Blackmarket: a clean start for hand hygiene

Listening to customers (even if they aren't the target market you initially pictured) can help perfect your business idea – as Martina Schwarz learned when creating her handwash brand.
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Martina Schwarz, founder of handwash company Blackmarket, had never intended to get into the unsexy business of keeping clean. 

‘Hand hygiene is not exactly what I've always dreamed of going into,’ says the Swiss-American designer, with a laugh. The timing, though, was too favorable to ignore – during the pandemic, people were washing their hands constantly, which meant there was a new shortage in the market. ‘People were washing their hands with literally anything,’ says Martina. With the market begging for a clean-up, she abandoned her initial plans to create a skincare brand and instead pivoted to handwash, offering a well-designed and sustainable solution to a new problem.

Blackmarket isn't like other handwashes. Customers can purchase a starter set, which comes with a branded refillable glass bottle and four sachets of concentrated soap powder. When placed in warm water, the thin film sachets dissolve and become a thickening agent for the powder. From there, customers can buy more plastic-free refills or get them via subscription.

Skin in the game

Martina is uniquely qualified for the handwash business. She has a degree in design and fell into the world of consumer packaged goods, first working for global corporation Procter & Gamble in Geneva and later for a packaging-design agency, where she was a contractor within corporations like Unilever.

While Martina is now moving away from that world, her experience proved very valuable to Blackmarket: ‘Working for the creative arm of a big corporation was a really good experience, because you're working at a very high level and you can learn so much,’ she says. 

While working, Martina earned an MBA from University of the Arts London. She knew she wanted to launch a business and, during the pandemic, when all her work was handwashing projects, her destiny was set.

‘I was struggling to get anyone to use [my products] on their face,’ she says, ‘then one of my testers told me they'd wash their hands with [it].’ That feedback was integral, forcing Martina to realize that people are fussy with skincare. It was also a valuable business lesson: we don't always get to choose what we can innovate. 

‘In hand hygiene, brand and fragrance play a big role,’ says Martina, who worked for years with the fragrance departments of brands like Hugo Boss and Gucci. When unofficially researching, she observed people washing their hands and realized that they always smelled them after. ‘It's a weird psychological effect, where they think [that] if their hands smell good, they're clean,’ she says.

While mulling over Blackmarket during her full-time job, Martina got to work on projects around skin cleansing, enjoying access to research and information. She realized that a balance between protection and care was key. ‘You need to dial up the protection side, because people don't want nasty germs on their hands. But it has to be caring and smell good,’ she says. 

Perfecting the recipe

When it came to testing her assumptions, Martina got her hands dirty, formulating the product herself. ‘I was completely naive. I got a bar of soap and a cheese grater and I just grated the bar into a powder,’ she says, a little embarrassed. ‘It was terrible, but it allowed me to learn. The best advice is just to try it out. What am I going to lose by grating a bar of soap?’

After a little trial and error, Martina found a freelance cosmetic formulator based in Peru. He does the science and writes a formula, and she makes the sample. It's an unusual way of working, but it suits them. ‘I'm doing the legwork and he's doing the brains, and we have a shared spreadsheet and it works really well,’ she says.

Many business owners in cosmetics, she adds, are not so hands-on. ‘It takes a lot of overcoming your fears, but also doing the research to understand what you have to do to be compliant,’ she says. ‘It's not for everyone, but I like to make things and to not just be on the computer.’

The key to Blackmarket is the dissolvable film sachets that become part of the handwash itself. Martina found them by buying a roll of film that hospitals use to contain contamination. She started making prototypes herself and learned how much she enjoys product development. 

Staying humble

Despite that, it was a steep learning curve. ‘I have a great advantage of having worked in that industry for so long, but it's not easy, and you're never going to be an expert in everything.’ What surprised Martina most, she says, is realizing how much you need to know about everything. ‘Accounting, trademarks, you need to know about how you make and buy everything.’

Martina says it's important to realize how much help you need from others. ‘At the beginning, I was so embarrassed about what I was doing but, once you get over the hump of telling random people about it, you pick up speed.’ From there, doors opened. ‘One of the first people I told was [a person within] my target audience. He was using my competitor's product and he became the main user tester. He gave me the feedback that helped me develop the product.’ Martina adds that business owners need to ignore the fear that someone might steal their idea – it's often too much work.

At first, people questioned Blackmarket, the name of Martina's company but, from a business perspective, it made it far easier to do things like buying a domain. It's a lesson in sticking to your guns. ‘If the white market is the linear, single US economy we all know really well, the black market is the alternative,’ she says. ‘It's about doing things differently – it's a very weird product. It appeals to the people who are early adopters.’ 

To be truly sustainable, Blackmarket occupies a higher price point than its competitors, but Martina isn't worried about excluding people. She found that her audience wasn't initially who she anticipated, and Blackmarket's favorable reception thus far is down to her willingness to not just stick to her guns, but also to change her mind and alter the direction of the brand.

One of the things that surprised her most was the success of the mixing pebble, a small, smooth stone included with each bottle, which helps her formulation to mix faster, which she realized when she was bored and experimenting. ‘The feedback has been so positive that I decided to keep the pebble and to make it part of the brand.’ Because the pebble is just that, it doesn't detract from the messaging if someone doesn't want to use it. ‘They can just chuck it in the garden,’ says Martina.

Testing – and the willingness to get your hands dirty while doing it – is the all-important ingredient to Blackmarket's success. Martina's closing advice is to test only with your target audience and to reach out to friends of friends. ‘If it's someone too close to you, they're not actually going to give you very [valuable] feedback for fear of offending you.’

This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2023. To purchase a copy or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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