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Moms Doing It For Themselves: Nancy Cruickshank

Ex-Vogue executive and serial entrepreneur, Nancy Cruickshank, has an infectious enthusiasm for beauty and brands. With MyShowcase.com she has found a way to impart this passion to, well, all of us!
 

Tell me about your business?

My Showcase, put quite simply is a personal beauty shopping service. It works via myshowcase.com and also through a network of stylists, who are women based all over the UK - 1,200 of them today. They make recommendations from 45 different independent brands that are selected by an expert - my business partner Kate Shapland, who has 25 years experience in the beauty industry and is an editor. She chooses products that she thinks have amazing efficacy and are great value for money.

Whether they are a premium or more accessible product, they all have to stand out aesthetically because it’s quite an aspirational category. We choose products that have an interesting philosophy or story to tell in coming to market. We piloted the business in 2012 and 2013 and that was when we put together six stylists. I was selected as one of them and we just went out and started doing proof of concept / testing the water. We really hadn't built much technology at that time. We were asking our girlfriends if we could come over, throw a tablecloth on the table and hold a showcase of products. We wanted to see how that social multi-brand shopping dynamic worked. It tested really well. Women love talking to each other about beauty; it’s a very shareable category. But of course if I say: “I love your lipstick”, and we both meet for coffee next week, you might note that it looks very different on me as it does on you. Whereas it’s much more irritating if I say "I love your dress" - and we’d look like crazy people sitting in the same dress having coffee next week. So, it’s very shareable and people really love the recommendation side of it.

In the following year we set up the business and we built a warehouse (before that we had been operating from my basement), and we built the technology that would enable us to really offer a complete online training academy for stylists. We then built a team, so the second year was very much about going from six to a hundred stylists, and this last year we've gone from 100 to 1,200 stylists. We have really started to scale the business. Very excitingly in November 2015 The Sunday Times listed us as one of the 15-fastest growing start-ups in the UK. Then we just discovered this week that another technology network called TECH5 listed us as one of the five fastest growing start-ups in the UK. So it is exciting.

What was your motivation to set up the business?

We were motivated to set up a business around the beauty market. It’s huge market. In Britain and Ireland it’s worth £17 billion a year. Women are spending an awful lot of money on beauty. If you look at data published by the Times last year it says that the average British woman will spend around £100,000 in her lifetime on beauty. That breaks down to when we start buying products at the age of 16. Our life expectancy now is 82. If you put those numbers together we’re spending £126 a month on skincare, haircare, make-up and the list goes on.

People are spending a lot in this category and there is a big desire for beauty - and yet there is this overwhelming choice -  and perhaps a lot of people experience a lack of confidence in what to choose for themselves. And also, I don't know about you, but my make-up bag and bathroom cabinet is full of a whole eclectic mix of products and brands. We really don’t shop from just one brand. So the idea for us was: “How do we offer a great service where we’ve got experts like Kate, the brands we work with, our stylists and of course the technology that we have to help recommend different products to different customers to give you that confidence? Where we’re empowering you to make really smart choices when it comes to your beauty shopping.

I have two children called Meg and Emma who are 12 and 11 now. One of the things I really noticed when I was standing at the school gates in the morning, and at pick-up, was that I would just always meet the most extraordinary women who were incredibly talented and were often looking for ways to work around their families. It was definitely a reinforcing background to think about what could I do that would be a fantastic customer experience? But also a genuinely flexible business for people to build.

What is the general age-group of your customers?

Well, age-group is an interesting thing, because beauty is universally appealing and people are shopping from the age of sixteen to their eighties. The great thing about myshowcase.com is when a stylist joins us she could be any age and her clientbase will consist of people she will be closely connected to. So it might start with her family, friends, neighbours, members of clubs she goes to, mums on their school runs, etc. And so her clients are probably going to be a little bit similar to her. We do make sure that all of the different products and brands that we sell are widely appealing across the different age-groups and then that stylist can make recommendations that are really tailored to that customer.

But I guess if I really had to go for a median age of our customer right now I would say she’s probably about 38. Our stylists are women from all over the UK; from all walks of life. Half of our stylists have another job, so they might be working full-time or part-time and this may be a supplementary opportunity or it might even be because they love beauty. Or it might be that they want to join a community where they’re mentored or they’re building a business and they’re bolstering their skills or confidence. We have a huge amount of mums who have joined us, who have fantastic skills and have decided that their focus is on the family. I guess the traditional corporate structure doesn't necessarily allow the flexibility that they need or desire so that they can juggle family or frankly, that they can just have a passion for creating pottery or being a ballerina, who knows? It is an opportunity to offer flexibility, and it’s an opportunity that has significant rewards if you’re willing to work hard at it.

What is your background?

