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How Tomi Gbeleyi built a global e-commerce company by solving her own problems

Entrepreneurs the world over say the key to founding a business is solving your own problems, especially in a sector that doesn’t serve you or your problems well. Tomi Gbeleyi is a prime example, growing a global direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand based in Toronto, a city with a very small DTC startup ecosystem.

MFMG now sells globally and has been featured in Teen VogueGlamourFlare, and Buzzfeed, among others. Gbeleyi grew the MFMG Instagram account from nothing to over 165,000 followers. She built the company to $10k a month in sales when we first met in mid-2018 (they now keep revenue numbers private, but Gbeleyi says their targets are aggressive and revenues are far up from when we met).

Oh, and she did it completely alone until recently (much like LUS Brands founder Sahar Saidi). Not a bad start for a woman who didn’t originally want to start a makeup business.

She just wanted to be a model

Before starting an e-commerce company, Tomi wanted to be a model

“The same day I got my admission letter to come to school in Canada – I’m Nigerian – I also got into a pretty big model search back home called Elite Model Search.”

Gbeleyi says her Nigerian parents “were like, uh… no. You are going to school.” So that was that and she went to school in New Brunswick. But she kept her passion for modeling, a “bug” she calls it, and modeled while she was a student.

She’d do hair and makeup shoots, but said she always felt “like an outsider”.

The first runway show

at her first show, tomi was the only black model on the call sheet

“I got my first runway show. It was so exciting. But I was the only Black model on the call sheet. The makeup artist just looked startled. She was scrambling to find the products to work for my skin. I just felt like a burden on everyone. I wished I just looked like the other models so all this nonsense wouldn’t happen.”

Not one to let a crap experience ruin her, Gbeleyi took this as a sign to learn how to do her own makeup. If she knew how style herself, she could fix problems for herself when a hair stylist or makeup artist didn’t know how to handle her curly hair or dark skin.

So she became an expert in makeup for dark skin girls

an instagram following became the first parts of Tomi's e-commerce company

YouTube was growing at the time Gbeleyi started modeling and she discovered she was not alone in her makeup challenges. Many women of colour were ‘hacking’, as she calls it, the makeup and hair care system to work for their skin.

“They were taking the existing catalog of products and selecting which ones will work for their skin tone. So everyone is exchanging information. You pick what works. So I became part of that community, too, and for a while was one of the ‘hackers’ as well.”

Suddenly, reality hit. She was no longer a student and “didn’t have as much time to be watching 20 minute ”. So she created her own community housed on Instagram, which at the time was growing for beauty-focused content.

The start of MFMG

Growing her brand, Tomi used instagram

“I just started a hashtag and an Instagram page called Makeup For Melanin Girls.”

Her snippets of content got an audience fast – 2,000 followers in the first couple of weeks fast – and Gbeleyi knew she had something to work with. Extending from that, she started a blog, writing over 200 articles on makeup and featuring makeup artists who work with women of color.

But she was scared to take the leap from makeup expert and blogger to makeup entrepreneur

Source: MFMG

“My customers were asking me for makeup, but I was really scared. So I just kept it to the media. We became more of a media destination – brands actually started reaching out to me to advertise. I had this remote team of 15 staff writers. And even though I did a survey of 5,000 of our readers and 80% of them said they have a hard time finding makeup, I said we’ll keep doing the media thing.”

And then suddenly, out of nowhere, her Instagram page got deleted. She was devastated. Her more loyal readers reached out asking where the page went. Suddenly all the content she’d developed for Instagram was lost.

She eventually got the page back through reaching out to every woman of color she could find on LinkedIn who worked at Instagram (she thought they would understand her better than the random help email). But the loss had changed something in her: she was going to make some makeup.

“I realized I need something that’s going to physically represent this community and transcend a platform like Instagram. I need to build a brand based on what our community stands for.”

“There was a fire lit under me”

when her instagram page got deleted, tomi decided to start an e-commerce company so she could own her audience

While working to get her Instagram page back, she researched chemical compounds and how to make makeup. She found manufacturers. She negotiated smaller runs of product so she wasn’t bound to the 10,000 minimum order per SKU (for context, one color is one SKU, so one lipstick with four colors is four SKUs, not one).

But all the time she spent solving her own problems and sharing the solutions paid off: her first product offering sold out in two weeks.

An exciting time, for sure, but you have to realize she was still working full time at a tech startup while building and launching MFMG.

“I felt like there was a fork in the road. Am I going to try to build myself as this woman in tech? Is that the space I want to occupy? Or am I going to focus on my brand?”

She eventually made the choice to quit, using the fact that she had two months of sales as the evidence point she needed to show the business had potential.

Then she learned the harsh lesson of self-care’s necessity

after starting her e-commerce company, tomi had a panic attack

Fast forward a few months, and MFMG is doing well. Or, as the company could have been called, The Tomi Gbeleyi Show. She was doing everything herself, from manufacturer relationships, to marketing, to community management and customer success.

At first, her energy carried through. Her short nights and long days became a badge of honor. The truest form of hustle. She was out there, alone, making things happen. Even though she prefaced telling me this story by saying things went very badly and she realized the need for self-care, she’s energetic as she recounts this portion (though to be fair, she’s energetic throughout most of the interview).

When I asked her to describe the moment she knew self-care was important, and “not just a buzzword”, she initially didn’t have an answer. In the middle of her broad explanation about realizing how she “wasn’t performing to my optimal level,” she paused.

Then she said “Oh! Probably when I had to call the ambulance for a panic attack.”

“I was flying a lot back and forth to New York because there were opportunities there to meet with third-party distributors, or PR, or doing shows. I came off the plane one time and I really was convinced I had a blood clot and was going to die. I called a 911 and spent the remainder of the night in the hospital.”

But when the doctor came back, the test results were all clear. She wasn’t having a heart attack. The doctor probed a bit further and suggested there was “something else going on” – an anxiety and panic attack – and that she needed to take better care of herself.

Now, she’s expanding the team

tomi is expanding the team

The core thing she realized from her ambulatory ordeal was that she couldn’t do MFMG alone anymore. She immediately hired someone to help out – an influencer from Dallas who was already a customer and member of the MFMG community. She now runs MFMG’s social media remotely.

“I had to get over the fear [of hiring people] and just start asking people because I couldn’t do it just by myself. I physically couldn’t do it myself anymore.”

Looking ahead, MFMG has a small team and aggressive revenue targets. Gbeleyi recounted the memory of her founding story like a proud mother. She’d built the damn thing all by herself and didn’t have to prove she could anymore. She still maintains a chip on her shoulder in terms of why MFMG didn’t grow as fast as some other DTC brands, but that’s slowly dissipating as she comes into her own as a CEO.

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Header photos courtesy Makeup for Melanin Girls

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