It wasn't Michelle's intention to create a scalable, international brand but when an oil she was regularly asked about led her to the kunzea plant, she knew she was on to "a good thing".
"Ten years ago while we were working at the local markets in Tasmania, where we used to live, selling a full range of our own essential oils, local Tasmanians kept asking for one specific oil we hadn't heard of. We did some digging and discovered over 20 years of research on the kunzea species and the components within the oil," Michelle explained.
"This got us excited and we couldn't believe what we learnt and that nobody was using it commercially. So, as a family project, we started testing, investing, promoting and learning about kunzea oil. I started to use it at my naturopathic clinic on clients with various chronic conditions. The customer feedback and results we started to see were remarkable."
In 2016, Michelle's son Hayden, 27, decided to go "all in" and turned the family project into a scalable business. "He started Zea Relief featuring kunzea oil in a small collection of products," she said.
Since then, Zea Relief has already helped over 10,000 people. "We engaged an incredible formulator who helped us nail the exact formulation for arthritis and the pain management market. It's high quality, cruelty-free, chemical-free and skin-friendly. Zea Relief products are also vegan, except Kunzea Balm that contains beeswax as the base," Michelle explained.
"It's this formulation of the actual Zea Relief products that's our biggest innovation. We have developed the first topical pain relief product to contain kunzea as the key active ingredient to be listed as a 'therapeutic good' in Australia.
"This is big kudos for our brand as it recognises the real benefits of kunzea oil on arthritis and joint pain management. There are millions of people worldwide who suffer from pain everyday, and we have a 100% natural, Australian made product that can effectively help those people find relief," she said.
"The Kunzea Cream was launched to the public in January 2018 and since then we have received over 500+ 5-star reviews for this product alone and sold over 10,000 units."
Michelle said having a product-based business has been both rewarding and challenging. "Seeing customers apply our products to their body and see almost immediate results has been extremely rewarding. And seeing our product come to life and grow over the past few years has been exciting."
And with most businesses, it has its challenges. "It's very cash-intensive and requires a lot of investment to see the business grow and expand. It's particularly difficult to break into the market with a therapeutic product with healing benefits, as the regulation in Australia is extremely tight and has high barriers to entry. It requires a lot of upfront capital, which was difficult as a bootstrapped family business."
Despite this, Michelle and Hayden along with an expanding team, have created unique products customers are calling 'liquid gold' and 'wonder oil'. "I love being able to build a business that can change the lives of people. Having received so many incredible emails and reviews from customers is incredibly rewarding and feels like we are really making a difference.
"It's also really nice working with my family. While it certainly has a lot of challenges, I have a relationship with my family members that are very close, which is inspiring."
Zea Relief has also helped bring to life a family dream that one of the original co-founders, Simon Brass, held close to his heart. With a background in horticulture, Simon had an extensive understanding of and knowledge of native Australian flora.
"Sadly, Simon passed away in August 2016. He had a passion and love for the Tasmanian kunzea ambigua plant and the Zea Relief products. Simon will always be fondly remembered for the remarkable impact he had on getting Zea Relief to where it is today."
With a strong family focus and solid sales growth year on year, Michelle said 2020 is set to be another big year. "We plan on launching nine new products including a large pump bottle version of our popular 100gm cream and much-anticipated kunzea honey - we believe will be the next Manuka honey," she added.
As product stocks are low via the Zea Relief website, people can visit the below stores should they wish to try the Zea Relief products: https://www.zearelief.com/pages/store-locator
Question: What is the kunzea plant?
Michelle Brass: The Kunzea Ambigua plant is an incredible Australian native that flourishes in the pristine wilderness of North-East Tasmania. It is also known as "White Cloud", "Tasmanian Kunzea", "Zea Oil" and the "Tick Bush".
The plant itself is a tall shrub, that grows up to three metres in height, and in Spring it blooms with the most beautiful, fragrant white flowers.
As it is native to the cooler coastal areas of Australia, you will most likely find it in Southern New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, although it grows most profusely in wild Tasmania and the Bass Strait islands.
Question: How did the kunzea plant lead to a whole product range?
Michelle Brass: While we were living in Tasmania and working at the local markets, selling our own range of essential oils, locals kept asking for one specific oil we hadn't heard of called kunzea.
