Brand Founders Get Real About Bootstrapping In An Uncertain And Crowded Beauty Market
Murphy Bishop, co-founder of The Better Skin Co., believes it’s incredibly tough to be a bootstrapped beauty brand today. Not only are bootstrapped brands competing against well-funded players, they’re trying to navigate a beauty industry in which there are seemingly countless directions they can go in.
“I tell new brands to delete the sales pitches—do not engage!—and focus on what they’re best at us until they can add another focus,” says Bishop. “A great example is social media presence. A narrative exists that you must be on all platforms and active. If you are of limited funds, this can lead to a lot of mediocre messaging. Stick to one platform, and do it well.”
Inspired by Bishop’s concerns about bootstrapping in the current environment, for the latest edition of our ongoing series posing questions relevant to indie beauty, we asked 22 founders of brands that didn’t start with several hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars the following questions:
Do you think it’s harder today to bootstrap than it may have been in the past? What are the top frustrations that come from bootstrapping a brand? What strategies are critical to allowing you to bootstrap? What are your top three business priorities and top three business distractions today?
- Melinda Williams-Smith Founder, Face Front Skin
It’s absolutely harder to bootstrap today than it has been in the past. The economic conditions have a trickle-down effect that affects small businesses such as myself. When bootstrapping, you usually use the money that is in your savings or what's left over after your bills are paid. Everything is so much more expensive than it was just three years ago that there's usually not any money left over. There’s the rising cost of raw goods, shipping and business fees. Coupled with the decrease in sales, that leaves very little funds left.
My top frustrations are prioritizing what needs cash now and who gets paid first, staying afloat during the slow periods and having to go back to my 9-to-5 job to fund my business. One strategy that allows me to bootstrap is educating myself on business by getting out and networking to help learn about funding strategies from successful small businesses that are willing to share. I also create and implement a livable budget, utilize business credit effectively, ask for help, and set aside time weekly to find and apply for grants.
My top priority is rebranding to develop a more modern, polished look to attract a new audience of beauty consumers and establish a presence so that Face Front Skin can compete with top products. We need to be seen and our story needs to be told. Other priorities are staying true to my core audience; gaining access to opportunities such as growth cohorts, incubators (i.e., Sephora and Target’s accelerator programs), grants, funding and education; and building stronger relationships with like-minded entrepreneurs.
My biggest distraction is my fear of failure on a large-scale level. After five years, will I be afloat or did I just waste time and resources? Other brands and noise in the market are a distraction, too. I have to tune out fad products and trends to stay true to our values. There’s information overload as there are many, many groups, cohorts and email lists to join.
- Minara El-Rahman Co-Founder and CEO, Mora Cosmetics
Since I can only speak for the present, I will say that it seems like bootstrapping a business is harder than in the past. There are a few reasons for this. It was easier to find more independent contract manufacturers and packaging suppliers in the past.
However, with globalization, a lot of those smaller players dwindled. Beauty founders must face larger MOQs and work with a few select global players to get things done. Luckily, domestic options are opening up regarding vendors, but we didn't have as many choices when we started working on our brand before the pandemic.
Some of our top frustrations are trying to keep a profitable margin with fluctuating material costs. With the war in Ukraine, we have seen rising raw material costs for our products while we try to keep our products attainable for our customers.
One way we bootstrapped this long was my full-time job while building our business and gaining more accounts. Whenever we had unforeseen costs, I could inject more money into the business as needed. That helped a lot!
Our top three business priorities are to grow our business's social media presence and build a dedicated community so that we can win at the shelf. Once your community shares about your products, acquiring new customers willing to try out your brand is easier.
Our next priority is building game-changing products with innovative new ingredients so our dedicated customers can get excited. Lastly, we will focus on growing our annual revenue to be a better place to start fundraising a seed round and getting us ready to launch at a larger retailer.
Our top three business distractions are looking at what potential competitors are doing. We are unique and should lean into that versus getting distracted by what others do in the space. We can't waste time standing on the sidelines looking at other brands creating products versus using our own creativity to serve our community.
Getting bogged down with over-researching vendors for new products is another one. After a while, you realize that many vendors are very similar, and you won't be able to negotiate MOQs or pricing any lower unless you are a bigger brand. Lastly, don't obsess over influencers who you think will like the brand, but may not be ready to try you. It takes time, word of mouth and connections to grow.
- Holly Eve Founder and CEO, Madame Lemy
Many people believe that starting a beauty or consumer packaged goods (CPG) brand requires a massive amount of capital and a large number of SKUs. However, this is a false narrative perpetuated by shows like “Shark Tank.”
In reality, most brands fund their business through savings, personal loans, credit cards, and help from friends and family. It can take several years and many factors before a brand becomes eligible for VC funding or a large bank loan to scale.
My biggest frustration in building and growing Madame Lemy through bootstrapping has been scaling too fast without knowing my numbers. During the pandemic, when there were supply chain issues, I often sold out of inventory.
To meet the demand, I had to get creative and resourceful. I applied and received some grants, used credit cards, was approved for a couple of micro-loans, and borrowed from friends and family. This experience taught me valuable lessons, and I now run a lean and profitable business to never be in such a desperate place again, having to pull money from so many different resources, which is not sustainable.
