Entrepreneurial spirit meets ethical awareness – and drives sustainable business practices

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Anna Ross is the founder of Kester Black, Australia’s leading ethical cosmetics brand. Cruelty free, palm oil free and vegan, Kester Black nail polish has set new benchmarks for sustainability in an industry notorious for its poor practices. Read on for lessons learnt from Australia’s nail polish queen, including why profit, not revenue, is king.

After I finished studying fashion design at university in New Zealand, I asked my mother to lend me $30,000 to launch a fashion label. She refused, and told me that I needed to go overseas to get some experience in the industry before I started my own company. I realised she was probably onto something, and so I flew to Australia straight after I graduated.

Funny little jobs

I was working in retail, but to keep my portfolio ticking over I started making jewellery under the brand name Kester Black. I was eventually offered a job as a production manager for a fashion label, but I knew that I would have to give up Kester Black if I accepted the role. So I turned the role down and took a job as an assistant to the director of an optometry association!

I’ve always had a funny little jobs, such as taking blood from patients in medical trials, or working as a dental assistant. I just like to acquire skills and I love learning.

“Well, that sounds odd…”

In 2012, I designed some rings that I wanted to colour with enamel paint. As nail polish is an enamel, I experimented with using it to paint the rings. That in turn, led to the idea that I could create a range of nail polishes to sell with my jewellery. I launched six nail polishes in August and tripled Kester Black’s turnover by Christmas.

Creating a cosmetics line was an obvious move from there, but it was already a crowded marketplace – how could I be different? I was having a conversation with my manufacturer and he asked me whether I wanted to use animal by-products in the polishes. My response was, “Well, that sounds odd… No!” The conversation prompted me to look into my competitors; it turned out that only one company was creating ethical products, and their colours didn’t appeal to me. Sustainable, ethical nail polishes became my point of difference.

Scrap fights and other challenges

Kester Black has a profile in the industry, which has been both positive and challenging. It’s critical, because we’re still tiny and we’re from Australia, but it also means that our competitors are keeping a close eye on us. We had a major scrap fight with one of the big manufacturers when we were trying to negotiate a deal with David Jones – which they won – while another big manufacturer has been watching us for a very long time.

We were initially able to break into the market by finding a new channel; we didn’t try to compete in the cosmetics space, but instead sold our products as a fashion accessory in clothing stores.

Raising industry standards

When I began Kester Black, my goals were to create a company that I would want to work for and to raise industry standards around ethical cosmetics. Vegan, cruelty-free nail polish is now the norm, which is awesome. Even if it means that Kester Black is pushed out of the market, it gives consumers more choice and helps to protect our animals and the environment.

Once the business began to grow, I became increasingly focused on revenue goals. The challenge was that, while we had more staff, we weren’t very profitable. People always talk about the ‘valley of death’ in business. We tried to make the jump but we didn’t quite make it!

I’ve now shifted my focus to profit margin and efficiency. We’re working towards automating our processes, so our seven staff can choose their hours and where they work from. That’s what success is.

If I had my time again…

I’d drink more coffee!

In all seriousness, there was a long period where I was working away on my own and not taking things too seriously; I was having fun, but I missed the opportunity to capture my market to its full potential. In hindsight, I had ideas that didn’t necessarily work for the company, such as focusing on free PR rather than advertising, and a ‘no meetings’ policy that didn’t benefit anyone – let alone me! I’ve discovered that the only way you learn – about marketing, about creating processes, about efficiency – is by meeting with people.

Changing my approach resulted in Kester Black being named as the second-best-selling nail brand in Sweden, behind global giant OPI. Our small Australian beauty brand really is taking on some of the biggest competitors in the world.

Hear more from Anna on our First Year Frontiers Podcast, where she shares her highs and lows of her first year as a small business owner.

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