In a blink, Edmonton entrepreneur went from eyelash artist to global success
Courtney Buhler went from a basement salon to $20M business in 10 years
Courtney Buhler's journey from doing eyelash extensions in her basement part time to a global business with annual earnings of $20 million is nothing short of, well, eye-popping.
The 30-year-old Edmontonian is the founder and owner of Sugarlash Pro, which provides a line of products and training to 60,000 eyelash artists in 89 countries.
She's also one of 45 Prairie finalists of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, one of three in the Young Entrepreneur category. The awards will be announced at a gala in Calgary on Thursday.
"I never intended in my wildest dreams for Sugarlash to be what it is today," Buhler told CBC's Radio Active Tuesday.
"I was 19; I was a single mom, just kind of trying to get back on my feet and I had this baby; my world was kind of thrown upside down.
"My mom texted me one day and said, 'There's this thing called eyelash extensions and I think we should try it. So I went and I was completely hooked."
Hooked turned into taking a few courses on how to do it, then starting a little part-time business in her basement, which quickly grew into a business with five full-time staff ("a highly-illegal operation at that"), before opening up her Lash Affair salon with eight employees in a proper commercial space.
Things were great for about four years, as the art of eyelash extensions — synthetic lashes attached one at a time with adhesive in a process that takes several hours — exploded in popularity.
Then business dropped off.
Buhler believes women were being scared off by bad experiences, such as practitioners using low-quality products or taking their training from YouTube videos and the like.
"There was this fear of women that were getting their lashes damaged. And they didn't know at that time that they just had to find someone to do better lashes," she said.
"So we started seeing this kind of fear evolve and then that's when I decided I just have to think bigger about this and I need to help people get better education."
Leveraging the extensive connections she had made for products and training, Buhler developed a line of products and a curriculum and launched Sugarlash Pro in 2015.
In the company's first year, it did a "mind-boggling" $300,000 in sales, with Buhler scouring the internet for free clip art and design programs to create marketing materials and her husband bundling shipments from the spare bedroom in their home.
Last year the company earned more than $20 million and she expects that to be boosted next year thanks to a new partnership with Ulta Beauty, the largest beauty retailer in the U.S, which will see Buhler's training delivered to 4,500 eyelash artists in 1,300 locations, she said.
Sugarlash Pro just opened an 18,000-square-foot warehouse facility on Roper Road and is in the process of converting a former bank building on Whyte Avenue to become the company's new headquarters.
That space, Buhler said, will include browsing opportunities for its business clients, an eight-bed academy and its first-ever line of consumer products such as "mascaras and strip lashes and growth serums and everything else you could possibly need for lashes."
Buhler said she has never had any business training — "I barely finished high school" — and said the company's success has come as a result of hard work, a great team and her unique understanding of what a lash artist needs to be successful.
She said she has frequently been advised that her job would be easier if she moved from Edmonton to a larger city but she's clear that isn't happening.
"I'm very, very passionate about this city and I'm very passionate about being someone that puts the city on the map. I love the people here, I love the culture, and my husband would never let us leave anyway because he's the biggest Oilers fan of life," she said with a laugh.
"The point of having a business is that you could be flexible and create the life that you want. And I want to be here."