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4 Keys to Getting a Niche Beauty Brand off the Ground

These tips come straight from experts in the beauty industry.
Charlotte Cho, Cindy DiPrima, Divya Gugnani and Troy Surratt. Photo: Tonya Mann

Charlotte Cho, Cindy DiPrima, Divya Gugnani and Troy Surratt. Photo: Tonya Mann

At Fashionista's sixth annual How to Make It in Fashion Conference this past Friday, Beauty Editor Stephanie Saltzman led a discussion on establishing niche, indie beauty brands — an entrepreneurial endeavor that has become especially challenging in a time when the industry is so dominated by major corporations. But at the same time, it's an area where growth and opportunity abound and where creativity and authenticity are rewarded. She assembled a panel that featured four entrepreneurs behind some of the most beloved niche beauty brands in the industry: Soko Glam co-founder and chief curator Charlotte Cho, CAP Beauty co-founder and chief creative officer Cindy DiPrima, Wander Beauty CEO and co-founder Divya Gugnani and Surratt Beauty founder and chief creative officer Troy Surratt. Together, they shared their insights and advice about what it takes to get a beauty brand up and running and how to stand out in a crowded, ever-evolving category. Read on for highlights. 

Find your point of difference, and market it accordingly. 

The beauty industry is extremely crowded; in order for brands or speciality retailers to really make a splash, they have to find ways to stand out and differentiate themselves from a sea of liquid lipsticks and highlighter palettes. For the founders of Wander Beauty, this meant finding easily recognizable  packaging and a name that captured their products' globally sourced ingredients.

Conversely, Surratt sought to set his brand apart from the ground by approaching it from a fashion perspective. "As a makeup artist, I wanted to create a brand that I personally would want to shop myself, and I started to feel that there were many brands that had blurred lines and that were chasing the tails of one another," he explained. Surratt wanted to create "a luxury brand that was thoroughly modern." Dior and Chanel are luxury brands, conceded Surratt, but in his opinion they weren't serving the urban girls who wear Rick Owens and Balmain. And that's who Surratt sought to target. "I approached my brand like I would a fashion collection," Surratt said. "I knew that I had to have core essential pieces and that I needed to have the fashion items that would go in and out." 

DiPrima expressed a similar sentiment in thinking up CAP Beauty with her partner, Kerrilynn Pamer. Pamer had come from a retail and fashion background, and the duo wanted to put a modern spin on natural beauty. "At the time we launched, natural still had this very yoga studio, Whole Foods store vibes, but we wanted it to have an appeal that felt relevant and modern," DiPrima said. "So we made sure everything from the design of the store to the name was distinct."

Bootstrap your business as much as you can in the early days. 

Once you've come up with a brilliant product to fill a gap in the market, you have to think about how to get it into the hands of consumers. There's a misconception among many first-time entrepreneurs that you need to have a hundreds of thousands of dollars to start a business, but according to the panelists, maintaining a lean budget is the way to go.

Gugnani, whose background is in finance, advised bootstrapping your business as much as you can in the early days so you can figure out exactly what your brand is and what resonates with your clients before bringing on investors. "Think about it as a marriage without divorce," Gugnani explained. "Once you have an investor at the table, they're there with you until you sell that brand. They have to understand your values, your philosophies and how you want to grow your brand. If you are aligned, you will have the most amazing success, and if you are not aligned, it will just prohibit the growth of your brand in a massive way." 

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"Bootstrapping is the best way to go," Cho said in agreement. "The most important thing about your brand is intention. Founders have an intention and they will make the right choices for the brand, but when someone else is at the top telling you that you need to hit certain revenue numbers, it will force you to make decisions that you don't want to make." 

Embrace competition. 

The panelists were all at the forefront of what are now major beauty industry sectors, such as K-beauty, J-beauty and the natural beauty boom. But with the rise of these trends has also come plenty of competition. Nonetheless, DiPrima and Cho both view this as a positive. "Goop sells a lot of the same products as we do, and when Gwyneth Paltrow talks about natural beauty, it helps us," said DiPrima. "The more you can figure out how to lie with your market and leverage the power that you can create together, the better that is." DiPrima also noted the importance of staying on top of trends, always knowing what's going to come next and listening to your gut. "If you know what your mission is, then decisions become really easy," she said. "Sell what you believe in, and you have to have people on your sales team who believe in it too." 

When Soko Glam started in 2012, no one was talking about K-beauty. That's clearly not the case anymore. "Now Korean beauty is at your CVS, Sephora, Bloomingdales and Ulta — everyone's carrying it," said Cho. "Two years in, when K-beauty really started to pick up, everyone was worried that someone like Sephora would sweep me under the rug, but it's actually gotten so much better." When everyone is talking about a trend or product category, it makes the pie bigger, which means everyone will want to learn about it. "A great outcome of that is that we partnered with Sephora, and we've had a pop-up in Bloomingdales SoHo for about a year now," Cho added. "Ultimately it was a win-win situation for all." 

Innovate — don't imitate. 

"The most successful companies are those that solve a problem," said Gugnani, which is why her first product was birthed out of what people said they needed. After interviewing hundreds of women — of all different ages, skin tones and ethnicities — she found that consumers wanted one thing that could be used 20 different ways and that would make them look instantly better. Along the way, she constantly asked herself a series of questions: Am I solving a problem in their life? Is this something they're always going to use? Is this an essential? And am I innovating and not imitating? Because at the end of the day, "if someone else makes it, then we shouldn't be making it," added Gugnani. "I don't believe in taking someone else's formula and tweaking it and making it better."

On a similar note, both DiPrima and Cho have achieved greater retail success through using their distinct points of view to collaborate with brands on innovative products. Last year, CAP Beauty partnered with Apothecanna to launch an ingestible CBD oil. DiPrima said this cannabis-slash-adaptogenic inner wellness blend has since become their "biggest hit." Creating your own products, even when your business is largely a retail operation,  "is a way that you can maintain distribution and drive sales to your site," noted DiPrima.  

Cho has collaborated on three beauty products with brands that she loved: Soko Glam's best-selling sheet mask, a green tea stick and a vitamin C serum made in collaboration with CosRx, which ended up being Soko Glam's best-selling SKU last year. "It's a great way to keep things exclusive," as a retailer constantly combatting Amazon, said Cho. 

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