JJ Cowan is sharp. She knows what she wants and is completely unabashed about letting you know what it is and how she’s going to get it. Full of pointed questions and observations, she breaks down what the process of starting her own business has been like, and what she predicts for the future.
WAX&LASH is straight forward as the owner is – it’s eyelash extensions, perfect brows, and waxing services in one. Her product is a service, delighting and astonishing each customer, one experience at a time.
Q: Tell me about your business, WAX&LASH. How did you get started in lashes, and why lashes?
I was in the corporate world – I didn’t understand what esthetics was about. I loved beauty, and have been immersed in it my entire life. Since I was a kid I was walking up and down the aisles of Shoppers Drug Mart (before we even had Sephora) or with my mom at HY&ZELS. As a kid I would take my allowance and go in and ask so many questions. I went to university for business, then to graduate school, and ended up working for the government of all places. I was ridiculously unhappy – I hated it. I saw it as a dead end.
I thought I was going to go to law school for real estate. I quit my job, and was unhappy. I broke up with my boyfriend, felt the same. I was miserable taking the LSATs. I was in bed one night having this huge crisis where I had a few months of not being able to sleep properly, and I was so terrified. I had to ask myself…what would I do if I won the lottery and didn’t have to rely on an income the rest of my life? It was a great question to ask myself…even when people say they win the lottery, you still need to do something. I knew it was beauty.
I gave myself a year, and was living off savings. I met a girl during that year, who raved about the eyelash extensions business. I had the service done too, and had loved them. I realized how difficult it was to do. I felt it was really intellectual – it was about building puzzles. I ended up talking my way into an extensions course, and the rest was history.
Q: You talked about fear during those couple of months during those couple of months. What was the fear of? Fear of income? Direction?
Well, the fear is still very much alive. It doesn’t end at all. I think it comes from being an entrepreneur and taking a risk. When you put everything on the line and all of your being behind a business or an idea (because it starts with an idea and having to build a structure around it). Anxiety breeds into fear of “what the hell am I doing?” and “where’s the money going to come from?” The fear of being able to eat and not losing your shirt. The fear of making the right choices, because there are lots of other options, like working for someone.
“The fear is still very much alive. It doesn’t end at all.”
Q: It wasn’t like you had the idea right off the bat – what was it like embarking on the year?
The year that I took the time off, I still had money and could live the lifestyle I was living. But I knew what the year after was looking like, and it was looking desolate. A lot of “oh my god, how am I going to eat?” I knew it was coming. That year was interesting, I still felt like I had a lot of security. You’re scared about what the future holds but your idea keeps you going with rose colored glasses. But the year you have to put it into motion makes you realize how much you have to work.
With any startup, you have to be on all the time. You’re thinking about what you’re going to do the next day, month.
Q: What was it like when you talked your way into the course, and started on that path?
I was lucid. I knew this was what I wanted to do and I saw a future in it. I knew I could grow with it. The second day of the course was when we actually started with lash extensions, and that shit is hard. And to me, I wanted to be the best at doing eyelashes – I wanted my technique to be the best in the way that I wanted it to be. It was discouraging not being “the best” out of the gate. It was deflating, and I realized how much work I had left ahead of me, and the money was running out. I knew it would be about a year out before I could charge money for it. It was a painful gap year. All of my peers were buying houses, going on vacations. I was so passionate about what I was doing that I knew it wasn’t going to happen. It was going to be the biggest relationship I had with anything.
“I was lucid. I knew this was what I wanted to do and I saw a future in it. I knew I could grow with it.”
Q: What happened after the gap year?
I worked out of my apartment to begin of because I had no money. I made the dining room into my studio, and it was just referrals and word of mouth. It wasn’t steady at all. I had no advertising at all because it was my apartment. And then a space came open and I had a short period of finances to float this without having a filled schedule…or even a half filled schedule. I was so burned out at that point with a blog, and a business. When I moved into my space, it was a totally different animal. I had to get used to being somewhere for 10 hours a day. When you have hours up on your website, you have to be there. Nobody organizes your day for you. Nobody gives you a workload. You have to do all of it to make it work properly.
Q: How do you drive yourself to remove a safety net for yourself?
I have a long term goal. I know where I want to be, and I’ve worked backwards. I will always take risks. In order to get to where you want to be you have to go up a step. You could fall…but you just have to fuel the fire.
Q: When you got into your space and you knew you had a certain amount of time, what drove you every day?
It’s all hunger. I think it’s always focusing on what works out and not dwelling on what doesn’t. In business you can’t get too attached to something. If you have an idea and just believe in that idea, even when it’s not lucrative and not turning a profit…and you hold onto it until you lose your shirt. If this brand didn’t work out, I would have peaced out.
Q: Another theme I’m hearing is about creating your own opportunities. How do you identify and create an opportunity for yourself?
Truthfully, my entire life I’ve had to work hard for absolutely everything. I think having the life I’ve had and the challenges I’ve had, and I will never feel that I’m entitled to anything. I naturally feel that if I want something I have to go out there and get it. I think I’m naturally an independent person. I wanted this business. I had to create opportunities to meet clients, get media. Business is all about creating opportunities. The moment you take your foot off the gas you don’t go as fast. I feel like every day I have to create opportunities to keep on going.
“Truthfully, my entire life I’ve had to work hard for absolutely everything. I think having the life I’ve had and the challenges I’ve had, and I will never feel that I’m entitled to anything. I naturally feel that if I want something I have to go out there and get it.”
You have to pace yourself.
Q: Your business is an intimate service – you’re in a room alone with a customer constantly. How do you ensure that you don’t get drained from putting out energy to service your customer, but also relate to them?
I’m definitely an introvert. You’d think I was an extrovert in conversation, but I’m not, I need time to process things. In the beginning I was such an open book. There’s a real art to being able to have a close relationship with a client, but not being close enough where you’re giving away your soul. It’s more about listening to the client and their lives. Not bringing my life into it. It’s so awesome to do that because you realize that you’re not the only one struggling. It’s hard to be an adult. But I hear about others going through that and I don’t feel as alone.
“It’s hard to be an adult. But I hear about others going through that and I don’t feel as alone.”
Q: What kinds of challenging experiences have you had in a service-oriented business?
I’ve been lucky enough to have great clients, but the one thing I never do is to not take anything personally. I approach things with a perspective of peace. If resolving a situation is giving someone their money back or giving them a complimentary service, then so what. It’s not worth the energy of fighting with someone.
Q: What’s next?
Taking a break has been good, but I have a lot of things coming up. I’m really excited about it, people will just have to wait and see. WAX&LASH isn’t going away, it’s going to be here for awhile. I have an end game, but it’s just finding the right vehicle to take me there.