Podcast Transcript – Series FOUR, Episode 60
Megan Graham, Ries September 2023
[00:00:00] Megan Graham: I think it’s difficult for anybody who doesn’t have connections in that space, whether it is just to wealth in general or if it’s specific to private equity and investment. I think it’s difficult for anyone, but obviously it’s just 10 times more difficult if you are a woman and then if you’re a woman of color, you are just. I don’t want to say set up to fail because that is so dark, but it really feels like that. It feels [00:00:30] like no matter how hard you are working and hustling and doing all of the right things, it’s just difficult. And I think too difficulty in not being pigeonholed as. A black founder.
[00:00:46] Dan: What’s up Unfound Nation?
[00:00:48] Dan Kihanya here. Thanks so much for checking out another episode of Founders Unfound. That was Megan Graham, founder and CEO of Reis, a new brand single use plastic waste in the beauty [00:01:00] industry with refillable, reusable travel sized bottles designed specifically for beauty.
[00:01:05] Megan spent her formative years in Atlanta where her father was an anchor for CNN. She attended Florida State University, choosing to major in textile sciences, product development and fashion merchandising. Megan translated all this into a career in media and fashion, ultimately helping to run beauty marketing at Vogue. Her roles over those years happened to involve extensive travel, and it was this context that led to her insight around [00:01:30] wasteful plastics and personal care items, particularly those used on the go. She would discover that 150 billion pieces of plastic are created by the beauty industry annually, and 30% of all single use plastic ending up in the landfill comes from personal care and grooming products. As the saying goes, she thought there had to be a better way, and so Ries was born. Megan was part of the inaugural cohort for Sephora Accelerate, and Reis has gone on to be carried by Sephora and Goo, and has [00:02:00] been recognized by the likes of Glamor and Cosmopolitan Magazine as one of the hottest innovations in the industry.
[00:02:06] Megan has a great story you’ll wanna listen in.
[00:02:09] Our episode is sponsored by Founders Live, a global platform built to inspire, educate, and entertain the modern entrepreneur Founders Live continues its traditional events that Center on five startups giving 99 second pitches.
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[00:02:50] Now on with the episode. Stay safe and hope you enjoy.[00:03:00]
[00:03:03] Hello and welcome to Founders Unfound Spotlighting the best startups you don’t know yet. We bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented and underestimated backgrounds. This is the latest episode in our continuing series on founders of African descent.
[00:03:19] I’m your host, Dan Kihanya. Let’s get on it.
[00:03:22] Today we have Megan Graham, founder and CEO of Reis, a new brand addressing single-use plastic waste in the beauty [00:03:30] industry with refillable, reusable, travel sized bottles designed for beauty. Welcome to the show, Megan. We’re super excited to have you on. Thanks for making the time.
[00:03:39] Megan Graham: Thank you so much, Dan. I am so excited for this talk today.
[00:03:42] Dan: Terrific. So you, can you tell us a little more about what is Reis and what are you trying to solve?
[00:03:48] Megan Graham: Yeah, absolutely. So with Reis, as you said, we make refillable reusable travel bottles that are designed specifically for beauty. So the bottles that we make are actually patented, the first ever reusable airless [00:04:00] pump. And so these bottles are incredible. They’re built on a modular design, so you can actually. Access the whole bottle so you can refill your products really easily. You can wash it out really easily. Really, it was all built on trying to eliminate single use plastic from the beauty industry, starting with travel sizes, mini sizes, those types of things that consumers are kind of used to using and throwing away.
[00:04:25] And we really wanted to tackle the 150 billion pieces of [00:04:30] plastic that are created by the beauty industry. Every single year. You know, one fact that always kind of stuck with me when I started building the company is that 30% of single use plastic that ends up in the landfill is created by personal care and grooming products.
[00:04:46] And you know, being able to make an impact and start with that sector and that market and make something that’s really sustainable and reusable and refillable and starting with the customer, that was really important for me [00:05:00] in creating something and bringing that into.
[00:05:02] Dan: That’s awesome. It’s so impressive and I love that, that you’re building on a foundation of sustainability as sort of a rayon dtra, I guess is the fancy term for it. And as the former engineering person in me, I’m interested to hear more about like the airless pump and things like that. Sounds like a really elegant design and solution. But before we get into more about Ries, let’s hear more about you, Megan. [00:05:30] Can you tell us a little bit about where’d you grow up and tell us a little bit about your family and.
[00:05:35] Megan Graham: Wow. Sure. So I am totally an East Coast girl. Born in Detroit. I grew up in Atlanta, and then I went to school in Florida. I went to Florida State, but I’ve actually been in New York City longer than I’ve been anywhere else. So bopped around a lot as a kid. But it’s so funny because I, I never think of myself as like a southerner, but that’s really where I spent most of my formative years, and I have a lot of love for Atlanta.
[00:05:59] [00:06:00] That’s definitely where I enjoyed growing up as a kid. But we moved around. My dad was a news anchor, actually. He was a news journalist, worked for C N N, which is why we ended up in Atlanta while he was working for headline news and you know, had a pretty good upbringing. But, you know, of course I didn’t come from a family of entrepreneurs.
[00:06:19] You know, like I said, my dad was a news journalist. My mom was a writer and you know, they worked for companies. There wasn’t really an entrepreneurial gene there. I didn’t see [00:06:30] my parents building a beauty empire or something like that. But yeah, so that’s kind of half what I, I. Kind of started was just going to school for fashion, actually, which is why I went to Florida State.
[00:06:42] I went to, I got my degree in textile sciences and product development, but it was really more about product development from like a textile and fashion lens more so than, you know, anything that I’m doing now. We really didn’t dive into manufacturing and all of that. It was, I say this with. So much [00:07:00] love in my heart, but Florida State is totally a party school and it was not a place where, you know, you were going to m i t and getting your engineering degree.
