At 24 years old, Anisa Telwar Kaicker was left without a job, a college degree or much self esteem when her mother’s business collapsed.
Now 47, Kaicker is the founder of Atlanta-based Anisa International, which has $30 million in annual sales. She owns a factory in China that produces 22 million cosmetic brushes a year for customers including Sephora, Target, L’Oreal, Estee Lauder and other major brands. Here’s how Kaicker says she did it.
(My mom) started her business by importing rugs from Turkey, putting them in her car and riding around to places in Nashville (where we lived), to rich doctors and selling them. She was raised in Turkey. She’s Russian. She was self made before women were self made. It was amazing what she did.
She landed contracts to sell uniforms to the Kuwaiti military, Malaysian latex gloves to local health agencies in the U.S., and supplies to Yugoslavia before it collapsed into civil war. The business bounced wildly between big gambles and failed efforts. Kaicker’s job as a young woman was to find buyers anywhere in the world for the odd assortment of products her mom secured.
She’d come home, and I’d say, “OK, what are we going to do with two million latex gloves?” She was like, “Figure it out.” So I would figure it out and I would start to sell it.
I’ve learned so much from her. Sometimes the best things we learn are what not to do. She wasn’t a visionary. She never would look beyond. You need to save for the rainy day. You have to plan for risk.
The family business, focused on a $100 million in contracts to supply food to Iraq, began to disintegrate at the start of the first Gulf War. Her mom encouraged her to find another job.
We met this gentleman when I was working with her who made cosmetic brushes (in Korea). So I presented to him my case: You don’t have to pay me a salary. I will do all the marketing. But I can’t pay you for these brushes. If I make a sale, can you wait to be paid? Because I couldn’t get a line of credit.
Working with my mother, she taught me that I could pursue large companies. They had the volume. I wasn’t going to survive off of one or two brushes. It had to be thousands or hundreds of thousands. The margin was very low.
Early on, she tried to get a contract with Revlon, a cosmetic giant.
I called the number for general information. Could you please tell me who does your purchasing for cosmetic brushes? My name is Anisa I’m calling from Telwar International in Nashville, Tenn. I have this fantastic new brush. It’s patented. (I thought it was. It wasn’t.) There’s nothing like it. Nobody else has it.
She got an appointment.
I walk into this guy’s office and sit down like I’m the queen of Sheba and I know everything. I show him the brush. He pulls out this drawer and here’s all these brushes that are similar. I felt like such an idiot.
But she made connection with the gracious executive and, eventually, a sale.
I was not a natural salesperson. I was very nervous. I would walk into meetings and literally leave there sweating. I had to do a lot of positive-thinking tapes and reading. I was very insecure about how I came across to people. I felt like I looked different. I felt like I wasn’t educated. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. It took me a long time to say, you know what, I have something to offer.
The one knack I’ve had is to see if something is really marketable and saleable and new.
I had to work at night as a cocktail waitress. That’s what paid my rent. I worked during the day at Anisa International and pitched my brushes. Any money I made in the company had to go back into the company. It was tough. That was the first two years. Then I moved to Atlanta.
She sent letters to potential customers.
I had this horrific Pepto-Bismol pink stationary that had gold foil at the top. I knew it would stand out on somebody’s desk. I knew when they got that pink envelope with the brush inside and this pink stationary they are going to probably open it. The thing I kept telling (my supplier) is I need something new. I can’t just be a me too. You’ve got to get me something every time I go in that nobody else has. Because I learned from that first meeting — I never wanted to feel like that again.
New cosmetic brands launched, giving Kaicker more potential customers. At the same time, cosmetic makers began to question whether it was cruel to make cosmetic brushes from squirrels killed solely for their fur.
I came up with a hair option that was a very high grade of a natural fiber but the animal was being killed for food. That was more acceptable. I called it squirrel substitute. That was my marketing term. And everybody wanted it. It’s goat. They eat goat for mutton. My point of view has changed on that now. I’d like to move to all synthetics.
Having grown up around risk, Kaicker looked for ways to protect herself and her business. She briefly took on an outside investor when her company was still young. And she tried to avoid relying heavily on just a few big customers.
I diversified seeing what my mother went through. Because you never know where the economy is going to be. Sometimes I wasn’t willing to jump as fast as I could have, seeing what can happen when you do jump. I wish I would have been a little more daring. I want to add that to the mix.
The plant (in China) is a big risk. The costs are increasing in China. I don’t know manufacturing. I have to trust the people there. I’ve just hired (a new vice president of operations). I have to trust him 100 percent.
She was forced to take on the risk of owning a manufacturing plant after her main supplier became a direct competitor. She bought into an existing plant in China and relied heavily on assistance from her customers to get operations there in shape.
If I didn’t control the manufacturing, I should just close my doors. Because I was going to end up in a similar situation. I would always have the risk of someone going around me. I knew it was time.
Starting and building a business carries a price.
I think it hurt relationships in my life with men. I was so focused on my business. I ended up not having children. I have remarried. He’s a great guy. But I’m going to be in New York more and he’s going to be in London. What’s this going to mean for us? I was even thinking: Do I let this business go for the sake of the marriage? But then what am I going to have to give anybody? Once I committed back to the business, I’ve been so much more happy again. I’m hoping he’ll understand. This is my life.
Kaicker’s comments were edited for length and clarity.
Be passionate about whatever you do.
Who you hire from the beginning is very important. Don’t scrimp. Take your time. Get the best people you can afford.
Know the ins and outs of your business. You’re going to start delegating, but do each part of your business so you know what people have to go through.