Nancy Cruickshank wants to make beauty personal again

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Francois Badenhorst
Deputy editor
BusinessZone and UK Business Forums
KPMG
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If entrepreneurship was a classroom, Nancy Cruickshank would be the disruptive, albeit brilliant student sitting in the back row.

In the latest edition of BusinessZone’s The Disruptors profile series, deputy editor Francois Badenhorst caught up with her to hear about her latest venture and how she leverages the expertise of others to punch above her weight.

“I’m definitely not the kind of entrepreneur that just sets out to start a business. I become obsessed with a topic. It’s an experience I’ve had, it’s an itch I can’t leave alone,” she says. “And the idea creates momentum; that vision, mission, and passion.”

Cruickshank has spent her working life deftly navigating treacherous digital landscapes; either managing the immense digital disruption roiling the media industry for the likes of Condé Nast or developing her own disruptive propositions.

“The interesting thing about digital businesses is the innate disruptive effect,” reflects Cruickshank. “It’s not so much about the market as it is about how the market is changing. It’s catching a breaking wave.”

Cruickshank has now built three online businesses. The online beauty and fashion community Handbag.com was arguably her first major success, which became the most popular of its kind in the UK.

MyShowcase’s distributed model offers a great degree of pliability, a quality that’s unusual in the very topsy-turvy digital commerce market.

Cruickshank exited and exacted a tidy sum of £22m from Handbag’s eventual buyer Hearst Group. Around the same time, Cruickshank also founded the online property portal Smove.com.

“I feel like those two businesses were stepping stones for what I’m doing now,” says Cruickshank, referring to her third and current digital endeavour: MyShowcase, a personal beauty shopping service that merges Avon’s door-to-door ethos with an intricate digital infrastructure.

MyShowcase is a retailer that sells products both online and, crucially, through ‘showcases’  led by MyShowcase salespeople, often in private residences. Essentially, the showcase's are MyShowcase’s equivalent of a Tupperware party.

The ‘stylists’, as MyShowcase calls its salespeople, are essential to MyShowcase’s USP. With MyShowcase, Cruickshank has entered a commercial ocean populated by very intimidating competitors.

Even the most uninformed layman or unenthused husband would guess the beauty industry is huge. But it’s only once you hear the figures that the contours of the behemoth become fully transparent.

“It’s a £17bn industry,” says Cruickshank matter-of-factly, her voice not even betraying a hint of intimidation. “The average British women will spend over £100,000 on beauty products in her lifetime.” Cruickshank is unintimidated because she has found her ‘in’ through MyShowcase’s network of self-employed stylists.

The beauty industry’s sales are still driven through old-fashioned, rigorously partisan direct-selling. Think of the archipelago of beauty stands that are dotted through any large Boots pharmacy. The consultants helming those booths are restricted by the brand that employs them.

Ultimately, Cruickshank says, these sales people are responsible to the company they represent – not what’s best for the customer. It also limits the sales person’s ability to effectively help each customer; as Cruickshank notes, each woman has different beauty needs.

MyShowcase’s stylists have access to a constellation of over fifty different brands actively curated by Kate Shapland, a beauty journalist and Cruickshank’s partner. “Doing this means we don’t have to deal with things like product R&D and we can always be on trend,” explains Cruickshank.

The average British women will spend over £100,000 on beauty products in her lifetime.

MyShowcase’s model is defined by macro and micro decisions. The macro stuff, the broad, strategic strokes, are done at HQ by Cruickshank and her team. “An entrepreneur’s job is to create, not to manage,” says Cruickshank, referring to her leadership style.

MyShowcase’s success has been defined by Cruickshank’s acute understanding of her own limitations. Far from the stereotype of the disruptive entrepreneur as a monomaniacal control freak, she has relied heavily on her senior partners.

Shapland, as already mentioned, offers her expertise in curation and beauty products. Her chief technical officer Olivier Beau de Loménie has spent his life building e-commerce platforms, most notable Ocado. And her chief operating officer Rodrigo Dauster, a Brazilian, is MyShowcase’s strategic brain.