[00:07:07] But, you know, at the time that’s, that’s the college I could afford and was available to me. And it was, you know, still a great experience, but I don’t think at that time, I was really thinking again about building my entrepreneurial journey. You know, I was working full-time, going to school full-time, and really just trying to get that piece of paper.[00:07:30]
[00:07:30] Dan: I. Well, I’m curious, so growing up with, you know, a dad who’s on tv, right? Did that resonate with you? Did you kind of appreciate that? Or was that more like, Hey, that’s just my dad, that’s what he does for a living? Or did people like your friends say, Hey, I saw your dad. How did that affect your growing up?
[00:07:51] Megan Graham: I’m so proud of an awe of my father. You know, I think most like little girls are right, but I think in [00:08:00] particular, him being a black man on television,
[00:08:12] it was a very interesting growing up and I would see two different reactions to my father. Walking around in the world, and of course we know we’re in the south, and one would be, oh my gosh, Graham, see you on tv. I watch you every morning. [00:08:30] So lovely to meet you. I’m such a big fan. And then you would get the other of someone who, again, or in the south or just in the world, and someone treating him like the bottom of the shoe because he’s a black man in the world.
[00:08:43] And so I would see just two. Such different reactions to this one man who happened to be on TV and have a level of fame, but was a black man in the world. And I think looking up to my dad for building such an incredible career. You [00:09:00] know, he worked in the press room at the White House. He, he’s, he’s done so many things in his career and if you ask him, he’ll always just say, I just read the news.
[00:09:09] He is a very humble man. But seeing. And then just seeing I think the evils of how people can treat each other and just seeing racism alive and well. Just this direct economy of just watching how my father was treated. But you know, it would be funny, he used to work the, the kind of morning. [00:09:30] Shift and headline news, he was always on at like 7, 8, 9 in the morning.
[00:09:33] So when I would turn on the TV to get the weather report, I’d always like wave, hi daddy. Which is kind of sad, right? To have to like see your father and you’re going to school like on tv, but it’s, it’s great and cool and, and all of these things. So I would get my little weather report know to bring my little umbrella when I was a kid and wave hi to…
[00:09:50] Dan: I love that. I don’t think that’s cheesy or anything. That’s awesome. And it really, it’s an interesting point about when somebody’s in that much of a, a place [00:10:00] where there, the notoriety is there, what you talked about, the, the two faces of feedback is gonna be more prominent, more happening. Like if somebody’s, you know, has a middle management job at some company, they’re probably not forced into that situation as much as your dad was. Just because he is a pub, a public figure, did he impart any wisdom or like talk to you about like, you know, you may see this and this is how I, I handle it, or like, or you just kind of watched him and just, he kind of [00:10:30] modeled it by example of how to handle both of those situations?
[00:10:33] Megan Graham: I think in that situation he definitely modeled by example. I think I. To him, you know, like I said to him, he just read the news, you know, he wasn’t doing it for any fame or notoriety. He, he just loved the news and read the news. And so I think being recognized in either way, whether it’s, you know, to praise or to detriment, was [00:11:00] deeply uncomfortable for him.
[00:11:01] And so I think with every interaction, He just moved with total graciousness, you know, and, and was humble in every interaction. And I think that example, whether it was born out of just him being a truly humble and gracious man or was deep discomfort, I think is just a lesson of how to move in the world and treat people and how to.
[00:11:28] Maybe value [00:11:30] yourself and, and he doesn’t, has never acted more important than you know anyone else. You know, even when he is being recognized or. Given awards or, or, or any of these things. You know.
[00:11:41] Dan: What a tremendous gift to have a, a dad like that sounds like Incredible person. When you were coming outta high school, so you talked about sort of the practicalities of how you ended up at Florida, Florida State. In terms of the major that you chose, what led you in that direction? Did you have some engineering or [00:12:00] creativity or, or fashion, or was there something about sort of your passions or instincts that led you to that particular degree?
[00:12:06] Megan Graham: Dan, I thought I was creative. That’s how I, that definitely ended up there. I, you know, what I realized looking back is that I just love to like look at Vogue. Like I like to look at magazines. I like to look at pretty clothes, but I. I don’t know if the creativity that I thought I had was just not it. Once I found, once I found like kind of my peers and people who actually had the craftsman [00:12:30] tools to, you know, create a beautiful dress and things like that, but that’s, that’s initially why I, my first major was actually apparel design, so I started in apparel design and I very quickly learned that I can’t draw and I can’t make a piece of clothing.
[00:12:48] And again, it’s just not my. I wasn’t very strong in those skills. So from there I started kind of moving through the different fashion adjacent majors. So I then ended [00:13:00] with fashion merchandising, right? Where you go in the store and you kind of set the displays and things like that. You know, I have an eye, or I thought I had an eye for things, but it kind of wasn’t creative enough.
[00:13:10] It wasn’t challenging enough, I think. So that’s where I kind of ended on textile sciences and product development and. Textile Sciences to me was really a kind of door opening, and it was just so fascinating because it was very much. How do these things work and [00:13:30] why are they made and how did we get here?
[00:13:33] How? How was nylon created? But unfortunately, I’m also not scientific enough to have gotten down that path much further than that. But I think it just opened up this new area to me of you can, you can be creative or you can think creatively with this be beautiful kind of aesthetic and visual. Market or, you know, visual career path without [00:14:00] having to technically make something with your own hands.
