While Holly Thaggard took piano lessons as a small child to learn the basics of music, it was her grandmother's hobby she longed for. "If you don't have something unique to offer the world, what's the point?" says Thaggard, founder of kid-friendly sunscreen company Supergoop.
So at age 13, she ditched the more mainstream piano and began formal instruction in the harp--a move that would set the course of her life and her business.
By the 10th grade, one harp inherited from her grandmother turned into three, and Thaggard turned the instrument into an income stream, performing after school at a club in New Orleans. During college, she played; after college, she continued to play. She spent a year as a grade-school teacher, moved to Dallas, and added lucrative Country Club dinners and brunches to her schedule.
She wasn't planning on starting a company, but was moved to act when a friend in her early 30s was diagnosed with skin cancer. Thaggard spoke to dermatologists about the fact that daily broad-spectrum SPF wear can help prevent melanoma, and also that UV rays are the cause up to 90 percent of wrinkles and dark spots on skin. Many women wore SPF daily on their face. She wondered: Why were children not being protected during recess at school? Why was SPF not a daily consideration--and a year-round one?
By 2009 she had a formula that wasn't too sticky, felt good on the skin, and was free of harmful chemicals, and packaged it into big pumps for installation in classrooms. Because regulations prevented distribution of over-the-counter products in public schools, she worked for two years to get her sunscreen into private schools, which, she says, "kind of play by their own rules." Parents loved it, and they began asking Thaggard to help get the pumps installed where the families would be spending a lot of their summer: At country clubs.
Thanks to her other career, as a harpist, she had an in. She knew precisely who to ask: "I'd just knock on the general manager's door! I had all the connections there; I knew the whole board. I'd played the board dinners, and they all cared deeply about me as a person." So when Thaggard--known to them as Holly the Harpist--started talking sun protection, they listened.
Still, it looked more like an advocacy project than a for-profit business. To change that, Thaggard started pitching children's and cosmetics retailers on stocking Supergoop. Here, she had neither a direct line to the board nor any inkling of how to get to the general manager's door. But she did have a skill set that proved useful.
"I knew how to perform under pressure. I could hold a crowd of 1,000 people at the Dallas Museum of Art and not miss a note," she said. "Sitting in a room of Sephora buyers, and you're just one person. It's a different kind of performance, but it's a bit easier."
A children's boutique and FAO Schwartz began selling Supergoop in 2010. Nordstrom and Sephora followed suit in 2011. Last year, Thaggard's company, which is based in San Antonio and New York City, pulled in more than $40 million in revenue.
"I feel like so much about entrepreneurship is having confidence. When you've spent a decade performing and holding the audience of a room, you learn this confidence," she said. "It's been critical to my journey as an entrepreneur."