Entrepreneur Anna Ross describes the ethical and sustainable nail polish and cosmetics company she founded, Kester Black, as an evolution. She appeared on the Entrepreneurial Insights Panel at the Mobile-ising Women in Business event in Melbourne on 29 August. She talks with us about what it takes to start up and sustain your own business.
Business by evolution
Kester Black has been an evolution. It started out as a hobby I ran on the side of my full time job, originally focused on fashion. Then I moved to Australia in 2009 and turned it into jewellery and it was in August 2012 we launched our first six nail polish colours. The reason there was a change from jewellery into nail polish was because I was experimenting with colouring sterling silver jewellery with enamel paints and I knew you could do it with nail polish. And then I was looking at the colour range in nail polish and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could get nail polish to match your jewellery?” Then I started looking into the industry and found out there were almost no ethical options available; there was one brand but they only had six colours. So I decided to launch an ethical nail polish brand to capture the whole of that market.
Adding complexity and costs
It’s a bit of a nightmare when you go into cosmetics, it adds a lot of complexity and costs.
We’ve been leading the change; a lot of our competitors have gone cruelty-free because we have. I think it’s just not a consideration people realise they will need to make, they don’t think about where their nail polish is manufactured or if it’s tested on animals.
Our greatest challenge has been working out international dangerous goods freight, and legal requirements in different international markets. For instance launching into the European market requires a whole lot of different commerce marks than you need in Australia. A commerce mark is anything that’s printed onto a retail product; it’s all the labelling requirements.
Manufacturing is also difficult because there aren’t many manufacturers in Australia and the ones that are, are quite restricted. If we want to develop further, and get right out of the box, we’d need to go offshore, into Europe. But we’ve built our brand around being made in Australia, so that is a dilemma.
In a way this is something I wish I’d anticipated when I was first building the business, but on the other hand I do always say that you shouldn’t spend too much time researching or you can over-think it. If you knew everything about running a business I think you’d be too overwhelmed and you probably wouldn’t start.
I’m of the mindset that you just get going. Maybe I should have looked into that particular aspect a bit more, but it won’t stop growth in the business.
Being an entrepreneur
The best part of running my own business is I get to solve problems like that one, deciding how to expand and either stay true to the brand, or split off another arm of the business. I make the decisions. I really believe if you’re running a business like this it should be ethical, and because Kester Black is my business, I get to make the call on that.
I get to make all the decisions around how far we take our products and the markets we go into. Producing ethical nail polish costs more, but we can’t charge more. Nail polish is nail polish. The margins are smaller for us, and sometimes people expect a smaller brand like us to offer products at a lower price. But we offer a bespoke product. Our selling proposition is that the nail polish is ethical, sustainable and Australian made, and it costs a little more for that.
We also now offer bar and liquid soaps, and moisturisers. I have a lot of plans for expansion, and I hope to have a full product range of colour cosmetics within the next five years. It takes about three years to develop a product.
I learned the science behind it. You don’t have to; if you want to launch a nail polish or cosmetics brand you don’t have to learn those details but because I have I can manage my product development and I know exactly what to ask for and what we are getting. It means we can have products that are different to everyone else. It puts me ahead of my competitors. I have a close relationship with my manufacturer and it means they can do things for me that they don’t do for anyone else.
There are three of us full time in the business plus contractors and some part-time staff. We will need to increase that as we start launching new product lines over the next few years. We’re trying to run lean of course, but like the point where you realise you can’t do it all on your own, there’s always times where growth means you need more people.
For me, that realisation that I had to have somebody to help me was about two years in and I realised all I was doing was managing emails, packing and sending all the orders. We’ve been slowly adding employees to cover the jobs that aren’t getting done or need more attention. We’ll be focusing on graphic design and marketing a lot more from now on and we’ll probably outsource packing and despatch.
Getting into business
Surround yourself with really great people who can give you honest advice. That might be your family or friends, or it might not, depending on what sort of honest advice they can give.
All you really need to do to start a business is to take those steps and start it. A lot of people intend to start their own business but what stops this from happening is that they never actually start. It comes back to that idea of not spending too long researching. Get it going, test to see if there’s a market and if there is, and you decide that you’re interested in that business and you want to get it going, work everything out from there.
I could not have done it alone. I’ve had a lot of advice over the years. Often, that advice has come late and I’ve made a lot of mistakes that I could have saved myself if I had just asked a few more people for help sooner. So ask for that help and advice when you need to – it will save you a lot of angst.
Get your company structure sorted early. Usually, people start businesses as a sole trader and that’s perfect, but once it’s up and running and you know it’s going to be your thing, do a ten year vision and see where you want to build your business to and what kind of structure would support that. I’m just going through a restructure now and it’s a total nightmare. We could have done it properly at the start of financial year or even earlier but I was still deciding whether to keep going for growth, and now that I’ve made the decision it’s an awkward time to be making changes.
I would highly recommend getting good accounting software straight away. Even if you are going to stay a sole trader or you’re going to spend six months testing and developing your product, get that accounting software and get someone to put your accounting into it properly. Cash flow is king.
You have to be able to see day-to-day where your cash flow is at. I use Xero and I can’t recommend it highly enough, the data and the analysis you can run with it is invaluable.
Forecasting the future
There are always things you wish you’d done differently or done sooner, like changing from spreadsheets to Xero, or putting on a sales person. But that’s always hindsight. You can only deal with things as they come up.
You can’t be so afraid of the future that you don’t start. There are always things you are going to have to do as you grow, that you can’t foresee until close to the time it happens. There will always be something new.
If you want to start a business, you always need to ask yourself this: “Do I love what I’m about to do? Can I imagine doing it 24/7 for years?”
It takes a lot of time and energy to start up and run your own business. You don’t have to be able to see the future but you need to be committed in the present, and willing to stick with it.
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