How to Break Into the Beauty Business

Before I launched the Indie Beauty Network (IBN) in 2000, I owned a small cosmetics company in my hometown of Washington, DC. While I enjoyed making and selling products, I quickly noticed that my soaps and lotions were not nearly as appealing as those offered by many of my colleagues. My gift is not in making products, but in helping other people successfully market the products they make, and IBN was born from this passion.

Over the years, I have seen thousands of beauty companies come and go. All day, every day, I am assessing, consuming, filtering and slogging through a boatload of industry information. This process allows me to observe the habits of successful and unsuccessful companies, many of which are highlighted in Indie Beauty University, which I host and lead. Not surprisingly, I’ve learned what works and doesn’t work. If you think 2011 is the year you’ll break into the beauty business, or make an existing beauty business more successful, these tips will help steer you in the right direction.

Break Into The Beauty Business

1. Establish a niche.

Many beauty startups invest way too much time researching and perfecting recipes and product lines before (or without ever) identifying a precise niche market. Since everyone uses soap and lotion, it stands to reason that everyone also buys it. But that doesn’t mean they’ll buy it from you, and that’s what matters to your business. Of course you must develop good-quality products before launching, but you have to do it quickly, and you must simultaneously identify your niche.

As good as your products are, someone else’s are better, or even if they’re not, they do a better job of selling them. But if you have a niche, you can “own” a specific part of the market and fill it with people who love not only your products, but also you and your brand. These buyer personas (as David Meerman Scott describes them) have specific problems that can be solved only by specific products offered by you. The process of identifying the problem your products address leads directly to a unique niche that only you can fill.

La Dolce Diva, an Atlanta-based bath and body line by Jennifer Kirkwood, offers a good example of serving a specific niche. Jennifer’s fashion design career took her around the globe. She’s a fun, hip diva girl who loves to travel but, as she says, her heart is always in Italy. From the Italian landscape to the delicious gelato and biscotti, Jennifer knows Italy and she shares her passion through her upscale, high-end products. Products like Almond Biscotti Sugar Scrub, Limoncello Hand Wash, and Gelato Shea Body Butter are aimed squarely at a specific buyer persona — people who see themselves as well-traveled divas.

2. Keep it simple.

There are countless ingredients, fragrances, bottles and packaging options available to you as a cosmetics manufacturer. So many, in fact, that you could spend a lifetime creating fancy products with the latest and greatest ingredients — and still never turn a profit. At some point, you have to decide on something simple and effective, and then market the heck out of it.

Think about it. The market is saturated with companies making ridiculous claims that their products can get rid of wrinkles, keep your hair from falling out, or make your nail polish last forever. You may feel like you have to compete with these claims to be successful, but you don’t.

New Jersey-based Pookie is a good example of this. Started by college chums, the company launched in 2001 with a line of seven scented, colored lip balms sold in silver quarter-ounce tins. (You can see how simple things were by checking out the archived version of their 2001 website.)

Once Pookie established a reputation for delivering quality lip balm, they added the option of buying it in an opaque tube with a top to match the scent and color. Then they added customized lip balm for showers and weddings. Later, they added body wash and lotion. The effectiveness of their simple, measured launch strategy is made clear on the page announcing the new products. It says:

“You’ve fallen in love with our Lip Balms and ColorBalms®. Pookie® is now pleased to bring you Pookamint™, a refreshing and invigorating combination of Spearmint, Vanilla and Peppermint oils that will refresh and nourish your skin!!”

Trying to be all things to all people will send you straight to bankruptcy court, an asylum or both! Keep it simple, establish your platform, and enjoy the process of measured growth that establishes your crediblity and sets up your business for long-term success.

3. Build your network (then participate in it).

One of the most important things you can do when trying to break into the beauty business is to build your network of industry contacts. Seek out events and opportunities to meet as many industry participants, particularly successful ones, as you can. Attend networking events, subscribe to and comment on blogs, tweet and retweet industry information of interest, and contribute original information to the discussion.

The first place that industry professionals look when they want to expand, take on a new project, share a new opportunity or collaborate on a new line is within their own network. For example, last week, Emily Caswell of Maine-based GCDSpa learned of an opportunity to create private-label products for a gourmet chocolate store and shared the opportunity at our large, beauty-industry-focused social networking site. In so doing, Emily made an opportunity easily and efficiently available to thousands of people at once.

You may wish to join the Indie Beauty Network as well, to collaborate with other industry participants and enjoy focused training, networking and resources.

