Ep 1: René Graham

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Rene Graham is an architect turned inventor/entrepreneur who created the Renzoe Box, a product that is revolutionizing the way women purchase and store makeup. The Renzoe Box is “the solution to the messy makeup bag.” This product has already seen exciting success with Indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns blowing past their goals and the company selling out their inventory for the first run.

On this episode, we hear about the moment that the idea for her invention hit her, and how she manages her life as an entrepreneur with her career as an architect.

Episode Transcipt

00:00 Mark Douglass: Welcome to the Brand Manual, a podcast exploring brand identity and messaging. We talk to business pros who have something to say about how creative strategies fuel their brands. Today, we’re talking with Rene. She’s an architect by day, an entrepreneur/inventor by night. She is the creator of something called a Renzoe Box, and it is a device that aims to bring an end to the messy makeup bag. We hear about how the idea first struck her on a subway and how it has grown into a movement exemplified by the phrase, “Where Beauty Meets Brains.” Welcome to the show.




00:38 Tim Douglass: First off, Rene, thank you for joining us. We’re so excited to have you on here and to hear everything about all of the things that you’re doing, but specifically Renzoe Box and how it’s changing the game, how it’s killing it out there. So can you really briefly give us kind of a fuller backstory? Our listeners already know a little bit about what you do. Can you tell us more specifically product line, services, what all are you offering? 


01:06 Rene Graham: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, guys. So Renzoe Box is, like I said, it’s the solution to the messy makeup bag. And what we do is we provide makeup formulations in Renzoe pods. They’re basically like little Lego pieces. They come in three sizes: A small, medium, and large. So let’s say you have an eyeshadow, that would probably go in a small pod; or a foundation, for example, that goes all over your face, so we got a large pod. And then you mix and match them to build a palette that you want. So within a much smaller amount of space, you can build a palette of products from any brands that you want that suit exactly the uses. So, for example, if you had a foundation from MAC or combine that with a blush from NARS, and let’s say some, a few eye shadows from Urban Decay or Clinique or something, you can have all that in one spot.


02:01 Mark: Yeah. I did notice that one of the designs actually has the brush in the back of the box sort of at the hinge point.


02:09 Rene: Yes.


02:09 Mark: It’s just perfectly positioned in there. It was really ingenious.


02:13 Rene: Yeah. So one of the other frustrations with a makeup bag is the utensils, like the tools, the brushes. You put them in there and they always get crammed in the bottom and the bristles will actually get destroyed and it’ll be difficult to apply makeup with them. So the hinge, inside the… I basically made a hollow tube hinge at the back point of it, and it keeps the brushes stored in a separate compartment, they don’t get squished and crammed and ruined there.


02:43 Mark: Right.


02:43 Rene: So, yeah, I was trying to be as efficient with use of the space as possible and get everything in one.


02:50 Tim: Yeah. It’s brilliant.


02:50 Rene: Thank you.


02:51 Tim: Brilliant.


02:51 Rene: I appreciate it.


02:51 Mark: Yeah.


02:51 Rene: Thanks.


02:53 Tim: We have a special affinity for when design meets function in such beautiful ways. I mean, and your background is in design. So I…


03:02 Rene: Yes.


03:03 Tim: Did you start with the idea and the problem first? Or, did you start with man, this design, I wanna see this thing out in the world? What was the process like for you? 


03:13 Rene: Yeah, so to be completely honest, I had this idea a long time ago. I came up with it when I was in grad school, and I was on the Houston Metro one day. I was going from class to the office. I had a job in downtown Houston and I always would carry with me my makeup bag and a change of clothes to go between the two. So I’m sitting on the Metro, riding the Metro to downtown and I pull out my makeup bag and I’m touching up my makeup or whatever, and notoriously, like every woman goes through this where you dump it out ’cause you’re like digging through, you can’t find what you need so you just dump it out and I did that. I dumped it out on a seat next to me, and then something goes flying off and rolling onto the floor and I was just like, “Oh, my god, what am I doing?”




04:02 Mark: This is the moment of the genesis of the idea? Cool.


04:05 Rene: Yes. Yes. This is the genesis, like I was so frustrated, and so I finished putting on my makeup and then I’m sitting there just looking at my bag and I’m going… You know I’m carrying around the minimum of what I need of, you know, like I’ve already parsed it down to the absolute minimum. I’ve tried a zillion times to organize this thing and it doesn’t matter, it just turns into the same jumbled mess. And so, like I said, I looked at it and was going I’ve got this palette of eyeshadows, there’s six of them in here, but really I only use three of them. Why am I carrying around these other three? It just always happens with products like that, and I was like this can be solved.


