How This Founder Built a $90 Million Skincare Business With No Beauty-Industry Experience
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality -- and the first steps they took to make it happen.
In 1999, Maria Hatzistefanis didn’t know anything about starting a business -- and she definitely didn’t know anything about creating beauty products. What she did know, however, was that she had a very good idea: skincare products that addressed specific consumer concerns, from dark circles to large pores. So she spent more than a year researching and acquainting herself with the space before bootstrapping and launching Rodial. Over the past two decades, the London-based company has grown into a $90 million operation, with products sold across 35 countries. Here, the CEO and host of podcast Overnight Success talk us through the guidelines she used to get her start.
1. Make contact.
As both a passionate consumer and former beauty writer, Hatzistefanis was able to spot a gap in the market. “I wanted to build a skincare range that offered targeted treatment for various skin concerns, like, say, hyper-pigmentation,” she told Entrepreneur. But, she said, she had no idea where to start.
To learn what she needed, she attended beauty-industry trade shows to educate herself on the industry and get to know the labs, designers and packaging companies she’d eventually partner with to make her company a reality. “I went to probably five or six shows across Europe in a matter of months,” Hatzistefanis said. “I got business cards, set up meetings and made my initial contact.”
2. Find your first partner.
Following her trade-show research, Hatzistefanis met with multiple London-based labs in search of a partner who could help interpret her vision and create actual product. “I knew what I wanted the end result to be, but I don’t have a chemistry background,” she said. “I couldn’t put a formula together to save my life!”
Some labs were too large to take on her startup's work, and others tried to convince her to simply brand pre-existing formulas. Hatzistefanis wasn't on board with that: “It was important that we create our own,” she said. “So it took a lot of labs out of the running.” Finally, she found a local production facility that understood her mission, and she spent a year finalizing her formulations.
Hatzistefanis started work on Rodial’s branding as soon as her product lineup was firmed up. “I started doing all of this work in parallel,” she said. “While our product testing was happening, I was looking for packaging, though most companies had huge minimum-order quantities -- between 5,000 and 10,000 -- and I was only doing 500-item runs.”
She ultimately had to compromise, using off-the-shelf packaging and customizing label designs. But, determined to move forward, she decided that every time she produced a new run of her product, she would tweak and update the packaging to stay close to her original vision.
4. Start selling -- any way you can.
Back in 1999, launching a brand online wasn’t an option; retail was the only choice. “I sent emails to all the stores here in London, explaining the products,” Hatzistefanis said. “I didn’t get a lot of responses, or I would get a response that just said they didn’t have space for us.”
She persisted, however, and within her first year, a small store in London designated a tiny amount of space for Rodial -- but it came with strings. “They gave me six months to sell all of our product, and if we didn’t, I had to take it back from them and issue the store a refund,” she said. “So we had to sell it.”
As a solo founder with no staff, Hatzistefanis assumed all of the sales pressure. “I’d run the business during the week and spend all day Saturday and Sunday on the floor, selling product, and pretending that I was a hired salesperson.”
5. Make your first hire.
Hatzistefanis formed a vital friendship -- and partnership -- on that sales floor. “A woman from Molton Brown [an upmarket personal care company] and I became quite friendly, and she started talking to me about ways to take my business to the next level and drive sales,” she said. “I wasn’t a particularly good salesperson, so I brought her in as my sales manager, even though I could barely afford it.
"But it was the best decision. Having people to drive sales and bring in money is the most important thing.”