Most people equipped with a degree from a great college and well-paying job in tech wouldn’t walk away from it all to fulfill a creative passion of theirs, but that’s exactly what She’Neil Johnson did. In 2014, she graduated from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in management information systems.
She had plenty of experience and even landed a job at IBM as a UX design consultant. Fast-forward three years and now she’s running her own company, Base Butter, full-time and creating a space for women of color in the beauty industry.
We were able to catch up with She’Neil and learn about what it takes to stand out in a competitive market, and why following your dreams is the real key to happiness.
What was your inspiration for Base Butter?
It was a number of things but originally it started out as a creative outlet. Growing up, I was always using my hands, and my background is in design. So I've always been into design and art, fashion and making things with my hands. It started as a creative outlet but turned into education, learning more about my skin, natural alternatives and living a healthier lifestyle.
When I actually put it out there my inspiration came from empowerment, empowering people to be more comfortable in their skin and their beauty which is something that I've always struggled with. I never thought I was ugly, but I did struggle with really bad acne growing up, scars and discoloration.
[There were times when] I didn’t want to go out of the house or I wouldn't let anyone see my without makeup, and I don’t like that feeling. When it comes to my skin, I want people to see me as I am. It’s a journey and I’m getting inspiration every day.
When you have an idea for a product what is the process to bring this product to life?
It was definitely trial and error. It’s funny because in the beginning I wasn’t trying to create skin care products and I wasn’t too focused on making them natural. At the time I was really intro cosmetics and wanted to make my own lipsticks, I was really into bright colors but to make that stuff in my kitchen the only thing that I had access to were the natural ingredients. The chemicals they make in the labs aren’t available to buy.
So I stopped making the lipsticks but the ingredients were still in my apartment, and I didn’t want to throw it away so I started making body butters and just sharing with my friends and changing it based on feedback. Then I started to realize I had something that people liked and started a year long process of educating [myself] and researching the different butters and waxes, vegan vs. non-vegan, etc.
Now I have a VP of product development, and I brought her on because I needed an expert who was knowledgeable of the industry. I’m more of the creative person but she’s more structured and has the knowledge and data to prove which products would be beneficial and which products wouldn’t.
We have a product development process which takes about four months from conception, where we look at the industry, what people are saying, want and need, and then developing a product from there.
What is your favorite base butter product and why?
I would say my favorite product is radiate, and I like radiate because it’s new and we went in a direction that we didn’t with our other products. We launched in December 2015, but we just had a relaunch in August with a new brand and new products. I really like radiate because it’s a hydrating face gel, tea tree and lavender blend, with aloe vera gel base. I love educating people about this product.
Growing up I had bad acne and I was always afraid to put oils on my skin because [that was something that was thought to break it out] but through product development and self-education, natural oils are actually really good for your skin and clear your skin up.
So I like this product because it’s a natural moisturizer that’s good for all types of skin. And all of these oils like tea tree and lavender, they’re antibacterial, so they cleanse your skin as well, and prevent your pores from getting clogged up. We really want to educate people and let them know that what you’ve been told, is actually not right.
As a natural skin care brand, how do you handle the technical side of things and ensure products are tested for use?
That’s why I brought on the VP of product development. As a person you don’t have strengths in everything. I did Base Butter by myself for an entire year, and there were some places that I was doing really well and excelling. The visual design and marketing aspect, that‘s my strength.
I realized that I didn’t know everything I needed to know about putting a product out on the market, like testing and what needed to go on the labels. I would pretty much be reactive instead of proactive. I always knew I had a vision for this brand to be scalable, so I needed to bring an expert onto my team who was knowledgeable on product development.
My VP of product development has a background in public health, a masters in nutrition and has worked for two wellness companies in product development. So that’s how I handled that side of it, I learned from her.
You just had a relaunch and you ran a crowd funding campaign, how did you finance the initial launch of Base Butter?
That was from my personal money and asking family and friends. At the time, I was working at IBM as a consultant, with a nice paycheck and I had a lot of money left over after I payed my bills. Every paycheck I was putting money into Base Butter. It may not have been the smartest thing and if I could do it again I would probably crowd fund or try to figure out other ways other than pouring money from my paycheck.
What are some of the challenges you face, bringing a skin care line for black women to life?
The hardest thing is that the market and the industry is so competitive. It’s always changing, there’s always a new competitor, and new trends. So the hardest part is trying to stay ahead and figure out what works for us and what doesn’t.
[Our feedback and numbers] are telling us that people love the product, but how do we get the product in more people’s hands continuously? There are different degrees of separation, and the people who purchase the product now are in the first degree of separation, but how do I reach that person that I may never interact with, and get the product into more people’s hands?
People may see it but since there’s so much competition, they’re going to [buy] something that they’re already familiar with or associated with an influencer or celebrity. And I understand because I’m like that too with something new but it’s like how do we build that legitimacy with that consumer?
What does the day to day of running a beauty company look like?
It depends on the time period but usually I’m working 10 hours a day. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is fulfill orders that came in so I can get them to the post office before 5 pm. Then I’m usually doing a lot of strategy work and execution, ad following up with tasks that my team is doing. I work non-stop now just because of the relaunch, and a lot of it is looking at casting, numbers and feedback [from the crowdfund campaign].
We have weekly team meetings with my whole team, it’s a continuous work schedule. We’re really putting systems in place, we just got a co-working space trying to transition into a more structured work [environment].
Base Butter has such a distinct look and feel, what was your inspiration for branding?
Honeslty, I really just wanted to show Black girls and women of color are cool too. I just wanted to showcase that, we too, have quality products and that’s really what my inspiration was.
