In the internet age, the products of health and wellness startups are increasingly at everyone’s fingertips.
Missouri entrepreneur Michelle Robinson is hoping that they can be on those fingertips as well.
“We offer a complete line of nail treatments, not just nail polishes but topcoats [and] base coats,” said the native St. Louisan and founder of DEMIblue Natural Nails. “We even have a soy-based nail polish remover that doesn’t have acetone.”
In fact, what Robinson’s nail products don’t contain is just as important as what they do. She advertises her creations as “seven-free” — a term indicating they lack seven key toxins she said are typically found in conventional polishes. They also don’t contain animal-derived ingredients, so DEMIblue’s 22 different shades are vegan-friendly.
“I want to impact women everywhere, not just locally,” said Robinson. “The problem isn’t just in St. Louis.”
The problem to which Robinson referred came to her attention while her mother was recovering from breast cancer. Her mother was advised to steer clear of certain products containing harsh chemicals. Nail polish turned out to be on that list.
As a result, Robinson began to do a little research and started to wonder if there wasn’t a better option. Given her past experience as a clinical administrator for the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, she was not a complete stranger to the health care industry. She’d even taught LPN and medical-assisting classes.
Equally important, she had a business background as well, with an MBA from Fontbonne University.
Soon, she found herself talking to physicians and partnering with an environmental chemist before finding a manufacturing facility with which she could work.
“You want to make sure there is no cross-contamination and that their processes are in line with what your vision is,” she said of locating the right company.
That vision finally came to life in October 2018 with a full line of brightly hued polishes with festive names such as Sundress Season, 80’s Lipstick and Silver Stiletto, all of them “seven-free.” Particularly important, Robinson said, was staying away from what the company’s website calls the “Toxic Trio” of toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate.
Still, creating the product wasn’t the hard part, Robinson said.
“The education piece was difficult because you are changing people’s minds,” she noted. “You are changing their routines, their buying habits. That was the most challenging thing about it.”
Robinson tried to navigate that challenge by organizing focus groups of women in the community. In fact, only two of the polish colors were named by their creator. The rest of the monikers came from the focus group.
“That’s the most important part because I get to have a conversation with women about something that is not discussed every day,” she said. “That’s nail polish. We talk about our environment every day. We talk about the foods we eat, but no one is talking about nail polish.”
More women are talking about it now. Mehlville resident Valeria Rodriguez said she was a particular fan of the “Disco Glitter Glam” shade.
“I like how they are easy to layer and dry quickly,” she said. “Especially because of the glitter — it doesn’t clump, and it is easy to apply and looks good.”
As a vegan, she appreciates the concept behind the polish, but she also likes its practicality. She finds that it helps prevent chipping and breaking.
“My nails are actually strengthened in the process, which is something I struggle with as an artist,” she said.
Another fan of Robinson’s creations, Susan Jones, said she appreciates the wide range of colors and the high-quality nature of the applications.
“It is really long-lasting,” she noted. “I found her product at the Golden Grocer and ended up loving it.”
Jones is president of The Belle Effect, a St. Louis-area nonprofit organization that, among other services, helps to provide cosmetics, toiletries, resume-writing workshops and necessary items to assist people who are dealing with poverty, homelessness or illness. The organization uses Robinson’s products when working with clients, she said.
“At the Belle Effect, we are well aware that the things we put on our skin and the food that we put in our body has a lot to do with our health,” she said.
Jones, a fan of DEMIblue’s “Pearls and Lace” shade, also noted that she appreciated the vegan aspect of the polishes.
“It is important that we are preserving not only the life on this planet but also just being mindful so we can continue the lifecycle on this earth,” she said.
Robinson said her early talks with the community were vital — and spurred her to alter the final version of her idea.
“They did change my product because originally I was looking at offering a full line of gel nail polishes, which are very popular,” she said. “Those nail polishes contain some of those chemicals that we were trying to avoid. Individuals who participated in the focus group really helped me to stay true to the overall purpose of the product.”
She advises any health and wellness entrepreneur that conversations are a key part of the process: Will people buy what you want to sell?
“Talk to people [who] it is going to impact,” she said. “Your market is your validation.”
After those conversations, Robinson lined up funding, including winning money in a pitch competition. After a database bootcamp at the local library where she learned how to build a useful list of consumers, she was ready to take on the marketplace.
Robinson said due diligence is a key to success. It is important to understand your customers and what they might be willing to pay for in the real world. That’s why her focus group effort included both women who were thinking about health-conscious choices and those who weren’t. She even put children in the group because little girls wear nail polish, too.
“First of all, what’s the problem? What impact can they make?” she said. “And what tools are they willing to gain in order to resolve that issue?”
Robinson said it also is important to know your own product and care about the details.
“The last thing you want is for somebody to ask you a question about your product and your business and you don’t have a clear understanding,” she said. “Then you lose customers. You lose opportunities in that way.”
It is all part of maintaining authenticity with the consumer, she said.
“We don’t claim that it is all-natural. We don’t claim that it is organic. We know that it takes certain chemicals to make nail polishes do what they need to do,” she said. “We don’t hide anything. We don’t claim it to be something that it is not.”
Today, she offers her products — and her personal manicuring services — online and sells her polishes at three St. Louis-area retail spaces. She often finds herself making housecalls, visiting nursing homes or hosting potluck events.
“It has been very lucrative in the fact that I am able to provide services to women in the comfort of their own home,” she said. “I can bring my services to where they are. I think that’s been a really profitable aspect of it because they don’t have to sit in the nail salon. They don’t have to wait.”
She estimates that she grosses about $4,300 a month, and she wants her business to grow. Robinson said she’s already working to bring big retailers such as Walmart and Target into the mix.
“We’re continuously seeking healthier products so that women have alternatives,” she said. “We’re always looking for opportunities to place our products into other retail markets.”
Robinson said she believes that products aimed at healthier lifestyles have strong growth potential to move beyond their market niche.
“We live in an era of health-conscious consumers,” she said. “They are looking for those specialty-type items, those things that speak to overall health and wellness.”