By Dana Beuttler
The FounderMade 2017 Beauty Summit featured some incredible brands, all with a unique back story and appealing booths to lure press, investors, and other entrepreneurs in — and it worked. Laura Heilman, founder and CEO of STIKS Cosmetiks, had a display I could not pass up, as it featured angular and flat lipsticks in bright, shiny packaging. I was like a moth drawn to a flame – angled lipstick? How? Why? I had the opportunity to speak with the lipstick's creator herself and ask all the questions my heart desired. See below:
Inspiration for STIKS Cosmetiks came from your wall street days when you would carry a flat wallet and your round Chanel lipstick would not fit inside of it. While this was your motivation to create a flat on-the-go lipstick, what propelled you to start your own beauty brand and enter this hyper-competitive industry?
As you mentioned, I come from outside of the beauty category – looking at it from outside in. So when someone asks – why did I invent STIKS? I think it was because I was out of the category! I didn’t know what should and shouldn’t be done! It was my dad’s pencils. He was an engineer. I always liked his supplies.
I started STIKS because I couldn’t find what I wanted – there wasn’t a solution to my problem. I wanted a better delivery mechanism for my make-up – I wanted to create a system. It was more about my desire for functionality, integration, and order among my cosmetics than any obsession with beauty products themselves – I was tired of the chaos and cumbersome process.
With my background in Wall Street tech, I’ve always been solving, streamlining, and modernizing. Being time crunched, as a single mother of three, and an executive needing to be polished, my cumbersome cosmetic process got me thinking. This ritual needs to be sped up, updated, and working on my terms. One-handed even, like my Dad’s pencils. That was my “aha” moment and from then on I was set on reinventing lipstick as a start, completely, from the bottom up. I gave the case a flip top, shaped the bullet, edgy and precise.
For convenience I wanted 3 STIKS to click into the KIT – I envisioned a Crayon box for make-up. Took a while but I searched out a true reflecting mirror to set into the front panel. The design is an entirely unique patent. I think it’s a smart solve and a beauty change long overdue and worthy of this millennium.
Once You Had Your Business Model Established, How Did You Begin The Process Of Bringing STIKS Cosmetiks To Fruition? How Did You Fund The Brand?
I called everyone I had ever met looking for contacts in the beauty industry to help me bring my vision to life. I ended up making some great contacts, met with my manufacturer, had the components designed by an engineer, applied for patent protection and began the manufacturing process. I believe what propelled STIKS and me to fruition was my seemingly endless optimism, passion, and confidence that the cosmetics world needed a change, and STIKS was that change!
One of my favorite experiences I had early on was successfully getting STIKS on to Spring, the mobile marketplace, just before it launched. When that launched, STIKS was discovered by several major retailers on Spring and thankfully, I received a ton of inbound interest in the brand. The team at Spring were so supportive of me and STIKS that it gave me such confidence that I had created something of worth that a lot of people responded by saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” That was an amazing experience in itself!
I had to learn everything, top to bottom, from e-commerce platforms, shipping, packaging regulations, fulfillment, and social media on my own as I really didn’t have the money to put a “team” together at launch. I learned more during the first year of launching the brand than I had in all my professional years before that – it was an incredibly exciting and daunting time! All while raising my three boys on my own and moving us from the suburbs of New Jersey to Brooklyn. If I look back now, I can’t believe how far we’ve all come.
Funding the brand to this day was and remains the most difficult part. I watched tech companies with silly, non-revenue generating ideas get funded with millions of dollars on a daily basis but I wasn’t able to get a single penny from any CPG investor.
This dynamic seems to be shifting now so hopefully that process will be easier for newer brands wanting to enter the market. There still exists today a gap between friends and family and venture capitalists – companies willing to write more checks at $250,000 - 500,000.
So, I went to friends and family and was successful in raising enough money to get it off the ground. We are on the hunt for funding daily – I feel like it never ends. Hopefully, with enough attention, we’ll catch that elusive funding unicorn.
Why Did You Decide To Spell Your Brand’s Name With A “K?”
One of the major concepts and driving forces behind the brand was simplicity. When I lined up all the Lipstiks, they looked like a row of sticks to me. I thought the “c” was unnecessary, like so many of the steps with a traditional lipstick tube, so it became STIKS. And, I loved how the word cosmetics looked with a corresponding “K” so when the names were on top of each other, like in our logo, the “TIKS” lined up! I thought it looked cool, nothing more meaningful than that!
The Shape Of The Product Is Angular – Why? What Advantage Does An Angular Lipstick Have?
