Sandra Manay is an artist and entrepreneur. Some might think that these two things are polar opposites, but starting a business is an art form in itself.
Sandra was born in the coastal area of Peru in 1992 and at a young age was influenced by local traditional art and natural beauty. That led her to find love for fashion and design. At the age of 15, she moved to the U.S. with her family, and later she graduated from one of the best design colleges in the world—Parsons in New York City.
Since she was 12-years-old, she had a dream to open an e-commerce clothing store, so right after graduating from Parsons she started working toward her dream. She failed. Nonetheless, Sandra picked herself up and successfully created an aromatherapy company Luna Sundara.
Her advice for young entrepreneurs? “Let yourself fail at a young age, but don’t be too hard on yourself,” she said.
How did you decide to create an aromatherapy company? Are you now working full-time on it?
Actually, I’ve always wanted to create an e-commerce clothing store—that has been my dream since I was 12-years-old—so when I finished college I felt I was ready to do it.
I created a clothing line called “Bohemian Affair,” which consisted of high-end bohemian fashion (I still have the pieces; they are beautiful I wish I could produce more of them). I did everything needed to create a clothing line, but I never launched it. There were many reasons behind it—the most important one being lack of experience. There was so much I needed to learn and after I talked to some mentors, I realized that there were many aspects that I was still missing. I learned my lesson, it was hurtful, but hey, you move on! Still, there’s something about e-commerce that gives me great pleasure: creating new products, seeing people using them.
During the spring of 2014, I started attending spiritual events, full moon parties, summer equinox among others, and I saw a lot of people using aromatherapy. There were certain aromas that I couldn’t find in the U.S that are popular in Peru. One day I was chatting with my boyfriend Tom, and we said let’s create an aromatherapy store and see what happens. We thought it would be awesome to have an unlimited supply of our favorite products. I work full time on it.
Who are your customers?
Our customers consist of 68 percent women and 32 percent men. Our buyers range from different ages; however, the most popular group are those that are 25-34 years old.
How is the company different from all the others in the U.S.? What’s unique about it?
We focus on Peruvian products since we have enough resources that allow us to be familiar with them. Selling products from markets we don’t personally know won’t allow us to have the connection we have with suppliers, farmers, biologists (for the oils) and artisans. For aromatherapy, we focus on wild crafted botanicals and for the ceramics, we focus on traditional Peruvian ceramics.
You said since last year sales on your site tripled, and increased by 890 percent on Amazon, and now you’re profitable. What was the driving the factor behind the success?
I believe right timing and customer satisfaction are the main factors behind our success. When we started, there were companies selling aromatherapy products, but our goal was to present it better. We haven’t seen many companies selling the kind of oils we sell because people are unfamiliar with them. We want to create a better shopping experience. If customers are not satisfied with their purchase, we make sure we do everything in our power to make them happy. Also, we believe success can be temporary, so we are working on expanding to new products, especially those that aren’t in the market yet.
How do you define “success”?
Success to me is simply having a peace of mind, but money comes with it. If used properly, money can ease things and minimize problems. It also allows us to do good for others, and that’s the biggest gratification an entrepreneur can have.
What is it like when Thomas Konik is not only your business partner, but also your boyfriend? What are the pros and cons?
Working with my boyfriend is great, however, I would be lying if I told you that it has always been like that. For starters, he has another job—he is an audio visual consultant for a hospital—so his full time job is completely different from what he does at Luna Sundara. The pros of working with him is that we are more connected, we share ideas every day, and we celebrate every milestone. It creates a different connection and it’s very special. We grow together professionally and we learn from each other.
There are also cons of working with him and I’ve been affected by them more than him, probably. Criticism is a big issue when it comes to working with your partner. I appreciate constructive criticism when it comes from other people and I’m grateful for their time to help me. But when it comes to receiving criticism from your partner, it gets complicated. I’ve had a hard time detaching myself emotionally… however, I’m growing professionally and learning how to find balance.
What is your dream job?
I would love to have a lifestyle e-commerce store that includes aromatherapy, beauty, wellness, home décor, and fashion. I love aromatherapy, but I’m also passionate about art.
Also, creating an organization that can change lives of children through education has been a dream I’ve had for many years. There are children with bright minds, but lack of resources that are living in underdeveloped nations.
