On Sept. 30, Charles Brandon will turn 25 — and it’s strange, he said, to see people his age get married.
Recently, he connected with a friend, Steven Quach, during an event at Railgarten, which was his first outing in two months. Quach tied the knot in April, yet for Brandon, such an action seems far off in the distance.
Because for now, he's pouring his life into his local startup, Beauty By Me — a commitment that has him working 80 to 90 hours a week, sleeping at the office often, and traveling frequently. The cosmetics technology business is entering a high-growth stage, and he's looking to scale it up, further improve its product, engage clientele, and raise $3.5 million to $5 million in seed funding.
“It’s like having a business and a baby,” he joked. “We’re not just solving one problem. Software company [founders] wake up in the morning, and think, ‘How can I improve my software…’ For us, we have hardware, software, chemistry, and branding.”
Brandon likes to compare Beauty By Me’s flagship device to a Keurig — they are similar in shape — only this product dispenses custom-colored nail polish, not coffee. You can take a photo of your purse, shoes, or whatever other object you have in mind; send it to the device over Beauty By Me’s app; and watch as it creates a nail polish of that color within minutes.
Essentially, uncolored nail polish — which Beauty By Me also produces — is put into the machine, and it changes the color, on demand.
Hot water and a tea bag
The idea for the product stemmed from a business law summer course Brandon took at the University of Mississippi, where he was a rising sophomore. As the class went over the process of starting businesses, he decided to launch his own, and he began to look, more and more, into cosmetics.
He was surprised to find people were paying $15 to $20 for bottles of nail polish. And he was certain the production cost wasn't that high.
So, he took several different bottles of it, put the different ingredients into an Excel spreadsheet, and found that there was only a 2% difference between a red nail polish and a blue nail polish — that 2% difference being the colorant. It was, he explained, like hot water and a tea bag. The tea you choose changes it entirely; the water is a base.
“Chemically, about 98% of the product [nail polish] is the same,” he said. “So, if 98% of this is like an uncolored, translucent product, and 2% changes all the color, [I thought], 'What if somebody made a machine that changes the color, and we treat it like a Keurig?'”
Excited about the possibility, he recruited Peter Philips and Travis Floyd, old friends from his high school, Memphis University School (MUS), as cofounders, and launched the business. Floyd has an engineering degree from the University of Memphis and is now Beauty By Me’s COO.
But the team had little knowledge about startups.
“I couldn’t have told you what one was when I was leaving high school,” he said. “I didn’t know about raising capital [or] know there were angel investors.”
Rather than seeking external funds, for the first four years, they operated out of Floyd’s garage, developing various iterations of the product, and scraping by with their own investments and support from family and friends.
Brandon consulted for other businesses to pay patent bills; Floyd, who had another job then, put half of his paycheck toward the business.
The next step
The situation, of course, has since changed, and about six months ago, Beauty By Me scored $700,000 in seed funding. It now operates out of a 4,000-square-foot space in the Schilling Farms Business Center in Collierville, and has nine full-time staffers.
As it raises $3.5 million to $5 million more in funds in the upcoming seed round, the plan is to hire 10 to 20 more employees — with roles in everything from computer science and engineering to marketing and customer relations. Brandon is hoping to hire from local colleges and universities.
The device, meanwhile, is currently being piloted in eight salons in Memphis, which are providing feedback as Beauty By Me staffers continue to adjust and improve the product. There's also heavy interest nationwide. When I spoke to Brandon, he had recently returned from meetings with major salon groups in San Fransisco and Los Angeles, and he was gearing up to leave for another rendezvous in Boston.
The company is starting with a B2B rollout, offering salons a professional version of the device that they use with monthly payments. The goal is to follow this with a consumer-model of the product, which, at scale, will be sold for about $100 — with at-home customers then ideally continuing to purchase the uncolored nail polish from the company.
“We’re going for impact here,” Brandon said. “Think about the razor-and-blade model. We want to give you the razor, so you buy blades for life; we want to keep selling you those consumables each month.”
Yet while Beauty By Me is gaining momentum, the journey ahead won’t be an easy one, especially as the business enters a new stage, and continues to grow.
For as Brandon is keenly aware, they’re not just building a product in a garage anymore.
“You have to learn to go from being a founder who had no resources, to a founder who learns how to deploy capital efficiently and quickly. I’m working through it now because I’m used to bootstrapping and trying to negotiate for deals,” he said. "But the fact of the matter is that we’re about to be given $3.5 million to $5 million to allocate quickly, to get the most impact quickly … so there is a shift ahead of us."