36 Beauty Brand Founders on the Lessons They've Learned Since the Start of the Pandemic
Last week marked the unofficial anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, and it's caused a lot of people to do some self-reflection on where they were this time last year and what's changed for them in the months that followed. Last year was difficult, but it proved to be a tremendously hard one for business owners, many of whom had to deal with the highs and lows of entrepreneurship and leading their respective companies through a damaged economy, a racial reckoning, and one of the most polarizing elections of our lifetime.
The pandemic has also had a significant effect on the beauty industry: major beauty retailers like Sephora and Ulta were forced to temporarily close most of their locations due to safety concerns when COVID-19 cases first began to rise, and makeup sales reportedly plummeted by 52 percent while ecommerce saw a 68 percent growth in year-over-year revenue in March and April.
Needless to say, the dozens of beauty-brand founders ahead have experienced their fair share of ups and downs, and as hard as it's been to maintain professionalism and keep a clear head throughout such an unusual year, many of them remain hopeful one year later. Read ahead to see the lessons they've learned since the start of the pandemic.
Melissa Butler, The Lip Bar
"The last year has been a full-on wave of emotions. We went from salary reductions at the top of the pandemic because we were all so uncertain about what the future held. I literally sat on my couch during quarantine and cried like a baby as I typed the sorrowful email letting my team of all women know that we'd decreasing everyone's salaries.
Three months later, our sales were through the roof as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement. The support TLB received was overwhelming, and we are forever grateful, but it's important to carry that support throughout the year, not only during political movements. From a marketing standpoint, COVID forced us to think like our customers and pivot to meet their needs: Fast Face for Zoom meetings or Zoom dates, a bright lip to lift your spirits (the lipstick effect), a matte lip that will last for hours and won't smudge under your mask.
Earlier this year, TLB launched in over 500 Walmart locations. We're closer to our customers than ever before, both physically in stores and in the digital world. We're reading your comments, we're responding to your DMs, we hear what you're saying, and we're bringing you what you need!"
Priyanka Ganjoo, Kulfi Beauty
"Back in April 2019, I quit my job to begin working on launching Kulfi Beauty as my full-time job. My plan was to do market research and brand strategy in 2019, then fundraise by early 2020, and launch by fall 2020. The pandemic threw this plan out of the window. What I have learned throughout this past year is that, as a founder, I have to be open to constantly pivoting my strategy, timeline, and goals to adapt to whatever change is thrown my way.
The silver lining of the pandemic has been the people I have met along the way. Before launch, I remember joking that even if Kulfi didn't take off, at least I'll have a group of friends that are equally as talented as they are brilliant. From the Kulfi team to the community we've created through Kulfi Bites, I have been able to bring everyone with me throughout this journey, and that's been the most rewarding part of this process."
Amy Liu, Tower 28
"Being a startup founder is all about adapting to change — it's the only thing you can count on. As a high-growth business that has more than doubled our headcount during the pandemic (though we're still a small team!), we really had to learn to clearly communicate and get organized. Sticking to our values as an organization has been the true north for everyone and kept us in lockstep. We are constantly evolving as a brand, and every six months, there have been pretty monumental changes."
Jamila Powell, Naturally Drenched
"In March 2020, I was forced to completely shut down my business, Maggie Rose Salon. This was tough because 2020 was slated to be a major year for our salon. I lost income, and I even lost some of my team. My biggest pivot was starting my hair-care brand, Naturally Drenched. While I was no longer able to rely on the salon as a source of income, I knew that I could rely on an ecommerce product to support me, my business, and my family.
The launch of Naturally Drenched has been a lot of work, and I have learned a lot of lessons along the way. I used my business experience from running the salon to make smarter decisions for this new business venture. I've managed to succeed by not giving up and realizing that I can figure out anything as long as I'm patient. I've learned to stay true to my original vision and to not take things personally. Entrepreneurship has so many highs and lows, so you have to remember to protect your mental health and stay steady. Taking your time and finding the right team of people to work with makes all the difference in the world.
I've also learned that you always have to be one step ahead. It is really crucial to be able to identify trends early, or even create your own. Having a strong brand mission and voice is key to successfully grow and set yourself apart from the competition."
