If there's one thing Historically Black Universities are known, it's fostering a sense of interconnectedness for collaborative genius to thrive. Of all campuses, it was on the soil of The Mecca, Howard University, where She'Neil Johnson-Spencer and Nicolette Graves rooted their friendship and aligned their passion for beauty and natural brains. Today, the two have founded a skincare brand of their own, Base Butter, that has not only carved out their niche space in the market but rallied a community of women to glow from the inside out.
It all started with a Facebook message. In the midst of the buzzing anticipation of her inaugurate college year, She'Neil was on the hunt for a roommate with a particular aptness to live with, "Someone who was clean and possibly a Leo because I'm a Leo. And [Nicolette] answered my call."
When the two graduated, there were few Black-owned indie brands on the market, which compelled She'Neil to develop one of her own, "I was really inspired to create something for us, by us with clean, safe, and effective ingredients and celebrated our beauty," she shares. As an escape from her mundane work life, She'Neil followed her curiosity and began to explore her true passion: beauty. What she landed on was a quaint makeup line called, Color Cosmetics, which, although short-lived, led her to the real winner, "I had all these raw ingredients in my apartment and I was like, what am I gonna whip up with this?" What prevailed from the leftovers, was a homemade, natural butter that serviced the body from head to toe.
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
The roomies turned business partners when She'Neil sensed that her multi-use skin butter line, Base Butter (the product), was in need of some serious scaling. Meaning: it was time to call in reinforcement. Recalling Nicolette's background in product development, She'Neil knew there was no better person suited for the job than her bestie. As Nicolette recalls, "There was an interesting interaction between wellness and beauty at the time. I was consistently sending [She'Neil] trends and data that I was seeing at work then coming home and being her guinea pig."
The two knew that it was time to develop a product that would keep customers coming back for more, and looked no further than their growing community for the answer.
She'Neil and Nicolette conducted a survey called, Skin Struggles, which accumulated the insights of over 3,000 women to learn not only what ailed their skin, but how they could create a solution. "The women ended up sharing what their skin struggles were, what products they're using, what they hate about the industry, what they loved, and that was the beginning vision of the Base Butter 2.0." What they landed on was their "Hero Product," the Radiant Face Jelly, a staple for their oily, combination, and acne-prone skin to rejuvenate and restore.
xoNecole chatted with co-founders, She'Neil Johnson, CEO, and Nicolette Graves, VP of Product, to learn the secret sauce of running a successful business with your bestie.
xoNecole: For those creatives who are looking to find their business partner, what are some traits that you would recommend them looking for in that person?
Nicolette Graves: You need the Yin to your Yang. A lot of people will say, don't get into business with your friends, but I think when you're very clear on what your strengths and weaknesses are, and the other person's as well, it creates space to have a level of trust. Early on, when She'Neil brought me on, I would always joke like, "Oh my god, [Base Butter] is like your first baby." And I felt really protective of her first baby. Therefore, I was very clear on being intentional about how I came into it helping. You have to trust that the person you're working with has the appropriate decision-making skills in general. There's also the spiritual component.
It's the trust piece and having faith and knowing that person is going to pull up and show up when you can't and that you can be honest. There were some points in time where She'Neil wasn't feeling it and certain times when I wasn't feeling it, so you have to be able to communicate that and know that there's no hard feelings. It's being able to flex between those things and I think we've been successful because of the love that exists in our friendship and the level of respect.
She'Neil Johnson-Spencer: And you have to know that people's track record. I was able to officially live with Nicolette over the past 10 years because we were roommates in college together. So I knew at the end of the day, Nicolette would get it done - she graduated with a 4.0. She knew when it was time to work and when it was time to play. I think that's really important because there are signs when you meet someone and you want to work with them, and sometimes people ignore those times. So since I've been, I guess, "interviewing" Nicolette for 10 years, I know who she is, in and out.
"You need the Yin to your Yang. A lot of people will say, don't get into business with your friends, but I think when you're very clear on what your strengths and weaknesses are, and the other person's as well, it creates space to have a level of trust. There's also the spiritual component. It's the trust piece and having faith and knowing that person is going to pull up and show up when you can't and that you can be honest."
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
I’ve heard the term “hero product” come from entrepreneurs who describe the product that changed the game for their business. For you two, it’s the Radiate Face Jelly. How did you all know that you had something special with the Radiate Face Jelly?
She'Neil: When Nicolette came on, we were really like, "OK, what problem are we solving?" So from the Skin Struggles survey, we knew that 50 percent of our customers had oily, combination, acne-prone skin. We knew that we needed a solution for at least those skin types. It was also great because it was the type we also identified with and so it was kind of like a personal decision as well. For those with acne-, oily-prone or combination skin, a lot of times we're really scared to moisturize and hydrate our skin because either it's going to leave us oily or greasy or clog our pores. It was that revelation that led us to create Radiate Face Jelly.
She’Neil, you’ve once mentioned that at one point of your journey, you challenged yourself to just put things out there and not be such a perfectionist. What were some steps that you took to overcome perfectionism and how has that paid off in the long run?
She'Neil: I came into the business with a very strong design background, so for me, everything is about design, aesthetics, and being perfectly curated. It would be terrible to the point where I would spend so much time on maybe one graphic just to post on social media. But it got to a point where our brand became a business and I had to really look at the numbers and the bottom line, and make decisions based on what was making us money. That's really when the shift came. Even to this day, I don't want to do anything design- or aesthetics-related with the business because I just don't want to go back there; to being a perfectionist.
