How No Pong inventor Melanie McVean built a $4 million business by sticking to her guns

No Pong

Chris Caley and Melanie McVean. Source: supplied

Ever become so fed-up with your roll-on deodorant that you raid the pantry to concoct your own fresh smelling and much less chemically intensive alternative?

Me neither. But Melanie McVean has, and now she’s making millions disrupting one of the most mature industries on supermarket shelves, period.

Well, okay, it wasn’t that simple, but it’s also not that complicated.

It’s 2015 and McVean, interested in finding out the types of chemicals she was putting on her body, is reading an ingredient list.

Butane, check. Aluminum chlorohydrate, check. PPG-14 butyl ether, eh … check?

Those are the first three participants in a rather long (and incomprehensible) list of ingredients for Rexona’s popular aerosol deodorant.

The product is stock standard in the $4 billion global deodorant and antiperspirant industry, where aluminum-based products have long been popular.

Disrupting deodorant

But there’s a growing cohort of consumers questioning whether that’s the type of thing we should be spraying all over our pits on the daily, and No Pong, the boutique deodorant brand founded by McVean and businesses partner Chris Caley, is meeting that demand.

“I decided I wanted to know what I was putting on, and in, my body,” McVean tells SmartCompany.

“Everyone is starting to pay more attention to ingredients and things like that, and while there’s no concrete evidence those other [deodorants] are harmful, why use them if you don’t have to?”

With ingredients such as coconut oil, baking soda and essential oils like lemongrass, there’s nothing in No Pong you couldn’t find in the other aisles at your local supermarket.

And that’s exactly how the tens of thousands of people flocking to No Pong for their deodorant needs like it, delivering the fast-growing business $4 million in revenue in 2019, in their fourth full year of operation.

Revenue grew 63% in financial year 2018-19 alone, while 2019-2020 is on track to set another record for the company.

“We outgrew ourselves in the first few months,” Caley tells SmartCompany of No Pong’s runaway success.

“We were up to midnight going, oh no, there’s another hundred orders,” he recalls.

“We’ve got a dedicated production facility now.”

A new look for a daily-use product

McVean and Caley have been helped along by the same changing retail landscape that’s allowed companies like Dollar Shave Club to take a slice out of the razor market.

Essentially, people can (and do) buy the basics online now, which makes supermarket shelf space much less valuable, and the resulting market much less exclusive.

But it’s still not easy to convince people to part with products they’ve been using almost every day for years; that’s the type of power that underpins the multi-billion dollar revenue figures over at Unilever.

For No Pong, success has meant striking up a different conversation with consumers around their daily habits.

They call it “small business feel”, and essentially, it’s about appealing to that sense of boutique personality that years of similar Rexona ads have left shoppers yearning for — even if they don’t realise it.

“When you buy something in the grocery store, you don’t necessarily have access to the people who make it,” McVean explains.

“That’s not us, even though we’re servicing a lot of people; it’s still personable, it’s still that small business feel.”

With more than 1 million products now sold, No Pong is operating dedicated e-commerce sites in Australia and Canada, and shipping around the world.

There are also now more than 800 stockists of No Pong across the country, and while a major supermarket contract still alludes McVean and Caley, watch this space.

Now employing a small team, the founders have gone from manning the day-to-day operation of the business to having more time for plotting out their strategy.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap when you’re running a small business of working 26 hours a day,” Caley jokes.

“We do a great job of dividing and conquering, I have my strengths and weaknesses … and well, she’s actually pretty strong overall.”

The pair now have big plans to expand their presence across the globe and develop more anti-odorant products.

That said, McVean is in no rush. After all, being a small business is what the founder is banking on, and taking on a big client can cause more issues than its worth in the world of modern consumer goods.

Sticking to your guns

Being a small business in the pond with multinational FMCG companies also necessitates having a firm identity, and that means the founders stick up for their values, even when customers want them to zig when they’d rather zag.

For McVean, that means sticking to her guns amid requests for a stick-based version of No Pong, which could be applied without needing to involve any fingers. The product currently comes in a small tin.

While a stick-based version of the product would undoubtedly be a hit with consumers, No Pong is a plastic-free product, and making things more convenient for customers would come with an environmental consequence.

“People come and ask us for a stick product all the time, but we just can’t do it without plastic,” McVean explains.

“At the end of the day, you have to feel good about what you’re doing; it’s difficult, and it’s not the easiest road.

“But you have to stick with what you believe in.”

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