I worked for Vogue Magazine and I worked for Condé Nast generally. I launched their website back in the mid-90s. I have been building with technology for different businesses for twenty or more years. I have become a serial entrepreneur where I have created a couple of businesses, the first one was a property business which I sold and is now part of a much bigger business and also a business called handbag.com, which is now owned by Hearst Corporation and that became the biggest fashion and beauty website in the UK and Ireland. I sold that in 2006.

And then, MyShowcase was really a natural progression from that, in thinking about two things really; one was my passion for enabling women to build businesses and to become entrepreneurs by using fantastic centralised technology systems, training and support that could really help everybody to become successful. I have also had a real passion for beauty. So, it was bringing those two things together with Kate and also with our other business partners Olivia and Rodrigo - who are fantastic engineers and real experts in technology.

What have been the highs and lows of setting up your business?

There are always highs and lows in setting up any business. You can count on that and should be prepared for it. The highs for me are celebrating achievement together. One Stylist telling me how MyShowcase has changed her life will immediately give me goosebumps and make everything feel fantastic! It might be helping someone improve their personal confidence, gain an income or simply a bit of beauty know-how to make them feel fantastic (beauty is so much about how we feel, more so than how we look).

Being listed by the Sunday Times in Nov 2015 as one of the 15-fastest growing businesses in the UK was pretty amazing, as the MyShowcase entire community was recognised for the outstanding achievement that each member contributes to our story. Only last night, TECH5 named us as the fourth fastest growing technology business in the UK, which was equally incredible. The lows are more varied in their make-up, but they relate to any significant thing that feels like it hinders the business' progress.

Anything that makes you feel like you took a step backwards that day or week - a contract that takes much longer than expected to negotiate, raising vital capital for the business can be very time-consuming and not everyone will buy into your vision. So, you receive a 'no', a small or large knock-back and you have to pick yourself up and say 'next'! Something more fundamental relating to our community can also have a big impact on how we feel about the business. We are a tech business that places people at our heart - so if a Stylist has a serious health issue or personal crisis, we feel it. It's hard not to, as we're all connected and in each other's lives. But that's also the magic of MyShowcase, our community, so I wouldn't change it for anything.

What would your advice would you give to other mums wanting to set up in business?

I think that starting a business takes enormous energy, and it’s not always a smooth, plain-sailing journey. Businesses, as with everything in life, have their ups and downs. So I think one of my big pieces of advice is to do something that you really feel passionate about. I think if you feel that you're on a bit of a mission as opposed to starting a business, I think it gives you that prevailing wind. It also gives you that ongoing vision of this is what I am doing and why I am doing it. There are days when things all go wrong, we all have those. On those days you might stop and say: “Why am I doing this?”. But for me with MyShowcase I know I am on a mission to empower customers to shop smartly. I am also on a mission to really enable tens of thousands of women to have a great business but also to do other things in their lives. You have to have that passion and energy.

Just go for it, you can prevaricate as much as you like but I think in business today that we’re very fortunate with technology being so accessible today. It’s relatively inexpensive to launch a website and get something going. So I will always say to just go for it. Don’t try to launch a whole product range, start with minimum viable product and test it, see what consumers think of it. And react and adapt accordingly.

Do you have any tips for balancing work and life?

I think for me, always, that there’s very little delineation between the two. To me it’s all life, and it’s about juggling things and I like that rather happy expression: ‘If you need something done ask a busy woman to do it’. We do juggle our lives, we fit so many things in. So for me work/life balance is to not really think about them in different categories. It's my life and I try to make sure that if I’m with my kids that I am present in the moment with them. So that I'm not trying to read my emails at the same time I am talking to them. If you can try to be present in what you’re doing it ensures that you’re balanced.

What are your plans for the rest of 2016 and 2017?

Our plans for this and next year are quite ambitious. We’re at a point where we've built quite a lot of infrastructure. So we really want to scale the business from 1,200 stylists to having many more thousands of stylists across the UK and Ireland and that’s where we operate now. Next year we’re interested in other international markets. We’re looking at continental Europe and also the United States. We trying to devise what might be an acceptable market entry strategy. Main thing is we want to have thousands of stylists really loving what they do and making a rewarding income. We want to give those brands that are often created by female entrepreneurs a route to market that might not have existed in traditional retail for them.

If you had three wishes for your business what would they be?

  • I would like to have 10,000 stylists in the UK and Ireland, who really love MyShowcase
  • I wish for good health and a great dynamic for the team I have in place, as I really do work with the most amazing bunch of people. Working with the right people is really important.   
  • We have raised money for the business and we have some fantastic shareholders on board. The available capital environment is much more constrained in Europe than perhaps in Silicon Valley. So I really hope we can continue to see exciting developments in that area, because I really want to build a business that’s head-quartered in London that people can say: “Wow, that came out of Europe!”
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About the Author

Lucy Earley works as an editor in the beauty and pharmacy-retail industries. She's a delighted recent convert to the maternal side with the birth of her daughter, Lara, in August 2014.

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