MAFS’ Melinda Willis Opens up on Beauty Business Ownership, Self-Doubt and Success

When it has come to establishing and solidifying her own beauty businesses, it’s often been a case of one step forward, two steps back for Melinda (Mel) Willis. The Australian reality TV star sat down with Hannah Gay to relay the countless obstacles that have come her way and ultimately set the stage for her success.

On starting out

Melinda, share with us your background in the beauty space and what first drew you to the industry.

“It was 2009 when I enrolled into my first beauty course – a Diploma in Beauty in Brisbane. At the time, I wanted to just learn a few things for myself… I didn’t actually think I would end up in the beauty industry at all! But once I had finished the year, I absolutely loved it.

We were told that one of the dream jobs for all beauty therapists was to work on cruise ships because it gets you straight into that five-star spa experience. They had sold us the dream of flying to London, living in London for a few months and advancing your diploma. We’d go from there to embark a cruise ship sailing anywhere in the world. So it’s that [life of] travel, luxury and beauty all in one… coming out of a diploma fresh into something like that was otherwise almost impossible, so everyone wanted it.

They had trainers come in and go through the class for rigorous interviews. And only one got it… it was obviously me [laughs]. So in 2010, I went over to London to study my Advanced Diploma in Beauty, embarked on my first cruise ship from Miami with Steiner, and was there for a year before returning back. I took a break from beauty after that, doing bits of beauty from home; I was always back-and-forth.”

Melinda Willis

Founding Feather Sisters

Fast-forward to 2018 and you founded your own beauty brand – Feather Sisters. How did that come about?

From a young age, I would sit the family around the dining room table, that would be my boardroom and I’d be drawing up business ideas on a white board. I’ve always had a passion for business.

At 28, I was working as a flight attendant and had quite a severe work injury and was deemed unfit to fly; it was a massive hit. I fell into this depression and thought, ‘what now?’ I started spending a lot of time online in desperation mode, searching ‘how to get rich’. One business idea really resonated – the e-commerce space. [At that time], it was this exciting new space that still had so much room in it for everyone. Through research, I found something along the lines of what our number one product is today – our microblading brow pen.

From that idea, I reached out to a supplier, spoke colors, spoke design… everything I wanted for it. My first order was with a private label. I also had to learn to build a website, and realised that while there were makeup stores on the ground, there was not much in the way of innovative cosmetic products online, especially in Australia. I chose to stick with cosmetic products that were hard to find in a store and were an impulse buy. [The brow pen] did so well – it still sells out four times a year and we now have eight products in the Feather Sisters Collection.

It was hard for us [during COVID] because we were rebranding and we were trying to expand this business, but all the shipments were delayed… it was taking months. I think we did our first $100,000 in ten days, but then we ran out of stock and couldn’t get the shipments over fast enough. People were angry because their post was taking two months. It was one big nightmare and learning curve, but that’s all we had to deal with whereas others were dealing with the beginnings of ‘how do I build a website?’… that kind of thing.

Having that knowledge of beauty behind me was really powerful so it super-seeded everything else. I’ve been in beauty full time since… I will be forever.”

I fell into this depression and thought, ‘what now?’

I understand you had been running a personal beauty bricks-and-mortar for three years prior to appearing on TV. Tell us what that looked like.

“From January 2021, I started my own lash business from my apartment, so I was juggling both that and Feather Sisters. I decided I loved lashes out of all the beauty treatments possible; it was my therapeutic getaway from the stresses that came from having such a successful online business. I would do the homework for Feather Sisters in my head as I was lashing these clients. At first, I was only doing lash extensions via word-of-mouth to family and friends. I always had this little self doubt of ‘I’m not confident enough to perform these treatments unless I’m working for someone’ or ‘I can’t do it myself’. So I slowly dipped my toes in to get my experience and confidence up again.

Again, that went really well, and fast. When clients loved their lashes they would start to rebook; I started getting booked three weeks in advance. Then they would ask if I could add on services like brows. My answer was always ‘oh, I’m qualified in them, but I haven’t been doing them’. And then soon enough, I re-did my menu confidently to offer lash extensions, brows, waxing, lash lifts, brow laminations – services I could do from home without needing extra amenities or room.

That was also really hard [as COVID hit] because as I started gaining momentum and my books were starting to fill up, I was in lockdown. You weren’t able to service people from your house or be in contact with anyone. Everyone was closing down as shops were not able to pay their leases. It was kind of a blessing in disguise that I started small and started from home.

As soon as things opened, I thought ‘now we have to go full force because we have to make up for all the lost ground’. Everyone had taken a hit and a lot of big beauty places had actually closed, so clients were scattered everywhere. I knew I needed more space and I wanted to bring someone else on as I was quite booked. I ended up renting a little space inside a multi-level gym and took the second floor.”

From entrepreneur to reality TV star

Then, Married at First Sight (MAFS) Season 10 came along… What happened while you took time out to film?

“Come the end of 2022, and I took a break to do MAFS for three months. The application process for the show went for five months, and they kept you hanging so you didn’t know if you were on. I officially knew I was on three weeks out. It was a case of: close your businesses, pack your bags, move to Sydney, and then have minimal access to your phone, laptop and work.

