When Cecil was postpartum at age 40, she was distressed at the state of her hair, skin, and waistline, and shared her dismay with her sister, a gynecologist specializing in hormonal wellness. They formed a partnership to help women achieve hormonal balance and vitality through their lifetime, with VENeffect.
Tell us a little about your background…
I moved to Chicago from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky in 1984 to go to graduate school at Northwestern University (NU). With a bachelor’s degree in Advertising from the University of Kentucky, Chicago was my ticket to a bigger media market and the Masters in Advertising at NU’s Medill School of Journalism was the credential I needed. I never imagined Chicago would become my long-term home! I will likely never get used to the winters, but having worked and lived here for 30 years and (nearly) raised two children and two husbands (pun intended), I have to say there could have not been a better place for me.
I spent 20 years working in marketing for Alberto Culver, managing brands such as St. Ives, VO5, Tresemme, and Nexxus. I absolutely loved managing large businesses with a focus on advertising and public relations, with great budgets and great people. Most of my career was spent in new product development, matching consumer needs with products, and bringing these new products to market. When I think back on it, I was extremely lucky to get that job right out of school with no real work experience; I was 22 and had a touch of a southern accent!
When did you start to think about making a change?
I had an “aha” moment, in the true Oprah sense of the phrase, around age 40, that gave me the courage to pursue my next act. I had just had my second child (a little late in the game) and was noticing that things didn’t go back the way they did the first time—my mood, my waistline, even my skin, and hair. I had access to the best beauty scientists in the industry through my work, but it was thanks to a conversation with my sister that I discovered the missing link in the beauty world: how to replicate that young, glowing skin we have when we are at our hormonal peak. It all ties back to understanding and decoding mother nature’s intent for us as women—we look and feel our best when we are at peak fertility.
My sister, Dr. Rebecca Booth, is a gynecologist practicing full-time at Women First in Louisville, Kentucky, where she sees patients from the teens to the eighties. In those many years, I was marketing shampoo and apricot scrubs, she was developing her expertise in hormonal wellness—a specialty that was missing from the medical world. When I shared with her my dismay at the state of my skin, hair, and psyche going into my forties with an insanely demanding job, a kindergartener, a new husband, and a newborn, she explained how the ebb and flow of the female hormones affect our mood and our aesthetic throughout the month and throughout our lifetime as women. She developed a metaphor for the week in our cycle when we are at our best: “The Venus Week,” inspired by the goddess of beauty (and fertility!). But we don’t want that week just a few days of the month when we are in our fertile years; we want it throughout the month and throughout our lifetime. That is what we call the “Venus effect” and that led to the development of our skincare line, VENeffect.
What is your next act?
I left my fabulous job in 2005 to start an even more fabulous company with my sister. Our mission is to enlighten women about the beauty of their hormones and inspire them with solutions to live better in that knowledge. Our first product was a book authored by my sister, Rebecca Booth, M.D., The Venus Week: Discover the Powerful Secret of Your Cycle at Any Age (Perseus Da Capo, 2008). Our skincare line, VENeffect, followed in 2012—it took us six years to develop it to our standards. This was the year I turned 50 and was at my peak need for hormonal vitality!
VENeffect is the only anti-aging skincare line completely dedicated to hormonal vitality, increasing elasticity and luminosity to offset what we naturally lose as our hormones shift within the month and as we age. It is powered by plant technology, phytoestrogens; these tiny molecules mimic estrogen when used topically on the skin to promote collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid production, the keys to dewy young-looking skin.
We are built as women to get a glow when estrogen is at its peak; we simply don’t have that molecule consistently throughout our lifetime. As my sister explains to her patients, phytoestrogens have all of the benefits and none of the risks of estrogen. They come from the plant world, the seed or the root of the plant. Foods you would (and should!) eat that are rich in phytoestrogens include peanuts, almonds, chickpeas (hummus), soy (edamame), flaxseed, chia seed—literally any root or seed that houses the reproductive part of the plant has health benefits. For skincare, we had to source cosmetically available sources such as grape seed, soy, red clover, pomegranate, and our favorite, resveratrol—we found it in certain red grape varietals and roots, thus giving us permission for a glass of red wine as well!