[00:14:04] Dan: So you come outta school and you have this arc of a career that’s kind of media and fashion oriented. How did that evolve and, and how, I mean, you, you were kind of consistently rising in these ranks in in, in those places. What was attractive about those situations and that, I guess that world coming out of Florida State.
[00:14:25] Megan Graham: So my last semester at Florida State, this woman came [00:14:30] to speak to, you know, the the senior class or the fashion class, and her name was Jenna and she worked at Cotton Incorporated. I. And she introduced this idea to me, this career path that I didn’t know existed. Because at this point, you know, I’m getting ready to kind of graduate.
[00:14:47] I’ve gotta pick an internship, and I’ve absolutely no idea what I’m gonna do. Nothing has, you know, clearly paged the way for me. So she comes to speak and she was a trend forecaster, [00:15:00] and she told us about her job, which was basically, Flying all over the world to incredible places and taking pictures of all of the things that she thought were great, and I.
[00:15:11] To me, I’m like, this literally sounds like a dream job. This sounds amazing. I wanna know more and I want to do that. And you know, I’m kind of simplifying what it is, but that’s essentially what trend forecasting is, is someone who has a really amazing eye and can I. Identify [00:15:30] trends can identify things happening throughout the world in the zeitgeist and distill those down in a way that are easily understandable for companies to then create their next collections or, you know, accessories or whatever it is, patterns and fabrics and, and all of that.
[00:15:47] And so I think I like. Maybe the next day or the next, you know, week I emailed her and said, do you have an internship? I love your presentation and I wanna do that. [00:16:00] Then I got an internship at Cotton Inc. With her team, which was amazing, which really kind of started everything. And as you said, I’ve taken quite a kind of circular path. There are strange path in a lot of different ways and compared to a lot of people, but I think that’s a, everything I’ve learned has mattered with what I am building now.
[00:16:25] And so, you know, that was the first step was interning with these women. [00:16:30] And what was great about that job too, is that. So in their job, they got to pick three different principles that they would go. Every year. They would just say, I think Tokyo’s doing something cool, or Johannesburg or you know, the south of France.
[00:16:43] And they would go for like a month and they would buy clothes from local designers and that were made of cotton. And then they would take photos of local street style and you know, restaurants that were interesting and all of these different things. And they would come back and then I [00:17:00] would help. Them to categorize the clothing that they found or the fabrics that they found from local markets.
[00:17:06] And then we would just catalog everything. And it was such a truly just like hands-on exploration of the world in this way, that it just made me hungry for more and to wanna do that. And even more so when my internship was over, sadly they weren’t hiring, but I ended up [00:17:30] going to. A trend forecasting service called style sites and they as a trend forecasting service, it was essentially they would do the same thing.
[00:17:39] They would have a team of kind of trend editors and you’d send them out and cover certain markets and then, Different companies like Abercrombie, Prada, you know, fragrance companies. Everyone would subscribe to these trend services and use that in research to create new collections and you know, do all of those [00:18:00] things.
[00:18:00] So I started, my first job was at account management. I. So, I mean no money, but I was, you know, going to Under Armour in Baltimore and I was teaching their teams just how to use the platform and by doing so, I was seeing, oh wow. Under Armour has like a full basketball court in the middle of their office so that like they can test these shoes and they can really understand how they’re being used and, you know, meeting all these design teams and okay, well how are they using this platform and. [00:18:30] What’s interesting to them about it in their specific role, and again, to me just interesting, I feel like it was a great learning opportunity to again, understand how the industry was really working and get a little inside look at all of these different companies that, you know. To me, at that point, I’d only been consumers of these companies and now I was literally inside and and teaching their teams something.
[00:18:56] It was amazing because of the autonomy I had. I was [00:19:00] kind of a one person show, and. For about three years, I would travel to those trade shows. I would go to vintage markets in state, Massachusetts. I would go to Gov Ball and all of these different music festivals and photograph street style. I would go to New York, Washington Week, I would go, you know, just to all of these different cultural events.
[00:19:22] And it was really about, What am I seeing? What do I think is interesting and what do I think that all of [00:19:30] these clients are going to find interesting and useful? And, you know, it was great. I, I was still making absolute pennies that could barely afford the cheap rent I had, but I was feeding this love of travel and this love of.
[00:19:47] Just seeing and documenting different cultures and different movements in the zeitgeist, and it was really thrilling for a long time.
[00:19:57] Dan: It’s actually a really awesome experience though. If you [00:20:00] think about it, you’re almost like a fashion culture anthropologist. I mean, you’re learning about this whole ecosystem, like you said, the zeitgeist and being able to recognize that and, and then how things are made or, or the processes behind things.
[00:20:15] But you can also tell how the immersive nature of that would say. Yeah, there’s something about this, I don’t wanna necessarily wanna keep doing this. My own metaphor for this is going on a safari where you go and see animals and like the first few days you’re just like, [00:20:30] oh yeah, look at that. Oh wow. Look at that.
[00:20:32] Right? And then by the end of it, you’re like, oh yeah, we’ve seen a zebra. Yeah. Oh yeah, we’ve seen a line. You know? So you get to this point of like, not saturation, but it’s like, yeah, okay, I, I’ve seen this, I think I’ve learned what I need to learn. But we’re gonna take a short break and we will be right back with Megan Graham from Ries.
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[00:22:04] Dan: Okay, we’re back with Megan from Ries. So Megan. Tell us about sort of the most recent arc before Ries. You know, there’s Vogue and Conde Nast and the way you talked about being a great consumer of Vogue. It must’ve been really an amazing thing to go and work there, but how was that a foundation for what you would do next, which is your startup journey?
[00:22:26] Megan Graham: So I started at Bogue in 2017, [00:22:30] and. Right before I started, I was working at a company that specialized in U G C. We, I had kind of built up a team globally to license our UGC to different advertisers. And…
[00:22:42] Dan: User Generated Content.
