By Eric Peterson | Mar 23, 2021
Buena Park, California
Essential oils and accessories
Originally from New Delhi, India, Nanda grew up in a toothbrush-manufacturing family. "It's in my DNA to some degree," he says.
When Nanda first came to the U.S. in the late 1990s, his entrepreneurial inclinations led him to start another manufacturer with a booming retail channel in mind. "I found that dollar stores were a very fast-growing business in the United States," says Nanda. "They were coming up like mushrooms." He also noticed that they were essentially recession-proof as they defied economic gravity.
In 2000, he launched Firefly, a kid-focused toothbrush brand. "That became viral almost," says Nanda. "Today, after 20-some years, it's still the number-one toothbrush in the world right now."
After an anxiety attack that he at first mistook for a heart attack, Nanda reevaluated his work/life balance. Noting that his diet was "literally McDonald's and Jack in the Box" and numerous pills, he decided it was time for a major change. "I had to focus on my health."
Nanda sold his majority stake in Firefly in 2012 to take a year off to study yoga at an ashram in India. "I lived like a monk for a year," he says. "I learned yoga. I lost 40 pounds -- and all the pills. . . . That literally changed my life."
In 2013, Nanda returned to California to open a studio, Guru Nanda, in Beverly Hills. His entrepreneurial spirit took over again when he noticed that many of his students were using essential oils they bought through the two multi-level marketing companies who controlled the lion's share of the market, Young Living and Doterra.
Nanda researched the space and found, beyond the two main players, a host of subpar brands on Amazon who often sold fake essential oils. "There was a void in the space," he says. "Nobody had done the farm-to-bottle supply chain and taken it to retail."
After two years traveling the world to find partner farms and build a supply chain, Nanda launched Guru Nanda -- the same name as his yoga studio -- in 2015 from the same Buena Park facility that once housed Firefly.
The company boomed in its first two years after its launch, then plateaued in 2018. Sales again took off as COVID-19 emerged in 2020, and revenue eclipsed $50 million. "2020 has been an unbelievable year," says Nanda.
Guru Nanda's supply chain now encompasses a dozen countries around the world. "We source the oils from the specific country of origin," says Nanda, comparing it to wines from Napa and Bordeaux. "You always want to go to the source."
Lavender oil, for example, comes from Bulgaria; lemongrass is from Nepal, clove from Indonesia, and orange from Brazil. Local distillers extract the oils immediately after harvest, and ship them in 200-pound drums by sea or air to Buena Park.
"We work with the farmers directly," explains Nanda, noting that the company contracts with about 40 distillers to extract the essential oils. "I buy all my oils during harvest time. I make sure I have a six-month supply of all of the oils."
Whereas Firefly outsourced manufacturing to partners in China and India, Guru Nanda blends, bottles, and packages its oils in-house in Buena Park, where it has two buildings that are about 115,000 square feet combined.
Nanda says his company now sells about 200 tons of oil a year. Roughly 90 percent of sales are through retailers like Walgreens and Walmart, and the company also has a sub-brand of ready-to-use products sold through dollar stores. Without the multilevel middlemen, Guru Nanda's oils can cost just 10 percent the price of competitors' products, says Nanda. "It's a huge difference."
Guru Nanda also designs its own branded diffusers and other accessories in California and outsources manufacturing to overseas partners. "We're very involved," says Nanda. "I have my people on the ground 100 percent of the time."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is educating people about the difference between real essential oils and fake essential oils," says Nanda. "That's my number-one challenge."
He says that he also has trouble finding help, especially with enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus checks.
Opportunities: Nanda says he sees potential in "extensions" of essential oils -- corollary products like pulling oils for oral care. "That is actually doing really, really well. It's growing at almost 100 percent per year for us."
Needs: "We are looking at a couple of acquisitions," says Nanda. "At the right time, we may need to look for some capital investment to buy a couple of companies that are on our target."