VENTEUR spoke with Alena Monson, Founder and CEO of Whats Up Beauty and Whats Up Nails. Monson was raised in Belarus and immigrated to the United States on a different career path. After graduating with a computer science degree, she focused on being a software engineer. She began watching English-speaking beauty influencers to improve her command of the English language and learn about the products she found on the shelves of beauty stores.

Alena Monson, Founder and CEO of Whats Up Beauty / Photo courtesy of Alena Monson

Applying her stubbornness and analytical nature, she built a successful Instagram account and then launched a beauty brand. She now works with the influencers she watched when she came to the US to promote her products. 

The Journey

The entrepreneurial journey is one of self-discovery. What have you learned about yourself while building your business?

I grew up doing mostly mathematics and analytics and did almost nothing artistic except play the piano. One of the things you find out quickly in business is you need good design, artwork, creative direction, and all those things I never did growing up. 

I discovered I could apply my logic and reasoning to improve my artistic skills and I was shocked that I started getting good!

Some of the first things I did as an influencer were to teach myself lighting, videography, and film editing. What did I use those skills on? Filming Nail Art tutorials! 

I wanted beautiful nails to show everyone you can do it at home. Reading up on the techniques, I taught myself how to stencil, marble, stamp, and perform free-hand. I was shockingly good at seeing the final design through each step which I would write out a post with each video.

People were craving this content, and the account blossomed. I truly discovered if you apply yourself, you can do anything. 

The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur?

It can be isolating, but I never feel lonely. I’m married to my best friend, and we both work from home. You can imagine the amount of time we spend together. We also have a child, and our home life keeps us entertained. The people you work with, like staff, influencers, and customers, also give you a sense of the community, making you feel a part of something bigger, and you feed off that energy.

The isolation comes from not being able to connect outside the world I am creating around my brand. It’s hard to explain to an average person what I do in the first place, and sometimes it’s just easier not to get into details. When you do finally run into another entrepreneur and have similar stories, you end up talking the whole night away and making lifelong friends, and that keeps you going.

The Psychological Warfare

Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur?

Part of my experience might be slightly different than most founders being an immigrant. When I moved to America, my confidence in my spoken English was extremely low. It was initially terrifying and took a lot of practice in person. Beyond that, it was even harder to do phone calls! It adds an extra layer of difficulty when you can’t read body language and lips to try to add meaning to the conversation.

Of course, this added to my insecurity and lowered my self-esteem. You doubt yourself and wonder if you will succeed, but yet again, my stubbornness kept me going. At first, I kept almost all communication as written. Emails and instant messages were key and brought me to my safe place where I could spend more time using spell check and translators and re-read my thoughts before hitting send. This was crucial to improving my insecurities. I started to blossom, and my spoken language improved quickly, along with my self-esteem. 

That all being said, I overwork, sleep less, and forget about my health constantly in favor of accomplishing one more task and moving the business forward. No one else will do it besides you, which is the job we signed up for. Someone once told me, “friends are for people who work 9-5 jobs,” and unfortunately, it’s true in my case. It’s hard to find time to make friends, maintain relationships, and connect deeply with people when you’re constantly putting all your effort and time into growing your business.

Newer entrepreneurs often equate their personal success with the success and value of their business. If their business fails, they are a failure. If their business succeeds, they are a success. Have you experienced this warped perception of reality?

I was pretty confident with who I was as a software engineer. I had moderate success and felt I had a backup plan if the business did not work out. There was a time when that flipped because I’d been a brand owner for too long. Being scared of failure probably keeps me moving, but you learn over time to cope with the consequences of your decisions.

It is impossible that each idea, collaboration, sale, campaign, or product launch will stick and grow your business, so you learn from it and move on. Eventually, you get to a place where you realize that your business is the same thing, and its failure doesn’t reflect on you.

What are your three biggest fears as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage those fears? 

1. I want to control everything, leading to taking on too much and becoming overwhelmed.

It was very hard to let go of this control and hire people to manage crucial parts of my business. However, I needed to grow the brand and let go of these feelings.
To manage this fear of losing control, after every key hire, I took time to get used to the new normal. Quickly realizing the benefits of having more free time and immediately taking on additional work. That almost always equated to growth, and another key hire would repeat the process.

2. As a beauty brand entrepreneur, product development consumes most of my day. 

It terrifies me that something I put so much time, effort, and money into could be a flop or, worse, doesn’t even get released due to some unforeseen reason. To manage this fear of failure, you need to spread out the risk to give your product the best chance of success. Do your research on what is selling and stay within trends, but be sure to put your flavor on it to set yourself apart.

3. We did quite well online and opted to open a retail location in a local fashion mall. 

I went from a square box to custom displays with thousands of SKUs and a grand opening in 90 days. Would you think I was scared of the workload? 

Nope… the commitment. 

My brand was completely unknown to this huge mall, and I wanted a concept store with bright lights and chandeliers, meaning I had to rebuild a suite from the ground up. 

To manage this fear of commitment, I worked it all out slowly on paper leading up to signing the agreement. Things that helped me the most were pros/cons lists, budgeting, and plenty of “what if” scenarios playing out in my head. 

I executed when I was sure the decision was sound, and the rates were within the budget!

The Mistakes

What are three mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid them?

