Yes to success

22 Aug 2012

Author: Sam North



A never-say-die attitude and desire to create an iconic brand and business saw Lance Kalish and Ido Leffler’s budding friendship at the University of Technology Sydney blossom into a formidable entrepreneurial partnership. Never ones to do anything by half, they set out and succeeded in conquering America with their natural beauty line Yes To. Now, Yes To is sold in 29 countries and almost 30,000 stores throughout the world.
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Before we get to the worldwide success of the iconic Australian-owned natural beauty line Yes To, let’s go back to the beginning – the time when entrepreneurs Lance Kalish and Ido Leffler first met. Or, to be more precise, when Kalish first became aware that Leffler existed.

It was 1997 and the 19-year-old Kalish had migrated to Australia from South Africa and started studying at Macquarie University.

“I wanted to do some sport so I joined a soccer club halfway through the season,” Kalish recalls. “Because the competition was half over we couldn’t have any more registrations so they said: ‘This guy Ido Leffler has gone to Indonesia so you can play under his name.’

“I had a great season, scoring a lot of goals, including one which won us a final. The local paper wrote that up with the headline ‘Leffler scores the winning goal’.

“A while later I was at a pub with friends and someone pointed out this fellow to me and said: ‘That’s Ido Leffler.’

“I went up, tapped him on the back, and said: ‘I’m the guy who is making you famous’.”

The following year they met up again, this time at the University of Technology Sydney where Kalish had transferred to do a Commerce degree and Leffler was doing a Bachelor of Business. They became friends and, after graduating and gaining some experience, went into business together.

They had plenty of ideas, some of which failed, then set up a company helping Australian brands develop internationally.

Their remarkable journey has excited the interest of, with the pair being given a book deal to write the story of Yes To and their partnership.

As Leffler puts it, through that endeavour: “We found ourselves with a significant relationship base across a range of distributors, retailers and manufacturers across the world.”

“At the time, the natural beauty industry was growing in leaps and bounds, and Lance and I could not find any natural beauty brands that met our needs as young, urban, Mini-driving, Virgin-flying, Apple-using individuals.

“We set out to create the Apple of the natural beauty world. It took us six months to take the concept from idea to shelf.”

And what a six months it was.

After meeting a formulator who had been able to combine organic fruit and vegetables with minerals from the Dead Sea, the pair developed a number of products and, with typical bravado, thought they would start by taking on the biggest market – America!

In December 2006, they got an appointment with the head buyer at Walgreens, America’s biggest pharmacy group.

“Their headquarters is in Chicago and it’s a very conservative company. You have to wear a suit to meetings,” Kalish says. “We were taken in to meet this very smartly dressed woman who came forward to shake hands in greeting. Ido ignored her hand, kissed her on both cheeks and said: ‘That’s how we do it in Europe.’

“That greeting set us apart and set the scene for the rest of our dealings with Walgreens.”

Yes To was initially given a trial on Walgreens’ online retail site, so Leffler and Kalish decided to throw all their resources behind promoting the products. “It was make or break time for us,” Kalish says. Part of that plan was taking out a full-page advertisement in glamour magazine Cosmopolitan, which said that Yes To Carrots – their first product – could only be purchased from

“Lance and I have a never-say-die attitude and a true desire to create an iconic brand and business ... in the first two years of Yes To I travelled 200 days a year, this is a true Aussie road warrior attitude, and I love it.”

“We didn’t expect it would do much for sales but we wanted to take it out to impress the Walgreens people,” Kalish says. “We wanted them to say: ‘Imagine what these guys would do if we had their products in the stores.’ ”

At the end of January 2007, the pair were called to a debriefing with Walgreens.

“The buyer said ‘I’d like to move forward’,” Kalish recalls, “and then said that she wanted to carry all 16 of our products in all their 6000 stores and they needed it all delivered by June.

“It was a sort of bittersweet moment. We were over the moon but we thought: how the hell are we going to do this?”

They started by raising funds through an angel investor and set about filling the $3 million order which, to add to the pressure, was on a sell or return basis.

With production taking place in Israel, the pair embarked on a panic-driven race to make the most of an incredible opportunity. In the end they won, but only just, as they had to airfreight (at great cost) the whole shipment to America to make the deadline.

“And the next six months we spent learning about the US,” Kalish recalls.

With Walgreens given a US-exclusivity clause for 12 months, the pair concentrated on expansion into other markets like Australia, the UK, Russia, Holland and Canada.

Following a funding injection from a US private equity investor, Yes To has boomed, with Kalish and Leffler spending the past few years focusing on building the business. Now Yes To is stocked by every major retailer in the US (making it number two in the natural beauty product category) and is in 29 countries and almost 30,000 stores throughout the world.

They have recently signed a deal with the prestigious international chain of cosmetic stores, Sephora, to exclusively carry Yes To products in 15 countries in Europe.

The future for Yes To is, according to Kalish, looking “exceptionally strong”.

“I think we are really just getting started,” he says. “The natural beauty category is growing faster than any other beauty category. There’s a long way for us to go.”

Their remarkable journey has excited the interest of, with the pair being given a book deal to write the story of Yes To and their partnership.

Kalish puts the success of the partnership down to each appreciating the other’s skills, and to those skills being complementary.

He is stronger in the financial area while Leffler, Kalish says, is “the world’s best” at sales and marketing.

They share the same strong family values and work ethic.

“We are determined to succeed. We will do anything to make it work,” he says. “I have taken my family to live in London, Sydney, Israel, San Francisco and now Sydney again, while Ido and his family have also lived in four countries.”

Both are married with two children and Leffler says his future priorities include spending more time around his children to “show them that they can truly achieve anything”.

Kalish is grateful to Australia for the opportunity it has given them. “It’s been an unbelievable country for me and my family. It has set us up. I barrack for the Socceroos, the Kangaroos, the Wallabies . . . all the Australian teams against whoever they are playing.”

Leffler, in response to a question as to why they have succeeded where others have failed, says: “Lance and I have a never-say-die attitude and a true desire to create an iconic brand and business. The passion that stems from our families has been the number one driver that keeps us on the road – in the first two years of Yes To I travelled 200 days a year, this is a true Aussie road warrior attitude, and I love it.”

When asked about mistakes along the way, Leffler says: “There are many things that I would do differently, however if I hadn’t done those things I would not be here . . . so in other words I have no regrets.”

“Our biggest hurdle was managing our growth and knowing when to say no. At one point we nearly killed the company because we could not keep up with the demand. As a new business we underestimated the initial resources required financially and logistically and this caused the company to have a few initial pressures.”

His advice to young entrepreneurs is to always say yes to every new meeting; that face-to-face meetings are for business, emails are for following up, and it’s all about relationships, relationships, relationships!

Kalish says that in the eight years of their partnership they have only had one argument. “It was over the telephone, lasted for three minutes and I won the fight.”

Leffler has a similar recall, but with a slight variation. “As partners we have only ever had one major argument, which I won! In all seriousness, we have never been closer, we both 100 per cent trust each other and as a result we have watched each other’s back every step of the way.”

The pair, Leffler says, “share a common drive to succeed and a common value set. I am also significantly better looking than Lance, so I am glad that I get to stand out in the crowd when we are together.”

Kalish, one suspects, would respond by pointing out that the first time Leffler stood out in a crowd was when Kalish was kicking goals under his name.

But whatever the various merits of the pair’s looks, it’s certain they have said Yes To success.