Women with GRITT
December 07, 2020
by Rose Garnett

WOMEN WITH GRITT: ModelCo Founder Shelley Sullivan On Starting A Business At 21, Working With Karl Lagerfeld And Why She Never Puts On An Out Of Office

by Rose Garnett

“Nothing worth creating is ever going to be an overnight success. I’ve stumbled and made mistakes but that’s what has made my business what it is today.”

Welcome to Women with GRITT: a series where we interview the resilient, hardworking women who have kicked in the glass ceiling and inspire us to do the same.

You know that aisle in the supermarket that seems to have a little extra sparkle than the others? It’s the beauty aisle – and ModelCo is the brand that shines the brightest. Those hot pink bottles and tubes are hard to miss.

Shelley Sullivan (née Barrett), ModelCo Founder & CEO created the brand nearly 20 years ago. Now, you’d be hard pressed to find a beauty lover who doesn’t own at least one of their products. ModelCo is sold in five continents, across 11 countries and with over 3000 retail partners; the brand is basically on a quest for world domination – and succeeding. Counting Karl Lagerfeld, Hailey Bieber and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as A-list collaborators, ModelCo is known for being “Australian, cruelty-free and with the ability to dupe a lot of the bigger brands”, says Sullivan. 

Turns out, Sullivan hasn’t always been a makeup maestro. The now 47-year-old launched her first business at the ripe age of 21, declaring that spending “six or seven years at uni seemed like a waste of time.” (Although, it’s worth noting that the Sydney-native has both a Diploma in Business and a Diploma in Psychology). With this tenacious entrepreneurial spirit practically a part of her DNA, Sullivan founded a model and talent agency. (We’re sure you can see where this is going…)

Surrounded by models on a daily basis, she developed a knack for identifying the products that would make their lives quicker and easier. Case in point: ModelCo’s debut product, the Heated Eyelash Curler ($35), that was born out of Sullivan’s concern for models with facial burns from blow drying (!!) their eyelash curlers. Following that, the brand launched their iconic Tan In A Can ($25) and have been on an upward trajectory ever since.

In this interview, Sullivan speaks to Gritty Pretty about how she used one business to fund another, the beauty in being naive, collaborating with the iconic Karl Lagerfeld and why she’s never put an ‘out of office’ office on. Ever!

 

Hi Shelley! Before we dive into all things ModelCo we want to know a little more about you. First and foremost, where did you grow up?

I grew up in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney and spent most of my life between Coogee, Bondi and Bellevue Hill. I grew up as an only child in a single parent household – so it has been just mum and I for as long as I can remember. I am grateful for that, in a way, because I think it made me very independent from an early age. My mum worked around the clock at various different jobs so she could put me through private school so I think that instilled in me a sense of drive and tenacity and has definitely lent itself to the woman I am today. 

 

Wow! Your mother would have been a great role model for working hard and staying motivated. Was there anyone else you looked up to growing up?

To be perfectly honest with you, not really. It’s that whole argument of nature versus nurture. To some extent I do think my mother helped me become independent but I also think I was (and still am) innately self-motivated and self-driven. I was always very focused on having my own business and being in charge of my life. And in order to do that you obviously need to fund it, so I guess I’ve always been driven to achieve that goal.

 

Financial independence is so important, especially for women, to ensure we have the freedom to live our lives authentically. So, in terms of funding these business ventures, first your agency and then ModelCo, how did you get your business off the ground?

I started my first business with $20,000 and I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. My mum was actually the one who lent me the money so I think having someone else’s money on the line was another driving factor to make sure that whatever I created was a success. That business started with one model and grew to manage over 1800 talent in two years. About eight years in was when I had the idea for the heated eyelash curler and that’s when I decided to sell the agency and focus solely on ModelCo. Essentially, the sale of the first business funded the building of ModelCo which allowed me to have complete creative reign over where I wanted to take it. 

People often ask me why I didn’t continue to do both since the agency was so successful and I always tell them the same thing, which is something I live by: pick one thing. Pick one thing and do it really well and don’t deviate from that. 

 

That’s great advice, especially now-a-days when multitasking is king. It’s great to know that focusing on one thing and perfecting it was your key to success. You touched a little bit on the leap from agent to founder but how did you build the reputation of ModelCo to be what it is today? 