Marta Cros, Apto Skincare
"In March 2020, I left for the Dominican Republic for a one-week holiday with my two kids, husband, and parents. Because of COVID, we ended up staying 99 days on the island! We arrived with just one shared suitcase for the four of us, and as you can imagine, all stores were closed (the only thing we were able to buy were tourist T-shirts at a local supermarket).
It was stressful at the beginning, especially because my kids were 2 and a half years and 6 months, but after a few 'adaptation' days, it became a very liberating experience. Everything was super simple: what to wear, toys, kids' stuff, and, of course, how to take care of my skin with the few items I had selected to pack in a crammed suitcase for my Caribbean holiday.
There were so few things we actually missed, and we felt a regained sense of freedom, so much that we went back to New York, emptied our townhouse, moved everything to my in-laws' home in Connecticut, and rented an RV to go across the country to spend the summer in the Northwest. After that, we decided to continue the adventure and, just with a couple of suitcases again, fly to Spain (where I'm originally from), where we've been working from home since last October.
This whole experience impacted my business and made me think, 'Why do we need to sell six different types of masks? Why would I want to spend more than 10 minutes getting ready?' Life is so interesting, and there are so many things I want to spend my time with. Skin care should be a simple, uncomplicated, enjoyable act."
Kay Cola, The OrganiBrands
"I feel so blessed that OrganiBrands was able to operate throughout the pandemic and that our sales remained consistent. As a minority-owned business, we received incredible support throughout the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, but just like every other business owner, my company has seen its share of struggles over the last year that I had to answer to for my team.
Some unexpected obstacles like bottle shortage because everyone was buying in bulk pre-lockdown depleting our inventory, so when lockdown happened and our manufacturers and factories were closed, we were kind of at a standstill. We were still operating as an essential business, but we couldn't get what we needed to fulfill orders for in-demand products like our sanitizer and hand soap. Another interesting hurdle was hiring: the company had four open positions at one point, and I wasn't getting any applicants due to a combination of reasons like high unemployment payments, parents at home with kids acting as teachers and enjoying the gift of time with them, etc. We also struggled with shipping delays.
Something I'm particularly proud of that came out of the pandemic is our Peace Pills, an all-natural supplement that supports your overall mood and manages stress and insomnia. Last year was stressful, and we still have tough months ahead. Stress leads to lack of sleep and ultimately a compromised immune system. If you're not taking care of your healthy self, how can you care for yourself, your child, or a loved one with the virus? The Peace Pills are something I've used for a while, and I immediately made it a priority to get them into our product line and available to everyone."
Terri Bryant, Guide Beauty
"The pandemic taught me that self-care is not 'self-centered.' I can be a better support to those in my life, my community, and my business if I take time for myself. I start every morning with a moment of gratitude. It's part of several mindful moments I incorporate throughout my day, because just a few moments can be so impactful. However, this doesn't mean every day I strike that perfect balance we strive for, but it starts with intention. Many of the techniques I employ to stay grounded are to create a mindful space that allows me to stop, breathe, and reconnect with myself, mind and body. Those moments allow me to catch myself when tunnel vision gets the best of me."
Cary Lin and Angela Ubias, Common Heir
Ubias: "We launched Common Heir in May 2020 and now, we don't know the difference between starting a business remotely and in the middle of a global pandemic versus not. With nearly a decade in manufacturing and operations under my belt, I've seen that the key to success in this industry is the ability to remain agile and to always have a back-up plan . . . or three. Building a global supply chain in the midst of a pandemic cemented this fact for me in a profound way. It forced us to be smarter, more efficient, and taught us the significance of agility. Operationally, we encountered unprecedented material and transit delays were obstacles that we thought we'd successfully doomsday planned for yet found we still needed a doomsday 2.0 plan to reach different milestones. Fundamental to the brand, building a community based only on our vision, and without being able to disclose what our product was or have product to share in real time was a slow and steady exercise in patience. Ultimately, it was well worth the approach and we have formed an amazing, uplifting, and passionate community."
