Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Sharmadean Reid MBE is founder and CEO of WAH London. Being passionate about millennial girl culture Sharmadean started a fanzine called WAH in 2006 while still studying at Central St Martins. After graduating, Sharmadean Reid started her career as a stylist and brand consultant specialising in youth brands such as Nike and ASOS but continued to drive the WAH brand through informal meetings and by continuing to publish the fanzine ad hoc.
In 2009 The WAH brand set up a physical home in the shape of WAH Nails, a salon and creative space in Dalston that provided a real life space for these online fans to connect. WAH Nails completely changed the face of nail culture and beauty by offering a millennial owned, grassroots, community face to the beauty business, and soon expanded into doing the events, shows and parties at London Fashion Week, for brands such as Nike, Marc Jacobs and Diesel.
Sharmadean was named one of the “15 people who will define the future of arts in Britain” and featured as part of the “New Generation” in Vogue magazine and wrote the bestselling WAH Book of Nail Art in 2013. In 2016 WAH has launched a brand new salon in Soho, Central London. Partnering with DVTK, she created a Virtual Reality Nail Design app to create an innovative salon environment. Her mission is to become a global beauty brand & to support other future girl entrepreneurs achieve their goals.
What is the idea behind WAH Nails and how did you come up with it?
WAH began a fanzine about girls in hip hop that I started in order to practice my skills on InDesign and Photoshop. Echo clothing decided to pay for 10,000 copies to be made and distributed in JD Sports stores. We had a shoot in there where this girl had her nipples out, so at the last minute someone at JD pulled the magazine and said they weren't having it, so I was left with 10,000 issues in my living room. I decided to go out raving every day of the week, and if I ever saw a girl who I thought was cool I would give her a copy of the magazine. I wasn’t trying to get as many fans as possible, I was rather targeting girls that would be into the same things that I was into. Slowly, people started knowing me as the WAH girl.
I decided to start a blog in 2006 called WAH happenings. Making a magazine was really hard and I couldn't produce it every month so I made one fanzine a year and the blog. Every time I would travel to NY or LA or anywhere cool I would recruit more WAH girls. I did 5 issues in 5 years and the blog really took off.
When I first set up the Dalston salon, I just wanted somewhere I could hang out with my friends and we could get our nails done, nowhere was doing cool designs so I decided I was going to do it myself. To be honest I was a bit naïve about the whole thing. I’d started the zine and was giving it out to all the cool girls I knew and saw in clubs, so I’d already built a collective of really cool people. I wanted to showcase nail art in a cool way, it was never a big trend back then, but all my cool girl friends got their nails done and I knew it could be big.
Do you have other members in your team?
For so long it was just me doing WAH by myself, but our team has been growing over the past couple of years. We currently have around 15 nail techs/salon staff working for us, and then around 5 of us in the core management team.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
I started the zine in 2005, opened Dalston in 2009 and opened SOHO in 2016!
You recently opened a WAH nail salon in Soho where customers can create their nail designs via augmented reality. Tell us about that!
We simply have too much choice: customers look at our thousands of nail designs and don’t know where to start. They want to know what each design would look like in different colours, how the designs will look on the nail and sometimes the choice can be overwhelming! Our VR allows you to try on some of our most famed nail designs in real time and customize the colours. You can then know what products to buy if you want to DIY or get your design painted downstairs.
We use a Samsung Gear VR headset and Leap Motion technology. The user places their hands in front of the headset, and the Leap Motion device will follow them and match their movements within the app in real time. The user can then select skin colour and play around with nine different designs. We wanted to create something exciting for all of our WAH girls who have never tried any immersive beauty tech before and we didn’t want it to be gimmicky. Virtual reality is an amazing way for us to ‘gameify’ the experience of getting your nails.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The dream would be to use augmented reality, that allows you to hold up your hand in real time and see the design over your nail, imagine Snapchat face filters but for nails. We decided to go for the VR instead because after our research, we realized that the technology was not yet compatible due to the fact that our skin and nails are too similar in colour. It won’t be long though before this is possible!
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Opening WAH SOHO and being a shop keeper in an area that I spent my student years in and loved so much. To be a shop keeper in that area is what makes me so proud.
What are your projects you are currently working on within your company?
We’ve always targeted beauty, art and technology as the three main pillars of WAH. I feel that we have made huge waves in the beauty and art so now I am focussed on the tech. We’re currently looking at new ways to book beauty online, imagine Tumblr but for beauty services. It’s about using tech to create digital solutions for the beauty industry that don’t already exist.
What will be the key trends in the AR/VR industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
We always want to be the early adopters of tech in the beauty and salon space, so we’re always looking to innovate further. The VR we have in the salon is just the first step. There is so much more we can do with the VR technology - change nail length and shape, change multiple nails, choose a different environment. In the future, we could have celebrities helping you choose your design, it could become an entire virtual world experience!
What are the challenges of being a female founder and entrepreneur in tech industry?
Having the confidence to know you’re as good as everyone else – it’s not that people aren’t willing to support you, often it’s because you’re not asking for it.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
1. Ask your friends and family for money first, but you better pay them back!
2. Always have a vision, and make sure you can say it in a single sentence.
3. Have a sick brand aesthetic and stick to it in everything you do!
4. Only hire people on your vibe, if you're not working… someone is!
5. Build a community, they’ll be your most loyal customers.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.