[00:22:44] Megan Graham: Yes, User Generated Content. I. Thank you. And one day I actually got a, a LinkedIn message from a recruiter saying, you know, I’ve looked at your profile and we’re looking for someone to lead beauty marketing at Vogue, and I think you’d be great.
[00:22:58] Are you interested? [00:23:00] And I. It was a quick yes, I’ll say, but you know, I think just, you know, as I said, someone who grew up reading Vogue, you know, for Vogue to, to call and say, Hey, are you interested? Was, was definitely a dream.
[00:23:20] Vogue is everything. I think that people say, you know, I, I might just leave it at that. But it is a difficult place to be a woman of [00:23:30] color, I think. It’s a difficult place to begin with. I think there are, you know, very high expectations. There are things that, you know, you hear the word, I think toxic kind of thrown around a lot when people talk about working at Vogue and Conde Nast and all of these things.
[00:23:47] And I, I don’t love that word, but I think hard environments aren’t always a bad thing in a lot of ways. I think that some of the most capable, incredible [00:24:00] people go through the. A gauntlet there and they come out the best versions of themselves because of it. You know, I don’t think it’s necessarily someplace I needed to stay for the length of my career, but I do think that I learned a lot. But there are certain things about being there and being in an environment as a person of color that you really have to know yourself and know how to stick up for yourself to not let it. Crush you [00:24:30] in a particular way. Truly so, All of that said it was a great agents in a lot of ways. I came on board to Vogue to lead the beauty marketing team back in 2017, so that was really my first introduction into kind of prestige and luxury beauty.
[00:24:48] I was working a lot with, you know, smaller kind of indie brands. Some would say like Ole Hendrickson and La Mer, and, you know, beautiful, beautiful luxury brands like that, while [00:25:00] also working with. The Estee Lauder of the world and L’Oreal, and basically kind of being this kind of middle point between the sales team working on advertisements and selling certain things to clients and the editorial team.
[00:25:15] So finding a way for editorial and sales to combine to make just beautiful stories and assets for clients. I, I remember sitting with Pat McGrath, who is, you know, an icon of the [00:25:30] beauty world. She’s worked runway forever and now she has a really successful brand of her own. I remember sitting with Pat McGrath in her office in Union Square just kind of talking about Vogue and talking about beauty and, and talking about what her goals were and how I could help her reach them, and, It was such a beautiful time.
[00:25:49] I went to the Met Gala. You know, there’s all of these incredible moments and access that you get by being a part of that vogue world, but, Being [00:26:00] there. That was really how I started to put together. I think all of that travel I did early in my career and the luxury beauty space and think there’s something wrong here if I’m still, you know, when I was really poor back in, back when I was working that first job and I had to like decamp my products into.
[00:26:21] Plastic bottles and do all of that. And now I am, you know, making a better salary. I’m, I’m gifted all of these beautiful products [00:26:30] and I’m still decanting them into really terrible plastic bottles. Like, there is a problem here if the experience is so wasteful on every end of the spectrum here. And so, you know, not only did it help to instill this vogue level of equality in my work, And in the brand, but also it really just was this kind of perfect moment where all of that kind of [00:27:00] strange career path and not quite knowing why I got this degree or you know, why am I in this job.
[00:27:07] It all came together, you know, more perfectly than, than I could have ever written.
[00:27:13] Dan: It’s always fascinating, right? When you’re in the middle of something, it’s hard to appreciate, acknowledge, recognize, but almost as soon as you get past it, you’re like, oh yeah, that’s what that was about. Oh, that’s something that’s a benefit. And I hear these two themes from your, your career around the cool [00:27:30] stuff, which is really building experience and wisdom and sort of breadth of wide understanding of things as opposed to being very narrow. And then on the challenging side, it’s more about. Resilience, right? And perseverance and confidence and knowing you have the courage to press on and not be defeated by those things.
[00:27:51] And I think both of those themes usually pop up quite a bit and quite often in the startup journey. So now with sniffing out, [00:28:00] just there, you were giving us a little hint of the origin story for re so let’s, let’s keep going into that. So tell us more about, you had this epiphany, which you just started to talk about. Must be a better way. What was the next step? The next leap?
[00:28:14] Megan Graham: Yeah, so it really started with kind of this, you know, idea of there there’s gotta be a better way to bring all of these beanie products with you when you’re traveling. And so 2019 was, I think the first time I really kind of took this idea that had been ruminating in my head for a very [00:28:30] long time and started to kind of dabble a little more, started to speak it out loud. Only in the safest of circles, I think, because it’s really scary to to have a big idea, right? When you have something that is gnawing on you in this way. To me, the idea was something that almost took hold of me. It wasn’t something like, oh, I’m, I am, I’m so amazing and I had this great thought.
[00:28:57] It was, it’s almost like, like this idea chose me [00:29:00] and it was not going to let me not listen to it or let it go. So when that idea just kind of continues to gnaw and to, you know, demand to be heard and demands that you do something with this gift of an idea. And kind of Google, you know, late at night, how do you make a thing, you know, and start to really go down this road of slowly talking to people and, and, and telling, you know, my husband like, Hey, I really wanna make this [00:29:30] bottle.
[00:29:30] You know, when you think about this idea, he had been working at a coworking space and. Someone who wants to work. There was an industrial designer, so he said, Hey, you should really talk to isis. She, I told her about your idea, which of course I was like, oh, why did you tell? He’s like, I told her about your idea.
