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.
Teni Panosian may have begun her career as a beauty blogger/vlogger (before those words were even part of the general public lexicon), but despite being ahead of the influencer boom, she always knew she could build a career out of her passion for beauty.
She launched her first blog, Miss Maven, in 2011, a time when few people could have guessed it would become a viable, long-term, successful career path. A decade later, Panosian's followers across Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are as engaged as ever, and her influencer career is going strong. She's currently a face of YSL Beauty, and has served as an ambassador for Maybelline and Dior Beauty in the past. Although Miss Maven is no longer a part of her empire, a skin-care brand, Monday Born — which she hopes to build into a robust "life-care" brand — is. The brand launched in March of 2020 in partnership with Beaubble, a company that co-creates beauty brands with influencers, handling operations, manufacturing and fulfillment, among other duties.
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Monday Born seeks to set itself apart from all those other influencer beauty brands on the market in a few ways. Product development incorporates a community of beauty enthusiasts and Panosian's devoted followers, whom the company relies on to give direction and feedback about formulas and ingredients. While it follows a direct-to-consumer digital model (which is fairly standard, as influencer brands go) Monday Born also follows a less-conventional pre-order sales method, releasing products via "drops," which guarantees that customers receive fresh batches of product and prevents an accumulation of surplus product in warehouses — something Panosian highlights as being a more sustainable point of differentiation within the industry. (The exclusivity of the drop mentality, as we know, doesn't hurt sales, either.)
Panosian recently took some time during a video call to reflect on her career so far — and where it's headed — with Fashionista. Ahead, she shares how she's kept her content relevant all these years, the importance of anticipating industry trends and why she stays out of all the drama that plagues so many other beauty YouTubers.
You were one of the first content creators and an early adopter of so many platforms, really diving into this world before it existed in the way it does now. Tell me about your early beginnings as a blogger.
I started with a beauty vlog at first, msmaven.com. That was my first foray into the digital world, and that was because everyone was asking me questions about makeup and beauty all the time. So I said, 'Why don't I just move this to a platform?' I was just coming out of my Master's degree so I was doing a lot of research into what people were interested in, what was trending, what we were moving toward — so I knew that video content was going to be in. In 2011, I did a sprinkle of YouTube videos and I thought that I was good at it and that the response was good, so I said, 'Let's try this. Let's do this consistently.'
By 2012, that was my thing: I was really focused on YouTube and creating that content. The response was just really good. I think, at that time, it was very different from how it is now. Now it's so much more entertainment-driven, as opposed to before where it was very much about learning. People love to be instructed, they love to learn about beauty and makeup and skin care. That was, I think, what drove people to my channel. I wasn't a makeup artist — I was just someone who was really well-informed about beauty products, so it was, I think, easier to relate to me, as a non-professional that was instructing you. My channel grew and YouTube became my main platform. Then Instagram came along.
Did you always have an interest in beauty?
I always knew I had a vision for what I wanted my life to be. I wanted to create. That's all I wanted to do. I just don't know how I was going to get there. My whole life has been, ever since I was a kid, drawing, painting — I always loved that. I was always reading, always storytelling. It was a huge passion of mine and it comes from my dad; he's a musician, and he also draws and paints.
But I didn't know exactly what my path would be. I went through all the schooling: I went to USC, I got a Bachelor's degree in Communication and a Master's degree in Communication Management. I was ready to go into a career in consulting, or go to Saatchi & Saatchi and do advertising. That was kind of the plan, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to maximize the full potential of my creativity if I went corporate.
But when I graduated, it was 2008 and jobs were very hard to get. I said, 'If there's a time to take a risk, it's now.' I wasn't a makeup artist but that skill set from drawing and painting sort of transferred over to the face and beauty. It also came from high school, being on dance teams. I did so many shows, so many performances, and I was always the one giving tips to my teammates about how to do their makeup. I just developed a very natural knack for it.
What inspired you to start your blog?
I remember exactly the moment I decided to go into the blogging space. A friend of mine called me from Sephora. She said, 'I'm looking for a bronzer that does this, this and this.' And I immediately gave her an answer. The people at my Sephora store, they knew me by name, at that point. I was always in there, always reading labels, always testing stuff out, so I said, 'I'm clearly passionate about this. I should probably go into this space.'
What was it like being a blogger when not many people were full-time bloggers?
