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"You have to absolutely be one hundred percent obsessed"
The Fluide co-founder opens up about what it's like to leave the startup world to build an LGBTQ-centered cosmetic company.
Welcome to The Leap, where women and nonbinary entrepreneurs open up about what it took to get to where they are now. In 2018, women founders received just 2.2% of the $130 billion in venture money invested in the United States. Given these odds, it’s time to get real about what it’s really like to be a woman founder. From raising capital to imposter syndrome, we explore what it takes for women to enter the world of entrepreneurship.
Today, we chat with Isabella Giancarlo, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Fluide, a collection of colorful, cruelty free cosmetics for all gender identities, gender expressions, and skin tones.
What did you study in college and what were your career aspirations?
I went to Brown in Providence and I studied environmental studies. I almost studied visual art, but I didn’t want to take this one drawing class I had to take so I ended up just with environmental studies. I was drawn to Brown because it has this open curriculum and you’re not forced to take classes that you don’t want to take. I took biology classes, architecture classes, product design, poetry, and was able to create this liberal arts education as a person who’s interested in basically everything.
While in college, I was a part of a couple different entrepreneurship groups. My parents are entrepreneurs, and I had my own company in high school so I had this entrepreneurial bug in me for a long time. I was at a panel with a bunch of entrepreneurs and there was only one woman on the panel. She started this period underwear company and I thought it was amazing.
I introduced myself immediately and ended up interning with her company Dear Kate. We were a team of four people and everyone was woman-identified. It felt really awesome to be a part of this small team doing mission-driven work. I realized that I wanted to work with a small team of like-minded, passionate folks one day.
What were you doing for work when you first started building Fluide? What did the transition from doing your own work to launching this company look like?
I was working at a boutique branding agency as a strategist and project manager. I met my to-be business partner Laura [Kraber] there and we just connected being the only female and non-binary people at the table. We were working with a lot of men and feeling like our contributions were getting overlooked. We wouldn’t get as much eye contact, people would talk over us, things like that.
We both ended up leaving our jobs and I was taking some time off freelancing as a graphic designer. I was working on Fluide on the side while I continued freelancing and doing my part-time consulting gig doing brand strategy in the interior design space. I was doing interesting work but mostly doing what I had to do to pay the bills. Laura reached out to me in the spring of 2017 with a project idea she was working on. She asked me to come on and do the visual identity for it. We had this shared vision of what this inclusive, queer beauty brand could look like. That’s when we started working together. A little bit after we launched, Laura said she needed me full-time. At that time, my work was piling up—I was working all the time, nights, and weekends. We started talking about what it would look like for me to come on full-time.
Letting go of a steady paycheck is terrifying for most people, how did you deal with the uncertainty?
When I was consulting I was making great money. Working at Fluide meant I was working at a quarter of my hourly rate. I believed in the company and knew it would translate to equity. But by choosing to work on Fluide full-time I was choosing to live pretty hand-to-mouth. I was also choosing to work on something that felt really close to me and that was our creation together. There were trade offs, like getting to make my schedule and be my own boss to an extent. But there were times where I was taking a lower monthly rate so that I could earn more equity, and things have changed kind of season-to-season.
When I first started I was really stressed about money all the time. There was definitely a scarcity complex of “What am I doing with my life? Am I going to be able to make this work?” There were a lot of those decisions between eating what’s in the fridge or going out with your friends. Money was tight, and money has been tight at different points, but that’s part of the game. At first it really fucking stressed me out all of the time, but something I learned in the process was that I believe in this idea and also, on a personal level, I believe in my knowledge, my point of view, and my expertise. I knew that I was going to be able to make it work if I had to.
Did you have a safety net or a back-up plan?
When I was working as a consultant I was saving 25% of my income. I’ve always been a big saver and whenever I was working salaried jobs I was also trying to say 15-20% of my paycheck, which was definitely a privilege. And so I had some savings and I knew I could dip into them if I needed to, and I have needed to. But having savings makes a world of difference.
In the startup space, money is power. If you don’t have money, you can’t start a company. There are some people that make it work, but it’s not just a nice idea. I’m privileged in that I’m in my late twenties and don’t have any dependents, which means that I can choose exactly how I spend my money and time—I can make my own schedule and work to the bone if I need to without having to feed anyone else or take care of anyone else.
How have your conceptions of financial stability changed since starting this new venture?
If I’m being completely candid, if there’s money in your startup, if someone has invested and you can afford to work on it full-time, that’s such a big difference than if I had started Fluide by myself with very little savings and access to capital. Working with a partner who was putting money into the business and fundraising, having that business partner who had that allowed me to come in and work for a very reduced rate but roughly cover my cost of living—this was a wonderful opportunity and privilege for me.
Another thing that I realized later than I’d like to admit is that when you’re a team of two, there is this tendency to kind of separate things out and say “you focus on social media, I focus on marketing or finance”—or whatever. But you both are responsible for the success of the business. Some of my strengths are building brands, art direction, social media, communications, and those are all wonderful things and some of our biggest successes to date. But if you can’t come up with a sustainable business model, then it’s all for nothing—you’re just playing house. I realized that if I wasn’t contributing to creating a sustainable business model then we couldn’t do what we are doing. In the last six months, I’ve taken on a bigger responsibility in making sure that I’m prioritizing endeavors that bring in sales. I still do creative and other stuff, but if we don’t have sales, partners, distribution—we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.
How have you been raising capital?