Forecasting, having a strong organic and paid marketing plan as well as selling on Amazon and high-end spas are my top priorities. These actions have allowed me to scale my business via bootstrapping. It's critical to have a well-thought-out business strategy, understand your numbers and continuously seek support from trusted resources to bootstrap a successful brand.
My top three distractions are:
- Spending too much time on social media, both personally and for business: I've been working on being more mindful by limiting my social media use to focus on other revenue-generating activities and spending more time with my family and friends.
- Mindset: I try to live intentionally and from a place of abundance, but it's easy to sometimes compare my journey when I see other amazing brands scaling much faster. As a result, I feel like I'm not doing enough. In those moments, I remind myself that we all have unique paths and perfect timing for our own journey. I take inspiration from their success and redirect my energy to my business and the positive steps I can take to grow.
- Multitasking: To combat this, I jot down a few main action items on my daily to-do list and focus on completing one task at a time. I scratch off each item as I complete it, which helps me stay focused and motivated.
- Ranay Orton Founder, Glow by Daye
I would say it is harder. Even though it is far easier to get started with most businesses and gain some traction versus say 10 to 15 years ago with the power of social media, technology, third-party platforms like Amazon, Shopify, etc., to scale is another thing.
Bootstrapping can be harder when scaling due to many factors, including inflation, rising costs of materials or increased competition/saturation because of the lower barrier to entry. Having access to capital to help fund the rising costs of advertising or to enter and compete in mass/national retailers is going to be so helpful for a brand looking to scale.
My top frustrations would be my hyperfocus on the business' capital needs and allowing that to sometimes conflict with my creativity. There are times you have to sacrifice to make sure that all is covered at any moment of time in business.
However, in some moments, being creative where there is an opportunity, but the money is not there immediately has worked my creativity in other ways. I don't like scaling back my vision for something due to a lack of discretionary capital.
Strategies critical to allowing me to bootstrap are: 1. Having a strong and healthy relationship to my bank and/or banker for a line of credit, etc. 2. Thorough bookkeeping and consistent tracking of expenses and income. 3. Creativity such as leveraging things other than money, for example, our audience, our community or social capital.
My top three business priorities are first building stronger strategic partnerships, whether it's with retailers, influencers/content creators or even other brands. Second is hiring the right people on my team and creating systems that can guide them so projects and ideas can move faster and more efficiently for us.
And, lastly, product development, working to continue to innovate and reimagine amazing products for our customer's needs is central to our growth and relevance in the hair care market.
My top three distractions are human resources (hiring, onboarding, admin, etc.), operations/logistics and random opportunities that come up that don't move the needle for the business, but no one else can address those right now.
- Faye Zandi Founder, Zandi Land
Is it easier today to bootstrap a personal care or cosmetics business startup than it may have been five or 10 years ago? Absolutely. Technology, the internet and social media have given founders unparalleled access to information, resources and connections to companies to help them to start a business.
Founders can now find low minimum packaging and production partners, unlike in the past when they may have had to invest in tens of thousands of units for an opening order. They have access to low-cost online tools to help them design, curate and source marketing and advertising content for their brand. They can create their own low-cost and relatively good websites easily, build a brand presence on all social channels and, bam, it's off to the races!
But bootstrapping a successful brand today is another story. With the reduced barriers of entry in the cosmetics and personal care space, the market is flooded with brands trying to make it. Increased online advertising costs and consumer data privacy changes mean that brands without a big budget have a harder time reaching consumers who need to know about their products.
Recent inflationary pressures have made it difficult for bootstrapped brands without strong cash flow to fund more expensive inventory needs. Profit margins have been squeezed even more as labor and shipping costs have steadily increased. These increased costs don’t leave a lot on the table for funding accelerated growth and many of these newer bootstrapped brands will have a much harder time surviving.
Aside from the challenges mentioned above, when bootstrapping a brand, one of the biggest challenges you'll face is juggling all the different roles as the founder. Starting out, you don’t have the budget to hire a CFO, a marketing director, a formulation specialist and an HR Manager. You are all of the above and then some! It can be overwhelming and difficult to stay focused on what’s truly important for growing your brand.
If you want to bootstrap a successful brand, remember that you're not just creating a product, you're building a brand. Unless you're one of the lucky few with a product that goes viral overnight, you'll need a brand with a distinct look, consistent message and value proposition to stand out.
And remember that slow and steady wins the race. You simply aren’t going to have the same type of budget to put towards high-growth activity that funded companies have. You are going to really have to put the work in to grow organically, build a loyal customer community who will share your brand with the world and work as many low-cost marketing strategies as possible.
Most important, you have to know your numbers! You are going to have to be nimble, managing cash flow and cutting costs when necessary and, in order to make those decisions quickly, you have to have the right data. Keeping up on your financials and understanding your breakeven points, cash flow projections and inventory logistics are make-it-or-break-it skills in a bootstrapped business.
Top three business priorities:
- Hiring the right people: As a bootstrapped founder you have limited resources to build a team, but hiring people who understand and are excited about your vision is one of the biggest keys to success.
