Tish Bellomo started coloring her hair by dipping a strand into blue ink. The result was hard, dry, metallic and far from what she wanted. Years later, she and her sister Snooky have brightly colored hair – hot pink and purple with blue highlights, respectively. The sisters co-founded Manic Panic, a cosmetic brand that popularized vivid hair coloring in the United States and revolutionized the punk scene. As Tish says, they’ve “been making the world a more colorful place for 44 years.”
The two sisters had no experience in business but wanted to start the company together. As co-owners, they share tasks equally. They think of each other as sister, business partner and best friend. Or, as Snooky says, a “co-conspirator.”
Manic Panic now focuses on selling products, but they initially opened as a lifestyle boutique in 1977 and embraced everything punk, from records and clothing to underground magazines. The sisters were always involved in the punk scene, clubbing and singing background vocals for local bands, including stints in an early iteration of Blondie. That passion led them to start the company in the first place.
“[Punk] is what we lived and loved every day,” said Snooky. “When you’re selling something that you’re living and loving, you don’t have to sell it. You’re naturally behind it and endorsing it.” This observation makes them cautious about hiring “corporate types” and, instead, they look for employees and partners who also live the Manic Panic lifestyle. They point to successful organic marketing as examples. Instead of paying influencers, their TikTok account grew by thousands after an employee shared a post.
Vibrant hair colors are everywhere now. Tish and Snooky say that Manic Panic products created that trend. As they developed high-quality colors, demand grew. Customers discovered the dyes softened hair, didn’t dry it, and offered rich, unique shades. Now the company fulfills orders from all over the world for hair color, hair care and cosmetics. With shades like “Fuchsia Shock” or “Atomic Turquoise,” their dyes turn heads in more ways than one.
“It’s a look and a lifestyle that’s embraced all over the world. We couldn’t be happier about that,” said Snooky.
Starting a social enterprise
Punk often overlaps with activism and social justice, and Manic Panic is no exception. In fact, it led the way. The brand promotes inclusivity, and all products are vegan and cruelty-free. The company donates at least 15 percent of its annual profits to animal rights groups and other charities. Some companies may donate as a marketing ploy or tax break, but the sisters have followed this approach since the ‘70s.
“It’s always been who we are ever since we started. It was always our mission to help save animals and help save the world … We can’t do it alone, but we’re doing our little bit. It’s so gratifying,” said Snooky.
Developing as entrepreneurs
Manic Panic has been thriving for decades without outside investors or funding, but Tish and Snooky faced plenty of early pushback and occasional stumbles. From sales reps looking for the owners (and not accepting that the owner was the young woman behind the counter) to manufacturers and distributors taking advantage of their inexperience, they had more than their share of trials. Still, they learned how to handle any crisis. The sisters described how one manufacturer would sell products behind their back without meeting their direct supply needs. Unable to depend on the manufacturer, Tish and Snooky took over the job on their own.
“It was at the same point where our mother was dying in the hospital of cancer, and they were not supplying us. We were paying people just to answer the phone and apologize to our customers. Finally, we decided, ‘We can’t do this any longer. Let’s just do it ourselves,’” shared Tish. “We did it. It wasn’t easy, but we did it. We’ve always been good at figuring it out.”
The sisters attribute much of their success to the creative thinking and problem-solving skills they honed over the years. When asked if they had any advice for other entrepreneurs, they emphasized that being able to think for yourself will give you a major edge. Not everything can be solved by a Google search, after all.
In this video, Tish and Snooky Bellomo talk through their experience of creating Manic Panic and offer other words of wisdom to women hoping to build their businesses.
Looking for more features on social enterprises? Read this article on Liz Powers of ArtLifting.