Office Hours: I'm the Co-Founder of Mented Cosmetics, a Harvard Business School grad, and former Manager at DeloitteFeatured

Hi everyone!I’m KJ Miller, CEO & Co-Founder of Mented Cosmetics – a premium beauty brand celebrating women of all hues. Mented Cosmetics has been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour, and Essence Magazine. As CEO, I have launched four product lines and raised $4M in funding.When my cofounder and I first started, we both had full time jobs, so Mented Cosmetics began as a side project that we worked on on weekends. We bought all our ingredients and made our original collection of nude lipsticks ourselves from scratch! Before launching my company, I worked as a Manager in Deloitte’s retail practice, and before that I spent several years as an apparel and jewelry buyer.I’m a Harvard Business School grad, and have an undergrad degree in Philosophy from Harvard as well.I’m passionate about supporting women and minorities who are interested in entrepreneurship and startups and I’m excited to answer your questions about navigating the sometimes murky waters of building a startup!
Thanks so much for joining us KJ! Office Hours are now over.
@kjmiller Loved this intro. I hadn't come across Mented Cosmetics before but as a black women, I'm all about these shades!I also run a business for women of textured hair types called Club Melanin ( We help black women find reputable hairdressers and beauticians, worldwide. Whether you're travelling for work, school or fun, we've got you!I have a couple of questions. I'm also side hustling my business at the moment and manually matching people via instagram. I'm looking to scale my business to a web application now.1. How did you decide when was the right time to quit your job to work full time on Mented?2. How did you find fundraising and what networks did you use to find people who backed a startup focusing on a highly targeted customer base?
Hi! Thanks for your question! And congrats on your business - SUCH a necessity. I recently moved to Philly (I commute into NYC every day for work) and I desperately need a hairdresser here...let me know if you have any recs! On to your question:1. By the time we went full time we were almost 1.5 years in - we had the idea for Mented in fall 2015, quit our jobs in November 2016 and launched January 2017. The reason we waited so long to go fill time was Amanda and I felt pretty adamant that we needed an outside investor to either commit or at the very least get us a term sheet before we could leave our jobs. The reality for both of us was that we simply didn't have enough of a safety net to quit our jobs without some sense of security. After we quit we didn't pay ourselves for several months, because it took a while for our first investor's check to finally come through (there's almost always a lag between the commitment and the dollars), and then when we did start paying ourselves we took the smallest stipend possible, basically just enough to cover food and rent, because we were trying to make that initial investment LAST. So even though we waited to quit until we had some security, we still basically acted like we had no money in the bank lol because we were just so nervous about running out of cash. 2. Fundraising sucks, full stop. The only people I know who enjoy it are...actually no, I don't know any people who enjoy it. So in terms of how I found it...I found it to be the worst thing ever lol. But your second question about networks is the right one, because I worked my network to the BONE to find our first investors. This is exactly what I did: a) Emailed every single woman in the Harvard Business School alumni database who listed herself as an investor. One of these women ended up being our first investor! b) Went on LinkedIn and searched for every single angel and venture capitalist I was remotely connected to, then emailed our mutual connection asking for an intro c) Went to an endless number of startup events in the city d) Pitched to HBS Alumni Angels, New York Angels, Pipeline Angels, and probably 2 or 3 more angel groups in the city e) Told everyone I knew that we were raising a roundThe vast majority of investors I pitched said no, but eventually a few people said yes. And even the people who said no often passed our deck to others they thought might be interested. So through a looong slog, we raised our first $400k. This happened over several months, from like August 2016 to April/May 2017. Then in August/September 2017 we raised an additional $600K (on the same note with the same terms...which I regret) and joined the very small (but growing!) list of black women to raise $1M in venture capital.
Yaaas @kjmiller This is the exact type of actionable feedback I was after, Thank you!The relentless pitching to people you know / are somewhat connected to is something I'm taking onboard and definitely doing. As well as asking even those who've said no to pass your deck along to others! Great advice.Also congrats on your move to philly! We've got you girl. Feel free to follow our philly instagram post. It usually takes about 24hrs for people to come back with their local stylist recommends!
Awesome - glad it was helpful and best of luck!
