Leila fell into entrepreneurship from a young age.
When I was a young girl, I asked my dad if I could get a job.
He said, “You’re too young; you need to be thirteen to have a permit.”
To, at least, go to work, there was a bikini shop near my house and I kept talking to the owner.
I said, “One day you will give me a job.”
She replied, “Sure when you’re 13.”
“I can try bathing suits on for you and that can be my job to see how they fit.”
She caved and Leila started at her first job
She remembers thinking, ‘‘This is great. I’m only 13 and I got my first paycheck.’
Her mind wouldn’t stop.
While she was in the bikini shop, she kept finding flaws in the processes.
“You should put this on the mannequin.”
“Your entryway is too dark.”
There was always something.
Then when she was in high school, she would take clothes that she’d bought and change the pieces on it. Her friends would ask me where I got it.
Instead of telling them where she got it, she’d say, “You can buy it from me.”
That spark of entrepreneurship turned into a clothing store she’d eventually sell.
It was then when she learned how to operate a business.
Then a pivotal moment happened in her early entrepreneurial career.
When she came back from college, the camp that she went to as a kid was going under and she was devastated. So she started a program to keep the camp alive.
The kids would get picked up by a school bus and go on a field trip every day. And that way they kept the older kids coming to the camp and the younger kids in the camp. The camp survived. It was the first time she’d helped a business not fail and didn’t have equity in it.
That was the beginning of her saying, “Wait a minute.”
It was at this time, Leila knew the next venture would be entirely in her hands.
All it took was patience for the right idea.
How did you come up with Sphynx?
Like many successful companies, Sphynx was founded on a problem that wouldn’t go away. In fact, Leila would experience the problem for years before she had enough of it.
When I was younger, I was on the dance and cheerleading team. I would constantly realize I had missed spots shaving. When you’re younger, you’re just learning how to shave so I’d go to the gym carrying a razor around with me.
The problem resurfaced when I got older.
I used to do marketing for Nike, Microsoft, and Red Bull. I would travel the world for them. I’d be at snowboarding competitions where you don’t think you need to shave, but then you go out afterward.
You’re taking off all these layers of clothes because they make it 110 degrees in the bar so you’re profusely sweating. Now all your ski clothes are on a chair somewhere. And then I was like, “oh I didn’t think to shave.”
Then when I was working at a toy company, I was presenting to Target in a meeting. I remember mid-meeting, I realized the buyers were staring at my underarms instead of at me. I was like, “oh my gosh,” I don’t remember the last time I shaved.
It went from being in high school learning how to shave to missing spots because I was traveling, then forgot because I had a demanding professional career.
This problem kept following me.
I had to solve it.
What hurdles did you face early in your journey?
With consumer products, there’s extra difficulty in making it successful. It’s not just about building an e-commerce store. You need fulfillment, distributors, and much more. Leila realized she came into battle with less than what she needed but used her tenacity and resourcefulness to make it through.
“It took me a year and a half in development to create Sphynx, an on-the-go razor set. I was still working full-time. So I would come home at night and work on it until 3:00 am, especially since China is in a different time zone. I had just gotten married, too, and my husband would say, ‘You need to come to bed.’ I’d reply, ‘No, China just woke up.’
I had never worked with China. I had so many bumps in the road because I had so many middlemen since I didn’t learn Chinese. I was plugging away for six months after I quit my job. Then it took another year because I didn’t find any good factories. Then I found the one.
When I finally got the prototypes, I gave 30 out to 30 of my top friends. The prototypes cost anywhere between 100 to 300 dollars.
I’d send emails asking for feedback every week as I was reiterating the product. One friend calls me, ‘Leila, I’m so sorry, but I don’t have your prototype anymore and I can’t give you feedback.’
‘What what do you mean? You know my prototype costs 300 bucks’
‘I just started at my new job, my boss took it off my desk and I don’t have the heart to ask for it back.’“
How did you first gain traction?
The success of Sphynx might’ve been the best April Fool’s prank. Sometimes the unexpected happens and at that moment, Leila had two choose between fight or flight.
“On April first, I get an email from the company, Ulta:
‘Hey, we’d love to meet you. We got a hold of your product.’
I thought ‘Who is this genius who found someone who works there and told them to email me. It’s an April Fool’s prank.’
But it wasn’t.
Turns out her boss fell in love with it and gave it to the buyer and said, “You have to get this thing. It’s the best, hot new product coming out soon.”