“For businesses that are critically enabled by tech, you can’t do it alone,” says Cruickshank. “I’m not sure how we would’ve done it otherwise.” This central team was built through connections and networking. But what really draws talented individuals is the quality of the idea, says Cruickshank. “You attract talent to the idea over time.”

Below MyShowcase’s brains trust, on the ground, the finer, artisanal details are done by MyShowcase’s army of stylists who are given a great degree of freedom to serve their customers.  

Without these stylists, MyShowcase would just be an e-commerce site. But the stylists add a dose of real-world service to the website’s digital proposition.  “A woman shopping from us, she’ll get access to an experience,” says Cruickshank. Customers can peruse Shapland’s selection, and this is complemented by the stylists who provide advice and guidance.

“I see the stylists more as entrepreneurs than employees,” says Cruickshank. “They come from all walks of life, frequently it’s a way to make a little extra cash.”

For businesses that are critically enabled by tech, you can’t do it alone.

MyShowcase, aside from its e-commerce function, also operates as a business infrastructure that supports other micro-businesses. The stylists operate completely independently, free to pick-and-choose from the selection and serve customers as they deem best. Although the nomenclature is ‘stylist’, Cruickshank views them as entrepreneurs.

The most hierarchical aspect of MyShowcase’s employment strategy is the on-boarding phase where stylists receive product and client service training, as well as all the products and accoutrements they need to run their micro-enterprise. For this, stylists pay £150 to join MyShowcase team.

“You are good to go for your £150,” says Cruickshank. “The stylist also gets their own portal where they can track commissions and access to a CRM system. They even get the white table cloth they use for the private showcases.”

The initial £150 offers no economic value to MyShowcase, Cruickshank explains, it just covers the cost of training and equipping the stylists. “Where we make money is when we make sale items,” says Cruickshank. “The stylist gets a commission, the brand gets money and we get the markup.”

The freedom enjoyed by the stylists engenders a great degree of personalisation into the service. But, Cruickshank says, that is just one aspect of personalisation, it doesn’t stop with the human touch.

Where MyShowcase really differentiates itself from other door-to-door beauty services in the past, is the more latent form of personalisation which is facilitated through technology.

“We are incredibly rich in data in our business. Unlike traditional retail, our service can be tailored,” says Cruickshank. “If you buy a brow pencil, we can send you all kinds of relevant information; an email, for instance, asking ‘how’s your brow pencil doing?’ or ‘here’s how you can use it better!’”

It’s a rollercoaster. A real mission focused approach helps you roll with the punches.”

MyShowcase’s two-headed personalisation merges very well with where the beauty industry is at right now. Time after time, the beauty industry has demonstrated an uncanny ability to absorb economic downturns.

That’s because women, Cruickshank explains, don’t stop buying beauty products. They do, however, look for cheaper - albeit just as good - alternatives, leading to a thirst for the kind of advice that MyShowcase offers. As far the stylists go: people need self-employment and financial alternatives during turbulent economic times.

“I think whenever we have shocks, the outcome for entrepreneurs is always a period of uncertainty,” says Cruickshank, slyly nodding at the two big political upheavals of this year. “But what’s interesting about MyShowcase’s business model is periods of uncertainty actually present an opportunity for us.”

The distributed entrepreneur model also alleviates the strain of customer acquisition during lean economic times. When the stylists join MyShowcase, they frequently bring friends and family along as customers, explains Cruickshank.

And, when things improve economically, there’s the obvious boon of consumers’ beauty budgets swelling again. MyShowcase’s distributed model offers a great degree of pliability, a quality that’s unusual in the very topsy-turvy digital commerce market.

Cruickshank is clearly enthused by the potential. “I’m always cautioned by my financial guys against making bold statements. I’m an ambitious entrepreneur, after all,” Cruickshank admits, referring the gentle caution of her CFO Pim Piers. “So I try to focus on the right now. Although, I would be lying if I said I didn’t think MyShowcase doesn’t have potential.”

With MyShowcase, Cruickshank says, she feels like she’s on a mission. “I want to empower my stylists to start their own businesses, and I want to offer customers something different,” she says. “It’s a rollercoaster. A real mission focused approach helps you roll with the punches.”

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