On the latest episode of Recode Decode, Glossier founder and CEO Emily Weiss joined Recode’s Kara Swisher onstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York City for a conversation about building a direct-to-consumer online beauty business.
Weiss said Glossier, which has grown in part thanks to a focus on building a personalized relationship with each of its customers’ beauty needs, is trying to rekindle the “humanity of things and the connections you feel with people” that were diminished by the rise of online commerce. She lauded the rise of social media for exposing the reality that every consumer is an expert about the things they buy, and doesn’t need to depend on old brands.
“I think the consumer again had to really break free from this notion that she didn’t know enough,” Weiss said. “[Instead of] ‘Hey, you look good but you could look better. You’re really missing something,’ you know, and it’s really been this industry based on a lot of rules and a lot of like this is how it’s done ... you can really think of the kind of utility, and being able to connect through a topic like beauty, and be able to help one another from all corners of the internet.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Emily.
Kara Swisher: Well, thank you. I heard there was a line outside, I’m sorry if you guys were cold. Are you all right now? I’m excited to do this. Last time I was here, I was interviewing Hillary Clinton, so this is a step up. Before that ...
Emily Weiss: Is it the same chair?
It is not, she was sitting right here, avoiding my questions. But you will not, right, correct?
Okay. We have a lot and I told Emily, I’m super interested in [this] business. I’ll confess to you, I’m not the biggest beauty person, as you can see, and I wore my fancy jacket tonight for you, Emily. But I do want to talk a lot about the business, ‘cause I think it’s really important, not just women-led business, but businesses, startups, and how they’re doing.
What is Glossier?
I wanted to sort of get started to talk a little bit about where Glossier is right now. There’s a lot about the origin of Glossier, and I want to get to that in a minute, and I want to take questions from the audience. But talk about where Glossier is right now.
Yeah. Glossier is a pretty unique kind of beauty company, that’s also a tech company. It’s hard for me sometimes to answer that question, are you beauty or are you tech? I think we’re both. Right now at a glance, we’re about 200 full-time employees across three offices, New York, Canada and London.
We’re about 70 percent female, our board is 60 percent female. Our engineering team is 50 percent female. It looks a little different than most tech companies. We just crossed last year well over $100 million in revenue. Very excited about that.
When you say you don’t know if you’re a beauty or a tech company, explain that for me, because a lot of, you know, different companies, they say they’re a tech company, or they’re a media company, or this. Do you have to choose or how do you look at that?
The way we look at it is that we’re building this people-powered ecosystem. We have co-created since we launched four and a half years ago, with our consumers. The reason we’re able to do that is because we know who they are. We have a direct relationship with every single person who buys something from us, unlike all of the incumbent companies that have been built through retail channels.
We’ve never existed through retail channels. We don’t have plans to exist through retail channels. The reason being we think that through using technology, we can do three things very differently, than what all beauty companies have done in the past. One is channel. The second is discovery, and the third is listening at scale.
What I’m talking, ‘cause direct relationships with consumers are a thing people are fighting about right now, Amazon has completely overwhelmed people by doing that, by having the data on people, having the relationship with everybody the way retailers didn’t, and brands are fighting back.
You want to own that relationship in a similar way, or how do you think about that?
I mean, fundamentally, we just think about how do you give people amazing experiences. I think in that way perhaps we’re similar to Amazon in that they’re extremely devoted to the customer. We’re very devoted to the customer from the standpoint that we don’t want to put things that aren’t amazing into the world. Since we launched, we’ve always relied a lot on user-generated content and feedback.
Which is how it started, right?
Which is really how it started, yeah, out of a blog that began in 2010, that was all around this premise that people are going to drive purchasing decisions in the future. Not algorithms, not upselling or cross-selling. If anything, upselling and cross-selling people’s opinions. Helping to evangelize people’s voice such that people can decide what they want.
At Glossier, we’ve really taken user feedback and asked them for things like what products to make, where to go in terms of pop-ups, or countries, and fundamentally, have been able to really change the relationship between brands and customers. Because traditionally, the way that I grew up with beauty products and brands was always sort of from brand, kind of speaking tops-down to customers, saying, “You’re not good enough.” Saying, “You know, you don’t know what you want, let us tell you what you want.”
Like sort of “take this lip gloss and use it.”
Yeah, really dictatorial. Really dictatorial and kind of I think in a way like really not giving people enough credit to be able to say, “Hey, I actually like, you know, I use this deodorant every day, so I am an expert at this deodorant.” Seriously, like we’re all experts at the things that we consume and the things that we use.
