As Felipe Vasconcelos has made the jump from one industry to another, the one constant has been his entrepreneurial spirit.
In college, Vasconcelos’ decision to major in information systems was driven only by the desire to secure a job. With a knack for and vast experience with computers, he says it was a move that just made sense.
“Ever since I was young, I was always really good with computers and technology. I figured, ‘Hey, this is something I can do. I need a job,’” he says. “To be honest, I didn’t think much about what I loved and what I was passionate about.”
Although technology may not have been his passion, Vasconcelos used his knowledge and expertise to launch his first business — a web hosting company — as an undergraduate, largely out of necessity. After graduation, however, he decided to follow the traditional path, selling his company and accepting a position at a tech corporation.
Yet Vasconcelos found himself wanting more. “At some point, I decided that I liked people more than I liked machines, so I wanted to do something a little bit different,” he says.
Feeling unfulfilled, Vasconcelos began pursuing a certificate in image consulting at the Fashion Institute of Technology and started his own consulting business. This eventually led him to The Consortium and the University of Rochester Simon School of Business, where he hoped to gain the foundational knowledge to help grow his business. But, after graduating with an MBA in 2016, Vasconcelos found himself going in a different direction: He acquired a business called Elastic Band Company — launching him on yet another path of entrepreneurship.
He subsequently purchased Secret Beauty Club with the revenue he earned from Elastic Band Company and, with the profits from that business, acquired Atomic Makeup. This year, he sold Elastic Band Company, and this summer, he plans to spin off Atomic Makeup’s lab to become its own entity.
Vasconcelos recently spoke with us about his passion and ingenuity for entrepreneurship, his entry into the beauty industry and how his diversity of experiences has helped him along the way.
Why the focus on purchasing existing businesses as opposed to launching your own?
So 80 to 90 percent of new businesses fail in the first year or so. It’s a lot harder to go from zero to $1,000 than to double or triple that; the first thousand dollars is usually significantly harder [to make].
When you’re buying a business, you’re buying mistakes, so you don’t have to go through the same mistakes that the person who created the business had to go through. You’re also buying systems and processes — and something that already works.
From there, it’s [doing what] I did with Elastic Band Company: figuring out what works and doing more of that and figuring out what doesn’t work and getting rid of that.
Where does your passion for entrepreneurship stem from?
I’ve always had an interest in entrepreneurship. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an entrepreneur. I was born and grew up in Brazil, and I remember being 8 or 9 and making kites for the neighborhood kids so that I could sell them and make a profit.
I came to the U.S. when I was 12. My dad worked in antiques, and we would go to estate sales. I noticed that the books would be discarded, so we’d ask for them and bring them to New York, set up a little table in the summer and sell each book for a dollar. In the summer, I’d bring in about $100 a day. In the mid-90s, that’s a lot of money for a 12-year-old kid.
In high school, I had a little business as well. Also, in college, I became homeless, and how I got out of that was by [creating] a business. I started a web hosting business from the college computer lab. So entrepreneurship is something I’ve always done.
How did you end up getting into the beauty industry?
I didn’t know that I was going to get into beauty, but when I was doing my MBA internship, working for a major bank’s corporate headquarters, I saw these four guys leaving the building. They were all dressed exactly the same; they were all wearing gray slacks and blue shirts, and I thought to myself, “Do I want to wear a uniform to work every day?” I started thinking, “Is this what I want? What is my life going to be like if this is the path that I follow?”
Sure enough, the bank made me a very generous offer — a six-figure salary, four weeks vacation, all the benefits — and I said no without fully knowing what I was going to be doing. But, I knew that I wanted to bet on myself.
I felt like for some of my life I had been taking lateral steps, and I wanted to make sure that I was going to do something that was going to make me happy, so I bought a business called Elastic Band Company. It made custom elastic products — custom hair ties, headbands, wristbands, garment elastics. I didn’t have much experience in [elastics], but it was a business that looked really good. The profit margins were fantastic.
