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Sephora’s Accelerate Program + tips to cultivating a community with Priyanka Ganjoo of Kulfi Beauty

Today I’m chatting to Priyanka Ganjoo, the Founder behind Kulfi Beauty.

Kulfi Beauty is a premium beauty brand and digital platform celebrating South Asian beauty with fun and approachable beauty products created with our community.

Founded by Priyanka Ganjoo, Kulfi Beauty was started with the mission of creating products that meet the unique needs of South Asian skin tones and undertones and challenging beauty standards in the community.

We’re chatting about her insights into approaching manufacturing and where to start, cultivating community, what the Sephora Accelerate program is really like and what made her launch successful.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Hi, I'm Priyanka Ganjoo, I'm the founder of Kulfi Beauty. Kulfi is a beauty brand that celebrates south Asian beauty and culture and the reason I started Kulfi was growing up, I never saw myself represented in the beauty industry and I wanted to change that.

00:04:49 We launched this year in February of 2021 with our hero product, which is the underlying casual eyeliner, which is a beautiful, beautiful eyeliner, that I hope that your audience will also find exciting. Uh I love it, I love everything about your brand. I've been following you for a while and I have so many of your pictures saved on my, on my instagram, you know, the beautiful branding, the campaign imagery, I'm just such a fangirl of everything you've been doing so far, congratulations for the launch and I'm really excited to dig in and understand how it went and how it's going and you know, all the good stuff, but let's go back to the very beginning, I'm sure it doesn't really begin this year, where does your entrepreneurial story actually starts? It's such a great question, because I feel like I finally found what I was always meant to do, but it took me, a while it's only in 2019 that I left my job after thinking about this idea of south of the South Asian beauty brands for yours right, I was spending yours thinking about it and I always had ideas that this was the one that truly so Stuck and truly felt like I couldn't get it out of my mind, and 2019 was basically when I did that tangible first step towards making this my full time obsession.

00:06:09 And so when you say tangible step that was quitting your job and going all in on bringing this to life, yep, Absolutely, that was a huge step for me. I uh, you know, put my savings into a bank account. I opened uh, legal entity. And uh, that was the beginning and fought an office chair. That was also like a nice fancy office chair for my home office. Uh, and these little things got us started. And then it was a lot of that customer discovery. And really trying to understand what I was trying to build. But I would say that just even taking that first step of saying like I'm going to do this regardless of what happens. I'm going to give myself time and energy and resources behind that. That was a big step. Mm I always love to know about the capital that it takes to start a brand and how you're able to finance in the beginning. So, my question is how much did it cost you to get started? Like in terms of your savings. And how were you able to give yourself like a runway without having any revenue coming in from the brand at all.

00:07:17 It's a great question. And honestly, there are people who started brands with like $10,000 from their mother or something like that. Which I mean really huge respect for them. Because I actually started by putting in $160,000 of my own money into the brand. And that's really that gave the runway that I needed to get our branding, get our product website campaign. All the initial pieces that you see on the site are really coming from that initial investment. And so, um, you know, in some respects, it can feel like a big commitment given that a lot of brands start, which much less and it is possible to start with much less. But the same time, you know, our brand is really elevated and joyful and I wanted to really give it the best I could from a visual perspective, from a product perspective, from an experience perspective. And so I think we we really made that initial bootstrap money worked really hard because I feel like it felt like a multi billion dollar campaign.

00:08:19 I mean, it looks like a multimillion dollar campaign for sure. It's incredible in those early days. You know, you were talking about, you have to set up the company and take those initial steps. What was it like going through the manufacturing stage of the business? Obviously, that's a key part of bringing a beauty brand to life, is finding the right partners, understanding what the product is going to be, like formulating all that kind of thing. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience and yeah, whether it was good, whether it was bad, what the learnings were, it started off really well, uh, I think the big challenge was obviously Covid last year Urban, a lot of manufacturers, um weren't really on the floor, which is completely understandable. So, the start was really, I walked in the beauty industry, I was at Fc where I ran merchandising and we were also manufacturing private label and so through that experience, I was able to make some vendor relationships go to trade shows, really understand the supplier landscape. And so when I started I had that background of, you know, knowing what suppliers I wanted to start by reaching out to and then I had to obviously go through a process of finding the right fit of someone who wanted to work with a brand as small as mine as well as uh who would meet our requirements in terms of formulations.

