In this episode of ‘Gradual’*, lipstick entrepreneur Florence Adepoju talks about starting MDMflow while still at university, and how she grew it from a lab in her backyard shed to a global brand. She’s the Fenty before there was Fenty!
Check out the article below for highlights from the 31 minute podcast, like Florence’s advice for students and entrepreneurs.
*Gradual is a podcast that explores the big questions and challenges that many new graduates will face. In each episode, we share unfiltered stories from creative professionals who make a living doing what they love. Search ‘Gradual Podcast’ on popular podcast platforms to subscribe and listen. Created by UAL Careers and Employability.
Part One: Discovering Cosmetic Science
Lets begin with a little bit of background about our interviewee. An Essex girl with a gift for science, Florence took the road less travelled after graduating from university by establishing her own beauty brand. It took a few years but MDMflow is now a financial success, with her lipsticks stocked in Topshop, Boots, Harvey Nichols and more. So what set her on the path to creating MDMflow?
As it happens Florence was actually planning to become a pharmacist. Everyone else who was science-minded in her family became a doctor or a pharmacist, so Florence was expected to do the same. To hear her expand on this, skip to 5:20 in the episode.
However, a work experience stint at Tesco pharmacy led to a realisation: she completely hated pharmacy and couldn’t fathom doing it for the rest of her life. Soon after this, when Florence was 17, she was offered a job as a sales associate working on a Benefit beauty counter in Essex. She loved this, and it completely changed the path she was on, pivoting her towards the cosmetic industry.
Learning about the beauty industry through sales
Another pivotal moment for Florence was a visit to the head office for training, which led to another realisation: there are a whole range of careers within the beauty industry. After googling ‘how to make makeup’ she found out about cosmetic science:
“That again was the first spark of [realising that] there’s other careers outside of working on a counter within the beauty industry, so what is the most scientific thing that I can do?”
It was the first time Florence had experienced joy in work. However she also felt frustration during this time: most of the lipsticks on offer were too pale for her, and the foundations weren’t dark enough. The market just wasn’t catering to women of Black and Asian skin tones, and Florence often had to turn away Black and South Asian customers.
If you want to hear how Florence broke the news to her parents that she wasn’t going to study pharmacy (and she had received offers already) skip to 8:10 in the podcast.
Part Two: Graduation and Beyond
Florence wanted to solve the problem she encountered at the beauty counter, so in 2012 while in her final year at uni Florence started MDMflow, developing a range of nine lipsticks in a make-shift lab in her parents’ backyard shed. Skip to 10:40 to hear how she set it all up.
Even though Florence clearly had a solid business idea, she was still pretty worried about life after graduation. Her peers were all either applying for graduate jobs or already working in one in their final year, so she was asking herself: “Am I just gonna be this poor starving artist because I’ve got this crazy idea?”
But Florence persevered, nurturing her customer base by attending trade-show events and through social media, i.e by ‘seeding’ her best lipsticks to social media influencers in exchange for promotion. You can hear more about how Florence has created an online community for her customers at 21:10 minutes in.
Hip-Hop Colours for Your Lips
By 2015 MDMflow really took off, helped along by a piece in The New York Times called ‘Hip-Hop Colors for Your Lips’ which highlighted the influence that hip-hop music and aesthetics has on the brand. The article went viral, bringing MDMflow to the attention of more retailers.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Florence was making 900 lipsticks a day – it was time to move the operation out of her parents’ backyard and leave the shed behind. If you want to hear the details of how Florence did that with the help of an angel investor, skip to 25:30.
Part Three: Florence’s tips for students and entrepreneurs
1) Don’t be discouraged if a bigger player has the same idea as you:
Rhianna launched a cosmetic brand called ‘Fenty’ In 2017, with a foundation range encompassing 40 different shades. Fenty is a huge financial success, proving what Florence has been trying to tell investors for years: there is money to be made in embracing diversity (Florence explains how Fenty’s success has been a good thing for MDMflow at 12.42 minutes in).
2) Focus on the positive:
Florence follows the mantra that, “Anything that isn’t building you up is breaking you down.”
3) Don’t let failures or rejection stop you from reaching your goals:
We are going to finish up this article with some advice from Florence to all the future students and entrepreneurs out there:
“You just have to get up every single morning, have a list of things you want to do, try and get them done, fail at a lot, be successful at one, have a little niggling feeling about what to do next… you just literally have to do stuff.”
Want to know more about what Florence is up to? Follow her online:
Interested in the beauty industry or makeup? Take a look at these courses: