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.
In my time as a beauty editor, I've had the privilege of interviewing some of the most inspiring, hard-working people in the industry. And yet, it wasn't until I spoke with Cashmere Nicole, the founder of buzzy cosmetics brand Beauty Bakerie, that an entrepreneur's story put me on the verge of tears. Nicole, who became a single mother at the age of 16, was working full-time as a nurse when she decided to start dabbling in the beauty space. Channeling a lifelong interest in makeup and innate entrepreneurial drive, Nicole started the business in her 20s, initially running it out of her own home.
With zero industry connections, Nicole created a range of functional makeup for busy women who can't be bothered to worry about touch-ups. Relying on social media buzz and a direct-to-consumer business model, Beauty Bakerie became profitable after just a few years.
The drive to succeed came out of Nicole's very real need to provide for herself and her daughter, but also from a desire to create positive change in the world. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she felt a need to channel her hardships into something meaningful.
"After battling breast cancer, I went through a transformation," she tells me over the phone. "I tell people all the time that I'm living in my afterlife." (Yes, it was at that point that I began to get misty-eyed.) That feeling of living on borrowed time has inspired Nicole to make her company one that pays its success forward. With a motto of "be better, not bitter," Beauty Bakerie not only preaches positivity, but also takes that altruism to heart through charitable pursuits, like donating funds to end slavery in Libya or protect animals threatened by wildfires.
That mindset has resonated deeply with customers, and in turn, Beauty Bakerie has also caught the attention of investors. In November of last year, the company secured $3 million in seed funding from Unilever Ventures, 645 Ventures and Blue Consumer Capital. "We have been impressed by Beauty Bakerie's e-commerce-led model and consistent digital growth, as well as the strong engagement of the brand's millennial consumer base," said Anna Ohlsson-Baskerville, Director at Unilever Ventures via a statement at the time. By going cruelty-free and prioritizing a digital-first, direct-to-consumer model — though the brand is now also engaged in retail partnerships with Forever 21, Riley Rose and internationally on QVC, HSN and Sephora — Beauty Bakerie is capitalizing on business models with proven track records in the industry.
Nicole recently took a break from "pajama day" at Beauty Bakerie HQ in San Diego, Calif. to fill me in on her remarkable story and philosophy. Read on for the highlights.
Tell me about your background and how Beauty Bakerie came to be.
I'm from South Bend, Ind., and what led to starting the business was my love for creating things. My father is an entrepreneur, and my mom's just very tenacious, so I'm those two mixed together. My personal background wasn't so much beauty, it was more art. I've been interested in all kinds of art since I was very young. I also started a lot of businesses as a child. They were just things I enjoyed doing, like making jewelry boxes or scrapbooks to sell. Those businesses kept me engaged and kept my creative juices flowing.
I became a mom at 16, so for quite some time I couldn't really pursue any of the things I was doing as a child. When I finally decided to go into beauty, I was in my mid-20s. I had dabbled in so many different areas, but I promised myself that I would commit five years to this brand.
Did you always have an interest in beauty?
I was the girl out of my friends that knew how to do makeup. I don't know how I learned. In hindsight, I didn't really know what I was doing, but for some reason they trusted me to do their makeup, and that led me to start exploring it a little bit more.
What specifically sparked the idea to start a cosmetics line?
I started to recognize that there were some pain points within the makeup application process. To put makeup on, to take it off, to touch it up was exhausting and taxing to me. I'm a mother and I have a lot more things in my day that are more important than putting on makeup. But makeup was pretty important to me, too. I wanted a formula that could stay on; I didn't want to put makeup on only to have it wear off. I didn't want to have to avoid kissing my daughter [and risk messing up my lipstick]. I wanted something that was reliable.
In the beginning when you were first building the company, where did you start?
I didn't know anyone in the business. I would go to the library and read lots of books on how to start a business and do research online. But a lot of the information out there is very vague; it's not specific to you.
Where did you begin in terms of developing the products?
I just did my research and did a lot of interviews and decided who I wanted to work with [to formulate the products]. I'll be general because there's not a lot I can share about who we work with. I determined who I wanted to be as a brand and what formulas we wanted to carry and then did research to find out who aligned best with what I was trying to do.
How does Beauty Bakerie's existing line reflect that initial vision?
We've been able to really build [the business] out a lot more. But in terms of products, I think we're known for having long-lasting, waterproof formulas and I think that's what so many people love about it. I had an opportunity to meet a lot of customers during the grand opening of our store, and some of them were holding their babies in their hands saying, 'This formula changed my life because I don't have to worry about my makeup anymore.'
A lot of people have no idea what our mornings are like as parents or women, so I think that message of long-lasting, waterproof reliability in our formulas has been conveyed mostly through the liquid lipsticks. Once we were able to get our customers to trust us with the liquids, they could branch out and be interested in the other products that we offer.
Where did the name Beauty Bakerie come from?
I wasn't always this strong. I was really sweet and naive — I hadn't experienced a lot. Sweet — that's how I was describing myself at that time that I created [the company]. When I thought of Beauty Bakerie, I was like, 'This is who I am.' I love sweets, I love being sweet, I love doing things for other people and it just all seemed to go hand-in-hand.
