Self-care is an integral part of our lives. While personal growth begins with self-care, choosing the right products to enhance our quality of life is essential. As we dive into clean beauty entrepreneurship, we must value self-care. In this episode, Amy talks to Jessica Morelli, the founder of a beautiful clean beauty skincare brand called Palermo Body. Jessica’s story of entrepreneurship is truly inspiring, and she details her ups and down as a founder of this clean beauty brand. Jessica is a former student of Amy and has made a real impact in the world of handmade botanical beauty – plus, the love of essential oils and aromatherapy has grounded and guided her throughout her journey! Let’s appreciate the value of nature and products with earth-derived ingredients that benefit our body and mind by tuning in to this episode.
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Clean Beauty Entrepreneurship With Jessica Morelli
Founder Story of Palmero Body, A Clean Beauty Brand
I am excited to have a wonderful guest who has taken some classes with me at the New York Institute of Aromatherapy when I had my school in New York City. Her name is Jessica Morelli, and she is the Founder and Formulator of Palermo Body, which is a natural skincare brand that is based here in New York City. I’m excited for everyone to meet Jess and to hear about her background and how she got started. Also, even more inspiring is her story as a clean beauty Founder and how she started many years ago and started creating her own products and selling them. It will be exciting, informative, and inspiring for us to hear about her journey. Welcome, Jessica.
Amy, thank you so much.
It’s great to have you here. I’m excited. First of all, I would love to hear a little bit more about your background. Even though I know you, I don’t think I’ve known aside from your relationship with your grandmother, which I’m sure you’ll share with everyone, but what you were doing before you started Palermo Body, how you made that transition, how it started for you, etc.
My journey with natural skincare and formulation started in 2008. At the time, I was 20 or 21, so it was a hobby, something I was doing while I was going to school and working a couple of retail jobs. I fell in love with the process, and that’s what started it all. It was soap making. I bought natural books and books on natural formulations. It was a lot of trial and error for many years before I launched my brand as it looks now. That’s my background. I worked in hospitality at some of the best restaurants in New York City.
In addition to working retail jobs with companies that I still respect and shop with, The Container Store is one of my favorite places in the world. I worked there for over five years. The things that I learned in those two vocations, both in hospitality and in retail, were how to communicate with people, how to make connections, and how to listen to people in what their needs were. Not only giving them what they wanted but giving them sometimes what they didn’t even know they needed. That’s how I look at my work now with skincare and with formulation. I want to make products that people didn’t know they didn’t want to live their lives without until they tried them.
I’m curious. Having your own business and starting that way, being an entrepreneur, choosing the life of an entrepreneur is often not easy. A lot of us think, “It sounds romantic and exciting, but there are a lot of ups and downs with it.” When you left the hospitality and decided to branch out on your own, were you feeling apprehensive or excited? Did you feel like you had what it took to be an entrepreneur? Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit? Anything?
You hit the nail on the head when it comes to people’s perception of entrepreneurship. It does seem very romantic. Our culture and media perpetuate that and accentuate it. It’s not glamorous. Although it is incredibly rewarding. I come from a family of entrepreneurs. There are more entrepreneurs in my family than people with what you would call a traditional job.
For me, it didn’t seem like something out of the ordinary or a huge risk right at the beginning because it was something that I had seen so many of my family members do. Looking back, if I didn’t have that experience of always having all of these entrepreneurs or business owners around me, I would’ve been a lot more daunted by that.
I felt like it was what I was meant to do. I have always been very entrepreneurial beyond the lemonade stand when I was a kid, which I had many. Even when I was very young in school, I was always finding a way to sell things. Even when I was in the fourth grade, I would sell lanyards to people and I would make and sell drawings. Anything that I could create, I would find a way to sell. Along with that, and then even before beginning to teach myself how to formulate, I had a stationary business and a design business in that way. That lends itself to my design aesthetic with the brand now. I’ve always been very entrepreneurial.
It’s important to understand that spirit or that grit, resilience, resourcefulness, and all those characteristics. Like you, I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My grandfathers were entrepreneurs. Both my brothers are entrepreneurs. My father was an entrepreneur. I come from that as well. Having that work ethic and personality behavior modeling is super important to prepare you in the right way. I can relate to that.
