Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a weekly celebration of the women who are building business in Boston. Cayla Mackey, founder of Unicorn Goods, has been chosen for her fearless pursuit of a new market, with all the unique expertise that gives her the confidence of her convictions.
By SHELAGH BRALEY
BOSTON—Cayla Mackey’s spirit animal must be a unicorn: inherently good, difficult to find, just enough sass, and a little bit of magic thrown in. Now she’s building an eCommerce company and betting that it has a different kind of unicorn potential.
Mackey, 25, CEO of Unicorn Goods, was raised in Florida, schooled at Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated Phi Beta Kappa on a full merit scholarship from Vanderbilt. Then she got right down to business. This is her fifth venture.
Since arriving in Boston, she has built Unicorn Goods—a digital vegan catalog, aiming to become the Amazon of vegan-sourced products.
“I’ve been motivated since high school by the world’s biggest problems and the best way to solve them,” Mackey says. “And with Unicorn Goods, I’m trying to address the issue of animal rights, human rights, and sustainability by using market forces to drive consumer behavior to a better end.”
That’s a mouth full—but it’s a position Mackey doesn’t shrink from. Her market is the main source of her confidence, eying the growth trajectory of the 16 million known vegans and vegetarians in the United States alone. Her shoppers also track from a massive pool of consumers—vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians (people who eat meat but less of it)—who also care about animal rights, eco-consciousness, even those on the Paleo trend for health reasons. Mission-based companies like Unicorn Goods are leading the vegan trend, in line with millennial sensibilities pushing for social good, as well as the desire to be part of a “food tribe,” according to Nutrition Business Journal, a national source of nutrition, natural product and integrative healthcare research.
According to Mackey, the more aware these customers become, the more they champion—and spend their own green on—companies whose practices are environmentally progressive.
In 2015, the NBJ reports, the “special diet” buying population spent $92 billion, 50 percent more than expected. The market is projected to reach $144 billion by 2018. John Bradley, editor-in-chief of the NBJ, says: “Food tribe motivations range from health to emotions to ethics to personal identities. It’s a complex but fascinating landscape, and one rich with opportunities for brands who are clear about whom they are serving and why.”
Mackey is ready to capitalize on that opportunity, with an eCommerce experience tailored to the discerning vegan buyer.
“We know now that 65 percent of all consumers are actively trying to buy more ethical products,” Mackey says, but knowledge and access are barriers in this market. “So we have the vast majority of people trying to purchase things that are better for the world, better for people, planet and animals, but they don’t know where to find them and they don’t know what they are. So it’s a big transparency issue.”
Public consciousness has shifted because people in places of power are coming out about these issues more and more, she continues. “People in the celebrity and political spheres, for example, they are advocating. They’re advocating for more sustainable food systems or more sustainable ways of living for healthier diets. And that’s really what’s driving this trickle-down effect that we’re seeing with consumer behavior.”
Unicorn Goods, headquartered at ImpactHub, attracts the most conscious consumers first, to help them make more informed decisions, then branch out to the open-minded but not-yet-active communities. “So our initial target market for Unicorn Goods is vegans and vegetarians first,” she says, “because they’re the tip of the iceberg—the sort of people who have the highest standards for ethics.”
Mackey says she believes consumers are inherently good and that if given the right information and opportunities, they will make more sustainable decisions. “Our job as a brand is to make that purchasing decision as easy as possible. We’re removing the barrier to entry from being a time investment.”
Vegan goods also have the perception of being costly. But Mackey says the unit economics work out for quality-comparable goods.
“It’s not that vegan products are more expensive, but vegans, because they’re not just animal rights conscious, they’re also human rights and sustainability consciousness, they’re inherently minimalist and they want to buy one thing that’s going to last a long time. So it’s not necessarily comparing this bag to a throwaway H&M bag that’s $10. It’s comparing this bag to a high-quality leather tote, like Brooks Brothers.
“And if you compare things that way, it’s actually much more economical and better for the environment,” she says.
Additionally, this consumer group isn’t motivated or deterred by price because they’re driven more by value and by their belief for the need for sustainably sourced goods. “We’re also finding items that are priced more competitively,” she says.
“These are people with high ethics who are willing to pay more because they know that they’re voting with their dollars,” Mackey says. “Whenever you buy something, you are saying, ‘I endorse the way this (product) is made, and I endorse this product and the materials that it uses, and I endorse what this product stands for. I am going to reward the company that made this, with my money, and thereby encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing.’ So, we look at the consumer as an empowered individual who’s able to vote every day with their money for a better world.”
The inherent social behavior of this consumer group is vital to growth, Mackey indicates—a conversation that Unicorn Goods is prepared not only to leverage but to lead.
“When someone purchases something that they’re really in love with, they talk about it with other people,” Mackey says.
“When someone compliments them on the item, ‘Oh, that looks really nice,’ (buyers) want to share where they got it from. They want to share what the material is. They want to share that it’s carbon neutral and that it’s low impact and sustainably made, or that it’s fair trade or made from organic cotton. These are all parts of an item’s story and people need to know that in order to be empowered as individual advocates for the products that they buy.”
With four previous purpose-driven ventures on her CV, sustainability has been the consistent thread, as Mackey developed a habit for getting her hands dirty, sometimes even literally.
When her first company (a publishing group with a green mission) needed revenue, she sold $350,000 worth of magazine ads. When Native.is, the zero-to-120,000-circulation magazine needed distribution in Nashville, she said, “Why not deliver it by bike?” and hired another startup, a bicycle delivery company, to help.
When her next company needed to source organic food to provide breakfast tacos (also by bike, food cart-style) to her customers, Mackey didn’t just apply to the organic certification program—she simultaneously got a job on an organic farm and sourced her own ingredients. “I worked as a farm hand,” she laughs. “… I wanted to know what was going on with the farm, I wanted to know what ‘organic food’ meant, if the environment that it came from was better. It is way better,” she affirms.
Most of Unicorn Goods’ value lies in the research they’ve put into finding their products, Mackey says. “We have a portfolio of over 2,000 products and 250 brands, which is enormous for this field. There hasn’t been anyone who has aggregated this information in this way and made it available to a wider audience.”
“We’re trying to create the place to shop for vegans on the Internet. And in doing that, we hope that more and more consumers make the shift toward buying animal free products,” Mackey says.
“We’re doing for clothing and products what Whole Foods did for food.”