July 24, 2012
Growing a Business, the Mad Gab’s Way
What happens when an anthropology major flunks a math gen ed requirement? For Gabrielle Melchionda ’92, it opened the door to creating Mad Gab’s natural body care products. Twenty years later, her journey that began with a natural lip balm created in her mother’s kitchen has grown to include a wide array of products that are selling like crazy around the U.S. and internationally. Based in Portland, Maine, Mad Gab’s is located in a 4500 square-foot space where “a fun bunch of hardworking folks make, ship and sell our wonderful products.”
After the math class fiasco, Melchionda decided to retake the class during the abbreviated January term. “Adding an evening workshop in basic massage, I thought, would help lessen the trauma of that much math. My massage instructor shared a book on making natural cosmetics, and I found my first recipe for lip balm.”
Buying some beeswax from a neighbor, Melchionda got started and filled some colorful boxes (from Amherst’s Mercantile) with what looked like brown mayonnaise (due to the vanilla). “People really liked the product, despite its yucky appearance, and encouraged me to market it. People’s Market on campus was the first to sell it. By senior year it was available in ten stores.”
Family friends helped Melchionda get organized with the legal, financial and business side of things, although she wanted nothing to do with anything remotely resembling capitalism. “The people side of things was always more me,” she says. “I used the Yellow Pages and maps, driving around New England and popping in on retailers to convince them to sell my product.”
When it came time to create tester displays, Melchionda couldn’t afford the wood she wanted. “I ended up at a coffin company in Northampton. They gave me their scrap wood…beautiful pieces of mahogany, cherry, maple, and oak became tester blocks that I had planed and routered by developmentally challenged adults. A friend painted on a design, and presto!”
Still, running a homegrown enterprise without a business background isn’t easy. In 1996 Melchionda was invited into Gasoline Alley, a business incubator in Springfield. “Finally, I learned about the business side of Mad Gab’s and had the luxury of applying accounting, finance, strategic planning and marketing principles to the business I was already growing.”
Melchionda moved to Maine the following year, with only a few dollars in her pocket and a trade show in the offing. She sold enough lip balm to get her through that first Portland winter. When the shopping network QVC came to town, looking for some Maine companies to promote on their Tour of the USA that spring, Melchionda—and 300 others—tried out. Her selection was a major turning point for Mad Gab’s.
“The first order came ticking through the fax, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was bigger than my combined sales in 1996!” says Melchionda. “I went on the air a few months later, sold all of the lip balm, and the following day I received another PO and an invitation to go on QVC’s morning show. A few orders later, now with some money in the bank, I embarked on my next product, a shea butter hand and body balm. Back then, no one knew what shea butter was, but I was a huge fan.”
Calling the product Elephant Lube, Melchionda sent out 80 purple envelopes to beauty editors to introduce them to Mad Gab’s. “In a crazy twist of fate, 37 magazines—beginning with Vogue, Elle and Seventeen—featured Elephant Lube.”
The result? “Crazy growth, a website, a second phone line, endless orders, and not enough time or money,” Melchionda says. “Then came my wedding, a first baby, more growth, and a few years later a second baby. Life got fast and crazy pretty quickly. Mad Gab’s continued to grow and enter new markets. We launched new products each year, and I tried my best to keep up with my growing staff and family.”
Despite this success, Mad Gab’s could be bigger, says Melchionda. “We could sell more products, reach a larger audience, and be more profitable. Success to me is having enough time to enjoy my family and friends, travel, and life, but also having a rewarding, challenging career that allows me to use my strengths and gifts. My hope is to continue on a path of sustainability and growth while also having a quality of life that lets me be happy.”
Reflecting on her UMass experience, Melchionda says, “The Anthropology Department was like a second home. Studying cultures and people was a natural fit for who I was. It helped me as a waitress—a sales job!—and subsequently in cold calling retailers. I had to assess each new store, its culture and people to find ways to connect with them in non-threatening or pestering ways.
“UMass was special in so many ways—all the learning, growing, exploring, playing. I made lifelong friendships and memories, found my true self, and was challenged in a way that has been unparalleled since. Well respected professors, a huge array of courses, beautiful campus, activities galore, endless social possibilities and the Five College Exchange. Who could ask for more?”