I NEVER THOUGHT MUCH about my eyebrows before I stumbled into a little store that specialized in making them perfect. In a tiny cubbyhole called Lilibeth, there were little pots of brown powder sharing a shelf with pencils, razors and brushes. There was also Lilibeth herself, full name Lilibeth Zamora-Asencio, the poised 31-year-old eyebrow artist and founder—and a saleswoman persuasive enough to convince me to pay $29 for personal grooming that I generally do at home, free. (And it’s not just me: The first two times I wandered by her kiosk in an upscale Manhattan mall, I couldn’t get in because it was so crowded.)
I’m naturally skeptical about start-up businesses, but I had to assume Zamora-Asencio was doing something right. And over the past few months, I’ve submitted the store to the Smart Ideas smell test, to see if other businesses could learn from her experience. Does Lilibeth have a winning product? The right kind of financial support? A plan for the future? In other words, are those out-the-door lines a matter of luck or, uh, pluck?
Let’s start with the product. Lilibeth works on eyebrows—just eyebrows. For $29, customers get a grooming, a five-step brow-shaping lesson and a Lilibeth-designed, razor-like tool called a brow shaper. Zamora-Asencio may be building a business around two patches of hair that have almost no physiological function, but she’s also filling a niche that nobody else appears to be filling in her neighborhood. A buzz through the rosters of New York City beauty salons suggests that while dozens will offer a brow waxing or threading alongside a host of other services, none appear to focus exclusively on plucking, coloring, shaping and education. A business with very little competition—every entrepreneur’s dream. Check.
Lilibeth also appears to benefit from the lipstick theory, which says that in tough times, people defer big buys but splurge on small luxuries. We always crave the feeling of privilege and satisfaction that buying gives us, says Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing and All Marketers Are Liars. But when the economy downshifts, we’d rather pay less, so Saks fades and Wal-Mart blooms. Guys will forgo fine wine but pay the extra bucks for a premium brew. And as for me, while it might have seemed wrong or even unpatriotic this past year to blow a hundred bucks or more on a facial or massage, an eyebrow work-over for $29 was a deal.
Of course, I’ve shaped my own eyebrows countless times. And usually, given a choice, people won’t pay for something they can get free. But they will pay for something new. Take bottled water. People who bought it “were paying for portability, hipness, purity,” says Godin. “Perrier and Evian…sold a story that was worth a dollar.” These days Craig Zucker, another New York entrepreneur, unashamedly sells free New York City tap water, Tapd’NY, for a buck.
He’s selling novelty, a souvenir, a tongue-in-cheek jab at other bottled water makers. And in Lilibeth’s case, I must admit I was mostly drawn to the novelty—I leave my apartment most mornings feeling perfectly fine about my eyebrows. Novelty plus “affordable luxury” equals a savvy marketing angle. Check.