04:44 Mark: That’s right.


04:44 Rene: In my mind, I’m trained as an architect so I just think of problems spatially and how to solve them in a three-dimensional way. Next thing I did is I pulled out my sketchbook and I started sketching some things, and that’s actually where it was born. I didn’t do anything with it for the longest time.


05:08 Mark: And what year was that? 


05:10 Rene: So this was circa 2009 or so.


05:13 Tim: Okay. Okay. Wow. And the power of the pencil and the sketchbook.


05:17 Rene: Yes, absolutely.


05:19 Tim: Yes, ma’am.


05:19 Mark: So I wanted to just mention a couple of other things related to the history of the brand. So for those who may not know, you launched with an Indiegogo campaign, correct? 


05:30 Rene: Correct. Yes.


05:31 Mark: Okay. And that was in August of 2018? 


05:34 Rene: Correct.


05:35 Mark: Okay, so not too long ago. You met your goal in one day.


05:40 Rene: Yes.


05:41 Mark: Yes, and you did over 300% was raised, and that you’re actually…


05:46 Rene: Yes.


05:46 Mark: If somebody wanted to buy something today at the time of the recording, they wouldn’t be able to until February 5th is actually second round fundraising, correct? 


05:57 Rene: Yes.


05:58 Mark: Okay, good. I got this right so far.


06:00 Rene: Yeah.


06:01 Mark: And this is not going to be on Indiegogo, but it is actually gonna be… Where did I see? 


06:06 Rene: Kickstarter.


06:07 Mark: Kickstarter. That’s right.


06:09 Rene: Yeah. Yeah.


06:10 Mark: Okay, cool. So tell us about that. How are you achieving that awareness in the market and albeit a fairly crowded market for makeup things? But you have this unique offering. How are you finding your audience? 


06:28 Rene: It’s been through a combination of organic outreach and just trying all the things. I’m not a retailer. My background was in services, not in sales of a retail product so I’ve been experimenting a lot. We’ve been doing a lot of social media marketing. We’re about to start with some influencer marketing.


06:52 Mark: Okay.


06:53 Rene: We’ve done some in-person pop-ups. We’ve found our early supporters who are really taken with the brand and with the product and leveraging their networks as well, so it’s a bit of everything. But I will tell you that those people who were able to purchase… So the first round was it’s… We’re still getting our… We were getting our production stream lined up, so the first round was a limited run. We don’t have a bunch of these in stock. And those people who have them in hand and have been using them have been incredibly supportive, and we’re hoping that this round that we can rely on them as well to help us spread the word.


07:38 Mark: Yeah, and that brings up a great question about that, the manufacturing side of what you’re having to do in terms of actually producing these, putting them into production. Gosh, that in itself is an education, isn’t it? 


07:53 Rene: Oh gosh, absolutely. [chuckle] It’s been a journey. I’ve been to China seven times in the last 18 months.


08:02 Tim: Yes, wow.


08:04 Rene: So yeah. It was really difficult for me to navigate that process, but I’ve actually talked to other people who have brought a product to market as well, and they were like, “Wait, you did that in eight months, how on earth did you do that? It took us two years.”


08:22 Mark: Right.


08:22 Rene: So apparently I’m doing pretty good, but I thought it was really hard. So I’ve just been full force going forward with it. I actually originally started, I wanted to manufacture, produce everything in Texas. The major components of Renzoe Box are plastic injection mold and we do have a bit of that industry here in Texas, with the petroleum industry here but it was… The costs were too high.


08:52 Mark: Yes.


08:53 Rene: And they… To be quite honest, China is, they just do it really well and they’re very professional. They accomplished in 48 hours what I couldn’t get done in two months here. So, it was a no-brainer. And we’ve been working through it since then.


09:12 Mark: Yeah, I love the idea of doing it all in Texas. We would have an affinity for that but you’re right, just the realities of production.


09:23 Rene: Yes.


09:23 Mark: It is amazing when we come across anyone who is still manufacturing in the States. So kudos to you for giving it a good shot. Those realities are tough.


