Nora Schaper has the classic startup story: she started a business, HiBAR, from her basement in Minnesota. Now she’s in over 10,000 stores across America, selling salon-quality plastic-free shampoos, plus a few new additions: a plastic-free face wash and deodorant. She’s determined to get plastic bottles out of our bathrooms.
Alongside her husband Jay, and two friends-turned-co-founders, Dion Hughes and Ward Johnson, Schaper ventured into the world of bar shampoos with a goal of reducing plastic packaging in the personal care category. She and her husband had already been making soaps out of a studio they’d built in their basement and selling them to natural grocers in Minnesota. It was that understanding of saponification, she says, that her husband brought to the table, which became critical in creating a better shampoo, and now a face wash.
While there were a couple plastic-free shampoos on the market in 2015, when they started experimenting with the idea, none were ideal: either they used controversial ingredients or they didn’t give you the finish and experience you’d want in a shampoo, she says. “There was nothing comparable to what you’d get from a liquid shampoo. So when we started the project, we didn’t tell our friends much about it. We just asked them to send in pictures of their shower essentials.”
And those shower shelves were lined with plastic bottles, they discovered. “We, however, had been playing with the product, and using our own soaps, so we had a packaging-free shower basically. That’s when we knew we had to take on the challenge.”
In 2018, they officially launched, focusing on direct-to-consumer with their website, and making the bars in-house, which they still do in St. Paul. “We scoured the US and abroad for a manufacturer. They all told us, ‘It’s going to gum up all the machines.’ So we ended up making it ourselves.”
Beyond manufacturing, they also hit a bump in the road with distribution. Initially, the plan was to go through salons, Schaper says. But it was so hard to find an organized or centralized distribution model that salons operated in; plus each salon has individual hairdressers who own their station. While HiBAR is in some salons today, they turned to direct-to-consumer, focusing on online marketing, especially after COVID caused many salons to shut down.
“We were also told to just target men, not women. But I knew that we needed to get women behind it as well. It had to work for everyone,” Schaper adds.
Although their focus had been DTC, their big break came when a Whole Foods buyer called to carry HiBAR in Midwest stores. Shortly thereafter, Schaper was asked to present the shampoos at an event organized by outdoor retailer REI. Through that summit, she was able to connect with the Whole Foods buyer in the Pacific Northwest. Having secured two regional markets within a year, HiBAR was then asked to be in Whole Foods stores across the country. That national visibility helped them garner more and more business beyond Whole Foods, expanding their reach to over 10,000 stores.
“I think the retailers noticed us, because we started going to natural stores in the Midwest and were getting picked up there quickly. So the national retailers are watching those regional ones to see what’s working,” she explains.
But it didn’t stop there: HiBAR began getting calls from independent stores, zero-waste shops, and those beyond the world of grocery. With a total team of 25 today, Schaper is trying to juggle a motley of distribution channels, each with their own unique needs and processes.
Yet she’s not deterred: “We would love to get into more beauty-oriented shops and salons again, because our products actually have premium ingredients, and we want to be where people are talking about hair and beauty!”
Their latest product, the face wash, she says, builds on this: “It’s a first-of-its-kind face wash made from luxurious ingredients that give you the feeling of being in a spa. It’s not soap. And we have to educate retailers and consumers, so it is a bit more challenging.”
Despite all her success, starting a business has meant being scrappy, cutting back on her pay for periods of time, dealing with layoffs, and changing the narrative around a category that’s been entrenched in water-based models shipped around in plastic bottles.
It’s estimated that Americans throw out about 550 million plastic bottles of shampoo each year. That’s just one country, and one personal care product.
“Change is, however, happening. It makes sense to not ship water,” she says. “One of the other things that’s hard to convey sometimes is that our products are really concentrated, because we’ve taken the water out. So they last a long time, and with the shampoos, we’ve heard from people that they don’t have to shampoo as often either. It’s just going to take time to get everyone on board with this approach.”
“We want to be where people are going to buy a plastic bottle and eliminate that plastic purchase. Everybody goes to the grocery store and a lot of people buy their personal care products there. So that’s a good start, but we’d ultimately love to have a full collection of products that showcases the zero-waste lifestyle without compromising on quality.”
That’s what Schaper and her team are working on. A lotion is in the works. And she argues “it’ll be better than the other solid lotions you’ve tried.”
So could this Minnesota brand transform personal care for Americans with its nationwide approach? Let’s hope so.