Hi everyone! This is Santi, I am Anna´s partner, and together we are the owners of JestPaint, an online store for face and body painting supplies. Anna started this business back in 2009 when face paint online stores were almost non-existent.
She had been face painting with her mom since she was ten years old. After becoming popular on YouTube with her quirky fun videos of face painting herself and our then very young daughter, a new face paint brand approached her to start promoting and selling their products online.
Watch Anna and Oshi (our daughter) in one of her first videos together:
This was back in 2009; Anna was doing it all alone in her living room, just off one shelf! I joined her in 2010 and today we own our warehouse, we are a team of 6 and we sell over 3000 different products, becoming one of the largest face and body art online stores worldwide. Our current sales are about 200 times what we used to sell back in 2009 thanks to the incredible support of our customers.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
As mentioned before, Anna had been a face painter since she was ten years old. She used to go out with her mom who was (and still is) a professional clown, and perform at events like nursing homes, parades, etc.
After noticing that there were little to no videos, online teaching people, and how to face paint, she decided to create her channel and let her creativity loose! She played with the products available at the time and came up with very creative ideas that no one else was using back then, which made her very popular in the growing face painting community.
She took a class with an instructor that taught her a new technique using a product that the instructor had handcrafted and Anna decided to start offering these handcrafted “rainbow cakes” (multi-colored cakes for face painting with several colors at once) at local conventions. They quickly became a very hot item and people were asking her to do more and more so with the help of a friend she decided to launch her online store to sell those cakes.
Right before she launched her website a new face paint brand approached her to promote their products online on her YouTube channel and start selling them as well, so Anna decided this was the right time to just launch the store and get going.
From then on things took off quickly. She went from convention to convention teaching how to face paint, how to use rainbow split cakes, selling her handmade versions, and promoting this new brand of face paint, Diamond FX.
She did all of this using her savings from what she earned as a professional face painter, while also finishing her elementary school teacher degree and raising her then 5-year-old daughter.
I met Anna in late 2009 and we got married in 2010 I started working for the store helping it grow by investing time in SEO, advertising, social media, email marketing, and adding new brands.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first products Anna sold were her hand-made rainbow cakes. She would get solid-colored face paints from wholesalers using money she had earned face painting at events, slice them with a cutter and put slices of different colors next to each other, first on round containers (as the original colors came in round containers) and then in stackable square containers that she was first to introduce to our industry. This process was done carefully in a sanitary environment and with lots of care since paints could crumble easily when sliced.
Anna would design each of the color combinations she offered, coming up with dozens of them and creating what would become one of the most popular products in our industry once major brands took on this idea and started producing them in mass.
Once brands decided to start producing their versions, we started working with these brands to have them produce color combinations we came up with that could be sold exclusively at our store, or that would be sold to everyone but with our store name included to indicate we created the combinations.
After looking into FDA regulations for makeup, we decided to let the big brands do these cakes was the best decision. Following changes, regulations had become complicated and the demand was so high that we could not physically produce them fast enough while still working as entertainers, working at our daughter's school as tutors, and doing babysitting on the side.
Since everything we did was done with our own money, we needed to work extra jobs to invest in our store and make it grow.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Anna had met a friend that knew how to set up an online store, so she worked along with her friend to set it all up using a very rustic e-commerce software that would look very out of date by today's standards.
Anna was in charge of product description and pictures and her friend was in charge of the actual online store set up, buying the domain, getting registered, etc.
Not much was done after that until I came along. Once I came along I decided to switch to a more modern e-commerce platform, start taking better product pictures, and started creating a social media presence beyond YouTube.
This was what took us to the next level. We started collecting emails and sending email campaigns with sales, people started sharing their experiences about our store on Facebook, and through word of mouth, we attended conventions and the entire thing blew up.
