Today I’m doing something a bit different—an interview with fellow Canadian Jess Lafleur, the owner/founder/maker of Stark Skin Care. She’s doing what a lot of us dream of doing in running her own brand, selling her own specially formulated creations using high quality, natural ingredients. I’m thrilled she’s let me pick her brain about what it’s like to be a true DIY pro and share her insights with all of you. Enjoy!
How did you first become interested in natural beauty products?
I honestly can’t even remember. As a little kid, when other little girls were discovering and playing with makeup, I was always more interested in skincare. Natural skincare was an early discovery for me, as I used to spend an inordinate amount of time in my town’s health food shop…it was my favourite store! (And in my hometown, I maintain that it’s still the only nice shop around.) Here, not only did I discover natural brands like old school Burt’s Bees, a brand called Rachel Perry that I think no longer exists but had beautiful, gypsy-inspired packaging and a smattering of simple, local handcrafted stuff, but I discovered pure, single ingredients, like different types of clay, pure Shea butter, beeswax and, of course, essential oils. This was back in the early ‘80s. It feels like natural skincare has always been around for me. I didn’t really have one of those wake-up moments where I knew I had to make a switch from conventional to natural; I was a born convert.
What was your first DIY? How did it go?
I’ve pretty much always (intentionally) put food on my face and in my hair. Sometimes with catastrophic results (I’m still afraid to put banana in my hair because of the time I did NOT mash it well enough! Banana chunks for hours and hours…)
As a little kid, I used to make gigantic messes in the kitchen whipping up all kinds of concoctions. (Still do, in fact.) I remember being about 6 and using a hand blender to create some kind of ghastly green mousse with ingredients from my dad’s fridge and backyard to create a spa mud-wrap kind of thing for my dolls. A little lettuce, soil and maple leaf body treatment, anyone? Sounds kind of good, actually.
From there, DIY was just something I always did. I’ve been using single-ingredient products for a long time, like straight-up Shea or jojoba, often with a few drops essential oils. When the face-oil “trend” started, I didn’t know that people found putting plant oils on their skin and hair odd! I thought everyone did it!
When/why did you make the leap to starting your own company?
In 2010, I had what I now call “my last job”. I was working in the buying office for a big fashion startup in Montreal. I thought “this is it… the job I will keep and grow with for years” since I have a background in fashion, amongst other things (multi-passionate person, over here!). The only thing is I hated it. I hated how I didn’t like the systems in place but felt ineffectual to do anything about it. I hated the office politics, the pointless meetings, the disorganization (and I’m not even the most organized person out there, not by a long shot!), and the commute. Most of the jobs in my life I knew were temporary: a summer job, or something until I found something better, or some other kind of bridge job. I felt trapped when I thought about staying and growing at this one place. My boyfriend at the time said “If you could do anything, what would it be?” With zero hesitation, my answer was “Write for people and start an organic skincare company.” He said. “Quit your job. Do that.”
Although it took me a little convincing and coaching, I knew in my heart I wanted to quit and start something of my own. I actually quit the next day, with no solid plan or anything lined up. I started a profile on Elance, got a freelance writing gig within 2 days, and started researching how to start my own skincare company. In February 2012, I launched Stark officially (there is an older version of Stark that I started on Etsy, with a completely different line-up, design, packaging and everything! Not many people know that.)
By the way, when someone is that supportive of your dreams and believes in you enough to back you up when you take pretty spontaneous and risky leaps towards your authentic path, you marry them. 😉
What has been the most surprising thing about running your own beauty company?
That it’s actually very unglamorous! I love it, don’t get me wrong, but I definitely talk the talk more than I walk the walk when it comes to actual beauty regimes. I rarely do my hair unless I’m leaving my neighborhood. I sometimes don’t have time to shower. I rarely wear makeup. Maybe it’s also because I’m a toddler’s mom and just don’t prioritize this stuff anymore, but other than making sure my skin is well cared-for, and usually putting on some of my perfume, I’m low-maintenance and very un-glam!
Then there’s the work involved with a skincare company…it’s not all sniffing at essential oils and dreaming up formulas and testing masks. There’s the endless details that go into a product launch…enough to make you sleepless at night and go a little crazy during the day! There’s coordinating mass shipments across borders with brokers. There’s choosing label stock. There’s juggling inventory in 2 separate warehouses. There’s predicting stock levels and where to reorder bulk ingredients. There’s learning code. There’s firing accountants. There’s researching laws and copyrights and trademarks. There’s never keeping up with one’s blog or multiple social platforms (I’m obsessing over Periscope these days… where I broadcast about productivity and business tips! Find me here @starkskincare). There’s trying every bit of software and app known to man to manage social media. It’s wearing many hats… and that really messes up hair and chips nails!
