Ashley Gonazlez started NuMercies, a handcrafted vegan skincare company, once she learned about the harsh ingredients in many of the drugstore beauty brands she’d been using for years.
Inspired by the natural remedies of her Puerto Rican grandmother and harnessing her skills as a trained esthetician, the former model set out to handcraft scrubs, toners, cleansers, body oils, and other products from plant-based ingredients. Today, NuMercies offers simple, all-natural products that address the root causes of many skin problems. Gonzalez’s own skin serves as the proof-of-concept — totally clear and radiant despite a history of acne, dark spots, and eczema.
Hello Alice spoke with Gonzalez about her personal skincare journey, the growing pains of a self-funded business, and how she’s planning to get ready for Black Friday and the big holiday shopping season.
Tell me about your journey from esthetician to becoming a small business owner. Was that always part of the plan?
It really has been a journey. I’m from Chicago, born and raised. At first, I was into modeling, and when I turned 18 I decided to go to school to become a makeup artist. The plan was to use that as a way to establish relationships with photographers and agencies and stuff like that. I ended up going to esthetician school. It’s hilarious because literally, I don’t even wear makeup anymore after all the things I learned — it just changed me forever. My education made me realize why I needed to wear makeup since I started in eighth grade. It was mostly to cover up my skin problems. Now, unless I’m feeling fancy or getting photographed, I’m not dependent on makeup.
Wow, that’s a big shift! What, in particular, changed how you saw makeup and traditional beauty products?
I have had skin problems like eczema since I was little. Then when I started doing modeling, I was breaking out really bad. Of course, after you break out, it becomes a dark spot. At a certain point in my life, I realized I was using makeup to cover up all the flaws that were going on without tackling the root of the problem. Why do I have acne? Why am I flaring up with eczema? Then I learned about the ingredients that are in many beauty products that can cause those very problems.
That makes sense. Over the last decade, a lot of people have realized that skincare is the foundation of a beauty routine, not makeup. That trend also means this is a crowded space. What was the market gap you saw for yourself when you started the business?
I immediately noticed a lot of misconceptions about the beauty industry. Through beauty school, I found that a lot of brands are produced by the same companies. If you go to your local Walgreens, Target, or wherever, everything you see is pretty much owned by the same company with a different name on the bottle. They’re not really interested in telling you anything about why your problems are happening. You may get a strong potion or something in a bottle, but it’s not really getting to the problem, per se. My natural approach is going to do that.
You talked about how you’ve solved your personal skin problems with natural remedies. How do you go from that personal expertise to making products that would be attractive and useful to a broad range of customers?
Excellent question! When I first started, I only made products that just made sense to me. Like, if you have acne, I’m going to write a list of every clean ingredient that helps acne. If you have dark spots, here are some alternatives.
That’s how I was formulating my products in the beginning, which was a disaster. These ingredients may make sense on a piece of paper, but some ingredients cannot go together. In some cases, I was just making a concoction. Now I actually sit down, and it can take me six months to make one product. That includes ordering the ingredients, testing, testing, testing, and then seeing how it does. Sometimes you will formulate something and it looks really nice, and then you’ll go check and there’s mold growing on it or something just didn’t go right. After that, I send it to some brand ambassadors who give me feedback, too.
[Hello Alice Guide: Understand Your Market]
In a survey you answered for Hello Alice, you recommended others work backward, starting with their customers. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Oh my god, if I followed that advice, I would have saved so much money. When I started, I just made sure that I had one of each category: one cleanser, one scrub. Then I just got so carried away. I bought a lot of stuff — a cleansing brush, a facial mister, and a whole bunch of jars that sat in my apartment. At the time, the plan was to reach out to four or five social media influencers. I thought, I’m going to be rich! They’re going to just put one post out, and it’s going to work! Not so fast. I realized that I should maybe start off with 15 bottles of one thing, marketed it, let it sell out, collect the data, and get testimonials. That’s everything I didn’t do, but it would have made things a lot easier.
[Hello Alice Guide: Get Feedback From Your Customers]
How are you handling manufacturing?
I went to school! Ironically, it was a vegan school, so I did have a semester where I learned to formulate skincare. So I had that under my belt and launched the business. Since then, I have definitely been taking continuing education and chemistry lessons to learn how to better formulate. I would say I’m pretty good at it now, but when I first started it was kind of like one cup of this, two cups of that. And it just irks me when people make it look that easy. If you’re not careful, the ingredient won’t be evenly distributed. You literally have to know math, you have to know science. This isn’t arts and crafts!
A lot of beauty and skincare brands have told us that they’ve dealt with packaging shortages during the pandemic. Have you?
Yes, I did! And I feel so bad! The pictures on my website and the jars I had to settle for are different jars. I don’t know what happened, but every website was on backorder for like a year. So yeah, I definitely have to do that. You’ll see a jar in one picture and then you’ll get it and it’ll have a different color top or something. But don’t worry, it’s the same size and stuff like that!
Companies like Glossier and Cocokind preach a beauty-as-lifestyle approach and build a community that lives and dies by their product drops. Is that lifestyle brand template something you aspire to?
I would say yes, at least to an extent. Ultimately, I want to develop a community that focuses on wellness through learning about skincare. I’ve learned so much on my own. My whole life and mindset have pretty much changed. Nobody talks about the depression that comes from a person having acne. Proper skin care can help build self-esteem!
Even though I’m selling these products, I want to really want to give that knowledge back. I want people to understand why they’re breaking out, for instance, and what they can do to make themselves look and feel better.
Are you all e-commerce, or are boutiques and retailers part of the plan, too?
I am partnered with one marketplace. I actually just got an invitation to do another big marketplace, but I’m trying to gear up for Black Friday. I am behind, but my goal is to improve my SEO and Google My Business. But other than that, I do Facebook and Instagram ads.
In the beginning, I paid a whole bunch of influencers that didn’t always have the best return. I do have ambassadors, which is like having children to manage — it’s really hard. I need to get someone to manage them. I definitely want to do a commercial before Black Friday, too. I have to put a casting call out soon. I know Hulu offers tools to help you get a commercial out there. And I definitely need to be friends with Google. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to realize like Google is everything! But I’ll get there.
[Hello Alice Guide: Create a Winning Holiday E-Commerce Strategy]
What has been your pathway to funding your business so far?
It’s self-funded. I think that’s why my momentum has kind of weighed on me. Every time I would get paid, I would put $100 or $200 toward the business. Then I got into a program where you get business credit, which is great. A big problem is that I got COVID recently. Everything that I had planned for this month has slowed down 10 times. When you’re on a roll, you have to kind of stay on the roll. Especially when you have a customer-based product, the customers cannot see inconsistency! I’m working on fixing that now.
[Hello Alice Guide: Bootstrap Your Business]
This month is Hispanic Heritage Month, so I’m wondering if you have any advice as an Afro Latina to other people following in your footsteps?
Oh my God, I feel like the Afro Latina community, the Hispanic community, our time is really coming. I am a minority within a minority — I’m Puerto Rican and I am Black. And we know that the Black-owned era has really taken off. I’m not one to claim one race and not the other, but I really feel like we’re going to get that recognition on all ends very, very soon. I would encourage people not to give up and to embrace their diversity, because, you know, it all happens so quickly. The movement is on our side, and I really believe that the spotlight will be on us very shortly.