Corporate America to Founder of Cayla Gray with Kelly Ward Kussman


Kelly Ward Kussman had a successful career as an executive in retail spaces for years.  But in her heart she had always wanted to be an entrepreneur.  When she experienced some very personal losses, she knew it was time to follow her heart and create Cayla Gray.  Cayla Gray is a fragrance company that prioritizes safe ingredients and strives to make scents out of every unforgettable moment.

In this episode we will cover:

  • How Kelly made the leap into entrepreneurship
  • The rollercoaster moments
  • How Covid is still affecting production
  • Creating an experience for your customers.


Click here to learn more about Cayla Gray and follow them on Instagram.


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The Legalpreneur Podcast is advertising/marketing material. It is not legal advice. Please consult with your attorney on these topics. Copyright Legalpreneur Inc 2022


Episode 228: Corporate America to Founder of Cayla Gray with Kelly Ward Transcript

Andrea: [00:00:03] Welcome to the Legalpreneur podcast. I’m your host, Andrea Sager, founder and CEO of Legalpreneur Inc. As a serial entrepreneur and someone that works exclusively with small business owners legally protecting their business, I’m dedicated to covering common legal issues faced by business owners, providing you with the business knowledge you need to catapult your businesses growth and showing you just how some of the world’s most elite entrepreneurs have handled these legal and business issues themselves. In true attorney fashion, the information in this episode is not legal advice. This is for informational purposes only, and you should always consult with your attorney before implementing any of the information in the show.

Andrea: [00:00:48] Welcome back to another episode of the Legalpreneur podcast. I am joined today by Kelly Kussman. She’s the founder of Cayla Gray, which is a fragrance company. And Kelly, I’m so excited because you have quite the journey and I’m really excited for everybody to hear about it. But your stuff smells so good. Like anybody that’s listening, like, I cannot wait for you guys to, like, smell this. I was about to say, Hear this, but smell it. So, Kelly, thank you so much for joining me today.

Kelly: [00:01:18] I am so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Andrea: [00:01:22] Yes, I’m excited. Okay. Tell everybody your journey. How did you get to where you are today?

Kelly: [00:01:27] Yeah. So Cayla Gray. Well, my company is a luxury line of clean fragrances, so everything is nontoxic, hypoallergenic for one of the few fragrance companies out there that actually discloses the ingredients within the word fragrance, which we’re pretty proud about. We want women to know what they’re putting on their bodies. It’s important. And really, this journey of mind me starting my own business started all the way back 25 years ago. I was born and raised in Wisconsin and I was always a little bit beauty obsessed, love, nature. And when I landed my first job right out of high school. I was going to college and then also decided to work at the same time. I landed my dream job, which was an assistant buyer of women’s and men’s fragrances, and just was obsessed. I mean, of all things, right? I was just totally obsessed. I I’ll never forget, like the first day I was standing in there, they called it their fragrance closet, and it was like a room because like a ten by ten room just full of fragrances and just going around smelling all of the different fragrances and falling in love with the way that fragrance really made memories tangible for me. It was such a beautiful, special connection. I would there’s one scent I always talk about. It was called Summer Tomato, and it literally brought me back to being in my mom’s garden. I just like leaving it, leaving the house in the morning and running around in the woods all day and then eating tomatoes and sugar snap peas out of her garden.  It just brought me back to that moment. So I always, always wanted to be an entrepreneur and start my own business. But I ended up working my way up in the corporate retail and was in corporate retail and held leadership positions for over 20 years. My last company that I was with was PetSmart and I was actually their senior director of sourcing and procurement. I built a domestic sourcing department for the division or division for the company. And so I just loved it. I loved working in retail, I loved working for a corporation, but my heart always wanted to be an entrepreneur. And it wasn’t until 2017 actually, that I suffered from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and almost lost my life, and then as well as our first baby. And then it happened again in 2018. And it was really after those two moments that it shook me and it made me realize how short life is. And it’s it’s not guaranteed and it’s so precious and one not to be taken for granted. And so I started working on my company, my dream company, which was a fragrance company, and decided to name the company Kayla Gray, because that was going to be the name of our first baby, just as a way to honor the heartbreak, but also put something really beautiful and special out into the world.