Before we knew it we had to quit our other jobs, our entire house was full of shelves (dining room, hallway, living room, and bedroom) and we were in and over our heads, so we hired some help and decided to also get an accountant, a lawyer and small $5000 loan from Anna´s parents to help us expand quicker. We paid the loan off in half the time, and we were able to continue to grow debt free since then.
One thing we notice the first few years is that the business was making very little money once expenses were taken off. We were expanding faster than we could afford to, so there were no salaries or distributions and we had to put our own money from our paid jobs into the business until we started to organize our finances and decided to take it more seriously.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since we started, our biggest and best working strategy has been providing the most outstanding customer service, the fastest shipping, and the best products. This is what makes it so retaining customers is easy and we have a returning customer base of over 75%.
We simply serve our customers the way we would like to be served, and they notice.
Other than that, there are a few channels that have helped with our growth:
1 - Initially Facebook groups were a huge way for us to find new customers. They were new to the industry and knew little about face painting and we were there to answer their every question and provide them with products that would fit their needs.
2 - Then it came SEO, we learned about the importance of Search Engine Optimization and how Google Algorithms work, so we invested a lot of time and money optimizing our site, getting backlinks from others, and making sure Google would find our site relevant for what we were selling. This was not an easy task as SEO parameters changed a few times a year, so getting professional help and reading about it is key. I like to always learn the job first, even if I outsource it. This way I know what it takes and I have a better idea of what I should be paying for it. A few times I paid a lot more than I should just because I had no idea of what kind of work and time was involved in the tasks I had outsourced, so I learned the hard way.
Learning SEO is a journey on its own. We did a lot of research on Google on how to improve Search Engine Optimization for our site. We took classes online, watched YouTube videos, and hired professionals to do what was harder for us to do (technical changes to the page and off-site optimization).
We learned how to create valuable content that Google and other search engines would pick up and recognize as valuable which would direct traffic to our store. We learned to improve product descriptions and learned all about meta tags, alt text, deep linking, do-follow links, and all other terms any online store should get familiar with.
Focus on your business, not on how to beat some other business. Put your efforts into just being better than yourself, making your business better and success will come.
4 - Don’t underestimate the power of collecting information from your customers from the start. You want to be able to reach back to them often with new products, sales, etc. But make sure that if you are going to send them an email it better be important. Either has a sale, a new product to introduce, or free information that would help them out.
5 - The last “strategy” we have used, which I don’t like to call strategy because we don’t do it for the mo0ney, but it does help generate leads, is creating free content. Helping your community, teaching them about their trade for free, and offering them free advice and tools that they can use on their business, is a great way to get people to visit your site and appreciate the work you do for them.
6 - Personally, I think Amazon, Ebay and Walmart are not just for everyone. You have to know what you are doing, you have to have very high margins and you have to be willing to deal with them by setting every single rule. Don’t depend on them, have your own business and use them as a second sales channel. If they see you grow too fast there, they might even take your idea and make it their own.
Here is an image of how our traffic grew since we started tracking it (big mistake, we started way too late, do this from the get-go) and now. By the time we started tracking our traffic we were already reaching thousands of people so it is hard to see a huge growth compared to what would it look like if we had started tracking traffic back in 2009.
And here is a look at our sales growth. We have concealed the numbers as they are not relevant, but looking at the pattern you can see almost constant growth year after year (except for the COVID19 pandemic years) and you can see seasonality. Finding out your seasonality is key to managing your cash flow correctly.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we are doing well. We took a huge dive during the pandemic that almost got us out of business, but we had a financially healthy business, with savings, we managed to get all the grants we could, we slimmed down on expenses, and had to painfully shrink our team for a while and we managed to make it through and now we are looking at growth again.
We have been profitable since around 2012, took us 3 years to get there, but since that year we have been able to pay ourselves a salary and start to distribute modest profits now and then. Most of the time, profits go back to the business and we just take a small portion for savings.