You see it in a lot of different ways. A lot of creatives are entrepreneurial. Listening to some of my favorite musicians talk about their journey and how they got from where they started to being a worldwide no-name, a lot of times, they’re like, “It was do or die. I either made it or I didn’t. I didn’t have anything to fall back on.” Sometimes that’s important because there are times throughout the entrepreneurial journey that even now that you’re like, “I want to quit. I want to move on. This is too hard.”
Especially in those early days for me with starting Palermo, I didn’t feel like I had much to fall back on. I didn’t finish my Bachelor’s degree which now means nothing. It’s fine. I’m not worried about it at all. At the time, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to support myself. Knowing that you need to make it work, otherwise you don’t know what else you’re going to do, is an important part of that fire.
Also, as I agree with you with this whole finishing college, Bachelor’s degree or whatever, the best education that you can get is being thrown into entrepreneurship, to be honest. It teaches you on so many levels. Not only just interpersonal skills like you were talking about that you brought with you from your work within the hospitality industry, but listening, reading, and connecting with people. It’s not only that but being able to express what you need and what you want. Also, understand numbers and math.
There are many skills that come with it. This is off-topic, but it made me think about it a little bit. There’s also a spiritual side of entrepreneurship because you could be in that moment where you’re ready to quit and throw in the towel, but what you’re relying on is that faith or that belief that it’s beyond your control and you know you’re going to do it.
You’re so right. Faith is something that comes into it all the time. It’s that feeling of it has to work out. My journey is hopefully long, and this is a moment in it. When I look back at this challenging time 5 years or maybe even 3 months from now, I know that I’m going to look back and understand the value that experience had for my future and the way that I’ll make decisions in the future.
That helps me to trust faith and believe that as long as I am paying attention and acting within my integrity, it’s going to work out for the best. Even if it means having to let the business go or stopping what I’m doing, you have to have this blind faith that, “That’s what’s supposed to happen then.
That’s the way it’s going to be.” To circle back on what you said earlier, there is no substitution for practical experience.There is no substitute to practical experience. Click To Tweet
It’s the thing that got me over my insecurity about having not finished my Bachelor’s degree or not having gone to business school because I felt inadequate for a lot of years. Those feelings still creep up. I’m human, but it was when I started speaking to people who had done an MBA or had gone to all of these amazing schools, which to their credit, bravo.
They didn’t have and they were starting a business. I would’ve expected that they would’ve known a lot more, and they were coming to me for advice or asking questions. I was shocked at how much I knew in contrast to how much I would’ve expected. Given their education on the subject matter, they’re like, “How did you learn this?” I’m like, “I just did it. You learned through trial and error.”
For me, that’s the best way I learn. I know this about myself now. Instead of being hard on myself about not being the person who wants to spend my nose in the books, I research a lot about my ingredients, but when it comes to practical experience, for me, I want to get my hands dirty. I want to get my hands on it. I want to mix things up. I want to be able to feel, touch, and see everything I’m working with.
I try to express that to my coaching students, my students, and those new entrepreneurs that I’m working with. I agree. Let’s talk about Palermo Body. Tell us about the company now and a little bit more about the range of products you’re doing. You said you started out selling soaps, but where it started to grow and uplevel to a real business? Why don’t you tell us the story of its growth? You said you started it in 2008.
Back then, I had lots of different hobbies and a stationary business as I had mentioned, but I fell in love with natural soap making. That’s what started it all. I bought a bunch of books on how to make natural soap and researched ingredients, their properties, the best ratios to use them, and what qualities they would exhibit in a formula at different ratios. That’s where my fascination came from. It started with soap making.
It quickly evolved into other products. As this fascination grew, I wasn’t seeing anything natural in the products on the shelves back then. I was confused. I was like, “Why aren’t there any of these wonderful ingredients if they’re so great for your skin? Why aren’t I seeing them in products that I buy?” That’s when I was like, “I’ll make them and sell them whether I make my own website or whatnot.” I thought about why that was important to me.