What we’re trying to do is provide the tools, be it the physical products that we’ve created over the last four years, or the digital conduits that we’re creating now, and in the future, to help people use their voice, to help people really use their voice and say, “Hey, how can I help someone else talk about what they’ve learned about beauty and their products?” And hopefully inspire others.
That relationship, you’re trying to basically shift the marketing relationship on its head, ‘cause usually companies market to customers. You’re using their feedback to do that?
Yeah, we’ve just typically had a pretty simple premise, which is make incredible things that can really stand the test of time. That has equaled, so far, building this very modern essential products, that we hope become icons in the same way an iPhone or a Air Jordan become essential products across ...
So like, Boy Brow is like an Air Jordan.
Hopefully, yeah, hopefully in 30 years times, Boy Brow will connect to a 15 year old in the Middle East, to a billionaire in Silicon Valley and will be cross-generational and cross-socioeconomic. We get very excited about creating quality things that make people want to talk about them.
Just period. Full stop, 70 percent of our growth so far has been through owned, earned, peer to peer or organic, because people just fundamentally want to share that they enjoyed their Boy Brow.
Right. Then you make products based on that, or pull products based on that?
Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t say our approach has been, this is something that people are really curious about, I think especially in this age of, like, machine learning and like we’re really getting ... For us so far, a lot of it has been quite, like, analog.
It’s just been posting on the platforms that we have, or in the Slack channel, where we have a lot like several hundred top customers and saying, “What’s your dream face wash?” Sometimes that’s the way in which we will make product decisions. Typically, it’s really an art and a science, and it really depends on the project and how involved we’re going to get versus just sort of say in the office, what are we excited about?
Right. Well, do you consider any part of the company being the creative part? Because you were saying art and science. Last person who said that was Steve Jobs, he was talking about the idea of, that it wasn’t technology, it was art and a science together that created the iPhone, or whatever other products. They were thinking of it that way, and did not. But they relied largely on their creativity versus ...
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know, we stay very connected. I would say every team at the company, we’re about a third tech across engineering, digital product, data, design, and then we have an in-house creative team, we have in-house R&D, development, and I think we’re all very connected to the customer.
We have all of our net promoters score feedback and comments from every single customer who answers it, constantly taking into a Slack channel, that everyone from me to my assistant, to an intern can read every day, just to stay connected to the customer. Sometimes it’s a single comment, or sometimes it’s a macro-trend that we hear about that translates into innovation.
Can you give me an example of that?
Let’s see, I mean, the thing that really stands out to me, which I find hilarious, is when we launched our Milky Jelly Cleanser ...
Milky Jelly Cleanser.
... and said what’s, Milky Jelly Cleanser. It’s our third best selling product.
Yeah, I’m aware of Milky Jelly Cleanser. I went to your LA store ...
And she says she’s not a beauty girl.
No, I don’t use, I’m not, I don’t use your milky whatever.
I went to your store in Los Angeles and I observed many people excited over your Milky Jelly Cleanser.
That’s great. Well, a lot of them said, you know, we said, “Who would play your dream face wash in a movie?” They said, “Emma Stone, Eddie Redmayne, Julianne Moore.”
Like, you guys really answering this? They did, and I thought that was very interesting, because they all had sort of fair skin and red hair, and we thought like, “Okay, maybe this is about like sort of like a sensitive skin wash, or something that ...”
I would say that’s quite artsy, art and sciencey.
Yeah, so that’s what you went with?
Yeah, we had helped ...
It is interesting ‘cause in the LA store, there was a mirror that said, “Objects are dewier …”
“Than they appear.”
And I was not dewy at all on that mirror, and I’ve never been dewy, but I’m hoping some day if I use milky jelly, whatever. So what did you do then? “Okay, we’re going to do an Emma Stone face wash.”
Well, first of all it influenced who we shot for the pictures, so we passed a red head who looked very Emma Stone-like. But more importantly — I mean, I’m being a little facetious, that did happen and that was certainly an input.
But what we learned from people was that anything from one comment that said, “Hey, why don’t you cut the water with 50 percent rose water? That would really add some like hydration, it would smell amazing.” We thought, “That’s a really great idea, so let’s do that.” I think that’s a good example of you can be an incumbent beauty company and pay Google, like, I don’t know, $100,000 to serve the top beauty search terms or trends, or you can read one of the five DMs that Glossier gets in a minute.