09:35 Rene: I tried, I tried. And then there’s other logistic problems, obviously, with going overseas. I was subject to the Trump-China tariffs like that happened in the midst of…


[overlapping conversation]


09:47 Tim: Oh, my god.


09:47 Rene: Production when I was getting to…


09:47 Mark: I didn’t even think about that.


09:49 Rene: Oh, man, I… [chuckle]


09:49 Tim: Wow. Oh, man.


09:52 Rene: Every possible logistical hurdle that you can think of, I think I went through it. [chuckle]


09:56 Tim: Man, you had a perfect storm.


09:58 Rene: I’m glad I went through it on the first round though ’cause I feel like that’s what I have the most energy, so I can make my way.


10:04 Mark: Yes, and now you have some established relationships, which I know is that’s really…


10:08 Rene: Yes.


10:09 Mark: Really critical.


10:10 Tim: Man, and some thick skin now.


10:12 Mark: Yeah.


10:12 Tim: Oh, my gosh.


10:13 Rene: Yeah. [chuckle]


10:14 Tim: So tell me about going to Renzoe’s Box. Renzoe Box’s core messaging, tell me about the brand voice, what are some of the key components, things that you’re wanting to hit? 


10:28 Rene: Yeah, so the Renzoe Box, our official tag line is, “Where beauty meets brains.”


10:34 Tim: Okay.


10:35 Rene: And that was something that was very intentional, it took us a while to come up with.


10:40 Tim: I love that. Yeah.


10:41 Rene: Thanks. I hope that it describes the product itself. We’re talking about functionality. Meet something, a beautiful object. I hope that it describes the user.


10:56 Mark: Yes.


10:57 Rene: You know, someone who is intelligent and educated and on the go and just kind of has a lot of irons in the fire. I think that it describes that Renzoe Box customer.


11:10 Mark: Yes. Well, and that’s reflected too in the Box babes on the blog. I think it was profiles of bad-ass women. It definitely is connecting the beauty and the brains and it’s a powerful message beyond just the Box itself.


11:29 Rene: That’s what I’m aiming for, and that’s what I really wanna grow. To be completely honest, as a female and professional, there’s a lot of challenges when it comes to being taken seriously, and sometimes the way you look can be a detriment to that. You could be too pretty and no one takes you seriously. You could be not pretty enough, and no one takes you seriously. It’s hard to find the right balance of things and it’s just ridiculous. And then on the flip side, if you look at the cosmetic industry as a whole, it really gears towards this very high glamor kind of approach. And I don’t think it necessarily meets the standard everyday kind of woman, we need something that’s practical and that makes us feel good, but we don’t need to kick on 18 layers of makeup like we’re going out to the club or something.


12:38 Mark: Right, that’s right.


12:41 Rene: It’s overly sexualized, I think. It wasn’t a message that I wanted to push, and it wasn’t a message that I wanted Renzoe Box to be about, so it was really about getting back to that core of, You know what, we can be intelligent and beautiful and get our stuff done. All of these things all wrapped into one.


13:00 Mark: Yeah. That comes through on your website. The classic, confident, just really good design on your website. We spent time on that as a shop yesterday. So you hired Good Creative, that’s clear. What can you say about that process? Was that a really good experience for you? Were there unique challenges dealing with the creative side? Or did it just go perfectly smoothly? 


13:27 Rene: No. Nothing ever goes perfectly smoothly.


13:30 Mark: Oh, good, I’m glad to hear you say that.


13:33 Rene: I wish. No, I mean… Well, first of all, all of the creative is in-house.


13:37 Mark: Oh, wow.


13:37 Rene: We didn’t go with an outside firm or anything like that, that’s what happens when you hire an architect, we just think we could do everything.


13:43 Mark: Yeah.


13:46 Rene: Yeah, so it’s all in-house. And it took iterations at arriving at that message like I said, but once we arrived at where beauty meets brains, it’s been the driving point. And with every decision, from production to what we post, to how we talk about the product, to the different events that we choose to go to, eventually what type of retailers we’ll partner up with, and what brands we’ll partner… All of these things, the message, does this meet were beauty meets brains? 


14:15 Mark: Right.


14:16 Rene: If it doesn’t then…


14:18 Mark: It’s the wrong spot, yeah.


14:20 Rene: It’s the wrong spot, it’s not us.


14:21 Mark: Yeah.


