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How New Beauty Brands Are Made

Retail accelerators have offered new founders help breaking into retail and boosting merchandising assortments. Results may vary.
Beauty brand Pound Cake.
Beauty brand Pound Cake. (BoF Team)

Camille Bell and Johnny Velazquez didn’t know much about the inner workings of the beauty industry back in 2016, when developing Pound Cake Cosmetics, their “pro-fat, pro-queer and pro-Black” makeup line. The pair, who met as students at Temple University in Philadelphia, simply wanted to make lipstick that both matched a variety of skin tones and still looked like the colour advertised on a tube.

While working full time in other jobs, Bell and Velazquez ran an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and applied for grants, launching direct-to-consumer with a single product in December 2021. By the following summer, the co-founders were looking for both mentorship and “community,” said Bell, and subsequently applied to Ulta Beauty’s Muse Accelerator programme for a shot at both. Pound Cake was one of eight inaugural BIPOC businesses selected last fall to go through the company’s 10-week curriculum with the eventual hope of landing in Ulta Beauty stores or Ulta.com.

Ulta Beauty’s Muse is just one of many beauty accelerator programmes that have popped up to court emerging beauty brands. With similar initiatives such as Sephora Accelerate to Target Takeoff and Walmart Start, retailers have become more proactive in onboarding new lines to level the playing field for BIPOC founders and in hopes of finding the next big beauty breakout.

It’s become common for young lines to participate in at least one of these programmes, if not several. Eadem co-founders Marie Kouadio Amouzame and Alice Lin Glover were part of the Sephora’s 2021 Accelerate, and previously participated in Glossier’s grant initiative for Black-owned beauty lines as well as Black Innovators in Skin Health QuickFire Challenge, put on by Neutrogena and Johnson & Johnson Innovation. Eadem launched on Sephora.com in 2021 before entering stores in March 2023.

Even with more accelerators to choose from, no graduating brand has reached the cult indie status of a Tatcha or Drunk Elephant but there are some fast-rising brands like Topicals that passed through these programmes. While these accelerators promise relationship building, a boost to brand awareness and access to big retailers, most need to do more. Rarely do accelerators offer significant capital — often what founders say is their biggest need when plotting how to scale.

Filling A Need

When Ulta Beauty debuted its Muse Accelerator last year, it was a “continuation of a lot of our larger DEI efforts,” said Jessica Phillips, vice president, merchandising. Following the summer 2020 racial reckoning in the US, the retailer was one of many companies to enhance its experience to better serve Black and brown shoppers through a more diverse merchandising assortment. Muse fit squarely in those efforts, according to Phillips. Sephora too, which founded its programme in 2015, reoriented its programme towards BIPOC founders in 2021.

“I’ve been on the front lines of experiencing a lot of brands who just really needed some extra support as they were getting ready for retail,” said Phillips.

As a former beauty and fashion editor, Nikita Ramsinghani Charuza was well acquainted with the press and marketing side of building a line, but was unfamiliar with “how certain things work within [a retailer’s] warehouse and logistics, what are their term sheets?” she said of applying to Muse.

Throughout the weeks of curriculum, founders attended hour-long sessions on topics like supply chain and logistics and met with Ulta Beauty corporate team members. Participants were also connected to mentors and potential outside partners like design agency Metier Creative and Signature Bank. The experience culminated in a demo week to Ulta Beauty merchants and potential investors.

Right Time, Right Place

Much like Eadem, Pound Cake has been through several programmes in order to break into the sometimes insular beauty industry, including Glossier’s initiative and Pharrell Williams’ Black Ambition competition, where they were awarded a $1 million grant. Meanwhile, Dorian Morris, founder of Undefined Beauty, is a graduate of both Target Takeoff and participated in Walmart’s first Start Accelerate programme, launched in 2022.

Morris said each programme offers a different lens into beauty retail, which can be beneficial. Target Takeoff “gives you a good foundation” and helped with industry-wide relationship building, she said, whereas Walmart’s Start was more geared towards imminently launching at Walmart.

Entering retail is, of course, the goal for many of these beauty lines at least initially, but the accelerator experience has opened founders’ eyes to the reality of retail readiness and long term success.

Though the other lines within Start’s five-brand cohort have launched into Walmart, Morris made the decision to wait until sometime in 2024. Undefined Beauty is sold at Target and Ulta Beauty, among others. Pound Cake has yet to launch at retail and Squigs has recently partnered with Urban Outfitters, a smaller, non-beauty specific distributor. Meanwhile, Ulta Beauty has yet to announce who from its Muse programme will launch online or in stores.

Skin In The Game

For now, few retail accelerators offer capital, which some argue is the key to getting past founders being over-mentored and under sponsored in beauty.

Ulta Beauty is an exception, as it gave $50,000 to its Muse participants. Competing retailers are known to offset partnership costs in other ways. Morris said Walmart offered more favourable payment terms to their cohort and a broker, and that Takeoff graduates receive stipends. Target confirmed members of Takeoff and its Forward Founders programme (for early stage CPG lines) receive a $5,000 stipend for participating. Glover said Sephora helped with marketing costs including sampling upon entering Accelerate and introduced brands to venture capital funds. Walmart and Sephora declined to comment.

But as one beauty founder who spoke on the condition of anonymity said launching at retail is easily a $250,000 to $500,000 endeavour.

Bell said that money was still the single most important factor in having a successful retail launch, largely because many of these lines are self funded with lean teams.

“Every accelerator programme should offer funding — period,” she said. “These accelerators do take up a lot of your time and energy … and if you’re bootstrapping, your team is most likely small. You don’t have time to do all the things that you need to do, so some things in the business are going to dip and fall to the wayside because of bandwidth.”

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