By Sandra Yeyati
Approximately 43 million years ago, a volcano erupted sending out plumes of ash hundreds of miles before settling in a lake in what today is Death Valley, California. With the passage of millions of years, that ash turned into a clay ore called calcium bentonite.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2005 in Austin, where Kyle Johnson had just graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in criminal justice. He also played guitar and keys in a successful rock band named Whitman.
Johnson got a summer job with Perry Arledge making clay products for local farmers’ markets in her garage. The two became fast friends, and later that year, Arledge asked Johnson to stay on and help her grow the business. She saw the potential in him to steer their venture in the right direction.
In 2008, Johnson and Arledge cofounded The Living Clay Company, which today manufactures a full line of dietary supplements and skincare products using calcium bentonite as the primary ingredient. They are no longer working out of a garage. Their current state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Austin is 4,100 square feet. They mine 30 to 40 tons of clay from that site near Death Valley every year, and distribute their products to retail stores and individual practitioners—from medical doctors to naturopaths and chiropractors— all over the world.
It’s not every day that a kid straight out of college becomes president of a successful business, but that’s exactly what Johnson has done. He is passionate about their products and customers, as well as their 10 employees. He regularly uses the liquid clay, which is their internal detox product. “I’ll do what we call our single serving, two ounces, every day of my life,” he says. “Then twice a year, I’ll go through what we recommend as our general cleanse, which is taking two single servings per day for a 14-day period for general health. If I ever have food poisoning or a stomach bug, any kind of digestive issue, I’ll up my clay intake then as well, as I find that it helps those sorts of things get out of the body much quicker.”
When it comes to the quality of the clay, Johnson says that their product is unique and unparalleled in the industry. “One of the major goals for us when we started The Living Clay Company was to raise the bar of quality for bentonite that was being used for human use,” he says. “We saw a need for a natural, raw clay that was being properly handled so that consumers could know exactly what they were buying and when they see our name, know that they’re buying a quality, safe bentonite that hasn’t been through any sort of harsh processes.”
Johnson is equally enthusiastic about The Living Clay Company’s customers: “I can’t say enough about how evangelical our customers are. This business has been fulfilled on word of mouth.” Johnson says that his favorite part of the day is when they receive phone calls from customers that have either been personally touched by the use of their products or have a friend or a family member that have been. “Those phone calls, testimonials and interactions are very enriching. It’s about trying to better people’s lives, and I feel that whenever we get feedback from customers, which we do all the time, it’s very rewarding and it really makes my work very worthwhile.”
Johnson sees great potential for growth for the company as they continue to add products and markets to the mix. His first summer job out of college turned out to be a winning choice. “I do enjoy being an entrepreneur,” he says. “I can tell you that I’ll never work for anyone else as long as I live. I absolutely have to work in something that has personal value for others. We make products that give people peace of mind that they’re using safe, nontoxic clay for their friends and family and using products that actually better their ability to be well. That’s very satisfying.”
Now 31, Johnson has stopped touring with the band, which played its last concert New Year’s Eve, 2013. Still, his 8-month old son, Logan, gets free performances at home all the time. “He is definitely my biggest musical fan,” says the proud father.