00:09:32 Right? So we shot a couple of vendors and found the right manufacturing partner for us. I think the challenge came last year when we were in the middle of product development and then pandemic happened, they were lockdowns everywhere globally. And so that really, really slowed down our manufacturing process, but the same time, that's something that I, I think like big friends and everyone struggled with. So, um I think the big lesson there was to, you know, just give things the time they need to really work out and build that trust relationship with the manufacturer because they were trying to do their best as well. Mm you said that you had a lot of experience in the beauty industry, working in these huge companies and you know, going to trade shows and understanding the landscape a bit better. But what would you say to a beauty entrepreneur who doesn't have that kind of background and experience, what are the kinds of things that they should look out for when they're kind of in that early phase of trying to find a manufacturer or formulate or, or a chemist. Yeah, I think the process is actually in some ways very similar.

00:10:36 You have to go to the trade shows. Uh, you know, there are so many here in new york in L. A. They're happening everywhere. Um, and you know, walk the floor, meet people, meet vendors, see what products they have, speak to probably like, you know, 10 vendors and then you will very quickly find out like who's responsive, what is their expertise, What are they known for? Speak to other beauty founders? Uh, you know, have you worked with this vendor? I mean sometimes some of this manufacturer information is fairly confidential, it's not easy to get access to it, but I think walking the trade shows, meeting with the vendors knowing which brands they work with, sometimes they will share that with you. I think that will give you the confidence you need to short list of vendors and once you get into working relationship with them, you know, just knowing how are they progressing against the milestones, are they able to develop the formula that you need? I think those are things that you will learn, it's definitely trial and error. and it was that on my end too because even if there's a vendor that might work for a certain product for a certain brand, it may not necessarily work for you and what you are trying to do.

00:11:39 So it's definitely a lot of trial and error totally. I jumped ahead of myself a little bit and I wanted to backtrack to ask, how did you land on the products that you were going to launch with? What made you choose the pencils, the eyeliners from the beginning and not say, you know, a serum or something else. Yeah, it's so funny because I actually was going to launch with concealer. That was the launch product originally because that's a huge pain point for me and for south asians that I knew my friends and family because complexion products are really hard to find for our skin tones and undertones. And so that's the product I've been actually working for now, almost more than two years now it's happening in the background. But through the customer journey, when I started doing interviews, I did surveys, I did focus groups. I realized that one of them must have products in every one's bag, makeup bag was the casual eyeliner. So casual is eyeliner and South asian culture. It's not even considered makeup. It's one of those first makeup products you pick up and traditionally it was made in the kitchen where your grandma would like one almond and mix it with like key or castor oil and then use that like black kind of mixture and apply to your eye as a way to ward off evil eye which is another.

00:12:59 And so there's a lot of like traditional storytelling and emotion associated with that product and I found out that a lot of people were still struggling to find a catchall that was pigmented and creamy, like the, you know what our grandma's used to make and that was my ah ha moment being like this is such a beautiful product, it's something, it was the first product that I sort of you know, first make a product that I ever wore and has such a great emotional connection with my community, I think that's the product we need to launch with and you know the concealer is gonna come next and that that definitely is going to happen. But brands are so much about like making that connection and I think like that casual eyeliner to me was the connection that I wanted to make. I think it's funny that you know, we have this idea of, we're going to launch with this and like this is the vision, but then as you speak to your desired customer or your, you know, your target customer, you're like, oh hang on, I'm resisting what actually people are asking for and I need to change my mindset here and shift to focus on what people are actually asking for and in doing that.

00:14:07 You already have an army of people who are ready and waiting for this product that you've been talking about, How many people did you have to speak to to actually kind of make that connection and then be like that's what we're doing now. So I did at least 100 in person conversations in New York and then we did like a whole day focus group where we probably had like 50 people come in and then we did surveys where we had, I would say like 3, 400 people fill it out. And so it was a lot of people I think and this is this is all done by me and you know, it was very much organic. We didn't say like a market research for him or anything to do that. But I think it got me really close to what the customer wants. So you know sometimes I do think like brand building is a mix of like the world you want to build and what the customer is saying, right? It's both in a way. You have to balance both because it's also about creating something that's new and unique that your customer doesn't expect or hasn't seen before. But you also have to listen to what they're saying.

