How To Start Your Own Beauty Brand

Four cosmetics entrepreneurs give their best mogul advice.

October 19, 2016
How To Start Your Own Beauty Brand MDMFlow, Dark Diva Dolls, Shiro Cosmetics, Bahi Cosmetics   Jendella/courtesy of Dark Diva Dolls/courtesy of Caitlin Johnstone/Syranno Wilkens

Appealing and catering to women of color should be a no-brainer for major cosmetics brands: Black women contribute more than $7.5 billion annually on cosmetics, while Asian-American households spend over 70% more than average on beauty products. Still, for WOC in 2016, finding a decent, strong lipstick shade, or an eyeshadow color that will actually show up on our skin, is harder than it should be.

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This isn’t a new problem. In the early ’90s, specialist companies like Iman Cosmetics (founded by supermodel Iman) and independent-turned-drugstore brand Carol’s Daughter had a goal of improving access to foundations that went darker than a caramel shade. Today, things are looking up to some extent, with luxury brands such as NARS and MAC now offering a selection to cater to most skin tones. But, perhaps more excitingly, there’s an influx of young cosmetics brands enabled by the internet that are not only aimed at people of color, but owned by them — and they’re offering a quality and style that rivals the household names.

The eye-popping colors of MDMFlow are the creation of London-based graduate Florence Adepoju, who started her business in her parents’ garden shed. Over in Singapore, Dark Diva Dolls provides makeup for women of darker skin tones that can withstand the most humid temperatures. Meanwhile in the U.S., black-owned, all-natural brand Bahi Cosmetics, and the “nerd”-themed Shiro Cosmetics (think video games and memes), both offer vegan products, as well as a wide range of pigments. These startups are taking on the beauty industry; here are their founders’ best tips on how you could do it, too.

First of all, be passionate.

A photo posted by Caitlin (@shirocosmetics) on

"Regardless of your own ethnicity or that of your target audience, begin with products and concepts you're passionate about,” Caitlin Johnstone, who founded Shiro Cosmetics at the age of 19 (now 25), wrote to The FADER in an email. Though her products cater to everybody, her primary focus is on “geekery” — the first Shiro collection was Pokémon-themed. “I didn't start my business with my [Asian-American] heritage in mind. You could start with a specific source of inspiration, or a certain type of product, or anything at all that makes you feel the drive to pursue your new project through to its completion."

Find your niche.

The beauty industry is more competitive than ever, so it’s important to know what makes your brand special. Dark Diva Dolls addresses an issue unique to Singapore. Founder Sathiya Priya explains, "We realized that it was difficult for women of color in Singapore (generally Malays and Indians) to find affordably priced, quality cosmetics suitable for tan or dark skin tones. We wanted to fill that gap and develop high quality and affordable cosmetics — and they had to be able to withstand the humid climate."

Speak to your customers…

A photo posted by MDMflow (@mdmflow) on

“Twitter has really helped us,” says Danielle Bahi, 20-year-old founder of Bahi Cosmetics. “We ask questions, have discussions, and look at how we can have a fresh spin on popular things on the market."

Florence Adepoju of MDMFlow adds, "I have an open conversation with my followers about what I'm producing and what they want. You have to be bold about what and who you represent; it's not an easy thing to do."

...And be prepared to handle criticism.

A photo posted by Caitlin (@shirocosmetics) on

Shiro Cosmetics perceives all criticism as constructive, "Don't be too defensive or unable to take criticism! View criticism (even if it's unkindly worded) as a tool to help you improve."

Keep your promises.

A photo posted by Caitlin (@shirocosmetics) on

"If you promise to ship orders within five business days, make sure that happens," says Johnstone. "Most companies I've seen fail [do so] because they fail to send out orders, or to keep in contact with customers once they've fallen behind. [It’s] always best to under-promise and over-deliver, never the other way around."

Be inclusive.

Bahi Cosmetics operates on a principle of openness, as Danielle explains: "Our first focus was towards women of color, but we want to be able to sell our product to everyone.” Shiro Cosmetics is encouraging of all people who want to use their brand, "Don't be non-inclusive!” says Johnstone. “Makeup is great for everyone: ladies, gents, non-binary people of all skin colors and of all skill levels.”

Find innovative ways to boost sales.

A photo posted by Caitlin (@shirocosmetics) on

"Whenever things get slow for me, I find a few artists on Instagram that I love, and offer them free makeup in exchange for a look or two on their page," says Johnstone, whose emphasis on the photo-sharing platform has earned her a cult following. "Coupon codes and flash sales can also be useful in a real slump, but I would caution anyone against having constant sales — otherwise it will be impossible to sell products at full price.”

Be current, and always have ideas.

"We try to have several major new releases every year, inspired by currently popular trends,” explains Johnstone. “Color of the Month guarantees a small new release every single month.” Take their eyeshadow series “No Oscar For Leo DiCaprio,” “Still No Oscar For Leo DiCaprio,” and “Finally An Oscar For Leo DiCaprio.”

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And finally, never stop working on your hustle.

A photo posted by MDMflow (@mdmflow) on

Makeup technology is developing at such a rapid rate that cheaper drugstore brands such as ColourPop and Wet 'n' Wild are able to produce high performance products at a fraction of the cost of high-end companies. If you want your brand to compete, you need to get in the lab. "I had a really crap lipstick formula for the first two years of my business," Adepoju explains. "I sent lipsticks to customers in Brooklyn that kept breaking and I reformulated and resent. Now my product is amazing. I'm working on my hustle."

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