Why did you choose this next act?
I chose to start VENeffect based on a desire to take the experience I had, both in life and professionally, to another level. The corporate world had many opportunities and rewards; however, somewhere around 40, I was searching for something more personally rewarding. Moving to another company didn’t seem to be the right option and while staying home with my family was, and is, an alluring option, I had a second act opportunity to launch something with my sister and I took the leap.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you get started?
It was not hard to make the decision to take the plunge, but in hindsight, it was much more significant a challenge than I realized. I had tremendous support from friends and family—my husband and my sister’s husband were our chief supporters (and our true shareholders). Our sister, Lady Booth Olson, supported us with her legal expertise; she and her husband held events and book parties and continue to be among our chief supporters along with many friends who want to further this mission.
The biggest boost came early in the process. Once we had our formula, our story, and our initial packaging ready to present, we used all the contacts we could muster to secure a meeting with then VP of Beauty for Neiman Marcus, Hazel Wyatt—a well known, brass tacks industry maven who has seen many makeup artists and skincare creators cross her threshold. Our initial meeting, in March 2011, was scheduled for one hour and lasted three; at the end, she said, “Where has this been for the past 20 years?” and asked us to launch exclusively with Neiman Marcus. That was amazing validation and has been replicated in each meeting we have had since that time with other amazing leaders in the industry including Nicky Kinnaird, creator of Space NK, who encouraged us to launch in the UK as well, and many others as we began expanding last year beyond Neiman’s.
What challenges did you encounter?
The challenges were, and are, many: financial, competitive, and economic (our original launch timing was 2008/2009 when the recession hit!). What kept us motivated was our mission: The fact that most women have little understanding of their hormones and how they can navigate them was an unmet opportunity. The reality that no one in the beauty industry was addressing this need that affects every woman on the planet was white space that rarely comes along in any category, much less in anti-aging skincare.
Along with forging new territory came the greatest challenge of all: how to communicate with women, often through a third party salesperson, the benefits of addressing hormonal changes when the word “hormone” itself strikes a dissonant chord in most. What my sister and I learned is to focus on the positive, and that is “hormonal vitality,” that elusive energy and glow that is so closely aligned with the feminine ideal. While hormones have been negatively perceived and cast for centuries, it is actually the absence of hormones—and estrogen in particular—that can wreak havoc on our feeling of wellbeing. The two conditions most associated with hormonal negativity are PMS and menopause. In reality, both are actually the low point of our hormonal cycle—low estrogen in particular—leaving us without that vitality. Estrogen elevates everything about us that is designed to be attractive, from the curve in the waist to the glow in the skin; yet it is cyclic and programmed to decline.
So what can we do about that? Actually, there are many things—not all require a doctor’s visit or a prescription. Diet, exercise, nutrition, supplements, and our beauty regimen all need to adapt to the inevitable “ovarian retirement program.” We don’t mind being off duty from fertility in our late forties and beyond—we just don’t want to look off duty.
Another key hurdle was the cost of doing business at a beauty counter in a department store. There are huge pros and cons to the department store model. On the plus side, they have beauty specialists who truly know the line inside and out and can educate and sample the products directly to the consumer. The downside is the cost of that specialist –paid in part or all by the vendor. This is particularly challenging for smaller independent brands where there are not economies of scale or the ability to share among sibling brands. Distribution strategy and the cost structure to support it is our biggest business challenge!