00:15:09 So that's why I spent so much time in in with our customers and like trying to find out what they want, but I agree with you, you have to pivot and have to always listen to what they want. Yeah. It sounds like for your journey so far, it's been a really key part of the process in doing that customer research and listening to what people were telling you. And I guess it's like active listening where maybe at first you don't even notice that that's the thing that keeps coming up. But when you look back over the results, you're like, oh there it is. Like it's sitting right in front of me. This is it. Absolutely. Yeah. It's like, you know, people are like, oh, does the world need another eyeliner. I'm like, yes, the world needs been a big eyeliner. It does mean it because that's something that is in the background that people are telling me. Um One of the things that we've also continued to do is to instagram and through our community of writers that we have, we're also constantly going back to them and refining what else do they want to secure from us from a messaging perspective, from a product perspective.

00:16:11 So it's not like a once and done thing. You have to continuously go back and keep engaging with their community. Two. Mhm. Hey, it's doing here. I'm just popping in to bring you a quick message in every episode of the fSc show. You'll hear women who were just like you trying to figure it all out and hustled to grow their business and I would know a lot of you might be sitting there asking yourself, but how do I actually scale my revenue and get to that next level from where I am now. You also know that so many of the entrepreneurs I speak to have mentioned facebook and instagram ads as a crucial part of their marketing mix. From today onwards. I'm really excited to be able to offer our fsc small business owners and entrepreneurs and no strings attached our long chat with leading performance marketing agency amplifier, Who you might also remember from our D. I. Y. course, full disclosure amplifier is my husband's business. And what's really important to know is that I've been able to witness first hand the transformation of so many businesses going from as low as $10,000 a month.

00:17:28 All the way to $300,000 a month. And in some cases upwards to seven figures. So if you're listening in and you feel like you're ready to take your business to the next level, jump on a no strings attached call with amplifier where you can ask all the questions you have about performance, marketing and whether it's the right time for you and your business to get started, Go to female startup club dot com forward slash ads, that's female startup club dot com forward slash A. D. S. And booking a call today. I want to switch topics to talk about your community building specifically. I know that you have coffee bites, which is your editorial hub and that's why you've been producing a lot of content written content. What have your key steps to cultivating true community and building this loyal army of people around you. I think a big part of community building is allowing states for people to be seen and heard. I think it's, that's to me the big difference here in our approach because our editor some yahoo curates these stories.

00:18:37 She's spending time with people like talk to them, connecting with them every week, just understand how are you feeling, you know, what do you want to read about and how do you want to express yourself? I think that human connection, that personal connection, it's opposite of all this machine learning stuff that we've been, you know, people have been talking a lot about that, you know, like personalization but through these through technology and you know, while I'm in engineer by training so I definitely love technology but I think like what people are looking for more than that is that human connection creating space for people to feel seen and heard. And so you know, my personal experience writing for our blog for example and something as my editor to so she like helps me like find my true voice and I think like that was such an amazing process, like guiding other people giving them space to express themselves. That's what creates that connection with the brand. Uh that's much more than like what an algorithm or what, you know, some software can do.

00:19:40 Absolutely, that's so cool. You were in Sephora's accelerate program for 2021 this year or maybe it's still going, I'm not sure what was it like getting into that and what are the steps for people who are kind of wanting to get into that program, get into Sephora? So, Sephora this year had actually focused on founders of color and I think it was such an amazing opportunity and it's a great shift in that program because more than ever, I think we need more inclusive beauty brands and it was super, super exciting to get in. We were accepted into the program in december last year, before we had even launched. So I, I was really excited because before a have faith in us, even before we had, long before they've seen anything. Um, and that was, that was just amazing and I couldn't share until february to the announcement happened, it was so hard to keep that, you know, they were like, don't share it with anyone yet. So, in terms of the application process, it's very much very open in october last year, that's when we applied online, they asked us to send samples of our product as well as did an interview in november and then in december we found out and the program started in february, it ended just, it's actually still ongoing.