- Finding ways to get in front of retail decision makers: With so many new brands on the market, finding a way to get your brand in front of key retail decision makers is a challenge, but I feel like in the current market omnichannel distribution is so important to long-term brand success, so it’s one of our main goals this year.
- Solidifying our brand messaging: In a saturated market, having a clear, consistent and concise brand message which really demonstrates your brand’s points of differentiation is a high priority to stand out among other brands. I applied for the Target Accelerator program this year, and it was one of the points of feedback that we received, so that is something we will really be focusing on improving.
Top three business distractions today:
- The ever-changing social media landscape: Keeping up on all the changing social media trends, algorithms and different platforms can be a little like playing Mario Kart. Just when you think you are on the right track, a split in the course happens and suddenly Princess Peach is behind you and you are dodging banana peels, incoming shells. You suddenly have to learn new content strategies, and it really is something the entire team needs to stay on top of.
- Comparison is the killer of all good things: As a bootstrapped brand, it can be really hard not to compare yourself to more well-funded brands in your space, but it’s a sure fire way to distract yourself from your own goals and vision.
- Increased regulatory compliance: Changes in regulation, especially packaging regulation, can be such a time-consuming distraction. We recently had to do a complete redesign of our Kitty Wipes just because one state requires the “Do Not Flush” symbol to occupy an insane percentage of the packaging space.
- Patricia Walker Founder, Farm to Skin
The skincare industry is saturated with huge companies that offer all kinds of beauty products. Starting a beauty business where your competition is big companies with bigger marketing budgets can be daunting.
There’s a growing base of consumers that want to support locally-owned, family-owned or minority-owned businesses, brands that have a story to tell and a quality product to offer. You don’t have to invest a lot of money into equipment to get started creating beauty products.
Farm to Skin was born out of a desire to create better skincare products by testing formulas in a home kitchen with minimal equipment. We grew bit by bit from there. Not all businesses have to start on a macro scale with outside financing.
There is a myriad of changes that have happened in the past several years that make it easier to bootstrap your beauty industry startup compared to in the past. For example, there is an ease of access to high-quality ingredients that can be delivered to your door, low-cost social media advertising, a gig economy that makes it easy to hire part-time or contract help, shifting customer preference to online shopping or local shopping compared to big retail, etc.
Society has trained us to be consumers of instant gratification, but building a brand from the ground up without outside financing is slow work. It can take years to see a profit and build the capital needed to grow. Good things take time. Some things need to be cooked in the oven, not a microwave.
There are a lot of ways you can successfully bootstrap a company. Sometimes starting a company as a side hustle versus quitting your full-time job may be the best option. This strategy will give you a reliable revenue stream while you start to develop your product, create your business strategy and grow a consumer base.
It is also important in the early days to know when to pivot. Listen to what your customers are telling you and make changes to your product or service until you get it right. Once you’ve developed the product or service your customers love and can’t get enough of, then you’re ready to grow.
As a business owner, you need to be willing to wear many different hats to get your company to scale. Maybe in the early days you will be leading the company marketing, sales, operations, product development, and finance “departments,” and that’s OK! Don’t be too eager to contract help until you really need it.
After years of working in this industry, we’ve gained a lot of knowledge about the industry. We know what’s good for your skin and what isn’t. It’s our priority to share this knowledge with our customers and make sure everyone has the resources they need to make the best decisions for their skin and overall health.
We also prioritize constantly improving everything about our business. From the seed that is grown to create the product to the source of the glass the bottles are made from, we care about everything. We want to continue to make the best decisions for our customers, our suppliers and our planet.
We love our small farmers that we work with and as we grow and develop new products. It is also our priority to identify small U.S.-based farmers we can partner with to help us develop the best possible skincare products available on the market.
As a business owner, it often feels like you are getting pulled in 100 different directions at once. Sometimes it feels like a constant state of distraction and can be hard to find moments to only focus on one thing at a time. One thing that often catches my attention is the skincare fads.
There could be an ingredient or tool that all of a sudden is trending and flying off retail shelves. These kinds of fads can tempt us to distract us from what we do well. We don’t buy into fads and sell something that is here today and gone tomorrow. We create time-tested, proven, results-driven skincare products.
Along these lines, there are so many plants that have amazing benefits for your skin or hair. We love what we do and love to create amazing products, but we need to be careful to not dilute our product offering and offer too many products and confuse our customers. We stick with the product we’ve created that we know to provide amazing results, are good for the planet, and our customers can’t get enough of.
Social media can serve as another distraction when we aren’t careful. Social media platforms are a great tool for us to be able to tell our story and share our product with people who haven’t met us yet. However, we have to be careful to not let it distract us from actually doing the good work of creating the products we love and letting the platforms tell the story.
- Latrelle Stenson Founder and CEO, Clenya
It’s harder to bootstrap, particularly for African American women. One key insight is that Black women are often underserved and underrepresented in the mainstream market when trying to get funding or an investor. I have taken money out of my 401k and personal finances to support my brand.
These days the beauty industry is very saturated, and you must have a formula that differentiates from other brands. That is why Clenya Beauty is currently formulating something different to stand out to eventually start pitching for funding.
