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The Start-Up Dynamic

October 2, 2019

A start-up in this context is a cosmetic business that is just preparing for, or in the very early stages of its professional launch.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the the brand owner has only just thought of their concept. The concept could have been cooking or in development for years (I think my world record customer cooked their brand idea for 11 years before doing anything to fully launch it), be a brand new idea or an idea borrowed or purchased from elsewhere. Whatever the case, the start-up that I’m talking about is a  business-in-progress, not yet professional, profit-making or scaleable.

As a cosmetic chemist I get enquiries from this type of client all of the time and that’s fine, some people don’t realise they are this until it is pointed out – it’s impossible to know what you don’t know without someone or something shining a light into that darkness.  In some cases it is easy to address those shadow-like spaces, a bit of a tweak here, a polish there,  a re-wording of the legal stuff and voila, you are done.  In other cases there is mostly darkness with no clear way out. It is these clients that are most difficult for a cosmetic chemist like me to deal with and I’m telling you this now so that you can check yourself to see if this resonates with you.

The nearly-there clients have these characteristics.

  • Emerging or clear brand vision and direction which can be articulated or demonstrated to a third party when prompted.  This could be as unresolved as a general mood board or as polished as actual packaging, logos and colour pallet.
  • Comfortable and enthusiastic at conveying their Unique Selling Point or giving an ‘elevator pitch’ when invited. They are prepared to cheerlead their project and are enthusiastically invested in it.
  • Broadly speaking understands their target market and speaks to them albeit that this may often be without realising so not as strategically as it could be (which is OK, that’s fine).
  • Understands the business dynamic and is inclined to just get out there and do it rather than thinking about it for ever and ever and ever and ever…
  • Has some insight into the fact that they could benefit from some expert help or insight, especially around laws, protocols, scale-up and profit margins.
  • Is sufficiently excited and prepared to roll with the punches, put their money (or time) where their mouth is and take responsibility for making this happen.

The in-the-dark client typically has none of the above.

Looking at that it might seem like nobody in their right mind would approach a cosmetic chemist before they had the characteristics of a nearly-there-client but that’s not true.  The magic of Instagram and other social media platforms has meant that many clients think they have all of the above in check when they actually don’t.  Also, it is very easy now to do ‘research’, in fact people come to me after having done SOOOOOOO much research that I am sure they feel they can’t possibly do any more.  I’d like to point out that scrolling through and making Pinterest or Insta-lists of people and brands who you like the look of doesn’t really cut it as a plan but it’s difficult to do that without putting myself at risk of getting punched in the face for my insolence.

So how do you get to nearly-there stage?

Well, the first stage is to know that the things mentioned above are important, they aren’t everything you need to know to be a successful brand but they do cover a bit chunk of it.  I am part of a teaching team at New Directions who run a course on this called ‘How To Start Your Own Business’.  It’s a one-day (Saturdays typically) course that was established by Melinda Tizzone who is a successful trainer within the cosmetic industry. About ten years ago she recognised  that people wanting to start their own brand had lots of the same questions and blind spots and wrote the course. It’s been running ever since and has recently been re-invigorated to reflect the more social-media connected world that business owners find themselves in today. However, essentially nothing much has changed.

While that was a sort of ad for a course I run this article didn’t set out to just be that,  I really want to make sure that new or early brand owners and developers really do think about this as it saddens me when brands fail because of this.

The Start Up and the Cosmetic Chemist.

As I mentioned, many start-up clients find their way to cosmetic chemists like me.  The ones in the first box are relatively easy to work with in terms of understanding what they are asking for.  The problem (if there are any problems) typically comes in convincing these prospective clients of what’s actually possible, practical or scaleable.  This is particularly difficult now that many start-ups make their own formulations or have their own wish list of ingredients to put in.   While none of this is to be discouraged, it’s only helpful in a consulting context when the client is open to listening to a professional appraisal of what they have presented.  In some cases clients have selected ingredients to put in that are not available in quantities that they would be prepared to purchase, are not government approved in the market in which they are planning to sell,  are not compatible with other things in their product or are likely to be unstable, too smelly,  weirdly coloured or otherwise difficult.    While I’m sure some cosmetic chemists will make up 1000 reasons why they can’t do what you asked for because they are lazy,  most won’t as it is absolutely not in their best interests to do so.  Most often what they (and I) am saying is based on experience, often painfully and expensively gained.  We’re trying to do people a favour.  This also goes for manufacturing scaleability, some ideas are just not easy to make on a large scale and this too is best identified early on.   It’s impossible for start-up brands to know this unless they come from a manufacturing background or are prepared to create their own bespoke factory.