Hi! Thank you so much for taking time to share with us. I recently launched my company at where we allow female founders and female apprentices to browse each other and connect. Apprentices train 10 hours a week in a meaningful project under a founder and founders get help on their businesses in exchange for mentoring these upcoming ambitious women. So I’m VERY into bringing forward female leaders of tomorrow and today as well.My question to you is: when you were younger, did you ever see entrepreneurship as an option. Why or why not? Are there certain resources you wish you had, that we can offer young founders and young apprentices, that would exponentially help their growth? Thanks so much! This advice could go a long way in supporting our community to make massive change!!
Hey! That sounds like an awesome company - congrats on your launch!I started thinking seriously about entrepreneurship shortly after college, mostly because a friend of mine basically pitched me a startup idea and as we started talking about how it could work, I got super excited and felt like I wanted to be a part of it. I hadn't thought about it at all prior to that, because I didn't really know any entrepreneurs. If there's anything I wish I had earlier, it's exposure to founders - so what you're doing is really important. I think if you're able to create a component of your company that includes curriculum that teachers can take into schools, you'd be able to start that exposure even earlier which would have been so helpful to young students like me :-)
@kjmiller Thank you so much for the in-depth response, if you have a chance I would love to know what you would like to see in curricula because entrepreneurship is such a hands-on game. What can we standardize or systemize that will make sense for so many diverse people across disciplines?! I know you're busy so no worries if you can't respond.We are just partnering with schools now to match students with mentors, so hopefully we are able to make that impact on an academic level too.Thank you for your time!
Hey! So, Amanda and I used to run a program called Moguls in the Making where we went to high schools in NYC teaching 1-hour sessions on entrepreneurship. We eventually ran out of bandwidth to continue the program but I'm hoping to bring it back in some capacity. Anyway, our curriculum focused on how to come up with a startup idea and how to test it, with our goal being to teach them how to think like an entrepreneur, because we believe that skillset is important whether you go into entrepreneurship. So I think I would start from there - what are some of the characteristics a good entrepreneur has and how can you teach those (things like problem solving, testing demand, iterating, etc.)Hope that helps!
That's amazing thank you so much!
Hi KJ! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions! I am curious about the process in finding a lab/production facility to make your products. A large number of places don't fulfill small batch orders here in the US and I have heard horror stories about items manufactured in China where the quality is not the same or the company copies the recipe and sells it themselves. Can you talk about your experience transitioning from making your products from scratch to full scale manufacturing?
Hi! Great question. So the one thing I will say that was truly just lucky for us is that New Jersey is a cosmetic manufacturing hub - one of like 4 in the US - and it was right in our backyard. So we decided when we started that we really wanted our first manufacturer to be in the states, and it just so happened that there were a lot of great options really close by. That said, we still had the small batch problem you're talking about. In cosmetics most manufacturers have minimum order quantities of 5,000 units, which was way too much for us. We basically met with every manufacturer on the east coast and asked who would be willing to work with us at lower MOQs, and the ones that said "yes" became our very small pool of options. I'm not sure what your product is, but if I've learned anything in business it's that everything is negotiable. Now you're probably not going to get a humongous manufacturer to lower their minimums, but a small-to-midsize company might, especially if you can show them some sort of social proof (we had some IG followers and our Harvard degrees and not much else...but you gotta use what you've got!). Oh and you'll almost certainly have to pay upfront for your first few orders because people don't know you yet (unless you've got lots of great business references already...and that's unlikely because you probably became a corporation like yesterday). So my takeaways are 1) Look for smaller manufacturers 2) NEGOTIATE. Push them to lower their minimums. 3) Offer to pay upfront as a negotiating tactic for getting a smaller run done (most of their clients are either paying a small deposit or not paying at all until goods ship, which is a real risk to them).
Thanks for your time, KJ! I love your story and what you all are doing at Mented. I recently took Sara Blakely's Masterclass and really enjoyed your conversation with her. I too am in the beauty/hair product space as I co-founded KAZMALEJE (pronounced: cosmology to create innovative hair tools and accessories for textured hair. I have so many questions for you. However, I am really interested to get your POV on raising funds as a beauty entrepreneur. At what point did you decide to raise funds and introduce investors into your team?What advice would you have for beauty entrepreneurs looking to raise funds in a space that is very tech focused?
