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23-year-old CEO: How I made a dorm room side hustle into a business bringing in $1 million

Akilah Releford started her company Mary Louise Cosmetics as a side hustle in her dorm room. Here's how the company's CEO worked up to bringing in $1 million in revenue.

Akilah Releford
Akilah Releford is the founder and CEO of Mary Louise Cosmetics.
Courtesy Akilah Releford

My journey as a beauty entrepreneur started in my dorm room at Howard University. When I began college, my plan was to follow in my father's footsteps and become a surgeon. But I soon discovered I wasn't as excited about working on organic chemistry homework as I was about mixing up organic DIY skin-care recipes and sharing my creations with my floor mates. 

One night in the fall of my junior year, I made a Twitter thread about my favorite beauty hacks and tips. I didn't think anything of it, but when I woke up the next morning, it had gotten over 30,000 retweets. I had hundreds of direct messages from girls asking me about which products they could make at home. 

That's when I realized that my love of makeup wasn't just a hobby — I could turn it into a business. Today, my vegan, organic, and cruelty-free skin care company, Mary Louise, is on track to generate $1 million dollars this year. 

Like many companies, we were prompted to reevaluate our business model by the effects of Covid-19. We closed our Los Angeles retail location until further notice, for example. But we have successfully been able to pivot. In addition to our collections of serums, body butters and masks, we launched an affordable hand sanitizer and accompanying moisturizing soap, and we have seen our online sales dramatically increase. 

My experience turning my side hustle into a fully fledged brand has helped me steer my company during this moment of uncertainty. If you're looking to start a business right now, here are some of the lessons I have learned that still help me today.

High quality doesn't have to mean expensive 

From the start, I knew that I wanted to create high-quality products at an accessible price point, since my customer base at the time was made up of mostly college students. The first two products I sold at school were a $30 Miracle Serum and a $32 Mississippi Mud Mask. The ingredients were high-quality but easy to source, which kept my cost down, and made them more affordable for my peers. We still sell them today.  

I used $600 I saved from my part-time retail job at Zara to buy my first batch of inventory and a domain name. In the very beginning, I worked with what I had. I taught myself how to create Facebook ads and Google shopping ads to start to reach new customers, and made a concerted effort not to go outside my budget.

I watched my personal spending carefully and cut back on things like girls' trips and lunches out with my friends. But I was more than OK with sacrificing a few things if it meant that I could use those resources to help Mary Louise grow.

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My website went live December of 2016 over winter break and I announced the launch on Twitter. We soon had a slow, but steady stream of sales coming in. In December and January, the company generated between $20,000 and $30,000 a month from those online sales.

I was thrilled, but I was still so preoccupied with school obligations that I actually decided to turn the website off during February and March of 2017. 

In April, another round of exams came to an end, and I finally had more time to focus on the brand. So I turned the website back on and hoped that my customers would still be there. A week after I restarted the business, I received more orders in a single day than I got in that first two months months combined. It was as if those initial customers had been waiting to buy from us again, and they brought all of their friends with them.

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Your collaborators may be closer than you think

I decided to name my company Mary Louise after my maternal and paternal grandmothers. Growing up, I was so inspired watching them use their own homemade remedies and natural recipes in their beauty and wellness routines. And fittingly, Mary Louise has been something of a family business since the beginning. 

At first, in the dorm, I made microbatches of products, 30 to 50 at a time. There really wasn't much room to spread out to mass produce, so I worked with what I had. I ordered the raw materials online from organic/all-natural certified retailers who carried the specific oils and clays that I needed. 

But that spring, it quickly became clear that I just didn't have room for all of the inventory and packing materials I needed to fill all the orders. No one I knew had a car and lugging bags and boxes to the post office on the DC Metro didn't seem like a sustainable plan. So my dad essentially volunteered to be my unofficial co-founder and temporary fulfillment center. 

I realized that my love of makeup wasn't just a hobby — I could turn it into a business.
Akilah Releford
Founder and CEO of Mary Louise Cosmetics

For several weeks, while I finished up my spring semester, 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles, he used our home and his office to manufacture mud masks, serums, and cleanser. He cleaned and sterilized the containers and even labeled them by hand. Then he would organize the orders and have them ready to ship, dropping off about 100 orders a week to the post office.

To manufacture, label, and package a 100 orders in the same day would take maybe three to four hours, if you're doing it by yourself. So my mom and little sister were always close by and helping out as well.

I'm so grateful that my family has always been so supportive of my entrepreneurial journey, so much so that they suggested that summer that I take a semester off to see how I could grow Mary Louise. They even helped me establish my LLC.

A semester turned into two years, and I've never looked back. 

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Building a community will see you through tough times 

When I started Mary Louise, I had 1,000 Twitter followers. Today, the company has nearly 12,000 on Instagram. From the beginning, I had an audience on social media that I was able to grow organically by interacting with them and posting DIY skincare tips that anyone could use. It was a low-cost but effective way to build a loyal customer base.  

When I introduced a product, I knew I would already have thousands of potentially interested buyers. And creating the space for an authentic audience to flourish is something I try my best to do today.

Building a solid community around you and your brand is invaluable. They will root for you, especially when you have to pivot. 

Building a solid community around you and your brand is invaluable. They will root for you, especially when you have to pivot. 
Akilah Releford
Founder and CEO of Mary Louise Cosmetics

When Covid-19 first started affecting business across the country, I immediately thought about ways we could adapt. We wanted to launch a new, affordable product with the resources we already had in stock, that could help our community at the same time. Thanks to a suggestion from my surgeon dad, we quickly launched a hand sanitizer spray formulated from one of our aftershave products, which has a heavy alcohol base.

We made a 2-ounce hand sanitizer spray and gel that retails for $6. And our customers have stuck with us, and continued to tell their friends.

To date, we've sold around 1,000 units online and 2,000 units in our retail space, before all nonessential businesses closed. We also developed essential oil hand and body soaps to go with our hand sanitizers to help our customers to keep their hands clean and moisturized at the same time. We have donated proceeds from each unit sold to several Covid-19 relief funds.

And despite all the uncertainty, we are still on track to generate $1 million in revenue this year. 

This moment has taught me a lot. As an entrepreneur, you try to plan out ahead as much as possible, but the reality is this: You never know what the next day will bring. But creating a loyal community and trying your best to be as resilient as possible during times of adversity can put you ahead of the curve. 

Akilah Releford is an entrepreneur, skin-care enthusiast, and founder of Mary Louise Cosmetics, a clean beauty brand that BuzzFeed has voted #1 in "21 Life-Changing Beauty Products You Should Try in 2019." After leaving her pre-med track to pursue entrepreneurship full time, Akilah has dedicated the last 3 years to growing a company focused on producing high quality skincare products at accessible price points. When Akilah's not creating organic beauty products in her hometown of L.A., you can find her traveling the world in searching for new, diverse, and natural raw materials that her customers will love.

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