This article first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Definitive Women magazine. Definitive Women focuses on issues important to women: self-improvement, health, family, career, fitness, nutrition, cooking, personal economics, motivation, home decorating, fashion, lifestyle, culture and the arts.
Recently, I found myself at a crossroads. I faced some changes that were out of my control. I had a lot of ideas for what I wanted to do in my future. The idea of taking the plunge scared me. I decided to go out for coffee with my friend, Nicole Mulder, and pick her brain. Despite the fact that the skincare and beauty industry is a $532 billion dollar industry, Nicole had the confidence to jump into it and start her own skincare business. I needed to know what she knew about confidence.
Epitome Skincare is a Minnesota-based company founded in 2010 by Alexandria native Nicole Mulder. The fact that the company still exists ten years later within the ultra-competitive beauty industry is a testament to Nicole’s clear business vision and her commitment to her customers’ positive experience with her products. I wanted to find out from Nicole what set her apart as an entrepreneur and how she combatted that “start-up underdog” mindset. That was my first discovery. Nicole was never in that “underdog” mindset.
”I would like all women to consider,” said Nicole, taking a sip of her coffee, ”when you say, ‘I’m just as talented as they are, why can’t I do THAT’? You’re putting somebody else in the circle you’re trying to get in – not realizing you’re already there.”
”You’re already there.”Nicole Mulder
Minnesota Ethics and Multitasking
Some of Nicole’s business confidence stemmed from her practical Minnesota roots. She grew up in Alexandria and started her career in the business area of the spa industry. As her interests grew, she added art and makeup to her repertoire. Then Nicole became an executive with a major makeup company and made essential contacts within the beauty industry and retail. She started seeing a better way of doing business – a more Minnesotan way of doing things.
“When I started, I was calling on some pretty big accounts: Nordstrom’s, Pharmaca, Lifetime Fitness.” Nicole thought there was room in the marketplace for a Minnesota Girl and a Minnesotan’s philosophy:
”People like to do business with Midwestern folks. Minnesota ethics and business practices are very relationship-oriented. ‘You plow my driveway, I’ll plow yours.’ We look out for each other. I think that’s what makes us different.”
One of the other fundamental differences Nicole sees in Minnesotans is a particular kind of multitasking. ”Go up north to a cabin in Minnesota, you’ll see a bunk bed made of logs. But the branches haven’t been cut, so you can also hang your robe on it. Everything has a task, and everything is multifunctional. A lot of the things Minnesotans do are very simple, but sophisticated in design.”
Nicole had her lightbulb moment one day when she was positioned to pitch the next big line to a major retailer. While waiting for her appointment, she visited with a competing executive, also there to pitch to the retailer. Nicole realized that the products both she and the other executive were pitching were overly complicated. Nicole wanted to “bring to market multi-tasking personal care products designed to simplify the lives of consumers with minimum fuss routines, maximum luxury, and serious results.”
In short, a Minnesota-style multitasker.
Perseverance Through Confidence in Concept
Nicole was confident that her concept was a better way.
Implementing the idea of Minnesota-style multitasking, Nicole created her first product: Epitome Lash and Brow Serum, the first product on the market for both lashes and brows. The process of creating a product up to her standard was intense; not only did the formula need to be multifunctional, but it also required the correct applicator to avoid cross-contamination.
For two years, the Lash and Brow Serum was Epitome’s entire line.
Around the time Nicole was working on starting up her company, the 2008 economic downturn happened, drastically changing the marketplace. Banks were less likely to loan money, and giant retailers, with whom Nicole had established relationships during her time as a makeup executive, changed the way they welcomed new products to the market.
“In 2009, about the time I was starting Epitome Skincare, banks weren’t giving any money – it was just after the housing crisis. Changes were happening within retail.
It used to be that in the ’90s and early 2000s, if you knew the right people, had a good product, and had a good relationship with people, you could get a shot at Bergdorf’s or Nordstrom’s.”
With the change in the economic climate after 2008, major retailers become much more risk-averse.
“At that time, those big retailers had been my clients. They supported [the concept of] my new business, but also said, ‘We also need to see a $100,000 advertising agreement for InStyle magazine. We need to see you in W magazine.’ For a business like mine, I had the connections, I had a great product, but I had no capital and no way to get there.” The big retailers liked what Nicole was doing, but the path just wasn’t clear.
”Here I am, a girl with a dream, but the timing wasn’t great. I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be a little harder than I thought…” Nicole persevered and made it work.
Ten Years Later
After a bumpy start, Epitome Skincare has grown into a full skincare line. The line is true to Nicole’s initial vision of using high technology and quality ingredients, creating multi-tasking products so customers can simplify their lives by doing more with less.
Nicole has incorporated different projects into her life alongside work. For the past several seasons, Nicole has been the Executive Director of Theatre L’Homme Dieu in Alexandria, Minnesota. TLHD is a professional theatre for all ages that brings great artists to outstate Minnesota. Nicole is essential in not only helping decide what artists and productions are chosen, but she works with the board of directors and the paid and voluntary staff. I wondered if she had found any commonalities between the business of beauty and a non-profit theatre. Nicole thinks it all comes down to this rubric: Will it enhance the patron’s experience? Or in skincare, will it enhance her customer’s experience? “If the answer is yes, then let’s try it. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.”
Confidence Begets Confidence
Before talking with Nicole, I wondered where this confidence came from. How do you decide to strike out on your own? After speaking with Nicole, I realized that confidence begets confidence. Having confidence in your ideas and abilities and a clear vision IS the first step.
It’s Yours, Claim it
If you think you’re the underdog just waiting for your shot, you’ve already placed yourself in a category, allowing your judgment to define you.
Nicole’s advice? “If you act like the underdog and think like the underdog, you’re the underdog. Right away, and you’ve put yourself there. Don’t create a dichotomy that doesn’t need to be there.
So, if you see yourself where you want to be, figure out ‘what are the skills I have that are like that? What else do I need?’ then check your ego at the door and figure out what else you need to get there.
The first thing is your mindset and realizing that you can take up that space.
The difference is seeing yourself in that space and knowing you already have a seat at that table.
It’s your space, too.
Own your space.”
Heather Hauptli is the Editor in Chief of YouShouldHaveAskedMeFirst.com. She writes, edits, and hosts the You Should Have Asked Me First podcast, available on Apple Podcasts. Along with Jo Ciceron, she is the co-founder of Girl Clout Media.