Conmen Middlemen & Lack Of Sales Are Some Of The Challenges BLAZE Mentor Joanna Kinuthia Has Had To Face In Building The Joanna K Cosmetics Brand


Being a BLAZE mentor has taught me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable – beauty entrepreneur Joanna Kinuthia.

When she started her YouTube Channel almost 3 years ago, she would never have imagined how big her platform would be. At only 24 years, she is the founder and CEO of Joanna K Cosmetics, a cosmetic company that seeks to inspire people to be their most authentic self and unleash their inner power. She also runs her YouTube channel which focuses on all things beauty and lifestyle.

This year, she was picked to be a mentor for BLAZE BYOB in the Creative Arts category. Along with the other mentors, she attended various creation camps where they interacted with the youth all over the country. She takes us through her journey and what it has been like to be chosen as a BLAZE mentor.

Please tell us about yourself

I am a digital content creator and entrepreneur. I create content and upload it on YouTube and Instagram. I got started in 2017 so I have been doing it ever since. When I started, I was in my last year of University, so a lot was going on at that time. I graduated and got a job which I had for less than I month before realized that the 8-5 was not for me. So, I decided to just give my all to my YouTube channel. At the time I had less than 500 subscribers, so it was quite a leap of faith

When I started, I would upload one video a week. However, when I left my job to do YouTube full time, I knew I had to really dedicate myself. So, I would do two or three videos a week consistently. Eventually I started growing and working with brands I would never have imagined working with.

What inspired you to start your business?

As I ran my channel from 2017 to 2018, it hit me that what I was doing was positively impacting brands. Whenever I worked with them and would recommend something, my audience trusted me. I remember telling myself that I not only wanted to work with brands, but I also wanted to create something for myself that was more long term. Not because I think YouTube is going anywhere anytime soon but I wanted to have something that I could do without necessarily being the face of the business. As a content creator, if I do not wake or show up, I cannot make money. I wanted to let the money work for me.

How did your parents react to you quitting your job barely a month after getting it?

My dad was extremely supportive. My parents are quite open-minded. My dad thought it was a good move. He also gave me really good advice. He told me that as a young person who has just left school, you conform to what society wants from you. Then you start working and then you get responsibilities such as children, rent and so on. It then becomes harder to leave a job. So, he thought this was the perfect time for me to call it quits. I had no responsibilities whatsoever and I could throw myself into my YouTube channel. My mother took a little bit of time to get comfortable with the idea but eventually, she came around.

Let me add this one thing. I really wanted to prove myself to them. I showed them that I was willing to put in the effort. Sometimes especially with the younger generation, one can say they want to put themselves out there but it does not seem like they are dedicated. It can be very hard to convince a parent that you want to do something, and it does not even look like your heart is in it. So, I had decided that I was going to do this. I was either going to succeed or succeed. It was do or die. They saw that and were able to be a bit more confident in this whole unusual career.

What has the journey been like between coming up with the idea and launching your first collection?

It has been long. I had the idea at the beginning of 2018, then launched the business at the end of the same year. One of the main things that stopped me from starting earlier was financing. I was not able to get a loan from a bank since I could not use my channel as collateral. This is not a career with a regular paycheck. So, I had to save up and put up the money myself.

The other thing is that I had no idea how to start from point A and end up with a lipstick. I had to do a lot of research and talk to a lot of people in the industry. I also had to find a manufacturer and identify who I needed to work with to get my products imported. It was a lot. I made so many mistakes. I still do. However, I like to call them lessons. Some were more expensive than others but in business, you need to be open to making mistakes and learning from them.

What does running a makeup business entail on a day to day basis?

When I first started and up to quite recently, I was the one taking on the bulk of the work. I would handle all the orders that I got from Instagram DM’s. I would then pack the products and ensure that it was delivered to the client. With time I realized I was losing sight of the overall vision I had for the business. So I brought in someone to handle those day to day orders. I launched a website which made it easier to handle orders, shipping and delivery.

What I do now is execute the vision I have for the business. What products should we launch? How are we going to finance the launches? I also stay in touch with the manufacturer and the people I work with to create my products. Additionally, I am also very involved in the marketing side of the business. Since I am a content creator this is not something, I want to give up anytime soon.

What are some of the things you wish you knew before starting your business?

First of all, I wish I had not gone in with these huge expectations of making a lot of sales. I made that mistake because I already had a relatively large following. So, I thought that on the first day we were going to have massive sales but of course, that did not translate. I remember being so disappointed. So, I wish someone had told me to lower my expectations.

Also, you are solely responsible for your business. If you do not get up, put in the work, then your business is the one is going to suffer. Even when you bring people into the business, you cannot just take a huge step back which is a mistake I made at the beginning. You still have to follow up.

Your business is about to turn one-year-old, what are some of the challenges you have faced so far?

The biggest struggle is raising capital. Especially since to grow the business I have had to inject quite a lot of money into it. I started with 5 products, now I have added a bunch of others. So sometimes I feel like the business is just a money pit. All it does is take without giving back. However, this can be tied to what I had said earlier about lowering your expectations. Because the reasons this has been such a tough one for me is because I thought I would make money a lot of money from the get-go.