There might be one nugget in there that says, “Hey, why don’t you cut the rose water, have 30 percent rose water?” And that is like an aha moment for us.
And your customers like to do this? Like to be heard. Because it’s interesting like, it’s sort of like Tom Sawyer painting the fence, kind of thing, is you get your customers to tell you. Do they feel then that they’re part of it, or do they ...
Are Glossier’s fans a cult?
I mean, they do have sort of ... like, backstage, we had two people already obsessing of you, and everywhere you have a lot of fans, who are very much into the brand. I wouldn’t want to use the word cult, ‘cause that’s kind of a loaded term. But it’s a little culty, you know what I mean? What is it? It’s a big fan base.
Yeah, listen, when I was growing up, I loved beauty, and I would go to the mall and I would go to CVS, and I would try beauty brands. Even when I was growing up, and this might have been whatever, 15 years ago or 20 years ago, we were still in a time where, again, brands really controlled how you felt, and really kept a while, it was not so long ago. Let’s not forget that companies rejected the idea of even having social media teams.
It was like five years ago that some companies would say, “Oh, we’re not going to invest in Facebook, or we’re not going to you know, hire a social media editor.” There’s been like a real lack of transparency between major companies, be it beauty and other brands, retailers, consumer brands. Major lack of transparency historically, a major number of hoops to jump through before you can actually connect to a company.
If you think about brands of the future and sort of consumer behavior and where that’s going, you have 80 percent of millennials saying that they trust a stranger’s review on the Internet as much as a loved one’s opinion. You have people saying, seriously, you have people saying, when a Postmates doesn’t get there, guess where you can go?
You can go on Twitter and like tear into Postmates for all of your 200 followers, or your two million followers to see and hear. The customer has never been more right than she is right now. She has never wanted to be more involved with the things that she buys from a value set perspective, from a how can I be heard? I want to be seen and heard. My opinion matters.
I just did that with Home Depot and I got a free dishwasher, and it works, I’ll tell you. It does help to have a lot of Twitter followers. Most of mine are like nerdy guys, but that’s okay. When you talk about that idea of social media and using it, why do you think that is? Why do you think beauty morphed into that, or is it that they’re sort of corporations largely run by men, largely ...? What do you think the reason is?
Well, it depends what you mean by people getting into it. I think in general, this is a highly emotional category, and beauty is an incredible conduit for connection. Increasingly ...
Why haven’t they? What I mean is why didn’t they? Why was it done, it’s done in a ...
Well, I think technology. You didn’t have Instagram launched two months after Into the Gloss launched in 2010. YouTube and its rise of the beauty influencer really only happened in the last five years. A, it wasn’t possible. But B, I think the consumer again had to really break free from this notion that she didn’t know enough.
Or that it’s an industry based in fear and loathing.
And exactly that, “Hey, you look good but you could look better. You’re really missing something,” you know, and it’s really been this industry based on a lot of rules and a lot of sort of like this is how it’s done. I think it’s a really exciting time because of, I mean, obviously, it’s scary time in some ways, because of what social media, you’re seeing the under belly of it, and we’re seeing a lot of disconnection.
But what’s interesting is what’s possible when you can really think of the kind of utility, and being able to connect through a topic like beauty, and be able to help one another from all corners of the Internet.
Of those social media platforms, I assume Instagram is your most powerful vehicle or not, I don’t know.
Yeah, I mean, it’s ... Yes, Instagram we launched on four years ago and we have about 1.7 million followers now, and almost half of them are actually not even in the United States.
What is Glossier’s Instagram strategy?
How do you use it? What is the way you think about it?
I mean, we think about it as sort of our number one social media channel. A lot of customers write into us, so again, we get five DMs a minute, which we respond to. We really care about this one to one about the customers. Our customer experience team is actually in our kind of marketing team. It’s not sort of this like dark corner of the office where you have to like slave away listening to, like answering where people’s packages are.
Like an overwhelming number are ideas for us that they need to filter across the company. Instagram for us has been an incredible tool to show a lot of user-generated content. We show a lot of other brands because what Glossier is here to do is not just sell Glossier products, it’s actually to kind of increase the entire pie when it comes to this industry that’s 450 billion, going to be 750 billion in five years.
What we’re interested most in is creating this democratized conversation. What we do a lot of on our channel on Instagram is really celebrate people’s stories. We really say, we try to find people who maybe use Boy Brow or a Glossier product. But we really want to do is sort of evangelize that person’s whole routine, and all of her discoveries across whether that’s a L’Oreal product, a MAC product. We don’t see them as competition.
