We interview Ponchitta Lilly of Ponch Cosmetics. Pochitta has a really interesting story about how she was a government clerk processing Social Security applications, which was a bit boring for her, so she was trying to figure out what to do with her life instead of that. She went to college, and in a marketing class she got an assignment to pitch a product that she loved. In doing that assignment, she discovered a desire to start her own cosmetics company. In this interview, she shares her story of how she did just that. She’s been doing it for about two years now, and she shares lessons she’s learned that I think can be really useful to people wanting to start similar businesses.
Jasper: I think if anybody has a product line out there, especially if there’s a series of products, then you’re definitely going to want to listen to Ponchitta. She has some great advice.
Meredith: Ponchitta, you have a line of highly pigmented cosmetics. Can you tell us a little bit about that and also about how you came to develop that line?
Ponchitta: Yes, Meredith, it started about three years ago. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life and I went back to college. And while I was in college I had a marketing assignment in which I had to sell a product that, one, I loved, and two, I knew a lot about. At the time I started my project, I wasn’t quite sure what it was that I was good at. Of course, that’s why I went back to school. I was trying to find out what it was I wanted to do with my life. After heavy contemplation, I looked around my room at home one day and saw nothing but cosmetics on my dresser. I thought, “Wow. I must really love make-up and cosmetics.”
A light bulb went off in my head and I thought, “I guess that would be a perfect thing for me to start my project on because I’m pretty passionate about it.” Long story short, I did research, I did homework, and I found out a lot of information about the cosmetics industry. And not only that, I found that I was passionate about it. That passion was the one driving force that helped me to start my business. I loved make-up, I was always my friends’ go-to person when it was time to either make up their faces or give them background information about certain cosmetics brands. That’s how it started for me.
The main thing that was lacking in the industry was highly pigmented products for African American women. As African American women, we often have a hard time finding a perfect match for our skin, skin types, and complexions. So I looked for products that would help us in that area. That’s how I got started with my business.
Jasper: What were you doing before you started your business, Ponchitta?
Ponchitta: I worked for the U.S. Government. I was a government employee.
Jasper: Doing what?
Ponchitta: I was a service representative helping individuals file for Social Security benefits and learning about disability.
Jasper: How did you make the transition? Did you start your business while you were still working and then gradually build it up, or did you go straight from one to the other?
Ponchitta: Yes, I started my business while I was still working and, to be honest with you, I started grand. I thought I was going to make this grand entrance into the market because I had this great idea. I’m glad that I didn’t quit working right away because it didn’t take off as fast as I thought it would. However, I did gain some momentum eventually to where I started to phase myself out from the other job so that I could go into my business full-time. So it all worked itself out.
Meredith: How did you go about developing a line of cosmetics? What was your first step in doing that?
Ponchitta: I did some research to find manufacturers in the United States and abroad. I looked for specific manufacturers that catered to a large range of clients for women of color. That was my main concern, trying to find a manufacturer that catered specifically to our skin. Now, I do have customers that are not African American or Hispanic; however, I largely market to that actual market because I know a lot more of them, of course, because I’m African American myself.
However, once I found the manufacturers and the products, then I was ready to start the business. I actually started my first round of testing products. I tested my products on a group of family members who were as light as some of my fairest Caucasian friends. I have some family members who are fair skinned and then I have some really, really dark family members. I wanted to be able to have that range and depth in my products so I could market that in my business as well. When I say highly pigmented, I look for products that have a high pigmentation in color that show up very well with the dark skin and light skin alike.
Meredith: Are you mostly selling these yourself online, or do you have a little studio where people come in and get makeovers, or are you selling your products through different stores?
Ponchitta: I sell my product online mostly, and direct. When I started my business, in order to test my market I started hosting make-up parties. Kind of like what Mary Kay® distributors do, but I did it on a different level. I would host make-up parties. We would have big, grand parties with food and champagne and we would literally have a make-up slumber party. We would try on and test out products, pretty much have fun while doing it, and I would explain my products in comparison to other products that were on the market to the women who were interested.
Meredith: Are you still doing those all yourself or have you branched into a Mary Kay®-like model where other people are giving those parties on your behalf?
Ponchitta: Other people are not giving the parties just yet, however, I have been asked and I thought about it. I haven’t actually put that in my business model just yet, but that is a future plan of mine down the line. However, at this particular time I have help, I have some employees. My daughter has helped me and I have her friend who also helps with the parties we host. So I do have a team now. but it is in the near future, hopefully, that I will get distributors. I’m also looking to branch out and possibly place my products into department stores down the line.
Meredith: How long have you had this line of cosmetics?
Ponchitta: Two years.
Meredith: How long did it take before it started making a profit for you?
Ponchitta: Probably a year and a half. I worked really hard because I had to leave my job. I could not leave my job until I started to make a profit. And that’s really fast because I’ve heard a lot of other entrepreneurs tell me it’s taken them much longer. But what I did was set goals for myself and I set out to make those goals under any circumstance, and I stuck to that. That’s what’s really helped me.
Jasper: That’s very good. Two years is quite fast indeed, especially if you’re working full time as well.
Jasper: What do you think you need to take you to the next level?
Ponchitta: Wow, what I would need, absolutely need, would be distributorship. That’s going to be the one thing: mass-marketing is going to help me take it to the next level. Again, when I say that I am looking into a larger distributorship in the future, that’s what I’m working on currently, trying to get my products out there. I have a five-year plan and in my plan I move from Texas. I’m going to the southwest region because that’s where African Americans are mostly concentrated in the U.S. My five-year plan is going to help me tackle that market so that I can get my product in these areas in order to accomplish my goal of mass-marketing my products.
Favorite Book: Girl Boss by Sophia Ameroso
Favorite Resource: Story Exchange
Want to get a free audiobook version of the book recommended by this week’s guest? Click here to download it.
Ponchetta Lilly Tips
1) You have to research your market.
2) Don’t go buying big ticket items before they are absolutely necessary – start by selling your products online before you spend out for a retail location.
3) Appearance counts – look as professional as possible within your budget.
4) Experiment – don’t just do what someone else does – do what works for your business – you may need to experiment to find out what those things are.
5) Always be prepared to take risks.
Ponch was created by Ponchitta Lilly out of her love of cosmetics – a brand focuses on safe ingredients that beautify and protect the skin. All Ponch products are hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic. Ponch offers products that are paraben-free and cruelty-free. Ponchitta started out as a government clerk processing Social Security applications, which she found a bit boring, so she was trying to figure out what to do with her life instead of that. She went to college, and in a marketing class she got an assignment to pitch a product that she loved. In doing that assignment, she discovered a desire to start her own cosmetics company.
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