June 25th, 2014
There are plenty of people who will tell you that beauty as an industry is booming. Worth literally billions worldwide, you’d think the biggest and the best would be overflowing with women round the boardroom table, as it’s fair to say women are the target market. Beauty however reflects society, and despite huge strides in equality of pay, women are very much the minority when it comes to the top jobs, in beauty as in everything else.
To say that this is a frustration to Nancy Cruickshank, founder of MyShowcase and a woman who has excelled in her career despite her gender, is an understatement. Warpaint meets her to find out how the digital age could finally break the glass ceiling and how she believes MyShowcase, her latest venture with Beauty Editor Kate Shapland, could create an army of female entrepreneurs and she has make-up artists in her sights.
WP: Can we start with your background, where were you brought up, go to school and Uni, who were your big influences growing up?
NC: I was brought up in cities – London, Hong Kong and New York. My Dad worked for Revlon and we lived around the world – wherever his job took us. He is a huge influence and inspiration in my life. He left school at 14 and raced cars and motorbikes. A serious accident left him unable to race and he reinvented himself as a highly successful salesman at Coty, then Pfizer….and eventually, Revlon. He is a shining example of how a working class boy, with little education, can successfully build a substantial corporate career. It taught me something vital about relentless determination and hard work; that you can achieve big things if you put your mind to it.
WP: How early in your career did you realise that you wanted to create businesses, not just work for them?
NC: I worked for Vogue in the early ‘90s, and was given the opportunity to launch all of the Condé Nast titles online in 1995. This was my first taste of creating something from scratch myself, albeit within a corporate environment, and it was addictive. I loved working with technology, understanding the power of the internet and the resulting changes in consumer behaviour. I learnt that I relished the opportunity to create products from a blank canvas, and that I was okay with handling risk. That risk of failure when you start something new is a vital tool in the entrepreneur’s toolkit.
WP: Where did you learn your business acumen? Who did you work for prior to launching handbag.com?
NC: I have always had an interest in business, fascinated by the dynamics of what differentiates great companies from their competitive set. Business acumen comes with experience, and the reality is that you don’t get it right all of the time, however much experience you gain. What is key is that you learn how to take calculated risks, how to be agile, to place more emphasis on areas of the business that are showing the greatest signs of success and scalability, and how to attract the best talent to your venture. Prior to launching Handbag.com, I worked for Condé Nast, BSkyB and, subsequently, I launched my first start-up, a property portal which I sold to an insurance company in 2000.
WP: You are often quoted in interviews about the juggling act of family versus career. What are the lessons you have learnt from striving to achieve a happy work life balance as a woman?
NC: My biggest learning in the area of work/life balance is that this is an incredibly individual and personal thing. There are no hard and fast rules, and it’s vital to be honest with yourself and your loved ones about what you want and need to achieve. It’s easy to be swept up in the perceived failures of others, or upsides of being a working mother, but you must be your own barometer of what’s right for you… and try to live this daily. No-one can have it all, all of the time. Perfect wife, brilliant entrepreneur, extraordinary mother, fabulous friend, dedicated daughter, community contributor… it’s an unrealistic idyll, and it’s possible to become guilt-ridden that you are underperforming across the board in this juggling act that so many of us perform.
I have a few personal mantras about this. I feel like I am on a mission with my job, I adore my kids, I love my husband, I place huge importance on the value of my friends, and I’m a loyal daughter and sister. Whilst I absolutely don’t get all of these things right all of the time, I try to be honest and open about what I can and cannot achieve at any given point in time. I don’t bake for the school cake sale and I don’t feel guilty about that. Time with my children is sacred and it has to be fully involving of them and me. I have a husband who is my life partner and is as involved with our children and household as I am. I tell my girls about my work and why I love it. I attend a mindfulness class almost every Friday morning, and it helps me to be fully conscious and more appreciative of all aspects of my life, rather than purely striving for what’s next. For me it’s not a work/life balance, it’s just life.
