We know how daunting it can be to start a new business, especially if you’re disrupting an industry or creating an entirely new one. When there is no path to follow, the biggest question is, where do I start? There is so much to do but before you get ahead of yourself, let’s start at the beginning. To kickstart the process (and ease some of those first-time founder nerves) we’re asking successful entrepreneurs to share their story in our new series, From Scratch. But this isn’t your typical day in the life. We’re getting down to the nitty gritty from writing a business plan (or not) to sourcing manufacturers and how much they pay themselves, we’re not holding back. If you want to know how to start a business, you’ve come to the right place.
Sometimes you just never know when a new business idea will spark. For Allison McNamara it was during a trip to Istanbul. She’d just left her role of six years as producer and host of entertainment at Popsugar when the vision for MARA (a clean algae skincare line) was born. So she took the leap and self-funded the creation and manufacture of her first hero product, Algae + Moringa Universal Face Oil. Not surprisingly, the nutrient-rich oil developed a cult following within a few short months of its release and McNamara has been building an empire ever since.
While her father has been a mentor and business coach along the way (he has decades of experience in the beauty industry) the founder process has been a huge learning curve for the former TV host and and digital influencer. But despite the many hours she’s logged deep in research and mistakes made along the way, the key has been trusting her intuition and letting your gut guide the way.
We’re so grateful to McNamara for sharing her story on how to start a business and using her lessons as a masterclass for all of you reading this who are on the founder journey or about to take the plunge. Read on to hear exactly how she did it from a business plan to the research, finding a manufacturer, and what she pays herself (hint: it’s nothing).
Did you write a business plan? If yes, was it helpful? If no, what else did you use instead?
I did not write a formal business plan for MARA and to this day I still don’t have one. My brand is really focused on ingredients and efficacy, so all of the early brainstorms focused around sourcing key ingredients to use and those I wanted to stay away from. Being in the beauty world, I already had a pulse on the market and did know I wanted MARA to be a pillar in the clean beauty space. I did take a stab at writing a formal business plan but it didn’t feel right to me to define all of those key points without the brand having any shape. So much of MARA was built off of intuition and I felt that creating a formal business plan right off the start would hinder the authenticity by defining too much at the beginning, which could have potentially hindered any variation from the initial plan.
How did you come up with the name? What was the process like? How did you know it was the right name? What are some of the things you considered during that process?
The idea for the line and the name MARA came to me at the same time. I had been itching to make a career switch and always knew I wanted to do something in beauty focused on face oils with sea ingredients. The name MARA came to me on a family vacation in summer 2015 when we were on the Sea of Marmara in Istanbul. My last name is McNamara and MARA also means sea in Gaelic (I’m an Irish citizen) so the story took shape almost instantly. I didn’t consider any other names and luckily we were able to get MARA registered.
What were the immediate things you had to take care of to set up the business?
Beyond the basics of registering the name MARA and securing the social handles and website, I had to find a lab and a direction for my products as well as a contract manufacturer and all of the small parts in between like boxes, shippers and inserts. There are so many pieces to the puzzle when you manufacture a product, especially if you don’t use a turnkey service or a white label company, which we chose not to do. Operations and production are still the two biggest challenges I face still today.
What research did you do for the brand beforehand? Why would you recommend it?
I did hundreds of hours of research on oils while developing our Universal Face Oil and Algae Retinol Face Oil. I started out identifying ingredients I didn’t care for as much, creating my own list of more commonly used oils I wanted to stay away from. I defined a checklist of what I wanted in my product: I wanted a face oil that sank into the skin quickly, was super hydrating, had all of the major vitamins and essential fatty acids and layered well with other products and makeup. I was also an avid face oil user prior to starting my line and well before face oils were mainstream, so I had a pretty good idea of the texture, the feel, smell and results that I was looking for. I would recommend Universal Face Oil to everyone, it’s incredible and will transform your skin thanks to its powerhouse ingredient profile of moringa, baobab, and Kalahari melon.
How did you find the manufacturer/production facility that you use? Did you have any bad experiences? What did you learn? What advice do you have for other founders looking for a trustworthy manufacturer?
My contract manufacturer was recommended to me through my lab. I trust my lab 1000% and actually wanted them to initially manufacture it. However, with our volume, it made more sense to go with a contract manufacturer. My advice is always to do a full walkthrough/tour of your contract manufacturer before having them create your product, even if you have to travel to see it. You want to see the cleanliness and conditions of the place and how they store materials and ingredients. Also, make sure they are GMP certified. I wanted somewhere in California to make it easy for me to routinely visit during manufacturing, I’m actually heading there today.
Did you self-fund the company? Did you raise seed money or initial investment money? Why/Why not? What would you recommend?
We have family-funded MARA as of now. I recommend this route if possible because it gives you total creative control over what you are developing. Down the line, we do see ourselves potentially taking outside investment. I know it’s not feasible for everyone to self-fund a beauty business (because let me tell you, it’s expensive) but if you are able to make it work it’s very liberating not having anyone to report to.
How much did you pay yourself? How did you know what to pay yourself?
