Understand marketing: Regardless of what you feel your strength is, you need to understand and learn effective marketing. You can’t grow a business without marketing. One of the things I learned from working with our Shark Tank company is that marketing is 90% of what you do when selling products. Sometimes, you have to think of your business as a marketing agency for yourself.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Felipe Vasconcelos.
Felipe is the founder and CEO of Koda Brands, which is a remote-first company that holds multiple beauty brands under its umbrella (Atomic Makeup, Secret Beauty Club, Kapuluan Coconut, More Naturals, and StartBeauty). As a serial entrepreneur, he has started, acquired, scaled, and sold over a dozen of his own businesses. He has also served as a consultant to help other entrepreneurs massively grow their own businesses.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve always been an entrepreneur ever since I was nine years old. Growing up in Brazil, I was selling kites to the neighborhood children. When I moved to the U.S. at 12 years old, my first business was selling books that I got for free from estate sales for a dollar each. There were days when I would make $100 a day, and for a kid in the 90s, it was a good amount of money. After that, every few years or so, I would start a new business. I was also in tech for a while, doing web hosting and web development. I then went to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), one of the top five fashion schools in the world, to become an image consultant. While I was making good money doing that, I felt like I didn’t have the complete knowledge on how to make that business better and scale it the way I wanted to. So, I ended up going to business school at the University of Rochester. There, I worked with dozens of companies from four different continents doing projects with them. I even worked with a Shark Tank company. By the end of my MBA program, I had to decide whether to take a six-figure offer from one of the major banks or run my own business. I didn’t choose the bank. I acquired my first business right before graduating, and with the profits from that, I bought another business, and then another, and then another. Throughout that journey, I also launched other businesses.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The “Aha Moment” for Koda Brands was knowing that we had the resources and know-how to have multiple touchpoints in a customer’s journey through beauty, wellness, and fashion. Everyone has those needs, so there was no reason that we shouldn’t be at the forefront for fulfilling those needs. The customers, our products, and the different brands we have under Koda Brands overlap. We knew from talking to our customers, and researching into our target audience and target markets, that we were in a prime position to have all these different brands fulfill specific needs while being within our wheelhouse.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
No one directly inspired me or helped me to start my business journey. However, there were a lot of indirect moments that nudged me to be where I am today. I never really received a lot of encouragement in starting my businesses. I grew up in a destitute environment, so having your own business was almost unheard of because people around me didn’t have that experience, privilege, or resources. My ideas always got talked down by my family and my friends. There was one person who encouraged me, and that was my grandma. I think she mainly was entertained by the thought of me trying to make a little money selling kites. I don’t know if she ever thought that I would turn entrepreneurship into a career, but at least it was something productive that I occupied myself with, and that was a good thing. I’ve always had this fire inside of me, so I’m fortunate that I didn’t listen to the people saying, “no.” I think that betting on myself was probably one of the best decisions that I made.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes our company stand out is our focus on people, not only our employees but also our customers. We don’t exist as a company without either. We always do our best to do right both for our customers and our employees. We’re continuously working very hard to make sure that our employees have a lot of opportunity for growth and that they love what they do. We also want to make sure that we have products and services that customers will love and need. We do our best to connect with customers in various ways. A widespread response that we get from customers across all the brands within our company is that the products or service is the best they’ve had, which encourages us to keep going.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One big thing that we’ve done for our brands, and what we’re continuing to set up as we acquire and launch new brands, is setting up scholarships for minority students and students with disabilities and donating money towards education. We also have environmental initiatives. For instance, through Kapuluan Coconut, we plant a coconut tree for every coconut oil product sold. I also do a lot of mentoring for young entrepreneurs through the University of Rochester as an expert in residence and Business Mentor NY as a Marketing Strategy Mentor. I also serve on the board of two non-profits. One of them is the Academy for Teachers, which empowers teachers through masterclasses with experts in different fields. The other is the Brooklyn Fashion Incubator, which helps people of color through their entrepreneurship journey.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Being curious: As an entrepreneur, it’s crucial to have an abnormal level of curiosity. When you are curious, you don’t have to be the best, but that curiosity can lead you to be the best. The search for knowledge and trying to figure out how to stay ahead of the curve has always been instrumental to my success. I think our businesses are proof of that. We recognize and acknowledge whatever we are unsure of or what we don’t know. Then, we try to become experts to learn those new things, which always leads to growth.
- Taking calculated risks: What I do seems risky to most people. But I think what many people don’t realize is that it requires a lot of planning and readiness. It’s essential to prepare for a lot of different situations. While taking a risk might look spontaneous, it just means that I’ve done my homework.