14:21 Tim: Yeah. I love when you were talking… I’m kinda switching gears a little bit, but I love when you were talking about how it is difficult to be taken seriously, and the way that you’ve answered that is with a beautiful thought process, a beautiful design, and a wonderful and supported business model. I mean that…


14:43 Rene: Thank you.


14:44 Tim: There is no way that that isn’t taken seriously. That’s fantastic, I just…


14:48 Rene: Thank you. I appreciate that.


14:49 Tim: I think that’s… I wanted to say it, ’cause I’m like, Man, I’m just so impressed, I think it’s amazing. Can you tell us a little bit about the start-up phase? Besides being in an industry that you didn’t have experience in, besides all of those things, what is the one shocker that you were like, “Man, I did not see that coming.”? Maybe it was Trump’s tariffs? Maybe it was something else.


15:14 Rene: Yeah, that was definitely a big one. Well, and the thing… I’ll tell you the thing that was the most interesting about that was… It was like the end of September, that round of Trump’s… That round of the tariffs is when I was subject to them. And the day that I found out, my import tariffs went from 3% to adding 10% on top of that overnight, so 13%.


15:42 Mark: Wow.


15:44 Rene: And I thought to myself, “Okay, I have a limited amount of cash here, should I be… Oh, and I was told as of January 1, 2019, it was gonna go up to 27%.


15:56 Tim: Wow.


15:56 Mark: Gosh.


15:58 Rene: So that was not something that I accounted for, and I don’t think any business person accounts for that. It’s almost a 30% increase.


16:05 Mark: Right.


16:05 Tim: Right.


16:06 Rene: A third increase in your production cost, I wasn’t accounting that.


16:07 Tim: That changes everything.


16:08 Rene: It does, it changes everything. So there’s a thought process I had that was like, “Well, maybe I need to just spend all my cash producing as much as I can and get it over here before January 1. And it took me about a day to mull it over and go through the business model and think about it. And I was like, “You know what, it’s not what I need to do right now. I need to get the message out there about Renzoe Box, and spend my cash elsewhere.” However, what I didn’t think about was literally everybody else who produces in China had the exact same thought I did.


16:39 Tim: Yeah.


16:40 Rene: And then the next round of tariffs that were going to go into effect were going to affect consumer electronics, so that’s like Apple and Samsung and everybody. And what those big companies did is, they had the foresight and the capital available, they decided to bring as much product as they could over here because they had…


17:09 Mark: Pre January 1, right. Okay.


17:11 Rene: Right. Pre January 1. And you can buy up air freight, you can buy air freight the same way you can reserve an airline ticket. And so, they purchased, pre-purchased all the air freight that you’re able to get.


17:22 Tim: Wow.


17:22 Rene: And so I get a call from my shipping broker and they’re like, “We’re sorry, your palette of 250 units… ” That was one of the shipments that was coming, they’re like, “We can’t get it here.” And I said…


17:36 Tim: You got bumped.


17:36 Rene: “Excuse me, I’m sorry, what are you talking about?” So we ended up having to break up the palette, and so it went from Shenzhen to Guangzhou to Tokyo to Mexico to Houston to…


17:51 Mark: Oh, my gosh.


17:51 Rene: It did this whole insane routing, and it ended up costing me an arm and a leg, but that’s something you can’t foresee.


17:58 Mark: Right.


18:00 Rene: And I think, back to your question, Tim, was what are the most surprising things, is that there’s just gonna be bumps in the road, no matter what. There’s no way when I started this, that I would ever have been able to think of that possibility.


18:15 Mark: Right.


18:16 Rene: And so, you just have to take each one of those bumps with a grain of salt and say, “Alright, there’s a solution to this, this isn’t gonna be the thing that puts me under,”


18:27 Mark: That’s right.


18:28 Rene: “I can find a way around it, and just have a bit of resilience and calmness.”


18:33 Mark: Yeah.


18:35 Rene: To be able to think your way through it, and just find a solution.


18:39 Mark: Well, and with such wide acceptance, that there is clearly this demand. And maybe I’m not sure that you would say it, but it sounds like demand is definitely there present and maybe even outstripping your supply ability. So all of those bode well for 2019.


18:56 Rene: Absolutely. I’m really excited about 2019.


18:57 Mark: I mean, this is an exciting… Yeah, it’s an exciting time, I would think, for where you are.


