Success can be achieved through clients, revenue, viewership, the number of social media followers, the prominence of certain businesses, and so much more. How we define it is subjective.
In a sea of beauty and skincare entrepreneurs, readers often stumble across successful business founders who dove into unknown waters with the purpose of providing skincare products for those that need true ingredients.
Isomers Laboratories founder Manuela Marcheggiani is one of those extraordinary founders. She started Isomers Laboratories in 1988 in a bachelor kitchen using a common blender with her budding scientist Darius Majlessi. As a budding scientist, Manuela believed that specific molecules (or isomers) in alliance with certain herbs would have a synergistic effect. Turns out she was right.
Manuela founded Isomers ingredient mavens where all their ingredients are chosen, tested and retested. Each one freshly made in small batches and only composed of the highest caliber.
Women On Topp spoke with Manuela Marcheggian about her experiences as an incredibly motivated, business-minded woman.
What do you offer differently from other skincare product developers and manufacturers?
I think the thing that sets Isomers Labs apart is that we doing everything in house – it really is a laboratory, it’s not just a cute name! From ideation, to formulation, to testing, to manufacturing, to shipping – it all happens under one roof.
So, the way that separates us from other skincare product developers and manufacturers is that we have total control of our products. We don’t have any shareholders, department stores or anyone else to answer to. For other skincare companies, you have all these external factors that can control the final product – they can demand the inclusion or exclusion of certain ingredients, add in filler and masking agents, you’ll have strict ROIs and deadlines that must be met above all else. When you’re a skincare company with these controlling external factors, your priorities can easily get shifted – and that can sometimes negatively impact the final product.
For us, since we have total control of the entire process from raw ingredients to moisturizers and cleansers in your cabinet, WE control our priorities, and we set our standards. And for us, our priorities are always customer-centric and that’s evident in the way we create our formulas. Our process for creating a new formula usually begins with a skin concern directly from the consumer! We start with the problem; we run tests and research to figure out exactly how this problem physiologically occurs in the body. Then the next step is to figure out which ingredients are going to be able to solve the problem, what is the science that will address this concern. And then finally we put together our finished formula!
Usually, skincare companies put together these expensive campaigns to convince you that you have this specific issue and that you need their product to solve it. For us it’s the other way around, we let the needs of the consumer help dictate the formulas that we make.
What it boils down to is a sense of autonomy. That freedom from any external forces allows us to just focus on what matters – making our skincare solutions as effective, safe and customer-serving as possible!
Tell us what investment it costs to start something like this, and how did you finance your business?
I’ll start with how Isomers Labs was financed, because it’s fairly simple – it is a self-financed business. It really is the classic story of starting a company from the humble beginnings. My husband, Darius, and I made our very first skincare formula in his tiny little bachelor apartment, with a blender I stole (and have since replaced) from my mom, to solve the very severe skin issues I had been dealing with for years. The formula worked, some semblance of a demand developed, so we had to “upsize”, by which I mean we started making our formulas in my sister-in-law’s basement. Darius and I would work our full-time jobs during the day, I was in TV Shopping and he was an auditor and then with the money from our regular jobs we began running our business at night. I remember when we first started out, we would buy our ingredients in litres or half litres and then once the business continued to grow, we started buying them by the drum! I remember lugging these huge drums of our ingredients into my sister-in-law’s basement thinking, “wow, there is absolutely no way we’re going to sell enough to empty these things out”. Anyways, here we are 25+ years later and we’re going through 20-30 drums per day – and it all started with a stolen blender, and the saved money of a couple of recent grads with ordinary 9 to 5 jobs.
As for the second part of this question, “what is the investment cost for this kind of business?”, it is so difficult to accurately answer that. There are so many logistical factors that impact that number – are you developing yourself or outsourcing? If you’re outsourcing, then you need a co-packer and a formulator – if not then you need a workspace, tons of equipment and the know-how. Then there’s packaging, labelling – there’s a lot that goes into it. But, if I were to give a rough ball-park figure of what your initial investment should look like when you venture into this kind of business, I would say about $25,000-50,000. Since I don’t like giving out a rough estimate like that, I’ll say the real investment you’re going to need to make is time. Long hours, late nights and early mornings – truly dedicating your time to this business, learning it better than anybody, that’s your investment.