If you are not a part of a few focused communities, you will not be able to connect efficiently with your peers, and you may miss out on opportunities like the one Emily shared so freely.  You’ll also want to connect with beauty bloggers. The best place to do that is at the Beauty Blogger’s Network. It’s great to find so many of them all in one place, making it easy for you to choose which bloggers would be the best ones to develop relationships with.

4. Remember that the media is you!

After 11+ years in business, I am absolutely persuaded that you are the best media outlet for your business. I teach these principles in The Media Is You Workshops online and nationwide. It’s great to be featured in the pages of the nation’s top women’s magazines, but nothing provides the depth, consistency and richness of experience needed to maintain a strong market position like branded magazines, books newsletter, podcasts, Twitter streams, Facebook pages, etc., that allow your customers to connect with you on their terms whenever they are ready to hear from you.

There are so many social media tools, and you must be careful not to use them just to use them. I’m not saying you should not experiment. You should; that’s how you learn. But time is money, and your experimentation should be to specific ends. Here are some examples to get your creative juices flowing.

Brambleberry a Bellingham, Washington, online retailer of soap-making ingredients, makes videos to show people how to make soaps using the ingredients she sells. Each video is posted at her YouTube page, tweeted, and added to FaceBook and her blog. Her community members often use the embed code to share her videos at their blogs.

Brambleberry has over 5,000 people at her FaceBook Page — all of them chatting it up about soap and looking to the company to provide guidance, encouragement and inspiration. Over the past few years, Brambleberry’s use of social media has allowed it to cut public relations and traditional advertising costs, making the business more profitable than ever.

Video is not the only way to skin the media production cat. Take Texas-based LA Minerals, for example. At first frustrated by Twitter, Lorraine stuck with it. Today, she says the key is “giving your followers a reason to click or retweet.” I couldn’t agree more. As Lorraine suggests, “mix personal, light-hearted stuff with information, news and links to your blog.” As Lorraine knows, it takes consistency and focus, and the ever-increasing amount of engagement she sparks at her Twitter page is proof.

Also consider Soapylove, the San Diego company that publishes an ezine of the same name. Created using the inexpensive Microsoft Publisher software program, the ezine includes soapmaking techniques and how-to articles, and features photographs taken by Debbie Chialtas, Soapylove’s founder.

You might also consider these innovative beauty companies: Joan Morais’s ebooks, and Elin Criswell’s newly released soapmaking book.

And since beauty products are more than soap and lotion, check out Virginia-based Charlene Sevier’s Flickr stream showcasing her beautiful handmade jewelry. Each of these business leaders has selected media that works best to accomplish their specific goals within their niche. You can do this too!

Just remember that there is no magic bullet. The idea is to publish information that is meaningful to people in your network, including your customers, industry colleagues and women in general. Create a system that gets results for you by repeating what works well and not repeating what doesn’t. Connect with industry friends (see the importance of a network, above) to discover what works best for others. Engage people who care about the same things you care about, and your efforts will pay off in increased visibility and more sales!

6. Leverage new opportunities.

Most beauty startups tend to manufacture products they use themselves, overlooking market opportunities in plain sight. For example, according to a recent article published by Euromonitor, a global market watchdog, the men’s grooming market is “relatively small and easy to break into.” While that article focuses on opportunities for multinational companies like Procter & Gamble, the same holds true for small and independent startups. Don’t limit your options by making only products you would use.

Another option is to add a unique spin on an existing type of product. For example, Berkeley, California-based Ganache For Lips takes the simple combination of ingredients in lip balm to a new level by adding gourmet Scharffen Berger unsweetened chocolate to the mix. All the other ingredients are commonly found in dozens of lip balms sold by thousands of companies every day. By adding one simple ingredient, the company is making a potentially mundane product more exciting — and is able to increase profit margins as a result. After all, you can charge more for a tube of lip balm containing chocolate than you can for one that does not — yet it takes the same basic amount of effort to make each product.

7. Keep up with regulations and trends.

Contrary to numerous erroneous reports by traditional media and bloggers across the Web, cosmetics manufacturers and products are regulated by federal law pursuant to the U.S. Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), and sometimes via state law as well. Use of the term “organic” on a beauty product labels is governed by the U.S. Department Of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

(Check for any state laws as well. While there are very few of them, you should be proactive about finding out whether you live in a state that regulates cosmetics companies at the local level.) Read the regulations, understand them and make sure you follow them. Not only will this keep you out of trouble, but it will also build your credibility in the industry.

