Simone Xavier of Sigma Beauty: “Make it simple, but not simpler”

“Make it simple, but not simpler.” This is actually a quote from Albert Einstein, but it is something that I keep in mind when developing products. I come back to the very first brush cleaning tool we created — the Sigma Spa® Brush Cleaning Glove. It was a simple, yet very functional concept, but the fact that […]

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“Make it simple, but not simpler.”

This is actually a quote from Albert Einstein, but it is something that I keep in mind when developing products. I come back to the very first brush cleaning tool we created — the Sigma Spa® Brush Cleaning Glove. It was a simple, yet very functional concept, but the fact that it looked too much like an oven mitt did impact the perception of the products. Today, I develop simple solutions, but I make sure they look unique and intriguing.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Simone Xavier who founded Sigma Beauty with her husband, Rene Xavier Filho in 2009 after identifying a niche in the cosmetics industry. Striving to find a solution for accessible and better quality makeup brushes in the market, Simone used her background as a veterinarian and professor with a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and Rene’s engineering profession to create innovative and revolutionary makeup brushes, brush care accessories and makeup. The brand has been awarded over 60 patents for their inventions and most coveted brushes.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

It is always fun for me to describe my backstory and career path because I feel it is very empowering to women and entrepreneurs in general. Before starting Sigma Beauty with my husband, Rene, who is a civil engineer, I had a heavily academic background. I obtained my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in infectious diseases. I also joined the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota as an assistant clinical professor where I lead a research and development laboratory focused on developing vaccines and diagnostic tests.

In 2009, my husband and I decided to make a drastic career change based on our observation that there was a niche in the cosmetic industry we could both explore. Rene, who was working on the product of painting tools at the time, realized he could produce makeup brushes better and cheaper than the ones currently offered to the beauty community.

I used my skills in research and trend analysis to create our very first set of makeup brushes. This specific set offered a solution to the everyday makeup user who may feel overwhelmed with the options currently available. My goal when creating our first brush set was to provide average users with all they needed in one set. Coming from a background of applied research (vaccines, diagnostic tests, etc.), I continue to use this solution-driven approach to this day for Sigma’s product development.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The entire journey of moving from an academic career to owning a cosmetics company has been, and still is, interesting to me. In the 12 years that we have been running Sigma Beauty, so many amazing instances have happened! Most of them are really related to the fact that we have a cosmetics company led by a civil engineer and a veterinarian. We are not your regular beauty company owners. The fact that we have such a different background allows us to really think outside the box and develop never-before-seen solutions.

If I had to pick one interesting story to share, it would be when we created our very first brush cleaning tool — the Sigma Spa® Brush Cleaning Glove. This was a simple yet genius concept that rocked the makeup world. Everyone was shocked that no one had come up with this idea before and many were surprised at how well it worked. Today, we have expanded our brush care category with numerous new inventions and have been awarded over 60 patents!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I would not call it a mistake, but it was definitely a product development lesson. Going back to our brush care tools, the very first brush cleaning glove I developed looked very similar to an oven mitt. The interesting thing is that an oven mitt did not even cross my mind when I was developing the product. I first had several silicone textures glued on a tray and I was testing it when Rene said, “Don’t people wash their brushes on their hands? Why don’t you transfer those textures to a glove, so it is more natural for clients to use.” And so, that’s what I did and it looked very similar to an oven mitt!

When we launched the product, it was a huge success but was lovingly referred to as a “glorified oven mitt.” My lesson here was that a new, never-before-seen product needed to look different and innovative in comparison to what is already out in the market — even if it reaches a different audience. Since then, after I fine-tune a product’s function, I spend a considerable amount of time on design, so it is not only a new product, but it looks different from anything out there.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband for sure. Sigma Beauty is really a 50/50 contribution between myself and Rene. Our backgrounds really come together during product development. Rene usually takes on some of the most complicated products we develop, and I always provide feedback from a user’s perspective. Similarly, my product development is heavily based on user experience, and he always has engineering advice on how to improve function or production. Sigma Beauty is the result of both of our contributions!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

The belief that you need an absurd amount of funding to get started. If you have a great idea, start small within your means and grow at your own pace. I realize there are a lot of successful funding stories out there, but don’t be intimidated or give up on your dreams if you don’t get funding.