Tell us something you wish you knew before starting out?
I think that if I could go back and talk to myself when I was first starting out as an entrepreneur, I would try and instill the “now what” mentality in myself from the get-go. As an entrepreneur, it’s so important to set goals, achieve them and then ask yourself “now what?”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely a believer in taking the time and energy to stop and celebrate your victories, no matter how big or small. Definitely give yourself your due credit when your hard work pays off. But there are two reasons I would want to go back and instill that mentality; first, you can easily become stagnant after achieving a significant goal, and second, I think many entrepreneurs would agree that the real joy is in the journey, not the finish line.
I really believe that to be a successful entrepreneur, you need to be in constant perpetual forward motion – always trying to do better, reach more customers, satisfy them even more, never stop innovating and never let yourself plateau. But the main reason, is like I said – the real joy is in the journey. As an entrepreneur with a steadily growing business, you’ll realize that these milestones become easier and easier to come by. However, it definitely doesn’t feel that way in the beginning – when you’re starting out, you’ll set a goal that feels like it’ll be impossible to reach. I remember when I started out my goal was to make $100k in sales in a year, that seemed impossible when we were still in the basement. However, as we grew and that first milestone was achieved you begin to move the goal posts, it becomes $100k in 6 months, then a month, then a day, and then an hour – and when that happens, now what? It never ends. That’s why the journey, the experiences you have on that road to your next – seemingly impossible goal, is where the real joy of being an entrepreneur lies. Imagine your goal was to fly to Paris one day, and you finally do it! But then you never leave the airport, or you never leave the hotel room – that’s not enough! You want to explore the city, see the sites, eat the greatest, most lavish meal of your life, discover something beautiful off the beaten path. The end is never the end.
Basically, I would want to go back and tell myself to set goals, take the time to celebrate your victories, but never stop asking yourself “now what?”. You can always do more, be better, set a crazier, more lofty goal – but the true joy of living this kind of lifestyle is the time between what you’ve just achieved, and what you’re striving towards next.
Do you have any words of wisdom for women entrepreneurs specifically? Based on your own experience.
After all my years as a woman entrepreneur, I definitely have some words of wisdom that I would love to share with the next generation of girl bosses!
- Know your “why”, and make it a strong one!
It is so important to have a real reason why you’re starting your business. I believe there has to be a real, personal connection to who you are – because that then becomes the foundation for everything you do. So many people start a business and just put out a product without any real thought or meaning behind it. If the ‘why’ behind your business/product/service is something that is truly connected to you as a person in a meaningful way, your passion will be unmatched – and people naturally pick up on that kind of authenticity, you can’t fake it.
- “You can have it all” is a myth.
I don’t say this to be pessimistic – that is not in my nature at all, I say it as a genuine warning, another one of those things I wish I knew going in. As a female entrepreneur on the surface it can seem like you’ve got it all; a successful business, a happy family, a healthy mental state, a strong relationship with your partner. But something suffers, and it is usually you. In my case, unfortunately I look back and wish I spent more time with my sons (who are now 23 and 21). I always felt like I had my priorities in order, I definitely was in no way an absent mom, but I look back and think about the games, family gatherings, funny moments I missed out on because I was travelling somewhere for work. For example, every New Year’s Eve I would have to do a “New Year, new you” show for the TV network – so I never got to countdown to the New Year with them as kids. And now that I’ve got the time, of course they just want to go out and party with their friends on New Year’s Eve – and who could blame them?
That’s my point here, because I committed so much of myself to running the business, I’m the one who missed out. So, when you’re in that position just remind yourself that there’s only 24 hours in a day, you’re not superhuman, and if you don’t spend your time with the people who truly matter to you, you’ll look back and regret it.
- Take care of your emotional needs!