The angled bullet allows for extreme precision, every time, and also doubles as a lip liner. It also mirrors the shape of our flip-top cap which aesthetically, I really loved. And the design and shape of the component and bullet make for incredible Instagram-worthy images every time! It also ended up looking like a NYC skyscraper when it was finished.
Who Is Your Target Market, And How Do You Successfully Reach And Engage Them?
STIKS today and future capability is the introduction of a whole new category – tech chic, one-handed, portable, on-the-go buildable cosmetics system. We’ve given a name to our target market – we call them Engaged Futurists!
- Relentless hope seekers
- Globally influential
- Parallel taskers
- Tech edgy
- Curious life students
- Gender blended
- Empathetic spirits
- Millennials, perennials, x’s, y’s, z’s, boomers
- Inclusive individualists
- Numbers strong
Target market engagement is a living organism. I think staying true to our brand voice has enabled us to engage in an honest way with current and future customers. We’re not believers in paid influencers but in real women in the real world – they just like to hear it like it is, straight up, no BS. Not even going to mention the “A” word…
When we launch our new, nature-sourced Lipstiks and future products, we’ll be concentrating heavily on our own e-commerce direct-to-consumer distribution strategy. We’ve got some great evangelists over in the UK and Australia that have lined up a few very exciting opportunities for us with the new products – we love that we have fans all over the world! In the US, we are interested in getting into some of the more influential, smaller retailers showcasing more innovative brands so we can strategically grow STIKS and maintain its indie feel.
I Noticed You Were Finalists For The FounderMade 2017 Beauty Challenge (Congrats!). How Did You Prepare Your Pitch? And Do You Have Any Tips That You Can Share About Preparing For Pitch Competitions?
What Is Your Product Distribution Strategy?
Thanks! Yes, that was nerve-wracking! It’s a very tough exercise but a really great one as it makes you condense and distill the brand message to the point where it’s straight to the heart of what you’re selling and why.
Tips – Make sure you hire a glam squad and a pro team to film and edit. We managed to get our video together with the help of my 19-year-old son on the fly. I don’t recommend that but we made it to the finals so some part of it worked! Also, smile. Have fun with it. If you’re not having fun or your passion doesn’t shine through, why would anybody want to be a part of your company?
Can You Share Some Of The Short, Medium, And Long-Term Goals You Have For STIKS Cosmetiks? One Panelist At The Conference Stressed The Importance Of Focusing On Short-Term Goals Because They Ultimately Help A Brand Achieve The Long-Term Ones. Do You Agree With This Sentiment?
Short-term goals: to build out the brand with all the products we have in our imagination and to establish repeated and sustainable customer engagement and distribution. We also have several exciting tech ideas to integrate into the brand that would innovate the mobile shopping / user-generated content experience, both in-store and out in the wild. One of our top priorities is providing assistance and awareness for female-led causes and organizations with our #stiktogether campaign we’re looking to launch soon.
Long-term goal: To create a company that is looked upon as one that had a positive impact on women’s lives. And to be able to provide a legacy for my children and grandchildren to enjoy.
I totally agree with that sentiment mostly because the world is changing minute to minute, so you really need to be present and make decisions that will affect change now. If you make decisions that are true to your brand and to yourself along the way, it will lead to your long-term goals.
Is There Anything Special In The Lipstick Formula Itself? The Packaging And Shape Of The Lipsticks Challenges The Status Quo, But What About The Ingredients?
Oh yes, they are really great. Our formula, by design, is stiffer than most due to the shape of the bullet, but our new nature-sourced products have some amazing ingredients including cocoa seed butter and rose oil. And of course, all of our products are cruelty free! Our ingredients are nature-sourced now and we have lots of plans to bring in some amazing new elements and products but we can’t give that away just yet!
What Is One Of The Biggest Challenges You Have Overcome In Starting Your Own Beauty Brand? And What Advice Can You Give Entrepreneurs Itching To Create And Launch A Business Of Their Own?
I made one of the biggest mistakes ever when I launched STIKS. Having not come from the industry and it being a few years ago now, I didn’t understand that making the product, the actual Lipstik in China was going to be a big problem for us. And compounding that issue, I ordered a ton of inventory at once that made it very difficult for me to launch new products frequently and respond to trends in the market.
Advice: Never surrender. Never give up. If you believe in what you’re doing and see that there’s a space for it in the market, don’t let anybody tell you not to do it. Listen to your gut and your heart, since they won’t let you down. It will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, that I can promise you, but so worth all the hard work. It’s yours, so own it!
Fortunately, I learned from my mistakes and we’re still here and are now on the right side of fixing that issue with our filler here in the states and the natural-sourced ingredients I spoke about above. But, yikes, that almost ended my dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur.
This article first appeared in BeautyMatter.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.