I wanted us to have a brand that we can associate with quality and is cool. I feel like with some brands, for women of color they miss that gap. It’s like the product is cool but can we get the quality packaging, branding and experience that we get from these other brands. That’s why we buy from then, even though they aren’t made for us – we want these cool products in our hands and be associated with a cool brand.
Obviously, you have to have a strong marketing strategy to get the word out about Base Butter, what are some marketing tips that you use that works?
The first thing that helped us is design, really understanding your brand and having one that people will remember. That’s where my design background helped, my first interaction with people is “I’ve seen base butter, the stuff looks great.” They haven’t purchased the product but we’ve already established that feeling of quality with them.
But going past that to convert those people into customers, and what’s really worked is education and this is what we really want to capitalize on. We noticed having a pop up shop or vending and having that conversation with them, educating them on how the products work and breaking down the ingredients, we’re able to make that sale.
So its how can we create that same experience on a digital platform, such as social media and YouTube. So we’re creating a lo of education content and that’s what we realized works.
Developing and launching a skin care line is bold and ambitious, did you have doubts about launching and how did you navigate them?
I always had doubts and I’m trying to get better at not having doubts but when you’re constantly having to look at the competition and the numbers, and it’s always changing - so I do always have doubts.
I want us to do the best we can, to take what all these bigger brands are doing, like Glossier, Shea Moisture, Carol’s Daughter, and try to implement what they are doing. Sometimes that can be really overwhelming but I have to sit back and realize they too, started in small space and overtime they grew.
What really helps me to relax is reading stories of entrepreneurs’ journeys’ because that humbles me and makes me realize that it takes time and everyone started small and they all had to adapt and change. They weren’t always the smartest person in the room but they had the smartest people around them to help. I also like to have conversations with our customers, we have brand ambassadors, and seeing how our relationships with them have grown humbles me as well.
Sometimes I have to take a step back and appreciate what we’ve accomplished thus far.
Where do you see base butter in 5 years?
In 5 years I see Base Butter as a household brand name, as staple product for women of color. Honestly, just being profitable. At the end of the day, I want Base Butter to be a profitable business that is contributing to the Black economy – that’s one of my main goals. Ten percent of sales are already donated to Her Success, as we continue to grow our donations will continue to go to them.
How do you maintain work life balance?
There is no balance. Every day I make this goal of getting all my work done by 5 pm, so after [that time] I don’t have to think about work but that never happens. Some days I just have to sacrifice, I sacrifice my personal life some days and some days I have to sacrifice the business for my personal life. It’s about knowing when I do make those sacrifices it’s not the end of the world.
My friend told me that everything that’s urgent, isn’t important. Whenever I do feel overwhelmed, I say that to myself. [Prioritizing has helped me with work-life balance], understanding what’s urgent and what’s important.
You have a very distinct personal style, how has your style evolved over the years?
What’s always been on the inside, over the years has shown on the outside and I’ve become more confident in myself I went to Howard school of business and our business school was super strict. Every Tuesday and Thursday I had to wear a full suit – it had to be black, I had to wear stockings and heels. I always interned in corporate and they taught us how to dress. My whole close was full of corporate clothes and I hated it.
I’ve been into fashion my [entire life] but after college I thought fashion was just my hobby and that was how I had to dress if I wanted to be a businesswoman.
After two years of working, especially being in NYC, and finally being immersed in what I always dreamed about, [having grown up in Virginia Beach]. I felt like I couldn’t fake it anymore.
So, what’s always been inside is coming out – it’s a part of my creative process. Getting dressed is a creation, what you see now is She’Neil being confident and creative.
Our motto is ‘Do the Work to make your dreams a reality,’ how do you remain motivated and committed to doing the work?
The purpose has to be greater than me, that’s the only thing that keeps me motivated. The purpose has to be impactful, and this may sound cliché but it has to change the world in some way. With Base Butter, what keeps me motivated is empowering women of color to be comfortable in their skin and showcasing everyday women of color.
My photographer would use his female friends for our shoots, and they were just everyday girls, not models. But they all had a story, they all did something amazing and impacted the world in some way shape or form. That’s what I love to do – I don’t do casting calls, we just hit up everyday girls who are making an impact and I want them to be the face of Base Butter.
What experiences in life have shaped you the most?
It was 2015 going into 2016, and that was when I decided to do what I wanted to do, career wise which was Base Butter and starting my fashion blog. I always knew I wanted to be in some type of visual, creative place.
The people around me knew my full potential, I was a leader and really smart in school and I would always be pushed always from [creative] things and pushed towards things that were more successful in their eyes. I never fully chased my passion until then. So at that time I thought ‘I don’t want to keep doing thing I hate because people want me to’.
It turns out that those people who swayed me to go in another direction didn’t really care what I did, as long as I was happy and successful. That’s when I shifted and started doing things for me and instead of doing things for others, and that’s what made me the person I am today.
Now I feel like I’m mentally strong and can block out people’s opinions and do what’s best for myself.
Who or what are your biggest inspirations and why?
It’s so cliché, but one person is P. Diddy. He’s an inspiration because he didn’t stay in the line. He went to college and after two years he was given this opportunity to follow his passion full time and he took that. Even though he worked hard to go to college, it wasn’t traditional and people might not like the decision. I feel like throughout his whole life he seized the opportunity that was given in his hands and left [things] when they were no longer good for him.
People have their opinions on him but I think he’s a really smart businessman and I think he’s able to motivate himself and push himself. That’s what I really try to be and what inspires me; I try to see the opportunity and take the risk despite what anyone else says.