Eunice Byun Started Material as a Side Hustle While Working 9-to-5 at Revlon—Here’s How She Did It

July 20, 2021
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You asked for more content around business finances, so we’re delivering. Welcome to Money Matters where we give you an inside look at the pocketbooks of CEOs and entrepreneurs. In this series, you’ll learn what successful women in business spend on office spaces and employee salaries, how they knew it was time to hire someone to manage their finances, and their best advice for talking about money.

Eunice Byun launched her cookware company Material as a side hustle while she was working full-time as an exec at Revlon. But she knew she had to quit her day job when she kept waking up with new ideas for Material and couldn’t shake that feeling of “I’ll pinch myself later on if I don’t just do this now,” she tells Create & Cultivate. “It did help not having to worry about how I would financially make it by ironing out a lot of the vision for the business on nights and weekends, while still getting paid for my full-time job,” she adds about the decision of launching a business while working from 9-to-5.

Although the slow-and-steady approach was right for her, the entrepreneur admits it’s not for everyone. “If you’re the type of person who needs to jump in feet first and throw everything you’ve got at the business, then my approach might have been too cautious,” she says. “For me, I needed some assurance that what my co-founder and I were dreaming up was compelling enough that we could secure funding so that we could build the product and our brand right from the start.” And it’s safe to say that strategy has more than paid off. In fact, she had a number of investors who were interested in working with her before she even had a product (no big deal!).

Ahead, Byun explains what it took to launch a business while working full-time, how she secured funding before producing a single product, and why it’s important for founders to be compensated, regardless of the actual dollar amount printed on the paycheck. 

Your résumé is so impressive. You started your career in finance as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and later served as vice president of global digital marketing at Revlon. Can you tell us about your professional background and what you were doing professionally before launching Material? 

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a pretty diverse career to date. After graduating from Northwestern University, I went into finance at Goldman Sachs. It’s a great place to start your career because you learn a lot of transferable skills—presenting information, time management, people management—at an early age. Ultimately, I knew that I couldn’t see myself in finance long-term and wanted to move into something more consumer-focused. 

From there, I spent the next chapter of my professional life in the consumer and start-up worlds, soaking up as much operational knowledge as possible. I learned about forecasting, merchandising, managing a P&L, operations, PR, and communications. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was accumulating bits and pieces of know-how that would serve me well with my own company, Material.

Right before launching Material, I was in the beauty industry, deep in digital storytelling, community building, and influencer-focused marketing, much of which has informed our current marketing strategies. 

What was the “lightbulb moment” for Material? What inspired you to start your business and pursue this path? Did you always envision yourself becoming an entrepreneur?

I was that kid growing up who never knew how to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As I got older, I eventually realized it came down to surrounding myself with talented, driven people (who I could learn from), and building something that people cared about. That rubric served me pretty well as I navigated through a few different industries. 

But it wasn’t until I had my daughter that I realized there had to be something more. I wanted a place where I didn’t have to leave parts of myself at home, especially as a new mom. When my co-founder and I started piecing together the concept of Material, we envisioned the idea of our company but also the type of place and people we wanted to spend our time in and with. We felt there was a need for our company to exist (e.g. to bring more beautiful, high-performing designs to the home cook), but we also knew we wanted to build a company with values that matter and motivate us and our team. 

You had a number of investors that were interested in working with you before you even had a product. What were some of the challenges you faced in raising funding pre-product and what would you change? Would you recommend your route to other entrepreneurs? 

Product is central to our business, as we aren’t a one-product-shop where we focus solely on a singular item. In our case, we launched with a collection of seven items, so raising a pre-seed round was necessary in order to deliver the quality of products we envisioned. However, we made sure not to take too much money from the beginning as we didn’t want to automatically put us on the hamster wheel of raising more and more capital as quickly as possible. We also were specific on having a diverse set of initial investors, which proved to be one of our best decisions. With a mix of venture, angel investors, and houseware industry experts, we’ve received different opinions and guidance which has allowed us to chart a growth plan for Material that feels more dimensional and sustainable.