As an entrepreneur you’ll find yourself putting the needs of your business way before your own. The demands of running your business can sometimes feel so cold and emotionless – it’s like The Godfather: “it’s not personal, it’s strictly business.” And because of that cold nature of doing business, it can be so easy to neglect yourself, and your own emotional needs. We’re driven entrepreneurs, but we’re still women – we’re emotional, empathetic and in-tune with our emotions. That’s why it’s so important to take care of that part of ourselves too, give yourself that downtime to do the things that make you happy, with the people that mean the world to you.
- Trust your gut
I am a firm believer in trusting your instincts and the gut feelings you get when it comes to being an entrepreneur. Now don’t get me wrong, do your research, seek the opinions of people you trust – but if something really just isn’t sitting right with you, trust that feeling. From my personal experience your instincts are going to lead you in the right direction 9 times out of 10, the times when I ignored those feelings almost always ended in disaster for me.
- Take care of your customers
Because if you don’t, someone else will. In the business world, in any industry, there’s always someone new waiting in the wings to take your place, take your market share, and take the attention of your customers. The business owner-customer relationship is not one to take for granted. Treat them right, and they’ll treat you even better. Building long term loyalty from your customers is one of the best ways to ensure your brand stands the test of time!
What should future business owners be doing to progress in their careers?
This one is really simple to say, but difficult to do – be an expert. Be a true student of the game, invest hours into studying the world of your business until you know it inside out and backwards. Let’s say you want to make a hair conditioner and start a business; learn the chemistry of the ingredients, run tests, understand the physiology of the scalp and hair follicles, talk to people in the industry – leave no stone unturned. Whatever it is you wish to pursue, I cannot stress enough how important it is to understand that business/product/service in every possible facet – learn your craft. Be an expert.
When you suffer a setback how does that emotionally affect you and your work?
Okay, please excuse me for being cheesy but I really do believe that a setback is just a setup for an even bigger comeback! Isomers Laboratories was built on the biggest setback I faced in my youth. Darius and I made that very first skincare formula (with the stolen blender) for me!
From my teenage years until well into my 20s I suffered from extremely problematic skin. It was so reactive and sensitive; I would get these horrible disfiguring breakouts and nothing I tried worked. It got to the point where my skin began to cause me serious mental health issues, my self-confidence was horrible for years – those were genuinely some of the most difficult times in my life. BUT that rough time I went through set me up for one of my greatest joys in life, this business I’ve built – now I have the pleasure of helping people who are dealing with the exact same thing everyday.
That’s not to say setbacks don’t affect me, because they definitely do – just like everyone else. When I’m faced with a setback my emotional instinct is always to look inward. I tend to take things very personally, and take the responsibility upon myself – even when sometimes it’s not on me. But I do that because if I’m able to look inward, and really find the truth in the situation, I trust myself to be able to find where I went wrong, and what the solution to the problem is.
However, when it comes to my work – it never suffers at the hands of any setbacks I face in my personal life. I think that’s because Isomers is built on such strong foundations, it really is my passion. When I do face those personal setbacks, my work is almost like a sanctuary from those problems. Because I genuinely love what I do, it’s like my work is always there for me when life gets tough.
I really do see setbacks as things that make us better – more resilient, more adaptable. The lessons learned from the worst setbacks are often the things that help us succeed the most. So much of the way my business is structured today came from setbacks – the way we do everything in house, our just-in-time manufacturing process, standardizing our packaging and embracing direct to consumer TV shopping. Setbacks can be your greatest success drivers, they make you unique, and they’re an opportunity to showcase your talent and drive.
If I can give any advice when it comes to dealing with setbacks in life and business it would be to stay in the moment. Your setback has already happened, it’s in the past – so what now, what’s next? What you should do is look inward, find the truth in your situation, figure out your solution, learn from the mistake and keep striving forward.
Say you’re currently writing a book, what would it be about?