The reason why was, growing up, my Nona, who was Sicilian, I would garden with her. Everything that she brought into her home was considered. She shopped at the natural food market in our town. There were few and far between at the time, but I still remember the smell of walking in there with her. The experience of watching someone be considered and thoughtful about what they put on their skin, what they put into their body, and what they brought into their home was the piece that made the biggest impact on me when I was thinking about why I wanted to make these products and why I felt they needed to be available.
At its core, that is the foundation of Palermo. Over the years, I learned and taught myself how to formulate lots of different products. I got in front of tons of people by going to markets everywhere. I sold to coworkers. I made my own website on a program that doesn’t even exist anymore. That brought me to 2014. Fast forward to now, I’m living in New York and I thought, “People are asking me about natural products and natural ingredients instead of thinking that the products I’m making are novel because they happen to be natural.” I could see that the tides were changing. People were considering what was in the products they were using. They wanted to find things that they felt good about putting on their body.
That’s when I felt it was the right time to make a personal investment, brand the business, and refine the product line that I created. At the time, I had over ten soaps and lots of variations of different products. I had over 25 different products that I sold. What I wanted to do was focus on the things that I felt were truly needed in the space. I wanted to elevate the look and feel of the brand to match the quality of the products that I was creating.
I spent most of 2015 working on our branding and our identity with a wonderful design agency. That gave me the foundation of our branding to be able to take all the way through now because I do a lot of the graphic design work myself or with a freelance artist now. I launched in 2015 the way that the brand looks now, and that was a turning point for the business.
I understand, too, that you are also still manufacturing yourself. You have a facility. You have a studio or a workshop. I’ve never been there. I have a lot of beauty entrepreneurs that are probably reading and who I work with, who are considering manufacturing themselves rather than working with a chemist and a contract manufacturer, though there are pros and cons on both sides. I’d love to hear a little bit more about, as you were growing, what made you decide to keep your manufacturing in-house and how you manage that. Do you have people working for you? How do you handle all the testing that you might need to do, etc.?
You have to come to our studio. I would love to have you see it and introduce you to our team. This is something that we did add as a necessity. When I first started creating, there was nobody making actual products at a manufacturing facility. In 2015, it wasn’t an option because I’ve done what’s called bootstrapping the business. Meaning, I currently don’t have any outside investors. That’s something that will very likely change in the future. Bootstrapping a business means that you essentially run the business on the profit that the business makes. This means you have to have profit to keep going unless you have a large reserve of funds that you can pull from.
When I launched the business in 2015, I had my personal savings that I used. I took a small loan from my grandfather, which I have since paid back, and credit cards. I used every single penny of what I had to pay for the branding, the packaging, and the ingredients that would need to go into the products. One, it was a necessity because of the costs involved, but it was also a necessity because, in 2015, there were so few people who were willing to manufacture natural products.
I have been talking to them since then, and the sentiment has changed now because they realize what’s happening in the industry, but then they were like, “I want to put this and this in it to make manufacturing easier.” I was like, “No, that’s not something that I’m willing to do.” They’re like, “Maybe you should keep making it yourself.” I did. There are, like you said, pros and cons. For each entrepreneur, I would recommend they evaluate what their goals are and what they want the product line to be.
If you are going out and you want to blow it up with one product, and you’re like, “This is going to be our main product. This is the focus of the entire business, and then maybe we’ll build on that over the years,” manufacturing might work for you because you can put your capital into the development of that one product. All of your marketing is behind that one product. Your inventory buy is for a single product. Even if you’re needing to buy 5,000 units, which is usually a pretty standard MOQ, Minimum Order Quantity, then that’s not too much of an investment upfront.
If you are looking to create 3 to 5 even products, that’s quite a bit to have to put inventory buy behind. That’s something to consider. I also think for our manufacturing, while many times I have looked up in the air with my hands and fists and cursed the gods, it would’ve been like, “This is so frustrating,” because it is. I have a team, and if you’re going to be able to scale manufacturing, you’re going to need to have a team.
The hardest part of running any business is the people part. It’s also the most rewarding. Leadership is challenging and is something super important to me to get right. I’ve had incredible examples of what good leadership looks like. My bar’s high for myself and for what I expect my team to be able to experience. Having people work for you is necessary. If you’re going to manufacture yourself at a certain point, you’re going to need to hire help.
