I Started My Own Beauty Company—Here's the Most Important Lesson I Learned

Updated 04/29/19
create-a-startup
Emerson Fry

Over the past few years, a small but promising league of women-led natural brands of all sizes have burst onto the beauty scene—companies like Kjaer Weis, Monk Oil, and CAP Beauty. Perhaps this rise of female-founded businesses in the skincare space has got you thinking I could do that—and it should. There are more than 27 million small businesses in the U.S., and a2014 study by American Express found that women are starting companies at twice the rate of men. So why not you?

This is exactly what raced through my mind a couple of months ago. I’d just managed to clear up my skin after a confusing (and TBH traumatizing) cystic acne outbreak. Through diet and Marie Kondo–ing the hell out of my beauty routine by replacing everything with clean products, I managed to clear up the pimples. I spent hours researching natural products with antibacterial properties to help my skin and discovered golden jojoba oil: a gilded elixir with the power to hydrate and help banish blemishes.

While the acne vanished, some light scarring remained, so I investigated more natural fixes and eventually landed on tamanu oil. Also boasting antibacterial and hydrating properties, this oil has been used by women in Polynesia for generations to help not just with acne, but also scars. Bingo! I began mixing my own oil for acne-prone skin, applied nightly for several weeks, and the reddish marks on my cheeks disappeared. Even the deeper scars began to fade. My skin developed the lit-from-within glow I’d always been chasing, and I was hooked.

Obviously, I gushed to everyone who would listen (and some who didn’t) about the magic of beauty oils and decided to source my own cold-pressed, organic ingredients and develop a beauty line for stressed, dry, and acne-prone skin. I began developing monogrammed packaging and personalized oils and launched The Buff just a few weeks later.

As a freelance natural beauty and wellness writer, I admittedly have more flexibility to fit in meetings with suppliers, consult experts, and spend hours testing out different organic oils than you might (and some useful contacts), but the entire process was surprisingly straightforward. Bringing your cosmetics concept to fruition and onto the market really isn’t as scary, hard, or prohibitively expensive as it first appears.

I engaged a bunch of experts to help make sure The Buff is a beautiful, quality product ready for sale, but to save you several hundred phone calls, emails, meetings, and dollars, I’m going to share everything I learned right here.

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1. Develop your niche product and price

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Beauty is a saturated market—even clean beauty. Every expert I spoke with emphasized this and reiterated the need for an original product with a compelling, authentic story. As someone equally obsessed with both beauty oils and monogramming, it made sense for me to combine both.

Australian supermodel and founder of Luma Cosmetics, Jessica Hart, told me that her line’s point of difference is that the ingredients are naturally derived, and it’s much less expensive than other high-quality, similar brands. “After many chats with makeup artists from all over the world, I began to realize you didn't need to buy expensive makeup for it to be any good. At the time of creating Luma, there wasn't an affordable brand out there that used naturally derived ingredients, took pride in its formulations, and that connected with the everyday woman,” she explained.

You will need to work out what an authentic beauty brand looks like for you.

There are people who can help you with this process (for a fee, of course), and I spoke with private label guru and beauty business coach Melody Bockelman for some insight early on. She told me it’s important to prove the demand for what you want to make before wasting time and cash on a fruitless endeavor. “Do market research,” she suggested, adding that information on competitors and the marketplace will give you an idea about what prices to set and whether there is demand.

In the beginning, work with suppliers who want to make small batches of your product. You won't be able to work with suppliers who only ship in huge quantities, but you can see how the product does in the market.

Once you know what you’re making, look for ingredients through suppliers without massive minimum orders, like Happi.com and Formulator Shop.

2. Lay the foundations to scale your business

Early on, you will need to create a website—try Squarespace for an affordable, secure, and slick online store that you can build yourself with no coding skills. I built my own store on Squarespace in the time it took to watch an episode of Black Mirror. Other entrepreneurs have recommended Shopify—pick what works for you.

Next, lay the foundations so that you can create a mass product if needed. I love the monogrammed bottles at The Buff, but Bockelman warned this level of personalization inhibits a brand’s ability to grow quickly. Without the ability to scale, she said The Buff “will always likely operate as a direct-to-consumer brand.” This motivated me to also introduce a standard bottle without personalized packaging, as I’d like to sell in stores.

You can choose to either manufacture your product in a lab (for a fee!) or at home.

Jillian Wright, the founder of the self-titled beauty brand and creator of the Indie Beauty Expo, explained the benefits of outsourcing manufacturing to a secure lab. “Some indie beauty brands manufacture at home, but I use an external lab, as it’s easier to ensure everything is sterile,” she said over the phone. However, beauty is a fairly unregulated industry, so you can bottle a product at home. Just be sure to do your research first to make sure your facility is germ-free.

Outsourcing manufacturing also isn’t as scary as it sounds—New York, Dallas, and Los Angeles are all hubs for beauty manufacturing. More boutique manufacturers like Texas Beauty Labs can help even if you’re producing relatively low quantities to begin.

If you choose to manufacture at home, you’ll obviously have to ensure your workspace is totally sterile. Ashley Prange is the founder of certified organic brand Au Naturale Cosmetics and has 26 staff members working every day from her home-based lab manufacturing her line—so it certainly is possible, even for larger companies.

For Prange, this offers her complete control over her organic products, but it requires a diligent sanitization process daily: “We operate in fully sanitized areas, and while this isn’t strictly regulated by the [Food and Drug Administration], they could reach out and ask to inspect your facility at any time. So every day before close, we take 97 percent alcohol and wash absolutely everything, and then further sanitize the equipment with steam cleaners. It’s the most eco-friendly, safe way to truly clean. Hair nets are also a must, as are gloves.” While she says it isn’t mandatory, Prange also suggests registering with the FDA voluntarily to let them know you’re producing at home.

