How to Start a Beauty Business From Scratch, According to the Founders of Base Butter

July 22, 2020
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We know how daunting it can be to start a new business, especially if you’re disrupting an industry or creating an entirely new one. When there is no path to follow, the biggest question is, where do I start? There is so much to do, but before you get ahead of yourself, let’s start at the beginning. To kick-start the process, and ease some of those first-time founder nerves, we’re asking successful entrepreneurs to share their story in our new series, From Scratch. But this isn’t your typical day in the life. We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty from writing a business plan (or not) to sourcing manufacturers and how much they pay themselves, we’re not holding back.

Their mission was simple: to create easy skincare for oily and combination skin types while helping women feel comfortable in their skin. And they achieved it. Base Butter—co-founded by She’Neil Johnson, CEO of Base Butter and Nicolette Graves, VP of Product—is a lightweight moisturizer that yield results through simple formulas to safely improve the overall health of the skin.

Their revolutionary product is so good, they sold out but we know where you can snag a jar—the Create & Cultivate Small Biz Pop-Up. This experiential space was designed to help people discover, connect, support, and shop curated Women of Color-owned small businesses from across the country. If you’re local to LA, you can shop the products now via Postmates and choose delivery or pickup. You can also purchase via contactless shopping thanks to Square when you visit the Small Biz Pop-Up at Platform. We hope to expand on this idea and bring it directly to you across the country so stay tuned!

Want to learn more about Base Butter and the founders who built this game-changing business from scratch? Well, keep reading to hear from co-founder She’Neil Johnson to discover why they swapped a business plan for a lean business canvas, how their Skin Struggles survey helped to hone their mission, and how they broke through a $532 billion industry with “no money saved.”

During our unofficial skincare journey, my co-founder Nicolette and I found ourselves self-educating and actively piecing together information to create solutions for our oily, combination, and acne-prone skin types and concerns because we were continuously running into barriers as a result of the gaps that exist for Black women to gain access to safe and effective skincare formulas.

For years we would share new knowledge, experiences, and more with each other and our larger group of friends. After reflecting, we realized it was a similar experience for our counterparts. We had been identified as the ones in our community excited to always share our findings, go the extra mile to read and research, and reluctantly push through our trial and error process. Soon we began discussing and becoming transparent about our skincare journey and struggles through not only our friend groups but a larger community online. So we decided to use the feedback from our community, knowledge gained, unique skills, and work experiences to build our own formulated solution, BASE BUTTER.

I tried to write a business plan, but I was stuck. So I spent time outlining our concept and goal setting on a whiteboard, then I came across a lean business canvas while taking an entrepreneurship class at Columbia University. The lean business canvas allowed for flexibility, because, let’s be honest, a full business plan can be intimidating when you are starting out. 

BASE BUTTER was actually the name of our first product, a multi-purpose body butter. I was on the phone with my older sister Tashah brainstorming ideas and then the word BASE came to me. BASE represented the foundation and I wanted to create products that were the foundation of your skincare routine. We have since then phased out the product, but the company stuck. My suggestion would be not to get hung up on the name. Start working and building your prototype. Get inspired and it will one day come to you. 

Once we named our company, we secured it on all social media platforms, incorporated our business, and purchased the domain. At the time one of my close friends from undergrad was in law school at Howard Law. She was a part of the trademark clinic on campus and their assignment for the year was to choose a small business to consult and trademark free of charge. She chose us! Protect your business as soon as you can and legally set it up. 

I did general research on the industry and opportunities within the market but my most valuable research came from studying other founders, their companies, and speaking with potential customers. We launched called Skin Struggles that is still on-going to this day.

The Skin Struggles survey has captured the profiles of over 3,000 Black women highlighting their specific skin wants, needs, and frustrations. The data captured in this research gave birth to our hero product Radiate Face Jelly, our mission which states we help make skincare easy for oily and combination skin types, and continues to be our guiding light.

We actually still produce everything in-house. We are currently in the process of finding a manufacturer in order to increase production capacity. 

I was working full-time when I started to build BASE BUTTER. I did not dive straight in until I was let go from my job at the time in NYC. I was only three years out of college at the time and that was my first job. This was a risk I took that I was not prepared to take, but I do not regret it. It allowed me to understand what the full-time entrepreneurship journey would look like, so when I went back to work a 9-5 I was more intentional about setting up a foundation that would support the growth of my business.

I left NYC and moved to Philly because the cost of living was lower and I had the support of my fiance there, I changed my lifestyle completely and focused on paying down personal debt and saving. Only then, after I felt like I had a solid foundation, did I decide to take the full-time leap again. 

I put all my money into the business and did not set myself up for success early on. I had the mindset that I would sacrifice until we hit it big and only then would I pay myself. This was a big mistake. I unexpectedly was let go from my 9-5 job due to my role being eliminated. I had no money saved, but I was still eager to jump into entrepreneurship full-time.

For about two years I was mentally and financially drained to the point I no longer wanted to run the business. Thankfully I decided to take on a temporary 9-5 to set myself back up for success. For those six months, I paid off the majority of my debt, saved for a rainy day, and changed my relationship with money. My co-founder recommended the book Profit First to me and it’s changed our business and my life. Our company is profitable and I am able to pay myself, something I thought was impossible to do until that day we hit it big. 

Now, our company is profitable and I am able to pay myself and my co-founder. Since it’s just us two we take 50% from income to pay ourselves and still have enough to cover expenses, taxes, and keep a profit. As our team grows and business grows this will change. 

In the beginning, I self-funded the business. I took a percentage from my check every payday and put it into the business account. In 2017, we raised $10,000 in a six-week crowdfunding campaign with an initiative to re-brand BASE BUTTER and develop our hero product Radiate Face Jelly.

Since then we’ve been able to bootstrap the company. I would recommend any path that is best for you, I would just suggest getting good with financial management and get ready to shake any old/bad money habits. 

Currently, it’s just my cofounder, our intern, and myself. We are looking to grow our team by two by the end of the year. 

We took a four-hour accounting training with her so that we can manage day to day and consult with her on a quarterly basis. Working with her and reading Profit First has helped so much! 

The biggest challenge was adjusting to the lifestyle of an entrepreneur. It was very uncomfortable to be a struggling founder while watching classmates get promoted and go on to business school. See, my original plan was to work two years corporate and then attend a top ten business school, but God had other plans. In my gut, I continuously followed the path of BASE BUTTER, but at times when it seemed like we weren’t going anywhere, I questioned myself and my decisions.

I had to quickly form a support group of other founders and add rituals into my days such as intention setting and journaling. Entrepreneurship is not glamorous and you truly need to be strong-willed and within the right mindset to be successful. Small things like exercising, sleep, and eating healthy are vital to my performance as CEO and co-founder. 

I do have a life coach and a network of mentors I have met throughout my journey. I truly believe in working smarter not harder. Having this support system in my corner helps me stay out of my head for too long and continuously stretch/challenge me to become a better leader each day. 

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