Amanda Moskowitz, founder of Stacklist, moderated last week’s discussion about building a beauty startup. And it was a markedly candid and wide-ranging conversation about the realities and challenges of launching and growing a personal care, fragrance, cosmetics, or tech business in today’s crowded indie beauty market.
Mariya Nurislamova of Scentbird, Priscilla Tsai of Cocokind, Paul Michaux of Prose, and Meghan Maupin of Atolla spoke on the panel, answering questions form Moskowitz and from the audience (via Slido).
Here (in no particular order) are the top 10 of tips the speakers shared:
1. “Don’t ever expect a retailer to sell your product for you.”
Priscilla Tsai shared anecdotes about how initially she accepted retail deals that weren’t a fit for her brand. Without the right customers and the right marketing support, her product ended up collecting dust rather than sales revenue.
2. “Go straight to the people.”
“How do you build a brand people want?” asked Mariya Nurislamova rhetorically. “You go straight to the people,” she answered. Scentbird began as a luxury fragrance subscription venture but along the way Nurislamova has launched a color cosmetics brand (Deck of Scarlet), a fragrance brand (Confessions of a Rebel), and a skin care brand is in the works—launching in 2020.
For these new brands, Nurislamova and her team asked their loyal consumer/fan base about their preferences on “every aspect” of the product, from brand name, to packaging design, to formulation.
3. “Find a chemist who buys into your vision.”
Even though more and more ingredient suppliers, contract manufacturing labs, and consulting chemists are working with beauty startups and indie brands every day, “you want to find a chemist who buys into your vision,” says Tsai. They have to be “aligned with your brand on values, transparency, R&D [strategy], etc.”
Meghan Maupin agrees, she found a “lab partner that was as into data as much as we are.” At first the Atolla team asked other skin care brands for lab recommendations but eventually the new beauty tech business selected “a smaller lab partner that was excited about our vison and about the future of manufacturing,” says Maupin.
4. “Startups need 3 things to capture customers.”
Prose co-founder Paul Michaux shared very straightforward guidance with the (aspiring) brand founders in attendance at the Building a Beauty Startup event last Thursday.
He noted that to succeed, beauty startups need a product that is safe, that is effective, and that has strong branding behind it.
5. “You can’t just define your values; you have to continuously work for it.”
Tsai emphasized the fast-pace pace of the beauty industry and the fact that new technologies become available fairly regularly. She’s adamant that successful brands do more than write out a ‘values’ statement and post it online.
Every business decision has to align with your values, she says and that means checking every change and opportunity against those brand values.
6. “Having a customer is something great; keeping a customer is something better.”
It’s often said that you can get anyone to buy a product once, but that earning the trust needed to acquire a loyal repeat customer is another matter entirely.
For Michaux’s Prose brand, product quality, user experience, and thoughtful branding have all been key to gaining a loyal following of happy customers.
7. Give it time.
Nurislamova spent a full “year of misery” sorting through various business models before she created the Scentbird that exists today— “because no one would pay just for a recommendation,” she explained. Her story is a helpful reminder that entrepreneurship happens in real time and that brands and founders figure things out along the way.
8. Data-driven beauty brands are different.
Sure, Atolla sells skin care but what the startup is really all about is data. “The serums that were launching with aren’t the serums we’re going to have in 2 months,” acknowledges Maupin. “We are going to iterate, evolve, and optimize;” which is why the beauty tech brand’s New York City pop-up earlier this year was focused on concept testing rather than on product testing.
9. All MOQs and rates are negotiable.
Nurislamova has been doing business with manufacturers, brands, and suppliers for years now. And she’s been in the thick of it again as she moves the company’s skin care brand closer to launch.
If a company says their MOQ (minimum order quantity) is 5,000 pieces, Nurislamova says you can get that number down to 1,500 if you want the same product in multiple shades. Or, she notes, if you give one lab all of your business, you can negotiate a lower rate.
10. “Two accelerator programs is one too many.”
The lessons and connections gained in a good startup accelerator program can make a meaningful difference for a founder building a new beauty brand. But Nurislamova went through two such programs and believes that it’s best to learn, connect, and move ahead.
This article was updated 21-Oct-2019 to correctly credit Priscilla Tsai of Cocokind with her insights from the event. The initial panel program listed Charlotte Cho of Soko Glam as a speaker (she was unable to attend), and she was erroneously cited in an earlier version of this article.
Deanna Utroske, CosmeticsDesign.com Editor, covers beauty business news in the Americas region and publishes the weekly Indie Beauty Profile column, showcasing the inspiring work of entrepreneurs and innovative brands.