A Conversation with Shawanda Vickers, Founder & CEO of SHOO, LLC
Launching an Affordable, Community-Connected & Safe Cosmetics Company
December 27, 2017
1. What is your business?
SHOO is a cosmetics company that I started two years ago. We sell vegan and cruelty-free nail polish made in the USA, and the polish is free of the nine most frequently used toxic chemicals in nail polish. Because of that, we use the phrase Nine-Free to distinguish our formula from the other formulas. We have launched about 65 colors of nail polish, and we sell the nail polishes on our website and at salons in major cities such as Beverly Hills, Miami and New York City. We have SHOO customers in 45 states and 10 countries.
Last month, we added a lipstick collection that is formulated with Shea butter, Avocado oil, Vitamin E oil, and Grape Seed Oil. We have about twenty lipstick colors in three finishes, matte, cream and pearl, which provide coverage spanning from heavy to light. Both the nail polish and the lipstick retail for $10.
With a $10 price, we are making sure that healthy beauty isn’t costly. We use some of the same manufacturers that the big companies use, but are our goals are affordability and inclusivity. I’ve learned that a lot of women can’t afford to go to the hair salon every week because it’s too costly, but they can buy a tube of lipstick for $10. No matter who the woman is, no matter what she EARNS, no matter which product she wants, we want to offer her an affordable and safe product that is also chic and trendy.
We conducted a survey not too long ago, and we discovered that our average customer earns about $75,000 a year. Most of our customers have a college degree and there’s a significant portion of our customers who have a post-graduate degree. In addition, we want our nail polish and lipstick to be affordable for a kid who is buying a tube of lipstick for his or her mom for Christmas, a birthday or Mother’s Day.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
I was pregnant in my 40s and going to the nail salon was one of the things that I did to make myself feel pretty. When I walked into the salon one day, the fumes made me sick and heightened my morning sickness. I decided to look into the ingredients. So, I just started Googling and reading, and I found out there was formaldehyde or DBP in most polishes. Formaldehyde is used to embalm dead people and I asked myself why would they put that in cosmetics?
And so, when I started doing that research, I told my husband, “Wouldn’t it be neat if I just started my own company that had safer ingredients?” I have a degree in Biology and Chemistry, and so that knowledge helped a lot because I understood the chemical composition as well as the process. I had actually made cosmetics while I was in college, so I knew that it wouldn’t be too hard to replace some of the more commonly used harmful chemicals.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
The decision to start looking into the business side of the beauty and cosmetic industry came at the same time that both of my parents were diagnosed with a severe illness. I took a leave of absence from my teaching job to care for them because living in NJ and having to commute to Florida and Alabama became horrific. I ended up losing my father and losing him affected me deeply. He had such a beautiful life: he explored, he experienced, he shared, he took risks, and I decided that I wanted to live a life like his life. So, I retired from teaching and decided to take the risk of starting SHOO because I knew that I could always go back to the classroom–always.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
The biggest obstacle was leaving a structured environment like teaching and going into an industry where I had no experience. I didn’t have anyone to guide me, to mentor me, and I was afraid. But I knew I had to do it, which was to follow my dream. I had already made up in my mind that if I failed in some areas, at least I could be proud that I took a risk.
For me, getting into the cosmetics business was not like jumping in a pond or a lake. This was like jumping into an ocean, in a multi-trillion dollar business without any resources, help, or guidance, and I jumped anyway!
5. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?
Initially, I started a partnership with a large manufacturer that had a large minimum purchase requirement. After a few purchases, I decided the commitment with a larger manufacturer wasn’t in the best interest of my company. And so I decided to partner with a smaller manufacturer where I could have a relationship with the decision makers, meet someone face-to-face and, just as importantly, I wanted the manufacturer employees to understand who I am as a business owner. That was really a good decision for SHOO because it allowed me to save money on excess products. Now, I can allocate extra dollars on marketing, going to events and becoming a member of beauty and cosmetic organizations.
6. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your business off the ground?
SHOO is entirely self-funded. I took a portion of my retirement savings to start SHOO, and so my biggest concern initially was being able to replace the money. 50% of what I used to start this business I earned back in three weeks once I started selling the nail polish. That was very surprising, and I kept thinking, “It has got to be harder than this to launch a brand.”
7. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
I wanted the business to be connected to community service because I don’t believe you can have success unless you give back. I launched SHOO in Alabama at an elementary school, which I attended when I was a little girl, and we gave the fifth graders the opportunity to name two of the pink colors in our launch collection. I wanted them to know about biotic and abiotic factors as it relates to not just the environment, but also about how it relates to food and cosmetics. I turned the week-long project into a lesson plan for the teachers, and at the end of the week, the girls had a chance to name two of the pink nail polish colors and give reasons why they chose a particular name for each color. The winners were chosen by very successful women who are executives and entrepreneurs, and the two winners received $250 to attend Girls Inc. for the summer. Also, I promised ALL of the sixty girls a $250 dollar college scholarship by the time they complete high school. With that being said, I can’t fail because I have sixty girls depending on me to win in this industry.
After spending time with these fifth-grade girls, listening to them and seeing the sparkle in their eyes, I knew then that SHOO could be more than a cosmetic company. It would be a company that cares about girls’ and women’s initiatives. Now, every time those two polishes (Pink Eagle and Pink Rock) are purchased, we give 50% of our sales back to that school in Alabama. In addition, every October we have Pink Awareness Month where we donate part of the sales from every pink polish to a Breast Cancer Awareness organization. This coming April we are going to donate proceeds of a beautiful new blue color we created to Austim groups. Next October we will sell a purple polish and donate proceeds to organizations that support women who are victims of violence.
8. What are some of your current challenges?
Expanding the brand with more products and meeting customer expectations. The bigger companies get the priority in manufacturing and shipping. Because we are considered small, we are at the bottom of the totem pole of a manufacturer’s priority. When we run out of products, it can take up to six weeks for them to be restocked. This is a big problem because consumers now are used to having products and other things in abundance, fast and soon. At the same time, you don’t want to order too much product in advance because you want it to sell and not let products sit on the shelf. And so, my business is caught between a rock and a hard place every season with ordering quantity.
For the lipstick launch, I created a pre-order system where clients could pay 100% or 50% and reserve the desired colors. I noted this with “pre-order lipstick” on the website. Those pre-orders were incredibly helpful because I knew exactly how much quantity I needed to buy to fill customer demand.
9. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
I ask myself this question a lot. If I would’ve done what I really wanted to do, being an entrepreneur in this industry, I would have jumped 10 years ago. But of course, everything’s about timing. I’m no longer afraid of taking risks because that’s what success takes.
10. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
I have young women that come up to me and ask for help: “Can you teach me? Can you be my mentor?” Yes. There’s enough room for everyone to win. I have a lot of women ask me how to get into the cosmetics business, and I am always happy to help them and teach them how to do it.
Date of conversation: November 29, 2017
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