No. If you think of other kind of direct to consumer categories, be it maybe a suitcase or a mattress or something like that ...
So Casper, Away.
... you choose what ... Well, it’s hard. They have massive competition because you choose one every 15 years, or 10 years and that’s your choice.
So if you don’t make that sale, then you have to wait another you know, how long to get a new mattress.
Whereas as we all know here with beauty products, personal care products, I have five lip balms from different brands in my bag. I think it’s really important just to, again, kind of encourage that the conversation to happen, period.
Yeah, I last bought my last mascara 15 years ago, but that’s okay.
Let’s talk about, you Instagram, what else works for you, or what other platforms? Does Facebook itself even know it owns Instagram?
Yeah, I think so. I think we mainly invest in Instagram, but the thing that we’re really excited about right now is actually designing our own platform.
You’ve talked about this. When is that coming?
Yeah, so I think you’ll start to see things pretty soon this year.
What is pretty soon?
Well, I’m not going to tell 700 people sitting here that.
You know, ‘cause my team would kill me.
All right. I thought we like to share customer feedback, they might have some thoughts.
You can find me afterwards. Listen, again, if you think of beauty and you think of these platforms, and kind of what people need with relation to beauty. It is a very subjective category, where there is no one right answer. There is no single source of truth. My best mascara could be your no-mascara.
Right, it’s about right.
Or your wrong mascara. It’s really about finding the person who you trust. If you look at how people are searching for beauty products today, and potentially fashion products, or other more subjective categories, your best choice of action is going to Google and typing in “best mascara.” It’s not until page seven that you find a non-SEO, non-branded, non-compromised, non dah, dah, dah, just a human being whose opinion ...
You learn more about this human. They also had a wedding where they needed a mascara that wouldn’t drip, and their eyelashes are also short and sparse. Or whatever it is. That’s a tough journey. You’re in like the land of 15 tabs. It’s like 30 minutes later that you’re like, “Oh my God, I finally figured it out.”
This kind of corroborates what’s happening in stores because you have 50 percent of people who go into a store today, who ignore the salesperson and take out their iPhone, to either text a friend saying, “I’m standing in Sephora. What mascara should I get?” Or they go on Google search. When you think of the existing kind of social networks, they’re really networks, they’re not utilities.
We think a lot about, well, what would happen if there were a social utility wherein people could really connect to find the information or the inspiration that they need really quickly? So that’s what we’re working on.
It would be not expert-based?
Nope, there is no expert. Surprise ...
’Cause a lot of what’s happening on YouTube.
... we’re all experts. Every one of us has an opinion about the stuff we have put on and either thrown out ‘cause we thought it sucked, or we use it for 30 years.
How do you differentiate between the experts and people that could invade a network like that? As you know, social media seems to have been used in the recent election to mess things up. You can see abuses in social media.
How do you do that? “Cause a lot of things have been based. Like for YouTube right now, the beauty stuff is all around experts.
Yeah, I think there’s something interesting about following, and I think that that again gets into sort of the perverse kind of incentive when you’re kind of incentivized by, do you like you, or the idea of you, or and are you getting rewarded for being you, versus are you rewarding for a piece of content that really helped someone?
Like thank you, this was a great recommendation. We think a lot about the possibility of really positive spaces on the Internet for women. We think a lot, let’s say majority for women or women-based. We think a lot about the value in utility, in sort of social utility in the future of kind of more utility-based networks.
Utility is an interesting term, meaning that, just useful for the user.
Yeah, useful for the user.
’Cause Mark Zuckerberg actually call Facebook a utility to me, when I met him in 2000 whatever, five. Then now I’ve recently said, “Well, maybe it should be regulated like a utility.” But the question is when you mean a utility, is that it’s just a helpful place versus a social place, or a commentary place.
Right. You come with the desire to get information or inspiration from a person who you trust, and will make that easier.
What does that do for your company then?
I mean, I think what’s interesting for us is A, we sort of achieve our mission of kind of giving voice through beauty, so really activating people to be able to say, to sit up a little taller and say, “This is what I know. This is what I think.” Moreover, I think what’s really important that I spent just tons of time thinking about is how on earth are we going to be able to continue to like listen.
We started with a blog, where it was very manual, very analog, two times a week. That’s not really a good way to help people find who or what they need, ‘cause you’re only getting whatever 54, 88 pieces of content a year.