What is your recipe development process? Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration can strike from anywhere, at any time (which is why having a pen and notebook handy is a must AT ALL TIMES!). For me, it’s usually a scent-inspiration. Like, I will fall in love with a certain essential oil and its purposes and want to develop something around it. Cypress Purity + Defense was born that way. Or, it’s developed around a product’s use like my White Willow Bark Perfecting Tonic, where I wanted a soothing yet effective anti-acne toner that was good for those of us dueling the double-annoying issue of aging and acne. Once I have a vague idea, I start making simple prototypes, and use them on myself for a while and take notes as to what I feel is missing, then slowly add more components to the recipe. I have a big Moleskine with all my notes and recipes…everything gets written down.
Could you tell us a bit about pricing? What factors go into deciding how much a final product will sell for?
It’s part science and part intuition. Of course, all the raw ingredients get factored in including essential oils and all the actives, plus jar, label, and outer packaging but also my time. Without that last bit, I’d be working for free which unfortunately isn’t exactly affordable for me as I currently support my family with this business (my husband’s business is still in it’s infancy stage so income is more unpredictable from his side of things). I also have to factor in some of the importing and shipping costs and other kinds of overhead, such as running my e-commerce platforms (I have 2 since I have a Canadian and a US shop), paying for several apps that help streamline my sales process or add value to my customer’s experience, such as my subscription service or my shipping service (which is outsourced) which makes ordering from us really fast, whether you’re in Canada or the US. What else? Oh, there’s figuring out where my brand position is in the market, and trying to find a sweet spot within my colleagues. It’s important to never undersell your competition in this industry, as we’re all fighting the good fight and in this together to elevate the awareness of green beauty and make it something more women turn towards.
What have you found to be the biggest differences between DIYing professionally and as a hobby?
Professionally creating product is repetitive and more stringent with regulations and rules. It can be a little scary when you’re dealing with big amounts of oil and you get paranoid that you’re somehow going to wreck a big pricey batch and have to start over. It’s also a bit more boring than DIY, but I find it can be soothing once you’re in the zone. I like being hands-on either way, but home DIY is fun, creative, messy and with zero pressure.
What are some hurdles an aspiring business owner might not be aware of?
The sheer amount of competition! This industry is growing what feels like exponentially every month! Which is why it’s good to be on friendly terms with your “colleagues”… we elevate one another. On August 6th I am going to Chicago for an event called A Night For Green Beauty, where I get to jam with 40 other brands and meet our customers. These (mostly) women aren’t my competition, we’re friends! We’re on the same mission! There’s a lot of love and respect in this industry, and playing fair is par for the course. Do your research. Know who’s who. Be respectful.
There’s also the, pardon my language, but the whole mindfuck side of being an entrepreneur. Working for yourself will bring up a LOT if inner stuff. It’s intense and for me, was unexpected. Maybe I was being naive, but I didn’t realize there would be so much psychological turmoil! Especially when you combine business-owning with motherhood. It’s way more emotional than dragging your butt to a cubicle every day… you feel your name, your image, your life is kind of on the line every day. On the best days, you’re on top of the world and feel unstoppable… you’re super productive, things are going well. Sales and positive comments are coming in. Then you have the days where you would give it all up just for a bottle of wine and a box of pizza. You are D-O-N-E. Being an entrepreneur is definitely quite a manic experience. So, being willing to do as much inner-work as you do on the business itself is vital, unless you have nerves of steel.
What are your go-to beauty products? Any “guilty pleasures”?
Well, my own line I use daily. I use a Konjac sponge, GF to take off my makeup (when I do wear it), MF all over the place (and on my son, too), CY during the day and NL at night. It’s convenient that everything I make works perfectly for me. 😉
I do use “dirty” mascara. I don’t use it often enough to justify buying something clean and beautiful, and would rather something I can throw out with ⅔ still in the tube without feeling bad, because I’ve had it for 4 months or whatever and it’s time to go. For drugstore brands, I like the Yes To line and Live Clean Professional for my hair (not perfect brands, but pretty good and affordable “hybrids” as I call them). I also like Andalou, have a lifelong soft spot for Burt’s Bees (it can’t be helped!) as well as Green Beaver.
What’s something in your life you’d still like to replace with a homemade alternative?
Deodorant. It’s like a lifelong quest to find something I like. I can’t stand being smelly! My sense of smell is pretty acute, and I can’t staaaannnnd B.O. Not that I think it’s anybody’s favourite or anything!
Which of your products do you love the most ?
Right now, it’s the combo of Neroli Midnight Oil, with a serum called “EV” that I’m launching at the event I mentioned, in Chicago. (Follow and search the tag #ANFGB on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for more info about it, as it happens!) The combo makes skin impossibly soft and plump. It’s also really helpful with scar fading and fine-lines.
I haven’t really released any other details yet, publicly. So you’ll have to keep an eye out for that!
What kind of stories do you love hearing from customers?
Anytime I get one of those emails where someone tells me my products, writing, or online-course has somehow touched them and made their day, improved their skin, made them laugh or made them think, I can feel my heart growing 6 sizes larger, kind of like the Grinch. 🙂 That’s the best feeling, and the reason I do what I do.
Thanks so much for the awesome interview, Jess! Be sure to check out Stark Skin Care to see more of what Jess does 🙂