Homing in on a passion

Susan Helmore (35) works from home as mother, e-commerce business woman and speech language...
Susan Helmore (35) works from home as mother, e-commerce business woman and speech language therapist. Photo by Marjorie Cook.
When Wanaka mother-of-two Susan Helmore decided to explore the chemical-free path, she ended up making it her business.

Susan Helmore
Age: 35.
Lives: Albert Town, Wanaka.
Occupations: mother, e-commerce businesswoman, speech language therapist.
Family: husband James, daughter Olivia (3), son Charlie (1).
Qualification: Bachelor's degree in speech language therapy, Canterbury University (1999). 

Susan Helmore is not a chemist, a herbalist or a computer whizz - although she says she's fast becoming a "geek".

She makes lists, has an indexed bright-ideas book, Google is her "friend" - and there's peanut butter on her lap top.

Her passion is chemical-free skin-care and cleaning products.

Her profession is speech language therapy.

Two of her three key people are knee-high to a grasshopper - on the day this reporter visits, Olivia (3) and Charlie (1) are both at preschool.

Husband James, Lake Wanaka Tourism's general manager, is at work and Mrs Helmore is presiding over her world from her kitchen table.

"I am loving what I am doing. I just really love the balance.

"It is hard work. But I am just passionate about stuff.

"I also knew there was something more than speech therapy. Starting up something myself and knowing I am responsible - it's just about me - gives me a buzz," Mrs Helmore said.

Formerly from Christchurch, the Helmores have been living in the Queenstown Lakes district for several years and moved to Wanaka from Queenstown about 18 months ago.

About the same time, Mrs Helmore founded Red Rata, her online shop for chemical-free, New Zealand-made skin-care and cleaning products.

She also works on contract helping Upper Clutha-based people relearn their powers of speech after strokes, brain injuries or the onset of neurological disorders.

In previous jobs, Mrs Helmore helped children develop their language skills, and she is contemplating returning to this field at some stage.

"But I need more time. Give me a few more days in the week or a few more hours in the day," she laughed.

Mrs Helmore arrived at her ecofriendly philosophy of skin care through her work in the health field - she did not suffer any personal skin conditions - and the issue assumed greater importance when her first-born arrived.

"I had started using natural products along the way, before I had children, just through talking with friends.

"When I had Olivia, I started reading the ingredients on bottles and they completely freaked me out ...I vowed and declared I would never use them on my child."

She wore minimal cosmetics anyway but was startled when she discovered she had many products with undesirable chemicals in her bathroom and kitchen cupboards.

It prompted an immediate cull.

"When I first started looking for natural products, I found it really hard to find references to products.

"What's good or what's not good. I struggled with it. I went to a health shop.

"I wanted to change everything - my cleaning products, baby products, hair products, everything I put on my body."

But she found it hard to find a shop that had an entire range and started sourcing products from websites.

Mrs Helmore also started to Hoogle ingredients she did not understand and read books on the subject.

She believes anything that is unpronounceable should stay in the chemistry lab and recommends sweet almond oil, lavender and honey-based products over items that contain paraben preservatives, petrolatum products, sodium lauryl sulfate or aluminium, to name only a few.

She was amazed to discover tens of thousands of products containing ingredients she wouldn't recommend are being produced every year, and in increasing amounts.

Mrs Helmore says she doesn't believe everything she reads, crosschecks information and likes to know that the information she is absorbing is based on scientific facts.

"So far I haven't come up with any conflicting information," Mrs Helmore said.

One of her favourite sites is www.ewg.org (of the United States-based non-profit lobby group Environmental Working Group) and its associated website "Skin Deep" (www.cosmeticsdatabase.com).

Her favourite books are by New Zealanders: About Face by Kim Morrison and Fleur Whellingan (2006, Random House) and Living Green: The New Zealand handbook for an eco-friendly toxin-free sustainable life by Annmaree Kane and Christina Neubert (2008, New Holland Publishers (NZ) Ltd).

She is mostly interested in the effect chemical additives have on skin.

For example, sodium lauryl sulfate can be an irritant.

Although interested in science and credibility, she prefers to "deal with it on a people level" and not get too technical.

One day she decided rather than recommending the website of her favourite brand of children's sunscreen to her friends, she should just buy a whole lot and sell it.

The supplier was happy, and Red Rata was born.

"I bought 60 tubes and they sold. I thought `Wow'.

"That was pretty much to people in Queenstown and family and friends. I didn't do too much marketing."

The money she made from selling the sunscreen went towards getting a website, brochures and cards. 

When younger child Charlie was 5 months old, Mrs Helmore decided to "go for it" and created a range of 35 products.

She's since increased it to 45, has 11 suppliers, receives orders daily and wraps and dispatches items regularly (using recyclable packaging, of course).

Now she has a small but credible business but could not rely solely on her first full year in e-commerce for a living.

She spends pretty much everything she earns on buying more products and setting up the next step of her business plan.

"I have a good database, lots of repeat sales, a lot who come back every six to eight weeks.

I sell all over New Zealand, a lot through word of mouth and friends.

Comparing my first six months to my second six months, there's been a 350% increase in sales," she said.

In the first three years, you shouldn't expect a sustainable income anyway, she said, especially when at home most of the time with kids.

"Work-life balance, that's probably the biggest challenge working from home . . . but that's why I am doing it.

"I made a business at home so I can spend time with the children . . . and be flexible and go out to music and movement or into the community."


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