Andrea: [00:04:09] I love that. It gives me goosebumps every time. And I know exactly that feeling because we miscarried between my two babies. And I just remember I actually miscarried like two weeks before I started at the big firm that I was working at. And I just remember like. I don’t want to go to work like I want to stay home and hold the baby that I do have. Like I don’t want to go to work. And I think that really changed a lot for me. And so I’m curious, when you started Kayla Gray, were you still working in corporate America?

Kelly: [00:04:49] Yeah, I was still working full time managing a team. I was actually building that division for PetSmart while I was building my company. And so it was intense. It was wild. I did that for about 18 months until there was just a point where, you know, I had been saving money and I knew that it was just time. Like my heart wasn’t fully in either one. And I knew I needed to go all in on one in order to be the best leader that I needed to be, whether it was for PetSmart or whether it was for my brand new company. And of course, my heart was in my brand new company, and we were finally at a place where I was able to afford and step away and it was just like a dream. So I actually just left my company a year ago in May.

Andrea: [00:05:32] Congrats. Oh my gosh. That’s got to be the most exciting feeling in the world. And if you’re open to talking about some numbers, I would love to hear like, what were you comfortable with? Like to finally leave? Like what? What was your measure to feel like safe enough to leave?

Kelly: [00:05:49] Yeah, for me, it was really so like about I always kind of because I do coaching for entrepreneurs, I always kind of talk to them about like you kind of almost have to pretend that you don’t have your corporate salary and be they’re saving portions of it or stocking away If you’re able to stock away that entire salary to the side, it almost kind of like pretend you don’t have that corporate job. And so we did that for six months just to make sure that we were able to save up enough money so that we had some runway, both for my business and also for our personal expenses to make me feel comfortable walking away. I am very I’m big on having, you know, making sure you’re mentally prepared to make the big leap going from corporate to entrepreneurship, because there are so many times in which if I just made the leap and went all in on blind faith, which I know a lot of people do, for me, it would have completely changed my mindset. I would have been operating from a scarcity mindset versus an abundant mindset, and I would have made completely different decisions in my business had I not had that safety net of savings to be able to fall back on. So that’s what was really, really, really important for me is that I had six months of savings set aside to make sure that I was able to have some runway and I just felt safe and comfortable knowing that we were a little bit protected.

Andrea: [00:07:07] So tell me about the products with the company now. So because I know wasn’t it initially just candles.

Kelly: [00:07:13] Now we’ve always had full sized perfumes, Rollerball, perfumes, and then our candles. A lot of people thought we were a candle company, but actually 80% of our sales are actually done in perfumes. Yeah, very little or actually done in candles. So we started with four core scents, which we still have today. So it’s the sense that like always be around, it’s petals, water, cozy and hearth. And then now we’re doing seasonal scent releases. So every day, every 90 days we create new scents. And the reason behind that is because sometimes people were the same scent forever and you almost get to accustomed to it like you almost don’t smoke anymore. The people around you don’t smell it anymore. You’re not making new, beautiful and nostalgic memories with. And so we release a new scent to kind of layer on top of whatever, like core scent that you’re wearing of hours or just try something new and special.

Andrea: [00:08:04] So talk to me about the holidays. I know we’re only at the time of recording. We’re in August, but I love talking to product based businesses because I used to have a clothing boutique. I manufactured a few things and so I know the product side of things, not just the service side of things. So I’m curious, what is your schedule like right now, planning for holidays? Like, are you thinking about it? Are you like, I’m already we know exactly what’s going on for the holidays or where are you with that?