1. Without a team, your company is not much more than a piece of paper

Take the plunge when you need help, and hire good people to help you and keep you motivated. Outsource projects that don’t require too much oversight and keep in-house the things that will make your business unique and set you apart from the competition.

2. Treat every failure as an opportunity to learn instead of a reflection upon you

Own the mistake, take the criticism and come back better with a new outlook. Don’t be hard on yourself for what you decided in the past, and let those failures haunt you. In the long run, the only one who will likely remember these failures is you, so learn to let them go.

3. It is impossible to remember everything, which makes it more important that you write things down

Not only for yourself to look up later, but it makes hiring, training, and rehiring staff much easier over time. Use your phone and at least take pictures and videos while you’re in the moment. Come back and write down steps or notes and add context.

What are three things you see that are often overlooked by entrepreneurs you encounter, and how can other entrepreneurs be aware of these things from the beginning?

1. You will constantly meet new people along your journey, and you should treat every interaction as a possibility to build your network for future business

Always think, “it’s not no, it’s not now”... stay connected and keep sharing updates about your business while reading updates about theirs; eventually, something might connect.

2. In our era of social media, a personal connection to a brand is a very strong bond, and people often overlook marketing themselves as the founder

Pushing your story and how you think and drive the business will motivate people to invest in you, not just your business. This is more powerful in the long run because you can take fans/customers with you from business to business.

3. You need to discuss ideas with other smart people because they may have fallen into similar traps and can save you from trouble

Begin from a position of being open about where you want to take your business. Your idea is only as good as your perspective, and sometimes just seeing it from a different angle changes everything.

Alena Monson, Founder and CEO of Whats Up Beauty / Photo courtesy of Alena Monson

The Successes

What are three seemingly insurmountable obstacles you’ve faced as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them? 

1. You will never sustain a business being an army of one. It will consume you until you have nothing left to give

I found it almost impossible to let go of control and hire help, but it felt even worse when I had to get rid of someone. You have to find the right team. The dynamics of that team can create its energy and grow your business independently of your intervention. You may even be able to take a vacation if you do!

2. Being a private person, I gave myself far more anxiety than I care to admit when I decided to become a public person

Being in front of the camera was unnatural when I was almost exclusively behind it. I want to say there’s an easy way to get over this, but practice builds confidence, and confidence produces great content.

3. I was scared of the problems I was creating while developing my products

You find yourself having lists of things you need without knowing how to accomplish them. Start with the small problems, and you’ll start applying what you learn to the big ones until you’ve accomplished the entire project. Make sure you keep going and never give up. You will know the destination, but the way to get there will constantly change.

What are three ways you have managed to boost your productivity without causing burnout?  

1. I can’t tell you how much energy I get by going to beauty trade shows and events

The industry shows are amazing for trying new products and making connections. You can go to these shows with vague ideas of what you want and leave with months and years' worth of work. 

The excitement surrounding a show will always boost my confidence to work on new things and tends to rejuvenate and replenish my energy levels. 

Not to mention the travel is nice to have a change of scenery.

2. Having a natural competitive advantage can benefit your business, and mine was bi-lingual

When I was taking on too much, I could effortlessly put together projects and communicate status in another language, making it easy to get additional help from my home country for a fraction of the cost in the US. 

When I was feeling overwhelmed, I would spin off individual projects that would help clear my time to focus on more important tasks.

3. My programming background has come to my advantage to improve productivity and saved me from burning out many times over

You need to identify repetitive tasks and start automating them, as this is exactly what computers can do best. It starts from the simple things like building better spreadsheets to track costs and goes all the way to working with a developer to write an application to improve functionality on your e-commerce site. 

This last one has saved my employees countless hours updating products! 

I know it’s not for everyone, but we all work on computers. Knowing how they function has helped me go far as an entrepreneur.

The Advice

How can newer entrepreneurs develop a healthy work-life balance even when it seems impossible?

It’s tough because you will likely see a direct correlation between the amount of time you put into the business and its success. 

Unfortunately, you will also see a direct correlation to the quality of your sleep and, subsequently, your health. 

It’s hard to tell people who only see the growth that there is a future 5-10 years from now that they may not be happy with the outcome of the overwork and stress.

If you can’t put work down, at least try and be disciplined with staying hydrated, eating healthy, and doing something that looks like regular exercise, even if it’s just walking around the block. These things may improve your energy, focus, and productivity, and you could find more time to relax and catch up on your sleep.

What three key pieces of advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey easier, and why? 

1. Your brand will grow with you

If you’re not ready to leap, your business will stay with you. If you want to be somewhere you are not, you’ll need to do something you have never done before. 

It took me years to get in the right mindset to execute some things, and it came down to a combination of confidence, knowledge, and experience. 

When you’re ready, you’ll feel it.

2. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable

If something you’re about to execute makes you uncomfortable, it’s probably about to make you grow, and you will find yourself at a new normal in your business. You should want to push yourself out of your comfort zone, find new opportunities, and engage in new experiences, as these will bring growth.

3. It’s better to get going with what you have than wait until it’s perfect

There is this phrase about measuring twice and cutting once. If you find yourself constantly “measuring,” you’ve already lost. Try to “cut” more, move on, and figure out what didn’t work on the next project.

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