How are we able to provide people with quicker matches and better matches. As a company, how are we going to be able to kind of listen at scale to user feedback, or to people talking about what sucks about beauty, and what they want in beauty.
Which you’re already doing by getting the incoming? You’re just pushing it out again, presumably? You’re already getting this incoming from customers, correct?
Yes, but today it’s not, we haven’t done nearly enough to be able to sort of scale our ability ...
... to organize that in such a way that we can make sense out of it.
Presumably then you could sell them anything, correct? Or not? Is that not even in your thought process?
Well, we’re not thinking about that because I see them as two very different sort of things. I see one very much as sort of a software product that’s all about, again, kind of democratizing beauty and letting people sort of share everything and anything that they’ve used and learned about with no kind of interruption, no sort of ads. Yeah, no interruption and no sort of limitations or censorship. And I see the others being able to continue to create hardware and physical products that hopefully continue to represent, hopefully people are like “Oh, yes, that’s exactly what I wanted, thank you!” But I don’t think a lot about how do you sort of push product into an environment where people are not looking to buy things but are more looking just to discover answers.
Your hundred million dollars is based on the products you sell?
Which is your business is selling the software, correct?
Correct, the hardware.
The hardware. I’m sorry. Hello! I’ve lived in Silicon Valley for 20 years, I should’ve gotten that right. So you don’t marry the two of them to bring them together, the idea of it?
No, I think it’s just again about listening so we don’t have to manually go through every single comment and be like how many times did someone say “conditioning,” right? We can say, alright, people are really excited about conditioning. Are they happy with the products that they’re using or is there an opportunity to do something better?
And it’s interesting because even today we say no to like 20 out of 21 ideas whenever the question is, can we actually put something out into the world that is better than what exists? That face wash that I described, we were supposed to launch with a face wash, that was sort of the goal, at the launch of the company in 2014. But I looked at what we had, after 20 iterations and said, “Is this actually better than what exists?” And the answer is no, it’s like does anyone need another beauty product that’s, like, okay? That’s why we’ve kept our entire, I think we have a total, we launch a new one every couple of months, we’re at I think 29 products now.
Yeah, you have only 29.
It’s not that much when you look at other beauty companies, whether they’re incumbent companies or whether they’re new startups. And part of that is because of our channel, we sell everything direct so we don’t have to worry about shelf space and filling up a gondola with a bunch of stuff just so we can get the real estate.
Right, right. So, that keeps you from scaling, correct? You have VC funding, you have how much money? $86 million.
Which is a large amount of money. So, does that keep you from scaling or not? Because you also haven’t expanded internationally quite as aggressively as other startups.
Well, it depends. In the D2C space I can’t think of a lot that have gone international, but for us we have always focused on two things I would say that I’m very proud of. Or I would say three things. One is, very intentional growth. So if we wanted to 5X revenue overnight, we could just go into multi brand stores.
Conditioner, for example.
We can just distribute everywhere, right? That would really ruin our ability to think about ourselves being able to create long term value, I think, with that one to one customer relationship. So intentional growth, again the same example of really intentional growth. Two I would say is focus. We’ve said no to a lot of things, including opening hundreds of stores, for example. Hundreds of Glossier stores, even though our two stores do incredibly well, and are very popular. And then I would say the third thing is just quality. Again, I think it’s never been harder to create longevity, whether it’s in relationships, whether it’s in physical products, we’re in an era of fast fashion, fast content, just the attention span of people and of consumers-
It’s very twitchy.
Yeah, it’s very twitchy. And so to think that you’re trying to build something that is going to continue to reproduce, it’s not an MVP, it’s not about iteration, it’s about creating a physical thing that is going to grow with people over decades.
And that’s really kept us focused.
Do you get pressure from your investors? Again 86 million dollars is a lot of many.
It’s a lot of money you know but we’ve really done a great job of sticking to our plan. We’ve had triple digit growth year over year for four years with really amazing repeat rates, 50 percent of our revenue last year came from repeat customers, and our NPS even as our net increases. So we had over a million people become customers in 2018, and typically you see NPS kind of going down, right? It’s harder to maintain quality and that kind of recommendation while ours is going up. And again I think, all of those results come from this obsessive devotion to the customer and making the right decision for people.
So talk a little bit of the management. You’ve had some management turnover recently, a lot of other startups it happens, it’s happened at every startup I’ve covered. Some make it through well, some people don’t, and it’s a difficult transition for smaller companies to go larger. I assume you’re goal, even if you have intentional growth is to get larger, is to get bigger?
