In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
From matte liquid lipsticks to sheer washes of color, lip products are perennial favorites because they can change your look quickly and with minimal effort. And while some new brands, like Milk Makeup and Fiona Stiles, have opted to launch with a full range of cosmetics, five-year-old Bite Beauty's business model involves being really, really good at one thing: lipstick.
And it's worked. Sephora has always exclusively carried Bite, and the LVMH-owned beauty incubator Kendo (LVMH also owns Sephora) acquired it from founder Susanne Langmuir in 2014. Langmuir remains heavily involved, and recently hosted a group of beauty editors at the growing brand's new, expanded facility in Toronto, where all the products are handmade. The brand just launched a newly formulated, highly pigmented lipstick collection called Amuse Bouche, which is available in 34 shades. The lipsticks are a creamy matte texture, smell deliciously of citrus and are made with a variety of natural oils to keep lips hydrated. The colors are also fantastic, ranging from a variety of nudes to the darkest plum. The almost 2,000 reviews the line has racked up on Sephora.com are overwhelmingly positive so far.
Here, Langmuir chats about failing as an entrepreneur, her biggest business disaster (uh, it involves sewage), why "natural" branding doesn't always work and the advice she has for budding beauty entrepreneurs:
What's your background in the beauty world?
I started off in product development. I would work for companies, for example, that wanted to create an aromatherapy lavender bath oil. My background was traveling, sourcing and working with natural and organic products. One of the first products I developed [on my own] was an organic face oil. It was 17 years ago and it didn't sell. People thought, "Why would you put oil on your face?" When I got the idea to do something on my own, I thought, Well I already do this, I know the process and I thought it was going to be relatively easy… but it wasn't!
Why? What was the first immediate problem?
When you're spending your own money, you realize how little you have, how much longer things take; and the fear of risks and things not working out when it's your thing as opposed to somebody else's is substantially heavier. I was also pregnant with my first child. It wasn't as easy as I thought it was going to be.
After the oil failed did you go back to working for "the man" or did you keep trying to launch something?
I continued. I opened a custom fragrance store in Toronto and I used every penny I had saved and all the bank financing that I could get. The day the store opened the lower level flooded with sewage — it was a fragrance store! — and the landlord would not repair it. After three months of trying to figure it out, I had to close the store.
How do you bounce back from that?
I had friends and family invest in the business and I was able to raise enough money to open another retail location and to continue going. That was 13 years ago. It was a huge lesson that you can have all of the plans and all of the passion and think you have enough money and a really good idea, but sometimes you just get served with something that is beyond anything that could be visible.
So how did that business transition into lipstick?
I've always been a lipstick wearer. I've always identified with that one product and I felt that it was kind of a universal thing that all women could identify with. I decided to make the transition into cosmetics. I was using products that were natural and made with organic ingredients but I couldn't find [cosmetics]. I approached Sephora with the original idea and they became incredibly good partners and the rest is history.
How was the first meeting with Sephora?
I had the idea for Bite using edible ingredients because I'd launched [another beauty brand] Sula with incredibly natural, really good formulations. But it didn't resonate enough for people, saying that something was natural. I had trademarks like "plants not petroleum" and it didn't mean as much as I'd hoped it would. I had a really clear idea, although when I approached Sephora the brand name was called Bite Me. Partnering with them and really working through the ideas and the product mix was an incredible experience and helped me become really clear about what our point of difference was and what the product assortment should be.
How did you narrow it down?
We ultimately decided with such a clear focus on lips, it was an opportunity to be really good at that one category that was an ageless and a universal product that every woman could identify with. In the formulation stage it became really clear to me, this is the one thing I want to be really good at.
We were very careful not to have a granola, crunchy element to it because I have seen time and time again brands with that overall aesthetic not survive. This idea of having something that was edgy and edible and had incredible formulations but you wouldn't know we use these ingredients unless you read the box. If that was a benefit that you recognized after you already liked something, to me it was more meaningful than it being the reason for being.
In 2014 Kendo acquired Bite. How did that process and that transition go and what did you learn from that?
By selling the brand, I had lots of new people in the kitchen. There was definitely an adjustment to that, in terms of my style of doing things, but the benefits in terms of resources and having people that I can lean on that have been in similar challenges and have a viewpoint has been phenomenal.
What advice would you give budding beauty entrepreneurs?
One is be tough, but not on yourself! Not everyone is going to be a believer when you share your idea.
Be realistic. Going the extra mile is really more expensive to achieve. I was always out of money to get those final finishing touches or elements of an idea or product. You don't want to go 80 percent of the way and then let go of the 20 percent that really matters because you ran out of resources.
Last, see the big picture. You have to be crystal clear on what the big idea is, what it feels like at the end. If your idea is to grow a brand or a concept, you really know what it's going to feel like and look like five, ten years down the road. Banks always want you to have a business plan.
How did you learn how to write a business plan?
When you're an idea/creative person, it's the least fun thing to do. My first business plan, I had a friend who had run a business for 15 years and was an MBA guy. I gave him a really small share in the business that was equal to what I would pay somebody. The difference is that now you can find resources online for everything. There are templates for spread sheets and some incredible business plan templates that are readily accessible. The exercise of actually going through the nuts and bolts of what things will cost and what your bookkeeping and accounting fees are going to be every month, it is crucial.
This interview has been edited and condensed.