That’s when it hit me –
I still had to get the prototype stage done. They wanted it in three months and it takes six months to manufacture in China. I looked at my husband, ‘Listen, I need your help. You do operations. I will do design and product development. Let’s make this happen.’ I quit my job, then went full-time into entrepreneurship.
At the time, I was at a toy company. Dolls were a dying breed because technology is advancing so fast. I took what I learned from the camp because we were scrappy. I tell the kids to go home and bring a water bottle back to camp tomorrow. Then we’d put water, olive oil, and food coloring in the water bottle and it would turn into a lava lamp.
I did the same thing with toys. My job was to come up with concepts for toys and how to market them. So we launched it. We were supposed to be in the Impulse section. It’s the section when you’re at CVS and you see at the front there’s nuts, candy, and chapstick.
I also attended a lot of trade shows. I also did something that you can’t do anymore which is run Facebook ads to influencers if they listed themselves as a Public Figure.
So they would find me instead of me finding them. I started getting a lot of press and influencers talking about us. Then I went to a trade show where I won the Beauty innovation of the Year award.
All these brands came to meet with me and order the product. It blew up overnight and I was not ready for it. I ran out of inventory. Packaging wasn’t closing correctly and there were so many struggles along the way, We only had an intern at the time. And we were in a thousand stores by the end of that show. Good problems.”
What major hurdles did you face in building a lifestyle brand?
Leila learned the hard way that if you don’t define your brand, then someone else will do it for you. Today, she puts her foot down when it comes to distribution and marketing so people know Sphynx is a lifestyle product.
“We ended up in the razor aisle, which was my worst nightmare. I didn’t want to be in the razor aisle because I didn’t want people to position this product in that category.
It’s not a replacement for your home razor because the whole point is it’s for your purse. It’s for the touch-ups on the go. It has the water and the razor so you can do the whole process.
Another obstacle appeared when I got booked for QVC in Christmas. They called me a week before and said, “Hey, we’d love to have you earlier. So I went on to QVC. Unfortunately. There was a terrorist attack in Turkey that day and it was hard to go on air.
Then they told me, ‘Okay your product will be for grandmothers who are in wheelchairs and can’t shave in the shower.’ I thought, ‘My product is not built for that skin type. It has nothing with that demographic because they don’t even care to shave on the go.’
After that, I decided not to go back to QVC.
I got a lot of orders that day, but it wasn’t the right market. All the stores that contacted me afterward wouldn’t be selling where I wanted. And I didn’t want to dilute the brand.
After that, I was really particular about the stores I went into. I was thoughtful about anyone who wants to sell our product. I wanted to be a lifestyle brand.
Now we’re in about three thousand retailers. It’s on my vision board to get into Target. It’s huge but it’s also scary as hell because you have to be prepared to get into Target.”
What internal problems did you need to solve to scale?
Leila is super mom, super businesswoman, and a super wife all at the same time. No one said it would be easy – and it wasn’t. She’s worked hard to optimize her time while still finding room for creative expression to delight her customers.
“The team is ten people as of today. We had three new hires this morning. Since I don’t have time to work out, there is now a treadmill in my office.
I also just had a baby so it’s been really crazy.
In the beginning, we were fast to hire and then when they weren’t culture fits or the skillset wasn’t quite there. We taking more steps backward than forward. Today, we have a strict hiring process where everyone has a chance to interview the person who’s coming in.
We want to do our own distribution in-house because our product is only $15. It’s costing us way too much. I also wanted to experience the touch and feel of whatever was going out so I could see what consumers are getting.
Sometimes we throw confetti in there as a little treat. We try to keep it fun around here. We’re really focusing on making sure everything that we develop next is disruptive in design and product. Whatever it may be, so when you see it on shelves, we want it to wow you and make you wonder what it is.”
What’s next for you guys?
Leila is expanding by focusing on company culture and innovating in the lifestyle space.
“My favorite part is building within. I love when I get the chance to promote someone from the team; it’s really the best feeling. And our team is growing. We moved into our own warehouse in Los Angeles. Regarding Sphynx, we have three to six new products coming out by the end of the year. So we’re doing a lot of product development and expanding our website.
These big companies use a Band-Aid approach to solve the problem of women on-the-go. So we’re scaling the product but we’re also looking into developing more products. I don’t envision the brand as a razor company. I envision it as a brand for the woman on the go with portable and convenient products for our lifestyle.”
Today, Sphynx is one piece of the on-the-go lifestyle market for women.
Leila has the passion and drive to take the rest of it. With larger companies snoozing, her goal is to ensure women are more empowered than yesterday to experience freedom.
With all the graphs pointing in the right direction, it’s exciting to see where she’ll go.