Again, I’d just gotten that momentum going and had another spanner thrown in the works. I found someone to take over while I was gone. This person that I trusted to take over I obviously hadn’t spent much time with; I only had three weeks. They ended up sending a text message to my entire database, giving them a new address and told everyone I was closing down. That was a big hit, especially as it was around the time of the show’s big couple swap – my mental peak on the show. I was juggling that, but also juggling that someone was dishonoring the business that I’d worked on for almost two years. You’re filming for ten hours straight… but you’ve got to pull it together for your professional career on the outside. That was my main priority.

During the time I was gone, I had 360 new clients come through the doors, but there were only four remaining [on my return]… all that marketing expense [gone]. [On wrapping filming], I knuckled down on my lash business and started to expand it. A few months later, I signed a lease for my own big, private space.”

“You’re filming for ten hours straight… but you’ve got to pull it together for your professional career on the outside. That was my main priority.”

Opening Melly’s Beauty Parlour

In as recently as the last two months, you’ve opened Melly’s Beauty Parlour. Talk me through your new space.

“It’s quite an open space where we can separate into little areas while still being open to each other. It’s mixing that world of lash parlors in with the world of beauty; it’s that one-stop shop. We now have five staff and have upscaled. We’ve got lashes, brows, nails, spray tans, and we’re about to go into makeup and teeth whitening, so we’re growing. I’ve had a background in running hotels, spas and cruise ships, so we bring that element of luxury into it. But it’s still a little small… for my dreams and what I want to do!”

Both personally and professionally, what did your experience on MAFS teach you? Is there anything you wish you did differently?

“First is that lifestyle balance. Before the show, I didn’t have any of that, whereas now I definitely have more boundaries when it comes to my time and where it’s used. I didn’t have a partner because all I did was business, so meeting my partner on MAFS means that we need to commit time to each other.

I really feel that [MAFS] was one of the hardest things I did. There was an enormous amount of strength that I built from doing that experiment, and there was also an enormous amount of respect that I built for myself. There was a lot of character-building, self-analysing, and a lot of life analysing that came from that. I’m not going to give up the businesses ever. [Now] I know my worth, how hard I work and everything that I’ve achieved. I’ve come a very long way and I know that everything that I’ve built is precious.

I think a lot of people feel they have that impostor syndrome. I’ll think, ‘I’m doing a good job’, ‘I’m being a good boss’, ‘I’m strong’, protecting my business and my energy. But in the back of my mind, I’m always correcting myself… always criticising something to get better. [MAFS] was my lightbulb moment of ‘Yeah! That is me and I will step back into my power’.”

Becoming a boss

I understand you hired Caitlin, who also appeared on MAFS, at Melly’s. What are some of the key attributes you look for in your staff?

I’m very fussy when it comes to hiring. Some of my clients have been with me for three years now and they really feel like my family. I want them to be happy and to experience amazing results every time, so I look for people that are similar in the way of being nurturing, providing empathy and passion. They really have to love what they do, love the clients and most importantly, want the clients to be happy. If you don’t have that zest for beauty and a genuine care for humans then it’s just a big ‘no’. It doesn’t matter how good you lash or how well you can sculpt a brow. If you don’t genuinely love what you do, then it’s just not the place for you.

One of my interview questions is: ‘Tell me your ideal lifestyle balance’. I do believe that if you have that lifestyle balance, you’re coming to work and you’re a lot more productive and motivated. Plus, everyone’s refreshed and restored, and no one’s feeling that they’re just a number clocking on and off. It’s also good to live and enjoy life.

Caitlin is a lash technician from Brisbane. She started [with Melly’s] and helped me recoup everything, rebuild everything… she put in some big hours. She was Godsent! It took me away from it so I could work on Feather Sisters. From there, she’s kept me motivated and encouraged to bring on another person; to trust someone else. Clients can be really loyal and clingy to a lash tech because lashes are very personal.

I feel if you’re in beauty, you’re an empath. You genuinely care about the clients and the staff and the beauty industry as a whole. It’s really hard [as the owner] to put X client over with Y staff because I’m trying to step away, but then also not micromanage. I just have to really learn to let go and trust the process.”

What does the future look like for your beauty businesses, and for you as a business owner and entrepreneur?

“The world is my oyster right now. I’m super driven and passionate in everything that I’m doing right now. I feel very content, but I still feel that there’s so much room to grow. I want to keep learning. I want to dive more into learning about management and how to be a good boss for my staff, for my clients, for my business, for myself.

My heart is set on a bigger, multi-level one-stop shop [for Melly’s]. Over the 13 years that I’ve been in beauty, I’ve undertaken so much training in so many courses, yet some of it I’m still not using! I want to be able to use it all and teach it all and grow all of that. I want my own training academy.

When it comes to Feather Sisters – world domination! We want to bring on another product by the end of the year. It would be cool to see it in some cool storefronts – I want to be more accessible to everyone. We’re already worldwide, but it would be expanding and pushing it more across the world.”

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