What was your first big expense as a business owner and how should small business owners prepare for that now?

Public relations and communications. We invested right from the start in a top-notch, start-up-focused PR partner. The way we saw it was we only had one company launch moment, where we could come out and tell the world who we were and what we are about, so we wanted to make that moment count. What we’ve found is that many of those press hits quickly got our name out and generated buzz, but longer-term populated our branded search results and filled the pages with articles. These still pay off for us years later. 

What are your top three largest expenses every month?

Payroll, fulfillment, and platform-related costs (e.g. processing fees and hosting). We used to spend a lot more on top-of-the-funnel marketing but have found that our lower-cost acquisition tactics are more effective and produce more loyal, long-term customers.

Do you pay yourself, and if so, how did you know what to pay yourself? 

Yes. One of our early investors advised us from the start to pay ourselves what we needed to focus on the company, and not how we’d make ends meet. That being said, my co-founder and I believe in hiring the best talent we can so we allocate our funds to the team (meaning we make less than other team members).

Would you recommend other small business owners pay themselves? 

Yes. It’s important to feel compensated for the work being put into the company, regardless of how much that dollar amount actually is. 

How did you know you were ready to hire and what advice can you share on preparing for this stage of your business? 

An angel investor of ours broke this down for me once. He said there are two buckets of hires: superchargers and doers. You need both and you’ll eventually hire for both. 

Superchargers are those that you bring in slightly earlier than needed—and might overpay for at the time—but they are meant to exponentially grow your business. They might have done it before elsewhere or they have some experience that will immediately add value. 

Then there are the doers, where you hire them when you’re essentially past the breaking point. They help make processes move more efficiently or allow you to go faster, but you can afford to drop some balls here and there and not have it affect the business in a significant way. This ensures you aren’t building up a team too quickly and spending too much before it’s needed. 

What are some of the tools you use to stay on top of your business financials? What do you recommend for small business owners on a budget?

Excel. My co-founder and I look at spreadsheets daily as things are shifting quite regularly. We also have an outsourced CFO who we can tap into with more specific questions or analyses, as we’re not quite at the place where we need that skillset full-time.  

Do you have a financial mentor? Do you think all business owners need one?

I have different people whose opinions I seek out on various financial matters. I like speaking with other operators and founders about budgets because while investors may have a POV, I want people who are sitting with spreadsheets and making hard decisions on where you can spend your money and where you can’t. For fundraising matters, I like speaking to a number of people—not just one—because there’s more than just one path forward on how you finance your company. 

What money mistakes have you made and learned from along the way?

Inventory can help and hurt you. Too much, and you’re stuck. Too little, and you can’t grow fast enough. We recently invested in an inventory management system to help us work through these growing pains, as we try to be as capital efficient as possible and not have too much tied up and sitting in a warehouse.

Where do you think is the most important area for a business owner to focus their financial energy and why?

Know your pathway to profitability. There used to be an overabundance of focus on top-line growth, no matter the costs. Nowadays, the focus has shifted towards profitability which is important because it means you have greater control over your financial future if you don’t always have to rely on bringing in funding. 

Do you think women should talk about money and business more?

Yes! The number of times I’ve walked into a meeting where a potential investor focuses marketing questions to me and financial questions to my male co-founder have been absurd. The fact that my gender leads one to believe that I may not know much about my company’s financials is an antiquated perspective. ANY business owner should be well-versed in how their company will grow and what it’ll take to do so.

You’re a mom and a co-founder/CEO! How has being a mother changed your priorities and your focus in terms of your career? Do you think motherhood has made you a better business person? 

It deepens my reasons for why I do what I do. Having my daughters see that they too can write their own narrative and build something of substantial value is important to me. 

What is your best piece of financial advice for new entrepreneurs?

Get comfortable with it and don’t let someone else take the reins because they “know more about finances than you.” Your financial statements are simply a different way of telling your company’s growth story.

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