[00:29:49] Like, just, just go talk to her. And that is really how it truly started, was going to somebody who volunteered [00:30:00] their time and attention and their expertise to give me 45 minutes to talk to them. About what I wanted, what I thought I wanted to create, and. She gave me that first bit of direction. She actually said, I’m too expensive, but here are some other people that can help you with this first step.
[00:30:21] And she became, you know, someone that I got to refer back to at every point. You know, when I was working with people that I could afford more than, I [00:30:30] couldn’t afford her, I could afford other people. And you know, If something didn’t quite feel right or I wanted to move in a certain direction, I could go back to her and say, can you just look at this for a second?
[00:30:40] And what do you think about this? And all of that. And so that really became, she became like my first champion and my first, I think, mentor in building this.
[00:30:49] Dan: If I may, that is such a great story because I think that a lot of founders, when they’re in their early stage think either I’ve gotta have a bunch of co-founders [00:31:00] or people that are gonna work for nothing, or I have to go hire people.
[00:31:04] It’s still my idea. I’m very not even hire people, but contract out. And I think what you just talked about is one of the keys, which is how do you find advocates and champions? Right. How do you get people who affirm just by their leaning in, right? So this person leaned in isis, what a, what a great name.
[00:31:23] This person leaned into you and yes, they, they didn’t sign up to be, Hey, I’m ready to go work for you. [00:31:30] But they affirmed the belief. Hey. Megan’s onto something, maybe I can help her a little bit and give her some guidance. Right. And I, I think founders don’t seek that out as much. ’cause maybe it’s an awkward conversation or they don’t want to ask.
[00:31:43] So I think that was, that was a really cool story. And what I’m interested to hear, can you recall the moment when you said, you know what, like you said, this idea, it won’t shut up in my head. I’m gonna go for it. I’m casting off. I’m gonna go do this. No more [00:32:00] waiting around or dabbling. Was there a moment where you said, okay, let’s go.
[00:32:03] Megan Graham: I do recall the moment. There were a couple moments, but I think the first moment was the first time I paid someone to do work on the brand. Truly,
[00:32:20] I had decided after this, you know, kind of conversation with isis, talking to some designers, okay, I’m gonna spend $10,000 of my own [00:32:30] savings to. Make this dream happen, which obviously looking back is like the most naive thing, but I think my naivety was like my strong suit at that moment. But I was, I’m gonna spend $10,000 to make this product and the very worst, if I have a perfect set for myself at the end of this, then I’ll be happy.
[00:32:53] And I spent. About half of that on my first designer, which it [00:33:00] turned out that design could not actually be made. And so it was kind of, which I found out in the end, but I had to have something on the line and really solidify myself in this plan. And to me, 10,000 is a lot of money. You know, I don’t come from money, I don’t have, you know, a safety net.
[00:33:21] And so that 10 K was, you know, that’s the safety net. And it was putting that towards making my dream happen. So that [00:33:30] to me was skin in the game. And I literally spent that last penny of that $10,000 to send prototypes to the Sephora team when I had applied for the Sephora Accelerate. And that’s how I got into the Sephora program, was literally that last. I might have had like 20 bucks left at the end of like, truly it was down to the line. This has to work because there’s [00:34:00] nothing at the bottom of this. So…
[00:34:02] Dan: That’s another great lesson, right? Like having that forcing function almost, that accountability of Yeah. You know, because a lot of times founders, they don’t start the clock, right? They just like, I’ll keep working on the idea. I’ll keep getting lots of feedback, I’ll make sure it’s de-risk as much as possible, and there is no. A finish line to that unless you have something that says, okay, right. I got, putting skin in the game is a great term for it. And I’d love to talk [00:34:30] about the Sephora experience in a bit, but just, just so everybody knows, tell us more about the product. Where, where is it available today? How is it being packaged or sold? Just a little bit. Is it more direct to consumer? Obviously you have relationships on the retail side too. Just tell us a little bit about where the company and product is right now.
[00:34:49] Megan Graham: Sure. So, you know, as you said, we make refillable, reusable, airless pump travel bottles, so they are totally patented the design. They’re built on a modular [00:35:00] design that are really simple to use. They’re dishwasher safe right now. What was important to me and why I built the bottles was that I needed to bring my haircare with me when I traveled and. I use a, a lot of, let’s just say I have very curly, kinky hair and I use just as much conditioner on like a one day trip that I do on a one week trip.
[00:35:18] So it requires a lot of moisture, a lot of conditioning. So I wanted to be able to bring as much with me as possible when I was going on, whether a three day trip or three month. So they come in two different sizes, a [00:35:30] 3.4 ounce and a 1.7. Right now we have three different colors and they’re all pre-labeled and pre debossed based on.
[00:35:38] The products that people are traveling with most. So, shampoo, conditioner, SPF, face wash, body wash, all of those wonderful products. Right now we sell DTC on our own website, which is r i e s – r i e s.com. Rings dash Reis. We sell on sephora.com and goop.com and then we are launching at another [00:36:00] retailer later this year.
[00:36:01] Dan: You, you gotta tell us how Goop came to be. How did that happen?
[00:36:06] Megan Graham: That was amazing. Someone at Goop found out about us and their beauty director was really interested. You know, we, we were lucky to get a lot of really wonderful press when we first launched in 2022. And yeah, they, they just reached out and asked for some samples and asked for some product.
[00:36:25] And you know, I’ll never forget the moment of opening my. Inbox and saying, [00:36:30] seeing Gwyneth and the team have decided that, you know, they’d like to carry Reis or you know, the annual Goop holiday gift guide, which is their iconic gift guide if you’ve never looked at it, and it’s just worth a crazy gander.
[00:36:44] It’s got everything from the wildest gifts, most expensive things you’ll ever see to, you know, down to early practical stuff. But it’s known for being just the holy grail of gift guides. So that was a, that was a big win.