When we discovered that our number one “store” was neimanmarcus.com, we began to shift our business model to e-commerce—driven by social media, digital PR, and marketing—and to select beauty specialty stores that cater to newer, more innovative lines, such as Space NK, Skin1 in Chicago, and Beauty Collection in LA. We love these smaller, independent beauty retailers, but also have launched our platform on Amazon Luxury Beauty and Dermstore, to make it accessible to all in the places they prefer to the e-shop. We can go head-to-head with anyone online and the “discovery” aspect of the blogging community celebrates new, different, better products like ours.
We continue to be challenged on how to drive awareness of our platform—it is much bigger than skincare alone. Our platform is to help women of all ages achieve hormonal balance and vitality. It starts by sharing the beauty of our hormones and how we can live better in that knowledge—thus the book as our first “product.” From there, skincare was the most needed category, but we see the potential for more ranging from supplements to meditation to hormonal wellness centers. We have home shopping and other video/live communication platforms on our radar. Word of mouth continues to be our most powerful ally, especially once someone tries our products… They really are wonderful!
There were many, many times we questioned if we could keep on the path. We took a few detours, regrouped, and came back to the same question: Is this needed, and are we qualified and able to provide the solution? As long as the answer was yes, we kept going.
What has it been like to work so closely with your sister?
Working with Rebecca has been amazing as we have complimentary skills and personalities. I have the business background and marketing as well as beauty industry experience; she has the medical expertise as a doctor of women and expert on hormonal wellness. We never had envisioned working together in this way, but it came about completely organically as we were aging and felt our unique backgrounds gave us the understanding and ability to do something about the way we uniquely age as women.
How did the publication of Rebecca’s book come about?
We both delved into the world of book publishing and had great advice from other authors and contacts we had in the industry. I acted as Rebecca’s manager and did quite a bit of editing and navigation of the process, as did our sister Lady. Rebecca accomplished the arduous research (documented in a 19-page bibliography) and the beautiful writing of the book, complete with anecdotes from patient and personal experiences.
For non-fiction, the process was pretty clear. We started with an agent and wrote a book proposal—a lengthy document with a sample chapter, rationale for why this book is needed, background on my sister, competitive analysis, and marketing plans. We were pleased to have a very interested editorial community, as there is a lack of information for women about how to navigate their hormonal design from their teens onward. Several publishing groups bid on the rights to the book and we went with Perseus, as we felt the editor there had the most energy around the publishing of the book. The original hardcover was published in 2008 and since that time we have published a revised edition softcover (Telemachus Press, 2014) that includes a broader section on skincare now that we have that solution to offer.
How did you go about developing and bringing to market a new skincare product?
In the process of writing the book, it became even clearer that there were no options to address hormonal aging for the skin. With my background in product development at Alberto Culver, I had the benefit of great contacts in the R&D arena and hired a fabulous consultant for the initial development and sourcing of the phytoestrogens, and later one of the best labs in beauty to complete our formulas and get them market-ready, including clinical tests and other industry tests to ensure safety, efficacy and luxurious products that women love and see results! Unlike many small or private label operations, we own our formulas outright and developed them from the ground up. Our first product—I call it my desert island product—is our VENeffect Anti-Aging Intensive Moisturizer. It is called Intensive because it has the highest level of our phytoestrogens, but it absorbs quickly into the skin and gives the most amazing luminosity to the skin.
To test our products with consumers, we hired an outside researcher to conduct consumer perception studies among patients in my sister’s practice and sub-panels of women interested in skincare, along with labs to test for efficacy. We were able to show 90% plus satisfaction with the line in terms of seeing results on the skin.
When it came to production, we networked with other brands and identified several contract manufacturers who were the right size to start with but still had the ability for us to grow. Our manufacturing partner also has wonderful R&D strengths and, while we have independent formulators, we love that they formulate, manufacture, and even market some of their own lines. Quality is key for us and we pay much more than some, but feel that we are with a company that is top-notch and has a very strong reputation. When you see brands with much greater resources than we have filled their products with your manufacturer, you know that you are in good hands.