I think it's really interesting that you launched with a direct-to-consumer business model, which is so popular in beauty now. Can you tell me about that and how it's worked for the company?
We're living in interesting times. It's a very good time for someone who is committed to a journey and to working hard. I would attribute a lot of Beauty Bakerie's exposure and awareness to social media. I give Instagram a lot of credit for helping me reach people. Ten or 15 years ago, before I was in business, it was probably harder to reach people. Now it's really easy to connect with the customer, to learn about them and give them what they're looking for.
So the idea of starting with a direct-to-consumer company came from having access to a community of consumers on social media? How did you first start building the Instagram following?
A lot of it was organic. I was in the business for the first four-and-a-half years by myself, so the way I was thinking about digital overall was it was still the path to me that was economical, the path of least resistance. It doesn't cost as much to start an online brand.
I don't think I knew what a marketing strategy was at the time. With Instagram, I just thought, here's a platform; you can reach people. I used to create makeup looks on myself [and post them on Instagram], and I think that got us to probably around 24,000 followers on Instagram. Around that time I started to think [about more of a strategy].
After those first years when you were doing everything on your own, what changed after that?
The brand started to grow and I could no longer juggle [it with] parenting and my day job as a nurse. Beauty Bakerie's orders started to take over our home. I distinctly remember it taking over our kitchen — there was nowhere to cook. At that point I was in contact with a friend who had a background in operations and finance. Over the course of a few months, I'd been casually giving him a pulse of where the company was in terms of sales and he would always be amazed. He would be like, 'That's great, you're profitable!' and I didn't really realize what that meant. One day I was telling him how I wouldn't be able to catch up on the orders. That was when I decided to outsource my fulfillment to a company for a short time in the summer of 2015.
What has happened with the company since then?
The fulfillment service didn't have a good accuracy rate, so I decided to bring that friend on as my CFO and within a short time, we decided to set up operations in San Diego. We got a warehouse and started to build out our team. Now we have about 30 employees across three facilities in San Diego and I'm thankful every day. I don't know how to put into words where we were then to where we are today. It's been nothing but hard work and tenacity.
At what point did you realize that the company was going to be successful enough that you could devote all of your time to it?
I felt from the very beginning that it would be [successful]. But quitting my nursing job wasn't something that came easily. I came from living a life of survival mode. I didn't come from a family that had a lot of money. Because I was a single teen mother, I had government assistance, I was on food stamps. But I was constantly thinking about how to leave one monkey bar for the next monkey bar to grow and advance myself. For me it was like, 'I'm terrified to leave this job and declare in this moment that Beauty Bakerie can sustain and support my daughter and me.' But you have to own your decisions, and I had faith that if it was the wrong decision, the universe would open up another opportunity for me.
Tell me about the store.
There's a Beauty Bakerie store at Mission Valley Mall in San Diego. I wanted to try out another revenue channel, another way of reaching the customer. The tough thing with cosmetics is that on the web, you can't try them out, obviously, so you want a place where people can go and touch and feel the product. We had that with a lot of international retailers, but we didn't have it stateside. I wanted to give the customer an experience that kind of marries the online experience to the physical one that they could have at the store. We're now with Riley Rose in the U.S. as well.
Tell me about the Unilever investment and other investments. How did those come about?
Obviously there were lots of people who said no [when we tried to raise money]. Some said no for great reasons: They thought our team was really savvy and maybe we knew a little bit more about the digital beauty space than them, so they didn't feel as though they'd be able to add a lot of value for us. And then there were others who just flat-out said no and didn't really believe in it. I only want to be partnered with investors who are excited about us, who believe in what we've built. For every investor that we have, whether it be Unilever or the individual investors who came on board, all of them are people who genuinely, truly believe in us and that was what meant the most to me.
How has that funding impacted the business?
We're living in that time right now. I don't want to speak prematurely, but so far just having partners who can offer up their thoughts based on their years of experience, there's no way to place a value on that. I was already surrounded by my executive team, and those people are phenomenal. Then to add another layer with people who work at Unilever or 645, or New Consumer Venture group or any of those other independent investors, that's very powerful. To have people that believe just as much as you do in something, that doesn't happen everyday.
What goals do you still have for the company?
One goal that I still have is still getting it out there into the hands of people. So many people still don't know about Beauty Bakerie. I also want to continue to inspire others, encourage others to understand how much value there is in sweetening the lives of other people. Now, being where we are as a company and being able to give back is so great. We're donating to help end slavery in Libya. We're going out today to the fires in Northern San Diego county and donating buckets to help get water to all of the horses. I want to get people to change their mindset from being focused so much on self to being focused on others.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs or anyone trying to break into beauty?
By becoming an entrepreneur, by signing up to do this, you're agreeing to get beat up a little bit. But there's nothing like creating a business yourself. When things go wrong, there's no one to blame; when things go right, you just smile, do what you do and continue to give back. So my advice is be prepared to get roughed up a little, but if you can stand it, you can do great things and change the world.
This interview has been edited for clarity.