[00:36:57] Dan: You have these moments where you’re just, it almost feels like [00:37:00] you’re out of body.
[00:37:00] Like, is that happening to me? Is that, is this really what’s going on here? And I saw that you also had some really great affirmation from, I think you’re on a list with Cosmopolitan, with Glamor Magazine. Were those, again, more sort of organic, or did you do reach outs or did you use your connections from the media world?
[00:37:20] Or how, how did some of those things come to happen?
[00:37:23] Megan Graham: When we first launched, I did not engage any pr, which. You know, we were still [00:37:30] able to get some really wonderful stories and inclusions, but I think most brands do launch with PR and I, I do think it’s a strong move, but because of my work at Conde, I was like, oh, I’ll just email some people.
[00:37:44] Like, I got this. Like, no problem. And that was really, again, very naive, was me. But you know, it, it worked enough to give us some press conclusions and it did well. And I think we took the approach of, I took the approach of just. Sending out a lot of product and [00:38:00] really being so boots on the ground of emailing people saying, Hey, like, can I talk to you about this product?
[00:38:06] Can I share what we’re doing? But it was a lot for me, in addition to building the brand and the product and all, everything that goes into it, doing that. That personal outreach to every editor was just, that was too tall of a task. What is what I realized later? So we ended up [00:38:30] engaging with a PR person for our Sephora launch, which was wonderful. We were in W W D, we got, again, a lot of great press inclusions, people magazine.
[00:38:41] And so being able to leverage her network, you know, our PR person was very much entwined in the fashion world. In luxury fashion brands. And so that was really strategic, just wanting to have res be this accessory for the type of woman that that I am, you know, [00:39:00] working in fashion and traveling a lot. It’s not necessarily a travel brand or not necessarily a beauty brand, and is an accessory to all of these different markets.
[00:39:08] So engaging with fashion PR was. Was helpful for us. And so we had that for a few months and I think that’s how we were able to really get out of my immediate circle of people. I was trying to wave it and flag down and say, Hey, write about Wesley, you know? Then it became, you know, PR is built on relationships and so it really helped to have someone [00:39:30] pushing us forward.
[00:39:31] But you know, now, right now we don’t engage with any pr and so all of the awards and stories we were we’re getting recently are I think a product of that Though I think it’s a product of last year, just talking to people and both from me, from my PR person, from all the stories going out and now people saying, oh, right, you writing a sustainability story, or We have our video awards coming out.
[00:39:56] If you know who’s doing great beauty rings or you know who’s doing great [00:40:00] sustainability, this brand rings. And so all of those connections have just been helpful and we’re just building on that now.
[00:40:05] Dan: Yeah, I love that harvest thing on those seeds that you plant. Well, we’re gonna take another short break and we’ll be right back with Megan Graham from Ries
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[00:41:28] Dan: So we’re back with Megan. So [00:41:30] Megan, tell me what’s a setback or a challenge or a crisis? I mean, you, you’ve grown so fast as a CPG product essentially. You know, you’re making physical goods, you’re in the commerce space, an amazing trajectory across a chaotic time pandemic and all that. But there must have been some hiccups, some stumble, some. Oh my gosh. How are we gonna get through this? Can you think of an episode or an anecdote to reflect that?
[00:41:59] Megan Graham: I can think of [00:42:00] So many. Just I can think of. So, so many. And I’m trying to figure out what is, you know, the best one to share because it, it’s. I think that is totally a learning. Obviously as an entrepreneur with a physical good, is that everything that can go wrong will go wrong is what I’ve learned. And it’s like every time I think we put in a po, you know, it’s delayed with the factory. You know, a shipment doesn’t [00:42:30] arrive or there’s so many things that have gone wrong.
[00:42:35] Dan: Was there anything existential where you thought, wow, this could really sink us, or this could really set us back for months, years, or anything like that?
[00:42:45] Megan Graham: Yeah. You know, I think for me, you know, because I, I bootstrapped in the beginning and then, you know, I got some friends and family raised a really small round when our Sephora announcement went out, and then I won a bunch of grants, [00:43:00] but. I haven’t raised, you know, the crazy amounts that Mar beauty companies raise.
[00:43:05] And so I think cashflow is a constant stressor and it’s just very real. And I think that’s the thing that, you know, if something were to keep me up at night or, you know, take a couple years off my life, it’s definitely those moments where, you know, you put in a huge PO with the factory and. You’re hoping that all of the [00:43:30] projections you’ve done are accurate.
[00:43:32] You’re hoping that your operating costs are exactly, you know what they’re gonna be, and you’ve made room for any surprises and, and that it’s gonna go to plan. There’s always that little bit of a leap of faith every time, and I don’t know if it will ever not be that. I think it’s been getting really comfortable with that fear.
[00:43:59] [00:44:00] That is an ongoing, personal existential lesson, and the work that I think I’m doing is how do you in a capitalistic society, With a product that you wanna make money, not let money rule your everyday and rule your sense of self and worth and rule your emotions and all of those things. And so that’s been the hard part for sure.
[00:44:28] You know, also growing up [00:44:30] not wealthy. I think that fear of the money not being there is totally just a real, is just a real fear, you know?
[00:44:41] Dan: Yeah, that, that’s a great point. And you know, I think the idea of opportunity cost, right? It’s huge. Like you said, if you grow up, modest means, if you, you know, grow up with an identity that has traditionally had more challenges, then.
[00:44:57] If you feel like you have other routes [00:45:00] that are less risky, that’s in the back of your mind. Like if you’d wanted to, I’m sure you could have rose risen the ranks in, in the, in the media fashion world, right? And yes, you’d have to deal with some of the, the strains and stresses that you talked about before, but from a financial perspective, it would be a different trajectory.