Of course. We think about, as I mentioned, longevity like, this is 60 years later.
So, the move from a hundred million to the billion is really hard. To get here, it’s not easy but it’s much easier than here and a lot of companies, Nasty Gal was one of them, they just sort of topped out there. At the same time, Rent the Runway had struggles and then moved up, went to a public offering. What is the pressure on you as a young executive? Or, this is your first job, right?
No, you had other jobs ...
Well, I had other jobs, certainly first CEO job.
Well first of all, if you have any tips, let me know later.
I do not. I’m a failed CEO.
Secondly, listen, I remember reading a long time ago one of the first books I read five years ago, before launching, was Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things.
And I believe it’s a quote from him that is “No one prepares you to be a CEO, you become a CEO by being a CEO.” Certainly, there are growth stage challenges that every startup faces that I don’t think this is my or anyone else’s first time at the rodeo experiencing these things. But I also think, not to beat a dead horse, but staying very focused has been something that, again, I’m very very proud of. And so there hasn’t been this kind of attention creep or this sort of pressure, we have a great board. There hasn’t been this kind of growth at all costs approach, either internally or externally from our investors, yet, because they really believe in the long term ambitions and the potential of the company.
Your long time president and COO moved to CFO, left, right? Talk about that a little bit, what was that experience and what are you looking for now? A bunch of people left, you’ve hired a bunch of people, pretty much all women, which I applaud you for, but what has happened there and how do you think about what you need to take to the next level?
Well we’re certainly a growth-stage company now. So, I think about it a little bit like we spent the first let’s say two or three years making something that anyone gives a shit about, that’s like your goal as a startup at first, you know? And now, our goal is really to build an enduring business. There are a lot of mechanics, and a lot of biz ops and processes and people processes, I mean people alone is such the heartbeat of a company. We have a hundred part time employees just in retail. Just in two stores in addition to our 200 full time employees. So the needs of the company have changed and to the point about learning how to be a CEO, my job changes every quarter. I have a whole new set of responsibilities that I’ve never faced before. And so I lean on mentors, like Katrina Lake who joined our board last summer.
She’s the CEO of-
CEO of Stitch Fix who had took it public. She’s one of very few female CEOs who have taken their companies public. And generally found a lot of success in surrounding myself and talking to people who are basically like two steps ahead, right? All is well and good to read books by Howard Schultz and amazing leaders who are 2,000 steps ahead, but I find what’s most helpful where we are right now is to find people who are a couple years ahead to really help see around those corners and make sure we’re making smart hires for the next...
So you’re looking for those CEOs now? Or COO now? Or not? Not everybody has a COO.
Yeah, yeah. We’re looking for someone in that sort of COO/president role.
But you want to firmly remain CEO.
Right. I figured. The only answer to that was yes and if you said no it would be bad.
How does Emily Weiss feel about being CEO?
How do you feel you handle the pressures? What do you feel you do well and not do well? Because you’re one of the few, you can put the female CEOs in tech related companies I think on one hand.
Yeah. Female CEOs in public companies went down last year, in total number. Last year I think it was 4 percent of venture deals went to female CEOs, 2 percent of venture dollars went to female CEOs. The percentages are even lower for women of color. We have such a long way to go. For me, I don’t spend too much time thinking about that, I recognize the responsibility I have as a female CEO, but I really just focus on continuing to build a great company that brings a lot of joy to people. I’m just going to keep doing that.
So you don’t think about your role as a woman leader, at all? You don’t have to, I just-
Listen, of course. It’s apparent, it’s apparent in rooms at conferences it’s apparent in rooms around tables with companies, it’s not apparent at Glossier because we’re overwhelmingly female. But I think the most important thing just as an executive that I’ve learned, and people say this but it’s really true, is getting really good at knowing what you’re good at, and what your value at is to the company. And so for me, I really lean into customer sort of touch points. I really lean into brand marketing, to product, to digital product now, and I love to learn and I’m incredibly curious about other functions of business and experts who come in to lead those functions. And I think that’s been really important is honestly, just a core value of Glossier, is just curiosity. And the interesting thing about when you’re curious, it goes hand in hand with humility. If you’re curious, it means you’re saying, “I’m really wondering about this, I don’t know about it.”
I don’t hear that much from people I cover. Not at all, in fact. Never once. This is the first time. “I think I’m great and I think I can do anything,” that’s what I usually hear and it’s usually inaccurate.
