Working 70 hour weeks as a pharmacist, Irene Patsalides found she couldn’t rely on her makeup to see her through the day. So she decided to do something about it.
With no money but a drive to create an innovative business, she put aside “every single cent” she earned from her job and poured it into her own cosmetics business, Mirenesse, after getting rejected for a loan by every bank she tried.
Today, Mirenesse sells one of its products every three minutes. Patsalides spoke to SmartCompany about how the business has grown from selling online in the time of dial-up internet to expanding throughout the US and Asia.
I started Mirenesse in 1999 out of the frustration of looking for beauty products that actually delivered on their promises.
Get daily business news.
The latest stories, funding information, and expert advice. Free to sign up.
I was working 70-hour weeks as a pharmacist, raising my daughter, and yet I would come home every night with mascara running down my face and irritated eyes. I was working so hard, surely my makeup could at least be reliable.
I believed that we deserved better.
When I was 16-years-old, my family lost everything in Cyclone Tracey in Darwin, so we moved to Melbourne and were living for years with help from the Salvation Army.
This great tragedy gave me the drive to succeed and rebuild our lives.
At the time, pharmacy was the closest field to cosmetic chemistry I could study, and as I always loved helping people, I chose this as my future. I went to pharmacy college and worked my way up from an assistant to running my own pharmacy at the age of 22.
I was working through weekends, but I knew how lucky I was to have the opportunity to work and to achieve a life for myself, so I saved every single cent.
I always wanted to run my own business, and as an innovator and creative person, I always felt I needed to be in control of my own destiny.
I was running both the pharmacy and Mirenesse at the same time when I started, but I decided to go where my passions lay strongest.
I didn’t imagine it would be so successful; I was just trying to help others and my family at the same time.
We had no money, and no one gives you money when you’ve got no money. No one was going to finance a pharmacist going into a cosmetics business. There wasn’t a choice and I didn’t even know where to go other than asking the bank.
Today there are a lot more options, but back in 1999, there was no other option so we had to self-finance it.
It was extremely challenging not having financial backing because you can’t do the things that you visualize as quickly as you can when you do have money. And every risk you take is completely yours.
When I started I was just a pharmacist. I knew how to make a world first mascara, but I knew little about inventory management, branding, marketing, distribution, intellectual property, managing staff and logistics.
There are so many things I could never have imagined being involved in building a business.
Every day there was something new to learn. But through drive and perseverance, and my ability to accept what I needed to know to continue the business, I followed my gut instinct to make up for my lack of experience.
Back then the big industry players owned everything, and it was even harder to break through as an indie brand. There were no online opportunities, only TV shopping and traditional retail.
We were one of the very first brands to sell beauty online in Australia in a time of 256k modems. We had a flash site that took five minutes just to load the homepage.
Retailers tried to stop us selling online, but my gut instinct told me that this was the future. Now it’s the opposite — it’s no longer enough to just be in retail or online, you have to be everywhere.
The beauty industry is even more competitive now, with the globalisation of the internet. You’re not only competing against brands available in Australia, you’re competing on a global scale.
It took a couple of years before we hired our first staff member. Originally it was just my partner Andrew and I doing everything for the business, then our family pitched in to help support us.
As we continued to grow, I then decided to sell my pharmacy to completely commit to Mirenesse. Then there was just too much to do so we hired our first employee.
In 2004 we were selling exclusively on [a] TV shopping [channel] and it went broke, completely out of the blue, so we had to find other distribution avenues for our business. This was what moved us to pursue home shopping networks in the US and Canada.
This was devastating to us at the time because we had just spent $250,000 creating our brand new skincare range to which we had no distribution for. I thought I was going to lose my house and business
I pretty much mailed a presentation to both QVC and HSN in the US. HSN said yes so we flew to America to seal the deal.
They initially gave us a small order, but on our first visit our mascara set sold out within the first three minutes, which was unheard of in the home shopping industry at the time.
Looking back, I wish I knew how to use an excel spreadsheet, plus the importance of marketing.
I’ve always worked by creating the product first, making sure it’s innovative and really works.
But if you put it to market and if the marketing is not clear or strong enough, then no matter how amazing the product is, the customers won’t purchase it.
The silliest mistake I made early on was not triple checking artwork and samples. I learnt the hard way when my ‘Champagne’ lip gloss arrived and was spelled Champogne.
New businesses need to have a clear business plan and marketing plan, because it’s just as important as the product. Focus on your point of difference, what sets you apart from the rest of your competitors. If you can’t answer that, then neither can your customer.
We’re working on some big things behind the scenes right now. We’re expanding further internationally throughout US and Asia, focusing on our core, best selling products and gaining more distribution.
We plan to be a true omnichannel brand and have big plans on being easily accessible from any part of the world.
This article was updated on April 6, 2021.