The journey to retail
by Jake Xu, Co-Founder, ShakeUp Cosmetics

Getting your product to retail may feel like a mountain to climb. Jake discusses his journey of launching a unique product in a saturated market.

19th July 2021 Read time: 45 minutes

The cosmetics industry is a saturated one. The giant companies seemingly rule the roost, with little to no space for the ‘little guy’ to launch a product. The journey to retail can be a bumpy one. However, ShakeUp cosmetics never took ‘no’ for an answer, taking their product to retail against all odds.  

Jake Xu and his twin brother Shane Carnell-Xu embarked on what felt like an impossible mission: to get their startup cosmetics brand on the shelves of retail stores. 

Jake joined the What’s Possible Community sessions to talk about his journey of running a creative agency to becoming one of the brands that he once would have helped grow. ShakeUp Cosmetics makes hybrid makeup and skincare products for men. Their products are vegan friendly and cruelty free.  

Jake Xu was born in Beijing and educated in the UK. Along with his twin-brother he founded a multi-award-winning creative agency that specialised in breakthrough tactical marketing campaigns for consumer brands in the beauty, cosmetics and skincare sectors.  

After twelve successful years at the agency, Jake and his brother were ready to pivot from a service-based industry to a product-based one.   

He was ready to throw everything into something he was extremely passionate about. Though their journey wouldn’t be easy.  Their journey to retail had begun.

Creating the brand you would buy from 

Jake suffers from rosacea, a common skin condition that causes redness and visible blood vessels in your face. From a young age, Jake was well-acquainted with skincare products, and would be applying concealers and foundations on bad flare-up days.  

He wanted to create a brand that he would buy from, that catered to his personal needs: ShakeUp Cosmetics was born. A brand that would democratise access to male skincare products in what remains a very niche market.  

Jake says that starting a digital agency is easier than developing a product. Jake and his brother started the agency with two computers in a house in 2007. However, starting up ShakeUp Cosmetics was much more complex.  

You need to buy the stock, you need to develop the stock, you need to develop the formula, and all of that is a big investment. Not only financial, but time and resources as well” Jake explained.  

Before they could start, they performed a round of market research – which took sixteen months to complete.  

Being in the beauty industry, we know how saturated this market is, we know how competitive, how red ocean this sector is” Jake said. “So, you really have to find that unique point of difference in order to make a dent in this industry, unless you have millions of pounds to spend, which we didn’t”. 

What their market research found was that there was a gap in the market for men’s cosmetics. Next, they had to attack the scientific requirements of creating cosmetics, which involved consulting dermatologists.  

Soon after, the regulations came pouring in. ShakeUp had to comply with EU laws, including export laws, and needed to ensure that none of the 1,300 banned ingredients were used in their cosmetics.  

Once the nitty gritty details were completed, they were ready to work towards the final step: manufacturing.  

There’s a bit of a dilemma for indie beauty brands. Being an indie brand – being small – means you can’t place an order of a million units, like L’Oréal or Estée Lauder can do. Those manufacturers don’t tend to work with you on good terms because they have bigger clients to look after, and they don’t need small fish to fry” Jake explained.  

ShakeUp had to deliver a convincing pitch to win the hearts of one of the large manufacturers. They succeeded. And became the first indie brand that one of the major manufacturers had taken on.  

Unlocking the final level 

They had played the game, and now they were ready to conquer the final mountain: retail.  

The industry seemed to be extremely closed off to indie brands. Jake said that success in the industry is seemingly determined by ‘who you know’ and not ‘what you know’. 

The networks built through their former creative agency came into good use for ShakeUp.  

Jake is in a Whatsapp group chat full of beauty brand founders who happily share their knowledge about the industry and have retailer industry contacts.  

Definitely connect with others, be generous with what you know, and in return you’ll receive the same from others” he advised.  

For any indie brands struggling to get into retailers, Jake would recommend an underrated approach:  sell direct-to-consumer.  

If you’re selling direct to consumers, you can tell your story, and they buy into you. You can build that relationship, you can build that database of your customers, you can get to know them a little bit more and communicate with them more” Jake says.  

However, he still stresses that getting your product on the shelves in retailers adds legitimacy to your brand – especially if you are selling something as niche as men’s skincare products.