Lin: "When we learned that our solution for delivering sustainable skin care without plastic relied on technology that wasn't 'make it in our kitchen' levels, we knew we needed a bit of capital to even test the concept. We had strong momentum going into March 2020, only for LA to shut down due to COVID a week later, and half the investment amount we needed pulled out due to the tremendous amount of risk and uncertainty. And it really was a stressful time to think that our concept would never see the light of day. If we hadn't taken a bet to use up all our resources to conduct a beta test in May 2020, and then surprisingly had some of those early customers turn around and offer to invest in us so that we could exist, we never would have made it. We're so grateful to our community for helping us get here."
Ubias: "The silver lining is that we built all of this in the midst of a pandemic after meeting in person twice. It completely upended my perception of the "right way" or "right time" to start a business. It forced us to be smarter, more efficient and taught us the significance of agility."
Lulu Cordero, Bomba Curls
"From a drop in sales to issues with production and not being able to source any plastic bottles, what a scary time! But that fear turned into strength when I realized that I could be agile and fix all of the issues we were having due to the pandemic by leaning on and sharing with our community and getting smart about pivots we could make. I morphed into my strongest self and was able to source everything myself and heal parts of the business that I didn't even know were broken.
The pandemic has helped us focus on the things that matter: our brand's values, customers, and community. Prioritizing the things that matter has helped us become stronger overall through this extremely challenging year."
Shelby Wild, Playa
"We are a small but mighty team, and adjusting to remote work instead of in-person collaboration has been a challenge. That being said, things like Zoom and FaceTime have been a real lifesaver in terms of keeping us close. I've really learned the importance of making time to connect virtually and bringing the conversation beyond just an email or text to keep everything moving forward."
Melissa Medvedich, Supernal
"Supernal celebrated its first anniversary right before the start of the COVID shutdown, so not much has changed from an operational standpoint as an independently owned, very small, family-run business. I've learned that community, listening, patience, and the ability to pivot are invaluable. Expect the unexpected."
Casey Georgeson, Saint Jane
"This past year has been the ultimate test for our small, indie brand. We took this time to lean into our ability to be agile. We quickly pivoted and focused on our own site and building incredibly rewarding relationships with our amazing community along the way! We've truly loved getting to know our clients on a deeper level throughout the past year, especially through the one-on-one skin consultations I do every Friday.
We've launched products focused on self-care and immunity like our superbrightening Vitamin C Drops and our dark-circle-fighting Eye Cream. And we've taken this time to really listen to our clients' desires for new products and launches."
Gwen Jimmere, Naturalicious
"The pandemic was hard on all of us, but especially Black women with textured hair that were used to going to the salon to get their hair done and had constant help to care for their hair. A surge of people went natural happened when we were in lockdown and SO many women were having to learn how to care for their natural hair for the first time. We realized that, while Naturalicious products are amazing, there are so many other brands that also have great products, and the real issue isn't a lack of good products but a lack of education.
While the core of our business will always be our products, we have grown into more of an education-based brand that is focused on community and helping people learn to care for their natural hair. Our Repair Your Hair Challenges exploded during the pandemic, and we will begin offering them monthly to keep up with the demand starting in April and in fact even have some of our graduates from previous challenges teaching the new students!"
Tim Hollinger and Spencer Arnold, Bathing Culture
"You can't just say you believe in or value wellness; you need to actively create space to practice it and explicitly check in. We started doing team yoga over Zoom and making time to talk about how it's OK to not be OK during the ongoing pandemic, racial injustices, and environmental crisis. We also learned the importance of holding unprogrammed time to just be together and catch up virtually, which is so important for morale."
Brittney Ogike, BeautyBeez
"Over the past few decades, and even prior to the pandemic, consumer shopping behaviors have shifted. We're not physically going into stores as much. We're engaging with businesses more online through social media and ecommerce sites, which is why I made sure BeautyBeez had both a physical and digital presence. When the lockdown occurred, we didn't have to change our business model, we simply shifted our customers to our online and digital spaces that were already established.