It was for Palermo, our ace in the hole in how I was able to make it work because I launched with 12 products, 5 soaps, 2 body oils, 2 body scrubs, a facial mask, a facial toner, and a facial serum. To be able to keep up with the production of twelve products and to have the inventory on hand, manufacturing ourselves allowed me to only buy what we needed to fulfill orders that we had. I wasn’t extending my cashflow too far beyond what I had in the bank. Even still now is why we’ve been able to survive.
Having your own studio and doing that, as I train new beauty entrepreneurs who are eager to manufacture as you are at home, there’s also the training rate of getting your good manufacturing practices up and all your SOPs and getting everything right. All of that paperwork is critical. It’s essential for the success of the brand and for the manufacturing to be able to grow, evolve, and all of that.
It’s the consistency of your product and quality. Your customers are buying something that they expect that if they buy again is going to be exactly the same. That is so important because building that customer trust is essential for longevity.The consistency of your product and quality your customers buy should be the same. That is so important because building that customer trust is essential for longevity. Click To Tweet
Let’s talk a little bit about your distribution channels. You’ve gone about it differently where a lot of new entrepreneurs who are coming into this space are aiming their dreams and their goals at. Tell me about what decisions you decided to make as far as your distribution channels and strategy and how they helped you grow.
My distribution strategy was because of two things. One is the budget. I didn’t have any funding or any room in my budget to be able to do any paid marketing or anything beyond, like email or Instagram. In 2015, Instagram was a different ballgame. If you posted something, the people who followed you saw it. It was a great tool, but nowadays, it’s not quite the same. For me, I went right for wholesale because I knew that this was going to be a channel that would start generating revenue and credibility for us.
Additionally, Sephora didn’t have any clean beauty brands in their lineup at the time. That was the second reason. I hear a lot of beauty entrepreneurs now saying, “I want to make my products and work with Sephora right away.” A lot of times, especially for a new brand, it will request exclusivity. That can be tricky. I can get into the whole challenge by potentially going with Sephora later down the road.
I knew that wholesale was going to be how I generated consistent revenue coming in. These small boutiques around the country were tastemakers and people who had communities behind them that wanted to support them. If I could get ten small retailers in different cities across the country to buy my product line, and then hopefully, they bought it again in 3 to 4 months, then I could predict that revenue coming in.
Let’s say I get another three every single month on top of that. It compounds on top of each other. That’s how I was thinking about it. I was saying, “The more retailers I get, the more revenue we’ll get. That’s how I’m going to generate consistent revenue.” Wholesale pricing is 50% off of the full MSRP. It’s not quite as much of a margin as you’re going to get if you’re selling directly online.
When you’re a brand-new brand starting, how are you going to even get those customers online? You’re going to hope that they find you somehow. You’re going to share on social media. Maybe you have the budget in the beginning to do some paid advertising on social media, but nowadays, that’s something that you definitely can’t rely on.
Wholesale was always my strategy from the beginning. I launched a website as well. Sales would trickle in, but I would go a week without sales online in the very beginning. It wasn’t something that was consistent that I could count on coming in versus wholesale being something that I knew was going to come in if the products sold, which I felt confident that they would.
That was another thing I wanted to bring up. Is that pretty much the same distribution model that you have currently? Is that a larger percentage of your sales or your revenue is coming from wholesale? Is it shifted now in 2022 or ‘23?
It’s shifted quite a bit. I would still say that the majority of it does, but it’s a much slimmer majority. In the first year, these aren’t exact figures, but 10% of our revenue came from direct to consumer versus 90% of our revenue coming from wholesale. Every year after that, D2C grew a little bit more. Pre-pandemic, we were 25% D2C and 75% wholesale.
In 2020, it went to 40/60, so 40% D2C. That’s where we’ve stayed pretty consistent since then. That’s exactly what we are hoping for because we have a good market penetration of people being brand aware and knowing what the brand is, and whether they’ve tried it before or seen it in a store, then they can come to our website. We still have that very strong wholesale presence. At 60% of our revenue, it’s essential to keep that going.