We did a friends and family round, and right now we’re in the process of doing a little bit more friends and family, and possibly an angel round in the next year, but we’re still fundraising. Unless you have an existing investor network, it really feels like you’re trying to puncture a sphere that you aren’t in at all.
It’s been really challenging; putting together the pitch deck is hard. It feels like what I think is going to work in the pitch deck isn’t what investors want in the pitch deck. Intuitively, you have to be on the inside to know what the inside wants. We’ve done so many iterations of the deck based on feedback, which has been tremendously helpful. But because we’ve only done friends and family so far, it’s mostly been people who believe in us and the mission.
What's been the scariest part of this transition?
I think it’s possible to work all the time. When you have a business you can work 24 hours a day. And even when you’re not working, it creeps into your head all the time. I’ll have stress dreams about what kind of things we should be running in our Facebook ads. It takes up your life, which is beautiful because it’s your creation. But it can be really hard to shut it off and so you have to be vigilant with your mental health and make sure you’re taking care of yourself and finding ways that you now how to shut yourself off. Whether that’s getting a foot rub in Chinatown or going to get ice cream—whatever those things are to help yourself disconnect. You have to know yourself so intimately to know what those things are, and know how to take care of yourself. It can seem like a big challenge and unless you’re well-versed in your inner workings, I think you can get into a really dark place.
What has been your biggest victory so far?
We did a couple of activations at the Brooklyn Museum in conjunction with their Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: 50 Years Since Stonewall exhibition. We did another pop up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Being part of the creative community in Brooklyn and the Boston area focused on queer self expression felt so perfectly aligned. Especially as an art person, it felt like a really big success to see Fluide in museums. We also have a partnership with Ipsy and were in a million of their glam bags in January, and that just felt like we were making some movement. Also to just have strangers come up to us and say they got our lipgloss in their glam bag, it was very cool.
What is your biggest challenge right now when it comes to the business?
Fundraising and finding people who want to invest in LGBTQ+ focused brands in the beauty space. We’re a really badass team and are really trying to make beauty accessible to everyone and break down these patriarchal, confining, awful notions of beauty that are still being projected to us today. If there are any MBA consultants who want to work with us we can always use a little bit more help in that department. Also, anyone who feels passionately about what we’re doing at Fluide, we like to find ways to bring them into the fold.
Transitions and career risks can be rough for your mental health. What does your self-care routine look like?
Going to therapy once a week is really important to me. It helps me trust myself more and has been really important in my journey as an entrepreneur. So making sure I have the time and money to do that is really important. I’ve been crazy on Craigslist, where I just found a new kitchen island for $15. Because I work from home, creating a calming little sanctuary has been huge. It sounds kind of dorky, but organizing also really helps calm my busy mind.
I make my own candles and bath soaps, stuff like that feels really nice. Also, making time for friends. Making sure I’m reaching out to friends is important, when you’re working on your own venture, it can be really isolating, so connecting is so important. I’m also a member of the food co-op in Park Slope. Being able to be there and touch all the produce, buy stuff that is nourishing, and be part of a community that’s creating its own alternative, mission-driven business model has been really awesome.
Do you ever suffer from imposter syndrome? Fear? How do you deal?
The imposter syndrome is so real. There are a hundred different ways to doubt yourself. For me, I have had to get better at noticing when I’m doing the negative self talk thing. Just recognizing it has been really helpful. Just being able to be like, “Oh I’m being really mean to myself, why don’t I take it down a notch?”
Also, it’s also been comforting to hear other people’s stories. It reminds you that there’s not one way to start a business. There’s literally no roadmap for how your own business can be successful. Yes there are best practices, but overall how to structure your business and make it work is kind of your own doing. There’s no guidebook, so remembering that there’s no right answer for how to grow your business has been so helpful. There is a lot of gray area and you have to be constantly taking risks and trying new things. I feel like we get told through different publications that show these wunderkinds from Silicon Valley that the only way to do this is to [be] like Glossier. We’re not told a range of entrepreneurial journeys [or] that everyone’s path is different.
I’ve gotten to a place where I’ve just made peace with how we’ve done things. Hindsight is 20/20, but here we are today, and we’re gonna figure it out or we’re going to find new avenues of success. And also, I think redefining success has been helpful for me too: If I’m measuring my success based on how many people we’ve touched and impacted, then I already feel we’ve done an awesome job. [Success] for us isn’t necessarily taking over the world and being in a million Targets—though that is what I want and what my goal is—but from a personal perspective, I want to redefine success to mean we want to make people feel seen and heard and like they can be themselves.
Plug: what books, podcasts, resources have helped you on your journey?
I love the How I Built This podcast. I really like listening to the Startup podcast, and though it’s media specific, it was great. I also have some friends who are really good with their personal finances and freelance finances, and having them or seeking out financial advisors has been so essential. I also have consulted with a personal lawyer in the past and have an accountant, and those two resources have been tremendously helpful.
What’s your advice to someone who is considering taking “the leap”?
You have to absolutely be one hundred percent obsessed with and consumed by whatever you’re going to quit your job for. If this thing doesn’t keep you up at night or you can’t imagine doing this thing for five to ten years, then maybe think about what your other options are. I think once you start or co-found a startup, if you’re not totally obsessed with it and willing to be devoted to it, then maybe it’s not for you. Oh, and save if you can; have a cushion for the hard months when sales are low or for the unexpected things that come up—like your computer breaking or health stuff.