SMB to Big Business: Interview with Shannon Shea, Founder and CEO of Brush Candy
SMB to Big Business
Shannon Shea started Brush Candy out of her living room two years ago. It has now become a successful makeup brush business, selling online, with 4 million views on TikTok. She told Zoukelman how she is able to create social media videos that reach millions and allow her to grow her business with hardly any investment in paid ads. She also speaks about the hurdles she’s encountered and the secrets she discovered along the way.
Could you tell us how you decided to start a business? Where did the idea come from?
I've always been a makeup artist, and the idea came from the fact that when I was just starting my makeup career I could never find affordable, good-quality, makeup brushes that were also vegan. I wanted to come up with a brand that was affordable but also eye-catching and luxury quality.
I started my hair salon when I was about 21, five years ago. Obviously going into lockdown, we had to close. I'm one of those people who just can't sit there and do nothing, so I thought to myself: What can I do? I need to put my mind to something. Creating a makeup brush business had been in the pipeline for awhile, as I said, and so I started doing some research into manufacturers and ordered loads of samples.
When we went into lockdown, I thought to myself: This is the time now that I need to launch this and put all my effort into this. I would have never been able tolaunch this business when the salon was working, because then I’d be in the salon 24/7. And this is how it all started.
What is your main business goal?
I would really love to be stocked globally. We're tapping into the American market now. I would also love to be stocked in bigger stores in the UK. I'd love to be stocked at some point in Selfridges or Harvey Nichols, maybe Boots. So, we've got lots of goals.
What is your unique selling point? What is it you offer to your customers that other companies don’t?
It's the quality and the price point. I really wanted to be an affordable makeup brand, but also a good quality brand. And we seem to be able to hit that target, given our customer feedback. A lot of them are repeat customers. That's amazing for us because it shows that we can deliver what we promised: a luxury quality brush that also has longevity.
Affordability is also key. Growing up, I couldn’t afford to pay £38for a brush, which is what a quality brush would cost. With our brand, if you can get a 15-piece set for £45 and you have a mixture of face and eye and lip brushes, it's a full starter set really. So especially for young people that are wanting to get into makeup, I'd say it's the perfect starter kit.
Was growing your company a conscious decision or something that just happened?
It was a little bit of both. It kind of just happened when we blew up on TikTok. But then again, you need to be a social media whiz-kid. When I started making TikTok videos, I struggled and I still struggle now because I'm not amazing at it. So, at first, it kind of just happened, but then we made an effort to be consistent and still engage with all of our customers as well.
Have you made any changes to your business strategy over time?
At first, I didn't know which specific target market I wanted to hit. Now I definitely know that the product appeals to women and girls 16 to 30. So that is my target market. I can reach this market via TikTok and Instagram, whereas before I was pushing Facebook a bit. Now we know that video content and tutorials work, because I'd say that's more eye-catching. I personally would scroll through Instagram and just watch videos rather than actually read peoples’ posts.
Who would you say your ideal customer is?
We have a lot of young girls and boys, around 16 to 18, who are on TikTok and Instagram. They are a big market for us, but we also have a lot of mums. Stay-at-home mums that might be with their children who are constantly on TikTok. We engage with them quite a lot. They ask us questions like, ‘What brush can I use for this?’ or ‘How do I clean my makeup brushes?’ So our ideal customers are young people and also stay-at-home mums.
At what point did you start thinking about marketing and how involved you are in your marketing as a business owner?
I'd say I'm heavily involved. I have a brand and social media manager who is a big influence on my marketing. We kind of bounce off each other and work really well. I'm one of those people that likes to be involved. I’m very hands on when it comes to my business.
As someone who’s successful at social media marketing, what tips would you give to other business owners for exploding on social?
I'd say you need to be consistent because you're engaging with your followers. You might have a fast-growing pattern and then it might slow down a little bit, but you still need to be consistent even through those quieter times. Make time for your content and don’t rush it. I sometimes make quick videos, but I know it might be valuable to my followers. People engage more if you're actually providing some knowledge. So be consistent, be yourself and give knowledge.
What would you say are the main marketing channels?
Social media, mainly TikTok and Instagram. I recently started another strategy. I'm doing some TikTok lives. During lockdown, we did a lot of Instagram lives and they worked really well, but then TikToK grew and it's becoming a bigger platform and it has even overtaken Instagram. We also do some email marketing, but our biggest platform is TikTok.
What do you like most about running your own business and what do you dislike ?
That's a tricky one. I actually read someone who said, ‘I left my nine to five job to start my own business and now I work 24/7’, and it's so true. I find myself going over emails until midnight and then I'm up again and I'm packing orders before I come to the salon, then I do more Brush Candy stuff. I love the pace and the progression of running a business because we've hit some really cool milestones. That’s the side I love.
There's nothing really that I hate doing. I suppose you just get people on your team that know better than you. So here is another tip: you must hire people who know more than you or can do something better than you. My social media manager is obviously much better than me at it, so I don't really need to do social. The long hours can be tricky, but when you're running your own business and you're seeing progression, then it's really rewarding, so I don't mind that.
I think it's a brilliant management tip, hiring people who know how to do stuff you can't. What would you say is the biggest difference between running a small business and a large one?
Everything happens at once, so there are a lot of difficulties and tasks to be done anyway within a small business, which is why I dealt with everything on my own to begin with. But again, you need to get people who can help you or can do the job better than you. Because you’re obviously spreading yourself too thin.
Growing your business is difficult because you don't want to grow too quickly and hire too many people too quickly, which is why I tend to just do it quite slowly. It might not work for other people, but it definitely works for me to slowly grow my team because I like to keep a team when I have it. I don't like high staff turnover. Some of the team members at my salon have been here since our doors opened. That's a massive compliment because I feel like there's nothing more that you could want really than your team to stay with you forever.
