woman standing with superhero shadow
These six women entrepreneurs created solutions to their own needs, and turned them into successful businesses. — Getty Images/SIphotography

Every business starts with an idea — a need identified. Running with that idea, adapting it, knowing when to change course — that’s the stuff that turns a wild notion into a wildly successful enterprise. Here are six women with the skills and passion to grow a concept into a profit.

 Amy Erret headshot
Amy Errett, founder, Madison Reed. — Madison Reed

Amy Errett, founder, Madison Reed

Amy Errett left her job as a venture capitalist to launch Madison Reed and give women a beauty product she felt they deserved. When it came to hair coloring, that meant a better choice. The traditional options — an expensive salon visit or a chemical-laden home dye job — weren’t cutting it. Errett’s vision was to offer a third: DIY color kits with conscientious ingredients, clear instructions and a reasonable price tag.

Disrupting a $45 billion industry took research, patience and an understanding that while women want great color, many aren’t fans of nasty chemicals. Errett’s product formula replaced six often-used chemicals with less toxic, more familiar ingredients. Her market approach was new as well. Madison Reed began selling online, direct-to-consumer in 2013. By leveraging technology like an AI-powered chatbot and an AR try-on-the-color feature, the company has grown to over 100 employees.

In a nod to women with a do-it-for-me (at least once) preference, the brand now operates six brick-and-mortar locations. Clients leave the salons with professionally applied hair color and all the information they need to repeat the experience at home. Customers can also find Madison Reed’s full line at more than 1,200 Ulta stores.

[Read more business insights from Madison Reed's Amy Erret here.]

 Sarah Lafleur Headshot
Sarah LaFleur, co-founder, MM.LaFleur. — MM.LaFleur

Sarah LaFleur, co-founder, MM.LaFleur

Sarah LaFleur worked in finance before launching online clothing brand MM.LaFleur in 2013. She found the inspiration for the company in her closet, the contents of which were decidedly uninspired. As a professional woman on a budget, LaFleur knew firsthand the struggle of finding attractive, affordable workwear that sent the right message. The direct-to-consumer brand was her solution.

MM.LaFleur manufactures its own products, maintaining a simple, elegant vibe that highlights the wearer rather than the garment. Stylists, working with a customer’s expressed style and fit preferences, curate a custom wardrobe selection and ship it to her in a Bento Box. The pieces are designed by fashion world elite and constructed of fabrics sourced from quality mills in Germany, Italy and Japan.

While LaFleur has broadened the line to accommodate women working in specific sectors — tech, for one — and geographic areas, she has not strayed from her original intent. Her company remains focused on dressing busy, professional women who have better things to do with their time than shop.

[Read more business insights from MM.LaFleur's Sarah LaFleur here.]

 Aishwarya Iyer headshot
Aishwarya Iyer, founder, Brightland. — Brightland

Aishwarya Iyer, founder, Brightland

Aishwayra Iyer’s career path took her through the technology and venture capital fields before landing her in the food arena — olive oil, to be precise. The founder and CEO of Brightland launched her boutique brand in Los Angeles in 2018 with the goal of providing quality, authentic and unadulterated olive oil as part of an aware lifestyle.

Iyer knew that much of the olive oil Americans consume is both imported and, to be polite, less than excellent, and decided she could do better. By sourcing olives from a single California estate farm and developing her own blends, Iyer produced an elevated product. By bottling her oil in white, designer Matisse-inspired bottles, she positioned her company where authenticity, wellness and lifestyle meet.

Brightland sells its line of oils on its website as well as on those of other wellness-focused retailers such as Goop, Bubble, and Cap Beauty. Brick-and-mortar sales are made through retailers like Neiman Marcus and restaurant chain Sweetgreen, for which Brightland has produced a custom line.

[Read more business insights from Brightland's Aishwarya Iyer here.]

 tina sharkey, headshot
Tina Sharkey, co-founder, Brandless. — Brandless

Tina Sharkey, co-founder, Brandless

Tina Sharkey is into communities, not brands. From her experience with iVillage to her time leading BabyCenter, relationships have been her thing. Our emphasis, says Sharkey, who co-founded the e-commerce site Brandless with Ido Leffler in 2017, should be on living, not branding.

Virtual community and relationship building happen through the company’s blog and emails, and through product-related hacks shared by customers on Instagram. Real-life connections happen at Brandless meetups and brick-and-mortar pop-ups, where customers can taste Brandless snacks and get educated about the products they are buying online.

There may be something to Sharkey’s community idea. The company is now valued at over $500 million and has attracted significant investment. The product lineup — grown from 110 items to over 400 as diverse as diapers and olive oil — has attracted something, too: a loyal and growing following. Indeed, Brandless has become a brand — and community — of its own.

[Read more business insights from Tina Sharkey here.]

 ali o'grady, thoughtful human, founder
Ali O'Grady, founder, Thoughtful Human. — Thoughtful Human

Ali O'Grady, founder, Thoughtful Human

Ali O’Grady doesn’t want to tell you how to feel. Her line of Thoughtful Human greeting cards won’t tell you either. What O’Grady, who launched her business in 2017, does want to tell you is that when life gets tough, you’re not alone. Her own personal tragedy led to the development of her edgy line, which takes square aim at life’s messy issues, offering empathy in the face of adversity.

Thoughtful Human approaches the greeting card market in fresh way, eschewing holiday cards and the canned sentiments they contain. Instead, the messages, which O’Grady writes herself, address larger and darker subjects like cancer, mental illness and addiction. A core product is a five pack of assorted cards to be sent to the same person over time — a recognition that big issues require a longer conversation.

By appealing to millennials in search of the authentic, Thoughtful Human is bucking an overall downward trend in the greeting card industry. The cards, printed on plantable seed paper, can be purchased on the company’s site, and at Target.com as well as on the real world shelves of Whole Foods.

[Read more business insights from Thoughtful Human's Ali O'Grady here.]

 Katia Beauchamp, founder, birchbox, headshot
Katia Beauchamp, co-founder, Birchbox. — Birchbox

Katia Beauchamp, co-founder, Birchbox

The idea for Birchbox came to its CEO and co-founder Katia Beauchamp while she was studying at Harvard Business School. The subscription beauty sample company launched in 2010 with a vision to help time-starved women make sense of the mind-boggling world of personal care products.

By offering a new twist on the industry standard use of free samples, Birchbox has positioned itself as a beauty matchmaker. Subscribers get a monthly box of me-time and the manufacturers who provide the samples get data gathered from the digital interactions — purchases and content views — that follow.

In a nod to the potential for higher conversion rates and profit margins, Beauchamp is taking her digitally native company into the brick-and-mortar world. Birchbox shops, staffed by trained associates, have opened up in a dozen Walgreen’s locations. The shops, featuring both prestige and indie brand products, are designed to help the passive beauty consumer navigate a sea of confusing options.

[Read more business insights from Birchbox's Katia Beauchamp here.]

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published September 10, 2019