Well it certainly wasn’t an overnight success, that’s for sure. ModelCo is 19 years old and MCoBeauty is four years old and I would say it’s really only been in the last five years that I can honestly say I know the full extent of how to run and be the CEO of a global beauty brand. For the first 15 years I was kind of doing my own business degree in a way. I knew what women wanted, I saw a gap in the beauty market for an innovative beauty brand with innovative beauty products but I had no experience in creating any of it. And, to be honest, I think my naivety was my biggest asset in those early days. Because I didn’t really know what I was getting into, by the time I hit a problem I was too far in to do anything other than fix it. 

On top of that, I would say finding a niche is an easy way to really set yourself apart. It’s no secret that the beauty market is saturated but I think for me, focusing on creating something innovative that women actually wanted was how I kept, and keep, the brand on the up. 

We’re sure the collaborations you’ve done with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Hailey Bieber and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have also helped solidify the brand as a major player. What does the collaboration process look like and why are they so important to the business?

Karl Lagerfeld was probably our biggest win on the collaboration front. Especially because we were chosen out of 27 brands around the world for him to work with. I don’t think you can get any more memorable than that. I think our collections also do so well because they’re accessible to people who may not have the cash to spend on a luxury item. So, working with celebrities and influencers that people really look up to creates a positive customer experience.

 

We know that, like everything, business is never all smooth sailing. So, what would you say were some of the biggest challenges you have faced since ModelCo was born?

How many hours have you got? I would say the biggest challenge was just business in general and learning how it all worked. Everything I ever did would always cost double or more of what I thought it would when I started so that was certainly difficult on the cash flow front. I would also say learning to delegate to people and trusting the expansion of the business. You want people in the business who are like you but who are also the opposite – who have skills that you don’t have. So, learning that was definitely a challenge and something that I continue to focus on. 

 

It’s great that you can look back now and see those challenges as learning experiences because we’re sure, at the time, they would have been quite stressful. Speaking of stress, you’re also juggling motherhood on top of being a CEO. How do you make the distinction between home life and work life?

Luckily for me, the business is a well-oiled machine now so I do have the ability to clock on and clock off. Although, I am always on to some extent. I’ve never had an ‘out of office’ on in my whole life. I just think it’s important to spend quality time with the kids. I mean, turn-your-phone-off time with the kids. Detaching and spending quality time with them never goes unnoticed on their end and I find I am a better mum and boss when I separate the two and dedicate myself wholeheartedly to one thing at a time.

 

One thing at a time, noted! What are three beauty products that make your life easier?

Definitely my ModelCo Tan Mousse ($25), it makes me feel better immediately. Then my MCoBeauty XtendLash Mascara ($22) for a little oomph and I also love the Dr. Spiller Collagen Cream ($39.99) to keep my skin in tip top condition.

You know that aisle in the supermarket that seems to have a little extra sparkle than the others? It’s the beauty aisle – and ModelCo is the brand that shines the brightest. Those hot pink bottles and tubes are hard to miss.

Shelley Sullivan (née Barrett), ModelCo Founder & CEO created the brand nearly 20 years ago. Now, you’d be hard pressed to find a beauty lover who doesn’t own at least one of their products. ModelCo is sold in five continents, across 11 countries and with over 3000 retail partners; the brand is basically on a quest for world domination – and succeeding. Counting Karl Lagerfeld, Hailey Bieber and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as A-list collaborators, ModelCo is known for being “Australian, cruelty-free and with the ability to dupe a lot of the bigger brands”, says Sullivan. 

Turns out, Sullivan hasn’t always been a makeup maestro. The now 47-year-old launched her first business at the ripe age of 21, declaring that spending “six or seven years at uni seemed like a waste of time.” (Although, it’s worth noting that the Sydney-native has both a Diploma in Business and a Diploma in Psychology). With this tenacious entrepreneurial spirit practically a part of her DNA, Sullivan founded a model and talent agency. (We’re sure you can see where this is going…)

Surrounded by models on a daily basis, she developed a knack for identifying the products that would make their lives quicker and easier. Case in point: ModelCo’s debut product, the Heated Eyelash Curler ($35), that was born out of Sullivan’s concern for models with facial burns from blow drying (!!) their eyelash curlers. Following that, the brand launched their iconic Tan In A Can ($25) and have been on an upward trajectory ever since.

In this interview, Sullivan speaks to Gritty Pretty about how she used one business to fund another, the beauty in being naive, collaborating with the iconic Karl Lagerfeld and why she’s never put an ‘out of office’ office on. Ever!

 

Hi Shelley! Before we dive into all things ModelCo we want to know a little more about you. First and foremost, where did you grow up?