For so many talented women, this juggling act is not appealing or possible, particularly if your job is not sufficiently engaging and flexible, when required. This is where MyShowcase comes in, enabling hundreds, and soon thousands, of women to build sustainable and exciting businesses – but flexibly – to suit their personal circumstances.
WP: Tell us a little bit about how handbag.com came about, and how having such a successful company has helped in developing My Showcase.
NS: Handbag.com developed through the early 2000s. By 2005, it had become the number one fashion and beauty website in the UK, with 1.5 million readers every month. It created first-class online content for women aged 25 to 45. It catered for me, aged 30 in 2000, with an interest in Fashion, Beauty, Wellbeing, Relationships, Career and more. It helped to inspire My Showcase, as I noticed that of our 400k women who actively used our discussion forums each month, there was a huge amount of discussion about launching a business or finding more flexible career opportunities. I launched a Women in Business programme that we ran at Handbag for some five years, where our readers submitted their business plans to an expert panel of female entrepreneurs and they gained access to mentoring, awards and incentivised small business loans via our partner, Barclays. Research highlighted the fact that every year in the UK, there are 100,000 businesses conceived by women which never get off the ground. This felt like an enormous wasted opportunity to me and stuck firmly in my brain.
Separately, I sit on the Beauty industry trade board, CEW. It highlighted the vast amount of innovation in the beauty industry to me. 40% of the patents applied for in Europe each year relate to Health and Beauty, and yet we do not see all of this innovation in our traditional retail outlets. Bringing these two things together, MyShowcase was born. It’s a contemporary, multi-brand and tech-enabled approach to sustainable and inspiring direct retail.
WP: Women in Business was something clearly close to your heart. Women are still hitting a glass ceiling, throughout your career has this frustrated you and why do you think that this is still the case or are times changing? Is this because of the new technology now available, women don’t need to be 9-5 anymore?
NC: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is inspiring and compelling on this subject in her book, Lean In. She points to the many cultural, economic and societal challenges that drive the results around women in leadership positions in business. It’s a challenge, and whether we subscribe to a view that women are opting out (because too many businesses are inflexible) or being kept at arms length from the leadership table (because women are too often assigned to being nurturers, not leaders), the fact remains that there are still too many glass ceilings still intact in business today.
But things are changing, albeit slowly, and in some companies for men as much as women. Look at Arianna Huffington’s latest business book, Thrive. She points to a third metric, one that measures how an individual is thriving in life/business, alongside the traditional success metrics of money and power. Will this attract and enable women to occupy more leadership positions? Maybe. I have always leaned in to my career, and with a family I am become increasingly aware of the importance of thriving along the way. I endorse Sandberg and Huffington, but my own perspective is that this should not be considered in shades of black and white. Whether you are leaning in or out, fresh and disruptive flexible opportunities are the order of the day for My Showcase. There are no glass ceilings and you set the rules to suit your agenda.
WP: Your career has benefited from the digital world, do you feel you were in the right place at the right time?
NC: Yes! I jumped into launching Condé Nast online in my mid-twenties and gained experience and expertise that quickly became mainstream and attractive. Without doubt, I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I have embraced and nurtured my specialism and passion over the past 20 years.
WP: What is it about beauty, and in particular make-up that interests you in business terms? Clearly this is not just because you are female, how have you identified the sector as a growth market?
NC: Beauty, and particularly make-up, is indeed fascinating to me. It’s a consumable category that women care passionately about. At a product level, it’s full of innovation, creativity and breeds personal confidence. The beauty industry is worth £17bn in the UK alone (US$160bn globally), and only 3.5% of purchases are made online. There has not been enough innovation in beauty retail and yet virtual retail is evolving in a highly compelling and social manner, which we believe will become a significant sales channel for make-up and beauty brands as we develop.
WP: Can you tell us why you think My Showcase is different to other direct marketing companies?
NC: There’s always something new and we don’t rely on one single brand that we manufacture ourselves. Instead, we showcase 25+ outstanding independent brands, created by fantastic (mostly female) entrepreneurs. All of our brands and products are selected and curated by Kate Shapland, The Telegraph Magazine Beauty Editor and MyShowcase co-founder. This means our stylists will always have new and exciting brands and products for your customers to discover and buy.
