American University alumna Aviva Kamler has been getting her nails done almost as far back as she can remember. She knows full well how overwhelming it can be to face the dizzying array of brands, colors and styles that confront her in every drugstore or cosmetics shop she enters. Wanting to transform that experience inspired her to found SHELF Cosmetics and build a mobile app that helps people track, review, share and even learn about the health impacts of different kinds of nail polish.
“I first had the idea for something like this even before I started school, when I would feel frustrated and annoyed looking at cosmetics sometimes,” explained Kamler, who graduated from AU this past May. “The beauty industry is huge and it can be hard to find out everything you want to know.”
Inspired by entrepreneurship classes at AU, Kamler decided to start working on her idea for a startup with an app to unravel the mysteries behind the beauty industry. The resulting SHELF app offers a combination of information about different kinds of nail polish with a platform for sharing and discovering favorites.
In her senior year, Kamler got focused on turning SHELF into a real business that would last beyond graduation day. She applied and won entry for SHELF to AU’s Entrepreneurship Incubator, with all of the resources and advice it entails.
“Being in the incubator helped improve the model for SHELF from every angle,” Kamler said. “The business plan, how to pitch investors, there’s a lot to learn.”
“There’s not been much skepticism about what we offer.”
Kamler knew evolving SHELF into a full-fledged business wouldn’t be possible alone. Happily, she had immediate access to plenty of interested talent as president of the AU chapter of the Chi Omega sorority.
“I thought it was an awesome idea,” said Trish Robbins, who joined SHELF as director of marketing after hearing Kamler talk about the startup to the sorority. “I didn’t even bargain, I just wanted to help. And I knew we’d work well together.”
Kamler and Robbins built a team of about a dozen, virtually all women, to cover all the necessary aspects of the business. To make sure that the actual product would interest people, they used their extended sorority network to interview over a thousand women around the country.
Along with an interest in sharing reviews of different kinds of nail polish, they found that there was significant demand related to information about the actual chemicals in the paint applied to nails, today.
“It can be hard to find what these chemicals do, it doesn’t say on the bottle if they’re linked to skin cancer or something,” Kamler said. “We use information from the FDA to help educate women about the polish.”
Although SHELF is focused on nail polish right now, the plan is to expand into other cosmetics, like skin care related products.
Cosmetics, as an industry, is worth more than $460 billion according to a recent Research and Markets report. As such, rising startups that can effectively tap into a slice of the market will draw interest from investors. Finding angel investors interested in a a first funding round has not been difficult to find, said Kamler and Robbins.
“We are our own target market.”
“There’s not been much skepticism about what we offer,” Kamler said. “Cracking the cosmetics industry interests people.”
Growth is the key metric right now, but Kamler laid out a long-term revenue plan for SHELF combining advertising, sponsorship, events and aggregated data. And there’s no denying that Kamler and her team can speak authoritatively about who they are marketing to. SHELF has been recruiting brand ambassadors on college campuses including several in the D.C. area like AU, Catholic University and George Washington University.
“We are our own target market,” Robbins said. “And Greek life has been a great network tool for us. It helps us push into the right places.”
“We’ve come really far since last year, but we’re still only getting started,” Kamler added.