We’ve been talking about creating an NGO to help with education in Peru, but it’s a long term project. We are planning to put together a team of economists, managers and marketing consultants. We already have a team in mind and we’ve been discussing ideas for the past few months. We don’t want to be yet another company donating money and delivering no long term results—we want to do it right, and that takes time, but with patience it will be successful.
How is the company going to grow?
In the future, we want to expand into different categories such as teas, natural supplements, more artisanal products, fashion, home décor, and beauty products. I understand that now it will be hard to picture it since we only sell aromatherapy, but we have a future plan for Luna and we are positive it will come together just fine.
We also want to expand our blog and educate people more on different topics that are unfamiliar. Bringing new products will be a bit challenging since there are products that are not well established. For example, the palo santo was popular already, but people were not familiar with oils like muña or palo de rosa. Our job is to educate people more on the topic so they can understand the value of the product they are purchasing.
How frequently do you travel to Peru or Ecuador for business? You said you work with a biologist in Peru, who harvests the botanicals and produces the oils, and with suppliers in the most remote areas. Can you tell us about the relationship with those people and their way of life?
I usually travel two to three times a year. I work with a biologist in Peru that distills our wild crafted oils. She is very passionate about the environment and takes her time to help us with everything we need. We get lots of emails from wholesalers offering us oils, but they have no idea what they are selling. Our supplier is very professional, we’ve created a great relationship, and we wouldn’t change that for anything.
Our ceramists are in a small town in Northern Peru. It usually takes us a few hours to get to their homes, but it’s the best place to create a closer relationship with them. The ceramists live in a small village and usually when we place a big order they get the whole town to work, they help each other, and that brings a great pleasure to us because everyone is happy in the end.
I want to explain something that has been on my mind since we started. A lot of people reached out to us asking about our business model and also asking if we are a social entrepreneurship company.
We don’t call our company “social entrepreneurship” because we are not there yet. However, other companies of our kind do because they simply purchase products from artisans or small artists. To me, that’s a marketing strategy more than an honest explanation of their business model. Social entrepreneurship is the use of the techniques by start-up companies and entrepreneurs to develop, fund and implement solutions to social, cultural, or environmental issues.
There are many companies that are very transparent about their business model implementing social entrepreneurship. I admire the ones that are currently doing this kind of hard and thoughtful work. However, since being a social entrepreneurship company attracts a different market, many companies use this term to their advantage even though they are not fully operating as a social entrepreneurship company would. Buying products from artisans, villagers or small artists doesn’t automatically give you the title of social entrepreneurship.
You may be asking yourself, so why do you criticize these companies and you are not doing it? The answer is simple—it takes time. Most importantly, we want to show results to our consumers. We don’t want to do things and not be able to show the difference our company is making, we want to show it with results and statistics.
We buy products from artisans, but also allow them to sell to other people, and we are currently working on ways to work with their local governments to create a program to teach them how to create products with an export quality. We wouldn’t want the artisans to depend solely on us because they can lose everything if we ever stop purchasing products from them. We want to train them to improve their products, improve their quality of life, and prepare them to become better entrepreneurs. We want to make things right, but we are also very cautious of how we portray ourselves. We want to be as transparent as possible with our business practices.
You graduated from Parsons, are you thinking about someday going back to work in the fashion industry?
My goal would be, as I mentioned before, to create a lifestyle company where I can create a platform for different products, including fashion. Entering the fashion industry is not easy and it requires experience. Every day I see companies opening and closing. I would be happy having a store where I can have different categories such as aromatherapy, home décor, furniture, wellness but all with the same free spirited style.
Any advice for young entrepreneurs?
Let yourself fail at a young age, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Right out of college, I started working towards “Bohemian Affair” and worked for a long time to create a company that I’ve been dreaming for many years only to realize I was unaware of many factors. I remember thinking how ignorant I was all these years and how risky I was to do it right out of college without working for someone first. It was hurtful, I was angry, sad, and disappointed in myself. I’ve come to a point where failure is not scary anymore, I’m willing to accept it and if I fail again at another project, I’ll know it’s a lesson no one will be able to take away from me. I’ll pick myself up and start over.
Be kind to people, always. Being an entrepreneur will take you on many roads—one day you could be on top and the next you’ll be asking someone for work. Life is very unexpected, but people will remember you for the good you did and the impact you had on their life.