Florence Adepoju, or known to her friends as Flo, is the lead creative and founder of cosmetic’s brand MDM Flow. A beauty brand that started in her back garden and is now a leading collection in catering for women of colour. From formulating her own lipsticks, foundations and mascaras, she is pioneering the face of inclusive beauty, product by product with the latest colour technology. Working tirelessly to produce crowd-funding campaigns, managing social media accounts and pushing beauty in a new direction, Flow handles it all, all while maintaining a great work-life balance. This is Flow on the journey of her brand, the stigma’s in beauty and the sacrifices around entrepreneurship and business building.
“My vision for the beauty industry is for ANY woman to walk into the store and have as many options as everybody else it’s not trying to outdo the industry, we want equality and not revenge”
On the Early Days.
When people say start from the beginning, I think what beginning? [laughs], I always start from when I was in college around the age of 17/18. I think it’s important to start from that point because a lot of entrepreneurs say that they were in the playground selling sweets or making lemonade and it was a super entrepreneurial, and that was not the case for me. Although I can look back at my childhood and see my interests and personalities all work with what I’m doing now, it wasn’t from the age of 5.
I was in college studying Biology, Chemistry and Art & Design and funnily enough the hopes were to go into medicine, as in my parents hopes [ laughs]. I realised pretty early I didn’t want to do medicine and I would try pharmacy instead and through work experience I absolutely hated and even at that point it was a question as to what my next step was.
I applied for Cosmetic Science at LCF, much to my parent’s dismay and got offered a position pretty much on the spot, I was so grateful. I studied there for 4 years and it was amazing, in between my degree I would work on different counters like Nars and it became more apparent to me that if you’re looking at their campaigns or content it was representative in terms of skin tone and beauty influencers – not everyone wanted to look classically glamorous. I found that the beauty industry didn’t have the different type of audiences that they did in say fashion, from their Asos crowd, the River island crowd, Topshop crowd and the Net a porter crowd, beauty didn’t have that.
In my final year I did my work placement in Belgium and that was a truly transformational moment because I met so many independent business owners and to this day, womenswear brand owner and now friend Nela, was my first stockist and biggest motivator when it came to build my focus and vision for the brand.
On the Introduction of Beauty.
It never occurred to me that that point to do something that I actually cared about until I got poached of the street by a manager at Benefit Cosmetics. I think she saw I was quite a mouthy teenager and would a perfect sales girl. I absolutely loved working for Benefit, from dancing on the shop floor to offering sweets to our customers on a Saturday evening, I loved how fun and creative it was as a concept and brand, at the time it was different from clinical brands like Clinique and Clarins – it inspired the creative in me.
At the same time there was always a constant niggling feeling that this wasn’t for me and it was an uncomfortable feeling that a lot of women of colour experience. I often thought that this is fun, but I would actually be enjoying myself if this catered to me.
On Diversity in Beauty
It came in big waves when I felt this discomfort about race and beauty, there would be a new foundation launch and they would say that they would be shipping my shade from the states and I would have to tell customers the exact same thing, I was literally telling customers to fly to America for their product and I think that was when the spark flew. I wanted to be able to make an impactful change in the industry, it wasn’t so much at the time that I wanted to start a business but more so wanting to get into the industry and see what I could do in the industry.
On the Early Days of MDM Flow.
Back from my year abroad I started developing lipsticks and at the time it was between launching foundation and lipstick’s, but foundation had a very high investment cost and lipsticks were quite easy to formulate especially when getting the different colour ranges I was aiming for. I saw that from my experience in beauty retail that WOC wanted to wear colour but they constantly complained about not being able to wear what was available on the counter, they would always ingest this statement rather than even think that it was perhaps the wrong kind type of shades for their complexion.
A lot of re-formulating happened and taking out ingredients that didn’t work on black skin. Less so now but a lot of brands contained a lot of filler ingredients and you learn in uni that this is a clear formula, but only on white skin and on black skin it doesn’t appear clear. So, the author who wrote the textbook 90 years ago didn’t test this active ingredient on black skin. Its put down as a scientific principle but it’s not true, a lot of people think that science is fact, but science is only fact until its proven wrong. I decided I was not going to put those ingredients in my formula as I wanted it to look amazing on super pale skin, black skin and Asian skin. My Lipsticks actually formulate in a way that is really inclusive as whole markets had been developed without thinking of other communities and so now it’s about creating a new standard that actually works and that is a lot of what I’m doing with MDM Flow.
