Mill member Megan Cox has always been a maker. As a young girl growing up in Bedford, she knitted, crocheted, made jewelry—and then hawked her wares to schoolmates to earn money and buy more craft supplies. She laughs telling the story.
“I’ve been wheeling and dealing and making things and selling things since I was a kid. The only time I went to the principal’s office, I had a price list I was passing around the classroom, and it got intercepted.”
Today, Megan’s company Genie Supply offers white label manufacturing, custom formulation, and contract manufacturing for startup beauty and skincare companies. Genie Supply bills itself as “the beauty lab for entrepreneurs” and is the secret source behind cool brands seen at free people, Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom, TJ Maxx, and other stores.
The internet and social media have made it easier for startups to break into industries dominated by massive global companies, and the beauty industry is no exception. Megan knows all about creating a startup beauty company, because she launched her first company, Amalie, from her dorm room at MIT.
“I applied to MIT for chemistry, and after a year I switched to operations research, which some places call industrial engineering. I had ruined my lashes, and nothing I bought worked. So I thought, okay, I have access to all these research papers; I’m going to see what I can find on hair or eyelashes or eyebrows. And then I decided to start putting formulas together. I ordered ingredients, tried them out, and my formula worked really well.”
From there, Megan tried out her lash formula on friends, and they recorded data on the results. “We counted lashes, we measured lashes, we took photos every week. And at the end of that, some people said, ‘Eh, it’s okay,’ and some people said, ‘This has been the most miraculous thing of my life.’ I quit my internship, put together the packaging and figured out the logistics, and I launched Amalie at the end of the summer of 2013.”
Amalie’s sales blew up literally overnight when, unbeknownst to Megan, the Indy Star picked up a story from the Bedford Times-Mail.
“I woke up, and I had $10,000 of sales overnight. And people just kept buying and buying and buying and buying all day.”
She was 21. For the next five years, Megan worked full time to build the company.
Megan on a 2015 trip to a factory in China
“I had so much to learn. That five years was really a journey of me figuring out all the ins and outs and all the details of running the business and keeping customers happy and listening to them, developing new products. For me, doing the same thing every day, it’s a death sentence. And so at the end of that, I was like, I have to make a change, whatever that is: growing my team, finding investors, or selling it.”
She decided to sell. She had learned not only how to formulate, package, and sell beauty products, but also how hot the opportunity for startup brands is, what kind of help they need to launch—and how hard it is for them to find a lab to work with in the U.S., on a small scale, in what’s called “clean” beauty.
Megan, who speaks Mandarin, spent three years in China building a supply chain of labs and manufacturers, not only for her own business, but also for clients she helped with quality control and negotiation. Launching her own lab, in the US—in Bedford—was the natural next step.
“During my time in China, people reading my story on the Shopify blog or in publications were reaching out, ‘Can you help me start my own brand?’ ‘Hey, help me with these packaging problems I’m having.’ So I started to build up a network separate from Amalie, and I’ve maintained those relationships.”
“I found that the formulas coming out of China were toxic and inconsistent. My husband said, ‘You can do this. You can do this better than the labs in China.’ So that’s where these things came together and we opened this beauty lab.”
“Bedford is the community where I grew up, so I knew who to call for finding property and for constructing the lab. And I’ve been able to tap a couple of people in the community who I knew could be part of the creative vision. I also knew a lot of people there already had the manufacturing background. They can contribute, ‘Hey, I think we should do this this way.’ ‘We could do it faster this way,’ or ‘We could do this more organized this way.’ So that’s been really helpful.”
Genie Supply launched in 2018. Today, Genie has 20 employees, including five full-time remote, one of whom is in China.
“Our team is 90% women, 50%+ identify as LGBTQI+, 50%+ BIPOC. That’s usually our standout component. We’re like a small oasis, female-owned and run. It’s why many clients choose us: for women, by women; for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs.”
Ordinarily, Megan travels to China every three months to meet with staff and vendors, but she hasn’t been able to travel there since the outbreak of COVID. That hasn’t impacted Genie Supply’s growth or sales, however. During COVID, Genie crossed the $1m sales lines and saw its third product line release in Urban Outfitters.
“My niche has always been clean beauty. But until two or three years ago, it didn’t really have a name. People would call it ‘natural,’ which means nothing. ‘Organic’ has a different distinction that’s regulated by the USDA.”
Because Megan’s first company made products that were being used near the eyes, she chose natural preservative ingredients rather than parabens, which have been shown disrupt hormones in the body and harm fertility and reproductive organs, affect birth outcomes, and increase the risk of cancer.
These days, clean has become the standard for startup companies. But the majority of products on the market, Megan explains, are still pushed out by two or three multinational companies, such as LVMH and L’Oréal, that own all the major brands.
“The only reason that the entire industry hasn’t moved to clean—because that’s what people want—is because those big companies don’t want to go back and reformulate or recall those products. But that’s going to happen soon enough, in the next two or three years. But all the small and medium brands are going clean now.”
Genie Supply uses four icons to distinguish what level of clean beauty each product is (cleverly tied to major outlets where Genie’s startup customers will hope to distribute their lines). At a minimum, all products meet Sephora’s standard for clean. From there the standards rachet up in strictness to meet Whole Foods’ and Credo’s standards, culminating at the standard of Genie Supply Green + Clean. Genie’s in-house standard is vegan, cruelty-free, and according to Megan, stricter than the strictest clean beauty standard on the market in the U.S.