Twelve years ago, we started Sigma Beauty in our basement with only 300 brush sets. I handle product development, marketing, website design, photography and packaging, while Rene would work with suppliers and shipping orders to our customers. We started with a very small personal investment, and we have reinvested our profits into growing the company ever since. We have no outside investors. It can be done! Don’t be overwhelmed by comparing your ideas or progress to others. Just do your own thing, stay focused, don’t spend more than you have, and safely grow your business.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

As individuals, we need to believe we can do it. That is an important step. You will always find someone who will tell you it can’t be done, but I will tell you — it can be done! As a society, we are making progress in recognizing women’s contributions and strengths. I come from a world (veterinary medicine) where I used to work with (and guide) a majority of men. As long as you have knowledge and expertise, anyone will listen to you. You need to be confident in your skills and expertise and talk as an equal. Being a woman never crossed my mind as I was managing disease outbreaks around the world and guiding veterinarians on how to control and prevent diseases. Science was my language and we understood and respected each other. As far as the government goes, yes, give women a chance to show what they can do. Create opportunities in education and training. Invest and watch women flourish and develop amazing things!

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

We have so much to contribute! We have unique ways of handling different situations and we have a very unique vision of how things should be done. We pick up on details that matter to us in products. I always catch myself criticizing products that fail to deliver, and I always think — were women involved at all in this product development? It is random, but it happens a lot to me with cars! More women should be founders because they need to share their unique visions and ways with the world.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

That we are glamorous and wealthy, superficially overseeing our businesses. I know this is not a generalization of female founders, but it is a perception that I have experienced and it could not be further from the truth. It is hard to understand and grasp what I am about to say, but I don’t do what I do for wealth. I have a mission. I left almost 20 years of academic work to start Sigma Beauty. Anything I create needs to justify “abandoning” a career that I absolutely loved. To me, it all comes down to providing our clients with quality solutions. To introduce never-before-seen products that change peoples’ routines and improve their lives. To having a legacy that clearly shows we cared. That we were not in this business just to generate money, but that we, as a company, have the clear goal of doing our best and providing clients with the absolute best experience they can have. But make no mistake — money is important — but to us, it is important to reinvest in the company and continue to grow it. And that is what we have been doing!

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Yes, anyone who wants to put in the work needed to create, grow and maintain a business can be a founder. And that is basically it. Creating a business requires a lot of work. When you are starting it and ramping it up, it is very intense, likely an everyday commitment. As a founder, you are always thinking about your business. The ‘go home and take a break from work’ doesn’t really apply. Although, I applaud founders who are able to do that when starting their businesses. As a founder, you feel the need to make your venture successful. You feel the responsibility to assure your employees that we are in this for years to come. You need to be passionate and inspiring. You will be the one to do anything that needs to be done in any areas of your business, as needed. You must be willing to be humble and wear as many hats as necessary. You must be a leader and be someone who your employees can come to for advice and suggestions. You must have a vision of where your business is going and what matters to you. Luckily, if you are passionate enough about your ideas, all that I just described will come naturally to you. I feel everyone has it in them, they just need to find their passion and be willing to invest their time to make it happen.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Don’t ignore current trends and be ready to comply when they become the norm.

This is something that I’ve learned over the years and has helped us stay ahead of the curve. Ensuring our products comply with being cruelty-free and clean are a few important trends that I detected early on. We swiftly changed and reformulated our products to meet those growing trends.

On cruelty-free, I saw this being the norm very early, around 10 years ago. Being a veterinarian, I was very bothered by the use of animal hair in the production of makeup brushes. Even though, 12 years ago, animal hair was considered a luxury and was synonymous with quality. I made the decision to switch to synthetic fibers when we initially started the company, and at that time, I was going against what everyone thought was best. It was the right move and we were one of the very first companies to offer a completely cruelty-free brush line.