Well first of all, I'm so glad we got to meet each other this week at our SUPER SECRET BUSINESS LOCATION...But on to your questions:1) See my answer to Ricki above about when we made the decision to bring on investors (the short version is - immediately)2) For super tactical advice I'd again refer to my answer to Ricki, but my broader answer is this - "tech" is being defined soooo loosely these days. Is Airbnb a tech company? I guess so, in that they have an app. But I'd say their in the home rental business, which is decidedly offline. Is Away a tech company? Sure, if you focus on their digital-first approach to luggage and massive digital ad budget. But at the heart of it they're selling suitcases. I say that to say, I'm of the opinion that in 2019 (about to be 2020...God) we are *all* running tech companies to some extent. You don't get to run a successful business without becoming really adept at digital marketing, email, web design, software integrations, etc. I'm a bit of a contrarian on this, I've had investors scoff at me when I say it, so I'm not saying you should all go march into investor meetings calling yourselves tech companies. I'm just saying you get to have just as much swagger and confidence as the tech guys because what you're building is equally difficult and takes just as much know-how. So, my approach has always been data-centric because I know that's what investors love, and what will put some of the more tech-focused people at ease. I would also note that there are many more funds out there these days that focus on consumer brands, and angels can be GREAT for consumer companies because they tend to like investments they can easily understand.
I know, right!! Talk about timing. It was awesome meeting you as well. Thanks for the insight you shared with me in person as well as your responses to my questions here. I agree with you on the definition of "tech" and like to position us as a "tech-enabled" company especially since we used 3D printing to prototype our hair tools and innovation is a key pillar for us.
Thank you so much. Could I learn more about how to raise money and find the specific market? How could you find a co-founder that you can trust?
Hey! Ok so, my tactical thoughts on fundraising are in earlier replies, but here are my thoughts on finding a co-founder:I got lucky. Amanda and I came up with the idea for Mented together, and we knew we wanted to work together long before we landed on an idea. That's not how it works for most people. More commonly, one person has an idea and then goes to look for a partner, and I think that's a much much trickier place to be. The first thing I always ask when people tell me they're looking for a co-founder is if they're truly sure they need one. What, exactly, will that person be doing, and are you sure this can't just be a really valuable Employee #1? I ask that because I think it's really difficult to give someone that title if you don't genuinely feel like they helped found the business. If it's early enough in the process - i.e. it's basically just an idea, then it's not really an issue. But if you've already started building the product, pitching to investors, finding your vendors, etc., it's going to be much harder.But let's say you're sure you want a co-founder. Than my best piece of advice would be to make sure this is someone you can have difficult conversations with. Things like "I think our equity split should be 60-40" or "I don't want to take the company in that direction." Some people just aren't great at these conversations, and startups are rife with them, so optimize for that if you can.
Hi KJ,Thank you so much for answering my questions. I am not sure if I should find a co-founder now... I will try to keep going by myself and see who I can meet in the future. Thanks again. Have a good afternoon.
You're welcome!!!
Hi KJ,Thanks for taking our questions!I'd like to know more about your business school experience - would you recommend going to business school if someone already has a well-established career? It is something I've always wanted to pursue, note sure how realistic it is now though. The expense and considerable career break are concerns, and I've witnessed friends' careers basically resetting as they went back to school (perhaps they did it too soon?)What are your thoughts?
Hey! This is a great question, because the reality for me was that when I got to business school I had been in the wordforce for 4 years as a retail buyer. I knew a fair amount, but I didn't have what I would call a "well-established career". Most of my section-mates were in my same boat - smart, accomplished, but not so well-established that it felt like there was a huge opportunity cost to leaving the workforce. I will say, some of the people I saw have the most rewarding experiences were the people who *did* walk away from something great. Sometimes having a lot to lose is a big motivator. But like I said in my reply to Shaneelu1 above, I think there are probably ways to recreate the greatest lessons of b school outside of the classroom setting. While I loved my experience and wouldn't trade it for anything, I definitely don't think it's a "must". Like anything else, it is what you make of it. Simply going and graduating won't net you much, but if you go and take advantage of all of the amazing resources and people and travel opportunities, it can be life-changing.
Thanks so much @kjmiller, invaluable insight!!
Thanks for joining us, KJ! How cool that you made your original collection of lipsticks yourself. Two questions: 1. How long did it take from purchasing ingredients to having products ready to be shipped to customers? 2. What were the factors that contributed to your decision to outsource the production of your collections vs. continuing to make them yourself?
