Two years ago, Jenn Harper couldn’t afford to quit her job to devote herself full time to her makeup company, Cheekbone Beauty, which has developed a line of lip glosses and other makeup products that celebrate Indigenous women.
Instead, the Ojibway-Canadian woman from St. Catharines, Ont., worked full time as a sales rep for a seafood company during the day, came home to feed her family and hang out with her kids, and then worked from about 8 p.m. to midnight every night at her fledgling business to do customer service and order fulfillment.
It was, “exhausting but necessary,” Harper said, since she only had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting an investor. In a saturated market for cosmetics, “there’s no way anyone would have invested in my brand without proving the concept.”
Bootstrapping — building the business from the ground up using her own resources — gave her the necessary time to show she had something that resonated with customers and, because she didn’t have to sell her ideas to anyone else, she was able to make decisions rapidly and pivot on a dime.
“Marketing changes constantly and dramatically within the digital space,” Harper said. “You have to be on top of everything and ready to react quickly. It helps if you don’t have to have a board meeting every time you want to post something.”
Neither did Harper have to defend the things she regards as non-negotiable about her business. For instance, she formulated her high-pigment lipsticks, glosses, highlighter and contouring kits with Indigenous women in mind, although she’s quick to point out they work for many skin tones.
She has always used strong, successful Indigenous women to model her products (she calls them her Warrior Women) and she donates 10 per cent of revenues to Shannen’s Dream, a charitable movement aimed at increasing educational opportunities for Indigenous people.
“I didn’t see faces like mine on TV or in movies when I was growing up,” she said. “With Cheekbone Beauty, Indigenous faces are the prominent face of the brand. I want to provide role models for Indigenous girls.”
But Harper admits a lack of ready cash probably slowed the growth of her business, which sold about $30,000 worth of product in its first year and is on track to sell $300,000 this year.
This October, she welcomed a $350,000 investment by Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, whose mandate is to support Indigenous values and social enterprises. She had quit her day job a few months prior to receiving the investment and has since been able to focus on rapidly scaling her business and reducing costs.
“I’ve been able to think about strategy and growth,” Harper said. “And that’s something I could never do when I was working my other job as well.”
Similarly, Ryan Tucker, chief executive of G2V Optics Inc. based in Edmonton, waited three years to raise the first round of funding for his company, which manufactures high-tech lighting systems that mimic sunlight for the horticulture and the aerospace and research industries.
“We were in the market and getting great feedback,” he said. “But we knew if we continued to grow organically, we were going to miss our opportunity in the vertical farming market to better-funded competitors.”
But Tucker believes the years he and his partner, Mike Taschuk, spent bootstrapping prepared them for the process of getting funding. He points out that finding and wooing the right investors takes a tremendous amount of time and energy.
“When you’re an early to mid-stage business, being able to just focus on the customers, product and delivery, without a lot of external stakeholders is valuable,” he said. “You can be really swift and nimble about making the changes needed.”
What’s more, the time gave the pair a chance to build a viable business, which made it a more compelling investment opportunity, and gave them access to “the highest-quality partners and sources and with the least amount of friction and efforts.”
The pair were able to make it clear “this wasn’t just an idea on a napkin,” Tucker said. “We were able to show a history of really sharp growth.”
The down side of bootstrapping, he said, is that “you’re limited by your own networks and the networks of your advisers.”
Apart from providing the cash G2V needed to scale the business, Tucker said the company’s investors “really understand the business and how to scale it. You don’t get the benefit of those strategic, intelligent investors when you’re bootstrapping.”