My top frustrations are unforeseen expenses that I will have to bootstrap from my finances. A lot of indie brands are overlooked due to us not able to market the brand like we want to because most of us are bootstrapping to build a successful brand.
The last two years have been difficult. I used to outsource my marketing, and with empty promises from agencies and wasting over $31,000 in the last two years, I started doing my own social media posting on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Etsy and run ads occasionally on Facebook myself. I went this route to keep costs down and invest that money into other areas of the brand to keep the brand moving forward.
Clenya Beauty’s top priorities are putting a strategic plan in place for the business, including reasonable timelines and metrics for success and creating a small team that wants to grow with the brand such as a product manager, social media manager, graphic designer and copy writer. We need a small in-house team to move the brand to the next level.
We are working on rebranding, bringing a product to the market that’s sourced from the Himalayas that can, according to medical studies, improve neuronal function, enhance skin homogeneity and improve emotional wellbeing, within the next year. Also, we want to create a new website.
Another priority is bringing on micro-influencers to promote our products. I believe micro-influencers are better for our brand than a big celebrity. What I have learned is that consumers want to see real results, so we will be sending out PR boxes soon to our micro-influencers to start promoting our products.
Another priority is investing in the proper software for the brand to manage inventory properly to be following standards. We eventually would like to go into retail within the next year are so.
Business distractions are lack of engagement on our platforms due to the algorithm on the different social media platforms; stagnation due to not having the team and funding we need and and me constantly taking funds from my own finances; waning confidence in our current market position or pricing; and overreacting to competitors’ news and hot entrants in the market.
The distractions have caused me to reevaluate the brand, and I am looking forward to the rebrand and bringing on a small tight team that can grow with the brand.
- Nadine Joseph Founder, Peak and Valley
There are more hardships to bootstrapping today. High interest rates certainly present a challenge as well as the impending economic recession.
Cash flow is always a challenge as a bootstrapped brand, especially since we've taken a retail-first approach and often have to deal with a long-time-to-cash cycle from net 40 to net 60-plus payment terms.
We've managed this by leveraging PO financing, an expensive option, but one that's available should we need cash immediately. Having a line of credit available as well as getting loans to fund inventory from Daintree Capital have also been instrumental to us as a bootstrapped brand.
A laser focus on profitability is essential. I analyze every retail deal and ask, "How much money will this bring in? How much money will I spend to sell that product off the shelf?"
If I'm not sure of the answer or know I'll be in the negative, I don't do it. But at the end of the day, you need cash to start and grow a business.
Every few weeks, I set aside time to apply for small business grants, and funding from those grants has enabled us to grow in the unprofitable months.
- Valerie Smith Founder, Klei
I'm sure that it is harder to bootstrap today. It's so hard to compete with VC-funded brands who are able to throw money into marketing and hires. I've focused on growing Klei via wholesale accounts from day one, just knowing that I can't compete in the DTC space and spread money on marketing.
The top frustrations that come from bootstrapping a brand are burnout, the constant need to hustle and grow accounts, and having to do everything myself and sometimes having little to show for it. Three strategies critical to bootstrapping my brand are constantly reviewing my P&L and budgeting accordingly.
My top three business priorities are:
- Growing Klei's reach with small boutiques across the U.S. I don't have the resources to hire and manage a field team for sustained partnerships with large retailers, and I have found that working with small boutiques is the best fit for my brand. I love that I get to work directly with the owners and hear valuable feedback from them about my products and how they sell.
- Aim to launch one to two new products per year as newness is important in the retail space.
- Working with dropship curation apps like Canal to grow Klei's e-comm presence and reach.
My top three business distractions are:
- Comparing myself to other brands and what they are achieving. I have to remind myself that I have no idea what their funding looks like, or if they're even profitable.
- Burnout. Klei launched in mid-2019, and it's been a hard three years of growing a bootstrapped business. I've had a lot of successes, but having to constantly hustle and grind has taken a toll on my mental health and drive to grow Klei.
- Ruminating on "failures.” My scrubs and bath soaks were stocked in all Anthropologie stores for almost a year until they suddenly weren't. I tend to beat myself up over the partnership ending rather than be proud of the amazing fact that I was able to be stocked in a nationwide retailer as a one-woman operation.
- Holly Harding Founder, O'o Hawaii
I was fortunate to self-fund initially by putting in a portion of the proceeds from the sale of my first company. I invested about $200,000.
I also used an SBA loan, which I would honestly not recommend. I've had about four of them over the years between both businesses, but it puts a lot of pressure on, especially when you have to pledge personal assets, which is pretty much what they all require these days.
My favorite funding option now is using credit card processing capital. I use Stripe for credit card processing and take out loans between $10,000 and $15,000 at a time to fund manufacturing.
The loans are "magically" paid back every time an order is placed on my website or if I run a customer's credit card. It's a great way to not get into hard-to-manage debt. In the past, I have used factoring as well and that has been beneficial at times.
After the craziness of the last couple of years, not having any debt is my No. 1 priority because, when the government decides to shut down your ability to run your business properly, a lot of banks really don't care and just want to get paid back. So, I'm all about bulletproofing myself and my business, and part of that means staying away from standard bank loans and lines of credit.
Top three business priorities:
- Build your e-mail and text message marketing lists. Prioritize collecting e-mails through whatever means possible through your direct website, giveaway partnerships with other brands, events, incentives, etc.
- Build your own backyard. People in your own town or region are much more likely to support someone homegrown, especially through the hard times.
- Don't discount the power of referrals. Every single customer is a potential referral generator. Treat them well, engage with them directly, and let them know how important they are to you. I often send thank you letters to every single person when I receive an order or at least write them a personal note that I include in each order.
Top three business distractions:
- Obsession with social media dominance and advertising. Save your money and grow your base organically through blood sweat and tears. If you need, hire a young creator that has built their own base significantly and let them do the same for you without paying an agency thousands.
- Paying product brokers/sales consultants/beauty industry experts or whatever creative names they like to call themselves for $10,000 a month just to take you on as a client and pitch you to retailers. Pay salespeople on commission. It's the only way not to lose your shirt.
- Being hyper-alert to what other brands are doing. Sometimes I go months without even looking at competitor products. Some would say that's a fault, but I call it mental health. It also lets my own creativity breed. My brand isn't for the masses, and I never want to create products that are so, why do I care what everyone else is doing? OK, I care a little, but not a lot.
Strategies allowing bootstrapping:
Don't get sucked into growing too fast too soon. We as entrepreneurs can carry a lot of ego, especially when it's stroked a bit in the beginning. Pick the right retailers, not the ones that will drain you financially and emotionally, and focus on incremental growth.
Top frustrations that come from bootstrapping:
Having enough funds available to introduce new products, and the ability to create new products fast enough for the demand of the traditional market. Skincare consumers are a fickle bunch and get caught up in the latest and greatest ingredient.
I've found focusing on the Hawaii market is such a strong way to bootstrap because there is constantly a new influx of people traveling here and Hawaii-grown antioxidants are unusual to most people, so it seems interesting. I'm constantly exposing my brand to more and more people and my products are new to them.
Finding a niche in a local market and one that has tourism like Hawaii can be the ticket to getting more exposure as a brand without paying a bunch in marketing dollars.
- Tina Chow Rudolf Founder, Strange Bird Beauty
It's probably harder to bootstrap a brand these days than in the past, though I don't really have anything to compare it with. The skincare/ wellness market is so saturated that it really takes a lot of money to get your brand heard and seen by the right audiences.
Expenses add up and, if you're playing the "keep up" game, then you'll believe you have to do it all—PR, ads, social media manager, new photos, influencer marketing, UGC, new launches, etc. I think the hardest thing, but also the most relieving, for bootstrapped brands is trying to drown out the noise and to focus on only what makes you feel good and feels intuitively right for your business at this particular stage.
We can't afford to do it all when you're bootstrapping, so there is some relief in not having to, but follow your intuition more and move at a more natural pace.
After three years, we are still bootstrapping it and grateful to be able to grow our business this way. We’ll be focusing on strengthening our DTC this year, whereas last year we prioritized wholesale accts. This means investing more in influencer marketing and ads.
- Shirley Powell Founder, LaJeanell
Since the pandemic, we have seen the world and the business world make dramatic changes. The uncertainties in the economy, the dollar valuation, stock market and cost of living has made a huge impact on consumer spending habits along with financing an indie beauty brand.
Additionally, the increase in costs of doing business, supply chain issues and costs of raw goods has created a domino effect. For an entrepreneur being a bootstrapped business, they’ve had a huge effect, creating less money to bootstrap, which is out of the business brand’s control.
When you are an entrepreneur, there are many frustrations in bootstrapping an indie beauty brand. You must be disciplined and look at the big picture of your brand. This cannot be learned or taught by anyone.
You are the one to do everything and are wearing all the hats. You must continue moving forward with business decisions. However, along the way, I know I am making mistakes while also learning to solve problems. The key is to learn from them and improve. Some mistakes can be costly.
It is not an easy road trying to maintain and grow an indie beauty brand. However, it can be very rewarding. Many new issues seem to arrive every day and monthly. I have experienced much sacrifice of personal time and personal funds to keep LaJeanell going, growing and eventually thriving.
Living on a tight budget and possessing discipline on how and where in the business to spend that allotted money is a daily focus of mine. I am hoping for the best and doing as much work on the business on my own as possible, yet it has been very stressful.
Allowing slow growth and control in the beginning phases have been key strategies. Also, the need to differentiate yourself from competition and have a brand that stands out from the crowd.
Another strategy is constantly improving from trials and errors. Also, finding the talent globally to build a great team while saving on salaries and expenses. I started the business remotely purposely. My first goal was to get the business and each of my products launched and to strive for perfection along the way.
A few other strategies include: start and market early; test the market and gain early feedback; adapt to change and make improvements; hire temporary employees who work remote to do the most necessary tasks; reinvest revenue back into the brand; create content, promotions and paid customer acquisition efforts; keep expenses as low as possible; manage a tight budget; negotiate with vendors as much as possible; be prepared to work crazy hours; always find solutions and never give up; and focus 100% on the business.
