by Georgia R

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Charlotte Bax knows how to build a brand.

Before I’d even met her, I’d seen one of her sweaters on a colleague, and another friend excitedly opening up a Mars Needs Women phone accessory. 

Mars Needs Women is the name of Charlotte’s side project. It’s an ecommerce site that sells sweaters, phone accessories and stickers: with a percentage of the purchase going to charities and organisations helping getting women and girls into STEM.

She’s also studying for an MBA, helps run a charity and has just launched a start-up.

Here is her story, from how 25 sweatshirts led to a visit to NASA, with Karlie Kloss wearing her clothes. 

The idea was based on a real problem she was experiencing

“In my previous job, I was loving working with the engineers, the data scientists, but also experiencing first hand how much trouble we had hiring female leads - not even just junior data scientists - but a CTO, lead product managers.

“And I was doing a lot of the direct hiring. So I saw that problem, I heard about it, but I also felt it.”

“We were talking about trying to recruit women and the director of the company at the time just said the phrase ‘Mars Needs Women!’. It turned out to be the name of an 80s Sci-fi movie… but I heard the phrase and I thought “that’s a fantastic slogan”. 

“So I decided to make some sweatshirts.”

How it all began

“I was craving building a physical product again. I had been in merchandising and design and I was now in this SAAS software space. I just wanted a fun outlet.  I designed the logo of the female astronaut myself. Totally self taught illustrator skills.”

“I had 25 sweatshirts printed in Brooklyn. It was really important to me to use high quality material. I had so much fun going to the Brooklyn printers and seeing them get them made. I then sold them to my coworkers and people in the WeWork. I was just selling them in person.”

Using the project to test new skills 

“I wanted to to test a pricing hypothesis that I had, about how you could take the TOMs model and apply that to other businesses. So when I priced them I gave people a choice of three price points that played into different donation amounts.  So it was like £65 and I’ll donate 10%, £69 and I’ll donate 15%, £75 and I’ll donate 20%.  

“I was donating directly to programs like Kode with Klossie, Girls Who Code, programs that get girls into STEM. I just wanted to support these organisations and what they’re doing with my own skill set. 

“I knew I could design and set up a retail e-commerce site really quickly, start selling on shopify, and use my skill set to benefit this other cause. I had a lot of fun working out what you need to do for an e commerce site, working on SEO a little bit. It was aligned with skills that I wanted to learn anyway. It didn’t feel like a big departure.”

How to build a brand that major celebrities wear:

“I knew interest in space was increasing from being tapped into retailer trends, and obviously the whole women’s empowerment movement was growing, it was around the election time in the US. I thought this would hit home emotionally for people. 

“And I started getting some organic traffic on the site. 

“I reached out to Yara Shahidi on Instagram, as she had become a powerful Gen Z voice for female empowerment and her values aligned with my mission. She loved the brand and shortly after sending her a sweatshirt, she featured it on her stories”

“Through Instagram, I also connected with an engineer from NASA who is passionate about promoting women in STEM. That led to me actually going to visit him and his team at NASA in Los Angeles”

“And then he knew Karlie Kloss cos she did a visit there, and he helped me get in touch with her team to send her a sweatshirt. I still had less than 2k followers, but I was able to get really early proof points of this emotional thing with people. I saw really early on that people - women and men - really got the logo and liked it.”

How to find time:

“It’s difficult especially in a start-up. There’s always a bit of guilt, like - I could be working on this right now.. But ultimately it’s a side project”

“And because I felt confident in my ability to find a supplier to print the shirts and design them, I was able to use my skill set. Setting up an online store now is so easy; really anyone can do it. You can sign up for Wix, Shopify, Squarespace.”

“Since my first year of business school I haven’t really focused on it as much, but it’s always going to be there. That’s the amazing thing about a side hustle, you can ebb and flow with it. Right now I’m planning how to start growing the brand again this year with the help of Elizabeth Ng in San Francisco, the CMO, and a new intern (hiring now!).”

