Nora Schaper has the classic startup story: she started a company, HiBAR, from her basement in Minnesota. Now she’s in more than 10,000 stores across America, selling salon-quality plastic-free shampoos, plus a few new additions: a plastic-free facial cleanser and deodorant. She is determined to get plastic bottles out of our bathrooms.
Along with her husband Jay and two friends who became co-founders, Dion Hughes and Ward Johnson, Schaper ventured into the world of shampoo bars with the goal of reducing plastic packaging in the personal care category. She and her husband had already made soap from a studio they built in their basement and sold it to health food stores in Minnesota. It was that understanding of saponification, she says, that brought her husband to the table that became crucial in making a better shampoo and now face wash.
While there were a few plastic-free shampoos on the market in 2015, when they started experimenting with the idea, none were ideal: they used controversial ingredients or they didn’t give you the finish and experience you’d want in a shampoo. , she says. “There was nothing like what you would get from a liquid shampoo. So when we started the project, we didn’t tell our friends much about it. We just asked them to send us photos of their shower supplies.”
And those shower shelves were full of plastic bottles, they discovered. “However, we had played with the product and used our own soap, so we actually had a packaging-free shower. Then we knew we had to take on the challenge.”
They officially launched in 2018, focusing on direct-to-consumer with their website and making the bars in-house, which they still do in St. Paul. “We have searched the US and abroad for a manufacturer. They all told us, ‘It’s going to swallow up all the machines.’ So in the end we made it ourselves.”
In addition to production, they also hit a bump in the road with distribution. Initially, the plan was to visit salons, says Schaper. But it was so hard to find an organized or centralized distribution model in which salons operated; plus each salon has individual barbers who own their station. While HiBAR is present in some salons today, they turned to direct-to-consumer, with an emphasis on online marketing, especially after COVID forced many salons to close.
“We were also told to only target men, not women. But I knew we had to get women behind it too. It had to work for everyone,” adds Schaper.
While their focus was on DTC, their big break came when a Whole Foods buyer called to carry HiBAR in Midwest stores. Shortly afterwards, Schaper was asked to present the shampoos at an event organized by outdoor retailer REI. Through that summit, she was able to connect with the purchaser of Whole Foods in the Pacific Northwest. After conquering two regional markets within a year, HiBAR was then asked to be in Whole Foods stores across the country. That national visibility helped them gain more and more customers outside of Whole Foods and expand their reach to more than 10,000 stores.
“I think the retailers noticed us because we went to natural stores in the Midwest and got picked up quickly there. So the national retailers are watching those regional retailers to see what works,” she explains.
But it didn’t stop there: HiBAR started getting calls from independent stores, zero-waste stores, and people outside of the grocery world. With a team of 25 people in total, Schaper tries to juggle a motley collection of distribution channels, each with their own unique needs and processes.
Still, she’s not deterred: “We’d love to get back into more beauty-focused stores and salons because our products have really high-quality ingredients and we want to be where people talk about hair and beauty!”
Their latest product, the face wash, builds on this, she says: “It’s the first of its kind face wash made from luxurious ingredients that make you feel like you’re in a spa. It’s not soap. And we have to educate retailers and consumers, so it’s a bit more challenging.”
For all her success, starting a business has meant being sloppy, cutting her fixed-term pay, dealing with layoffs, and changing the narrative around a category entrenched in water-based models that ship in plastic bottles.
It is estimated that Americans throw away about 550 million plastic bottles of shampoo each year. That’s just one country and one personal care product.
“However, change is underway. It makes sense not to transport water,” she says. “One of the other things that is sometimes hard to convey is that our products are really concentrated, because we’ve taken the water out. So they last a long time, and with the shampoos we’ve heard from people that they don’t need to shampoo as often either. It will just take time to get everyone on board with this approach.”
“We want to be where people are going to buy a plastic bottle and eliminate that plastic purchase. Everyone goes to the supermarket and many people buy their personal care products there. So that’s a good start, but eventually we’d like to have a full range of products that showcases the zero-waste lifestyle without compromising on quality.”
Schaper and her team are working on that. A lotion is in the works. And she claims “it will be better than the other solid lotions you’ve tried.”
So could this Minnesota brand transform personal care for Americans with its nationwide approach? Let’s hope.