I grew up in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney and spent most of my life between Coogee, Bondi and Bellevue Hill. I grew up as an only child in a single parent household – so it has been just mum and I for as long as I can remember. I am grateful for that, in a way, because I think it made me very independent from an early age. My mum worked around the clock at various different jobs so she could put me through private school so I think that instilled in me a sense of drive and tenacity and has definitely lent itself to the woman I am today. 

 

Wow! Your mother would have been a great role model for working hard and staying motivated. Was there anyone else you looked up to growing up?

To be perfectly honest with you, not really. It’s that whole argument of nature versus nurture. To some extent I do think my mother helped me become independent but I also think I was (and still am) innately self-motivated and self-driven. I was always very focused on having my own business and being in charge of my life. And in order to do that you obviously need to fund it, so I guess I’ve always been driven to achieve that goal.

 

Financial independence is so important, especially for women, to ensure we have the freedom to live our lives authentically. So, in terms of funding these business ventures, first your agency and then ModelCo, how did you get your business off the ground?

I started my first business with $20,000 and I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. My mum was actually the one who lent me the money so I think having someone else’s money on the line was another driving factor to make sure that whatever I created was a success. That business started with one model and grew to manage over 1800 talent in two years. About eight years in was when I had the idea for the heated eyelash curler and that’s when I decided to sell the agency and focus solely on ModelCo. Essentially, the sale of the first business funded the building of ModelCo which allowed me to have complete creative reign over where I wanted to take it. 

People often ask me why I didn’t continue to do both since the agency was so successful and I always tell them the same thing, which is something I live by: pick one thing. Pick one thing and do it really well and don’t deviate from that. 

 

That’s great advice, especially now-a-days when multitasking is king. It’s great to know that focusing on one thing and perfecting it was your key to success. You touched a little bit on the leap from agent to founder but how did you build the reputation of ModelCo to be what it is today? 

Well it certainly wasn’t an overnight success, that’s for sure. ModelCo is 19 years old and MCoBeauty is four years old and I would say it’s really only been in the last five years that I can honestly say I know the full extent of how to run and be the CEO of a global beauty brand. For the first 15 years I was kind of doing my own business degree in a way. I knew what women wanted, I saw a gap in the beauty market for an innovative beauty brand with innovative beauty products but I had no experience in creating any of it. And, to be honest, I think my naivety was my biggest asset in those early days. Because I didn’t really know what I was getting into, by the time I hit a problem I was too far in to do anything other than fix it. 

On top of that, I would say finding a niche is an easy way to really set yourself apart. It’s no secret that the beauty market is saturated but I think for me, focusing on creating something innovative that women actually wanted was how I kept, and keep, the brand on the up. 

We’re sure the collaborations you’ve done with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Hailey Bieber and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have also helped solidify the brand as a major player. What does the collaboration process look like and why are they so important to the business?

Karl Lagerfeld was probably our biggest win on the collaboration front. Especially because we were chosen out of 27 brands around the world for him to work with. I don’t think you can get any more memorable than that. I think our collections also do so well because they’re accessible to people who may not have the cash to spend on a luxury item. So, working with celebrities and influencers that people really look up to creates a positive customer experience.

 

We know that, like everything, business is never all smooth sailing. So, what would you say were some of the biggest challenges you have faced since ModelCo was born?

How many hours have you got? I would say the biggest challenge was just business in general and learning how it all worked. Everything I ever did would always cost double or more of what I thought it would when I started so that was certainly difficult on the cash flow front. I would also say learning to delegate to people and trusting the expansion of the business. You want people in the business who are like you but who are also the opposite – who have skills that you don’t have. So, learning that was definitely a challenge and something that I continue to focus on. 

 

It’s great that you can look back now and see those challenges as learning experiences because we’re sure, at the time, they would have been quite stressful. Speaking of stress, you’re also juggling motherhood on top of being a CEO. How do you make the distinction between home life and work life?

Luckily for me, the business is a well-oiled machine now so I do have the ability to clock on and clock off. Although, I am always on to some extent. I’ve never had an ‘out of office’ on in my whole life. I just think it’s important to spend quality time with the kids. I mean, turn-your-phone-off time with the kids. Detaching and spending quality time with them never goes unnoticed on their end and I find I am a better mum and boss when I separate the two and dedicate myself wholeheartedly to one thing at a time.

 

One thing at a time, noted! What are three beauty products that make your life easier?

Definitely my ModelCo Tan Mousse ($25), it makes me feel better immediately. Then my MCoBeauty XtendLash Mascara ($22) for a little oomph and I also love the Dr. Spiller Collagen Cream ($39.99) to keep my skin in tip top condition.

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