I'm a big believer in everything happening for a reason. The events of the last year have not only sharpened my skills as an entrepreneur but have better equipped me for battling all the obstacles and challenges that come with entrepreneurship. I integrated all of my experience as a Black consumer into every facet of the business. Our customers, who we refer to as The Hive, know that BeautyBeez is a safe space created specifically for their unique needs. Their reactions to entering the store and knowing it's Black owned are priceless. It's a testament to why we exist, and it's what has kept me afloat for the past year."
Christina Uribe and Emily DiDonato, Covey
"The core team at Covey is myself and Emily, and launching without a full-time team supporting us, especially during a pandemic, was a true feat. Emily and I were separated for most of the pandemic and at the most pivotal point prelaunch. This was our first time launching a business, and we had to learn how to stay as connected as possible without physically being together while making sure nothing fell through the cracks. But one of the benefits of this is that it allowed us to truly divide and conquer and clearly define our roles behind the scenes at Covey." — CU
"At the beginning of the pandemic, we, like so many other brands, faced supply-chain issues that forced us to push our launch out by a few months. Looking back, this ended up being a blessing in disguise: skinimalism was already emerging as 2021's biggest skin-care trend, but the pandemic put it into hyperdrive.
The pandemic was overwhelming on its own, but when you add in the pressure of sticking to a 12-step skin-care routine alongside the barrage of information on skin care that so many of us were absorbing as we spent more time on social, skin-care fatigue set in. The Covey Routine is meant to be an uncomplicated, universal routine that puts the 'care' back into skin care, and because of the pandemic, that's what the consumer is looking for now more than ever." — ED
Neeraj Gunsagar, Byte
"Byte's success is born from a commitment to a world-class consumer experience driven by strong unit economics that drive profitability. We also built our brand by focusing on consumer trust — and that includes the work we did to manufacture and deliver PPE to front-line workers across the nation. During the pandemic, we worked hard to ensure that consumers and society at large could count on us during this time of uncertainty."
Alexandra Cristin, Glam Seamless
"The pandemic offered an opportunity to reset our entire business. It gave us time to reevaluate what was working and immediately cut what wasn't working without any hesitation. I learned that, in order for a business to survive any crisis, you have to cut off the dead weight in your business right away."
Rahama Wright, Shea Yeleen
"Twenty-twenty was a year that I believed would be the end of Shea Yeleen, a social-impact business I started in my 20s after serving in the Peace Corps. Almost overnight, my beauty brand lost key retail accounts due to shutdowns and travel bans. I went into overdrive trying to secure PPP loan funding, grants, and any resources that would help me stay afloat. This was in addition to trying to support cooperative members in Ghana, which closed its borders in an attempt to curtail widespread infection.
Managing these business challenges was against the backdrop of the anger and sadness of racial violence in the US. It's safe to say that 2020 gave me more tears than cheers. However, the lessons I learned could have only come from the stresses of a global pandemic and racial reckoning.
I learned that the true secrets to success are making a commitment to never give up; surrounding myself with the right group of people, especially those I can be vulnerable with; and developing an intentional practice of healing. The healing lesson was particularly important to me because the hustle and bustle of running a business prevented me from dealing with emotional wounds. With the mandatory shelter-in-place, I was spending a lot of time in silence, something I had never done. The quiet spaces allowed for deep reflection that revealed leadership shortcomings and the reasons behind these shortcomings.
The blessing of an incredibly tough year was that I became more in tune with my emotions, which in turn has helped me become a better business leader."
Tammy Fender, Tammy Fender Holistic Skin-Care
"Throughout the pandemic, we've seen just how deeply people need and crave self-care and deep nourishment, for body, mind, and spirit, including for my own staff, who has worked tirelessly through it all. When our spa was closed, we launched two very successful at-home facial treatment kits to help people find that peaceful, spa-like care through working with soothing plant remedies and formulas crafted to help the body come into balance.
What we're seeing as the numbers start to drop is that this gentler, more conscious lifestyle is something people are eager to deepen and to continue. There's been such a positive response to holistic skin care, which is a silver lining during a challenging year."
Alisia Ford, Glory Skincare
"There's a real value in understanding who's in your market and what they're looking for in a specific product or service. As individuals, we're motivated by our values, and as consumers, we'll seek out brands that resonate with these values. At Glory, it's been our mission to establish a space where women can come together, feel supported, and, more importantly, feel celebrated.
