How to pick a beauty product manufacturer and other business tips

Anna Ross won the 2016 prestigious Telstra Australian Young Business Women’s Award off the back of founding Australia’s fastest growing ethical beauty brand, Kester Black. But her success was anything but overnight.

Kiwi-born Anna first started Kester Black as a fashion label, followed by a jewellery brand when she arrived in Melbourne ten years ago.

It was this experience with fashion and jewellery that helped hone her business skills and led her to realize there was a gap in the market for an ethical nail polish brand.

“I was researching nail polish for one of my jewellery designs and realised that there were hardly any that were ethically made. There was a real lack of integrity,” Anna says.

Fast-forward four years and Kester Black is redefining global industry standards by developing beauty products, in particular nail polish, with ethical values. Her products are all cruelty free, Australian-made, vegan and B-Corp certified.

They have a cult following in Australia, New Zealand, Middle East and Europe and she’s keen to expand the ethical beauty range into other products.

Anna talked to Top Expert about the actual steps she took to start the beauty brand, lessons she learnt finding a manufacturer, and her top five tips for other budding beauty entrepreneurs.

The nail polish market seems ridiculously crowded, how did you know there was room or demand for another brand?

I’d been running Kester Black for a number of years first as a fashion label and then as jewellery brand. When we decided to venture into nail polish, I did a market review and noticed there weren’t many beauty brands that were ethically made and the ones that existed had a limited colour range. So I knew from the start that if I could create a great nail polish, in a wide range of desirable colours, plus in a completely ethical way this was going to be the thing that sets us apart.

To assess the market and whether there was demand, we did a small test run of six colours and fifty units per colour. We were lucky that we already had a distribution network through our jewellerywholesalers. So I sold it to them and we tripled our turnover in three months - we knew we were onto a winner.

How did you bootstrap Kester Black without any investment?

I started the jewellery side of things with just $50 from my pay check. After a couple of years of making jewellery, I finally had a few thousand dollars that I put aside to use to produce our first run of nail polish. People don’t realise that we are not an overnight success. Kester Black has been around for a long time, trying different things and slowly growing.

What’s the one thing you wish people knew before starting a business?

Lots of people ask me about starting their own business and I always tell them to ask themselves “Can I work hard with nobody pushing me and can I work alone for a very long time?”

Getting a business off the ground is really hard, and unless you are extremely self-motivated and can work by yourself you won’t last the distance. It may take years till you make enough money to hire somebody, so in most cases, you are working by yourself a lot.

What are your three tips for picking a beauty product manufacturer?

You have to be really careful picking manufacturers. We made a lot of mistakes at the beginning that set us back and cost us a lot of money. My top three tips for choosing a manufacturer are:

1. Start where you can afford. Put bluntly unless you have a lot of money to do high quantity orders you just won’t be able to afford the best manufacturers. The best in the world have high MOQ (Minimum Order Quantity), starting at about 5,000 runs per colour. We couldn’t afford to invest that amount of money when we first started, so just start where you can afford.

2. Test your manufacturer. You can find anybody online, but it’s good to get a gauge of who they’ve worked with in the past so you can get some surety about whether they are going to meet your deadlines. Either speak to one of their clients, or test your manufacturer with a small order to see if they deliver quality, on-time.

3. Triple check the fine print in your contract. You want to find a manufacturer that isn’t competing against you at retail. There are a lot of manufacturers that have their own brands and if you do well, they don’t like that. They’ll take your products, because they own the IP and might sell it under their brand.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The best piece of business advice I’ve ever received is - start your business how you intent to run it.

This advice was given to me when I had a fashion label. I started my first fashion label cutting my fabric out and doing all the manufacturing myself. And someone said to me that my business wasn’t scalable because I’d never taken into account the cost to manufacture. So I was working for free, making my own products and only making the money back when I sold the garments. I had no idea how much the products were actually costing because I wasn’t accounting for any of my time.

The next business I launched was also a fashion brand, but I didn’t cut anything, I didn’t pattern make and I didn’t sew any of the garments and so this way I had a true cost and could also assess whether it was scalable. This is what I did when I went into nail polish, I made sure I fully understood the true cost and therefore what my profit margin was.

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