We did some digging and discovered over 20 years of research on the kunzea species and the components within the oil. This got us really excited and we couldn't believe what we learnt and that nobody was using it commercially. So, as a family project, we started testing, investing, promoting and learning about kunzea oil.
I started to use it in my naturopathic clinic on clients with various chronic conditions and the customer feedback and results we started to see were remarkable.
In 2016, my son, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Hayden, 27, said he "wanted all in" and turned the family project into a scalable business. And so Zea Relief was born, featuring a signature range of products based around kunzea oil.
Question: Can you tell us about the innovative product range?
Michelle Brass: The biggest innovation to shape our business really comes down to the actual formulation of the Zea Relief products themselves.
We have developed the first topical pain relief product to contain kunzea as the key active ingredient that is also 100% natural, non-burning and skin-friendly, making our brand completely unique to anything else out there in the market.
Our most popular product, our Kunzea Cream, was launched to the public in January 2018 and since then we have received over 500+ 5-star reviews for this product alone and sold over 10,000 units. We cannot keep up with the demand!
We're manufacturing our largest order so far in February - double our usual quantities - as currently, we are selling quicker than we can supply.
Our research tells us that people are wanting a natural alternative; and kunzea has a safer organic composition than most active ingredients used in natural pain relief products (such as eucalyptus, peppermint, menthol). This means that even customers with sensitive skin often use our products without having adverse reactions.
Our Zea Relief collection includes our signature Kunzea products: a cream, balm, roll on liniment, bath salts and massage oil. We also stock a full range of 50+ 100% Pure Zea Essentials, including Kunzea Essential Oil and various other Australian natives.
Question: How does the kunzea plant provide pain relief in these topical products?
Michelle Brass: While a lot of oils can lay claim to similar benefits to kunzea, it's the high content of several key C15 compounds in the organic composition of Kunzea Ambigua that makes it unique and gives kunzea its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Most active ingredients in pain relief products simply numb the pain.
Australian kunzea is different because it works to relax the muscle and reduce inflammation to alleviate pain, while also working to increase blood flow to calm painful nerve endings. The key components in Australian kunzea target the source of the pain by deeply penetrating layers of skin to help promote the body's own healing process.
Question: How can Australians use this range of products to provide pain relief?
Michelle Brass: The best thing about Zea Relief products is that they are SO easy to apply; anyone in the family can use them.
Depending on the product you use, all you need to do is apply your chosen product to the affected area three to four times daily and rub gently in a circular motion until evenly spread and absorbed.
Because of the non-burning and gentle formula of all of
our products, you can apply our products safely on children and the elderly. Question: What's next for you and Zea Relief?
Michelle Brass: 2020 is excitingly full already!
We have just launched 10 new products, including a large pump bottle version of our popular 100gm cream, bath salts and concentrated massage oil. And plans are underway to work more with families on how they can safely and easily use our products for a wide range of daily uses, such as growing pains, moisturiser, on insect bites, cuts and grazes and more.
With our growing popularity in Australia, we will also look to start exporting internationally, especially Asia and the USA.
Incredibly for us, we won a grant via the Ignite Ideas Fund that acknowledged Zea Relief as a real competitor in the Australian and global markets. This is a huge kudos for us as this was a very competitive grant that required a lot of detail, planning, forethought and proven success just to get through the initial application process. The funding will assist in commercialisation to scale the Zea Relief products in the Australian market, develop a hiring process for building a team and conduct research for future global expansion. We are even more motivated to ensure the company operates with well-planned processes rather than an ad-hoc approach of previous years.
Our business has been very much "go with the flow" to date, but as we grow, we are putting more processes in place to make our approach more planned and predictable. We're making 2020 the year of structure and proactiveness for us. We've spent a lot of time creating solid systems and structures to support us for the future.
Question: What's a typical day like, for you?
Michelle Brass: A typical day for me includes assisting our beautiful Zea Relief customers with their queries, working with my naturopathic clients in our Coolangatta clinic, checking in with my son Hayden around the projects we are working on, preparing my talks and plans for different events such as the Mind, Body, Spirit festival and enjoying the beautiful sunshine of the Gold Coast.
The best part of my day is always speaking one on one with our clients and customers who come to me with a health issue and walk away with the tools, information and support they need to naturally and collaboratively ease their problem.
Interview by Brooke Hunter