As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Marija Valaite.
Marija started her entrepreneurial journey at an early age, having established her first business when she was just 25 years old. Before founding MATH Scientific, Marija gained experience developing and supervising multiple global brands from cybersecurity to skincare. At MATH, Marija is responsible for the overall strategy of the company and the brand. Marija’s vision of sustainability and minimalism are hardcoded into MATH’s DNA. As a leader, Marija puts her team first, allowing them to create, develop and experiment while fully owning their projects.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
From the very beginning, MATH was intended to become a fruitful collaboration between business and science that would serve consumers in their everyday lives. It started at this great moment in time when three people (me and my two business partners, Vitalijus and Matas), who all came from different fields, started a conversation that led to the idea behind MATH Scientific.
At the time, back in 2019, I was working on brand awareness, communication, and marketing solutions for various international brands (including beauty brands), Vitalijus was a sales expert, and Matas — a distinguished nanochemist. We chose the beauty industry because it never loses relevance and, with the right initiatives, has an immense potential to create positive cultural change. Plus, it was about time to bring science into skincare on a whole different level. We wanted to create products from scratch, base our formulas on gold-standard scientific publications and turn skincare into a true scientific endeavour.
At first, we kept our day jobs and worked on MATH in our free time. We didn’t want to jump headfirst, be rash and make mistakes. We planned everything meticulously, created strategies, improved formulas to perfection and started gathering a truly trustworthy team. When it comes to money, we used our own savings and started small. After that, we found a business angel who is now working at the company and became an irreplaceable member of the MATH family.
Luckily, as we entered the market, we understood that it was really hungry for science-backed products with minimalist formulas. We immediately understood that what we had was something truly special and full of potential. So we expanded our team, opened more offices and manufacturing spaces, and started to enter foreign markets. Plus, we develop various scientific projects with foreign universities and teach young scientists, who will later join our endeavours, or move on to create value wherever they choose.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
A couple of years ago, I had some skin problems myself and felt the need to hide my skin under layers of makeup. I remember looking in the mirror and wishing that wearing makeup was a choice and not a compulsion. Back then, I didn’t feel like I had this choice, because my confidence depended on it. So did my performance. And I knew I indeed wasn’t the only one who felt this way on “bad skin days”.
This is one of the reasons I wanted to create a company that brings confidence in the form of scientific, evidence-based skincare. MATH Scientific is my way to empower people to choose and feel confident either way. At the end of the day, confidence is what fuels our ability to live our best life (personally and professionally).
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I wouldn’t say that we had a moment where we would look at each other and say: “this is too hard, let’s give up”. Hard times? Hard decisions? Sure, we had plenty, but hard times always pushed us to make smarter choices when it came to the direction of our business. And, especially at the very beginning, we did not have the luxury of having too much time to deliberate. I’m incredibly grateful and lucky to have business partners with whom it takes mere days, if not hours, to make critical decisions.
Also, the challenges that we faced along the way (being a young, self-funded company) served as wind in our sails. Thanks to the challenges we had to tackle, we were able to quickly scale in terms of our team, products, and sales. We always had to have a reality check and make good decisions at every step — from selecting machinery to creating our formulas. Being lean also helped, as complexity often can be detrimental to young entrepreneurs. Sometimes, the paths that need to be taken look so straightforward and simple, and that’s the beauty of it!
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
All in all, I wouldn’t say we had a bumpy ride. Instead, we had a steady journey upwards with some hurdles and detours. In our first ten months in our home market, we hit €2 million in sales. In a year, we expanded our range from skincare products to supplements and colour cosmetics. We’re already taking our first steps abroad (starting with the Nordics), which is somewhat unusual for a company at this stage.
And the growth on the business side of things would have been impossible without the achievements on the scientific front. We started with one scientist — our co-founder Matas, and now we have four. Moreover, the research our R&D team is conducting together with our partners in academia has been validated by the scientific community as well. We have been awarded a number of research grants, and we have research papers in prestigious journals.
So, if I had to make up a formula for MATH’s success, it would be this: a strong mission (making our customers feel more comfortable in their skin) + a foundation steeped in science and original research + an empathic relationship with our customers. We seek out feedback everywhere and from everyone, as we believe that every voice matters. Plus, the overwhelmingly positive feedback we receive from people who have improved their life with our products is what drives us forward more than anything else.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are bringing minimalism back to an industry where many players still think more is better. For us, minimalism is not just an approach we take to formulas, it’s a core pillar of our philosophy.
