A mogul in the making since 12-years-old, Maria McCool founded her first business at 23. Here’s how she uses her rewards card to keep the business beautiful.
There are many entrepreneurs selling their wares on home shopping channels, but Maria McCool is one of the most compelling and successful. As founder of Calista Tools, McCool presents her range of cult-favorite hair styling products on QVC – including thermal and heated round-brushes, curling irons and hair products – and it all started when she was just a child.
“I did my first makeover on a friend when she was 12,” says McCool. “It was right before our first boy-girl party, and she was the belle of the ball! That transformation made a huge impact on me. My friend had a new confidence and that gave me a whole new level of confidence. After seeing what it did for her, I knew what I could offer people. That was the moment I knew I wanted to do it forever. You could say the beauty business found me.”
McCool enrolled in beauty school at the age of 14 and earned her cosmetology license at 18. Shortly after, she was entering hairdressing competitions – and winning.
“I was good at listening to my clients and giving them a high level of customer service,” says McCool. “By the time I was 21, I had hundreds of clients. At 23, I opened my own salon with a partner. That’s when the product line started. As a salon owner, I could get whatever I wanted to sell, but I was making my own! Some of my clients were QVC hosts and they encouraged me to take them to market.”
McCool did just that, and now she is a regular on the channel. To date, McCool has sold millions of The Perfecter, her heated round brush, and Embellish, her line of hair products. Here’s how McCool built her beauty empire, and how one card smoothly carries the business ever forward.
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What was starting Calista Tools at such a young age like for you?
I have an extreme work ethic and determination. I planned everything in advance: putting it all on paper, figuring out what we’d need to make in three months, six months and a year. I was lucky because I went into business with a partner who had experience. We did it together.
Still, the biggest issue was being a boss at 23. I had a lot to learn and most of my employees were older than me. I had to gain their trust.
Any expenses catch you off guard?
Nothing really throws me, but when I find out the cost of something and I think it’s too high, I figure out a workaround. Currently, the pandemic has caused extreme supply and shipping issues, which results in cost issues. We really aren’t sure how it’s going to pan out. One thing we do know is that if we want to stay in business, we will have to find the workaround.
How did you begin borrowing money for the business?
We took out a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, which was big enough to carry us for a few months. I also got mentorship through the SBA, too, which was great.
That wasn’t my first experience with dealing with lenders, though. I bought a car at 18 and a home at 20, so I had already built up my credit. I learned early on that good credit is super important, in your personal life and in business. You never know when an opportunity will knock, so you have to be ready!
See related: How long does it take to build business credit?
Then you opened a credit card?
Yes, we applied for the American Express® Gold Card; I love it. With this one card, we buy our office supplies and components – these are things that go into the creation of our products, such as nozzles and cans.
I use it for work travel and all my expenses that go into what I do for QVC. I charge the models’ clothing and food, as well as things like flowers for the set. That is our responsibility, not the station’s.
This card has an annual fee of $250, but I use it a lot so the rewards more than make up for it.
See related: Amex Gold vs. Amex Business Gold
How do you manage the account and what do you do with the points?
We always pay the balance off every month. It’s a charge card so we have to, but I got into credit card issues when I bought my home and learned my lesson with debt.
We have a CFO now and run the business lean and mean. We have a standing Wednesday morning meeting where we go over everything, including the credit card statement. It’s good because we can catch and resolve problems early.
For example, we recently had a situation with credit card fraud that originated in China. There are three people on the card, so going over all the charges together is important.
As for the rewards, sometimes we pay for office supplies with them but they’re mainly for presents. We buy gift cards for our staff and vendors.
What’s happening with Calista Tools now?
E-commerce is doing really well, and I wrote a book called Becoming Beauty Brave – all about my journey in this business – which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I include my techniques so you can understand how to create and maximize your best image. It all came from working with my clients; they love the way I make them feel. I want to make people feel good and to find their super style.
Did you make any missteps along the way?
Sure! For one, I had traveled to Egypt in search of ingredients to make a special hair mask. It was great, but it didn’t take off. Timing is everything: hair masks are huge now, but it was too early back then for its type, so it was a hard sell.
An argan oil product was another one that didn’t take off because it, too, was brought to the market way too early. It happens. You have to accept that. These are lessons! I get so excited about things, but I’ve learned to be tempered.
Any advice to entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Be brave and committed! You can and will make it happen. Challenge yourself and lean into the uncomfortableness. It won’t all be sunshine.
In the beginning, I remember walking out of QVC and saying to myself, “Why am I doing this?!” You’re not always going to feel confident, but you’re stronger than you give yourself credit for.
Speaking of credit, any suggestions for excellent use?
Credit cards are very important, but they need to be used as an assist – never as a crutch. If you’re always using them to get through to the next month, you’re doing something wrong. We also look at the risk rate. Before putting something on the card, we analyze the worst that can happen and ask ourselves a series of questions: Will we break even? Is this the right decision? Does it keep our momentum going or will it make us go in the opposite direction?
You have to get the right card for you, too. For us, the American Express card works because we’re forced to pay it off every month. We’ve created a multimillion-dollar beauty business – using a credit card the right way has been essential!
See related: How to get a business credit card