One way to keep up with regulatory and industry trends is to subscribe to industry trade publications, some of which are free. A few examples are Global Cosmetics Industry, Happi Magazine and Beauty Packaging Magazine.

These are easy and inexpensive ways to continually read up on new and coming trends, including things like eco-packaging and green ingredient and manufacturing options.

While product liability insurance is not required, it is a good idea to procure at least $1 million in coverage so you can operate your business knowing you can protect your assets if someone claims to have been damaged by one of your products.

Join the fun!

Like all other industries, the beauty industry is expanding at a rapid clip. It is advancing and changing very quickly, with new competitors, products, services, ingredients and services arriving on the scene each day. If 2011 is your year to take your beauty business to the next level, use these tips to join the fun in an industry that is full of opportunities for growth and success!


Donna Maria Coles Johnson Donna Maria is the founder and CEO of the Indie Business Network, a trade organization providing mentoring and coaching services, and affordable product liability insurance, to makers and creative entrepreneurs across North America. An award-winning small business advocate, Donna Maria has hosted the Indie Business Podcast since 2005. She blogs at Indie Business Blog.

39 Reactions
  1. Wow! Donna Maria, a very well written and informative article.

    Thanks you for the flattering shout out- I would have said the same about the article even if I hadn’t received a mention.

    Thanks also for all your down to earth, objective and well-informed viewpoints regarding all things small biz ~ Keep it up!

    Grazie Mille!

  2. Great article Donna Maria-it’s always great to have a resource when starting any business endeavor. I would love to see more articles like this to continue to guide me on my journey of launching and operating a small beauty business.

  3. I really enjoy reading Donna Maria’s articles – she’s always so inspirational! And, she really knows her stuff. Just look at how many successful businesses are a part of the Indie Beauty Network – she’s given you a teeny glimpse at a few in this article. And, although her specialty is the beauty business, she knows the ins and outs of small business success as a whole. All of these tips could be applied to any small business for success. I know I’m taking away some advice to help my small business.

    Thanks Donna Maria for another stellar post!

  4. Very informative. There are many ways to grow a beauty business and Donna Marie touches on the important ones. I might add; know what you are good at and hire someone else to do the rest!

  5. Another great article with a wealth of information from you, DonnaMaria. I’ve been following your social media guides to the letter, and I’ve already seen a healthy return for it. I even think my customers are happier for it! I’m relatively new to social media, and it was a little overwhelming at first. Your posts on the subject have been clear, concise, and encouraging. It’s so great to read another piece of what you so readily bring to independent business owners. I’ll be checking back here for more!

  6. Awesome article! Even as an established business, I still need tips and advice to keep Soapylove growing. Thanks also for the very nice mention! The eZine has allowed me to address one very important Soapylove audience – other soap makers. I love being part of such an active and involved community!

  7. So much great advice, Donna Maria! I appreciate the mention! I have enjoyed collaborating with and learning from members of our network, and would recommend it to anyone in this business (or any other, for that matter). Nothing like having your own private cheering section!

    Thank you for your tireless work for the small business owner!

  8. Great tips! Particularly, nos. 2 and 3 for me. The Pookie example is key as I’ve had to learn how to keep my focus on one great idea versus pushing a number of so-so ideas. Realizing that you can’t be all things to all people is a small business gift. I’ll definitely share this article with clients who are working to craft a brand, and the sooner they read it, the better!

  9. @Mia: I think we are all challenged to focus on concepts one at a time, and allow them to become successful before adding something new. Pookie is a great reminder! @Emily: We all need cheerleaders, and it’s easy when there’s so much to cheer, as in your case!

  10. @Jennifer: Thanks for swinging by! I do try to tell it like it is. I think it’s important for people to know what they’re getting themselves into. It’s not all sugar scrub and roses! @Toni: I think I’ll be submitting some more. @ Debbie: That ezine is just so impressive! @Susan: Thrilled to know that my advice has helped your business grow. @Kayla: So many basic principles apply across the board to ANY business, yes. @Cindy: Great point out focusing on your strengths and leaving the rest to others. I’ve learned this the hard way — yes, and then learned it again. LOL!

  11. You provide such a wealth of information. There’s a lot to consider when trying to create a successful business and much of your advice applies to more that just the beauty business.

    Thanks for mentioning the Bead Dreamer. Flickr is an excellent social networking resource.