One of the things you talk about, here’s a question which I thought was interesting, how do you look at your own personal brand in this? Because a lot of people do affiliate Glossier with you and you with Glossier and it’s an understandable thing, companies do get affiliated with their typically charismatic CEOs. Talk about that a little bit.
That’s interesting. So, I guess there’s a spectrum, certainly in terms of if I think about companies whose founders I know or am friendly with. Across tech, across brands, across media. I’ve always thought of myself as kind of more of a conduit for connection. And that’s really the role I like to play. I think fundamentally the most pleasure that I derive is, A, making people happy. So meaning creating something that makes someone smile. Creating a product, delivering a package, creating an experience, something that makes people smile. I think I also, I guess in some ways, really stay behind the scenes. I like to really play matchmaker for people internally. One of my favorite things is helping people realize their potential.
So, an example of that is a woman who stopped me on the subway a few years ago, and said “I love Glossier” and I said “Well, what do you do” and she said, “I just graduated college, I’m not really sure what I’m going to do.” And I said, “Well I’m hiring an assistant, do you want to come interview for it?” And then she became my assistant and I realized very quickly that she was a good assistant, even I don’t think she’d tell me it was the perfect fit for her. But she was amazing at physical products, at hardware. She was amazing at ingredients, just as just a consumer. Just really an amazing sense. So I moved her into product development and she created three of our best selling products. Cloud Paint, Haloscope, lip gloss. So many huge glossy products, she was 22 years old, she had never been in a lab before.
And I think maybe that’s a benefit of being a female executive or a woman who didn’t go to business school, went to art school, in so many ways “shouldn’t be here.” Like, this is not the path, but why not? Why couldn’t this person who seems to have this great instinct be really good at this thing? So, to answer your question I tend to stay pretty behind the scenes to try and do as much as I can to enable that magic to happen. Whether on a personal basis, internally or on a customer facing basis with a store experience, with a canyon room in LA, you can go into and be like, “Why isn’t this in a store?” Why am I an a canyon, you know?
Right. I thought that. That’s what when I went into a canyon, that’s precisely what I thought. And then I ran out.
But did you get a selfie?
I did not. I’m sorry, I’m not a shopper. I had to recently go with my sons to something called Golfwang and I’m still recovering from that.
Wang. It’s Tyler the Creator’s store in LA, it’s a pop up. Boys have their own thing going on and it has to do with $150 sweatshirts. And really expensive sneakers, like a lot of them. A lot of pairs. It’s really very expensive. In any case, I’m losing my train of thought.
So, I want to finish up on the business and then I’m going to get to questions from the audience. What don’t you think you do well? What don’t you want to do? What do you think you either need to improve on or what don’t you want to do as a CEO?
One thing that I’m very, very excited for is to create this new paradigm of commerce that is much more emotional. So, in some ways, I think Amazon really solved buying, but it killed shopping in the process. And increasingly, the sort of humanity of things and the connections you feel with people or the information you want from people, and the kind of human experiences are going to I think be harder and harder to come by. I was in a mall in Tampa over Christmas break near where my parents live, and it was packed. It was packed with people hanging out. People on first dates, families who were in town going to Auntie Anne’s, and people swarming the Apple Store. I’m not saying that all that means you need more stores, but I do think it’s interesting this disaggregation that’s happened where shopping is the purview of Instagram.
What is Instagram if not HSN? If you really think about it. How many of us are just scrolling, looking at our friends, and people we follow and say, “Who makes that lamp in your room?” You know? “What sneakers are those?” I’m not talking ads, right? I’m talking this is the new QVC or Home Shopping Network. So, at the same time then you’re kind of clicking over to sort of Amazon turning into this fulfillment-
Right. Which they do beautifully.
Algorithm. Which they do beautifully and no one will ever compete on that, they have solved it. But with 10 percent of commerce in the U.S. happening online, that means 90 percent more commerce that is probably going to move a lot online. And you do need these kinds of conduits for people to be able to influence and inspire and have that human connection closer-
Oh merchandising. I interviewed years ago the guy who started Crate & Barrel, and he took a 20 cent plate and sold it for $8 because he put it in a beautiful setting, he made people feel good about it, which was kind of awful to do but, nonetheless, he was creating an emotional feeling around it.
