RURAL ROoTS

I grew up spending summers at my great uncle George’s tobacco farm in Robertson County, TN. (Population of around 400 people back then, around 1,000 now.) Robertson County is known as the “Dark Fired Tobacco Capital of the World.” Although the numbers are not as high as they once were, tobacco farming is still a wide industry in the county where I spent much of my childhood. A lot of my mom’s family still lives in that area.

Michelle Mills, Founder

Michelle Mills, Founder of Nature’s Willow

Everyone in the family pitched in when it was time to hang the tobacco to cure in the barn. Farmers like uncle George had to diversify by raising cattle and other crops, because they were only allowed to grow so much tobacco. It was a simple life, and when you needed to buy something in a strictly rural area like Orlinda,TN, you usually went to the Farmer’s Co Op. So as a child, I grew to love those types of stores and the people that worked in them.

Willow Balm/Batch 21

Fast forward-In 2009 my mom was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. A retired hairdresser, she was using traditional pain relief creams along with prescription drugs (some of which were removed from the market due to side effects) when she developed a severe reaction to one of the dyes in the (blue) cream.

I was fascinated with white willow bark as a potential hero ingredient. I had read (oddly enough originally in a yoga magazine) that the Chinese, Native Americans, and Egyptians all used the bark of the white willow tree for thousands of years as a pain reliever.

We started researching and experimenting with white willow bark blended with various essential oils. During the 21 stabs at a winning formula, we had Willow Balm emu, Willow Balm vegan, Willow Balm Sport (higher menthol), Batch 21 (had MSM powder in it), Willow Balm 3-6-9 (focused on Omega fatty acids) and several other formulas that just weren’t good at all. Looking back now it’s funny but at the time it was dead serious experimentation. Once I put samples into cheap aluminum lip gloss tins that rusted around the rim and ruined the 100 samples.

Perfecting the formula

I reached out to several local chiropractors and holistic physicians to get their feedback. Dr. Stephanie Mouton from Centre Energique in Nashville (at the time one of the first acupuncture centers in TN) was one of the first doctors to test it on her patients and offer feedback, convincing me to try the nearly unknown “helichrysum” as a carrier oil for the formula. It worked.

I have a cousin who is a freelance writer. He was helping me write my pitch to get Willow Balm listed on Abe’s Market (first natural marketplace online) and he told me “You can’t ride two horses with one ass-pick a formula and stop riding the fence.” That’s when I chose the white willow bark/helichrysum formula and ditched the others. Willow Balm was one of the original first 50 items chosen to launch the Abe’s Market site. https://techcrunch.com/2011/02/10/abes-market-accel-series-a/

Right place at the right time with Tractor Supply Company

So we had a great product that I believed would help a lot of people. However, I was a broke single mom working as an HR Director and had Willow Balm as a side hustle. I had no idea what I was doing and truthfully still don’t. I just knew that after selling door-to-door and getting kicked out of more small businesses that we were ever accepted in, we had to figure out how to sell to the masses with no money for marketing. Enter the amazing folks at Tractor Supply. Some of the early users of my “try this miracle cream” were TSC executives, because they often held their dinners and events at the hotel where I worked (and picked up extra shifts working in our catering department to make ends meet.) During 2010, one of the guys said “We don’t have anything like this…why don’t you pitch it to a TSC buyer?” So that’s what I did in 2010.

I knew that hard-working folks that shopped at farm supply stores didn’t have a premium product to use, and in fact after researching what they were using, it was horse liniment. That was basically my pitch to the TSC buyer who also broke the news to me “You know we don’t have a category for personal care, right? Farmers like using horse liniment.” Talk about an uphill battle. It only took three long years, free test markets, a lot of sleepless nights and endless tenacity to get Willow Balm on all the Tractor Supply store shelves (at that time around 1,200 stores). So I was back spending all of my free time in the Co-ops and farm supply stores I had shopped in as a kid. And I loved every minute of it, and still do.