Marjon Carlos meets Sharmadean Reid, the beauty entrepeneur revolutionising the industry with marketplace-meets-social network Beautystack
Words by Marjon Carlos – Photography by Leonn Ward
Sharmadean Reid is in desperate need of a massage.
The beauty entrepreneur has just touched down in New York for a few days of business meetings and is feeling a bit sluggish from being on the road, away from her friends, and off of her exercise routine. The Golden turmeric latte the 34-year-old WAH Nails founder has been sipping on in the buzzing cafe of Soho’s The Wing, the all-women, members-only co-working space, simply isn’t cutting it. Leaning over to confer with her best friend, model and Pat McGrath muse Paloma Elsesser, the two quibble over the best area spot to pop into for a quick rub down.
Watching the two beauty authorities deliberate over a final destination, I can’t help but think that this is the very type of beauty conundrum that has inspired Reid’s newest professional endeavour, the app, Beautystack. Yup, the former stylist who launched WAH Nails to incredible success in 2009 - an all-out nail art and feminist movement that transformed the traditional salon into a nerve center for community and female empowerment - is setting out to digitize the age-old but undeniable word-of-mouth exchange that women have relied upon for centuries.
As any of us will tell you, it’s almost second nature to lean over to a stranger on the subway and ask where she got that eye-catching mani/pedi combo that you’ve been admiring for two stops, or slip into the DM’s of your favourite follow to find the name of the miracle worker who had ‘placed hands’ on her eyebrows.
New to town and looking for a Dominican blowout? Ask the woman walking in front of you, whose tresses are blowing in the wind. Exchanges such as these are frequent, invited, and often lead to an instant sort of intimacy and sisterhood. But oddly enough, in the digital world we live in, where so much of our social interactions have been taken online, this model has never been streamlined into a single platform. Certainly, beauty booking apps are popping up left and right, but none that are community-minded. Ever the visionary, Reid set out to remedy that, and create a marketplace-meets-social network. As Reid muses, “The way I see it is that salons were the original social network, yeah? But no one’s turned that into a digital product. It’s like, hanging out, community, liking, following, sharing.”
Creating individual profiles, Beauty-stack users upload images of all the treatments they have had done and loved, tagging their stylist or pro in the process, and following friends and other users whose style they admire. They can then directly book everything from the microcurrent facial at New York’s SB Skin that Elsesser swears by or the fluorescent dye job that British influencer Flo Gluan sports, with the app being linked to a business’ Google calendar. There’s even original content including first-hand interviews with cultural heroines and choice beauticians that drill even deeper to uncover advice, insider secrets, and emerging trends. And like Instagram or Tumblr, Beautystack has created a world that is aesthetics-first, with everything from the psychedelic pastel backdrop to the clean scroll creating a visually appealing portal that outshines the sterile systems salons have previously relied upon. Ultimately, it’s a setup that not only empowers the consumer but the beauty professionals, with Reid shrewdly reasoning: “Instead of getting a reblog or a like, wouldn’t it be cool if you got a booking? Reblogs don’t put food on the table, right?”
Admittedly, I knew of Reid’s business acumen before we had even met. It’s the stuff of lore. There are of course the conversations I have had with her close circle of girlfriends, affectionately known as the “International Girls Crew”: these globetrotting best friends had often waxed on Reid’s ability to develop new enterprising business ideas at the drop of the hat. But when I hear the mother-of-one passionately talk strategy, unionizing Britain’s beauty workers, and workflow charts firsthand, it leaves me a little slack-jawed - but also inspired to leave the cafe table we’re sitting at and launch the business idea I have been stalling on for years. Elsesser observes this reaction of mine and laughs, “Oh! You’re getting Sharma’d!”
Oh, so I was - but I was in good company.
Ever since Reid burst onto the beauty scene in 2009 - successfully turning a hip-hop ‘zine for her friends into a Dalston nail salon that was imbued with both the familiarity of your local corner bodega and the glamour of downtown London’s biggest trendsetters all while she was still attending Central Saint Martins - WAH Nails has dazzled the industry and its young, female converts. In the midst of a recession, the then 24-year-old Reid managed to fan a revived fire around nail art, undoing its tacky, antiquated past, for a chic, fashion-forward vision. And she was doing it all before the #blackgirlmagic movement would inspire legions of women of colour to take up space, live out loud, and pursue one’s dreams. As a black female entrepreneur of both Jamaican and Indian descent with a badass sense of personal style, Reid quickly became a lodestar for her growing customer base.
Reid would eventually go on to open another salon in TopShop, launch an eponymous nail polish line with Boots, write two books, design a Princess Diana-inspired line of clothing with ASOS, form Future Girl Corporation, a collective for young female entrepreneurs, and receive an MBE from the Queen for her work in beauty in 2015. Yeah...I’m exhausted even writing that.
