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Nemawashi in Action: The Entrepreneurial Journey of Sweetbody Laboratories

For Rebecca Knutson and Debi Mann, entrepreneurship is all about the journey. Whether or not your own adventure features a startup, their attitude and lessons learned will motivate you to keep going forward. 

Debi and Rebecca’s paths merged when they met in massage therapy school, and they have been inseparable ever since.

From the beginning, they knew they wanted to run their own business, and they wanted to do it as a team with complementing strengths. Debi is a bold big picture thinker who will propel a project forward, Rebecca keeps an eye on the details and makes sure they move at a sustainable pace. 

Their first step toward entrepreneurship was to open their own massage practice.

When they didn’t find the perfect products to use in their practice, they began experimenting. Three years later their full-strength, chemical-free arnica balms and oils are on the shelves at Whole Foods Market, New Seasons, and other stores around Portland.

Along the way, the two founders reached out to Portland State’s School of Business community for insight and support a few times. 

They each already had a strong connection to PSU: Debi had completed her undergraduate degree in Public Health Education here, and Rebecca studied business with a focus on supply chain management. For their new venture, they engaged three capstone project student teams to collaborate on different challenges, and they also took advantage of the services offered by the Business Outreach Program. 

“It was great to get that opportunity to huddle with the teams and get their perspective on the questions we were facing at the time,” Rebecca recalls.

Together, they refined their pricing structure, identified athletes as their initial audience, took their packaging design to the next level, and got ready for a business loan. 

While those huddles uncovered new insights, they also reaffirmed a lot of the core ideas Debi and Rebecca had about their business. “We knew what we wanted, and what feels right to us,” says Debi. “There’s a lot of outside pressure when you’re building a business. Everyone is telling you what you should do. What helps us not get distracted is that we take a long-term view with our business.” 

One principle they use as a north star ever since Rebecca learned about it in her business studies is the Japanese concept of nemawashi, which approximately translates as “going around the roots.” It means to lay the foundation for change or growth in a quiet, organic fashion. 

Next on the horizon for Sweetbody Laboratories is the launch of a bath soak. Further down the road, Rebecca and Debi have plans to travel, research, and get inspired for the next growth season. Their vision is to open a spa, as a space in which they can continue applying their entrepreneurial spirit and their passion for healing. 

They are in no rush. 

“Entrepreneurship for us is a journey,” Debi explains. “It’s about growth. I am so grateful every day to be able to wake up, learn something new, meet a challenge, and grow in the process. When you just start to take steps forward, you’ll begin to see new possibilities. It’s so much hard work, but we love what we do.”