This post is pulled from our Friends & Family newsletter, emailed to our early supporters in March of 2020. Enjoy this archive!
If you are getting this email you must know that Tigran and I have been hard at work on building Minori, our beauty brand for the past 18 months. We thought it would be fun to keep you up to date with our progress by sending you a monthly newsletter.
So many of you have guided and provided us with feedback and emotional support throughout this process. We don’t get to talk to each and every one of you as often as we’d like, so hopefully, this newsletter can help keep us connected while we continue to progress in building this company from the ground up!
Most of you likely do not have the full context on what we spent the past year working on and thus, this two-part newsletter series aims to bring everyone up to speed on the idea behind Minori and our progress thus far.
In Part 1, I focus mainly on three areas of our journey:
- what sparked the idea
- our learnings on the cosmetics manufacturing space
- the behind-the-scenes of our product development process
In the upcoming Part 2, I’ll write about the process of finding and trademarking a brand name, working with creative designers and the launching of our blog.
Starting later this month we will also begin a regular monthly newsletter to keep you up-to-date on our most current progress.
How and Why We Started
Discovering a Gap in the Market
The idea which sparked the creation of Minori came a few months before my wedding, in the Spring of 2018. Following an unfortunate wedding makeup trial experience that left me looking way overdone, I made the decision to take care of the wedding makeup myself and went to Sephora for inspiration. I was on the hunt for high-quality products that were preferably free from toxic ingredients and which would help me achieve a beautiful yet natural makeup look.
Although I spent the past 6 years working in the beauty industry, it only truly dawned on me during that Sephora visit that there are very few brands that solely focus on the natural “no-makeup” makeup. Brands do have these products within their assortment, but apart from Bobby Brown, it’s no one’s core mission to help create this look. As a result, I ended up having to spread my product purchases across three different brands to get what I needed.
Shopping for the right shade often feels like a daunting experience, and that time at Sephora was no different. I feel overwhelmed with a feeling of choice overload when standing in front of a selection of 24 metallic eyeshadow shades or 12 shades of lipsticks. Even for someone like me who is experienced in constantly swatching and testing makeup products, it is a challenge knowing what to pick when there are too many shade options.
From my experience working at IPSY as their personalization expert in charge of matching product shipments to the specific preferences of millions of subscribers, I knew that, like me, the majority of the US population also prefers easy-to-wear makeup with neutral shades. Indeed, most women favor the practicality of versatile makeup that they can wear in everyday situations, ranging from a 9 am work meeting to a 12 pm Saturday brunch with friends. In contrast, most brands offer overextended product assortments with shades that are fun to swatch but don’t end up getting worn too often.
I came out of that shopping experience with a deep desire to create the brandthat I felt was missing for me and likely for countless others. I envisioned this brand to be the champion of the natural makeup look and to offer a seamless discovery experience through a highly curated assortment.
Taking the First Step
There is no easy-to-follow instruction manual on how to create a brand from scratch. It can be daunting when neither you nor anyone in your entourage has done something of the sort before. I would describe my feelings then as akin to standing at the foot of Mount Everest with a clear sense of purpose and mission, but without a sherpa or directions to help you guide your way.
Nevertheless, the secret of getting ahead is to get started with the first step, even in the face of uncertainty. Tigran, my soon-to-be husband, was immediately on board with the idea, and eager to help me execute on it. A few days after celebrating our wedding, together we began by outlining what the brand ethos and positioning would be on paper.
Fortunately, since the core of the brand idea came from a clear unmet need of mine, it was easy for us that the first step of determining the core pillars of our brand:
- Wholly embracing the natural makeup look
- Making products that perform at the highest level and formulating with only clean non-toxic ingredients
- Simplifying the consumer discovery process with an assortment of at most 4 everyday easy-to-wear shades per product, with each shade rigorously chosen to be universally flattering on all skin tones
- Making products that are exclusively cruelty-free, vegan and made in the USA
- Promoting a sustainable lifestyle through clear brand messaging devoted to mindful consumption and minimalism
With the brand pillars laid out, our next step was to build the initial brand deck. We picked Cleo as a “working name” for the brand until we could figure out our actual brand name (more on this in Part 2). This initial deck contained an outline of the brand positioning, a timeline of deliverables, a distribution plan, mood boards establishing the brand’s visual identity and a description of our planned product assortment. At the time I already had a very good sense for which products we had to launch with; and in which shades, textures and formats they would be made of.
Throughout this process, we benefited from the very helpful feedback we received from experienced beauty professionals and entrepreneurs. In hindsight, it was incredibly beneficial to build relationships early and ask advice and learn from experienced brand founders. It truly takes a village to create a brand!
With this second step completed, we felt ready to start looking for a manufacturing partner.
Finding a Manufacturing Partner
Who can help me manufacture this product?
With this initial brand deck on hand, I traveled to attend a cosmetics trade show where both brands and cosmetic packaging manufacturers exhibit. It turned out to be an incredibly useful introduction to the behind-the-scenes of global cosmetics manufacturing.
It was incredibly useful for me to walk on that trade show floor and talk to the companies that make the packaging for all the brands sold at Sephora, Ulta, and others. Each large manufacturing company has their booth installations where they showcase the lip gloss tubes, palettes, compacts they make for brands like Hourglass, Tom Ford, Urban Decay, Lancome, etc.
Some of these containers are custom-made for brands, but most of what all brands use is called “stock packaging”. Have you ever noticed that the lip gloss tube from one brand looks very similar to that of another brand? It’s because they are. It is common to have two different brands source the exact same stock component (an industry term for cosmetic packaging) from the same packaging supplier. Once produced in bulk, these components are then decorated differently according to each brand’s design (e.g. spray the plastic with a metal or soft-touch finish, or produce the plastic in a different color).
