How to Break Into a Crowded Industry: 6 Tips From a Clean Beauty Entrepreneur
Sarah Biggers went from a newbie in the natural beauty space to a pro in just a few years. Here are six things she wishes she’d known at the beginning.
6 min read
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In my early twenties, when I jumped from tech aspirations to makeup artistry — and ultimately to developing my own cosmetics line, Clove + Hallow — my peers were understandably skeptical. I knew next to nothing about the branded side of the beauty business and had no experience in manufacturing.
Still, I was determined to create my own wheel rather than be a cog in somebody else’s, and my mission was inherently personal. After facing a health crisis that left me bedridden for six months, an integrative medical doctor opened my eyes to the importance of not just what I put in my body but also what I put on it. Under her treatment plan, I made a full recovery within a month. But how could I return to makeup artistry, given what I had learned about the dangerous ingredients in conventional cosmetics? I realized I could use my epiphany to create change and felt confident I was in the right industry to do so.
By 2024, the global “natural beauty” industry is predicted to reach $22 billion, with indie companies representing a sizable piece of the pie. And thanks to hundreds of private labelers and the rise of in-house, small-batch production, the barriers to entry have never been lower. Ease of entry doesn’t make succeeding any easier, however. Beauty is changing: Conventional color cosmetics are stagnant, and traditional marketing avenues such as print magazines are losing steam. Clean beauty in particular is becoming crowded with hundreds of brand launches each year, as well as many notable celebrities and influencers joining the race. (Miranda Kerr’s KORA Organics and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop product line are two of many examples.)
Armed with product knowledge and protected by my passion, I said goodbye to my final makeup client in 2016 and forged ahead with the launch of Clove + Hallow in 2017. The difficulties along the way were (and still are) substantial; I can’t count the number of times I’ve called my mom or husband to work through business problems or have a therapeutic mini-meltdown. Some were challenges every entrepreneur faces and others stemmed from my lack of experience.
Now, I spend a lot of my free time guiding budding entrepreneurs in the consumer packaged goods space through the same pitfalls.These are some of the important lessons I’ve learned along the way that may help a fresh founder find their footing.
Develop your vision and stick to it.
If you have the chutzpah to start your own business, you’re probably naturally curious and enjoy tackling new challenges. That same curiosity makes it especially easy to lose focus by getting sucked into the allure of what your competitors are doing. For at least the first year, stick to your original mission and resist these temptations. If you do decide to pivot or expand later on, you can do so with logic on your side and avoid morphing into a copy-cat brand that will likely lose out to the original.
Embrace social media.
Social media is a democratic platform that enables anybody to create a brand for themselves and harness a captive audience, even before they launch a product. A social media presence is so ubiquitous now that many people turn to it as another form of Google search, so it’s best practice to have personal accounts that align with your future business for credibility purposes. Bonus points: By spending time building your community with authentic passion and love, your community could become your early adopters — or, at the very least, your early supporters.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Coming from makeup artistry, I’m not ashamed to admit I didn’t know the first thing about creating and launching a product-based business. I started by typing in various phrases into Google — think “how to start a cosmetics line” — until I pieced together enough information to know that I needed to either build my own lab or outsource to a manufacturer. From there, I cold-called manufacturers. Some laughed outright when I told them the small quantities we were looking for, but all were helpful to varying degrees; in fact, on one call, a woman was nice enough to walk me through the terminology I should know for choosing the right manufacturing partner. When I finally found a lab that was willing to take on my projects, I knew what to look for because I’d already explored so many dead ends. The takeaway: Ask questions and get comfortable with rejection. Chances are you’ll learn something valuable.
Almost anything can be negotiated.
In the beginning, I was so insecure about how little I knew that I never questioned anything. Now I understand that most quotes and contracts are just a starting point — especially as you grow and gain more leverage to negotiate. If a potential partner or vendor gets back to you with terms that seem fishy or unworkable for your business model, say something. More often than not, there’s wiggle room that allows both parties to be happy, but you can’t know what you don’t ask. Remember: The worst they can say is no.
Don’t go dark.
Entrepreneurship is, at its core, a never-ending series of challenges and problem-solving exercises. I’ve discovered through some major missteps that if I choose to let an issue simmer secretly on the backburner (or “go dark” on communication), it will likely morph into a much larger disaster. Now, I bring any problems that come across my desk to the relevant people in real-time — even if it’s an embarrassing mistake — and encourage my team to do the same. It’s made a huge impact on the agility and adaptability of my business and forced me to get comfortable with tackling problems head-on. This shift can make you better equipped to ride the entrepreneurial roller-coaster with relative ease.
Don’t let ego stand in the way of growth.
It’s natural to struggle with giving up control as your company grows, but it’s necessary to avoid becoming the company bottleneck. Think about what areas are most important for you to have a hand in and which you’re most skilled at; manage those and let a team of qualified folks handle the rest. Aim to hire with the goal of becoming somewhat redundant; then you’ll likely be able to take real vacations and focus your energies on other ventures without worrying about putting out fires.