I saw a really great opportunity, and that’s when the light bulb kind of went off. I had spent the majority of my time in my MBA program working with small businesses and startups, doing projects with them and figuring out how to scale them. At the beginning, I had to do work for free, but … when I bought this business, it all just clicked, and within the span of two years, I managed to double the valuation of the business, and I collected revenue of about $900,000. We put in a lot of work to bring in big names like Adidas, Reebok, MTV and Stella McCartney.
Did you have any interest in the fashion or beauty industries prior to that?
When I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology for image consulting. I learned a lot about fashion and beauty. I was working with, they call it the ABC’s of image consulting — appearance, behavior and communication — and a lot of my clients were women, so I had to learn a lot about cosmetics products.
The reason I went to business school was because I wanted to learn how to scale the current business that I had as an image consultant.
What does an image consultant do?
It’s somebody who works with people’s appearance, behavior and communication. My clients really varied. They were people who were looking to change their image or appearance for a job because they just got a promotion or maybe they wanted to get a promotion, or they were switching careers completely. Everyone had a different story as to why they were hiring me. There were some people who … just wanted to reinvent themselves.
I was there to guide them as to what to wear, how to behave, what services to use … to be congruent with what they were trying to do. My focus was more holistic. Not only did I do fashion, but I was also dealing with body language and things like that.
What did you learn from starting a business at such a young age, while in college?
I think from being a necessity, I created something that was really profitable and that taught me a lot about entrepreneurship. With the profits from that, I bought Dominate Servers, a team hosting company.
Eventually, I sold that business because of the pressure of being an adult and getting a job and just following the path that everybody’s following. Everyone around me was dissuading me from continuing being an entrepreneur.
The same thing happened in business school. Everyone was hitting the books and studying like 12 hours a day, and some of my peers actually got upset with me because I wouldn’t be hitting the books as much as they would. I would go out and do projects with entrepreneurs, and they would think I was slacking.
What sparked your decision to get an MBA when you did? What was your experience like in business school?
I felt like I had kind of hit a wall. When you’re working in tech, it’s really hard to move up because a lot of people just see you as someone who only cares about computers and software. They figured, “This person probably doesn’t have the people and managerial skills to do much more.”
I really wanted to learn more about how businesses work. While I had owned businesses in the past, I didn’t have a foundation; I just kind of hit the ground running. There were so many things about running, scaling and making a business bigger that I just didn’t understand. I also didn’t have a great network for entrepreneurship.
What I quickly found out is that an MBA is really what you make of it. There is no singular MBA experience. An MBA experience is not what other people tell you it should be. For some people, it is getting a 4.0 and being part of all these clubs and organizations. But I think that it’s important for people considering getting an MBA or currently getting an MBA to understand that they should carve their own path.
I was lucky enough to be exposed to people who had just graduated, and they explained to me some of the ins and outs of an MBA as I was starting. I was lucky to have that guidance to really understand that I could choose my own adventure and not just follow what everyone else was doing.
How have all of your past experiences helped prepare you to be a successful entrepreneur, and how has your MBA specifically helped you?
For me, it’s pretty clear that every single step prepared me to solve different types of business problems. That’s really what I do now. I’ve finally come across something that I really love, and it’s solving business problems.
In each industry that I worked in, problems are solved differently — some are solved in a more creative way, some are solved in a more quantitative way — and I think that being able to have all these different strategies in my tool set has been super helpful in having really successful businesses.
With an MBA, I think the network has been huge. Being able to be part of The Consortium and exchange ideas with other students who had a similar upbringing really helped me put some things in focus in terms of opportunities. It was a great way for me to be exposed to like-minded people — especially at Simon, which has a great entrepreneurship program.
I grew up in an environment without successful people of color as role models and with not very many people of color like me working hard to achieve success. Being part of an MBA program, being surrounded with people who looked like me, who had big goals and were working hard to achieve those goals, gave me the confidence to know I was on the right path.
How do you make sure that you’re continuing to learn and evolve as a business owner?
As an entrepreneur, it’s exciting to be ahead of the curve and ahead of the trends, but being open to listening to your network and to those who have different skill sets or who are from different industries — that worked for my current and past businesses. That has really given me an edge because it helps me solve problems in a different way than some of my competitors.