Sarah Biggers: “Sometimes you just have to trust your gut”

Change and progress don’t happen linearly. We think of achieving our next goal in a linear context, but that is rarely the case. Change is usually predicated upon a big jump that skips over and around what you thought would happen. If you think in your head of change as small, short steps, which is […]

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Change and progress don’t happen linearly. We think of achieving our next goal in a linear context, but that is rarely the case. Change is usually predicated upon a big jump that skips over and around what you thought would happen. If you think in your head of change as small, short steps, which is helpful for brainstorming and to avoid being overwhelmed, reality ends up looking more like really tall steps. Don’t be scared to make big jumps — that is where the change happens.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Biggers, founder and CEO, CLOVE + HALLOW. Sarah doesn’t just stand for clean cosmetics out of principle. She underwent her personal journey towards clean living many years ago after experiencing a debilitating illness that doctors couldn’t diagnose. Amongst a slurry of physical symptoms, Sarah was bedridden for six months with daily panic attacks and depression. Desperate to feel better, she went down a path she had never before considered: naturopathic medicine. Following her doctor’s recommendations for a complete overhaul through holistic medicine and dietary and lifestyle changes, Sarah saw swift improvement. It was then when she realized if what she put in her body was so impactful, what she put on her body was equally important. Moreover, as a makeup artist with clients, family, and friends looking to her for advice and product recommendations, Sarah knew she needed to rebuild her personal and professional makeup kits with safe products. But it wasn’t easy to find clean cosmetics from brands she could trust and that were up to her high standards. After unsuccessfully trying hundreds of clean alternatives to her beloved conventional staples, she realized what she was looking for simply didn’t exist: products in the clean beauty space were too limited in shade range, too sheer, and too expensive. Sarah dreamt up a line of clean, cruelty-free and vegan cosmetics that would work for women of all skin-tones; a line that looked and felt high-end but didn’t cost an arm and a leg; a line that promised (and delivered) transparency and trustworthiness; a line that makeup junkies, pros, and newbies alike could all enjoy. Just like that, CLOVE + HALLOW was born.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Sarah! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I’ve always loved beauty. Makeup, skincare, hair care — you name it and I hoarded it growing up. Luckily, my parents were really cool and let me get creative with it at a young age. I remember being in middle school and opening up my own YouTube channel once I discovered the online makeup community. I ended up shuttering my account a few months later because YouTube was a very new concept at the time and my channel was growing so fast that I was scared kids at school would find it and tease me.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

By the time I went to college I had an enormous collection of beauty products and started doing makeup on my friends and family. It wasn’t until a solo backpacking trip across Southeast Asia after graduating that I realized I could make a living out of this and decided to freelance as a makeup artist when I returned. I worked as many weddings, photo shoots, and commercial sets as I could (usually for free) to get my name out there. Within a few months, my business was growing more quickly than I could have imagined.

I transitioned from makeup artistry to CLOVE + HALLOW in 2016 after a health crisis forced me to reevaluate the way I looked at beauty. A few months prior, I was bedridden for six months with vertigo, memory loss, panic attacks and depression before a holistic doctor figured out what was wrong with me. Working with her really opened my eyes to the importance of ingredients. It was such a light bulb moment — we know to try to regulate what we put in our bodies with the food and drinks we consume but what about all the things we layer onto our skin or breathe in through the air? As soon as I finished healing I began working on a clean cosmetics line to replace the conventional classics I’d always used. That’s when CLOVE + HALLOW was born.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

Comfort with the unknown, confidence, and capital. A good entrepreneur understands there is no such thing as a perfect decision and is comfortable with not knowing what the future will look like. Running a business means taking leaps of calculated faith, cold-calling, and bouncing back from roadblocks and rejection. Lastly, almost all ventures need a lot more money than you initially realize so having ample capital is critical to getting off the ground.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

I think you need to evaluate what you love about your hobby. If you love it because it’s an escape, I wouldn’t turn it into your primary source of income. If it’s something you enjoy because you’re good at it, that’s probably better suited toward a career path.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

My number one tip for dealing with this issue is to have a mission-focused business. Creating a mission that really resonates with you is critical so that when the going gets tough, you can revisit your mission to feel grounded and motivated. I also try to enjoy the hobby in its original form from time-to-time; for example, I still take the occasional freelance makeup client because it inspires me and reignites my love for this industry.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

Building a team, hands down. I love being in the office (I get cranky when I’m gone too long!) and I truly feel honored to manage so many wonderful people. Watching them grow in their skill sets, hustle hard, and support each other personally and professionally along the way gives me all the feels.

The downside is you can’t fully turn off. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, the challenges of your business come with you because you’re ultimately responsible for them. I find myself brainstorming, daydreaming, or actively working on my business most hours of most days. While I don’t have the magic solution (honestly, I think its par for the course), I do take a vacation of at least one straight week every quarter. The change of scenery combined with realizing I can do what I do from almost anywhere in the world reminds me of how blessed I am to do this.

It can also make it hard to relate to your peers. I started working on C+H when I was 24 so while my friends were enjoying the freedom-filled “figuring it out” phase of their mid-20s, I was building something permanent and setting deep roots. It’s easy to feel lonely and disconnected from the people you should have the most in common with.