What would you say is your biggest challenge?
I feel like COVID, in a way, has massively benefited Brush Candy because people were at home more, they were on their phones more, they'll do more online shopping. But at the same time, people lost their jobs, they maybe couldn't afford to purchase things like brushes or cosmetics. So again, it was a massive compliment that people were still buying into our brand, even during lockdown.
Another challenge is brands that are bigger than us. To begin with, I didn't really feel like I'd be seen by bigger brands. And I've slowly noticed over the last year or so that these bigger brands are stealing some of our ideas and it's just too coincidental for them to have not seen our product. So that's a massive challenge because all of the things that I've put out, I've thought of myself, I've designed myself, I sketch them out. I then sketch that on my iPad. I send to my manufacturers, we tweak things, I get samples, I try them. I change them again. And obviously there's not really anything you can do about it, so it’s frustrating because then it also has an effect on our business because they've already got the audience. So that's a massive challenge and it's also really frustrating.
What do you believe is the secret to business success?
Employing a team that knows more than you - that's definitely a big secret. Being consistent and also really researching your market because anyone could bring out any product, but obviously, if you're not bringing out a product that’s going to make a difference in the market, then you might not do so well. So research the target market. Starting out, I had samples and I was breaking them, snapping them, just to see how durable they were. I basically used them for such a long time before we actually ordered our first big batch to sell.
Was there a moment when you thought that maybe you wouldn't make it, you were considering closing your business?
To begin with, we had new orders and things like that and some people following us and it was going really well. And then I think for another part of lockdown, the business had this quiet period. I felt like I was doing everything I could to really push Brush Candy, but then I saw very few results. And I asked myself: Do I really want to do this and put all of my hard work and time into it. And then I thought, I've put so much effort, hard work and time into it. It'd be so silly to cut this off now and just not take it any further. I'm definitely not giving up on this.
And I'm so glad I did it, but I think it's one of those things that when the time gets tough you need to not give up. And there's been numerous hard mornings. You probably wake up and you have a panic attack and you're having anxiety and you might have a little cry and then 10 minutes after I'm alright. I snap out of it, get back into business mode. Just don't give up during the hard times because it will pay off.
That's really inspiring. What do you think most people don't know when they decide to open their business?
There are a lot of people in my family who have their own businesses. I had advice, but they're all in a completely different industry to me, in construction. I always said, and I still say to my accountant, that I know beauty and makeup, but I don't know business. I definitely learned on the job and I still am learning. I didn't have all that knowledge beforehand. If I had someone sort of like me, but times a hundred who knew more than me and could give me advice on my side of the industry, that would have been amazing.
I think when people start their own business, you don't realise that even if you research and research and research, there are still so many hurdles that come up that you didn't know that you were going to come across as well.
What would you say is the smartest thing you've done so far as a business owner?
It’s to put myself out there more because I feel people buy into your brand more, especially as a small business I’m the owner. I do packaging videos on TikTok and stuff like that. And the bigger brands have started doing that too, whereas years ago, when I used to place an order for makeup, you'd never see the warehouse, or the packaging of the order and making a video. Being the face of the business has helped me because people buy into you more and they're more intrigued and engaged. They think: She’s just a normal girl, packaging our order. People then send me an email or a message on TikTok and they say: ‘Hi Shannon, can you post my order?’ and I say, ‘Yeah, of course I'd love to!’
Tell us about the biggest mistake you've made since launching your business.
There’s probably been a time when I may have bought out a product too quickly and it didn't do as well as some of the other items. But I felt sometimes you need to compete with the other brands and move at the same pace and progression that they are. And that's so not true. Everyone is on a different road and it takes different time to get somewhere big. I think I maybe bought out a product that didn't do so well because I didn't put as much thought and effort into it as I should have. But you’ve got to learn from your mistakes.
Going back to marketing, what would you say is the most difficult or challenging aspect of marketing in your view? What advice can you share with other business owners?
I don't have a massive background in marketing. So keeping up with social media trends was difficult, that’s why I have my social media manager because it's really fast-paced. If you have the funds to do it, definitely hire a social media manager, because I feel that is a massive part of today's world. If you are not on social media, I don't know how your brand is going to do.
What type of know-how or expertise do you feel most businesses lack when it comes to marketing?
Definitely social media. The trends and algorithms change constantly, and it’s hard to keep track and understand. It’s a massive tip to get someone to help you with that.
So how important is branding to a business?
Yeah, a hundred percent. Our brand has definitely changed since I did it myself. I think that branding plays a massive part. All of our products are obviously candy themed and have a name related to candy. So, we just carried that theme across our whole brand, whether that's our packaging, products, our social media, our website. So, it's very colourful and in your face.
Yes, I actually saw it on your website, I have to say it's really smart. Could you tell me how you came to decide on this specific brand, the whole candy theme?
I honestly don't even know to this day. I do feel like I'm very creative, obviously I'm in the makeup industry, so I'm always digging for different colors and shadows. I wanted something fun. I was in two split minds whether to go down the like very sleek, classy, plain looking sort of brand but then the other side of me was 'No, I want to go for a fun brand'. And it still looks classy because we've done it very tastefully, but it’s also very fun, colorful and out there brand. Because I feel like that reflects me a little bit more.
How did you know which types of marketing would work best for your brand?
I started with Instagram because I was always using it, and I wanted my product to appeal to someone in my age range. I asked myself: 'Well, what do people my age use?’ I'm on Instagram all the time for me. I don't really have Facebook. So, I made a Brush Candy page on Instagram and just went from there. And I'm glad I just used my instinct because I think I wouldn’t have been able to put as much effort into email marketing, for example. But other than that, do research. I've Googled a load of ways of how to market myself.
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