As a woman who has often felt like an outsider because of my skin color, I wanted to create an opportunity to put women of color at the center of everything. The community we've created and the outpouring of support we've received at Glory is what has gotten me through the chaos of this year."
Sara Panton, Vitruvi
"For me, this past year has reinforced the importance of always having your community and customer at the center of what you do and how you do it. At Vitruvi, we design every product, experience, and interaction for our customer.
We think constantly about how we can make their homes a more comfortable, healthy, and welcoming place. Being able to do that while rooted in compassion for others this last year has been an incredibly rewarding experience. As a leader, I have learned even more about the importance of vulnerability, of holding space for myself and others, and the importance of listening to our customers, team members, and the world."
Michele Gough, Iris & Romeo
"The isolation has only highlighted our deep need for meaningful connection. All those whose voices have been diminished need to be seen, understood, and met. It's not enough to just make products anymore."
Mahisha Dellinger, Curls
"COVID-19 taught us the importance of being agile. Agility translates to quick action and increased opportunity. Our lightning-fast corporate culture allowed us to shift instantly from 100-percent in-person promotional events to 100-percent digital events that actually produced a significant increase in ROI."
Sara Happ, Sara Happ
"The pandemic has taught me how resilient and creative our team is. We're a brand that focuses on lips in a time when lips are the only part of your body no one sees. We repositioned our messaging and beat 2019 revenues. I couldn't be more proud of them!"
Jenna Levine, Linné Botanicals
"The significance of community, both in meaning and value, has evolved tremendously in the last year. Even as I transitioned from a social New Yorker to a faraway Vermonter, and then ultimately a nesting mother in Charleston, I have not felt isolated in the slightest. I owe that much in part to the growing connections we've established through social media and aligned press. Despite being physically disconnected, we've learned how to strengthen our sense of community. We've done this by being resolute in our mission and message while being increasingly inclusive and expansive in our outreach."
Lulu Pierre, Boho Locs
"As with so many aspects of life during the lockdown, everyone has had time to reconsider what's really necessary when it comes to where they're spending their money, but there's an upside to this. Now, more than ever, simplicity and quality are huge purchase drivers. Our customers return to Boho Locs for high-quality, high-style, and low-maintenance products they can trust. What I've learned about business this past year is that if you believe in your product, and if you enjoy it and truly love it, people will see that, and they will want it. Always develop your ideas with passion and authenticity, and the brand can be left to speak for itself."
Mindy McKnight, Hairitage
"The pandemic has been challenging for everyone on so many levels, from personal to professional. The one thing I've always believed is that, when faced with adversity, you either adapt or die. In other words, you either fight to pivot or you fizzle away.
With Hairitage, I launched the business right as the pandemic started to hit, and I knew that if we wanted to have a fighting chance, we had to lean into the digital side of our business. We amped up our social media campaigns, found amazing influencers to partner with, and pushed our retailer to do the same. At the end of the day, we were able to come out on top! That being said, doing all of that in the middle of a pandemic was stressing my body out, to say the least. As silly as this may sound, turning my daily bath/shower into a spa-like experience helped me unwind and recharge."
Nina Zilka, Alder New York
"This pandemic has reinforced the value of nimbleness as a business owner. While you can (and should!) plan ahead as much as possible, there will always, without fail, be unforeseen issues, like a once-in-a-century pandemic that makes all those plans moot. My job as a business owner is to constantly think fast and innovate as emergencies arise, and it's important that we partner with other people with that same ability."
Gilah Elul, Muri Lelu
"The biggest realization I've had overall is that there's value in taking time to hyperfocus on what we're creating and putting out into the world without the worry of missing the 'next big thing.'
On a business level, we've learned the importance of being able to pivot. The pandemic pushed back our production timeline and original launch strategy. Instead of a.m.-to-p.m. skin-care duo as a set, we split these up into standalone launches (our evening Mauvaise Herbe Indica Oil debuted in June 2020, and our Bloomrise Sativa Serum followed in December 2020). Having more time to focus on messaging, education, and building a feedback loop with our consumers, one product at a time, helped us develop a separate cult following for each of our products.
