In 2010, Cassandra Morales Thurswell launched her $87 million beauty brand, Los Angeles-based Kitsch, with a simple hair tie and a knack for divining the emotional backstory behind even the simplest purchases. She'd already learned the fundamentals of product development creating private-label jewelry for brands like Hot Topic and Nordstrom. While so many of her CPG peers scrambled to blitzscale like tech startups, Morales Thurswell's slow and steady approach turned out to be the secret to skyrocketing growth. --As told to Marli Guzzetta
I grew up in the Midwest, and my stepdad was an orthodontist; he gave me an allowance for making retainers in the garage. So there I'd be, out in the garage in the middle of winter, with the generator blasting to keep the heat on, bending wires and making acrylics, putting pink glitter into things. I love adding an aesthetic to something to make it special.
One of the first jobs I applied for out of school was at a private-label jewelry maker for brands like Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, and Nordstrom. When they asked if I had experience making jewelry, I lied and told them I did, because I'd worked with wires and fine materials. When they sat me down at a jewelry bench, it was all second nature to me.
Working for private labels, I learned about how retailers think about products, how they follow trends. Hot Topic wasn't my aesthetic, but it was my favorite client to design for, because I loved hearing how the brand talked about its customer and what she'd want to wear.
Sitting at the bench, making jewelry, I realized two things: One, I've never been much of a jewelry person. (My husband and I have been married eight years, and I love him, but I don't even wear a wedding ring.) Two, I realized I just really loved serving people. I loved listening to people and making beautiful products by hand.
So I saved. I saved $30,000, which was a fortune to me then. And I remember thinking, "OK, I have my money and my abilities. Now, who am I making products for? Who am I?"
I think when people dream about being in fashion, they dream about being wild visionaries who change the industry and get full-page write-ups in fashion magazines. I've always thought about where I shopped and where I grew up. I'm from a small Wisconsin town of 2,000 people. I wanted to make products for the people I know, people I can relate to. That's where I set my sights. I thought about that customer and I wondered: What's fun for them to buy on the regular? What do they reach for every morning?
The answer was simple: a hair tie.
I started handmaking hair ties at home, and then selling them door to door at boutiques and trade shows. I made sure they were easy on your hair--no snagging your hair or bending your ponytail--and also cute to wear on your wrist.
Ulta, one of our biggest customers and the client that made us, started out as a cold call. We called a buyer I know there and said, "Hey, are you going to be at Cosmoprof?" We couldn't afford a booth, but we took her to lunch just outside the beauty trade show in Las Vegas. She gave us a chance, and that turned into an end cap, and then two feet of retail space, and then four and six.
Working in private label prepared me exceptionally well to run this business. I learned how to make a profit margin, how to create a vendor manual, and how to scale product. I learned quality control procedures and how to source factories and find ethical manufacturing and distribution.
I took all of that strategy from retailers and used it for our infrastructure, but I took a different path. My approach to building a business has been slow, thoughtful, and purposeful. Design development has been one of our easier areas, because it's happened so naturally. Our hair ties led to hair towels, which led to the shower caps, which led to something else, which led to something else.
I've always felt strongly that you really have a business if you have a repeat customer. I never want our customers to have buyer's remorse.
Maybe a customer has $20 to spend and that's it. If she spends $8 of that on our products, I want her to feel it was well spent. I think about how she shops, how she uses the product, how she feels. How does the product look to her on the card? Does it feel like a gift to herself?
I could spend 45 minutes talking about what makes our products special.
And that's really been the story of the company. Ours is different than the fast in-fast out strategy. Parts of our business are really fast: our customer service, our shipping. But you need the time to build the infrastructure, so when the orders do come in, you're able to sustain them. We emphasize organic evolution and not being in a rush.
I think "slow and steady" is a compliment.