Also, as you said in the beginning when you were talking about putting together your distribution strategy and having a presence in physical stores, they are the tastemakers. They are getting the press to come and write about them. It’s something that can uplevel someone’s business and leverages their presence in the market on many levels. Having a physical presence in very select and carefully considered retailers that are catering exactly to your specific customer is a great way to get that attention and credibility. It’s important.
When you think about it, it’s important for nearly every business for them to have something where people can see, touch, and feel the product in person. When it comes to skincare, in particular, the product is so sensorial. “How does it smell? How does it feel?” I want people to be able to experience that in person and have the option to do so.It's important for nearly every business to have something where people can see, touch, and feel the product in person. But when it comes to skincare in particular, the product is so sensorial. Click To Tweet
More people are willing to buy something online without having ever seen it or smelled it in person now. We have a post-purchase survey on our website, which I would recommend any entrepreneur install. Shopify is what we use to run our website. I recommend it based on how many apps and integrations are available for Shopify.
I have a $2 per month app that I’ve installed as a post-purchase survey to try and understand where people are coming from because we get new customers all the time, but I want to know, like, “How did you find out about us?” Being able to analyze that data is helpful for us to understand where our customers are because I once had a potential investor say, “I get everything about the business. It’s smart. I love what you’re doing, but I don’t get the distribution model. Why wouldn’t you go straight to Sephora and be exclusive with them?” I chuckled and said, “I’d love to be in Sephora one day. Getting there is a process.” I didn’t say that to them.
It was like, “Do you have a phone number or an email for me? I’d love to have a direct line. Give me a contact.” Truthfully, my answer to her was, “We go to where our customers are.” We have done the research to know that the majority of our customers are not looking for their products at Sephora. They’re looking for them at smaller boutiques. They’re looking for them at stores where they trust the credibility of the natural values that they uphold. We’ve asked them directly, and that’s not necessarily where they’re going for their skincare. We’d like to look at where our customers are coming from. I’ve seen that over 20% of our customers online come from our retailers outside of our wholesale business.
That’s important. I tell this to all of my clean beauty entrepreneurs who I’m coaching, “Understanding your customer is so key and that it’s an evolving process.” It’s not something that you’re going to be like, “This is my customer. I figured it out. This is my ideal customer and it’s over.” This is a continuous, evolving, shifting, growing, relationship. Having that survey available is so important.
I always tell my students that I’m coaching, “Talk to your customers. Find your biggest fan. Who is the person that is constantly and consistently buying and talking about your product? Interview that person. Find out why they love it and what they say about it. That’s going to give you such important content and information for you to move forward.”
I’m going to shift the conversation now to aromatherapy because we both are big fans. In your brand, I’ve seen you with rollers and you feature essential oils and a lot of your products. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your connection to essential oils, aromatherapy, and how that grew, and why you see that as an important feature, element, and ingredient in your products.
Aromatherapy for me and Palermo is the backbone of the entire business. Aromatherapy is a holistic view of wellness and how nature plays a role in that wellness. For our brand, having our roots in this heritage of my Sicilian Nona and all of our products being powered by nature, aromatherapy is at the core of everything I do when I formulate.
I think of how this product is going to affect your mind and your body. It goes beyond skincare. I’m so passionate about the products that we make at Palermo being more than something that’s going to “reduce fine lines.” It’s something that we all want to look our best at. For my brand, the thing that I want people to take away is that the products make them feel their best and feel like they are taking care of themselves. They get to relish and enjoy the results of the natural products that they’re using with powerful ingredients.
Using essential oils in our products is something that I decided early on. I had made 1 or 2 small batches of soap with fragrance oil. I was like, “This is not what I was hoping it would be.” It doesn’t hold a candle to the batches that I’ve made with essential oil. From my 3rd or 4th batch of soap, I was like, “I’m never using anything except essential oils.” They are powerful.
They’re healing and offer benefits that are beyond scent, but also that holistic approach to healing your skin. We use essential oils in a lot of our products. There are a couple of our products that don’t have any essential oils in them. They don’t have any added aroma. I want our product to speak to your mind and your body and connect the two. That’s what aromatherapy does.
I find it so fascinating, as people explore and offer their opinions and take about using essential oils in skincare. There are a lot of people who believe and don’t believe in it. Where the people who don’t believe in it are missing is what you beautifully said, and that is beauty now is evolving into wellness and understanding way beyond our appearance and our skin care.