The R&D phase of our platform was a full six years from the initial concept to market. We spent two years sourcing raw materials alone. I had envisioned a shorter development phase, but we would not launch until we had the right products and the testing to support it. I believe that the Intensive Moisturizer formula I mentioned was number 17 in terms of versions we tried until we were satisfied. We now have eight beautiful products, and each one was developed and crafted with our complete involvement and scrutiny.
What marketing resources did you pursue?
Once you have the all-important product developed, it is a matter of packaging and marketing it. That is another area where it was fortuitous that through my experience with agencies and other marketing services, we had a number of trusted resources.
A great example is our branding agency, the group that helped bring to life the vision we had for our look and feel. Another former colleague, Athena Golianis, left her fabulous career in blue-chip advertising agencies to start her own branding agency, AGW Idea Group, around the time that I left Alberto Culver to start Beauty Booth. She has a number of designers and other marketing and media contacts that she matches to each of her clients’ individual needs. She has been my right hand and a fabulous collaborator on all brand imagery from the book to the skincare line. How appropriate that she is named after a goddess!
Through Athena, we identified a great digital agency, the Plum Tree Group, to help us build our website and support it with SEO/SEM as we moved more toward e-commerce and digital marketing.
Another amazing resource came from a fellow parent at my kids’ school, while sitting watching many a volleyball match. Donna Maggos had just restarted her career with an amazing printing company in Chicago, JohnsByrne , doing work for brands like Tigi, Redken, and Butter London. How fortuitous! She and I worked to translate the beautiful AGW group graphics to cartons fitting our prestige line. It is amazing to have someone you know to look after your (tiny for their standards) print run and know that they will be perfect.
With branding, packaging, and website/digital marketing in place, we layered on one of the best PR agencies in the beauty world, helmed by Nancy Behrman. Nancy reached out to us after having heard about VENeffect from the buyers at Space NK and Cosbar. Behrman Communications has a number of success stories in helping to get indie brands on the map including Kiehls, Burt’s Bees, Clarisonic, EOS, among many others. It was a true honor to get that call and we have been working with Behrman on sharing our story and our innovation in the media and with key opinion leaders.
In Chicago, I was fortunate to meet a fabulous style expert and media spokesperson, Heidy Best, originally a personal shopper at Neiman Marcus and now with her own consulting company, Beclothesminded. We bonded over what to wear for that first meeting with Neiman Marcus headquarters and she has been there to help me on many an occasion since when I was headed on the road for five or more events at a time and needed to look the part. We did an article and video together for Crain’s about starting your own business and how style evolves to suit your new venture. She has an amazing eye and balance of style and savvy.
My sister and I are extremely grateful to all of the people/companies we work with as many of them are also taking a risk on us as they determine how to employ their resources. We love women business owners and managers as well, but one of our all-time best resources came in the form of a southern gentleman – recommended by Neiman Marcus to assist our sales efforts – Bob Rodgers. Bob has been with us from day one of launch helping us to navigate the retail waters and expand in distribution smartly. His background in beauty retailing in prestige channels with brands such as Guerlain, Versace, and Frederick Fekkai brought a valuable understanding of this channel of trade, but more importantly, he is respected by all, from the top-level buyers to the sales reps in the stores. That we learned is a rare talent!
Branding/Advertising/Media: Athena Golianis of AGW Idea Group
Digital Marketing/Website development/E-commerce: Plum Tree Group
Printing/Packaging: JohnsByrne/Donna Maggos
Public Relations (beauty specific): Behrman Communications
Stylist/Media Spokesperson: Heidy Best, Beclothesminded
What other sources of inspiration do you go to?
The absolute best source of understanding and inspiration is to actually be in the stores, talking to the end-users. Of course, our friends and families were amazing sources of feedback and encouragement, but I will tell you, you get the unblemished reality when you spend a day on the floor at Neiman Marcus, or in a neighborhood store for Space NK in the north of England. The challenges of the sales environment, the competitive landscape, the dynamics of the fabulous women and men that work in beauty, and of course the wonderful, honest, and interested customers that are looking for solutions and for the truth.