Although there might now be a light at the end of the tunnel, we still have quite an uncertain road to recovery ahead. I try to spend time each day reconnecting to the reasons why we started Muri Lelu in the first place. We're on a mission to reflect cannabis in its fullest expression, from the plant's therapeutic benefits, to its historical and cross-cultural impact, all the way to the political reality. We're on a mission to shift the way that the modern consumer thinks about the plant — a meaningful movement that we're proud to be a part of."
Gail Federici, Color Wow
"I've learned how critical it is to have superflexible, agile, extremely proactive team players in the trenches with you. We were pivoting to new strategies on a dime. No plan goes as planned when the unexpected happens. You have to be in lockstep with your team. Those qualities are key for an entrepreneurial company, so I was very lucky that I had my own in-house SEAL Team during this period.
I also learned not to put off the implementation of key systems necessary for the smooth operation of a growing business just because it will be disruptive, difficult, and will naturally be met with some resistance. We had some hiccups because some of our backend systems that connected to the website needed to be updated and we hadn't done that yet. When our web sales saw a sudden spike last March because people weren't able to go to their salons for hair color, sales for our Root Cover Up, as well as many of our other products, went through the roof, and we had to scramble and hit some real bumps along the way."
Nicola Elliott, Neom Organics
"The pandemic has taught me how much we really need to look after our well-being on a day-to-day basis. One minute I've felt quite upbeat about everything, and the next minute I've hit a real low not being able to see friends and family, so prioritizing looking after myself has become even more important, I think.
At the start of the pandemic, we, as a business, had to pivot very quickly, becoming digital-first in our approach. Although that was scary at first, there have been so many benefits, and we've grown such a deep connection with our community through our live events. We just love hearing how our products and well-being support have helped through such a difficult time!"
Kimberly Hairston-Hicks, Good Beaute
"The greatest lesson I learned was how to connect intimately with my consumers. I started offering one-on-one Zoom skin-care consultations, which quickly became the best part of my days. I would connect with women about their skin-care needs and their families and how to avoid going to the refrigerator every five minutes. I now have a monthly 'Good Life Group' where we help one another cope during the pandemic."
Aurelia Edwards, Nailstry
"During 2020, we experienced many bumps in the road, from shipping delays to all of the issues that come with launching new technology. Effective, open, and transparent communication with our customers (users and designers) was very important and helped build loyalty and trust. Creating these genuine relationships with customers on the platform really pushed our company through the roughest times of the year.
The past year also eliminated in-person social gatherings, making it basically impossible to network organically. I made a concerted effort to actively participate in virtual events and to make friends with attendees within the chats. For instance, through my recent participation in Apple's Entrepreneur Camp, I expanded my network to include some of the brightest minds in technology innovation, but I was also able to learn directly from the people building the technology I'm using. Some of my biggest business opportunities in 2020 were referred to me from within my network and had it not been for that network I would have completely missed out on those. Keeping your eye out for programs and initiatives like Apple's eCamp can be invaluable to building your business.
And finally, it was really important to celebrate my wins. As creators, we want our product to be perfect. It's very easy to become overwhelmed and disheartened when things aren't going as planned. I've learned to equalize the balance and allow myself the space to exert a similar amount of positive energy celebrating those successes. Intentionally celebrating myself and the product that I've developed allows me to wake up each day excited to face new experiences - whether that's a challenge or a reward!"
Dafina Smith, Covet & Mane
"Crisis is a great time to live your brand values. It's so helpful when you have your team tied to a mission and vision because, when your entire industry shuts down overnight, your values and mission are really all you have. This past year has taught me so much about resilience and fortitude, and to be completely honest it's been hard. The hard decisions had to be made. There is no pandemic playbook to pull out, and "boss babe" quotes are suddenly not that inspirational or original at 2 a.m.
We had to stand still as a brand for the months of March and April. At the time, there was a lot of talk about pivoting. I took the long view and said, "If we're going to be the Chanel of Hair Extensions, then we have to endure, not pivot." We stood by our mission to empower hairstylists. I know a lot of brands had to pivot to survive but because of how financially disciplined and the nature of our product, we were able to focus on leaning into our client experience and elevating it."