We do not rely only on house parties. Instead, in addition to our showcases, our stylists can also entice hosts and guests with practical, hands-on advice and training sessions (we call them ShakeUps) for skincare and make-up. Furthermore, we help our stylists generate sales online and offer the same commission rate on all sales, regardless of how they are made.
We treat our hosts very differently from other direct sales companies. We gift our host a £40 voucher plus a 20% personal discount regardless of sales. We think it’s important that our stylists, hosts and their guests feel at ease. We despise pressure selling.
We only succeed if you succeed. We don’t make money from selling stylist kits or have hidden charges for mentoring, additional training, access to marketing materials or use of a website to promote your business. Our mission is to support female entrepreneurship. We want to help you (and our brands) build successful businesses.
WP: Our readers are make-up artists, you have identified them in particular as the perfect My Showcase target, why is that?
NC: We have several make-up artists amongst our stylist network today and they are some of our most successful stylists. Why? MyShowcase offers make-up artists a retail outlet to the service that they presently provide. As a make-up artist, how often are you asked for recommendations on what to buy or application techniques? Daily, no doubt. This is a great, multi-brand opportunity to make money out of your recommendations… and to extend your expertise into skincare. Likewise, there is a flip side to this. Make-up artists sometimes find new clients for their make-up artist services from their showcases.
WP: What would you say to our make-up artists as to why they should join My Showcase?
NC: MyShowcase offers you all of the tools and mentoring that you will need to build an outstanding beauty retail business that harnesses your skills and complements your existing work as a make-up artist. If you want to build a significant team and business, you can genuinely achieve that with MyShowcase. If you need something more flexible and part-time, that’s entirely possible too. The sky’s the limit and there are no glass ceilings. Make-up artists are a hugely appealing community that MyShowcase is keen to welcome on board.
WP: Have you had any serious knock backs in your career that have made you stronger and wiser in business? How have you dealt with them?
NC: My first business, Smove.com (a property portal) launched 6 months before the first dot com crash exploded onto the front pages of newspapers around the globe. It taught me about timing and agility. In days, we went from an environment where it was possible to raise capital on the back of an idea (which I had done) to it being impossible to raise ongoing capital for business growth even if your business had decent traction. I had to sell the business quickly to a trade buyer or risk losing it altogether… and leaving many employees high and dry. I learnt about the role of timing and some good luck. I learnt that one must be agile to survive. It was also reassuring to learn that I am categorically a team player, who is not prepared to compromise my team for personal gain.
WP: You and Kate are friends, but working with friends has its drawbacks. How did you decide on the My Showcase concept? And how is it working with someone so close outside of work?
NC: Kate and I have been industry friends and contacts for years, but we have become friends via working on MyShowcase together. I had the initial idea for MyShowcase and wanted to bring on board a first class beauty expert/editor as a co-Founder to further hone the idea and bring it to market. I discussed it with Kate and she leapt at the opportunity. She is, like me, a huge advocate of independent beauty brands and she saw the opportunity. Kate and I are part of a team of four co-Founders and we fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, each with our own unique expertise that is important to MyShowcase. That’s how we make it work, and we make sure that we support and respect each other and have some fun along the way.
WP: Where geographically is My Showcase strongest for networks, and where in the UK would you like to see developed?
NC: We have stylists all over the UK, but with just over 100 stylists today, there are clearly huge areas where we have very limited coverage, especially in some fantastic cities around the UK such as Manchester, Leeds, Cardiff, Glasgow and Birmingham. I believe that we can support up to 5k stylists in the UK without saturating the market and limiting the opportunity for each of our entrepreneurs. I want to develop and mentor more fabulous stylists all over the UK. We are biased only in favour of our stylists, without any geographical boundaries.
WP: What’s next for you?
NC: I want to enable thousands of successful female-led businesses all over the world . There is a huge opportunity to build a substantial business with us in the UK today and I am excited about extending this to international markets as we learn and mature.