Another huge challenge is that this is pretty new to me. I am learning on the go. I have had extremely expensive lessons. I once worked with people to import my products and they completely ripped me off because I did not know the specifics. There is not a lot of information online about how to go about transacting business with some of these middlemen. So that has been quite a journey.

What was your reaction when you were picked as a BLAZE Mentor?

I was shocked. Why would someone think that I have achieved enough to invite me to mentor people almost as young as I am? It was suffering from imposter syndrome. But I got past that. Where I am now, there are some mistakes I know I have made and sharing these experiences can save someone the trouble I went through.


Joanna is with Catherine Kamau – Karanja (@Kate_Actress) at the Meru Creation Camp. Catherine was also one of the mentors

How was your experience as a mentor?

Meeting these young people was such a surprise for me. They are so creative. My mind was blown after every single creation camp. As much as I work in the creative arts, I do not think I would have ever gotten an opportunity to be as exposed to that level of creativity if it was not for BLAZE. These young people really think outside the box. They have such big dreams.

Another plus was meeting the other mentors. I was the youngest mentor picked this time so I learnt so much from them. I had to push myself out of my comfort zone to talk to them as much as I could. Typically, I do not do well in a crowd of new people.

Any ideas that stood out to you?

Some entrepreneurs with home décor products stood out to me. They showcased products they had created from scratch, yet they looked like such masterpieces. Not to mention how meticulously they executed their ideas. But honestly, everyone had something special to present. I saw dancers, poets, comedians etc. There was never a dull moment. They also inspired me too. We had one exercise where we would tell them to come up with an ad for their products. I was surprised by their creative out of the box ideas.

Why would you encourage more people to come to these BLAZE Creative Camps? 

You realize that most people attend the huge BLAZE BYOB Summits. The thing is, the summits are just a taste of what you get at the creation camp. At the Summits, we just give 1-2-hour talks sharing our journey. However, at the creation camps, we can guide you as an entrepreneur. It is no longer about our journeys and how we got to where we are. It is about you telling us your business idea and then we help you come up with solutions to help develop it into a business. We can caution you from making the same mistakes we did. We work hand in hand with you to start or grow your business.

Joanna is awarding a dummy cheque to George Ngugi Winner, Creative Arts Category Meru Creation camp. On the left is Caroline Kako, Brand Experience Manager, Safaricom

What can you say is the impact of BLAZE on these young entrepreneurs?

BLAZE can reach so many of these young people out there at a go. Most of them have such great ideas but there are not sure where to go from there. It is amazing to get to see our stories inspire their journeys. I know so many people who have started and grown businesses because they take time to come to these creation camps.

How has being a BLAZE mentor impacted your life?

It has made me comfortable with being uncomfortable. For one to grow you must push yourself out of your comfort zone. It has enabled me to make decisions in my business that I would never have made before. I have also learnt so much from the other mentors as well.

Being a BLAZE Mentor who can you say is your mentor/role model?

Sarah Blakely is one of the women that truly inspire me. She is the founder of Spanx, the original shapewear. One of the things she says is that sometimes it is a blessing to start a business in an industry you know nothing about. This is because your thinking is not confined to what has already been done. You do not know what you are supposed or not supposed to be doing. You are not limited. So, you are very open to trying out a variety of different things. She spoke to me as someone who was starting out. People will often tell you to go and work with someone who has experience in a certain field and sometimes that can hold you back.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to start or grow their business?

Think big, start small. One of the excuses people use not to start something is that they want it to look a certain way. They want some things which may not be realistic at the moment.  Not to say that you should not dream big. Let’s think of it like this. One of the Blazers talked about wanting to open a salon and hire employees. But they do not have the capital to open a salon yet. They do not have to wait to acquire that kind of financing. They can start by making house calls. That way they do not incur any huge costs just yet. They can even start working on their friend’s hair so they can build their portfolio. Then as they grow and save money, they will eventually have enough clientele to sustain a salon.

In your opinion what makes or breaks a business? Why is your business still standing after one year?

I would say consistency even though I have sometimes failed in that aspect. Nobody is perfect. You need to keep showing up for your business and yourself. Whether you are making sales or not. Do not give up. It is okay to rest. Just do not call it quits. In my opinion, consistency is where the magic lies. It is what we preach at BLAZE; GRIT. Even if you are not making any sales or no one is watching your content, keep going. Pushing forward when nothing seems to be happening for you can be quite tough, but it is what will make you successful in the long run.

What are your future plans moving forward?

I have such big dreams. I want to expand the range of products while still making sure they are tailored for the African woman. I want to create a range of foundations and concealers for everyone. I am also quite passionate about bringing in more people into the business and creating employment opportunities.

Young Entrepreneurs Series: Night Olao Got Her Big Break After Attending The Eldoret BLAZE BYOB Creation Camp

All photos courtesy of Safaricom’s BLAZE Be Your Own Boss.

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