After three years of work, Pound Cake is tantalizingly close to bringing its first product line designed for people of color to market.
The launch will mark a milestone in a three-year journey for CEO Camille Bell and cofounder Johnny Velazquez, who started their cosmetics company after recognizing a need for makeup that can be used on the lightest to darkest skin tones. Bell, a 2015 Temple grad, experienced this problem personally while sampling blush at Sephora, and then ran a successful Indiegogo campaign to get the business going.
The company’s first step toward making the beauty industry more inclusive will be the Hot Cakes Collection, a red liquid lipstick line. It is expected to hit stores in July.
“Our goal is…to challenge the stigma that black and brown women, and especially darker skinned women, can’t or don’t look good in red lipstick,” Bell said, explaining how the company decided on its inaugural offering.
Once that decision was made, all that was left was turning the idea into reality.
Navigating a sourcing snag
The company has made “great strides,” Bell said, since raising more than $20,000 for product development via crowdfunding last fall.
In March, the Pound Cake trademark was finalized — something that had been in progress since April of 2016. “We want to shout out the [legal] team at Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia for really helping us through this,” Bell noted.
As is often the case in business, there were also some unexpected obstacles: Pound Cake ended up parting ways with the first manufacturer contracted to produce its lipstick, due to unsatisfactory customer service and creative differences.
Happily, Bell and Velazquez were able to find a new manufacturing company based in Utah, one that seemed aligned with their goals.
“We started having conversations,” Bell said. “’This is what we’re trying to achieve, can you achieve this?’ They were really excited about the project, and we were more than confident that they could achieve what we’re trying to look for.”
In late March, contracts were finalized and production began.
Taking it to the people
Once production and legal matters were taken care of, the Pound Cake team wanted to connect to their customer base.
In May, Bell hosted Swatch & Sip, a focus group where people could test the lipstick themselves. The group of women ate hors d’oeuvres, drank sangrias and tried on the company’s first efforts.
Samples of the red liquids were passed around a large oval table filled with personal mirrors, cotton swabs and makeup remover wipes.
“We found that our target audience typically prefers liquid lipsticks, opposed to regular lipstick,” Bell explained. How does she know? Partly via social media — all of the attendees at the focus group followed Pound Cake on one platform or another; that’s how they got their invite.
As the women carefully applied the liquid lipsticks and answered questions about opacity, pigmentation and ease of application, it appeared that Bell had guessed correctly.
“Oh wow, I love this consistency!” and other similar comments filled the air. The women also gave their opinions on the cases, the likelihood of their wearing the product, how much would they pay for it and what they thought of the overall brand.
The focus group ended with an insightful conversation about the state of the beauty industry.
Balancing startup life with self-care
When Hot Cakes finally shows up in stores, it’ll provide a welcome dose of satisfaction for Bell and Velazquez. Both founders admit that while working toward this point, finding time for self-care wasn’t easy.
Velazquez said he often had 24-hour long days that impacted his physical health. “I’m excited for the future,” he said, “where I have a set schedule like 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then I don’t have anything to bring home with me.”
Bell, who also has a full-time job, took up painting to help her decompress. She has also struggled with weight gain since starting the company.
“Whether it’s eating just once a day and then not eating the next day,” she said, and “then eating fast food like the third day.”
Bell and Velazquez have made a pact to hit the gym together. Bell’s sister, who is a physical trainer, has also been helping Bell meal prep to avoid eating unhealthy food.
The toughest part over the past few months, they said, has been the fact that since they’re not yet selling products, they’ve needed to raise money for production and marketing. “Making the cosmetics and manufacturing — packaging, formulation — can be really really costly,” Velazquez explained.
Finding investors with shared values
Since the Indiegogo campaign, the focus has been on entering pitch and grant competitions — which can be disheartening when the majority of judges don’t share the company’s values.
“It’s been hard to find investors that line up with our interest,” Velaquez said, “or competitions that aren’t just tech focused.”
Bell hopes to see “more true representation” of industries and judges at pitch competitions.
“I think when a lot of people think of diversity it’s very surface level,” Bell said. “It’s also getting judges that aren’t 60-year-old white men.”
Bell’s advice for entrepreneurs of color is realizing that their experience will be different than white entrepreneurs in terms of opportunities and dealing with prejudice.
“It’s just finding ways to navigate around that or navigate through,” Bell said. “I really don’t know which it is yet — to navigate around it or navigate through it.”
Originally, Pound Cake was supposed to launch this May, but since getting to production took longer than expected, the target launch date for the Hot Cakes Collection is July 2018.
“I think red is a beautiful lipstick color, that makes every skin tone pop,” Bell said. “I’m confident people of color will really enjoy our red lipstick formulations — because I do, myself.”