Marleen Maras – Why This Scientist Is Taking The Development Of Natural Cosmetic Products Into Her Own Hands And Why Entrepreneurship Is Not About Age! – 012

This podcast episode is part of a new series, “Talking To Jane”, in partnership with Start it @KBC, (Facebook) a Startup Incubator with the largest Startup Community in Belgium.

In this series, Jane interviews entrepreneurs of Tech Startups, put forward by Start it@KBC. You will hear their inspiring journeys and the role of incubators to start and grow their business.

Here is what is shared and discussed in this episode:

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The interview:

Marleen is owner of Enfleur Pure Natural. She started her company using her experience as a scientist, her passion for nature, and concerns about ingredients in cosmetics, to develop and produce her own brand of natural skin care products.

She has a Ph.D. in Biotechnology and she was (and still is) a scientist and an account manager in the Life Science field for years, before she ventured into entrepreneurship and started her own business.

As a child, Marleen was always interested in plants and animals. Around the age of twelve, she knew she wanted to be a biologist. After finishing her Bachelors in Biology, she did a Masters in Biotechnology and to obtain her Ph.D, she worked at the research institute, Vlaams Instituut door Biotechnologie (VIB), doing research projects in different domains. One of the projects she did was about ecotoxicology and she saw the impact some chemical components of consumer products had on our environment, causing pollution and affecting wildlife. These compounds can even end up in the fats of Polar Bears on the North pole. She believes with good efforts and good will we can help our environment and the generations to come.

Over the years, she got more and more inspired to develop her own skin care products. She experienced some skin problems from creams, other creams lost their effect, and she got concerned about the fact that we don’t always get the correct information about all ingredients in commercial products. She then started developing creams with natural ingredients in her lab. Marleen would do research on the ingredients to determine which ones would work and be safe and which ones were toxic and even cancerous. Even though it was more a hobby doing it on a small scale, she decided to start the process of commercializing her products.

Education is key to Marleen, as cosmetic labels are not easy to understand and we are often not familiar with the ingredients. She consults specific databases on websites she trusts. But even information on good websites can be conflicting and contradictory. Also, a negative review or two is not enough to have assumptions about a product. She therefore always verifies specific information and doesn’t rely on one source. She sees a role for herself to give her audience simple guidance and clear information.

One of her favourite sites is cosmeticanalysis.com, a quite reliable source. The site provides detailed information on ingredients, as well as scientific references of cosmetic products. To take advantage of some of their detailed information, you do need to become a member. Other cosmetic database websites to check out are EWG and CIR (links at the top). She also reads comments and blogs from e.g.  Jetske Ultee and Perry Romanovski. These dermatologist provide good information as well.

Marleen collects needed information from all different sources, before she draws conclusions. She also relies on her own tests and feedback from clients.

It took Marleen three years before she mastered making and testing her first cosmetic products. It took a while because she was new to the industry, and there were many challenges to overcome, like doing tests, providing safety reports and finding good providers. She also mostly invested her own money. It was a long and at times, dissapointing process, and she felt like giving up sometimes. But now, she can proudly say that after 3 years of development and getting through the paperwork, her creams are not only safe and well tested, she gets very positive feedback from clients on its use.

She offers about 15 skin care products, from day creams to night creams to body creams. As mentioned, many compounds end up in the environment and stay there permanently. Her products are 100% biodegradable, easily broken down in nature rather than adding to the number of used products polluting it more.

While ingredients for cosmetic products are easy the find, good providers are not. As time went on, she learned which ingredients were good, and which providers were reliable. Also she is thankful for expert formulators and scientists she met who helped her on this journey.

She applied to become part of the Start it @KBC startup community and get proper guidance on her business, so that she could grow with her products. She first heared about Start it@KBC during an interview on the radio with new business owners who had had good experience with them. Marleen was hesitant at first, not confident she had a good business idea. But she did apply at the last minute and to her surprise she got selected. She now works closely with Stefan Schippers, who is her mentor.

Marleen was also invited by THINK with People, and was offered mentoring and advice from them as well. She says that these start up incubators helped understanding the business side of things.

One of the first advices she got was to take a good look at her costs and revenue, know the exact numbers, make her calculations in much more details. Even though it sounded logical, it made her see that her she had made mistakes in her price setting. She had to change that mind-set! What she also learned is that you have to speak to many people in business, in the industry, and be in as many conversations as possible. It helps to see which next steps you need to take in your business.

This year is very crucial in terms of growing her business. Knowing she has a good product, Marleen now needs to focus on the marketing. But as she is a developer at heart, doing marketing and sales is just hard. That’s why she is looking for a Marketing and Sales Partner to promote and substantially grow this year.

As for her future plans, Marleen believes success is all about making good decisions and learning what to prioritize first. The stakes are high! If within the next two years, she won’t make a good profit, she will have to stop. Keep investing and putting her own money in improving her products and market them, will be too costly.

Currently she runs a webshop, but she also partners with a growing number of physical shops. She is also planning on improving the packaging for her brand, as the look currently doesn’t stand out. Marleen will also be using social media sites such as Facebook for promotion. And she believes that product reviews and testimonials from her clients are key as well. She listens closely to them, as she improves and further develops her products.

Marleen has always had a great support system. Especially her husband is her biggest fan, advising her, making decisions with her. It was needed. She experienced that the cosmetics world is a complicated world and it may be confusing for people who want to start their own cosmetics business, but they will get the hang of it eventually. Her advice is to do a lot of research to avoid a lot of mistakes. There really are no courses when it comes to producing cosmetic products so starting entrepreneurs need to talk more to people that are active in the field of cosmetics. The longer you are in the field, the easier it becomes, and the bigger your support and partner network will become.

When I asked her if she felt like a role model to women, she says that she is happy to share her lessons and knowledge. Fortunately, she did not have difficulties during her career as a scientist, being a woman. But she does recognize that Professors are usually men and promotions are mostly given to men. That of course should be improved. To Marleen, a woman can be anything she wants to be as long as she works for it. Sometimes women are not as ambitious as men, because they take on more tasks in the household. At the same time she strongly believes man should take on more tasks at home, so that in the end we get an equal partnership.

As a woman in her fifties, Marleen proves that age does not matter when it comes to starting a business.  She has a very optimistic spirit. Purpose and passion do the trick! Seeing her business as something that is still developing, she hopes to continue even after she retires in 15 years time!