With my foundations a lot of women ask me why the brand isn’t just for black women and I always say that my vision for the beauty industry is for ANY woman to walk into the store and have as any options as everybody else, it’s not trying to outdo the industry, we want equality and not revenge. Let’s talk about south-east Asian women, let’s talk about Hispanic women, let’s talk about Irish women because recently I’ve been getting a lot of Irish women contacting me about lack of shade ranges and MAC being the only brand that does foundations pale enough for their skin tone.
[Laughs] So I’d say that my family are as supportive as they can be, and I think no one really understands your vision in the way that you do. So, with certain elements, I had to show and prove even with a degree, I received a lot of questions in regard to what direction my life was going in. I mean, I didn’t even tell them that I had applied for Cosmetic Science until I received my exam results. My dad always said that whatever I was doing just make sure that I am successful at it and my mum just kept checking that I didn’t want to be a doctor – it was a very interesting moment to say the least.
On MDM’s Growth.
I was developing all of these funky colours and may be getting 3 to 4 orders a week and then towards the end of 2015 into early 2016 the orders started ramping up and suddenly things got crazy. It’s so funny because in the movies they really hustle for all the years and then they are suddenly perfect because things are growing but the moment that fast growth hits is the most terrifying moment because it dawns on you that you just can’t sustain it. But, you build processes, you get an investor (which I did) and then you start to fight and fight and build until its calm again.
On MDM’s Collections.
In terms of planning collections and launches I just have things that I want to do for a really long time and then I can’t hold off with the products anymore and I know I have to produce it. It does require a little bit of planning and so quarterly I like to look back and make a review for the next quarter and every year I have goals that I want to hit and attain. Operationally it’s just me, I work with freelancers a lot to product work or campaigns when I need them. Right now, I’m working on my Indigo Girl crowdfunding campaign and let’s just say its super stressful but super rewarding, I always look at things if it was successful then brilliant and if not then I’ve learnt so many things in terms of skill set, networking and community so it’s a win win either way.
You have to keep doing things until its successful.
On Logistics and Social Media.
Girl I will be here all night, you have to be the chief problem solver and put things in place and realise things don’t work and then change it. Again, certain skills from my degree have worked to my advantage such as ensuring all products are safe and sourcing ingredients. The business elements like social, marketing, logistics and sales comes down to learning on the job every single day.
In terms of social media, it’s my baby, Instagram is my top platform as it’s the easiest to use. We get a good amount of conversions there and Facebook is always fun … I sound like Mark Zuckerberg but it’s all built around communities and so that’s fun, we have a FB group of around 300 people, our top customers and we call them our MPD crew.
On being a Businesswoman/Entrepreneur.
Everything is hard, but finance is really hard but from the point of you wanting to do so much but you can only afford to do so much. It was financially difficult because I’m not a business that has millions and millions of customers and figures have recently come out saying that less than 1% of black female founders are able to raise venture capital investment, even forward planning counts and sustaining the growth. I mean my greatest achievement is getting away with doing what I want as a career and having customers love the products that I create and on top of that having a community and being featured in the New York Times is always a great achievement.
On Confidence and Inspirations
My biggest lesson I have learnt through the process is confidence, I have always been relatively confident, but I didn’t realise how much confidence impacts what your able to do. You have to build yourself up and I’ve done that through podcasts, YouTube, books and reading about other successful inspiring entrepreneurs and meditation. I love Sophie Amoruso’s podcast Girl Boss, How I built this podcast by Guy Raz, Marc Ecko’s biography Unlabel: Selling you Without Selling Out, The Glitter Plan by the founders of Juicy Couture and The Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz – they are all amazing.
Advice I have to anyone wanting to start a business? JUST DO IT!
On life in general.
I would say my work life balance is so/so, I don’t really believe in a work life balance, I’ll sleep when I’m tired and stop working when I’m done for the day. I’m still there for my friends, a lot of entrepreneurs speak about missing key moments and birthdays but I’m not missing key moments but if you’re having 4 events for your birthday I’ll probably only go to one [laughs]. I don’t overindulge on the fun times, but I have a balance that works for me and I’ve not sacrificed anything detrimental, just my peace of mind [smiles].
On Beauty and the Future
My favourite products have to be MDM Flow lipsticks – they are literally the best, British skincare brand Bybi – incredible serums, glossier, Nars blushers, Sephora own brand eyeliner, Anastasia Beverley Hills – she’s an inspiration through and through, Huda Beauty Lashes and MUA, I love independent beauty brands.
And for the future, I’ll just keep hustling and creating more and more loveable products.