Becky Waddell is obsessed with labels — that is, ingredient labels. After years of using beauty products laden with unnecessary ingredients such as fragrances, animal products, thickeners and preservatives, she was fed up. Even high-end, natural skin and body care shops had labels littered with complicated ingredients, so Becky set out to create an alternative. Be Clean is a curated apothecary shop that carries 100% natural, plant-based products you can feel good about using. Located in the creative haven of Washington, DC, Be Clean offers a carefully selected collection of handcrafted products made in the USA from local makers. More than just a shop-owner, Becky is passionate about helping change the landscape of skincare and beauty, and opens up the shop often to host local events and classes to encourage a community of support and creativity. Today we’re thrilled to have Becky share her humble vision for the future, as well as business advice, insight and best practices. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I actually do both! I work full-time and devote almost every spare moment to Be Clean. There is incredible freedom in working for oneself, and it’s paired with immense responsibility. I love the challenge and am eager for the day when I can fully devote all my time to my own shop, but in the meantime, I am incredibly grateful for the work I do.
I have something of a humble vision for my future: a life with my husband Trevor, three kids, a small house on several rural acres, a dachshund rescue in my backyard, and a small business where handmade and healthy goods are celebrated. For me, the best work-life balance I could ever ask for is the kind that comes during a hectic morning cooking breakfast with my family while pondering innovative partnerships with up-and-coming brands. There is such luxury in being able to fully devote time to one’s own endeavors. The goal of this alluring work-life balance, of course, is to make Be Clean a vehicle for positive change. Cultivating that environment of support, creativity and evolution is precisely the type of environment that I believe Be Clean needs in order to positively influence the personal wellness industry.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
I don’t think there was a specific moment, but in college I worked in a national “natural” skincare shop and was fascinated with the ingredients (I didn’t realize it at the time, but they weren’t really all that natural). I eventually parted ways and began exploring veganism, which made me a label reader. That’s what really drew me to truly natural skincare. I would stand in the aisles of grocery stores and cosmetics counters reading product labels that were comprised primarily of thickeners, stabilizers, fragrance, and preservatives and think, “Why would I pay money for inactive and potentially harmful ingredients?” More importantly, why would I want to put toxic ingredients on my skin?
As I grew older, I also questioned the way people, and women in particular, are taught to hate their bodies, and simultaneously made to believe that cosmetics and products will “fix” our “imperfections.” At some point, I decided I didn’t really want to participate in that dialogue any longer. And all of these moments and realizations pushed me to start a business that functions as a haven for ingredient label purists, wellness enthusiasts and all-around natural folk. So, to answer the question more directly, I discovered what I wanted to do by deciding what I didn’t want to support, and things fell in line from there.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
I think the best piece of advice came from my husband, a few months prior to actually launching when I was still trying to decide if it was something I would do. I was so timid in the beginning — even thinking of starting a business felt completely unrealistic. One afternoon we were chatting and I said, “This is crazy, I can’t really start a business.” And he, completely unfazed, replied, “Yes you can. Of course you can.” And it just clicked.
Self-doubt will kill a business before it even has a chance to see the light of day, and as a small business owner you simply have to be brave and rise above that fear. I think that sentiment has been reinforced by most of the small business owners I’ve reached out to. I suppose now would be a good time to say that other small business owners have been instrumental in my personal development: they’ve guided, recommended and pep-talked me from a place of experience when I needed it most. I’ll be forever grateful to them and hope I can pay that generosity forward some day.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The most difficult part was technical and artistic: the photography. We launched online, and I knew I didn’t want bright white backgrounds with products floating in the middle of the image square. Instead, I wanted something warmer and more welcoming. But our studio apartment doesn’t have ideal product photography light, so we tried everything to control the outcome. We bought a new camera, new lenses, a light box, and light stands. We probably took 40 images of every product, each time trying to minimize how much of our faces and bodies we could see in the glass bottle reflection. I’ve never been as intimately close to my living room floor as I was when I was trying to avoid my reflection in bottles of toner! I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to catch our products in the right light, let alone try to figure out how to edit them correctly. It took several months, to be completely frank, but we have the system down to a science now.
But I’d love to reiterate: simply believing that starting a business was something I could do was the number one hurdle. Who was I to be starting a business, and what did I know? How could I afford it? And why would anyone care? Those were the hardest struggles to overcome, and now that I’ve been up and running for a year, I realize those are silly concerns and I try as much as possible to ignore my self-doubt. I’ve read so many articles chastising millennials for thinking they’re special and unique… guess what I think? You are a beautiful flower/snowflake/other intricate thing, and you should do whatever your heart calls you to do.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Not all partnerships are fruitful, and not all need to be. Make sure to enter partnerships on explicit terms, especially if you have something specific you hope to gain. But also recognize that there are people and brands you’ll encounter that you will want to support simply because you believe in what they do and want them to succeed right alongside you. Try to foster those relationships and give them as many opportunities to grow as you can!