Think about it. Brands these days create an impression that it takes an entire cabinet of products (preferably from the same company) to take care of your body and skin. But this is an approach that is driven by marketing and sales, not by evidence.
Our team of scientists approach this subject differently. At MATH, we all believe that any wellness routine should be simple and elegant. Like a precise mathematical formula. If the ingredients are high quality and you know how to use the product, you don’t need much more.
As a brand, we take this scientific approach and blend it with a mindful lifestyle and a firm commitment to sustainable practices. Most importantly, we don’t want to sell anyone a miracle. Time and consistency is an essential ingredient of feeling and looking better.
Minimalism is embodied in our formulas on the more practical side of things. Developed by bright and driven people with a background in Biochemistry, Pharmacy and Bioengineering, they are designed to support natural biological skin regeneration processes on a cellular level.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Where do I even begin…? Most of the mistakes were not actual mistakes but, rather, misunderstandings or wishful thinking gone wrong.
I don’t think we made any particularly unique mistakes, as many people in the skincare industry make the same ones. Yet, ironically, we all repeat them religiously.
I’d like to share one of the most common mistakes in the industry that might surprise many readers. Oftentimes, in order to cut costs, manufacturers will order bottles from one supplier and bottle caps from another. And while the specs match on paper, when it comes to actually putting the caps on, half of them don’t fit. Even though they agree to send a new batch right away, the process takes time, so the product stays unavailable for the clients for far too long.
It’s the same with labeling. Sometimes you can have 10 people proofread the label over and over, yet you only notice a typo after thousands of them come from the printing house. So you have to reprint them all.
In the grand scheme of things, these are just tiny hiccups. But at times, they can be really annoying. The main lesson is not to focus on the problem, but rather on the solution. Then the monsters become far less scary.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
“In the beginning, focus only on your business and leave other things for when you’re already successful.” When you’re just starting out, it’s easy to give in to the idea that life can wait while you build your empire. All this outlook does is make you tense, overworked, and extremely non-creative.
When I was starting out, hustle culture was at its peak and people didn’t talk about burnouts and their aftermath. At least, not nearly enough. Becoming completely depleted for the sake of your goals was the norm. I followed this model for a while but, luckily, soon enough I realized it wasn’t sustainable. Creativity and innovation cannot survive on coffee and energy drinks. Creativity and innovation require rest, balance, silence, and reflection.
Therefore, I started making more time for myself. We often confuse “me time” for some kind of selfish indulgence when in fact, “me time” is the time we must take to create more space for the unexpected. And more space for growth.
Of course, I’m not saying that refusing the hustle culture is easy. It most definitely is not. Especially in a world where we are often forced to think that our productivity determines our value. It’s funny how we live in 2022 but still abide by the standards of the XIX century industrial revolution.
Therefore, now I do my best to promote a different definition of work, productivity and self-worth. I see all of these things as a part of a wholesome balanced life that cannot be reduced to any one thing. And if I start feeling the hustle culture creeping in, I take a step back and reflect. I encourage my team and everyone around me to do the same.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I would emphasise three traits, which I find important: realistic optimism, strong internal motivation and focused decisiveness.
Realistic optimism sits on the intersection of believing and having your feet firmly planted. If you are not realistic about your dreams, you’ll never convince anyone. Whatever it is that you have in mind, it should resonate with the market, potential investors and customers. Realistic optimism also helps to know your limits, understand your own strengths and weaknesses. A person who is realistically optimistic about their business idea, has a better experience in setting priorities and choosing consultants. An unrealistically optimistic person can quickly run out of energy.
I would not have been able to start a business 3 months after giving birth to my daughter, if I had not had the internal motivation. When you are just starting, the ratio of your own efforts and the help you get from others is skewed. And if you can’t motivate yourself, it’s even more challenging to motivate others.