Proving to yourself you can do it:

“It gave me a new tool in my toolkit. It built my confidence to say ‘I can learn this really quickly’ - so even if I didn’t have skills like SEO and I’d read it on a job spec it wouldn’t phase me, it’s not so mystical now. 

"I wanted to become an entrepreneur. You’re waiting the whole time for that moment, I was so tired of thinking of things, so I wanted to prove it to myself, proving it to myself that I can get something going. That I can get traction with strangers.”

“It was a small enough side project that I could grow it or shrink it as needed. No employees, no capital externally, cheap enough that I could order a round of sweatshirts and sell them and get the money back.”

“It was really about proving to myself that I could do this alone: an idea that was self directed, no guidance or structure. It led me to have the confidence to start a tech start-up that has a much bigger scope, as it was a stepping stone. It’s a way of proving yourself without having a traditional background”

“Save me totally switching career paths and getting UX training or working as a product manager this is a hack way to get there. It’s a great way to get credibility, it’s a great way to build your personal brand and it’s a great way to meet people. Going to NASA and meeting other people was an incredible opportunity I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

There is something special about people with side projects:

“Doing side project you have to be motivated. You need to see it as a confidence building tool, or you’re someone who’s motivated when people say no. Those are two different types of people. I definitely identify with the rebellious side… you’re gonna tell me this is too hard and I’m not going to do it? Well i’m going to do it then. 

“But I also see the other side, being really internally motivated, self driven, my own harshest critic. I need to do something for myself, because I’m the only one holding myself back. Those are two different motivations.”

Remember to prepare for success

“The biggest learning was that if you are going to start something you need to have the resources to see it through. When I was getting real traction, I ran out, and I didn’t have stock. The number of people who did pre-orders who converted was low - maybe 20%. As you were top of mind for a moment, but then I lost it as I wasn’t prepared."

“I think if I was doing it again, I’d give myself specific guidelines like ‘if it goes past this point and it seems viable, would you feel comfortable quitting your job and doing it?’ Because you need to be able to maintain it.”

“You need to think about how you’re pushing a growth strategy. Otherwise you can fizzle it out. If you can’t give the time to ride the wave, and follow the growth, knowing early on what your stopping point is. This is a lot of the reason for why I think side projects end. Because you get to a point where you need to grow it, and it becomes full time, or you stop.”

“Thinking through the possible scenarios, what happens if this really didn’t go well? Would I continue to do it for the next 6 months, a year? What if this went really well, and I don’t have the bandwidth, would I pair it back or would I hire someone else? I should have been recruiting for help earlier on if I really wanted to grow grow.”

Find people around you to support you

“It’s not like you need co-founders but you need thought partners. And it’s very isolating. Grinding on something and doing those trade offs. Having dinner with friends vs having a networking event. it’s worth it, because you’re driven by something, but it’s isolating.”

“I’ve found having a mentor really useful. You can’t just go and ask someone will you be my mentor. Having one mentor is very useful. How to think of equity structure, cofounder relationships. You have friends for emotional support, and to make the most of their time you should come with very specific questions.”

Why side projects really matter:

“A lot of the tech products are built for western worlds. When you’re thinking about building solutions for the rest of the world, those aren’t the businesses that are able to raise billions of dollars. But actually when you’re doing a side project, it’s most likely something very intimate to you, that could be your community around you. These fantastic impactful side projects are sometimes making more of a difference than infusing capital into the cycle.”

“There’s a girl who’s working at Goldman Sachs, and her project is she takes all these local girls from high school to work and brings them to companies in London - like Facebook, and government - just to show them that that career path is possible. Cos the only thing they know is “I wanna be a YouTube star” cos that’s their generation. 

She’s not trying to raise. It’s not going to be a billion dollar business. But it’s going to have more impact on those kids than the newest app that they can download.”

Check out Mars Needs Women here.

And sign up to follow Charlotte’s new project, Captur.