In today’s world of startups and smartphones, “entrepreneur” has become something of a buzzword. It seems like everywhere you look, people are talking about the next big thing – what small company is going to become the next Facebook, or which new app will be the next Instagram. With technology and social media at the hands of so many, launching one’s own business is in some ways easier than ever before. But launching one’s own business before graduating college? That’s a whole other story.
This past week, I had the chance to sit down with Aviva Kamler, a senior at American University and the CEO & Founder of a new cell phone application called SHELF Cosmetics. The free app launches on May 1st – two weeks before commencement – and will enable users to track, evaluate and share their favorite nail polish. Anyone who downloads the app will be able to post pictures of their favorite polish, along with a review of the product and even a health rating on the type of chemicals used. Users can then look up their favorite nail color or draw inspiration from the types of polishes other users post. Think of it as an Instagram for cosmetics.
And the coolest part about the app? Aviva created it with an all-woman team – the definition of “by women, for women.”
I talked to Aviva about what inspired her to launch her own company and some of the challenges and rewards of entrepreneurship as an undergrad. Turns out, it’s harder than it seems – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for it anyway.
How did you get the idea for the SHELF app?
AV: Growing up, my mom worked fulltime during the week and was really busy, so on weekends she would take me to get our nails done and catch up. She was very particular about what colors I could wear, so I always tried to find out the names of the colors I liked but it was so hard to remember. SHELF lets you have the names of 1,300 colors right at your fingertips. It also lets you see what kind of chemicals the polish has, or whether it’s been tested on animals. I grew up in Marin County, which has the highest rate of breast cancer in this country, and I have a strong belief it could be traced to the chemicals used in makeup. We need more awareness about what’s in the makeup that we use, and I wanted to give people a way to know what they’re wearing. And at the end of the day, I don’t care what some beauty magazine says about the top ten nail polishes. I want to know what my best friends are wearing and what they think are the best cosmetics. Those are the people I trust. I want SHELF to be a platform for users to share with the people they know.
What were some of the challenges of launching a business while still an undergrad?
AV: I think the biggest challenge was deciding whether SHELF was something I wanted to use as a project or whether it was something I wanted to do after I graduate. When I knew I wanted it to be something more, I had to choose a team that would be in it for the long haul – people I could really trust. And then of course it was a challenge balancing coursework and all the other stuff that comes from being a regular college student. What really kept me going was my excitement about the idea and my belief that this was really something women will want and will use. I just see such a gap in the market, and the potential that SHELF has, not only with cosmetics, but with the health aspect as well. People can choose what they want to use it for, and I think that’s what’s so great about it. At the end of the day, if this doesn’t work it’s not the end of the world. This is my first try. It’s a learning experience. I’m okay with knowing this might not be my lifetime career. I want it to succeed, I want it to do well…but if it doesn’t, I’ll still have learned so much.
Do you think entrepreneurship is something anyone can do, or does it require a certain mindset and values?
AV: Anyone can do it if they really are motivated and have a strong drive. They have to find something where there is really a need for that product. Entrepreneurship has as much to do with the idea as it does with the founder. You can be a hard-working, talented individual but you need that winning idea to get it to launch. I think in today’s world, there’s a need for more entrepreneurs to lessen the wage gap, the education gap, the healthcare gap – they can be used in so many areas. And you don’t need to study business or entrepreneurship to do well. A lot of it is just how you look at the world. I’ve always been taught to look at the world and ask “why don’t they have that?” or “why don’t they do it this way?” It’s like solving a puzzle – trying to get all the pieces to fit together.
What does it mean to you to have an all-women team?
AV: To be honest, it wasn’t intentional at first. I just needed people who had the passion and strong interest, who actually cared about what they’re doing. For example, the European Union bans about 1,300 substances. Here in America, the FDA bans 8. There’s a lack of understanding in the U.S. about the products we wear and use on a daily basis. Once I showed that to a team of women, they understood it and saw that we need a way to make this information available at our fingertips, for people to use on a daily basis. There’s just a type of strength in having an all-women’s team producing an app that’s geared towards women. I want users to know the app was made by for the benefit of women. It lets us connect to our audience more directly. We are the users, too. We have the same needs.
Any advice for undergrads with an idea for a business venture?
I would say go for it. Delve into something that really interests you. Know your research and know your markets. Don’t be turned off or dissuaded just because you’ve seen people turn into billionaires in a second. You may have to really work for it, but there’s nothing to lose at the beginning, so try it. If you don’t put yourself out there, you’ll never know what you are able to accomplish. At the end of the day, you write a business plan, you put some hours into it, and if it doesn’t turn into anything it’s still been a good learning exercise.
Sign up for a free download of the SHELF app here!