Nora Schaper has a classic startup story: She started a company called HiBAR in her basement in Minnesota. Now, she’s selling salon-quality plastic-free shampoo in more than 10,000 stores across the U.S., along with some new products: a plastic-free face wash and deodorant. She was determined to get plastic bottles out of our bathroom.
Schaper, along with her husband Jay and two friends-turned-co-founders Dion Hughes and Ward Johnson, ventured into the soap business with the goal of reducing plastic packaging in the personal care category. She and her husband have started making soaps from the workshop they built in the basement and selling them to natural grocers in Minnesota. It was the understanding of saponification, which her husband brought to the table, that was critical to creating better shampoos and now face cleansers, she said.
While there were several plastic-free shampoos on the market in 2015, none were ideal when they started experimenting with the idea: either they used controversial ingredients, or they didn’t give you the Shampoo effect and experience, she says. “There’s nothing like the power of liquid shampoo. So when we started the project, we didn’t tell our friends too much. We just asked them to send in pictures of their shower essentials.”
They found that those shower racks were full of plastic bottles. “However, we’ve been playing around with the product, using our own soap, so we basically have a package-free shower. That’s when we knew we had to take on the challenge.”
In 2018, they officially launched, focusing on direct-to-consumer through their website and making the bar in-house, and they’re still in St. Paul. “We looked for manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad. They all told us, ‘It’s going to break all the machines.’ ’ So we ended up doing it ourselves.”
In addition to manufacturing, they also encountered obstacles on the road to distribution. The original plan was through the salon, Schaper said. But it is difficult to find an organized or centralized distribution model in which salons operate; moreover, each salon has its own hairdresser. While HiBAR is now in some salons, they pivoted to direct-to-consumer, focusing on online marketing, especially after COVID caused many salons to close.
“We were also told it was only for men, not women. But I knew we needed to get women behind it too. It had to work for everyone,” adds Schaper.
While their focus had always been on DTC, their big break came when a Whole Foods buyer called to ask for HiBAR to be sold in Midwestern stores. Shortly thereafter, Schaper was asked to showcase the shampoos at an event organized by outdoor retailer REI. Through that summit, she was able to connect with Whole Foods buyers in the Pacific Northwest. After acquiring two regional markets within a year, HiBAR was then asked to enter Whole Foods stores across the country. This national recognition has helped them gain more and more business outside of Whole Foods, expanding their reach to more than 10,000 stores.
“I think retailers took notice of us because we started going to the natural stores in the Midwest and they got picked up pretty quickly. So national retailers are looking at those regional retailers to see what works,” she explained road.
But it didn’t stop there: HiBAR started getting calls from independent stores, zero-waste stores, and stores other than grocery stores. Today, Schaper’s team of 25 is trying to juggle a variety of distribution channels, each with its own unique needs and processes.
She isn’t discouraged, however: “We’d love to be in more beauty-oriented stores and salons again, because our products actually have premium ingredients, and we want to be the place people talk about hair and beauty!”
Their latest facial cleanser is based on that, she says: “It’s the first facial cleanser made with luxury ingredients that give you the feeling that you’re in a spa. It’s not soap. And we have to educate retailers and consumers, so it’s more challenging.”
For all her success, starting a business meant scrapping, cutting salaries for a while, dealing with layoffs, and changing the narrative around an entrenched water-based model for a category shipped in plastic bottles.
It is estimated that Americans throw away approximately 550 million plastic shampoo bottles each year. That’s just one country and one personal care product.
“However, changes are happening. It makes sense not to ship the water,” she said. “Another thing that’s hard to express sometimes is that our products are really concentrated because we’ve got the water out. So they last a long time, and with the shampoo, we’ve heard from people that they also You don’t have to wash your hair as often. It will take time for everyone to accept this approach.”
“We want to be the place where people buy plastic bottles and eliminate plastic buying. Everyone goes to the grocery store and a lot of people buy personal care products there. So that’s a good start, but eventually we want to have a whole range of products that showcase A zero-waste lifestyle without compromising on quality.”
That’s what Schaper and her team are working on. A lotion is in development. “It’s going to be better than any other solid lotion you’ve tried,” she argues.
So can this Minnesota brand transform American personal care with its national approach? hope so.