“The reason why manufacturers make products that are ‘dirty’ is because it’s convenient and it’s cheap and it’s reliable. You can rely on those ingredients, you know how they’re going to perform in microbial testing. It can be a little bit more challenging with natural preservatives, but in terms of performance, it just takes time. You have to put in the research.”
“It took us over two years to get our lipstick formula down, but I wouldn’t trade it for any other lipstick on the market. The most amazing thing about Genie is that we do both color and skincare. There’s nothing that I can say, ‘Well, I prefer to use this other product over the one we manufacture.”
Genie has launched well over a hundred new brands to date: Megan has stopped keeping count. Repeat business is strong, and Genie’s clients are now pitching to Sephora and Credo, hoping to pick up distribution there. “In my eyes, those are even bigger than Nordstrom and TJ Maxx,” Megan says, “even if those are huge chains. Getting into Sephora is the next level. So we’ve had a lot of success so far in being able to work on a lot of new and interesting products. I’m really proud of some of the new launches that we have coming out this year.”
So what are those new brands, exactly? It’s a secret, for good reason.
“We are not trying to be the media superstars. We want to stay behind the scenes, because if we make too much noise, people are going to be asking, ‘Who’s working with Genie Supply?’ This is very much still a hush-hush industry, because things do not get patented. All you have are your trademark secrets.”
“So people don’t want you to know which lab they work with, or what colors you’re coming out with, or what might be next. We try to toe that line between being visible to our potential clients, but not so visible that people just want to go directly to us and skip the brands.”
“It’s very similar to cooking. You have a recipe, and you make it, and someone might have a better cake recipe than you have. And if they give it out, then everyone’s going to make it that way. You still have to list your ingredients, and you still have to go through certain testings to prove the safety of your products, but if you give out the exact ratios, then people are going to make your exact product.”
“There are patents, don’t get me wrong. L’Oréal has patents, Procter & Gamble have patents. They have to do it because they’re so big. ‘Oh, you’re going to use 60 to 70% composition of natural oils, which could fall into this category, with these types of carbon chains.’ It’s so nebulous, I don’t know how they get away with it. And I don’t think it makes sense.”
Genie’s focus to date has been replicating top-shelf formulas and making classic products clean. The next step for Genie is becoming a leader in putting out all-new formulations.
“My passion and my focus is working with people who want to do something new and cool. I only work with people who are starting beauty lines or trying to scale their beauty lines or have other interests that are difficult challenges. They have to meet me in terms of passion. We have to be equally passionate about the project.”
Social media’s impact on the beauty industry has shifted, Megan says, from major influencers to micro influencers: people with 50-100K followers. “Around the time that we decided to open our lab, I recognized that a lot of these people at the micro level were starting their own brands or their own product lines—probably inspired by Kylie Jenner, a trickle-down effect.”
“There are a lot of new and interesting products as far as whole body and spiritual wellness, new brands and new products from Black and indigenous people of color. That’s huge right now. There are so many different things coming out because we have different voices and different creators.”
“Skincare is definitely having a moment, and clean beauty is having a moment. I still want people to have fun with beauty, because if we just move to skincare, we’re going to lose some of that element of fun. And on the skincare side, if you go too gimmicky, you’re losing effectiveness. We’re trying to create products that are new and interesting and in the intersection of beauty and skincare. They’re good for you, but they’re still fun to play with.”
While Megan is fluent in carbon chains and market analysis, she has never lost the sense of pure joy and creativity that inspire the beauty industry.
“I’m the sparkle queen. I’ve been obsessed with sparkles and glitter forever. I’ve got massive jars of pure sparkle. And if I get bored, and someone comes around to my desk, they say, ‘What happened to you?!’ I cover my face with glitter when I’m bored or trying to think of something.”
So what’s next for the beauty industry?
“I think probably the next most interesting thing that’s going to happen is the intersection of beauty and cannabis for real: not just CBD, but THC. We’re looking forward to those next steps, because CBD does have benefits and I’ve seen them, but sometimes they’re limited, especially on the pain management side. We know how much to use for a dosage based on the research that exists. But I don’t think that can really compare to THC, or to THC and CBD in concert. So we’re trying to gear up and get ready for that next step.”
“CBD is not just a fad. CBD is really powerful, and it does work well in skincare. It’s still in this very early stage. There’s so much that’s unknown that people dismiss it. We know that CBG is better for anti-aging and skin and CBN is better for sleep. I think once we have a little bit more research there, especially surrounding the different minor cannabinoids and their benefits, then it will be even more useful.”
What’s next for Genie Supply? They’re working on a top-secret behind-the-scenes formulation for a major, Sephora-level vendor and beefing up their hybrid beauty offerings that combine color and skincare. In June Genie will launch 10 new CBG products. Beyond that, Megan and her team are exploring their options.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with this venture so far, and I’m really excited for these next steps. We’re at a pretty critical point right now. We have been feeling out strategic partners. People like our formulas, but we’re still very small. So we’ve been having these conversations to figure out if we’re going to work with factories that already exist, that have big machinery and can do our filling and assembly pieces, and keep a small team here. We’ve been having conversations with other partners that might buy part of the business or provide more funding.”
“We went from zero dollars in this teeny tiny garage in 2018 to doing $100,000 a month. Last year, we were doing $30,000 a month. We’ve been growing so quickly. That doesn’t sound quick to someone who has funding, but to someone who’s been working off of no funding and just reinvesting the profits, I feel like it’s been a very quick journey.”
“I’m very happy with where the team’s at right now and everything we’ve accomplished so far—and no one knows that we exist!”
Learn more about Genie Supply.