Maria Haziestefanis – The Unexpected Entrepreneur

Maria says that getting fired from her banking job at the age of 25 was the best thing that ever happened to her… We will probably have to agree given that just a couple of years later she had founded Rodial, a cosmetic business that today is worth £100million, and she did it all without a single penny from investors. If that is not inspiring, I don’t know what it is.

Q: With an MBA from Columbia Business School, You were very young when you founded Rodial, skincare targeting specific skin problems. Who helped you take those first steps with Rodial? Weren’t you scared?

A: When I was at Uni in Greece, I was doing an internship for 17 magazine and I was writing some articles, interviewing some people, doing some research… that was really my first job. When I graduated, I felt I like the business world, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I decided to go to New York, and hoped that once there I would figure out what I wanted. It was a bit of a frivolous decision; there was no big plan at the time. I did a business Masters and took it from there.

I had no idea on what I was getting into, I was naive when I first started and I was very young with not much to lose so went for it! I knew I had such a special and unique idea with Rodial that it drove me to really get the brand off of the ground. My husband and I put our savings together to start the business, and since that day I have not had any outside investment and my business is still privately owned but the two of us.

Q: Did you always know that your career in business would be through beauty?

A: Not really. The course at Columbia was so hard that I didn’t have time to think of anything else. I didn’t really have then the level of maturity to know that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, let alone what kind of entrepreneur. Upon finishing the degree, most of my fellow students went to work in Finance or Consulting, so I thought that was the way to go. I convinced Salomon Brothers that all I wanted to do in life

was banking and they offered me a job. They had their European Headquarters in London and that is what brought me here. That was 1996. I think that at the time, there were not the exciting careers that there are now, particularly in creative industries. At the time it was quite limited what you could do.

Q: I understand that you couldn’t secure external investment for the launch of Rodial. Do you think that being a woman put you at a disadvantage in the entrepreneurial world? Do you think you had to work extra hard to be taken seriously?

A: In my case, I think that I couldn’t secure funding because I had no experience at all in the sector. At Rodial, I am surrounded by women at an 85% ratio both in my business as well as with our suppliers and clients so being a woman has never really been an issue. Now when it comes to getting external investment, I never analysed it like that but I did read some stats recently that women-owned businesses are at the lower end of receiving funding. I do believe that as women we have to work harder to prove ourselves. It has been my mission to mentor and nurture women around me to make successful future leaders. But in general, when you start out you need to prove to people that your product has what it takes to stand the test of time in the market, and unfortunately many people are less willing to take you seriously unless you are coming from an established corporate beauty brand. I had to work night and day, across every aspect of the business to make it work. I would have to knock on the door of the biggest department stores in the world only to have the door slammed in my face! You have to keep on striving and eventually you begin to make progress.

Q: The creation of Nip+ Fab allowed you to reach the mass market. Did you ever worry about the possibility of diluting the brand too much?

A: Not at all. At the time I decided to create Nip+Fab everyone in fashion was collaborating with mass brands, from Stella McCartney for Gap to Lanvin for H&M. I saw this trend and decided to bring it to the mass market. My brands are very different; Nip+Fab is tailored for the millennial beauty-junkie market who are looking for the latest trends at low price points, whereas Rodial is for a more sophisticated customer that is looking for the best of the best when it comes to ingredients and technology.

Q: You seem to be always thinking of something new, of where to take Rodial next. Some of your most recent projects include the Rodial Sculpting Bar and flag-ship counter in Harvey Nichols London, and the web series The Mrs Rodial Project. What is the thinking process behind these ideas?

A: When I was working on the Rodial makeup line I wanted to have a big focus around contouring and sculpting for the everyday woman. Our Contour Powder has become a bestseller and is the driving force around much of the range. I was offered our first counter at Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge and I immediately knew that I didn’t want a generic counter, I wanted a ‘sculpting bar’, where customers could come in and have a simple sculpting makeover in a matter of minutes. The Mrs Rodial project was a natural evolution from a project I was working on with the students at Central Saint Martins to design a Rodial brush case, the process was so inspiring and entertaining that I just thought why are we not filming this!

Q: I hear that Asia is a big source of inspiration for you regarding ingredients and product ideas. Why that part of the world?

A: Due to the very humid climate, Asian brands are developing some really innovative textures that we haven’t seen before and there is a lot to learn from these and get inspiration for new products.

Q: Where are your labs? Where does your research take place? What is the process?

A: Our labs are in the UK. We have an internal team of 4 people who work in product development and research. Ideas come from many different places: my travels, feedback from the sales floor, research by the team…

Q: How careful are you about where your ingredients come from and how they are processed?

A: First of all, we never test on animals, even if that means to lose markets like China, where the government insists on cosmetics being tested on animals before they can be sold there. So any company that sells in China means that they test on animals. When it comes to sourcing ingredients we try to look for the more ethical and natural source. For example there is collagen that can be manufactured in the lab and collagen derived from seaweed. We prefer to use the natural source rather than the synthetic source. Of course, our way is more expensive but this is our ethos.

Q: What are the product lines that are doing better and that you think is worth expanding further?

A: It is very interesting with fashion and beauty products that you can never really predict how the market is going to react to them. I have created some products that have become a huge success, such as the Dragon’s blood range and the snake range but also others that didn’t work at all. It is only natural, and as far as 80% of the product launches are successful, we can deal with the 20% that are not. Makeup is another line that I feel passionate about and is currently doing very well. At the moment is a capsule range of cosmetics, including the best selling banana powder but I plan to expand it.

I am also working in some very exciting collaborations with designers to bring a different angle to the business and something new to our customers, but always focusing in skincare and makeup.

Q: How do you think you very ‘hands on’ approach to the business differentiates you from other independent brands in the sector?

A: I think that having that direct contact with women out there makes me feel more connected to the end consumer, see the trends and what people are looking for. It is my way of being part of the conversation and I have a lot of fun doing it.

Q: Last summer you released your first book How To Be An Overnight Success, more a book about your personal journey than a business textbook. Was writing the book a bit of a cathartic experience?

A: It was in a way, it was cathartic to look back at the early days of the business and really recognise how far Rodial has come in such a short time. I actually didn’t set out to write a book, I would more jot things down on notes on my iPhone, and as time went on it started to take form and structure that could be translated into a book. I would get inspired and write tons of things down, and then I would hit a wall and do nothing for months. Once the book was actually released I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the feedback has been beyond anything I could have ever hoped for. It is an Amazon bestseller in over three categories; people are Instagramming it all the time; it’s so amazing to see the impact it is having on people and inspiring them to review their careers and life in general.

Q: Rodial is now a business worth around £100million. How do you keep a brand fresh and relevant in such a crowded market?

A: I am always thinking about the future and what’s next. Whether that may be the next hot ingredient that we need to use in one of our products or a collaboration with another brand; I always think outside the box. Social media took us all by surprise not long ago, one morning we woke up and boom, Instagram launched. We can’t plan for everything, social media by far has had one of the biggest positive effects on my business, so as much as I try to stay ahead of the game there are always transformative elements you can never pre-empt. I have my personal account @mrsrodial which I manage 100% myself and is a way for me
to connect directly with our consumer, have a one-to-one conversation and take it all in when I am creating new products.

Q: How do you think Brexit will affect a company like yours?

A: We are keeping positive and so far we haven’t had an impact on our business.

Q: Do you ever think of retiring?

A: Not at all, I love what I do and can’t think of myself outside a work environment. I have to deal with challenges every single day but once we go through them I get a sense of achievement that really keeps me going!

 

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