It was an interesting conversation every time somebody would ask me, 'So what do you do?' The looks I got were a little bit confused when I said, 'I'm a beauty blogger.' Nobody was really using that word at that time. I just went with the philosophy that if you build it, they will come. I started consistently posting that content about skin care and makeup, and then I started to make connections with PR people and brands. I must have been one of the first — if not the first — influencer that a lot of brands worked with. I could tell that they weren't really working with anybody so they were kind of navigating the space themselves. We didn't know what we were doing. I was posting videos on Vimeo of Anastasia Beverly Hills, with their little five-pan eyeshadow palette. Now they have an enormous inventory of product. I think the connection with PR people, here and there, just getting invited to little events, that's kind of where it happened. There were no agents, there were no managers at that time for vloggers, so it was really up to me to start to make those connections with people.
How did you navigate monetizing and building partnerships so that you could turn your blogging into a career, especially at the beginning?
In the beginning, it was really just product. Early on, you're just so excited to get product from companies. It was just reviews, swatches, tutorials using the products. I always intended to monetize. This was never a hobby for me. But this first move into monetization were multi-channel networks, the ones who saw that YouTube was growing and was a lucrative space. They started taking on a bunch of talent and were the ones that were cultivating the relationships between brands and influencers.
I remember my first paid deal was $250 for a hair product from Marc Anthony. That was so long ago. Then the big companies started to see, 'Hey, we can monetize this.' That's when they sort of took the lead.
How did you start building a community and cultivating followers?
I started to cultivate community right off the bat; it came very naturally. I just tried to build relationships. To this day, I get DMs from people saying, 'Thank you for being one of the few influencers that still replies to comments and DMs.' That'll never not happen for me because they're the foundation of this entire operation. This whole thing is sustained by people paying attention. For me, it's very personal, and I [feel the need to] show appreciation for giving me your time.
How has the industry changed since you first started your blog? How has your job and your approach to content creation evolved, if at all?
I think people's priorities, as far as what they give their attention to, have changed. [Back then,] it was very much wanting to learn, and it wasn't so much about the influencer as a person. Now, we have the drama channels, the teen channels. A lot of people give attention to that. I, for one, cannot participate because it's just not my vibe, but I think one thing that's changed me, personally, is really letting people into my life more, which is something I wasn't accustomed to doing. But seeing the demand for it kind of made me switch it up a little bit, allow myself to be more vulnerable.
I get more questions now about life in general over beauty on any given day. But I think that people just look at my story, at how far I've come over the years, and that intrigues them. That's something that some people may want to replicate, or they might have an idea of their own that they want to seek a little motivation for. It really just moved from strictly instructional and learning a skill to almost being like a life coach, a little bit of a motivational speaker.
Tell me about Monday Born. How did you decide to launch a brand, and what was the process like?
I've had a lot of makeup collab opportunities which is, obviously, a privilege. But I also have to think about the longevity of my brand: I'm not just thinking about today — I'm thinking about what my my brand is going to look like a year from now, five years from now.
I did a Bobbi Brown collab because that one spoke to me. But otherwise, I would get people asking me all the time, 'When are you doing makeup?' I just never had such a passion to do a 12-pan eyeshadow palette or anything like that because my passion is so much more. I'm not even wearing makeup right now... It's just never been my vibe. It's not part of my personal brand. I'm much more about wellness, skin care, taking care of your skin from the inside out. Even though my history is in makeup, I kind of just always said, 'I'm not really into the makeup thing.'
Monday Born is a natural progression in my career. I knew, at some point, I would go into product space. I just didn't know exactly when it would be. When I started to think about skin care, I said, 'This is it.' I'm so passionate about skin. I'm so well-versed in skin, and the top questions I get are about skin. Everything just kind of lined up too perfectly to ignore. I felt very at ease, very at peace with the idea that this was the time to dive into it. That's really what happened. I let serendipity take me.
When it came to developing the brand and the products, where did you start?
Another element of my decision was: What can I do differently than what's already been done, especially by influencers? Because when you do an influencer brand, you're mostly compared to other influencers who started brands. I needed to know that we could do something different. We launched last March, and when we introduced the brand, two things were our big differentiation, our competitive edge.
One was that our community would be participating in all of our decision-making, from formulation to packaging design. I immediately saw how involved people wanted to be in that process. We have something called the Monday Born Experience which is our focus group that tests out lab samples with us. They give us their feedback. It's such a personal connection with our community and I think that I want to really maintain that as much as we can as we continue to grow.