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
I try not to think of learning experiences as “failures.” We’ve had major lessons learned, though. The most obvious one was our experience at a major craft festival in NYC around the holidays. We were brand new, overstretched, and had no idea of how to prepare for an out-of-state holiday market. I remember feeling the pressure of bringing as many lines as we could stuff into our car, and trying to make a really cool setup on a budget. Ultimately, we did okay. But looking back, we could have curated better, devoted more time to our shop experience and had a better understanding of craft markets.
This goes back to being brave, though. We never would have gained that insight had we not done that market. We were positively exhausted by the time we were back in DC, but we learned by doing. If we are accepted to the market again this year, I promise you that our setup and our selection will be 10x better. It takes a while to figure things out, and the best thing to do is learn from your experiences and re-chart your course accordingly.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Be more creative on social media, improve my website’s SEO, and expand partnerships. Oh, and nap and exercise.
From a social media perspective, I wish I could do so much more. If I had three extra hours in the day (that’s 21 hours a week!) I’d devote most of it to articulating the reasons why the products we carry are so special. The brands you can find at Be Clean are truly unique, and I would love to tell their stories in a more intimate fashion. That’s the absolute #1 thing I wish I could do more of.
SEO is something I didn’t pay a ton of attention to when launching www.becleanshop.com. I realize now that I should have, but I did what I could with what I knew at the time. When I have spare moments, I go in and edit the site to make it easier to find in internet searches so folks know we exist! It’s sort of important for an online business!
Finally, I would love to have more time to simply get to know members of my community and forge creative partnerships. There are so many exciting ventures happening in DC (and beyond) and I really want Be Clean to be a part of this green beauty groundswell.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Free time, without a doubt.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
Our studio! From the get-go, we realized that folks want to experience skincare in person. Especially with small independent brands, there aren’t tons of online reviews or guides to help you choose the best products for your skin type or preferences. A few months back, a 140-square-foot studio came available to rent in a historic artists’ building, and we took the plunge. My husband and I refurbished the space every single weekend for three months, and in doing so strengthened our relationship and commitment to Be Clean.
We revamped every inch of that space by hand: we refinished the floors; acid bathed, de-rusted and refinished the 100-year-old cast iron tub we hauled from a used building material warehouse; installed new windows; built and installed shelves by hand; repainted; installed floor boards; insulated; and even bent the copper pipe for the faucet by hand. Writing it out makes it sound relatively simple, but it was one of the most challenging projects and endeavors we’ve taken on together, and once we finally finished, we felt like we could do anything. We are so proud of the Be Clean studio. It feels amazing both to have our own special little space, but also to have a resource and welcoming area for our DC community. I really hope that the studio is viewed as a usable space by like-minded people… I can’t wait to see all the ways it will be used!
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I think the best business resources are other business owners (preferably ones that become your friends). A guide can only tell you so much, and it can’t be there to bounce ideas off of or celebrate tiny-but-much-needed victories. Embrace a circle of people you trust and enjoy, and if you find yourself looking to them for advice and guidance, just make sure to let them know it’s because you think they’re awesome :)
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
Again, I try not to think of things in those terms. That said, when I moved to DC it was to pursue a career in policy. When I found that I didn’t enjoy the work I was doing, nor was I finding stable and meaningful employment as quickly as I thought I would, I did feel like a failure and it was a toxic, soul-sucking feeling. It colored everything I did, and eventually I was just so exhausted from feeling like a disappointment that I had to step back and reassess. Over time, I realized that there are limitless life paths we can choose, and that I could be empowered by my path or be broken by it. I have too many student loans, so I chose the first option! “Failure,” or the very common phenomenon of things not going how you planned, is rich with opportunity for growth. Embrace it.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
Are you willing to give up your free time? All of the entrepreneurs I know work almost constantly. Assuming that you need to work a day job initially, your “free time” is devoted to your business. It can feel like a lot of pressure when you also have friends and a family to pay attention to. Be prepared to be tired, slightly overtaxed, and a master of to-do lists. The awesome thing is that those feelings are accompanied by a personal sense of satisfaction, creativity and empowerment you probably haven’t felt before, which makes it all worth the work.
Do you have a realistic expectation of cost? I won’t go into detail here because I’m not even remotely qualified to dole out financial advice, but be honest with yourself about how much it costs to start the type of business you want to start. You could find that budget fears are misguided and holding you back without reason, but you may also find that the $1,500 you have saved up will get you nowhere. You should feel secure about the financial decisions you make, even if they are a little unnerving, so enter into the startup process with a clear financial picture.
How can you use your business as an opportunity to grow community? That’s pretty straightforward: it’s no fun to have a business in a vacuum.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Instagram, because it gets my brain moving, and then email.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Finding balance. When you work for someone else, you can put in your time and then go home. When you own your own business, you are in charge 24/7. You can work all the time and still feel like there is an endless to-do list. It’s crucial to not lose sight of all the other important things in your life, like your relationships, health and well-being. Without them, it’s hard to be a good boss to yourself.