The advantage of this component sharing is the lowering of manufacturing cost. Indeed, pooling the orders of a given component across many brands increases the volume of the production run, which in turn lowers fixed costs per unit. The cost difference between stock and custom-made components can easily be 50-100% or more, not including the upfront capital investments in custom factory tooling.
The usefulness of turnkey manufacturers
At the trade show, I learned a great deal about how “turnkey” packaging manufacturers operate. These manufacturing companies aim to greatly simplify the manufacturing and logistics process for beauty companies of all sizes. A turnkey partner becomes a single point of contact for the brand founder, in charge of coordinating the countless moving pieces associated with manufacturing makeup. It’s like a wedding planner, except for cosmetics manufacturing! They have the capability of handling everything, including the industrial design, manufacturing, compliance, labeling, shipping and logistics associated with delivering the final packaging.
Importantly, turnkey manufacturers often own (or have contractual relationships with) a network of “filler” labs. These filler labs are the facilities that make the actual makeup product. The level of expertise and experience of the chemists working at these labs makes a big difference in having final products that have great formulations.
On the positive side, turnkey partners make the life of budding beauty entrepreneurs much simpler, especially as mistakes made in the manufacturing process due to inexperience can cause the whole project to derail. On the negative side, turnkey manufacturers charge for their project management services, and thus tend to be more expensive (we believe 20-40% or so per unit) than if the entrepreneur were to contract all the work streams with different companies.
On the whole, after weighing our options and speaking to brand founders and experienced beauty manufacturing professionals in our network, we decided that the extra cost was well worth the peace of mind for our first major order. Time is a precious commodity, and we felt that the extra bandwidth associated with outsourcing certain workstreams to the turnkey partner would allow us to focus more of our creative energy on processes where we felt we would add more value in those initial critical months. Not using a turnkey would’ve meant having to source components directly from Asia (i.e. dealing with 2-3 different factories), having to contract separately with a high-quality filler lab in the US, coordinating logistics between each product steps to avoid delays, and a host of other tasks (labeling, regulatory, secondary packaging, etc.).
A crash course on MOQs
It took us about three months of speaking to over a dozen turnkey manufacturers before we found one that was ideal for us. A key challenge in picking the right one is finding a company that would be willing to work on small Minimum Order Quantities (MOQs). Most packaging factories won’t produce anything for an order of less than 25,000 units per type of component.
We eventually downselected to a few manufacturers that were willing to do MOQs that were acceptable to us (i.e. 10,000 units per component) and tested their filler lab’s capabilities by asking them to send us specific formulas to review their quality. After a few weeks of testing, we finally picked a turnkey partner that not only produced very high-quality samples, but whose filler lab gave us the optionality of splitting the 10,000 component MOQ across up to four shades (meaning 2,500 units per SKU). The normal MOQ per shade for a filler lab is around 3,500-5,000 units per shade; below that they don’t make enough money for it to be worthwhile.
We knew that the turnkey manufacturer (and associated filler lab) we chose to work with would be somewhat expensive, but they came with a stellar reputation, having worked with some of the largest cosmetics brands in the world. This turnkey manufacturer rarely takes on startup entrepreneurs as partners, but our brand vision and the seriousness with which we tackled the problem helped convince them to take a shot and work with us.
Now that we had selected our turnkey manufacturing, the next critical step was product development.
Developing high-quality clean formulas
Product development was a lengthy and laborious process, especially since I had very high standards on the final product quality and given that we had imposed ourselves the constraint of using only clean ingredients.
The filler lab we have been working closely with over a year now is based in Texas. It is a family-owned business that is partnered with our turnkey manufacturer.
We kicked off the product development process in March 2019 by sending over blacklist (a list of toxic ingredients) that we would refuse to formulate with. We did our own research, and also relied on the blacklists from clean beauty retailers such as Detox Market and Credo.
As part of my day job at IPSY, each month I get to swatch and evaluate a plethora of new makeup products from a great variety of brands. Having done this work for over two years has given me a strong knowledge base of what key tactile properties define very high-quality products. This expertise meant that I knew exactly what I wanted from the filler lab. Shortly after agreeing on the blacklists, I sent them a brief detailing what we were looking for in terms of textural properties and shades.
As mentioned, product development takes time. It involves multiple rounds of submissions for each SKU where we send the lab detailed feedback on the products which they use to iterate the formulations. Once again, our network of experienced beauty professionals was very helpful in testing and providing feedback on the product samples. By August 2019 the lab came close enough to where I wanted the final products to be that it was time to schedule an onsite visit to finalize the formulations. I flew into Houston where for three days I would work closely with the chemists to perfect the shades and the performance of the formulas.
The time spent in Houston flew by very quickly, and I found myself truly enjoying the in-person product development process. We ended up achieving the results that we were hoping for, and I left this trip confident that we had formulated products that we would be proud of selling to customers.
I also had the chance of getting to know on a more personal level the two chemists working with me on this project. They happen to be husband and wife. They started this lab over 10 years ago after spending over a decade as in-house chemists for the Estée Lauder Companies. It was very inspirational to hear their incredible stories of escaping Cuba to immigrate to the US.Through hard work and perseverance they managed to create a successful family-owned business.
As mentioned before, in Part 2 of this newsletter we will address the creative aspects of building the brand, including finding and trademarking a brand name, working with creative designers to establish a visual brand identity and launching our blog.