3. Register your business and secure insurance

To operate legally, you will need to register your business and secure business insurance. Wright recommends finding an account and a lawyer early on to help you navigate this stuff (there’s only so much accurate information available on the internet, folks). If you’re on a budget right now, affordable platforms like LegalZoom also make it easier to set everything up online in just a matter of minutes.

There are also easier (and cheaper) ways to secure business insurance. Joining groups like the Indie Business Network gives boutique brands access to cheaper rates, and Bockelman and Prange both recommend Veracity.

4. Develop your branding and organize packaging

This is the fun part! I secured a freelance graphic designer to work on my labels, boxes, and a postcard-sized flyer to include in all deliveries. Websites like Freelancer.com and Fiverr make this process a lot more affordable, but I personally think it’s best to go with someone a friend or colleague recommends.

As graphic designer Candace Napier of Studio Meroe explains, you can start by designing the basics and introduce more collateral later: “It's essential to have a custom logo and labels designed for your products. Things like custom tissue paper, branded stickers, and pretty mailers can come later,” she recommended over email.

I was very specific about the look and feel I wanted for The Buff, which definitely helps a designer meet your expectations, and Napier recommends sites like Pinterest, TheDieLine.com, BP&O.org, Behance.net, and Dribbble.com for inspo. Then try Uline and PaperMart to source and print your packaging.

Wright warned you also need to be careful about what you write on your packaging: “Stay away from anything you can’t back up,” she explained, adding that claiming a product is anti-aging or “protects” the skin is a no-no. The FDA has clear guidelines that you can read here.

5. Build a marketing strategy—and Instagram like hell

While public relations, partnerships, events like Indie Beauty Expo, and other marketing tactics can be effective, Instagram influencers will really boost your beauty business. Bockelman told me that a brand with 20,000 followers can generate around $20,000 each month in revenue.

A strong online presence (coupled with a fantastic product) can help attract stockists—so it’s worth investing in social media spaces.

Some smaller bloggers may cover your brand in return for free product while others expect payment for their review. There’s not one given rate bloggers charge either, as Doone Roisin, co-founder of influencer agency Sweet P Social, explains: “Generally speaking, influencers don't have rate cards—everyone's price list is different. If you're lucky, and your brand really sparks some interest, you might be able to offer contra to sweeten the deal rather than just cash.” She recommends requesting the influencer @ tag your brand and use your hashtag of choice in their caption. “If you're working with a verified Instagrammer, it would be worthwhile to have them linking to your website in the Instagram stories,” she added.

Remember this isn’t something you’ll be able to do once—marketing is an ongoing effort, or, as Wright articulates, “Marketing and press are a constant grind. One mention in Vogue is not going to change your business. You have to constantly work with influencers, and a good publicist or digital strategist can work wonders.”

At the same time, you should also focus on building your own social media presence, something Lindsey Martin of @bloom (who has over 895,000 followers!) says requires an authentic voice, consistency, and professional photography. “Post consistent high-quality images that showcase your brand ‘vibe’,” she said, suggesting the most engaging posts are about “products, behind the scenes, and about you as a founder.”

6. Approach stockists

It’s time! Once you have a beautiful product with a strong story behind it, stellar packaging, a sleek website, and social media presence, you can begin contacting buyers.

Kerrilynn Pamer and Cindy DiPrima, the founders of CAP Beauty—an online and brick-and-mortar destination stocking more than 100 brands (including their self-titled line)—suggest making a list of your target stockists, and then researching the store well to know their standards and what they’re looking for in new brands. “For example, we don’t stock anything synthetic, so there is absolutely no point of a brand getting in touch if they have synthetic ingredients. We’ll never budge on that,” they explained to me over the phone.

Once you have a list, get in touch with the store’s buyer. “A lot of our requests come through email or through the website. Often we also get recommendations from mutual connections, or we specifically seek out certain brands to come on board.”

If you think your brand is too unknown or new to get picked up by a retailer, you’re wrong: Pamer and DiPrima say they’re always looking for new products, as long as they “feel special” and fulfill a need.

“We’re looking to fill holes [in our product offering],” the founders explained. “We want something that feels very special—often you feel a connection with something that really has to do with branding and presentation—that’s a gut thing. We want products that are authentic and have heart.”

7. Find mentors

Throughout this process, I’ve had a bunch of critical questions that Google just isn’t equipped to answer. Queries like, “How do I find a label that won’t smudge with oil?” and “Which printer do I need to produce my own marketing collateral?” The only people equipped to answer such conundrums are beauty insiders who have been where I’m trying to go. By reaching out to these folks—through Instagram, email, and Facebook groups such as Likeminded Bitches Drinking Wine, and meetups like OKReal and HER Global Network—I gained invaluable insight.

Amy Woodside, founder of women’s mentorship community OKReal, agrees and highlighted another benefit of building your community early on: “You need the support,” she counseled over email. “Particularly if you don’t have a business partner. Perspective is tough when you spend so much time with your head down, constantly working. You need people who have been there before (and who you trust) to talk you through the endless challenges, share how they scaled or what strategies worked and what didn't, who will introduce you to their accountant.”

And, at the very least, you’ll have a couple of new beauty-obsessed friends to spend Saturdays at Sephora with.

What's your favorite small beauty brand? Please tell us in the comments!

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