At the end of the day, it's really just about the bottom line: what's going to make us a conversion or a transaction? What's going to win us a customer? What do our customers want? The industry has changed to where customers really want that more real and authentic experience. That gave me some room to chill out some. I also became the CEO of my business and learned that everything is trial and error. Nicolette and I really take on this mindset that everything is an experiment; we're either going to hit the goal, or we're going to have a lesson learned.
"At the end of the day, it's really just about the bottom line: what's going to make us a conversion or a transaction? What's going to win us a customer? What do our customers want? The industry has changed to where customers really want that more real and authentic experience. Nicolette and I really take on this mindset that everything is an experiment; we're either going to hit the goal, or we're going to have a lesson learned."
Photo Credit: Taylor Nickens
One common misconception about starting a business and working for yourself is that you have to quit your job and let your business catch you. But for you two, how did having a full-time job help you all build your business?
Nicolette: I'm a single Black woman living in New York and therefore, I need money. We've gone through all the phases of broke entrepreneurship, making money, and all the ups and downs. One of the things I realized is despite having the goal of building this business to be as big as it can be, there are other things I want to do and that takes money and savings and being able to use those resources strategically. In addition to that, I think people have the 9-5 game messed up a little bit. I don't think they realize that when you have a 9-5, you're getting paid to learn. If you're strategic, you'll make sure you're in a role that is consistently teaching you new things.
In my [current] 9-5, I do Product Marketing for a B2B company. Through that, I've learned a lot of interesting things that I get to bring back to our company. Because I've always worked in the startup world, it's allowed me the ability to think of solutions ahead of a problem that might present itself so we're not being reactive, and we can be proactive. It's been like a really interesting space to continue to learn and find inspiration in the weirdest places, while also making sure that I'm financially setting myself up for success as it relates to the wealth gap.
"I think people have the 9-5 game messed up a little bit. I don't think they realize that when you have a 9-5, you're getting paid to learn. If you're strategic, you'll make sure you're in a role that is consistently teaching you new things."
Photo Credit: Pierre Eliezer
She'Neil: I started Base Butter with a 9-5 and ultimately, that funded the start of the business. But when Nicolette and I were laid off, we lived there until our lease ended. I had to make a decision: do I go and find a new job or do I still take this risk and make decisions to still work on Base Butter. Ultimately, I ended up staying in Philadelphia because my expenses were cut a lot and I had the support from my now-husband to build my business. I had to give myself a better financial situation so I could be a better CEO, owner, and founder - if you're not good as a founder, your company's not going to be good.
I thought early on in my business, that I'd just never pay myself until that "one day" we make it big. I thought it would be OK to be broke, broke, broke until we hit a million, but it honestly doesn't work like that. I had student loans, some credit card bills. So I went back to work with the goal of paying down debt, and I had to get very real about the type of life I wanted to live. Nicolette gave me a book called Profit First and from that book, we learned how to pay ourselves, no matter how much we were making. Through implementing that model, we were able to start paying ourselves and things got a lot easier from there.
"I had to give myself a better financial situation so I could be a better CEO, owner, and founder - if you're not good as a founder, your company's not going to be good."
Photo Credit: Pierre Eliezer
Most creatives and entrepreneurs are used to only having themselves to look to for support in difficult times along their journey, but you all are fortunate enough to have each other. How do you all affirm each other when in moments of doubt or when you’re questioning yourselves?
Nicolette: We have the advantages of being best friends. We've always said, "If this is not fun anymore, then we'll stop doing it." In addition to that, although we're not perfectionists, I will say we are committed to doing a good job. There's a level of loyalty and commitment to the idea and the vision. Just consistently being aligned or finding room to realign. And understanding that there's no one right way to do anything, so we have to be flexible.
She'Neil: And I also would say we have each other, but because the of the industry being a mix of beauty, entrepreneurship, creatives, [we] do have a community of people who provide insight and advice based off their own experiences.
What’s one thing that you didn’t know prior to becoming business owners that you would impart to aspiring entrepreneurs?
She'Neil: Pay yourself from day one. I feel like a lot of the stress that comes with launching a business and starting a business is really the finances. Like, how am I going to take care of myself? How am I going to feed myself or how to pay my bills? But if your bills are paid, you're eating every day, and have a roof over your head, you can really focus on your business without having to figure out, how am I going to survive?
You want to build your business around what's going to make you happy and keep you satisfied. It's just making sure that you're in a comfortable position so that you can really focus on your business because your business is going to need you to be present. It needs you to be healthy and for you to be wealthy. Build out your financial plan around your business as early as you can to make sure your needs are met.
Nicolette: And to piggyback off of that, I would say there is no one right way to do anything and you have to trust yourself. Going back to the idea of a saturated market, things will always be saturated because none of these ideas are new. It's understanding that whatever you're building is unique because you're unique and different.
But also, I've seen a lot of people taking any and everybody's advice as goals, but you're supposed to sift through that information and discern what makes the most sense for you and your life. In the grand scheme of things, 5, 10, 20 years from now, what do you want your life to look like? Understanding that as long as you feel OK with that, any and everybody else's opinions of the way that they've done it is irrelevant. You can learn things, but it's your journey.
For more of She'Neil and Nicolette, follow them on Instagram @sheneilmonique and @nicolette.camille. Also, check out their brand Base Butter by clicking here.
Featured image courtesy of Base Butter