How to Start a Small Business, According to the Saie Clean Beauty Founder

January 7, 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 kickstart 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. If you want to know how to start a business, you’ve come to the right place.

Everybody has a different definition of success. For Saie founder Laney Crowell, it’s not about reaching the top—she did that already and turned back around. No, for Crowell it’s about integrity and putting something out into the world that she believes in (and contributes to the betterment of others).

After realizing that her job at one of the biggest beauty companies in the world, Estee Lauder didn’t fulfill her, Crowell quit and embarked on a personal quest to figure out what was missing. It was during that time that she discovered the lack of clean beauty brands that positioned their ethics and quality with the same degree of emphasis as style—so she decided to fill the whitespace herself.

After finding support from her online blogging community, Crowell began building a beauty brand founded on the values of transparency. All of Saie’s products use ethically-sourced ingredients, are free from toxic chemicals, with packaging and branding that aligns with a luxury brand.

Ahead, Crowell with long-time friend and Saie’s Creative Director, Geri Hirsch give us a peek inside their world of clean beauty, the importance of having brainstorming sessions, creating a strong team, and playing off of your strengths.

We Relied On Our Gut Over a Business Plan

LANEY CROWELL: “I didn’t write a business plan per se. I worked really hard on my pitch deck (it took months) and then our CFO did projections and modeling.” 

GERI: “I’ve always been the type of person who acts on their gut. In all of my businesses, that’s what is my guiding light. I did see Laney’s investor deck, but really what swayed me was that I’m very, very familiar with the clean beauty landscape and I knew there was an opportunity.”

Our Community Helped to Inform the Brand Name

LANEY: “The name Saie came about through the lengthy conversations I had with our branding agency in the really early days of building the brand. We kept going back to the first conversation I had with my community where they were saying what they wanted out of a clean beauty brand. We put the ie on Say to make it more feminine and french to represent the je ne saie quoi look. We wanted it to be unique and fun, and timeless, and when we created Saie we knew it was the one.”

GERI: “Besides the sound of the word, what I liked about the name is how beautiful it looks written. It looks classic but elevated.”

We Went in With a Clear Vision to Understand Our Saie Woman

GERI: “Laney and I talked a lot about who the Saie woman is. Laney had some thoughts about it and could speak to the emotion, but didn’t have any of the visuals. So I spent weeks really focused on defining this woman. She’s strong, smart, creative, minimalist, on the go, thoughtful and mindful. I pulled tons of imagery to tell this story. Those initial boards I created are the same ones we go back to now when we’re producing photo and video shoots. It’s also really important to have a consistent team so you can have a clear vision. I worked on pulling together the dream team for our shoots, everyone from the photographer to the stylist to the hair and makeup.”

I Hired the Experts Right From the Start

LANEY: “The most immediate things I did with my lawyer. He helped me register for the company, incorporate, etc. It’s my least favorite part of building a company, but super important. I also worked with my accountant to open our business bank account and get all those ducks in a row. I used my accountant until we graduated to working with a bigger agency—QuickBooks is a must.”

Our product developer Sarah already knew all of the labs that she wanted us to work with. That part was pretty seamless for us and we never could have done it without her! Because of her relationships, we’re able to work with labs that are usually reserved for the luxury giants.

“Our team now consists of myself and Geri, Sarah our head of product development, Tina our CFO, Hanna who is in charge of the supply chain, operations and sustainability, Cece who is our all hands on deck assistant coordinator, and many, many agencies.”

I Did the Research to Understand Our Market

GERI: “I’ve basically been conducting research about all things wellness for years now. From Leaftv’s content, the wellness boxes we created, my blog’s clean beauty content, all of the conversations I’ve been having with my followers over DM. I see it as a form of high-level consumer research you could never pay for.” 

LANEY: “I think research is really important. I came to the table with a lot through my website because I get sent so, so many products. I knew the landscape. And honestly, the clean market while fragmented is pretty small. Also, it’s important to note that I come from big beauty and so does our product developer and CFO. So we have a lot of experience in the space!”

I Self-Funded Before Raising Money

LANEY: “I actually sold some stock that I had from Estée Lauder to start the company—it was $32,000. I used that money to start our branding which needed to be done before I could fundraise (it’s a tricky chicken and the egg situation). I then used that branding to create my investor deck and raise our seed round. We haven’t paid ourselves yet—soon hopefully!”

Fundraising Was My Biggest Learning Curve

LANEY: “Wow, where to begin. For me, it was probably fundraising. I had never done it before so I had to teach myself what all the terms meant, what the process was and I started from square one in terms of contacts. Fundraising is definitely not for the faint of heart.”

We Launched as DTC But Retail Was Always Part of the Strategy

LANEY: “We always knew that we would be primarily direct-to-consumer, so we didn’t have a lot of retail conversations. Goop was the first retailer we spoke with and they immediately said that they wanted to carry Saie. We are online and in all of their retail locations. That was a special moment when we got that call since they were really our first (and only) choice.”

GERI: “I’m lucky in that I have a handful of very successful friends (like Lauren Gores) who I was able to talk to about retail. One of my pieces of advice for new brands is to ask around, make calls, get references. You can learn a lot from other people’s experiences and usually, people are more than willing to share.”

Marketing Was the Biggest Part of Our Launch Strategy

LANEY: “My background is in marketing and content so I had a lot of thoughts on what I wanted our launch to look like. Since we’re primarily direct-to-consumer our marketing is a huge, if not the biggest, part of our strategy. Our PR agency is also amazing and did a great job of getting the initial press, which is really difficult for new brands.”

GERI: “I’ve been blogging and creating content since 2005—really that is marketing. It’s all about telling a story through visuals, which I have a lot of experience in. And on top of that, I know a lot of people in the industry so we were able to send it to hundreds of influential people to help create buzz.”

Starting a Business Is Intense So My Support Network Was Crucial

LANEY: “Find the people that matter to you and that you trust. Starting a business is really intense, and it can be a bit isolating. You don’t have time to update friends and family on things because they change and move so fast, but you still need the support. I have a core group on speed dial who knew the in’s and out’s as I was raising money, and going towards launch. Their support was critical.”

I Realized Early On That Comfort Equals Productivity

LANEY: “Get a comfortable place to work. It feels like an annoying thing to spend money on, but if you’re comfortable and have space you are so much more effective and productive.”

Don’t Hesitate, Just Start

GERI: “I’ve started a handful of business now and my advice is simple: start. Getting going is the hardest part but if you never try, you’ll never know.”

To discover more about this new clean beauty brand, visit saiehello.com.

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