Thankfully our website represents the bulk of our sales, meaning we don’t depend on Amazon, eBay, or Walmart to make a living, and since about 70% of our customers are returning customers, we are also not so dependent on Google and paid ads, which is great because Google can change things in 24hs and your website goes from page 1 to page 10 and you lose all of your traffic (mostly if you have not been doing things the right way).
We have a team of 6 people working the store right now, counting Anna and myself, and we plan on adding maybe a new team member to help pack orders and stock shelves next year depending on how sales go and what COVID looks like by the end of this year.
Our current goal is to get back to 2019 sales, before the pandemic hit, to then start growing again and go over our best year in sales. Who knows, with a bit of luck maybe we can do that this year, but most likely it will be next.
We continue to look for opportunities to partner with new brands and become distributors so we can do more B2B sales and not just B2C sales, as well as expand our overall selection of products.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Oh boy, we could write a book about this, as most business owners probably could.
I will list some of the most important lessons we learned over the years:
1 - Set your legal and tax structure soon.
2 - Get your finances, your tax records, and books straight from the get-go, this will be a lifesaver later on.
3 - Get insurance!!! We could have gone bankrupt had we not had liability insurance for our business. There are always people looking to get money from you and coming up with ways to sue you for whatever, insurance saved our lives. We had done nothing wrong, but it cost over $100,000 in legal fees to prove that, and that would have destroyed our business had we had to pay for that back then.
4 - Get professional help, doing it all might sound like money-saving, but it can cost you a lot if you do it wrong and it might hinder your growth.
5 - Grow slowly, so if something goes bad, it is easy to change directions and you don’t end up covered in debt. Financing your own business is a great way to protect yourself from having to sell your house or car to pay business loans.
6 - Work with your competitors, they are not your enemies, they are people in the industry with knowledge and they can become your partners. Use that to your advantage and grow with them.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the idea is bad. If you have done your research if you are willing to work for it, give it a go.
7 - Focus on your business, not on how to beat some other business. Put your efforts into just being better than yourself, making your business better and success will come. If you focus too much on what others are doing you will forget about your business, believe me, I have seen it happen.
8 - Register your trademark, now, don’t wait for another second, and make sure your domain name has a good standing credit card on file!
9 - Find a good bank and a good banker to work with, community bankers are usually better, we work with a large bank and they can be a pain to work with and now making the change is complicated.
10 - Get systems in place, and write down procedures, so that anyone can do a task if you are not there. This will free you up to keep thinking about how to grow your business instead of just working for the business.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use dozens of platforms for different things, here are my favorite ones:
1 - Slack, for internal communication.
2 - Zendesk, to communicate with our customers.
3 - Shopify for our website.
We use a lot more but we can't give away all of our secrets, can we?
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Neither of us is too much into reading about business, but I am an economist so my college years did teach me a thing or two about business, but I have learned the most from talking with other business owners, reading blogs and articles online from small business owners and interacting with them on Facebook.
I don’t usually get inspired by the pretty stories published in INC magazine or Forbes about the garage business turned multi-million dollar world giant company because I feel they leave a lot of details behind, like huge family loans to get started, influential people that connected them to the right people within the industry, etc. I rather hear from people like us, and so does Anna.
I am currently reading Profits First and although I thought it was going to be a groundbreaking book for me, I just realized we were doing just what that book recommends without knowing. If you have not read it, maybe read a bit about what Profits First means online and see if you should implement it. It is a good strategy and has helped us always be on time with taxes, and be able to pay ourselves a salary and get some profits too!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
First of all, think if what you are thinking of doing is something you want to spend 12 hours a day doing because at least for a few years, you might! Although being your boss sounds like fun, it also means you do not have an 8-hour work schedule and issues arise any time of the day, any day of the week, even during vacation.
Second, don’t let anyone tell you that the idea is bad. If you have done your research and if you are willing to work for it, give it a go. But don’t go just blind on it because you like the sound of it. Do the work, do the research, and then work, work, work.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below! Also, you can read more about us on our blog Post: Inside JestPaint - The Face Paint Store
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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