Nothing! The money can better be used put back into the business. I am lucky that I also have other work, including being the editorial director at Mane Addicts and work frequently as a digital content creator with brands. Juggling everything is stressful at times but I’m grateful to be in the position that I’m in. Not paying myself gives us the flexibility to have PR and work on product development as well as scale the business and up our quantities without worrying about cash flow.
Do you have a business coach or mentor? How has this person helped? Would you recommend one?
I am so lucky, my dad worked in beauty for decades so he coaches and advises me for free. Although half the time it turns into arguing (jk, sort of.) We talk about everything from pricing on components to brand messaging and creating/editing the concepts for future products. We have the great plastic versus glass debate at least once a week (we use glass for all MARA products thus far.)
More importantly, it’s nice not to do this entirely alone and it’s great that he has so much experience and knowledge in beauty and skincare. But I also rely heavily on my intuition and ultimately make my choice based on what feels instinctually right for the brand. I don’t think you necessarily need a mentor, but I do think it’s important to have someone that you trust to talk to and bounce ideas off of.
How big is your team now? What has the hiring process been like?
Besides me and my part-time assistant (I’m actually looking for a new assistant if you know if anyone), everyone else is contracted. I have a wonderful PR team Evna Media who works hard on our media relations and events. I have a graphic designer, a web designer, and many different components suppliers. I’ve never been afraid to do the crappy tasks which are great because I now spend a lot of my time doing things I did as an assistant. I’m really good at time management which is key to wearing as many hats as I do in my business.
Did you hire an accountant? Who helped you with the financial decisions and set up?
I have a great business manager who I started working with last year who does both of my businesses (MARA Beauty LLC and AMcNamara Inc) as well as my personal. I still do all of the monthly bookkeeping myself via Quickbooks. I liked doing the accounting at the beginning so I could see my cash flow, but now it’s time to hire someone on more routinely to keep everything in check.
What has been the biggest learning curve during the process of establishing a business?
Honestly, everything. Every day I’m learning or doing something new that I’ve never done before which is an exciting change of pace. My previous career was working as a television host and writer, so running a business is entirely new to me. Production and lead times proved to be the biggest learning curve because I (still) always underestimate how long it’s going to take to make something. I also am rather impatient and come from the media world where you have an hour to get a breaking story up or 15 minutes to shoot a video segment so having to wait sometimes 3 plus months for our unique ingredients to be harvested and delivered was/is really hard for me to wrap my head around.
How did you get retailers to start stocking your product? Were you told no? How did you handle that rejection? What advice can you share?
I launched MARA direct-to-consumer but always knew I wanted to get into retailers. We chose our retail partners very carefully, first launching with Credo Beauty to really validate our brand in the clean beauty space. Clean is a word that’s thrown around by everyone these days but launching with a true clean beauty retailer was vital in establishing our commitment and integrity to nontoxic skincare. We then went international with Cult Beauty and more recently went into Space NK and select Bloomingdales. There are some key retailers I have my eye on that I think MARA would do brilliantly at. I personally emailed all of the retailers I wanted to have MARA at, and of course, did get some “not right nows” along the way. However even the stores that have told us “not at the moment” have all been very complimentary about my products, so I don’t really think of them as rejection.
My advice is to not give up and stay on their radar. I make sure to attend events and stay in contact with people who work at the stores I envision MARA at, to help the brand stay top of mind. It’s also important to keep the buzz going around your brand, so whether it’s gifting influencers or meeting with editors getting your brand talked about is ultimately what gets you on the shelf. Looking back, our retailer launches have been perfect and I wouldn’t change any of it.
How did you promote your company? How did you get people to know who you are and create buzz? Did you know anything about marketing before this venture?
Being in media prior to launching my brand was really helpful. I already had a direct connection with many L.A. beauty editors and have loads of influencer friends who I’ve met through work and events who have been so incredibly generous sharing my product on their channels. I also had a decent following on social media when I launched my brand which definitely helped initially. Marketing comes pretty naturally to me and I knew I wanted to take a slow approach for MARA.
With beauty, there is this amazing discovery element—people love finding new products on their own and sharing their secrets with their circles, which is powerful. I still to this day believe the power of sharing between friends far outweighs the influence of social media in the long run. We’re not making products you buy once and then forget about it. I’m (hopefully) gaining customers for life. My goal is to build a brand that feels just as relevant 15 years down the line, with power SKUs that people purchase over and over again.
What is one thing you didn’t do in the setup process, that ended up being crucial to the business and would advise others to do asap?
If you plan on selling globally, go through EU Compliance before you print your components. Also, I did this unwillingly, but don’t beat yourself up over missed deadlines. I 100% can guarantee almost all of your timelines will get messed up, just go with it. Unless a retailer is putting pressure on you, don’t put crazy pressure on yourself if things are running behind. And mark your calendars now for Chinese New Year because nothing is getting done during then.
For those who haven’t started a business (or are about to) what advice do you have?
Listen to advice but rely on yourself the most. Don’t start a business just to make money, because you probably won’t for a very long time. I didn’t use a branding agency to create my product, which I think was such a wonderful choice. The devil is in the details and only those personal touches can truly be added in by creating something yourself, instead of having a team present you with options. Authenticity is key so if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.