It has been amazingly enlightening and gratifying to talk to these women and share our story, and even better, see them on another round when they have experienced the results. My sister and visited more than 50 stores that the first year. She would take a few days off the practice, throughout the year, and hit the road with me. It was grueling and energizing. We continue to visit stores, albeit on a more manageable schedule, and just returned from nine days in England where we launched at Space NK there – our first International distribution!
Another great source of staying in the loop, given our Chicago and Louisville locations, is the beauty industry and press. I love reading articles on the Huffington Post and stories of successful entrepreneurs. In the beauty space, WWD (Women’s Wear Daily) and CEW (Cosmetic Executive Women) are good sources of information and inspiration. I’ve begun to invest in the WWD Summits where beauty leaders come together in extremely well-run forums to share, not boast. I’ve met some amazing indie brand founders/creators as well as met retailers and suppliers through these meetings. The CEW also is very supportive of independent brands and holds forums and an annual Beauty Award that showcases innovation with the goal of inspiration.
I tend to follow the bloggers and social media personalities that share and follow us. Here are some great ones that we have worked with:
Lola’s Secret Beauty Blog
Beauty Guru NYC
I was lucky to meet Jenny Patinkin, another fabulous woman/founder with her Lazy Perfection brushes and beauty expertise; we met through our mutual customer, Space NK and it turns out we are neighbors and have kids in the same school. We share ideas and challenges and it is wonderful to have another Chicago-area “next act” friend. She introduced us to an innovative site that shares fashion, beauty, and accessories in a video tutorial format – hosted by industry experts. We’ve worked together on a number of videos: Joyus VENeffect & Jenny Patinkin
We love sharing our message and our skincare line with other women – and often do master classes on hormonal vitality as well as simple wine and phytoestrogen-inspired evenings of sharing the “inside scoop.” We welcome suggestions, feedback and ideas on how to share the discovery.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
When you leave a job with many resources, in terms of people and budgets, you learn who your friends truly are. When I ran a business that made over 100 million bottles of shampoo a year, I had no problem getting suppliers or agencies on the phone. With a start-up, I had to actually sell our story and potential, instead of the suppliers selling us. I learned that all of those years of not just running businesses, but being kind and respectful in the process, were extremely valuable when I needed resources to help me with a start-up that could be described as “artisanal” product development.
One of the most refreshing things I have learned about the indie prestige beauty category is that it is valued and encouraged by retailers, and even larger competitors, as we bring innovation and creativity to the category. The founders of other products within our category form a fabulous community and are often generous with their advice and contacts. This did not happen in the lips-zipped-up world of mass-market packaged goods. I have tremendous respect for these other founders; we have met many along the way in-store events at Neiman Marcus and at industry forums. I hope that I can pay that forward to others down the road.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
My advice would be to be sure that those closest to you are on board with your decision and continually include them in the challenges and solutions as you change course. Friends and family members will be great sounding board and all will benefit from sharing the struggles and the successes.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Our international expansion has been a big part of what’s next for VENeffect. We are growing and hard at work: Spring 2016 is the beginning of our fifth year and one that will bring growth and vitality!
While I am still fully engaged in this new act, I definitely see the third act on the horizon. Hopefully, it will involve travel, friends, family, and wine!
Contact Cecil Booth at firstname.lastname@example.org
Our website is a fabulous resource to understanding the science of hormonal vitality and tips/information on how to achieve through lifestyle and beauty. Our skincare line and my sister’s book can also be shopped on our site. We value our retail partners and VENeffect is available online here: neimanmarcus.com, spacenk.com, cosbar.com, bloomingdales.com, DermStore.com, softsurroundings.com & Amazon.