Balancing your personal health with the health of your business is a challenge. There are endless — and I truly mean endless — demands for your time and energy when you’re running a business, especially in the early days when you don’t have a team working with you. I think being realistic about the stress and demands is important so you can evaluate whether or not it’s worth it for you. I also recommend not getting sucked into the “work harder” mentality. I’ve been there, and can confirm it’s really toxic and unsustainable. Work smarter instead and your mind, body, and spirit will thank you.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

It’s significantly less glamorous than I thought it would be. Even things I love to do like traveling the world to close deals or attend events are often stressful and exhausting behind the scenes. On the other hand, it’s 100 times more rewarding than I ever could have imagined!

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

Definitely. I remind myself that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, scared, or stressed and that the grass isn’t necessarily greener elsewhere. Then I journal all of my feelings and make a note in my calendar to come back to that journal entry in two weeks to re-evaluate. I do this over and over again in order to deduce any patterns (I’m notoriously dire when I travel too much or don’t get enough sleep) and also to track how long a particular feeling/sentiment has lasted. If I feel the same thing month after month, something has to change. For example, there was a time when I was working 12 or more hours every single day and I was on the verge of shutting my business down. Instead, I decided to experiment with a six-hour workday. It was a big shift but it paid off. This kind of continual feedback loop with myself is how I stay committed to my business (and sane).

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?

Most of my mistakes are funny in hindsight. One that comes to mind is accidentally ordering 30,000 refillable compacts for our Pressed Pigment Powders instead of 3,000. I remember thinking it was weird that the compact manufacturer reached out to schedule a delivery (“Schedule a delivery? Why? It should just be a few boxes!”) and then five pallets of compacts arrived to our tiny storage unit. I was in shock! Thankfully, there isn’t an expiration/shelf-life concern with a compact and we go through a lot of them so it’s actually turned into a beneficial mistake, but you better believe I now double check every single purchase order we place to make sure all the numbers look right.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

My motivation is always about serving. With CLOVE + HALLOW, I get to do this in two key ways: First, I serve our customers by creating awesome products that they really value, and second, I am able to serve my team by creating a healthy working environment that adds value to their lives. If I find my motivation slipping, I go back to the fact that I try to live without regret. Customers and employees will come and go, but if I lead the way that I would want to be led and always try to make a positive impact, I will never look back with regret.

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

I believe that my business is empowering by nature; giving people the opportunity to use clean beauty products that work just as well as the products they’ve used for years feels really good. Personally, I try to use the platforms I’m given to talk about mental health in a real and relatable way.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Sometimes you just have to trust your gut. There have been times when the data told me one thing but my gut told me another — for example, hiring someone new when we didn’t have the cash flow to justify it yet, or understanding that my business was known (and doing very well) as a lip color company but that we needed to get into complexion. Develop your inner dialogue and then learn to trust it.
  2. Stay true to your mission. I definitely wasted time and resources by starting and stopping initiatives or products that weren’t aligned with my business because they were trendy among my competitors. I’ve always caught it in time to avoid any major mishaps, but wow, I really underestimated how easy it would be to get distracted by what other businesses in my industry are doing.
  3. Change and progress don’t happen linearly. We think of achieving our next goal in a linear context, but that is rarely the case. Change is usually predicated upon a big jump that skips over and around what you thought would happen. If you think in your head of change as small, short steps, which is helpful for brainstorming and to avoid being overwhelmed, reality ends up looking more like really tall steps. Don’t be scared to make big jumps — that is where the change happens.
  4. Don’t listen to the opinions of people who aren’t your target market. The downside of social media and internet ubiquity is that everyone has an opinion and the ability to blast it publicly. I’ve learned to put my blinders on and not let negative feedback from people who aren’t our market get to me. For example, our products are formulated to be safe, which is not the same thing as 100 percent natural. Sometimes we come across people who believe all synthetics are bad and they use their social platform to aggressively disagree with us. Now, I take those moments as feedback on the way our targeting is setup (are we not hitting our target market accurately?) or even on the way we’ve branded our target market, which is a much more productive way to look at it.
  5. You won’t love what you’re doing every day and that’s okay. I always heard that if you love what you’re doing, you won’t feel like you’re ever working. That’s crazy talk. I have above-average job satisfaction (I really do love what I do) but there are days I’m not excited to leave my house or even weeks where I’m in a funk and not happy with things. It’s completely normal and I wish I’d known that going into it so I could have avoided years of feeling worse about those down days.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire 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.

To make better choices where and when possible, and I think we’re already on that mission!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The grass is greener where you water it.” Today’s world is dominated by input — think podcasts, Instagram, e-books, news outlets, etc. — which makes it easier than ever to compare your life and choices to everyone else’s. I know that I am particularly susceptible to feeling “itchy”, i.e. always wanting more and newer and better and different, so I really have to be wary of how much stimuli I let into my life or I can derail a bit. This quote always reminds me that I’m happiest when I am content, and I am content when I am invested fully and completely in the present instead of looking for greener pastures.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest 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.

Sarah Blakely with Spanx! She’s local to me here in Atlanta so it isn’t too far of a stretch. There are many struggles that come with running a product-based startup and it would be so cool to hear what her journey through those looked like.

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

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