Starting her business as soon as she finished university after being overwhelmed with demand for her final-year product, Florence Adepoju has gained a foothold in US in less than three years. Business Advice caught up with her to find out how.
(1) Who are you and what’s your business?
My name is Florence Adepoju, and I’m the founder of cosmetics brand MDMflow. Having originally thought I wanted to be a pharmacist, a job on a make-up counter while I was doing my A-levels caused me to become fascinated by the cosmetics industry.
I found out about the London College of Fashion’s (LCF) degree in cosmetic science on YouTube and successfully applied in clearing after getting my exam results – and my company emerged out of my dissertation.
(2) How long have you been around for?
Coming up to three years. For my final project at university, I created blue, purple and bright red lipsticks and they were really popular with the other students, which made me realise there was demand for really intense pigments. When I graduated in 2013 I got two government-backed loans of £5,000 each to allow me to buy the equipment I’d used in the labs at LCF, and set it up in my shed at home.
(3) How do you make money?
I sell lipsticks and mascaras thought the MDMflow website and retailers in Europe and the US. We launched in Belgium in July 2013, and have since added other retail channels including Nasty Gal in Los Angeles and Colette in Paris.
Social media has really helped us attract the attention of these sorts of stockists, especially Instagram, because beauty is so visual. It’s also a global market, and lots of our direct traffic comes from the US – being able to show retailers that there is demand there has been incredibly helpful.
I’ve also looked at working with YouTubers, but I’m still trying to get a feel for the platform. I understand beauty vloggers from a consumer standpoint, but with so many brands paying for content, I’m trying to work out what drives the decision for a YouTuber to buy something on their own.
(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?
While I was a student I worked across loads of different makeup counters, which was a really good way to see what was out there. Influenced by bloggers and YouTube, customers were asking for lipstick in bright colours like blue, but even as someone working in the industry I didn’t know where to find it. I felt there was something missing, and MDMflow fills that gap.
It’s also a very personal brand. I’ve been heavily influenced by 1990s hip-hop culture, and the branding and packaging reflect that.
(5) What was important in terms of starting out?
I think communicating with consumers has been really important. It’s easy to spend so much time worrying about building your brand on social media that you don’t have an open space. But I changed the formulation of MDMflow lipsticks six times and now it is right because of the conversations I’ve been able to have with my customers.
(6) What’s been your biggest achievement?
I’m really proud of the retailer relationships I’ve established. Beauty is so competitive and there are so many established brands out there, so it’s really exciting when a retailer believes in you.
Exporting as a micro business is difficult, and throws up lots of problem. Getting pricing and shipping right are the biggest challenges, and they can be a deal breaker if you don’t get them right. But I think it’s better to deal with problems early on, while I’m still small.
(7) What setbacks have you had along the way?
Around Christmas 2015 I experienced really high demand and struggled to get orders out. We were featured in the New York Times on Christmas Eve as well as being covered in Metro in the UK, and while it was positive to have so much activity, it was a massive wave to ride. The experience taught me how important delegation is – even though, as a small business owner, it is hard to let go of the details.
In April 2016 we moved out of my shed and started getting products manufactured externally, which was difficult because of the size of the orders required. We started off ordering 5,000 units, but as a small, growing company, it is very hard to know how much product we need to produce.
Of course, running out of money a couple of times has been really scary. Since the initial loan of £10,000, we’ve grown organically, and there are always 101 things to pay for.
(8) In five years’ time, I will be…
Producing more products and stocking them in more outlets. I hope MDMflow will no longer be a baby brand, but without being like everyone else – and I really want to have the resources to have a bigger conversation with customers about what they want.
We’re also going to be stocked in Australia soon, and I’m building relationships with the Middle East too.
(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?
Work on all your ideas daily and don’t be overwhelmed by how quickly the industry is growing.
(10) Who are your business heroes and why?
Romanian-born Anastasia Soare, who founded Los Angeles beauty brand Anastasia Beverly Hills, has one of the fastest-growing cosmetics companies in the US but still seems really hands on, which is really inspiring.
Are you looking to take the leap and start exporting? Read these top tips first.
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