Most importantly, it’s vital to innovate, work hard, deliver consistency, and believe and have faith in what you have created. As an indie brand founder, I also advise people to take time out not to burn out.
My top three business priorities include having top-notch cybersecurity in a global market and dark web. Taking into account the new world order we are experiencing at this time of uncertainties. Changing in a fast-paced beauty industry as technology and AI changes, and pivoting with the external environment.
My top three business distractions include a plethora of emails and junk mail (I recommend addressing emails during a time you have allocated for them); maintaining and growing social media for LaJeanell (I advise setting a focused project time for all social media and distribution); and bigger projects, from product development to web site improvements to retail outreach. I am trying to set aside a focused time for these dedicated projects and stick to a timeline to help with productivity and creativity.
Finally, I ask God every day to help me carry on and give thanks for the opportunities He has placed upon me.
- Phoebe Song Founder, Snow Fox Skincare
It's much harder today to bootstrap as everything is about churning content and paid digital ads among constantly changing algorithms and trends.
For indie brands with limited resources or brand new startups, this can be extremely challenging, not just financially, but because of the sheer amount of extra time and labor needed to create content is a new kind of stress.
Coupled with the amount of new brands launching each day, I think the challenges will only increase as the market is saturated further.
It's become a pay-to-play type environment for exposure these days, regardless of industry. I've seen pretty much the same regurgitation of formulas in different packaging, new white label offices setting up with "package" deals designed for speedy market entry.
As a consumer myself, there's growing fatigue towards the constant ads and product-based content on my feed. The most frustrating thing is to see only large corporate brands filling up my feed even when I'm trying to look for fun new indie brands.
A strategy that’s critical to bootstrapping is promoting learning and retaining experience in your team. After six years in the business, I know a lot more than I ever did in regards to digital marketing, design and content, but, more importantly, I invest a lot in growing a motivated team, a team that absorbs new skills. Retaining them only helps to build a stronger business.
Even when my team and I are tackling new things, we have a very positive outlook on understanding that challenges are about learning lessons and overcoming the hardship. It should only be hard in the beginning. With this in mind, some of our most successful projects come from the application of self-taught skills rather than relying purely on external vendors. This has allowed us to remain self-funded and truly independent all these years.
Top three business priorities:
- Focusing on Innovation: Standing out in a saturated market means investing in genuine innovations, not gimmicks.
- Focusing on building customer loyalty: Keep those who've supported us all along our journey. Snow Fox customers are lifetime members.
- Focusing on building an organic community: New customer acquisition is harder than ever, so focusing on delivering the best quality of product and customer experience is key to a long-term community.
Top three business distractions:
- Chasing trends: Sometimes what we think is "trending" isn't actually trending, it’s just hype. I sometimes see brands releasing products way too fast to catch up on a trend, only to deal with production and quality control problems right after launch.
- Social media fatigue: Same goes for content. Just because one brand does well with one type of content does not mean it would necessarily work for another. I've seen some backlash against certain brands after they tried to be "different" and post content that’s ccompletely out of their identity. For example, very sexualized content can be fun and risqué, but not if your client base is used to sleek, elegant content.
- Entering any and every retail channel: Not all retail channels suit a brand. I've learned this the hard way. Retail is important, but I don't think it should be the end goal of every single brand. Nowadays many retailers require large investments in paid listings, fees and more. Indie brands should be wary of all of these before deciding if it’s worth it or not.
- Ceata E. Lash Founder, PuffCuff
Things are even more complicated today. Money is expensive right now, and so many predators are waiting in the tall grass, salivating for desperate, financially strapped small business owners. Plus, are we in or heading for a recession?
One positive is there are many more grants, incubators and accelerator opportunities out there than ever. They are worth carving out time to apply for, but be patient. You'll probably get a ton of, "We had an overwhelming amount of extremely impressive applicants and regret to inform you(s)…," but your "congratulations" will come with persistence and patience.
I had to start my business at a negative zero. And, most likely, when you start with a financial deficit, it often comes with an educational deficit and no network of like-minded people to help navigate this not-so-easy journey.
It takes longer for a bootstrapped brand to gain traction and catch a good stride. We always struggle to achieve significant, sustainable wins, even though we have proven sales and products with social proof.
Exposure and great marketing are critical, and they don't come cheap. Everyone needing a PuffCuff Hair Clamp—the alternative to elastic bands for curly or textured hair (subtle plug)—doesn't even know such a styling tool exists.
Strategies critical to bootstrapping include a great credit score first. Next, know your numbers (in my best Goldman Sachs 10KSB voice). Then, discipline and a seasoned financial strategist will teach you how to operate on a lean budget while still allowing you to grow, support your team and yourself.
Top three business priorities:
- Establishing a new baseline: The pandemic came in and flipped the table like in a Western poker scene. What we thought we knew is no longer valid. We are implementing a phase born from the pandemic. Our business strategy has changed, and we now genuinely embrace the word "diversify."
- Know my numbers: I’m cleaning up my books so I can find out my break-even point to know our true profitability and avoid making the same financial mistakes of the past.
- Finding an angel investor: A business that bootstraps will only get to where it can be with an equity investment. I still own 100% of PuffCuff, so I have some equity to give. I have been in business for 10 years. I've been planning my exit strategy for the past year, intending to do just that within the next four years.