Another important trend is to offer clean beauty products. In the past two years, I have reformulated all of our makeup to eliminate over 70 harsh chemicals commonly used by other brands. We aim to be one of the cleanest brands on the market. I am now working on adding true benefits into our formulations, and have spent a lot of time researching the scientific literature for the best ingredients with proven benefits.

2. “Make it simple, but not simpler.”

This is actually a quote from Albert Einstein, but it is something that I keep in mind when developing products. I come back to the very first brush cleaning tool we created — the Sigma Spa® Brush Cleaning Glove. It was a simple, yet very functional concept, but the fact that it looked too much like an oven mitt did impact the perception of the products. Today, I develop simple solutions, but I make sure they look unique and intriguing.

3. Less is more.

As our company grew, we thought it was necessary to add several layers of management to get the job done. This has been one of the biggest mistakes we have made and it is definitely something I wish I had known before we started. As you grow, you might think that having a large team, with several layers of management, makes your company look very professional, but the reality is the opposite. You will have a much better workflow and be more efficient with a small but mighty team of experts who really own their job responsibilities. It is a much more efficient model: messages don’t get lost on layers of management, you cut back on meeting times, you reduce bureaucracy and approval time for new ideas and initiatives, and you just move faster.

4. Hire someone who is better than you.

This was a piece of advice I received from one of my mentors when in academia, and it really stuck with me. I used to work with molecular techniques when doing diagnostic test development and these technologies change fast. In a year, diagnostic techniques become obsolete and you need to constantly update with the new needs and the latest techniques, so you are providing the most effective test. My strengths were more focused on the big picture of disease and outbreak control. I used to develop control strategies that would be applied to entire populations and had a good understanding of disease dynamics. Keeping up with the very latest little details of molecular techniques was not my focus or strength, but it was definitely something that I needed. The advice was: you don’t need to know all there is to know about these techniques, you just need to hire someone that is really good at it — better than you will ever be. And that is how we are trying to build our team, with experts who know more than I do.

5. See your idea through, even if no one believes in it.

When you create solutions that never existed, you will inevitably find resistance and flat-out rejection. Give your idea a chance regardless. You can’t count on anyone knowing exactly what you have in mind, or seeing things exactly like you see them. You need to trust your instincts and see your idea through. You need to develop it, launch and test it out. Improve when feedback comes your way, and cancel it if it did not work, but make sure your idea sees the light of day.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I have focused on creating as many solutions as I can to improve and facilitate our clients’ experience when applying their beauty products. We aim at providing the highest quality possible at an affordable (masstige range) price.

It is important to me that our clients are entertained. I am an artist; I love art. My goal is that our clients are amazed by our products. In the education realm, I have been involved in many opportunities to share my experiences with those interested in starting a business, such as sharing our story during a TEDxHulton talk in Boston, or participating on a panel at the Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota.

We have also invested in many influencer collaborations, giving them their very first opportunity to create a product from scratch. Many today have their own brands such as Yasmin Maya (@BeautyyBird) or Angela Bright (@AngelaBright), among many others. I am always so happy to see someone who has worked with us create their own brand. As a company, we have collaborated with several charity corporations such as Bright Pink and The Pink Fund™ for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, It Gets Better Project for Pride Month, American Association for Cancer Research, Miss Amazing, and many more. We are working on expanding our charity initiatives to be year-round, and we are excited to see those charitable contributions grow significantly.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

This movement would be called BELIEVE, and it would be focused on sharing my story with girls (and boys) everywhere and passing on the idea that they too can succeed. It’s important to recognize that everyone has unique perspectives that are absolutely valuable, that every single person has ideas, wants and needs that are true to a large portion of the world‘s population. Your idea doesn’t need to reach or work for 7.6 billion people, but if you create a solution, you’ve already made great progress. Finding a few thousand of your peers who are looking for something just like you created, is easier than you think. This is an initiative that is always in the back of my mind and that I may develop someday.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would have loved to have a conversation with Steve Jobs. His approach to innovation, function and the use of innate behavior in product development has been (and still is) very inspiring to me and has influenced me greatly. To get into his head and get more insights on his thought process would have been amazing.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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