  12. Fantastic article Donna Maria. There’s never been a better time to become self-employed and find a way to go it alone without someone else controlling your destiny.

    I agree that social media tools make it easier than ever to promote your business and have a great relationship with your customers through an ongoing conversation.

  13. I just wanted to give a quick thanks for bringing the indy community such informative and relevant info. Please keep doing what you do well!

  14. Great article Donna Maria. Love the Pookie example…as I look at the fact that we are spread in too many directions … time to stop trying to be all things…etc.

  15. Great article! I am glad you have point number 7 in here. It’s very important that people who want to come into the business know what the rules are and how to find guidance.

  16. Charlene, A-M, Lea, Marge, and Janice — thank you for swinging by and reading and sharing with us. I admire all of the work you guys are doing, and am so happy that we can all achieve and have fun together!

  17. As always Donna Maria is so informed and always makes sure that we are too! I’ve been in the beauty business for 10 years and continue to look to her for resources and guidance. Great article, looking forward to the next one!

  18. Awesome article, dM! You hit the nail on the head with all your great tips on starting a beauty business. Tips #2 really resonates with me when I was building my beauty business. This tip is the #1 business tip I share with my soapmaking and handmade beauty product students – don’t try to make everything for everyone…been there done that and it doesn’t work. Focus on a few things, master them and build a clientele first!

    You are always a wealth of information and inspiration!

  19. Great tips! Seems like many of these could be applied to various industries outside of beauty too!

  20. Dawn: Thanks for sharing your comments. I’m so excited to be able to serve. La Shonda: I am always reminding myself to keep things simple. If I had a quarter for everything I over-complicated, I’d be so rich now. Jessie: So glad it’s helpful to you — I agree that basic business principles apply to everyone, regardless of their industry!

  21. Great article…chock full of great resources and examples. Just proves what everybody knows…Donna Maria flat ROCKS

  22. Great article, Donna Maria! Thank you for all you do in supporting and encouraging INDIES!

  23. Grace: Thank you for the acknowledgement. I feel like I’m a connector, a messenger. It’s the people featured here that are setting such good examples. I’m thrilled to feature them, and consider it an honor to have a place like this to help spread the word.

  24. Fantastic article Donna! I can remember you finding your way through these tips to get INDIE to where it is today, twelve years later. I’m so very proud of you and what you have accomplished!

  25. This is a wonderful and informative article. Thank you so much. I am just starting out with my business.

  26. What a wonderful article. With a small tweak here or there, it’s highly applicable to any business endeavor. My wife and I own a small carpet, upholstery and oriental rug cleaning business and this article is full of good nuggets for us as well. Thanks for the good stuff!

  27. Raquel and Jeff: Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. I’m also excited to see that you realize that, while the article focuses on the niche of cosmetics, the fundamental principles of business success are quite similar across industries. Thank you both for swinging by and joining us. Good luck to both of you with your businesses!

  28. Has pookie gone to the dead zone? I click on the link above and get a “cannot find” Google page.

  29. Very nice article Donna! I am very excited about being a member of the Indie! Thank you!! Deborah Ward

  30. Jim: I think Pookie may be out of business or off line now. Ahhh well, they had a super good run for a decade.

    Deborah: Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and am thrilled to be serving you as a member of IBN. I look forward to talking sometime soon so I can learn more about your business!

  31. Great article, thank you. Remember that the media is you, is a great point to make. Many beauty brands, start-ups, and smaller beauty companies do not realize how much media has to be created for a brand to gain market share and online visibility. Beauty brands must create content, publish it, and distribute it online. Content such as articles, press releases, images, and video. Beauty blogs are also very key in generating online visibility and sales.

  32. I appreciate the reminders to keep it simple and to build my network. We are currently re-thinking a few of our product offerings due to this very principle (of simplicity). And Indie Business Network has been THE key for helping me to understand and appreciate the importance of a network of colleagues. We are much further along in our journey due to the foundation IBN has provided us.

  33. You need to bring something unique to the table. The competition is fierce so you have to think creatively. The steps you listed are all relevant but step 1. Establish a niche. Seems most crucial (probably why you listed it as step 1:)
    Great advice! Thank you.

  34. Carving your own niche is an essential step when establishing your brand. When you stand out in the sea of other businesses, you already have a purpose to begin with!

  35. Great post on how to break into beauty business. I highly recommend making soaps.

  36. Informative and excellent article, Donna Maria. Thanks for sharing all the useful tips helping beauty brands to establish their business in the present market shortly.