In this week’s Entrepreneurial Empowerment blog, we’re chatting to Maria Semykoz, the co-founder of startup artificial intelligence-led skincare brand, What’s In My Jar (WIMJ).
Before launching WIMJ, which combines technology, personalisation and skincare, Maria summed up the pros and cons of setting up her own business and following her entrepreneurial dreams: “I thought that likely startup failure is better than certain regret.” Pretty powerful!
Packed with tips and insights into preparing, launching and navigating life as a startup beauty tech entrepreneur, we get the lowdown on life as an indie beauty brand. What entrepreneurial win is equivalent to six hours more sleep? Read our interview with Maria Semykoz to find out what really could be this rejuvenating and revitalising!
A Bit About Co-Founder Maria Semykoz’s Inspiration
I had blemish-prone skin as a teenager. Then later in life, working long hours as a management consultant, I struggled with dull-looking, dry, sensitive skin. I started spending more and more on skincare, but realised my skin was not getting any better. Actually, it was getting worse.
So I buried myself in research articles published in dermatology journals (I am a bit of a nerd), and developed my own excel spreadsheets documenting skincare ingredients, clinical evidence behind their efficacy, and notes on their chemistry. Long story short, I was able to create a simple, but very effective skincare routine for myself. It took me hundreds of hours and lots of trial and error, but the resulting routine was not expensive at all. No secret products or ingredients, just an approach grounded in publicly available scientific knowledge.
Then I met Dr Sandy Skotnicki. She shared with me how she sees patients on a daily basis who are making poor decisions around their skin by using too many products or products with the wrong ingredients. So I realised I wasn’t the only one struggling with finding skincare.
On a personal level, we’ve experienced the downside of the current state of the beauty industry on our own skin.
Skincare is more than an indulgence or a simple cosmetic, it’s part of one’s wellbeing and self-care, the same way going to the gym and nutrition are. And with any long term change, people want to know that what they use will actually deliver. This is the start of the evidence-based skincare.
About the Business, What’s In My Jar (WIMJ)
Starting as a hobby project in early 2019 and launching with the free section of its website in September 2019, WIMJ made its first test consultations available in February 2020.
Imagine, a data specialist from Ukraine (Maria), a techie from Germany (Stefan), a dermatologist from Canada (Dr Skotnicki), and a French-American biomedical student (Chloé) come together and decide it’s time that everyone deserves to have access to high-quality, evidence-based skincare advice. Adapted to their lifestyle. To their budget. That’s the story of WIMJin a nutshell.
Why did you set What’s In My Jar up?
Once I had the idea of What’s In My Jar, I realised that if I didn’t give it a try, I would regret it at some point in my life. I thought that likely startup failure is better than certain regret.
The ambition to change the skincare industry and make it more focused on the needs of real people has been more of an ‘external’ motivator. Especially since my co-founders, Stefan Hesse and Chloe Hardy made a reckless decision to join the team; I knew we had a real shot.
What do you remember about those early days and how have things changed for you since then?
Things definitely appeared easier than they turned out to be. I am glad though because knowing all the difficulties upfront — though I’m certain I don’t know most of the difficulties we will need to solve yet — would probably have made me not do it.
What/Who has helped you along the way to continue to grow and evolve?
My co-founders are the number one source of strength and inspiration. Knowing they don’t give up, even when something is not going as we hoped, is the strongest pick me up.
Beyond our team, I am very grateful for the support and infrastructure that exists for entrepreneurs these days. From online start-up schools, founder communities to physical meetups (pre-COVID) — there are so many resources available for free to tap into, individual founders who give inspiration and mentors who offer encouragement and support.
I’ve been lucky to know some incredibly tenacious and inspiring founders personally. And those long founder-to-founder chats definitely make a difference. Sometimes even reading a tweet from a stranger who is battling their own startup issues can give that boost of motivation to keep going. To try something new. To try harder.
And of course, on a more personal note, I am incredibly lucky to have my husband by my side, who is with me for all of the ups and downs of this journey.
Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with the advice given to startups to launch early, to get the product to the customer as soon as they can. Nothing compares to receiving an email from your early customer saying that your product has made their life better. I’d say it’s equivalent to getting an extra six hours of sleep.
Do you have ‘mindset musts’ that you swear by?
I am probably too early in my founder career to develop my own recipes just yet. One thing, though, that helps me to improve at my job is remembering that building a startup is fun.
Of course, it gets difficult, it can get frustrating, a little hopeless at times. But it’s something you wanted to do in the first place, not because someone made you or because it seemed like a good career choice — it is the work that sparks joy in you. I think it’s important to keep it this way, maintain that element of play, and not take yourself too seriously.
How do you cope with and overcome barriers?
I think keeping a routine is important. Of course, flexibility is a great part of building your own startup. I still found, though, that keeping a rough resemblance of a structured workday is extremely helpful. Starting the day at the same time, with the same team ritual (we have daily stand up meetings in the morning), reserving a time for lunch, and a workout, and closing the laptop at some reasonable evening hour.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. No matter what happens, you still need to keep going, at least one step forward — every single day. I found that most challenges give in if you simply keep working on solving them. And a routine helps to make this ‘keep working’ attitude a habit.
What do you define as success and how do you celebrate it?
For us, success is defined in terms of customer outcomes: those emails with positive feedback, new sign-ups. You should see my happy dance when a customer decides to trust us with a paid subscription!
Since we work remotely and haven’t seen each other since COVID-19 started, we haven’t had real team celebration moments yet — but I’m sure we’ll be able to correct that soon.
What are the top lessons that you’ve learnt as an entrepreneur?
We’ve learned that doing something ourselves and learning a new skill from scratch pays off more than outsourcing the task. An early-stage startup moves at such a high speed that your processes are still raw and the requirements are changing all the time.
Because of that, to do something well, you need to be immersed in its context fully. In other words, you better get comfortable with a steep learning curve. And don’t get tempted to hire someone who would magically solve your problem.
What are your top tips for anyone dreaming of setting up their own venture, struggling with getting it off the ground, or equally, are in it, but finding it hard?
I am not sure if I’m qualified to give this advice, but since you’ve asked, I’ll pass on the tip I got from another founder who had been working on his company for over five years before the first signs of real success. He told me to focus on taking one step forward every single day, no matter how big or small. Just keep going.
Take a look at What’s In My Jar on Instagram, @wimj.ee.
You can also check out our entrepreneur empowerment movement here or over on Instagram @lionspiritmedia.