Owning Your Niche with Self-Made Single Mom, Sara Happ

My guest today is Sara Happ – the Lip Expert! She’s the founder and CEO of Sara Happ – a multi-million dollar lip product company. Sara created her first product, a lip scrub, in her kitchen, and today her products can be found at prestigious places like Nordstrom, Ulta and QVC. With a background in journalism, Sara broke into a competitive industry through filling a void and leveraging press. Learn how this single self-made Mom has grown her successful business.

Here’s the breakdown of my chat with Sara:

[02:00] Sara didn’t start a company, she created a product. She realized there wasn’t a lip scrub, and so she made one in her kitchen out of necessity. She did not plan to start a company, but she knew that others would likely want this product. She knew she was onto something.

[03:18] She started narrow, filled a hole in the market, and has slowly started growing from there. She did research on lip chemistry, and found out many lip products dehydrate your lips so you are addicted to it. She wanted to create a product that was the opposite, very hydrating.

[05:05] Indie boutiques are Sara’s favorite and how she started. Her Lip Scrub and Lip Slip eventually got her into Nordstrom. 

[06:04] Scaling is and was the hardest part for Sara. She started making this in her kitchen, but when she needed to scale, no company had the machinery to make this product because it didn’t exist. They didn’t want to do it, and since the big companies didn’t ask for it, it was not worth it to them. Sara had to stick to her vision and fight for her product.

[07:33] Sara had people try her products, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. So she knew that there was an audience to buy this product. Fifteen years ago, she was fighting against big name companies, and there was no Instagram or Etsy to promote an indie product.

[08:47] Instead of accepting “no,” Sarah found a lab and met with the CEO. She gave him 20 samples to give to the women in his life and said “if they don’t like it, don’t call me back.” He called back within a few days; The women loved it, and now he said he had to make it. 

[10:25] The next big part of scaling... publicity. Sarah hired a publicist to get her product out there. Five indie boutiques bought her product right away, but she knew it was going to be knocked off now that it was out in the world. She put all of her savings into half a retainer for the publicist and said she’d pay the rest when she got publicity and orders. It worked and she got publicity for her product. She didn’t know about business; She was working at ESPN at the time. Sara wanted to be in People Magazine, but instead she did desk sides in New York for all the beauty editors, and then the press started rolling in. 

[12:30] Finally, Sara was in People Magazine, and when it hit, her website crashed, and the orders started flooding in. She made her salary in two hours, and had to change from her kitchen to ordering thousands from her lab right away and find a fulfillment company because UPS couldn’t keep picking up her boxes. It was all about outsourcing during this time.

[14:31] Sara raised some seed money from her friends at USC to pay the lab in 2005, and the rest all came from her product! She’s never needed to take money since then. She got the press and it was rolling in after that, and that’s why Sara believes in proper PR even in the age of Instagram.

[16:00] Sara called her growth a “beautiful nightmare” because it was hard but she wouldn’t change it at all. It was hard but it was worth it.

[16:30] Sara spent $0 on traditional marketing. She focused on publicity, and grew her business organically and slowly. She didn’t spend on marketing or advertising until last year. Until then it was all earned media and word of mouth. She was focused on profitability instead of growth. Every launch she would hire an indie publicist to do desk sides with her.

[18:06] When you start a business you can go a few ways. One way is to get investors. You give up a portion of your company in order to grow, but you may not be profitable. Sara wanted to make a profit before she grew the business, so she didn’t take on investors. Now she is more focused on growth.

[20:08] Once Sara decided to go big, she had companies like Nordstrom and QVC contacting her because she already built a proof of concept. Hiring has been key to her growth.

[21:45] People often buy products because they love the female founders who are behind the brand. Sara needed capital to hire people so she can be the face of the brand and step into the stuff she loves instead of constantly being in the trenches.

[22:58] Always hire up; Hire people smarter than you. Play to your strengths. This allowed Sara to be able to do interviews, go on QVC and most importantly, make new products.

[24:40] It is hard to relinquish control and trust people in your business, but it allows a founder to focus on what is most important. It creates freedom for the CEO when you know you can trust the people you hire to grow your business.

[25:22] Sara was a workaholic for the first 12 years of this business. She gave everything to her business and her daughter. She didn’t take time for herself, but in the last few years, she realized how important it is to “put your air mask on first” and know self-care isn’t selfish. It’s a reset. You are better for everyone. 

[27:18] It allows her to be a better CEO and mom overall. It’s not perfect, but doing the best you can is what it is about. 

[28:50] Sara advises women who are starting a business to find mentors. Social media can connect you to people. It doesn’t matter your business or who you are, reach out and ask for help. It’s important to get advice and when you do succeed, pay it forward to women who are trying to get started.

You can listen to the full episode below! And if you love the episode, don’t forget to subscribe. 

Owning Your Niche with Self-Made Single Mom, Sara Happ

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