- Using unpleasant experiences as a drive: I think most people fear failing. It’s ok to be scared to fail because failure is supposed to be scary. But I don’t think it’s ok not to learn from those failures. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. Whether you succeed or fail, I believe you always get something out of it. The experience that I get from failure is priceless and is something I embrace because it helps me become a better leader, entrepreneur, and person.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
No, because I did the inverse. I didn’t listen to good advice. This advice was the worst best advice that I’ve ever received. When I was close to graduating from business school, I had a conversation with the dean about my career prospects. I explained that I received various offers, some very generous, but I was considering entrepreneurship. He told me that the best thing for me to do before starting my own business is to join a startup or do brand management because I would be playing with someone else’s money rather than spending my money on my entrepreneurship journey. If I were most people, I think that would have been good advice because it’s risk-aversive advice. So, while it’s solid advice, it just wasn’t good advice for me. I’m glad I didn’t listen to it because I believe that opportunity doesn’t wait.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Back in college, I became homeless. I was living in a very abusive environment. Being homeless is something I don’t recommend to anyone, but honestly, what came out of that experience was great. I think trying to get out of this situation made me think outside of the box. There were days I would be sleeping on the different couches throughout campus or at a friend’s dorm under his beer pong table. One of the ways I was able to get out of that situation was by starting a business. I used the school’s computer lab to create a web hosting business. I think that was a great way to prove to myself that I was resourceful, not because I was an incredible person with a significant level of intelligence, but because I was willing to put in hard work.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
My biggest drive was wanting to get out of my homeless situation by using every single resource around me to do just that. I wanted not only to survive; I wanted to thrive. Therefore, I use bad or uncomfortable situations to drive me. Someone may say, “you can’t” or “you shouldn’t.” But, I’m saying, “I can” and “I should.”
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
It’s important not to allow the highs to get too high and the lows to get too low. Keeping a happy medium is a great way for me to navigate the emotional highs and lows. I have never been big on the celebration, especially in business because celebrations are usually abbreviated. When you are a successful entrepreneur and strive for more, you need to move the goal post continually. I never allow the highs to get too high because I want to manage my expectations. I’m always looking forward because I know that I will do even better in the future. And when I do, I move the goal post again. Handling the lows is not always easy, but I know the worst that can happen. And the worst that can happen is me losing everything and becoming homeless. I’ve been through that and got out of it. I know that I’m in a position that the worst is likely not going to happen, so that doesn’t allow the lows to get too low.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
The first thing I would say to the young founder is that it depends on the type of business they’re in and their vision for the future when it comes to what’s best for them. As soon as you get money from someone else, you cease to become your own boss because you have to listen to other people. If they are ok with having to answer to other people, then fundraising is fine. If they don’t need the money right away to scale, then bootstrap. Always do everything you can to bootstrap and find as many other alternatives as possible to funding before fundraising. There are great alternatives such as grants, loans, friends, and family. Even if you need to have a side hustle to fund your dream, do that. But it might get to the point that you’re not able to scale your business without venture capital, and at that point, and only at that point, is the time to fundraise.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Understand opportunity: It’s important to really know the product or service you are trying to sell. Do as much research as humanly possible on the market to see if there is an opportunity within your target market. A lot of entrepreneurs start businesses without understanding market opportunity, without conducting appropriate surveys, without talking to the right people, and without talking to experts. Without understanding all these components, you’re bound to fail.
- Create a solid plan: It’s that old saying, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” With everything you learned about the product or the service, the market, and the people who will be using your product, you have to use all of this researched information to create a solid business plan. It doesn’t need to follow any specific structure you see in business plans online (although it does help). It’s about understanding, from beginning to end, what a customer journey is going to be. For instance, if you are selling a product, you need to understand where it will come from, how much it will cost you, and what the profits are going to be. So, planning all of that is essential.
- Connect with the right people: Businesses can’t be successful without the right people. Make sure to connect with mentors, vendors, potential partners, and your employees. You also need to do some soul-searching within yourself to figure out if you’re the right person for this business venture because you are essential to your success.
- Understand marketing: Regardless of what you feel your strength is, you need to understand and learn effective marketing. You can’t grow a business without marketing. One of the things I learned from working with our Shark Tank company is that marketing is 90% of what you do when selling products. Sometimes, you have to think of your business as a marketing agency for yourself.
- Learn from failure: It’s not only about learning from our own failures, but it also involves learning from other people’s failures as well. This learning is doing great competitive research and analyzing the landscape to figure out how you can do less of what didn’t work for everybody else and more of what did work for everyone else.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A common mistake is not doing enough research. I recently spoke to a young founder who reached out to me on LinkedIn for advice on their startup. This young entrepreneur claimed to know everything about their competitors in the world for their brand. When I mentioned one of their lesser-known competitors, this person had no idea who they were. I think it’s necessary to humble yourself and admit that you’re never going to know everything, regardless of how much work you do. But do as much as possible, so you feel comfortable navigating your industry.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I hate to admit that I’m not always great at downtime because I love what I do so much that I don’t want to stop. All my ventures have been frontloaded, and I think most successful businesses are frontloaded, meaning that the hard work gets piled on in the beginning to create an excellent structure for the company. It’s hard to scale a business while also taking care of your physical and mental health without establishing a good foundation. I think scheduling downtime is necessary, or even just changing the setting of your environment. Before Covid, I traveled quite a bit. I still would work similar hours, but being in a different environment did wonders for my mental wellness. I would say physically, exercise and eat your vegetables. I think that at minimum, a few times a week, make sure to do something active. You can even create a mini home gym with equipment around your work area to take a break and get a little bit of exercise.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A movement that I would start is a movement towards truth. There are a lot of untruths out there, and people create untruths to profit from them. Many ridiculous videos and articles are made with untruths because they get more views and shares, plus people make a profit. I think that having policies or centralized, unbiased ways that people can get facts would benefit the entire world.
We are 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to talk with young people in the entertainment music industry, such as Billie Eilish, Lil’ Nas X, or Olivia Rodrigo, because beauty and the music industry go hand-in-hand. We have a lot of experience in helping develop unique beauty brands for different celebrities, and we love exploring new partnerships with amazing, new artists.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Check out kodabrands.com to see what we are all about and the different brands within our company.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!