Top three business distractions:
- Lack of working capital and cash flow crunches.
- Finding and retaining good talent.
- Taking care of my mental and physical health first. It was a distraction, but I've now made it a priority.
- Martha Van Inwegen Founder, Life Elements
On one hand, it's harder because competition is fierce and the barriers to entry are so low for just about anything ranging from technology platforms that can handle everything from spinning up a gorgeous, SEO optimized website to the outsourcing of almost everything.
On the other hand, AI has already turned the tables so that we can even develop an AI-generated business model with an operational playbook in minutes.
The top frustration that comes from bootstrapping a brand is a lack of resources to get an extra push when competing for customers through paid media. But, at the same time, that lack of available resources has helped us be way more creative than if we had a pile of money. There is a balance in there somewhere. We just have to find it.
Two quotes from a couple of our mentors sum it up: "Crossing your fingers is not a strategy," and "Assume nothing." When you bootstrap, you really do have to be extremely focused. If you have a hero product, focus on that.
You don't need a whole line, and you must absolutely be sure that you have some kind of unique value proposition that gives you an edge over larger competitors. Equally as important is to not spend precious dollars on branded merchandise. That can wait until you're fully funded.
Top three priorities:
- Culling our product selection to weed out lower performing products (no matter how much we personally love them).
- Doubling down on customer service for DTC and wholesale accounts to maintain and improve retention.
- Scheduling personal time no matter what. We can't perform if we're burned out!
Top three distractions:
- As a manufacturer in California, increasing regulations, taxes and fees.
- Global chaos.
- Non-essential social media addiction.
Bootstrapping a brand has become both easier and harder at the same time than it was in the past. Technology has made it easier to start a business without a big budget or team.
On the other hand, the beauty industry is an ultra-competitive space where only the best survive. Standing out requires major investment in creating killer products, marketing them and building a strong digital presence.
It takes real vision, passion and resources to make the name in this crowded market. Starting a beauty business may be easier, but becoming a leader in the industry takes a lot of hard work and cash.
One of the biggest frustrations of bootstrapping is having to do everything yourself, from funding to product development and more. It can also be tough to gain recognition in the crowded beauty market without a marketing budget, and it can be discouraging to invest time and money into a product that falls short in sales.
Another challenge is the time it takes to see results. With limited funding, it takes longer to grow usually. However, with patience, persistence and creativity, you can create a brand that shines without too early external funding.
Achieving successful bootstrapping requires starting small, staying lean, being resourceful and prioritizing revenue while keeping expenses low. Constant learning, pivoting your strategy and adapting to changes in the market are also essential. Ultimately, success depends on the quality of your idea, the grit and the strength of your team, and your ability to execute effectively and properly.
My top three business priorities are developing high-quality and impactful products, growing a community and building a strong brand, and learning and evolving to stay ahead in the rapidly changing market.
However, distractions such as chasing industry trends, comparing oneself to other successful entrepreneurs or brands, and the constant flow of emails can divert attention from core priorities. To avoid these distractions, it's important to focus on what makes the brand unique and special instead of following trends, comparing with other brands and being swamped by constant communication.
- Elah Barshi Co-Founder, Moringaia
Since this is my first beauty business, I don’t have a frame of reference. For my peers in the tech space, bootstrapping would generally not be a considerable option.
One of the main frustrations is gaining brand awareness with a bootstrapped marketing budget, particularly in digital ads where brands generally pay to play.
However, it’s a challenge that forces us to be more daring, think beyond digital and get very creative. My question is always: “How can we achieve more with (much) less?”
We are in charge of the entire supply chain. We source ingredients, partner with farmers and local communities, grow some ingredients, and make the products in our solar-powered lab.
This aligns with our holistic and sustainable brand philosophy to get consumers to think about who made their beauty products, where the ingredients were grown, where they were made, and what it takes to get the product from seed to skin. While this comes with its own set of challenges, it also allows us to grow at our own pace.
Our top priority is always planting more Moringa “miracle trees” and creating the demand for it in order to support reforestation efforts. This is our core mission, and making nourishing skincare is the means that allows us to fulfill this vision. Two other current priorities are expanding retail partnerships and scaling production to meet growing demand.
Productive distractions sometimes come in the form of R&D. One of the advantages of making our own products is how fast we can go from idea to product, but it also means we can get wholly inspired by a certain new ingredient on our farm or the discovery and fascination of a new flower or plant.
For me personally, since one of my favorite parts is building the visual side of the brand, I often get distracted by new ideas for photoshoots that are not always justified from a business perspective. A third productive distraction is considering new categories even though the timing may be wrong.
- Adria Marshall Founder and CEO, Ecoslay
I started Ecoslay with $300 seven years ago, and now it's a multimillion-dollar company. I definitely consider it bootstrapped.
While bootstrapping has its challenges—you have to be more strategic and creative—it's absolutely possible. Even with the recent economic challenges, it's relatively cheap to start a website, AI makes content creation simple, and social media is basically free.