My book would be about human character – things to look for, things to avoid. So many people can talk a good game, and tell a beautiful story that hits all the points you wanted to hear. But when it comes to actions and follow through – that’s where people show their true colours and reveal what they’re really about. Everybody wants to know the secrets to success, or how to achieve your dreams – it’s never about how grand of a story you can tell, it’s about what you say vs what you do. You are your deeds. We are our actions. We all want something, goals to achieve, and we all do a lot of talking about. Manifesting things for yourself is fantastic, but what are you doing about it? It’s about rolling up your sleeves and taking the right actions towards the things you want.
It would be a book about keeping your focus and energy on your deeds and actions, not the stories we tell. And that if you’re empathetic and nurturing by nature, it’s important to be able to see people by what they do, not by what they say. I think knowing this could help so many people the way it helped me, it just clears up so much noise in your head and makes things a whole lot clearer.
So, I guess it’s kind of a book to empower people, teach them to trust themselves, trust their instincts, and learn to sniff out the ‘bs’ that other people come at you with.
I’m going to go and copyright all of this real quick, before one of your readers sees this and turns it into a New York Times Bestseller on me!
What is the one piece of advice you’ve gotten that impacted you the most?
The piece of advice I’ve gotten that has really stuck with me for all these years came from a good friend and mentor of mine, Gene, who was the CEO of the TV Network I was a part of. He told me, “NEVER be the bearer of bad news, get people who will handle that for you”. In hindsight this kind of feels like some sort of mob boss mentality (Paulie from Goodfellas perhaps) but it is actually amazing advice and it has served me well throughout my career!
Gene would tell me that when I had negotiations with buyers, if I heard anything I didn’t like, to just sit there quietly – stay friendly and cordial. Then later on tell someone in the office, and let them do your fighting for you. Basically, what he was telling me to do was always be the good cop, let someone else be the bad cop.
That piece of advice has helped me so much in business because it’s all about how people perceive you – when you use this tactic people always associate you with ‘the good’. It makes people want to tell you things, they want to please you – and you never have to feel uncomfortable when you make public appearances because no one has had a negative experience with you.
Basically, you want to be the carrot – not the stick. And if that advice is good enough for Gene and Paulie, then it’s good enough for me!
What is a skill you think all women should learn and why?
I think possibly the most important skill for women (or anyone really) to learn has to be effective communication. I say that in such a general way because I think it’s so important to be well developed in all facets of communication – for business but also just for life in general. Good communication is deliberate, we must practice how and what we communicate – we must learn to have a strong understanding of who your audience is.
You have to be an active listener, truly engage and seek to understand the message and subtext of what someone has to say to you. I think one important part of effective communication is also humility – the recognition that we do not know everything, and that we can learn valuable insights just by really listening. And on the other side of the coin, we must be confident in the way we communicate. Take an extra second, calm your breathing, and really say what needs to be said with all of the self-assuredness in the world! Especially for women in certain industries, you’ll come across so many people that will try and silence you – but you cannot let that happen, make sure people hear your voice. The ability to communicate is one of the founding pillars of human society – it’s so important and I believe you’ll find that mastering effective communication will take you far in life and in business.
In which area would you like to improve as an entrepreneur?
One area I would definitely like to improve in is my team building – I really just want to do more of it! I would love to have a couple more teams of talented individuals, and I would just push them to innovate. I want to curate a space that allows my team to really experiment, and just see what comes out of it! One of my favourite things is seeing people demonstrate and grow their brilliance – I just love to see how far people can go.
Over the past couple of months, we have put together a wonderful creative team at Isomers Laboratories, who are responsible for all of the content across our social media channels – Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and (soon to be) TikTok! I have found it so interesting to see how these talented people are able to collaborate when they’re put in a situation with little to no boundaries – no idea is off the table. And the results have been incredible, they’ve been able to express themselves creatively while also meeting deliverables for our organization.
I want to do all I can to really push innovation, open spaces for creative people to do what they do. And I hope what comes out of it, among many things, is products that are exciting and value-based, solutions that help teach, fix and elevate people.
That’s exactly the kind of team building I intend to continue doing at Isomers. What it really comes down to is that I love to see constant growth and innovation. Because what are we without growth? We become unmotivated, stagnant, lifeless – we fold up and become crusty … like dry skin.