Sigma Beauty started as a small makeup brush brand with a cult following. Eleven years later, the brand not only offers an expansive range of high quality brushes, but innovative makeup tools, lip products and eyeshadow palettes, too. Plus, the company is reinventing with the goal of becoming one of the cleanest beauty brands on the market.
One thing that has always set the brand apart is co-founder Simone Xavier, who has a PhD in infectious diseases (NBD!) and experience working for vaccine companies. Her unique background has allowed her to think outside of the box, develop inventive products and expertly handle the coronavirus pandemic from a business perspective. So how did she take her career from the world of science and academia to the world of makeup? We chatted with Xavier to find out. Read on for our full interview.
Before you founded Sigma, your career was focused on science. Tell us about life pre-Sigma Beauty.
My career path before founding Sigma Beauty was heavily academic. I have a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, a Master of Science in Veterinary Pathology and a PhD in infectious diseases. Afterwards, I worked for vaccine companies and then worked at the University of Minnesota as an assistant clinical professor.
Was beauty always a passion for you? Did you ever imagine you'd have your own brand?
When we first started the company, I was your regular makeup user. My passion is really trend analysis and solution-driven product development. Both subjects are heavily associated with my field of research during my PhD and later as a researcher at the University of Minnesota. These skills allowed me to study the beauty market, identify trends and needs from cosmetic users and to develop solutions tailored to their needs. It does not matter if I am analyzing color trends or needs for solutions, my product development process is always centered around the clients’ interests. As I think back to when I was working at the University of Minnesota, my research subject — infectious diseases — was my brand. In that case, my clients were field veterinarians and my product was diagnostic tests and vaccines. Did I ever imagine I would own a beauty brand? No, but I can see how the skills I acquired during my academic career have broad applications in a variety of businesses and have definitely helped in running a beauty company.
What inspired you to start the brand and switch career paths?
The inspiration really came from noticing a niche in the market and a need for affordable beauty tools. That need, combined with my husband’s background in sourcing and developing painting tools, resulted in our first business venture. Once we identified the opportunity in the market, I started my research and trend analysis on YouTube to understand what the makeup users' wants and needs were. Then, I proceeded to associate what I was observing with my own needs as a regular makeup user. My conclusion was that selecting the right makeup brushes was an overwhelming task if you were a beginner in makeup application. There were several brushes that existed for different functions, and choosing which ones you needed to get started was a daunting task. My job was to find a solution. I created a 12-piece brush set that included brushes that experienced makeup users regarded as holy grails. This way, I removed the guesswork for beginners.
How did you grow your brand to become more than makeup brushes?
We innovated. After we launched our first set 11 years ago, I started to use different kinds of brushes, and my husband started to pay more attention to how they were built. Again, being very function-oriented, I started to create new brushes with never-before-seen shapes and assigned new functions to them. Immediately, we became more than just an average brush company.
From brushes, we evolved to creating a whole new product category in brush care. We were the first company to develop brush-care tools and solutions. Before we created this category, brushes were being washed using the palm of your hand. We have been awarded over 60 patents on our innovative products, and we became known for our high-quality and solution-driven product engineering.
What do you think sets Sigma apart from other brands?
Our main goal is to challenge the beauty industry status quo. My background as a scientist and my husband’s background as a civil engineer are our best competitive advantages. Inevitably, we think outside the box, so when we launch a product, it is because it works and, more importantly, pushes the industry forward.
What have been some of the biggest "pinch-me" moments of your career so far?
My biggest “pinch-me” moments happen when I see broad use of an innovative product we have created — a product or method that did not exist before and is now regarded as part of the new status quo. These moments are what drive both my husband Rene and I to continue to grow our company.
Clean beauty is a very relevant topic for me, personally. My background as a veterinarian puts me in a privileged position to understand chemistry, physiology and pathology. I am a believer in trace amounts of chemicals having a vast effect in the body, especially if used during an extended period of time. I have a deep understanding of substances that can affect our hormones or can be carcinogenic, for example. All of our color products are formulated without over 70 harsh chemicals and ingredients that are regarded, today, as unsafe in cosmetics. For each of these ingredients, I studied the literature, assessed the concerns regarding its use and have made the decision to eliminate it from our color collection. This is an important step for us, and I dare to say that it is an innovative step in itself. Most brands start as a clean brand and that is how they are portrayed to their clients. As a company that has been in the market for 11 years and has a history of being recognized by its innovations, breaking into the clean beauty industry is an unusual step. I am lucky to have a background that allows me to responsibly venture into this important area. My goal is to be one of the cleanest brands on the market.
It's incredible that you have a PhD in infectious diseases! Has this helped inform how you and your team have approached the coronavirus pandemic from a business perspective?
I was following the coronavirus outbreak in China very closely, not only with regards to transmission, but also control. My background and experience has not only helped me to prepare and protect my team, but it also allowed me to give them a realistic perspective of what we should expect moving forward. Being a global company, Rene and I are on top of the pandemic development in multiple countries in order to guide efforts to continue to develop our business even under these conditions.
Do you have any advice for aspiring beauty entrepreneurs who want to make a career switch?
My best advice is to start within your means. The most common mistake I observe with those wanting to venture into their own business is the idea that you have to start big, that you need an investor to get you going or that you don’t have enough experience in that area. I see a lot of potential being wasted by putting up these walls. If you want to start a business, you should try to do it on your own. That is how we started. We started with a first order of 500 brush sets that were stored in my basement. My husband and I built our first website with free tools we found online. I took pictures of the products with an amateur camera and wrote the product descriptions. I packaged the orders and did the marketing, while my husband shipped the orders during his lunch break and oversaw product development with our suppliers. There is great satisfaction in being able to be independent and still succeed. Today, we do business with more than 70 countries around the world. What I am saying is — you can do this! We are proof of that. Start small, but start.
Photo Courtesy Of: Simone Xavier