I think the biggest frustration with bootstrapping is that you won't be able to move quite as fast as you'd like, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's a lot to be said about taking the time to prioritize your spending to ensure that every dollar is going to give you the best ROI.
Plus, once the money starts rolling in, you'll maintain the frugality mindset, which helps you be the best steward of every dollar that you're blessed with receiving.
Strategies that are critical to allowing bootstrapping:
- Effective prioritizing will be key.
- Experimentation to gain learnings as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Top business priorities:
- Experiment as much as possible.
- Rely on data first and your gut second.
- Take time for self-care.
- Tiffany Cartwright Founder, G.L.A.M. Body Scrubs
I believe it’s harder today to bootstrap than it may have been in the past. The top frustrations that come from bootstrapping a brand are the inability to scale properly because of limited funding.
Strategies that are critical to allowing you to bootstrap include accumulating a large bank account before launching the brand.
Top three business priorities are marketing and advertising as well as ensuring access to desired markets and making sure that the brand is sustainable so that not only do you get on the shelf, but you’re able to stay there.
Top distractions today include attempting to acquire too many additional markets too soon, failing to properly plan and implement a marketing strategy, and failing to implement and secure a team of partners to ensure capabilities.
- Deborah Agustoni Founder and CEO, Saathëa
I firmly believe that bootstrapping a brand is becoming increasingly challenging in today's market. One major hurdle that entrepreneurs face is the rising cost of everything, including shipping fees, which can eat into profit margins and make it difficult to compete with established players.
Moreover, the recent massive layoffs in the corporate world will create an influx of new brands entering the market soon, and the competition will be at an all-time high. Even more challenging is the amount of investment some brands are receiving, an unprecedented feat that leaves the rest of the newbies struggling to catch up.
Established players already have a strong foothold, while new entrants are struggling to gain traction. Navigating this landscape requires creativity, persistence and a deep understanding of consumer preferences, but, for those who succeed, the rewards can be truly transformative.
As an entrepreneur, I understand the unique challenges that come with bootstrapping a brand. The frustration of not seeing immediate growth can be overwhelming, but I believe that, with the right mindset and strategies in place, success is possible. Creativity is key when it comes to standing out in a crowded market as well as when maximizing your resources, and strategic thinking allows for a focused approach to building your brand.
Prioritizing resources is crucial to ensure that time and money are being spent in the right places. But above all, patience and perseverance are essential. Building a brand takes time and effort, but the payoff can be huge. By staying focused and implementing these strategies, one can overcome the frustrations of bootstrapping and achieve success in building a brand.
In order to remain competitive in today's ever-changing business landscape, it is essential to prioritize the right areas of focus. For Saathëa, the top three business priorities this year are focused on growth and expansion. This means putting additional energy into new product development, retail expansion, and fostering partnerships with influential individuals and like-minded brands.
New product development is key to staying competitive and meeting the ever-changing demands of consumers. Retail expansion allows for greater reach and accessibility, while partnerships with influencers and like-minded brands can provide valuable support, resources and visibility.
Yet, as the leader of Saathëa I understand the importance of being able to identify and manage distractions. Whether it's pop-ups, social media or spending time with my pup Kali (because let's face it, pets really do count as a distraction!), it's all about balancing the need for focus and the importance of taking breaks to recharge and refocus.
- Rachel Lambo Founder and CEO, Sade Baron
I think it's a bit of both. You can speak to your audience and set up relatively quickly with the power of social today. However, the cost of advertising, marketing, shipping and software have become increasingly more expensive than in the past.
As a founder, the biggest frustration in bootstrapping is having to choose between equally important activities or milestones, i.e., purchasing components at a lower cost, but not being able to do critical marketing initiatives or opportunities. I always focus on the most impactful activities that will drive revenue and new customers.
Our top three business priorities are:
- Scale the brand.
- Retain and acquire customers.
- Optimize efficiencies across the business.
Our top three business distractions are:
- The growing number of social platforms.
- A mountain of new trends.
- Cindy O'Brien Founder, Liv + Grace Skincare
I feel grateful that I started my brand in 2018. Today is a much more competitive beauty space, especially due to the expansion of social media and AI.
There are a few things I have found to be more challenging for smaller brands that aren’t as well-funded as bigger brands. One, of course, is money itself. Without it you can’t throw money at PR, advertising, influencers, samples and marketing in general.
Your brand can have the very best products, ingredients and performance, but, if people don’t know about the brand, you simply can’t move the products as quickly. Therefore, your inventory can become an issue and ultimately your profitability.
Personally, I have kept my brand small for a variety of reasons, but mostly to maintain better control of issues that are important to me and are in alignment with Liv + Grace Skincare’s ethos, which is small-batch freshness, result-driven performance, sustainability and clean beauty.
Our top business priorities are developing new products, increasing brand exposure and expanding into diverse segments of the industry. These are all pretty self-explanatory, and I think they are always on the forefront of every entrepreneur regardless of industry.
Our biggest distraction is securing sustainably sourced, nontoxic raw materials and supplies. It is always a challenge, but, with increasing trade issues and residual post-COVID supply shortages, it makes it even more challenging.
The other two distractions are social media and social media. Though we understand the necessity of social media, we aren’t fans!
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