19:03 Rene: It is, it’s really exciting. I’m excited to see where and how this will grow, my next steps. I’ve gotten through the production logistics in that supply chain, and I know I have every piece identified, and I’ve gone through the process once. So now this is about iterating on that and expanding. I know where I need to spend my capital and where I can save.


19:23 Mark: Yeah.


19:24 Rene: And I think with each round it’ll get more efficient. And then ultimately, the next steps are things like going and getting licensing agreements from the major brands and the major conglomerates and seeing how I can into something bigger.


19:44 Mark: Those strategic partnerships? 


19:45 Tim: Yes, exactly.


19:46 Mark: Okay.


19:47 Tim: That’s fantastic. Well, tell us, besides just being excited about 2019, what are your customers? What is your audience? What do you need them to know? What are you excited about for them? 


20:02 Rene: Gosh, I think the thing that a lot of… I still get a lot of questions about this that people are confused about, which is how is it possible to get any brands that I want in these Renzoe Pods in my Renzoe Box, because it’s true, I am a startup, I don’t have all of these partnership agreements yet and we’re working on them. So what we’ve done is we have a cosmetic laboratory that we’ve teamed up with and if it’s a brand that we have not yet partnered with, we will source their product. So if you use a specific color foundation or something, we source it and our lab will press it into a Renzoe Pod.


20:44 Mark: Wow, okay. Cool.


20:49 Rene: It costs a little bit more because we’re providing the convenience and a service, but no matter what you can get exactly what you want.


20:57 Tim: Man, that’s interesting. Okay. There’s a lot of similarities here between what you’re doing with the makeup industry to what Keurig was doing with the coffee industry.


21:10 Rene: That is a fantastic… Yeah, that’s actually… That’s an analogy I use a lot.


21:15 Tim: Okay.


21:16 Rene: I have to be careful when I use that one because I think that theirs produces a lot of waste versus mine is actually doing the opposite I think. Renzoe Box does actually reduces the amount of packaging and the amount of waste, but in terms of a business model, it’s almost exactly that.


21:33 Tim: Wow. Man, may you go as big as Keurig.


21:36 Mark: Yeah. That’s great.


21:37 Rene: I hope so. I hope so.




21:41 Tim: That’s fantastic. Is there anything you wanna leave with? 


21:47 Rene: Gosh, I don’t know. I think maybe it’s just, I really want to encourage other female entrepreneurs out there. If you have an idea, if you have a… I don’t know, just a drive to go do something, a passion about something, just do it. Just go do it.


22:07 Tim: Yeah, that’s great. Heck, yeah.


22:07 Rene: And have fun with it. And don’t let… I’ve had some… Tim knows this, but I also teach at the university level and I’ve had students come up to me and they’re like, “How was it possible? How did you do this?” And I think the way I overcome fears is I always, I look around, I did this since I was a kid. I remember when I was a kid, I was scared of roller coasters and standing in line at Six Flags in Arlington, I saw this kid that came off of the roller coaster that was shaking, about to get on and I was like, “Okay, if he can do it, I can do it.”


22:53 Mark: That’s right.


22:54 Rene: And that’s how I got over it. And so that’s what I do now. Even to this day, I look around, I’m like, “Okay, if she can build that company, surely I can do it. If he can build that company, definitely I can do it.” And that’s what I encourage and I hope that I can be an example to other women.


23:13 Tim: Yeah. Well, that is a fundamental foundational belief that you have gotta have to be entrepreneurial in any way, which is that assurance that me or the partners that I have joined with, we are confident that we can crack anything, we can figure anything out. It’s gotta be in our DNA as entrepreneurs to be able to do that.


23:38 Rene: I think so.


23:39 Mark: So, congrats.


23:41 Rene: Thank you and congrats to you guys.


23:42 Tim: Well, thanks.


23:43 Mark: Thanks.


23:44 Tim: Well, thank you for joining us. This has been just amazing. We really appreciate your time, but we appreciate your product and your thought processes. So thanks for sharing.


23:53 Rene: Thanks guys.


23:55 Mark: Thanks for talking to us.


23:55 Rene: Absolutely.


23:56 Tim: Alright.


23:56 Mark: Take care.


23:56 Tim: Thanks again. We’ll talk to you soon. Bye-Bye.


24:01 Rene: Okay, bye.


24:02 Tim: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Brand Manual podcast. We hope you enjoyed it. We’d be super grateful if you shared. You can find the other episodes on Apple podcasts and Spotify. We’ll see you next time on the Brand Manual podcast.


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