[00:45:18] And so when you’re a founder and a founder from a underrepresented background, I think this is just a constant. Gnawing, or not gnawing, but it’s just something that pops up usually in the [00:45:30] time when you’re like, yeah, things are gonna go well. And you’re like, oh, wait a minute. That on your shoulders. Like, what if it doesn’t?
[00:45:36] So I, I, I appreciate you sharing that. So, here’s the question, right? You’re, you’re, you’re off to a great start. Companies doing well, let’s say. Six years from now, and Dan bumps into Megan and I say, how did things go with with Ries anyway? And you said, we rocked it out of the park. Total success. And I’ll say, that’s awesome. What does that mean? What would success [00:46:00] mean to you for the company? How would you define success?
[00:46:04] Megan Graham: To me, you know, there’s the success of Ries’s, a household name, and we’re in all of these luxury stores and spaces and you know, everyone loves the product
[00:46:19] Personally, success is still. Making products that are truly sustainable, still pushing the industry forward in sustainability and [00:46:30] sustainable design. Helping to educate consumers about how to participate in sustainability and continuing to run the company if I’m still at the hill exactly how I want to, you know, I, I think being able to get to this point and trust your gut and go down a path and say, Hey, you remember all these people that like, Thought that this bottle couldn’t be made and that it was impossible to make a reusable airless pump or something that was [00:47:00] refillable in this way.
[00:47:01] Had I listened to any of that, you know, we wouldn’t be talking and you know, I wouldn’t be here and raise hq. So I think success is continuing to be able to trust and to build exactly what I wanna be building. It takes a lot to. Trust your gut and also own your own mistakes too. So yeah, Ries is a household name, but I’m also happy writing it.
[00:47:27] I think that’s,
[00:47:28] Dan: I love that and, and I [00:47:30] love when I ask that question, there’s many different answers from impact to personal aspirations to obviously kind of the financial aspects of it in the marketplace. So it’s, it’s really special to hear people’s visions and how, what they’re shooting for. Let’s switch gears a little bit. Let’s talk a little bit about. Being a black woman founder, one of the questions I like to ask is, especially when your product doesn’t necessarily focus on a specific community or marketplace [00:48:00] that someone would connect directly to you and your identity, how does the business world remind you that you’re a black woman founder? Positive or challenging?
[00:48:11] Megan Graham: I think it’s challenging, you know, that I, I would never say that it’s not challenging to be a black woman founder. You know, I think especially founding a company, you know, pre covid 2019 is when I started building, seeing, you know, the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder and seeing [00:48:30] money pour into black businesses in 2020, and then seeing 2021.
[00:48:35] People started to kind of step back from their commitments and step back from the grants and the initiatives and the funding, and then. You know, I think the downturn of the economy 2022, I, I’ve just seen such a perfect picture in the last four years of what funding could look like and people were, you know, what [00:49:00] was proven is that people are capable of making these commitments.
[00:49:03] People are capable of recognizing that women founders are underfunded, people are capable of funding those women founders. They choose not to most of the time. And you know, I have heard from family offices who have pitched us to, you know, different funds that say that they will invest in black founders.
[00:49:25] You know, I’ve heard from someone who pitched us to a fund from their family office and the fund said, [00:49:30] yeah, we’re not, we’re not really investing there right now. And. They, the family office ended up divesting from that fund because they said, this is why we’re giving you money, is to invest in black founders and you’re not doing it, so we’re not investing in you anymore.
[00:49:48] Dan: That is super powerful to me. The investment world, at least the venture world changes when the LPs say to say so. And so that’s a, that’s a great story. [00:50:00] At some point, they should be celebrated for that high integrity stand.
[00:50:04] Megan Graham: Absolutely. I mean, it’s, it’s like there’s both signs, right? There are the people who get it and want to do good, but then there are people who are writing the checks that still hold this power to just non invest, you know, on both ends of it.
[00:50:20] So, I think it’s difficult for anybody who doesn’t have, I think, connections, I think in that space, whether it is just to wealth in general [00:50:30] or if it’s too specific to, I. Private equity and investment. I think it’s difficult for anyone.
[00:50:42] Obviously it’s just 10 times more difficult if you are a woman and then if you’re a woman of color, you are just, I don’t wanna say set up to fail because that is so, that is so dark, but it really. It feels like that. It feels like no matter how [00:51:00] hard you are working, and this is now turning into a therapy session, but no matter how hard you are working and hustling and doing all of the right things, you know, to your point, you, you, you mentioned all these amazing milestones.
[00:51:13] You hit Sephora of Goop, Cosmo Beauty Awards, you know, things I could only have dreamt about, you know, when first. Uttering the idea to isis and we still, we can’t get checks. You know, we we’re profitable and [00:51:30] I can’t get checks. You know, it makes only, it makes no sense other than the fact that I just don’t have, you know, a deep connection to a lot of, you know, the right people.
[00:51:42] It really is about the, the right people and, and I will say, I do have amazing investors. I’ve got incredible people on my cap table as angels who believe in our company. But you know, those are individuals and there are great people. There are [00:52:00] great investors. But to do it at scale, you know, I’m competing with companies who have millions as investment.
[00:52:06] We haven’t even hit half a million. It’s, it’s just difficult. And I think too difficulty in not being pigeonholed as. A black founder, you know, that’s a lot of times, you know, you’ll hear February rolls around and everybody wants to do the story. Everyone wants to do a popup or include you, and it’s just, it’s, [00:52:30] it’s not enough.
