If a small business is judged on its actual physical size, then Little Twig more than fits the bill. Its four employees work out of a tiny office in the funky L. A. neighborhood of El Segundo. It produces petite products for little customers: organic, extra-mild bubble baths, shampoos and washcloths designed specifically for babies. And then there's its C.E.O. Lenie Ramos is a diminutive 33-year-old who could pass as (and is frequently mistaken for) someone half her age. "People are always a little shocked that I'm the boss," she laughs. "I get a lot of people coming in and saying, 'What do you do here?' It's sometimes a little difficult for many traditional business guys to take on board."
But in its four-year existence, Little Twig has become one of the biggest tiny companies around. Its products are available in 450 stores worldwide, including the Whole Foods Market and Baby Style chains in the United States, and Bonza Brats in Australia. Last year Ramos sold nearly 30,000 bottles of foams, oils, potions and lotions to delighted moms, including several celebrity clients. "It's so exciting to see my things in stores," says Ramos, whose enthusiasm is infectious. "I sometimes can't resist adjusting the displays, bringing us to the front a little more." She beams. "I feel like I'm accomplishing something that's so real and tangible."
Ramos ("Lenie") is short for Eleanor, "which I never go by" was born in the U.S. to Filipino immigrant parents, who instilled a work ethic in her that she describes as "ferocious". Initially, this ferocity was channeled into a job as a graphic designer for TV title sequences; she spent nearly a decade refining her skills, and won an Emmy in 1999 as part of the team that worked on ESPN's X Games coverage. (She maintains her design skills by creating the user-friendly graphics "all toony bees, snails and ladybugs" that adorn Little Twig's products.) But despite her success, she felt that something was missing. “It was a kind of epiphany where I felt like I had no quality of life," she says, sitting behind a less-than-imposing desk at the twig-bedecked Little Twig headquarters. "Everyone works so hard in that industry" it's almost like a badge of honor to stay as late as possible "and I started asking myself what I was actually contributing to society."
Ramos decided the best way out of her ennui would be to start her own business. "I saw people around me doing it, and I thought it would push me out of my comfort zone, and, hopefully, make me a more well-rounded person, someone who's going to keep learning." She pauses and smiles. "I don't know about the well-rounded bit, but I sure have learned a lot."
Ramos's initial idea was to start a design-inked company, but her plans were up-ended when she had the bright idea of giving her infant niece a bottle of bubble bath for her birthday. “My sister said, 'Thanks, but she can't use this, she may get an infection,'" recalls Ramos. "And that set me to thinking, 'Well, how do other kids and parents manage?' That piqued my interest, and I went out and found that there were only a tiny number of safe and mild products for babies."
To a certain extent, Ramos was flying blind; she had no background in chemistry or formula-making (in fact, she says a little sheepishly, she failed her school chemistry exam three times) and she was childless at the time. (Today, she has a year-old daughter who is "my first and best customer" But she consulted pediatricians and parent friends, noted the "huge baby boom" of recent years and sensed an opportunity waiting to be seized. She set up a D.I.Y. research lab at home: "Our hallways were filled with gallons of lotion," she recalls, "and my husband told me, 'O.K., where are you going with this?" The answer was an office, and an initial line of shampoos and bubble baths free of parabens, sulfates and mineral oils. "I started this whole thing with my own money," she says. "I had no initial investors. I guess there were precedents for what I was doing, like Anita Roddick with The Body Shop (I read up on her story) but it felt like a huge leap in the dark. I think what got us going was that we were incredibly focused: We were targeting zero-to-eights."
Other words are equally important to Ramos and Little Twig, "inclusive" and "organic" foremost among them. "It's really important to include parents and the wider community in our development," she says. To that end, the company encourages feedback on its Web site and from callers: "That's not just lip service," says Ramos. "We've created a giant, virtual mom-and-baby group. But there's also the unexpected stuff. Our products aren't just for kids (I use them myself. But we got a call from a woman with cancer who said that our baby oil was the only product she could stand while she was undergoing chemotherapy. That's very rewarding.) Little Twig also donates a portion of its profits to a different child-related charity each year; the current beneficiary is the Every Child Foundation, which helps children who suffer from disease, abuse, poverty or disability.
Little Twig's production finally went all-organic last year. "There are no pesticides or detergents in the products, and everything's from renewable resources," says Ramos. The company also uses biodegradable packaging and paper, as well as recyclable bottles; in fact, if you return four bottles to their offices, they offer 30 per cent off the next online purchase. "I'm more aware of what's at stake since I started this company and became a mother," says Ramos. "Having a child makes you aware they'll inherit what we leave behind us."
That's perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Ramos and Little Twig's innate smallness: Both owner and company want to do what they do without leaving a huge footprint (carbon or otherwise) on the world. "When I was thinking of the company name, I wanted something that felt natural and simple," says Ramos, glancing at a spray of boughs. "I wanted this company to be simple, from our ingredients to our packaging to our office to our whole operation." She smiles. "We don't need that much space. We just want to do a good and valuable job."
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