It’s the kind of fairytale that can only occur in the digital age: Girl makes new product. Girl posts on Instagram. Product goes viral—and a booming business is born!
That’s how it happened for Letty Calvo, the owner and CEO of Vera Mona, a cosmetics company based in Temecula, California. The now-famous brand is well known for its revolutionary flagship product, Color Switch. The spongy wonder, which allows everyday makeup lovers and professionals alike to quickly clean their brushes mid-application, gained instant traction, catapulting Vera Mona from a modest, garage-based startup to a full-blown business with surging sales and distribution in Sephora and boutiques worldwide.
“I always love sharing our story; I’m usually bouncing off the walls when telling it,” Calvo says. “It gives me a lot of pride to relive how it all happened!”
Here, she talks about the company’s humble beginnings, meteoric growth and future plans for conquering the world of color cosmetics.
Beauty Store Business: What is your background, and how did you get started in the beauty industry?
Letty Calvo: I have some beauty experience; my first job was doing cosmetics at counters for retailers like Sears and Nordstrom. I also freelanced as a makeup artist during college. But I moved away from that to corporate America, working mostly for cellular companies. When I decided to get my master’s degree in business, I stumbled onto creating Color Switch as a project for one of my MBA classes. I made a few prototypes and put it on Instagram, and it just took off from there!
How did you know you created a winning product to pursue as a full-time career?
When I searched for a dry method to clean brushes, I couldn’t find anything. I started testing different sponges to see what would work. When we put it on Instagram in January 2014, within a month, my husband and I had a full-blown business out of our garage. We didn’t even think about it; it just happened in weeks. We couldn’t make Color Switch fast enough because it went viral. The business just chose us. We didn’t even have time to think, “Why don’t we make a business out of this?” We put it out there, it was a hit, and we haven’t looked back. Within the first three to six months, we realized we couldn’t do everything out of our garage anymore. We subleased a small space at first, then a year later established our own space, moving from Los Angeles to Temecula, California. Nothing was holding us back with the move, since it was mostly an online and wholesale business. Now, we manage everything out of our warehouse and office.
What was the process for creating Color Switch and subsequent products?
I used to work for a company that sold industrial supplies, including different types of sponges. I purchased quite a few and started testing to see which worked best. Sponges are washable and reusable, so I knew they would work well. The surface also needs to be rigid to effectively clean brushes. From there, we did different variations of Color Switch to meet different needs, whether you’re a makeup artist or just the typical girl who owns a couple of brushes. We have the Color Switch Solo, which is for someone who owns one brush. With our Duo, makeup artists can use the center sponge, which is smaller, to dip in a fixing agent or water to do wet makeup applications for a creamier consistency. We have the Proband, which you can wear on your arm and is more for a working makeup artist on the go who needs to quickly clean brushes, hands-free. And now we have the Cake & Bake Beauty Sponge, geared toward baking, blending and concealer application.
What are your plans for additional products in the future?
Three of our products are within the Sephora Collection—one of our biggest collaborations right now. With a Sephora always around the corner, they’re accessible to anyone. In the ongoing partnership, we have the ability to present new products to add to the collection—and my passion is creating products! We’re looking to add a few more products in the next year, including lipsticks, a liquid brush cleaner that actually sanitizes brushes for a deep clean and a couple of different palette ideas. We’re definitely looking to expand.
What have been some of your biggest challenges as you’ve grown the company?
I think there’s one big challenge with a lot of competitors within the beauty industry: manufacturing. It’s really difficult to find reliable, consistent manufacturers, especially within the U.S., where all of our Color Switch products are made. And then we needed to find other manufacturers for color cosmetics.
“The business just chose us. We didn’t even have time to think, ‘Why don’t we make a business out of this?’”
What have been some of your greatest successes?
It’s everyone’s dream in the beauty industry to be in a large retailer like Sephora, and I think we get the most praise for that from family and friends. They’re amazed they can walk into this huge retailer and find our products. I’m also proud of inventing something completely different and new; there was just nothing like it. All of the feedback and compliments we get are amazing. I think it would be difficult to come up with another product like that. I can make another lipstick, but how many are out there? With Color Switch, we can honestly say we were the first to create something new.
What kind of growth have you enjoyed since starting?
I’m not the financial person, but I can tell you our business has quadrupled since we started. We’ve seen it double within months, especially when we moved from carrying it ourselves and in small retailers to Sephora. We’ve seen tremendous growth from when we started. We often pinch ourselves: Is this really happening?
What advice would you share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
If you have a gut feeling that you have a really good product that people truly need, don’t think twice—go for it! Try to get it out as soon as possible. I think a lot of people with ideas sit on them and wait, and then get discouraged or distracted. I gave a makeup artist that advice last year, and within two to three months she had product samples that she’ll be launching. We did our launch within a few months, too. If there’s a need for something, someone else is going to think of it if you don’t act fast.
What role has social media played in your company?
It’s huge. That’s where we get to engage with our original and new customers. We get tons of feedback for new products. And even companies from across the world can find us and buy wholesale. Social media is something we really want to continue to grow because it directly connects us to the consumer.
Who are your customers?
At first, it was maybe 70 percent makeup artists because we would go to shows, and that’s where the exposure began. Now, it’s flip-flopped; probably 60 to 70 percent are regular girls who own a couple of brushes.
Besides Sephora, where does Vera Mona have a store presence?
I believe we’re in every Ricky’s NYC, with over 20 locations on the East Coast. We sell a lot in the United Arab Emirates; that’s actually where most of our business first came from—Saudi Arabia, Dubai—and remains one of the biggest countries for purchases. We are also in individual boutiques with maybe one or two locations. Last time I checked, we were in 20-something countries and well over 200 small boutiques. And, of course, we sell online.
Do you have a typical day on the job?
It changes a lot. We work Monday to Friday, but our days fluctuate. My day never ends. I’m on the phone from the moment I get up to when I go to sleep! But we’re always tackling whatever is most urgent. Right now, I’m looking at artwork for our packaging, but tomorrow I have a meeting with someone helping me with lipsticks. My husband handles operations and sales, so his days all look very similar. He’s working on orders for customers. But we just met with a creative agency today to take some things off my plate. I still manage our social media, for example, but what I love and want to focus on is creating new products.
“If there’s a need for something, someone else is going to think of it if you don’t act fast.”
How is the company structured?
Right now, it’s my husband and me; plus a full-time employee who also does everything; and a temporary workforce of one to 10 employees, depending on the time of year, to help with assembly. We assemble, in-house, all of our Color Switch products, buying products from manufacturers, then quality-checking them and assembling them here. We prefer to do it that way. It’s more costly, but then we can ensure that every single Color Switch that leaves our building has been checked by more than three people. It’s a process we don’t want to let go of, even though our margins are smaller. But that’s what gives you a quality product at the end of the day.
What are your favorite ways to relax when you’re away from the business?
I have a 7-month-old son and an 8-year-old daughter who keep me quite busy! So when we’re not here, our full attention is usually on our family. We love taking short, three-day vacations to any quick getaway within driving distance—San Diego, Palm Springs, Arizona. We can never go away from the business for a week; that’s just too long!