Back in 2010, Joanna French was on a fruitless quest for the perfect lipstick.
“I always found myself looking for certain colours, saying, ‘This weekend I’m wearing that white dress, so I really want a really dark plum’ or, ‘I need a matte orange’,” French, a cosmetic marketing exec at the time, recalls.
“There wasn’t anything in the market that was cheap and chic, that was also good quality and had nice packaging.”
Rather than venting her frustrations on Facebook, French packed up her life in Sydney, moved home to Melbourne, and began working to fill that market gap.
“I was working three jobs at one stage. I just lived with my parents and saved every dollar for two years. It was so unglamorous,” the entrepreneur says.
“I’m sure people thought I was crazy, but no one really said it to my face.”
Jump forward six years, it’s abundantly clear the now-29-year-old was right on the money. Her company Shanghai Suzy, which launched in 2013, has now sold more than 200,000 lipsticks and is available in more than 600 stores nation-wide.
By anyone’s definition, the leap from frustrated customer to business owner is a daunting one. But French had no doubt she was onto a winning idea, and her friends and family were supportive — although at one point, her mum urged her to do “the sensible thing” and put her savings into an apartment instead.
However, one of the greatest motivators for French was the prospect of escaping the “terrible” marketing job she’d taken on in the interim. “I was so over my job. I was like, ‘Failure is not an option because my career is dead to me … I’m done. I need to do something else,'” she admits.
Launching her own business at the age of 27 is impressive enough — but perhaps even more so is the cut-through French has achieved in a saturated, highly competitive industry. Shanghai Suzy lipsticks boast several points of difference, the first being their seasonal approach.
“Our brand is like a fashion brand; we have collections that are all limited edition and we release a couple a year,” French explains. This year, the company has launched a ’70s collection (think frosty and dusty shades) and the brand new Autumn-Winter range, Romance and Strawberry Kisses.
The affordable price point is another drawcard — Shanghai Suzy lipsticks start at just $14.95 — as is the delightfully non-lipsticky scent.
Watch: How to make a bright lip last all day. (Post continues after video.)
“I hate the ‘waxy’ smell of lipstick; with certain brands I would have to take off because the smell would really bother me. So, I decided to make them [a] fruity fragrance,” French explains.
Customers also appreciate the vegan, cruelty-free formula of the lipsticks. French, a vegetarian herself, is passionate about avoiding the use of animal products, and sees it as the way forward for the cosmetic industry.
Although Shanghai Suzy is a success story, it hasn’t been without challenges. The greatest hurdle French has faced so far has been moving Shanghai Suzy’s manufacturing from China to Australia, a mammoth process that began about six months ago.
“When I first started the brand, I assumed that getting product made overseas would be just a means to an end. I thought, ‘I’ll just do it now while I’m starting up,'” she recalls.
“I always wanted to make it here, but it’s so much harder to make that change when you’re in a process where everything is systemised and working. So I really needed a bit of a jolt to be pushed to do that.”
Shanghai Suzy's 70s collection, which is available now. (Image supplied)
That jolt came in the form of errors in communication, quality control and reliablity. Shanghai Suzy is currently producing out of both countries, but French is on a mission to have everything in Melbourne by the end of this year. This is well underway; the AW16 range is the first to be manufactured at the brand's Mornington labs.
"Being based here is so much easier, and pumping money into our own economy — it's amazing, I’m so proud of it," she says.
Another aspect of business French has found challenging is the fact it's virtually impossible to make decisions that please everyone.
"Everyone has an opinion and you’re never going to make everyone happy, so sometimes you just have to put your blinkers on and make a decision. That’s hard," she says.
"If someone’s like ‘I want this colour’ but I know it’s not going to sell, I can’t do it."
Watch: Mamamia founder Mia Freedman on what she wishes she'd known before starting a company. (Post continues after video.)
As Boss Lady, no two days are the same for French — especially now she's pregnant. However, she always starts her day in the same way.
"I’ve been reading news articles that say ‘do not read emails in the morning,’ but I always do. I spend about one and a half to two hours on emails, at like 5:30am, so by the time I’m in the office at nine my inbox is clear and there’s nothing hanging over my head," she explains.
From there, it's a "crazy" combination of packing orders, running errands, visiting stores and functions. French is usually home by six, but she doesn't switch off when she leaves the office.
"It’s like that Rihanna song — ‘work, work, work, work, work, work’. I’m always on emails and I drive my husband crazy, but I love it," she admits.
"But I normally don’t work weekends. I put the work phone on silent, I’ll check social media, but I think it’s important to have a break as well.”
"You're never going to make everyone happy." (Image supplied)
Interestingly, French has found running her own business to be less stressful than working in someone else's. She no longer finds herself "sweating the small stuff", and she's got a useful calming technique for those more trying times — one she's learned through birthing classes.
"They teach this technique where you breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth. It’s honestly helped me so much, I’ve found myself doing that a bit these past few months," she says.
While she's going to be busy with the arrival of her baby in the months ahead, French hasn't ruled out the idea of another "baby" in the future.
“With Shanghai Suzy, I love that it’s just a lipstick brand. But I would love to branch into other things with another brand," she explains.
"My entrepreneurial brain is always ticking over and going crazy with new ideas. So I’m sure there will be something down the track.”
Have you ever started your own business? What was the biggest challenge?
Featured image: Supplied.