But the same year Reid’s MBE honor came down, the businesswoman decided to close WAH’s TopShop location, move back home to Wolverhampton, and begin developing her next move: positioning herself as someone that was driving beauty services forward with technology. Deep-diving into a new frontier yet again, Reid brushed up quickly on coding and cracking the tech world. “I spent a year just studying start-ups, listening to every podcast, reading every book,” she tells me. “In my hometown, I moved back and I just did nothing apart from giving myself my own little MBA on startups.” This included attending every tech and AI conference, visiting the Google campus, joining meet-ups, and talking to any number of insiders about her “retail tech journey.” It was formative, but as Reid explains, she was an outsider in these spaces, not only due to her professional background in the fashion/beauty sphere, but her race and gender. “I think we turn up to these things, we look so different, people are shocked, ‘What are you here for?’” Data scientists had little interest in tackling the area of beauty at the time - this is all before female-run beauty startups like Glossier would go onto to become a billion dollar industry - and dismissed her idea as “frivolous.” Reid had a difficult time proving that women drive the consumer landscape and beauty is far more accessible (read: profitable) than fashion.
"Ultimately, Beautystack is here to empower the professionals economically, who, Reid reminds me, are overwhelming female." Still, Reid persisted. The beauty guru managed to re-open her salon a year later, in November 2016 - a sleekly futuristic Kim Boutin-designed oasis based in Soho. It was supplied with VR technology that allowed WAH customers to virtually try on and preview nail colors and designs, and then book appointments for those same designs with a chatbot developed with the aid of New York software company, Bowtie. It was innovative and made a huge splash, but Reid had even bigger plans. So she made sure the new salon was running smoothly for nine months before pivoting to work on what eventually become Beautystack. “I got a team together, persuaded them to join, and I raised a small amount of funding just to get going. With that bit of funding, I paid the developers, my co-founders, and designed the first bit of what the platform would look like.” Reid, in fact, would go on to raise a pre-seed round of just under a million dollars - such a rarity for black female entrepreneurs that those who achieve this feat are dubbed “unicorns” in the VC world - and begin developing Beautystack into “the Tumblr of beauty.”
The web platform they built out worked just as she envisioned (“Imagine we built Squarespace, but instead of adding a picture to sell, you add a picture that is connected to a calendar, so you’re selling your time”), but immediately Reid knew this had to be an app. “What was I even thinking, building a web platform?” Beautystack needed to have more dexterity for a woman on-the-go, who with the swipe of a finger could book a box braids appointment, and connect with a community of like-minded aesthetes. So, back to the drawing board she and her designers went, with Reid and her three-person development team managing to create the app in four months, and the entrepreneur raising more money and adding seven more people to the Beautystack fold. The tech world ‘outsider’ was proving herself, yet again, to be on the cutting edge of how we relate to beauty.
The app’s format is intuitive, interactive, impactful, and rife with data - one of Reid’s newfound techy passions. As she shows me on her phone, she’s uploaded all of her latest services - hair, nails, facial, or lash extensions - and any of her followers can directly book with the professionals who did the honors. But taking the booking format a step further, Beautystack allows its users to save, like, and upload images themselves and create a moodboard of sorts that directly details what they are specifically looking for. “You might say, ‘Actually, I want it a bit more like this’, or ‘My eyelashes are like this, can you even do it?’ You can add notes. Then you accept [the beauty professional’s] terms, and then you add the credit card.”
For Reid, the booking experience should be as visually appealing and descriptive as possible. What does the term ‘wash and blow dry’ really tell today’s scrupulous beauty consumer? It’s far too vague. “I want to know exactly what your hair looks like. I want to walk into a salon and be able to see everything she did that week,” she reasons. And by following one’s favorite cultural heroines on the app, Beautystack users begin taking cues from women whose taste they admire and align with, forging community in the process. So, yes, if she’s traveling to New York, the Beautystack user can rely on her local faves to suggest the best masseuse in the area.
Drilling even deeper, Beautystack allows Reid to collect data on the beauty habits of their users and the latest trends they’re after, and observe the booking value that, say, French nails may be amassing. It’s not just ‘popular on Instagram’ but a bankable new wave for professionals - because ultimately, Beautystack is here to empower the professionals economically, who, Reid reminds me, are over-whelming female. “Beautystack will allow them to make money from their skillset and their social posts, and as part of this we'd love to host workshops and summits on everything from taking the best photos of your work, to managing your finances and taxes." Besides, Reid considers these specialists far more influential than bloggers in terms of selling products. “If your hairdresser recommended you a shampoo or a blogger did, you’re likely to believe your hairdresser.” Why not help them monetize this sway?
I stop to consider this for a moment and she’s right: even amongst the age of You-Tube beauty vloggers, the massive amount of trust I have built with my hairstylist over the last ten years is unprecedented. It’s the longest running relationship I have had in New York, and I value her input like none other. I also think it goes without saying that I recommend her to others, further proof Beautystack’s model is on the nose.
Still, how does Reid plan on vetting all these businesses and recommendations ahead of the app’s official launch on October 26th? She tells me she’s personally onboarding Beautystack’s favorite beauty pros now, and in the future eventually, anyone will be able apply. It seems a daunting task to take on as she’s poised to unleash this app to the tech and beauty worlds, but the girlboss is taking it on with an infectious enthusiasm. She excitedly details how they’ll be holding events and Beauty Boss workshops throughout November at the new Coal Drops Yard space and inviting a weekly roster of beauty pros to showcase their work and offer treatments. Even though Beautystack is a bonafide tech company now, Reid assures me these IRL events are important to help foster offline connections.
I am again left in wonder as we hug goodbye; Reid has finally found a massage spot in the neighborhood that meets her exacting qualifications. But before she takes off, the entrepreneur emails me some original reading materials she’s written on being an effective leader. I see the vision.