Hey!1. I think I could interpret your question two ways so I'm going to answer both! When we were making the lipsticks ourselves, our turnaround time was SUPER quick, but we never sold handmade goods we shipped them for free to influencers to get their feedback. We'd order the ingredients, have everything delivered 2-3 weeks later, make them in a day and send them out the same day. When it came to the goods we actually sold, the lead time is much longer. From the time we place a PO with our manufacturer to the time we have saleable goods is anywhere from 6-20 weeks depending on the product. Oh I just realized there's a third interpretation of your question which is what was our overall timeline from the time we started making the goods by hand to the time we started the business - that was about a year and a half. Really hoping at least one of these is the answer you were looking for!2. Oh we NEVER thought we'd sell the products we were making by hand. First of all, they had no preservatives, and makeup needs preservatives. Second, we aren't chemists and we were making these products in our kitchen. We were as clean and professional as possible but I can't promise at least one batch didn't get a little pinot noir in it...For us, the handmade product was always our way to test the shades and get the critical feedback we needed before spending money on manufacturing.
Hi KJ - I’m thrilled to see you’re hosting this week’s AMA. Mented #5 has been my signature lip for a while now. My questions for you are around preseed fundraising. My company has bootstrapped until this point and are now looking to raise money. What are some strategies you used for finding angel investors? How far along was Mented when you started fundraising from VCs and had you already previously raised from angels? Thank you in advance!
Hey! I'm so glad you're wearing and loving Mented #5 - it's my favorite too! I think my reply to Ricki above answers your question but if you have more specific questions please shoot me an email!! Oh and in terms of the timing of VC vs Angels we raised from both at the same time. My philosophy in the beginning was to take a meeting with anyone who was willing to meet with me!
Yes! This is helpful. Thank you.
Hi KJ,Love the Mented Lip Gloss. Thank you so much for your time out of your crazy schedule. Two questions, 1) when determining where you wanted to innovate/build a company, did you look at the data or use your gut ie the beauty industry was visually lacking diversity. And 2) What were some of the first tests/experiments of your hypothesis that led you in the right direction? (if you are able to share) Again thanks so much!
Hey! So glad you love the lip gloss - Send Nudes is my FAVORITE. Fun fact: I created that shade in Amanda's living room while she was sick in her bedroom and I kept running in her room and bothering her when I thought I had it right. :-)On to your questions:1) All gut, all based on our personal pain points. I LOVE data, but I don't think I could ever build a business based purely on what the data said the market needed. It's just way too hard to not be driven by passion (for me. There are plenty of entrepreneurs who don't need the passion piece).2) Once Amanda and I realized it was impossible for us to find the perfect nude lipstick we did a couple of things to understand the size of the opportunity: 1 - Survey. We sent a survey to ~100 women of color asking them about their beauty routines and how satisfied they were with existing beauty options. Turns out the majority of them were unhappy. 2 - Focus groups once we started making our lipsticks - we would invite people over and let them try and kept getting such amazing feedback about the shades 3 - Influencers - we sent the products to dozens of influencers to get their feedback and kept hearing over and over how much they loved them. That's what ultimately convinced us to turn this into a business.
Hi KJ! I love Mented 😊. Can you describe what helped grow your brand in the early days? For example, did you and your co-founder do all of the marketing yourself or did you engage an agency to represent your brand? What was most effective for getting your early customers?
Hey! So glad to hear you love the brand :-)Ok so, here are the the things we did early on1) Invested in influencer relationships. We reached out to 10 people every week asking them to try our product - we still do this today! None of these people were paid, but a ton of them said yes anyway because they liked what we were building and were eager to try new products.2) Posted every single day to IG. We NEVER missed a day. Now we post twice daily. In the beginning when we had less content we would post other people's pictures (like a pic of Serena or Michelle Obama) and come up with a caption about how inspiring they were. We just knew we had to be consistent.3) Built our our email list. We had a landing page to collect emails before we launched, and once we launched we sent an email every Tuesday and Friday, without fail.4) Invested in a publicist. Not everyone has success with this, but for us it's been extremely important. She helped get us in front of a lot of great beauty publications.5) Said yes to every event we possible could. We vended at churches, trade shows, brunches, art galleries...we wanted to get the word out any way we could.
