Yes to Tomatoes, Yes to Cucumber, Yes to Coconut, and Yes to Grapefruit. The range covers, face, body, hair and baby products.
Kalish says he has no doubt that the pair's experience at Business School underpins this success.
"The Bachelor of Business degree was heavily focused on teamwork and thinking out of the box, and we took those learnings and applied them. What we learned at UTS gave us the knowledge and confidence that we could 'take on the world', do something we had never done before," he says.
"It drove us to create businesses that are not only thriving but, most importantly, making a huge difference.
"We were able to work with some of the biggest retailers in the world to create brands that did something that is really quite a simple idea. We found a way to create businesses that give back in everything they do, every day.
"All that came from a chance meeting at UTS, at the Kuring-gai campus, in our second year of Business."
Words by Lesley Parker. This article first appeared in the 2016 edition of #think magazine. For more articles and profiles read the full issue here
Lance Kalish and Ido Leffler
UTS: Chancellor’s Award for Excellence
UTS: Alumni Award for Excellence – UTS Business School
Bachelor of Business (2000)
Co-Founders, Yes To Inc