Kelly: [00:08:34] Yeah, So our development calendar starts 12 to 18 months out. So everything that we are developing now is typically developed at least 12 months out. And actually there was a product in a sense that we were working on for the last nine months that still isn’t right. So I’m actually not going to be releasing it this fall. So we’ve been working on a tobacco bourbon scent and I’m like very particular about sense. Like they just they have to be perfect or I’m not going to release them. And this one, there’s just it’s not perfect yet. And so I’m pausing development on that so I can really focus on the two scents that we that we will be releasing for holiday. But yeah, I mean, for us, scent development starts 12 months out, procuring and securing inventory for all of your raw materials for us, start 6 to 9 months out and then production typically starts about three months out from the date of sale or the date that we expect product to be on our on our website and in stores. So we are in the thick of it right now and we’re still experiencing supply, supply chain delays, inflation, increased costs and all of that stuff. And so by planning things out ahead of time, you kind of you’re able to for me, we were able to negotiate a little bit better and also buy things in bulk in order to save on some of those costs. So, yeah, we’re in the thick of it right now, that’s for sure.

Andrea: [00:09:53] Oh, I bet. And I’m curious, how did COVID affect the company? Were you I’m just curious about that whole experience.

Kelly: [00:10:02] Yeah, it was wild. And I would say thank God for all of my experience within the corporate world. I mean, because I had experience leading teams in fulfillment and inventory and supply chain and sourcing and procurement and financial planning. And so luckily, I, I understood that, you know, keeping an eye on the economy and understanding the impact that it’s going to have on your business helps you really understand and make decisions to help save on some of those costs. So for us, we actually were planning on launching on Black Friday of 2020 in our number one best selling item was our roller balls, and we had a shortage of all things. That was the little glass rollers in the roller balls, like we couldn’t get inventory for those items. And so we didn’t launch that until January, you know, And I was I there were so many supply chain issues from literally not being able to find truck drivers for the trucks to get our products here or the increase on soy wax was like triple digit numbers. It was just wild. And so us as a company, we really had to like pivot and flex. And even still now, like there are things that I wish I would have done differently or could do differently, but costs are so high and there’s just limited amount of like candle vessels to, for example, like almost every company now is using very similar candle vessels because that’s all that’s being manufactured because of supply chain and COVID still to this day, COVID issues. So it’s restricted all of us from a lot of things like being as creative as we really want to be. But you just I think another thing that I really learned from being in large corporations that you just have to figure it out. You have to pivot and adjust. If you sit too long in the indecision, it can cause issues and it can it can cause delays and really affect your bottom line.

Andrea: [00:11:59] Wow.  And I think that’s something that many product based business owners need to be aware of. Like, it’s not just sourcing what you want because if you are actually creating the products yourself, like it’s one thing to buy wholesale from somebody and then going on up from there is actually manufacturing and creating the products yourself. There’s so many things that go into that because at the end of the day, like it’s I don’t want to say it’s easy to buy wholesale because I mean, relatively speaking, to like to manufacturing. Yes, it is a lot easier than manufacturing. But I mean, all of it, some people think, oh, I’m just going to have this product based business. I mean, we both know, Laurie, with Light pink is having crazy issues. I don’t want people to discount the fact that it’s a product based business and it’s like, oh, I’m just going to go pick out this product and I’m going to go sell it. So kudos to you for. Making it through COVID. And I guess still you’re still seeing those issues. But yeah, So tell me more about the business itself. Who like how how big is your team? Who do you like? Who’s on your team?

Kelly: [00:13:09] Yeah, so it’s me. I’m the only employee for Cayla Gray LLC, but we do have a bunch of contract employees that help us out. So I have an incredible web designer who does all everything back end operations that she’s been with me since day one. I have an operations manager, same she used to do and manage my social media and we’ve kind of pivoted her into operations manager operations, future operations director role. We’ve got a social media manager that helps us out and a virtual assistant. So those were kind of the day to day team that I have in place. I’m still doing fulfillment out of my house. Like literally 75% of my home is actually Cayla Gray headquarters.