[00:52:30] You know, it’s not, it’s not fair and it’s not enough and there should be true inclusion year round and it’s, I think it’s just so fascinating to me to look back at 2020 now and see. We proved that we can do this, we can invest, we can spotlight, we can, we can recognize all of these wonderful founders, wonderful companies, wonderful products, and now we’re choosing not to.
[00:52:57] Dan: It is perplexing and it is a paradox to [00:53:00] me because like you said, you, you come across people who have intention, right? But there’s some deep, whether it’s systemic, but there’s something deeply entrenched that just keeps pulling back and it makes it hard. And I can sense from you, it’s like I’m checking all the boxes, I’m doing all the things that would signal.
[00:53:22] Come invest in me. Right. And yet it’s, it’s, uh, challenging for you. We’re having a great conversation. I could talk to you forever here, [00:53:30] but we are coming up on our time, so I only have a couple more questions, but I just wanna touch on Sephora a little bit and just get your perspective about that program.
[00:53:39] It’s, it’s pretty well respected and celebrated. I would just, from your perspective, tell us maybe one or two, Insights or things that you learned through that process or appreciated through that experience that you might not have other otherwise been exposed to or had the benefit of otherwise? [00:54:00]
[00:54:00] Megan Graham: Yeah. The program was incredible. So in 2020, Sephora worked with the, the program had existed for I think five years or so before. I was accepted in and in 2020 they worked with the 15% pledge to reimagine what the program looks like. And that’s why they decided to focus primarily and strictly on women of color founders. Before it was women and then they decided to focus only on Bipo founders.
[00:54:27] So, you know, getting into the program [00:54:30] was, I think the first of many wildest dreams come true for me in building Reis and every part of it. I, I really went into it as a student and a sponge. You know, I was at one of the youngest companies getting into it. There were other companies that had already launched and I literally had a non-functioning prototype in pitch deck, so there was a lot of kind of room in between the brands.
[00:54:55] And so for me it was such a great education and. [00:55:00] Up until that point, it was a lot of just work. I had done researching for myself and finding out how to make a product and what the D F M designed for manufacturing. How do you get a warehouse? How do you do all of these things? But I would say the biggest things that I learned was definitely just kind of tactical things of like.
[00:55:19] Having a 3PL and what is a third party logistics company and oh, there’s preferred ones for certain retailers. I need to know who [00:55:30] they are. And now I have a pricing sheet and now I can plug that into operating expense budget that I learned about an operating expense budget from a course, a workshop within, you know, miss Sephora accelerate.
[00:55:42] And you know, it was really putting. All of the pieces together, you know, in a short amount of time, but from experts, you know, people on the inside, people who are doing it day to day. Really important to me was I think in this understanding of, [00:56:00] you know, whatever my financial position was or, or whatever career I’d already had, however old I was, and all of these things of kind of feeling like I got one chance to like to do this.
[00:56:13] And to do it right and and to go big on the stream that I have. So it was just important for me to set everything up the right way. And so all of those pieces, just learning exactly what was necessary, what, what do our projections need to be for us to [00:56:30] hit that right EBITDA so that we are profitable. You know, we were doing this work two years before we launched, so all of this was just incredibly helpful, like I said, for, for getting it right the first time, whereas right as we could.
[00:56:41] ’cause like I said before, everything, everything that can go on will go wrong, but, you know, doing our best to set it up correctly.
[00:56:48] Dan: Sounds like it was a great experience, and like you said, it’s, it set you up on a trajectory and it helps you de-risk, like understanding aspect. Right. I think a lot of times, you know, my day job is working with a [00:57:00] similar program with, uh, retailer, REI and it’s really, I. Sophisticated, experienced professionals like you, but they don’t know about making product or what’s involved, and they’re trying to figure that out. And it’s not like you have to invent anything. It’s just, you know, the rest of the world knows about those things. How do I, how do I absorb that and make the right choices? So my last question, if you could go back in time to the pre entrepreneur version of Megan who’s thinking about this, maybe [00:57:30] this idea or some other idea, and you were gonna tell that Megan some advice, what to do, what not to do, what to look out for, what would you tell her?
[00:57:40] Megan Graham: I would tell her, do it now. Don’t wait any longer. You know, do it as soon as you can. Yeah. I would also tell her, start making those connections now. Start building your network now, because I think that’s been one of the most beautiful parts of this journey for me, is meeting other [00:58:00] founders and meeting people who do industrial design, meeting people who are graphic designers, and give the brand life from that lens.
[00:58:09] You get outside of your own, yeah, your own world and, and meet as many people as you, as you can, because that’s, I think, one of the most joyful parts of the business. And also get as many checks as you can. Now, maybe, maybe my advice would be go into private equity and then start your business years from now, to be honest.
[00:58:28] Dan: Yeah, I think she would be lost on that [00:58:30] rabbit, down that rabbit hole if she went that way. Well, this is a great conversation, but we always like to end with a call to action for on foundation. So what ways can we be helpful to Ries or to Megan? I.
[00:58:44] Megan Graham: You can go follow us on Instagram. We’re @Reisbeauty, r i e s, beauty.
[00:58:49] You can shop us on sephora.com and yeah, I, I just love, like I just said, I love meeting new people. I love having conversations with other founders and people in the [00:59:00] industry. And my Instagram is Megan ss Graham, and feel free to reach out.
[00:59:04] Dan: Thank you so much, Megan. This has been a great conversation. I really appreciate it.
[00:59:09] Megan Graham: Thank you. Been great.
[00:59:10] Dan: We’d like to thank our guest, Megan and our sponsor Founders Live.
[00:59:14] This podcast was produced by me, Dan Kihanya, with audio editing and production by Podcast Doctors.
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[00:59:38] I am Dan Kihanya, and you’ve been listening to Founders Unfound.