The other point of differentiation for us is sustainability, the way that we offer our products. It's direct-to-consumer, but we're not doing 100,000 purchase orders and letting our products sit in a warehouse. We do our sales in drops, where we collect the number of orders that we're going to get, then we notify our lab, 'Hey, this is how many we need to make.' They send it over and they receive a fresh new batch, something that's been made very recently and not been sitting in a warehouse for eight months. We're being gentler to the environment by not over-producing and then having to throw a bunch of product away.
Do you have a favorite Monday Born product?
I'm excited about our newest launch. The Seven is what we're calling a complete moisturizer: On top of optimal hydration and moisture all skin types need, it's packed with seven key ingredients that help to increase tone, collagen and elasticity in skin.
On the business side of things, what can you tell me about sort of the structure of the partnership with Beaubble?
Beaubble and I are partners. We're co-founders, and they really helped me to facilitate everything creatively. I take the lead for everything, from design, to the name, to our imagery and Jordan[Lim], my co-founder, takes the lead with business, handling everything with fulfillment and dealing with our lab and our shipping center. But it really is a very involved partnership.
When you look at the scope of your career so far, what are you most proud of?
Something I reflect on and am most proud of would be the minute I announced Monday Born. That was such a special experience because it was something that re-ignited my love for beauty again. So much of me went into our packaging and our messaging. I mean, to hold our bottle and think, 'I made this' — it's such a surreal experience.
You've managed to stay relevant and maintain a community of engaged, enthusiastic followers for more than a decade. What's the key to pulling that off?
I think establishing yourself as someone who's transparent, honest, vulnerable, not faking this life that you're not actually living keeps people interested. My audience gets to see the good and the bad and I think that they've gotten to know me as a person a lot. They don't just see hashtag whatever challenge over and over from me, which, I mean, I'm not opposed to... I want to do more of that stuff. That's my goal this year, to be a little more trendy. But I think just staying authentic has given me longevity.
And I don't really try. This is who I am. I can't be anything else, so I think people appreciate that. And, like I said, the messages from people saying, 'I've been with you for this many years,' keep me going. It's like these digital besties that I think that's part of the key for me.
What professional goals do you still have?
I would love to expand our categories. I think that's one way I would really love to see Monday Born grow and become whole life care, not just skin care. Beyond that, someone whose career I really admire is Lauren Conrad. She's a really relatable person who's pretty low-key but has this whole empire going. She hasn't changed too drastically. She's who she is and successfully turned that into a lifestyle brand.
So many beauty vloggers have built their careers and their followings by getting involved in drama. But you've really stayed out of the controversy. How have you managed to insulate yourself from getting pulled into it?
I guess the way that I avoid that is, I've never had a problem with anyone. I keep it pretty cool with everybody. I've also been really selective about what circles I run in. I'm very protective of my space and my peace, so even if something seemed like, 'If you hang out with this group, you'll elevate your brand,' that never appealed to me. I'm 36 years old now. It's just not becoming of someone in my age group to be involved in stuff like that. But even when I started, it never appealed.
I think it's a personality thing. I have a business to run. I have really important things to think about. The reason it kind of deters me is thinking about longevity. In the long run, that kind of drama is damaging to your brand. I don't think it's a good idea. Better to stay away from it.
What misconceptions do you think people have about influencers?
They think we're a lot bigger than we actually are. A blue check mark doesn't mean anything. Some people think it's really easy, that you just take pictures. That's a huge misconception. But as someone who's really focused on a long and successful brand and career, I'm forecasting, constantly thinking about my next move, so the 'easy' thing kind of ticks me off a little bit.
I think the whole purpose of influencers is the anti-celebrity. Celebrities, they're so out of reach. That's what they're supposed to be. We're not supposed to be that. I would love for people to kind of recalibrate and remember that we're here to be on a level playing field of everybody.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out, trying to pursue a career as an influencer?
Treat this as a business. If you're really trying to make this your income, I wouldn't treat it as a hobby because there's a lot of money to be made in this space and we don't know how much longer it will remain that way. If you're just starting out, I would say take advantage as long as you can, and be business-minded in everything you do.
What do you think the future of being an influencer looks like?
I thought about this all 2020. Given everything that happened, you saw a lot of articles about 'the age of the influencer is done.' I do think, to some extent, that's kind of true. We just don't know how much longer this is going to go on. You need to be really flexible and change with the industry as it continues to change. One thing that's been consistent about the influencer world since it began, is that it's in flux, always. It's ever-changing, and I don't think that's going to stop. I don't think it's ever going to get to a place where it's the standard procedure that we're all following.
This interview has been edited for clarity.