Did business school help you with your startup (beyond the network for fundraising)? Did you consider getting involved with entrepreneurship during school? If yes/no, why?
Hi! I started two companies before b school (which didn't work out), and two more during b school (which didn't work out). So I think I was always going to keep trying to crack this nut with or without b school. The network has helped A LOT (where I met my co-founder, first investor and first advisor), and so has the "you can do anything" attitude that's super contagious in an MBA program. You spend all day learning about people who built amazing companies against crazy odds, and after a while you really start to believe can to. Of course, you could save $100K and just buy some business books lol, but I honestly wouldn't trade that experience for anything.
Thank you KJ, your journey is most definitely inspiring for a young entrepreneur like me seeking to break grounds in the cacao and chocolate industry. How did you approach your funding sources and what did you find was the most efficient strategy?
Hey! I think (and hope!) my answer to Ricki above is helpful here. But please email me if you have more specific questions!
Hi there KJ.Congrats on surviving all those very competitive environments. I myself started out at Deloitte and had a horrible experience. And then, years later, when I got involved with a startup through Harvard Business School, I had a horrible experience with that team , so it's left a very taste in my mouth of both Corporate life and Ivy life (I went to an Ivy for a while, and, you guessed it, I had a horrible experience).The common thread is that I found these groups to be very insular. I felt Deloitte didn't know how to handle me being from a military background. It was not a case of discrimination, but rather that it was 15 years ago, and people, in general, didn't really know that women were combat veterans, too. Deloitte is a huge company with its own policies and procedures for handling new consultants, and it resulted in me feeling like I was treated like a 5 year old.By contrast, the HBS students WERE military veterans. They seemed to be struggling so much with keeping up with their peers at HBS, that they weren't able to relate well to those who were outside of the program. They didn't have much patience for issues that afflict the military community, but didn't help them inside the walls of HBS. When I myself attended an Ivy, I had PTSD from the war in Iraq, and I found it incredibly difficult to relate to my peers.So I'll ask you what I've asked other people who were successful in environments that I found to be...indoctrinating."What do you think was the key to gaining a sense of belonging?"I'm not asking for me...I don't think it's realistic for me to ever feel I fit in those places. I'm asking for people who are earlier in their education or career and might be on the edge of deciding to leave because they don't feel they fit in.
Hi - thank you for your question, it's a really important one. I'm hoping I can do it justice. So first off, I totally get what you mean about it being difficult to feel like you belong in environments like Deloitte or HBS. There were plenty of times at both places when I very much felt like I did *not* belong. Two examples:-Early at HBS everyone in my section decided to go to Vegas over Veterans Day weekend. At first I was excited, then I looked and saw that plane tickets were something like $700 because the weekend was right around the corner. I had NEVER spent that much money on a domestic plane ticket and couldn't fathom how everyone seemed so chill about it. That was my first taste of the extravagance I'd regularly witness.-A partner at Deloitte called me entitled after I told him that trying to get work done on the NJ Transit line was making me motion sick. I was dumbfounded...aren't we all entitled to be vomit-free!?I actually went to Harvard for undergrad as well, and I remember my first few days there feeling extremely isolating because everything everyone said seemed so completely foreign. The key then, and at HBS and at Deloitte, was finding my people. I had to accept that I was never going to be the popular person who got along with everyone or got invited to every wedding, but I could find my little crew of folks who made me launch and understood my jokes and who agreed that you shouldn't have to vomit twice a day to be a valuable employee. The tough thing about finding your people is that you do have to be open to meeting a bunch of folks who *aren't* your people, because otherwise how will you find the ones who are? In that regard, I'm lucky that I'm an extrovert because when I need to I can talk to any group of people for any amount of time. But I've learned to use this skill to quickly assess who I actually want to be talking to, if that makes sense.I'd say I left b school with 6 or 7 people who were truly my tribe, and I left with Deloitte with maybe 3 or 4. But if I had just 1 person in each I think I could have made it felt like home.
Excited to see you’re hosting this week’s AMA! Question on your supply chain - I know Mented Cosmetics from Sephora, but from your site, it seems like you have a big d2c presence as well. >>> Which avenue has a priority or are you building the two simultaneously? Additionally, can you talk on what your supply chain/fulfillment looks for both of these? Are you fulfilling in the house or working with a 3PL?