Focused decisiveness is something you have to learn if you want to lead. From my own experience, what distinguishes a good manager from a so-so one, is the ability to make decisions quickly. Being indecisive is a luxury few can afford. Of course, there’s a tradeoff here as well. When faced with multiple decisions every day, there’s the risk of getting decision fatigue. Interestingly, decision fatigue is something we want to minimise for our clients as well! That’s why we don’t have 3 cleansers, we have 1. After all, if you have 12 options to choose from, it’s likely that you’ll choose nothing at all.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
My first tip will be for those who work in a consumer-facing industry. Be close to your consumers. Listen to them. Value their feedback. For me, hearing people say that our products “literally changed their life” is the most motivating thing. Of course, as the business grows bigger, you get farther and farther from the consumer. So you should carve out some time every other week to interact with them, be it online or in person. The positive vibes you get from that can definitely help prevent burnout.
Another tip is more general. Don’t take your laptop home. Have an imaginary “pause” button you can press when leaving the office. I’ve noticed that I became calmer and more grounded when I created this separation between my home and my work life. Of course, I still think about the business when I’m at home, but I don’t jump on emails or start doing administrative work when I get a free minute. Deep work is more productive and meaningful than trying to complete your tasks when your energy is depleted.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is changing opinion and direction too often. When you decide to change your vision, visual identity, values or name every couple of months, you end up wasting a lot of time, energy and money. You then start cutting your budgets, starting with marketing, an area that should never be underestimated.
Inexperience is one reason for this behaviour, but it is not the single one. Hiring too many consultants (each advocating for their own approach) is usually to blame. Of course, it’s normal to ask for help and advice — after all, you can’t be an expert in everything. But at the same time, you have to be critical and ultimately be the one calling the shots.
Not being realistic is another reason. For instance, let’s imagine you want to launch your shampoo line. You really like craft beer and would love the shampoo bottle to remind you of your favourite IPA. Your designer is against that, your partners offer other solutions, but you keep pushing. You think that being radically different will bring you customers. To be honest, you might even succeed, but only if you convince everyone around you and niche down. No one says you can’t be different, but you have to be very smart about it.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
People underestimate what a difference a healthy company climate makes. Being in sync with your team is possible only when there is mutual trust and a bit of a fun factor. Unlike many business metrics, this one is the hardest to measure. However, its effects are seen across multiple domains. For instance, in digital marketing at MATH we’ve learned that we need to tweak and modify campaigns swiftly, sometimes in just a couple of hours. If we didn’t have a team that works well together, we would have to go days without significant changes. And while we’re at it, I’d like to emphasise that instilling the idea that being dynamic is the way to go should be the business leader’s first priority.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- When it comes to learning, reasons are far more motivational than rules. When people start their business in their late 20s, rules mean a lot to them. Doing everything by the book seems like the only way to go. But rules don’t motivate, and that’s why you should start looking for reasons (Why am I doing this? What is this all really about?). For me, the WHY of MATH became crystal clear after the first positive feedback we received from users. People told us about their insecurities, and how our products make their life better. And it is then that I came to the realization that the beauty industry is not about beauty at all. It’s about wellbeing, happiness and joie de vivre.
- Work shouldn’t impact life, but life might impact work. You should own every hour of your day and have not just business but also personal goals. Reading good books, enjoying art, travelling, meeting interesting people — all of these things help you keep your life balanced. Moreover, they prevent you from being a person who can only talk about one topic — their business. And you don’t want to be that person. You need to know who you are outside of your business and what you stand for.
- You’ve made it through 100% of your worst days. It is very useful to look back from time to time. To remember the hard times you had. Every hurdle you overcame yesterday seems like not that big of a deal today. Remind yourself of this when you’re faced with the next “impossible challenge”.
- Keep checking in with your people. If everyone is just telling you the good stuff, that’s not a good sign. Once you have a solid connection with your team, they will feel free to speak up their minds. After all, leadership is not about being above someone. Absolutely not. A good leader helps others to shine.
- Sharing at work builds trust, and oversharing destroys it. As a leader, you will have a lot of thoughts, opinions and doubts. Now, sharing information is important — otherwise, people around you will never understand your vision or position. At the same time, sharing everything can just lead to more chaos.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
In the case of changing the world, I think we should never underestimate the small steps. The world doesn’t have a place for companies that don’t care about sustainability in one way or another. And even if the actions of these companies (and consumers as well) are small by themselves, when taken as a whole, they can make a huge difference.
Today, I’m involved with the Coral Reef Alliance — a non-profit organisation that takes care of one of our planet’s most important ecosystems. I know my actions alone are just a fraction of what is needed to save them, but I’m being realistic about it, and I know that thousands of people are already sharing this cause.
How can our readers further follow you online?