00:20:58 So next week, I think it's the concluding week, it's been just fantastic getting to know the Sephora team, getting to meet with founders who have been successful at Sephora and uh you know, just having these people that you can ask questions to and reach out to and of course, like also eventually launching with Sephora, that's that's something that we're looking forward to do in the future. Oh, that's so awesome. What is it that Sephora is looking for in their brands that they're bringing on now? You know, what's amazing to me is that Sephora focuses so much on the founder story as well as, you know what the brand truly stands for much more than, you know, are you a celebrity? You just bring like some, you know, there are a lot of brands that you've seen have kind of be created overnight because there's some celebrity that's behind it, or there's like something that's like sort of instantly makes the brand, whereas I feel that's a four are truly, is like who's the founder, who's leading the brand, you know, helping build the brand together with them as opposed to just having something that's already created because they truly believe that that that partnership is important to them and so obviously I can't speak for, what's the four looks forward.

00:22:13 I do think that what I've seen from them, say repeatedly to me and to the founders and the program is that the founders of the superpower and their personal passion is what really sets the brand apart. Yeah, it's so important to have that true passion and energy and excitement for what you're doing and that long term vision of, you know, really building a community of people around the brand who truly love it and celebrate it. I'm excited for you. When does it, when are you launching into Sephora? We're still talking to them, so I don't have a date yet, but you'll know when we're ready to announce that I can't wait. All right, let's talk about the launch. Let's talk about february this year. What were you doing in the lead up to launch to get everyone excited And how did it go? Oh my God, the launch went so well, much better than I ever ever expected. And I think it was because we had so many women and women of color who truly like went out of the way to give our brand of space whether that was in the press, you know, we we were covered by vogue and lore at NBC and you know, in style and like Forbes and you know, obviously I had a team uh that helped us with pr and they did a fantastic job.

00:23:31 So I'm really grateful for all of the editors. Beauty editors in our community who gave us space and shared with their friends and we haven't spent a single dollar in paid marketing yet and are launches completely. But driven by the Organic would have mild as well as the own media we got through the press oh my gosh and you've had so much amazing press, I loved the piece in vogue and I've just read about you all over the place, it's been super cool to see what is really driving or what's really working well for you at the moment when it comes to organic social media you know all the channels I think one of the things that is important is to actually create things that people value and want to share and I think you know early on last year when we were building our blog I would always think about like what's gonna get most likes and what's gonna get most shares and you know quickly you can start thinking about like oh I'm not seeing the increase in follower account and it can be discouraging but I think if you create things that people value as people discover them they will share and that's basically what's happened with us.

00:24:36 You know we have been building this blog and building this content and telling our story really since april of last year but it was only once we launched and people more people discovered us and discovered the content they started sharing it and we really rapidly group but we wouldn't have gotten there have we not made that investment early on. So I would say like don't worry too much about like immediate gratification of seeing those numbers clock really do continue to put in the quality of work consistently and as and when people find you, they'll find value in that and you'll start seeing those numbers pick up as well. Mm That's so true. That's so true. It's a good way to be thinking about it. Rather than getting bogged down with the stress of social media and how many likes is something getting how many views? Where is the business today? And what does the future look like when it comes to? Are you on track for revenue goals? Are you how big is the team? What new products are coming out? I know you mentioned concealer. I'm excited to know. Yeah. So this year we're really focused on our Director Consumer Channel, which is our Shopify website and really making sure we increase brand awareness through that word of maps through the organic content.

00:25:50 You know, we'll start testing out paid marketing over the your But that's really the focus for this year's to really build our Director Consumer Channel. And then next year, I think we're going to start looking into obviously the retail partnership as well as expanding our product roadmap and making those longer term investments. But I think one of the things that I've realized is that things take time and it's okay that they take time because people value the fact that you put in so much thought into it. And so I'm not rushing into, you know, let's let me launch five new products and let me get on to like every distribution channel and really taking it one step at a time and it allows us to really build voice and build narrative. One of the things I'm excited about for next month or actually this month is through already, Oh my God, is that we are finally partnering with plasma, the South asian Mental Health Association to do workshops with them. That's a big mental health is a, is are giving program and uh you know, this is says Mazar Force partnership and I'm really excited to give back to the community through the workshops that we are hosting with them.