Andrea: [00:13:50] I was going to ask about that.

Kelly: [00:13:52] I’m still doing it. Picking and packing, I think, you know, and I always advise this to my clients is that I you should be doing it yourself for a given amount of time until you really understand what your standard operating procedures are going to be in order to pass that off to somebody else to do it for you in the future, you need that direct connection to your customer. You need to write those handwritten notes and make it special. Connect with your customers when you first start a business. And then even now. I mean, I have been interviewing fulfillment centers for 6 to 9 months and I just, you know, I haven’t found the right fit yet. And I think that’s okay. I want a fulfillment center to represent my small business as if it were their own. And nobody’s going to do that to the level that I would. But I still want those handwritten notes. I want beautiful ribbon packaging. I want I want it to be an experience when customers open our boxes. And so until I find the right partner, we’re just going to be trucking along here at home. And our lovely UPS and USPS drivers are I’m sure we drive them insane. But I think it’s important. I think it’s really important to continue to do that until you feel really safe and comfortable passing that off to somebody else.

Andrea: [00:14:59] Yeah, it’s tough. It’s really hard to trust anybody. I remember even when I had my boutique because we had a store, a brick and mortar, and then we sold online. So even trusting somebody to just pick and ship, like that’s a level of trust right there. But it’s like, wait, let me double check to make sure you got all the right. It’s like, Andrea, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s like, but it is. It really is. And especially if you mix up an order and you have to pay for shipping costs back and forth like that adds up.  So.

Kelly: [00:15:29] Oh, yes, it is.

Kelly: [00:15:30] Not to say that I just the other day I just sent a customer my Nordstrom returns. When I switched, I was like, know I’m taking and packing and I had a Nordstrom order to return. I threw it in the bin. I slapped a label on it thinking it was the Nordstrom label I just printed. No, it went to a customer. She was so gracious. She was like, God, you sent me like five black dresses. It’s like, Oh my gosh, I think I am so sorry. And she was like, Well, just send me the label. I’ll throw it in the mail for you. Like she went to the store with this. And so, yeah, we sent her a box of a bunch of extras. But yes I really messed up orders on my own in the past. It’s hard to trust someone else when I can’t even do it right. You know?

Andrea: [00:16:16] It’s crazy. I used to mix up. I didn’t do it all the time, but it happened. And it’s like you just got to hope and pray that they’re not. They’ll be okay. And you can just send them an extra gift and they’re happy. They’re okay. Oh. Oh, my gosh. I’m getting all this soldier from back in the boutique days.

Kelly: [00:16:35] Yeah, it’s a lot.

Andrea: [00:16:37] So what about your husband That, like, how does he feel about it taking over the house?

Kelly: [00:16:42] He. I mean, he feels like when I was working full time, like I was the majority of our income and, you know, and now that I left that job, I am I barely paying myself because all of the money that I am creating for this business is just going into its growth. And I think that’s something that a lot of product based businesses don’t necessarily understand. Like you really got to watch your expenses, got to understand all of the little details within your costs because the majority of the margin that you’re making, if you’re building a business, is going to go back into your business to, you know, to create and produce more product in order for you to increase those sales. Like it doesn’t it’s it’s harder to scale without the funds for a product based business. And so he luckily I have him to be able to count on for steady stream of income to help us pay our base bills, you know, But we recently renovated or not renovated, We built a cabin up up north in Arizona. And so it’s it’s go time for me, you know what I mean? To like cover a new housing expense and like all of the different things that we have going on. And so, you know, he felt like I am the breadwinner in this house and this is awesome. And now I’m like, oh, just wait. Coming right up, right next to you. I’m going to I’m going to hit those numbers this year. And he’s been just incredibly, incredibly supportive. I mean, as you know, entrepreneurship is it’s a roller coaster. And like you have to know that going in the highs are really high and the lows are really low. And so, you know, those days, I’m a hot mess crying about roller balls that I can’t get in stock for nine months. You know what I mean? But but then you got to let it go and keep it moving. So he’s been great. He’s been great support.