There are many reasons why start-ups shouldn’t engage in working with a cosmetic chemist straight up and I do try to explain these to my clients.  One of the most obvious reasons is that if you haven’t done this type of business before (as a business, rather than as a hobby or game) working with a chemist may end up being frustrating, confusing, expensive and ultimately unsatisfying. This is mostly because of the costs and time involved and the fact that true start-ups often have no prior experience from which to gauge how the dynamic is actually going.

I know of a few brands have hated working with me (which is why I write things like this) and just as I’ve felt my ears burn, sometimes rightly so – you can’t win them all –  I’ve also had to sit there and listen to tales of woe about other cosmetic chemists from other clients, sometimes justified but often not.  The one thing that I do know if that working with brands who have a strong sense of who they are, what they need and what will sell is the best way forward for all parties as even when formulation work fails or clients change tac, both businesses appreciate the learning that happened and move on together.  Businesses that don’t know who they are tend to build up resentment and get stuck, often while looking for someone or something to blame which is mostly a complete waste of energy.

If you come to me for a formula and I say no it’s because I know all of this and feel that either a) I can’t personally help you because I don’t have what you need or b) you are not ready to take that step yet and will most likely not get much out of it.  There are always other chemists if you disagree with my appraisal so usually things work out OK.

Where start-ups get totally stuck.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is when start-ups get totally stuck because they can’t get themselves out of the way.

Starting a business for real is a huge lesson in vulnerability.  You are literally putting yourself on the line and losing control of what could be a very intimate and personal part of you.  That can very, very difficult for people and often that difficulty results in business failure, especially when brand owners seek outside help then rage against it.  For some people their ideas and early brand conceptions are like their children and that’s good in a way, it helps you sustain the energy and investment needed to get you through tough times. However, some ‘parents’ really struggle with letting go.  Any good and experienced parent of little (or big) humans will tell you that your kids are not your possessions, that letting them go is the best thing for them, essential for their development, success and wellbeing and that it’s not always about you, it’s about them.  Brand ownership is no different.

If you are a start-up who feels anxious about letting go of the reigns a little bit in order to move the business on then maybe take some time to really examine that, preferably before engaging cosmetic chemists and other industry professionals. Cosmetic chemists are an easy target to rage against as a large part of our job is to create products that have subjective characteristics.  What I mean by that is it’s easy for a cosmetic chemist to fulfil a brief to make the product that you have identified but it is downright impossible for a cosmetic chemist to guarantee that same product makes you feel exactly the way you want to feel.

So what to do…

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, the first business you commercialise is the business in which you learn how to run a business.  If you are lucky you’ll get past that 2-5 year stage and then start learning how to run THIS kind of business. If you are doing very well you may even push past the 10 year mark and start becoming an expert in your business.

For this reason I typically urge start-ups to keep some things simple.  In some cases I suggest white-labelling instead of formula development,  partnering with other brands to compliment your range rather than developing it all under your label,  contract manufacturing instead of making it in your own factory and so on…

Owning your own formulations is a good idea for a business that has got its act together and is making money. It makes little sense in most other cases.  Making everything from scratch is not essential for all brands and cosmetic businesses and again, it makes little sense for start-ups as it really does spread you too thin.

Overall the best advice I can give a start-up in addition to what has been said above is  this:

  • Seek good, professional advice early and build up a network WITHIN the main industry rather than outside of it.  That way you can make sure you are having your biases and blind spots checked (even if you don’t listen yet) each step of the way.
  • Make sure you focus more time on how and where you are going to sell the product rather than what chemicals you are going to leave out.
  • Really challenge yourself to know who your customers are in detail.  This helps you to keep on track when it comes to choosing brand colours,  expanding your range,  working out price points and even selecting which sales outlets to target.
  • Think hard about what you want your every-day job with this brand to look like. People often say they make their product by hand, at home. When I ask them how that will pan out if their brand takes off they look at me with that ‘huh?’ look…
  • Have fun, remember it’s only cosmetics, you are NOT saving the world but yes, if you do it right you might just make the world a better place.

Best of luck!

Oh, and if a cosmetic chemist says ‘I can’t work with you on this’ don’t worry, they are doing you a favour 🙂

Amanda

 

 

 

 

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