Beauty now is a whole experience. There’s nothing more powerful or perfectly placed to be able to articulate that experience than essential oil. In one instant, you are getting that whole body, whole mind, and whole spirit experience. That was beautifully said. I agree. Are there any essential oils that you’re gravitating towards?
Something that you find in many of our products is geranium. At our studio, we create personalities for the essential oils and personify them, giving them characteristics that are similar to what we feel, are the properties of the essential oil. As we often say, “Geranium’s our girl. She’s always there for us.” Geranium, I can’t speak enough about it. It’s not an obscure essential oil. It’s not particularly expensive, and it’s not particularly inexpensive. It’s like a middle road.
The one that we use is gorgeous and pricier than a lot of different essential oils, but it’s moderate enough to be able to use it and not fear having to price out your customer. That is a consideration in the formulation. It is incredibly balancing. One of our salt soaks has geranium, Jasmine Absolute, and frankincense essential oil, which is another one of my go-to’s for all of the time.
People pick it up when we were selling in person. They take a deep breath and look at me and are like, “My God.” I’m like, “I know it’s incredible. It’s happiness in a jar.” I once had a customer say, “Anytime I want to divorce my husband, I take a bath in your bath salts and feel better.” I said, “That’s exactly what they’re meant to do. It stabilizes your mood and your whole being in the moments that you use them.”
Geranium is always on my list. As I said, frankincense is powerful. The healing properties of resins are incredible as you know. For the readers, resins come from the sap of trees, and the sap is the healing mechanism of the tree when it’s damaged. It helps to prevent bacteria and insects from getting inside the tree. It helps seal it off and acts as its circulation in a way of creating that barrier and protecting the tree from the elements. That’s exactly what the resins do for us when we use them.
Having them distilled into these beautiful essential oils where a single drop has so much impact and healing property, I love them so much. Frankincense is one that I reach for all the time. Another is I love the cypress tea tree, which is one of my all-time favorites. I’m drawn to the Italian citruses. I use a lot of bergamots. We use Calabrian bergamot, Sicilian lemon, and Sicilian blood orange, and we use red mandarin, which is incredibly comforting and evokes those memories and nostalgia with red mandarin. Those are some of my favorites.
I’ve been carrying around a lot of frankincense. I’m finding it so healing and soothing. Jessica, thank you. This has been an amazing conversation. It made me realize that we need to have you back and have more conversations about entrepreneurship. You can be inspiring to a lot of my young, new entrepreneurs who are venturing out into this space. We should talk more about that.
For those of you reading, Palermo Body is a beautiful product. As I said, I met Jessica when she came as a student to my school here in New York. I’ve known her for years, and I’m impressed with what she’s built. Feel free to leave a comment and share this episode with others. We’d love to get your feedback on it and all of that. Thank you so much, Jessica, for taking the time.
Thank you, Amy. It’s been such a pleasure. I’m so happy to help. Fostering entrepreneurship is one of the things I feel that I’m meant to do in my journey. Anyway if I can help, please let me know. If your readers want to learn more, if we were to do something again in the future, put that in the comments. I would love to come back and help your students and work with you in any capacity in the future.
Thank you, Jessica. We’ll see you soon.
About Jessica Morelli
Palermo Body is an earth-derived skincare line formulated to nourish the skin and stimulate the mind. Inspired by the “self-care first” teachings of her Sicilian grandmother, founder Jess Morelli formulates each Palermo product to enhance the everyday quality of life—modernizing traditional Italian values of health and wellness for a new generation.
Self-care has been a long journey of self-discovery that began at an early age while growing up with my Sicilian grandmother. My Nonna believed self-care was an integral part of everyday life. She taught me the importance of quality, natural ingredients, and the act of making self-care a daily practice.
Named after my Nonna Vincenza’s hometown, I created Palermo Body from a deep appreciation of natural values and a desire to share the importance of personal growth—making it attainable for as many people as possible.
I formulate Palermo products to be your go-to tools for creating sustainable self-care routines. Palermo creates a virtuous cycle of well-being by creating products that have earth-derived ingredients selected for their benefits to your body and your mind.