Andrea: [00:18:22] I’m curious how you handled the roller ball situation, being your best selling item. Did you just tell customers like, hey, they’re on backorder? How do you handle that?

Kelly: [00:18:31] Yeah, I treated it as a new launch, so I didn’t even tell my customers that we had roller balls. And I just launched our full size perfumes and our candles and and then all of a sudden, like, when I found a different source, so I spent a ton of time resourcing those roller balls. Instead of using the primary source, I was able to find two or three backups. And that’s a tip for product based businesses out there. Make sure you always have two or three different sources for all your products, just to make sure that you’re able to pivot quickly if one of your sources isn’t able to have it. But yeah, I was able to resource fairly quickly within 30 days to find a new source. It was pricier, but I was able to get the inventory in stock and then we treat it as a brand new launch. It was like, Oh hey, New Year, new item and launched roller ball. So nobody, nobody behind the scenes had any idea, nobody in front of the scenes had any idea what was going on behind the scenes.

Andrea: [00:19:22] Perfect. Perfect. So how do you feel about pre sales? Because I remember back in my boutique days there was always a. Talks with the other boutique owners like. How do you feel about presales and some people like it’s great I get this income in, but then it’s like, what happens if something like a sourcing problem happens? So I’m curious how you feel about them.

Kelly: [00:19:49] Yeah, we don’t do presales unless we’ve secured the majority of the inventory. I think pre 2020 pre COVID times. I think presales would be an excellent way to secure some cash. Before you were you needed to produce and a lot of businesses need to do that. Now. They don’t have the cash flow to be able to do large production runs. So our recommendation is you could do presales, you could have the customers pay 100% or do a 30% down payment, 50% down payment, whatever you need in order to create that large production run. If that’s something that you need to do for your business. For us, I don’t feel secure about it until our economy gets into a little bit of a better place, unless I have the majority of those raw materials available to me. So like we take presales for our holidays, so holiday for us won’t be released until the first week of October. But we did take presales this month in August to make sure that we had enough inventory and if we needed to increase production, we were able to do so because we had enough raw materials on hand to be able to do that. But yeah, it just depends on everybody’s business is a little bit different.

Andrea: [00:20:55] Oh, my gosh. I, I there’s some days when I miss it. I’m like, man, I miss the, you know, the products. But then, like hearing about you right now, I’m just like, oh, no, I don’t miss it.  There’s so many moving parts, like literally little moving parts that you have to put together. Oh, well, Kelly, before I let you go, I ask everybody the same question. What is your number one business tip.

Kelly: [00:21:24] Number one business tip for me, it really goes back to that roller coaster, right? Knowing that you whatever business you’re in, whether it’s a corporate job, whether it’s entrepreneurship, like knowing that business and just life in general is a roller coaster and that, like I said, there’s going to be high highs and lows. But for me, like I go back to like knowing I almost know that like my path is already written for me. And so it kind of helps me slow down a little bit and be really grateful and try to be more present in the everyday moments and in the winds versus like really focusing on the negative stuff, having a positive mindset, knowing that any hard days you’ll get through them, you’ll get through them, the next up is coming. So just really knowing that there’s going to be up and downs and kind of preparing yourself for it and then that’s normal and it’s normal and that to really ground yourself and be present in every day, I make a practice of literally going outside every day, looking up at the sky and just taking a deep breath in. Otherwise we move through our day so quickly we’re just not really paying attention.

Andrea: [00:22:23] Yeah, I love that. Beautiful. Well, tell everybody how they can get their hands on some Cayla Gray Products.

Kelly: [00:22:30] I love it. So we’re on Instagram at CaylaGrayCo and then obviously our website is And yeah, our holiday scents will be releasing that first or second week of October and we can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks. 

Kelly: [00:22:51] Thank you so much Andrea.

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