00:26:57 Uh congratulations, I'm excited to see it come to life. That's so cool. Thank you. What advice do you have or what's the key thing that you'd want someone to know who's earlier on in the journey in building their business or what's the thing that you wish someone told you before you got started? I was just believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who believe in you. I, you know spend a lot of time doubting myself also because I heard a lot of rejection. I heard a lot of knows and I know people say that, but you always think you're special snowflake, that you're not going to hear those nose, but you hear those nose and it can be demoralizing. So my advice, you know, it's gonna get hard, it's gonna be challenging, but just believe that you have something special and persevere through those hard times. I think that's really what differentiates some of the biggest brands today. And we heard this advice actually from Sephora founders to or like founders who've been successful at Sephora perseverance and just like, you know, faith that it will work out was as feeling discouraged because there's always going to be challenges.

00:28:06 Yeah, that's so true. Every day can be a challenge. Sometimes we are up to the six quick questions part of the episode. I ask every woman on the show the same six quick questions so that I can look back and see if there's any trends or insights or interesting things that we can pull out some of it we might have covered already, but I asked them all the same. So question number one is, what's your, why, Why are you doing what you're doing? I think as a child growing up, had I seen a brand like coffee, I would have grown up feeling like I was beautiful and feeling more confident about myself and that really keeps me going. Yeah, it's really important. Really, really important Question. Number two is what do you think has been the number one marketing moment that's made the business pop. I do believe that the beauty editor is fighting about our brand as well as the product has definitely made us get the attention. You know, we were on the vogue home page and a lower home page when we launched and it was because people were interested in our stories and we have beautiful visuals and the really great product and I think that really put us on the map in a way that nothing I could have done would have mm hmm.

00:29:23Edit Yeah. So true Question # three is where do you hang out to get smarter? What are you reading or listening to or subscribing to that? Others would benefit from knowing about. One of my favorite podcast is how I built this. Which is similar to what you are building, which is amazing. And I think those stories of listening to other founders and having those really honest conversations have really helped me and inspired me to continue building and you know, always make me smarter and made me realize that ultimately, like businesses are about people right there about like these people who are pursuing their fashions and building companies with that fashion. It's a good show. I love how I built this to Guy Raz is amazing. Question # four is how do you win the day? What are your daily habits or rituals that keep you feeling happy and successful and motivated. The days that I feel like I'm winning, I don't always feel like all days I'm winning, but the day that I do feel I'm winning, I'll always typically have uh spend some time, you know exercising and just making sure that I give myself some time to take care of myself and then also make sure I connect with my partner, spend some time with him cause you with him.

00:30:36 I think those are always like really encouraging moments or bookends for me to start the day with exercise and end the day with spending time with my partner and just like, you know, reconnecting, love those small moments at the end of the day. So nice question number five is if you were given $1000 of no strings attached grant money, where would you spend it in the business? I would spend it on our people. You know, we have a very small team right now and be, you know, obviously being a lean startup, we are very careful with how we spend and so if I had $1000 that I could do something for my team, I think that's, you know, I would ask them, where what do they want to do with it and how do they want to spend it, whether that's a party or they want to do something different? Like it's their money? Oh, I love that, that's so cool. And question # six, last question is how do you deal with failure? What's your mindset and approach when things don't go to plan? I think like the first thing is recognizing that it's okay to feel sad, it's okay to feel rejected. I think it's okay to give yourself space to process that because you know, we're not always going to be optimistic and happy and that's okay.

00:31:44 So giving myself space to feel the rejection and you know, you know, process it. But then, you know, moving on and then going back to work because really it's about perseverance and getting back up and fighting against those challenges. Absolutely. Priyanka, thank you so much for being on the show today and sharing your journey so far with Kofi Beauty. I'm just such a cheerleader of what you're doing and I absolutely am obsessed with what it looks like and I can't wait to see what comes next. I'm so, so excited to be on this podcast and I really love what you're doing in building because I think the more stories we hear of women building things, the world's gonna look like a very different place. So true. It really is going to look like a different place.



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