Yeah, just how are these human connections going to develop, like you said? 10 years ago Facebook said, “We’re facilitating connections, that’s what we’re doing”. Now you see studies coming out saying actually, people are very depressed through this process. And so where is that all leading? And I think a lot of it is going to be this intersection of topic-based networks, or topic-based communities, and inherent in this is how are you solving this kind of beauty conundrum where it’s not about a perfect answer, a perfect score, a perfect algorithm, it’s like a head scratcher. And so you need people to populate this kind of emotional space around beauty.
Could Amazon copy and outmaneuver Glossier?
Which I think your point about buying and shopping is a really smart one. Which gives me the idea, could Amazon algorithm you? Like essentially figure out and copy that in a way? And then would you ever consider selling? I’m assuming you’ve gotten many, many inquiries from the big beauty brands.
Yeah I mean, M&A is really the way that these giant beauty companies innovate.
Yes. They bought the shave guy, they bought-
Yeah, last night Elemis sold to L’Occitane for $900 million. So it was 6.4 revenue, I think? Innovation really has come for the last decade from M&A. We believe that there’s a real channel opportunity here in terms of being direct, it’s something that these beauty companies have not yet done. Who’s to say they couldn’t? But they’re very hamstrung by the relationship with the big retailers. And when it comes to our growth, we’re very focused on we have an inherently profitable business model. We have a lot of runway in terms of investment, we have an amazing team, we’re hiring more amazing people every day. So we don’t really see any reason to-
But who are you worried about, in that case? Would it be Amazon?
I mean, maybe but we don’t spend that much time thinking about competition. We really spend a ton of time thinking about customers.
So there’s no plans? That’s not your exit role? Would it be to have an IPO?
I’m not sure what the future holds but whatever it takes to continue to build this for a very long time and into into a very big company is what we’ll do.
You can’t do an IPO now because the SEC is apparently shut down, so... I don’t even know what to say about that.
Alright, I’m going to ask some questions to you from the audience. “Glossier’s success has largely been built on a close and direct relationship with the customer, how do you plan on scaling your people-first approach as the company grows to service more and more customers?” Yeah, so are you going to get like bots or something like that?
Bots that talk to you.
No. I would say that the number one way to do that and to listen and to serve people better is, obviously, a lot of technology, a third of our company is tech it will probably go more to 50 percent in terms of our tech team. I would also say so much of how we serve our customers is actually our customers talking to each other. If you go into one of our two stores, or even if you look in our comments section on an Instagram post, people are answering each other’s questions. I think the ability to even just empower our customers, it’s not through rev shares or anything like that but just they’re really doing a lot of that work for us.
And you want to take that on to your own platform, more of that?
Sure, yeah, exactly. Any sort of tools that we can give to help the beauty conversation grow about Glossier and about just any other products, that’s what we’ll do.
Alright. “How do you attract top female engineers?” That’s a good question.
I think for one just having top female engineers already-
Yes, but someone asked me, “How do I get more women in tech?” I go, “Hire them.”
So how do you attract them? I would assume that, a woman led company would probably help. But what does that make up on your team?
Fifty percent female engineers out of all of them.
The challenges of building a great team in a tech startup
“What has been the most challenging aspect of building a great technology team?” That’s this next one.
I think, actually, the most challenging aspect of building a great technology team is that I’m not a technical founder. So I’m not Patrick from Stripe or Peter from PayPal.
I’m so glad.
I think part of it has just been the fact that it’s not my strength, is the number one challenge, but I’m fortunate that our leadership and so many of our team, they know what they’re doing. They’re amazing.
Right, yeah. You can hire people like that and then order them around. “In the age of Trump, ugh, how do you see…” I’m just reading from the question. I heartily agree! “How do you see the world of beauty and health intersecting with politics?” This is from Adriana. That’s interesting.
Well Trump could use Boy Brow, but go ahead. Seriously.
How do I see it intersecting with politics? I think we talk a lot about the democratization of media, I think that’s definitely happened with social media. There’s certainly a giant democratization of beauty where everything is being flattened. There’s no one-
So celebrity. Do you worry about the growth of the celebrity, they’re all starting makeup. I know Kylie Jenner’s been very successful, but Rihanna, I think, has one?
Yeah, incredibly successful. We actually recently hired the product developer who did Fenty, who did Nars before that. So she’s on our team so we have more great products coming soon. I think using your voice. I think the biggest crossover for us is speak up, use your voice, talk about-
It’s often been celebrity based, a lot of the makeup selling, essentially.
Yeah. A lot of makeup selling. But at Glossier, it’s something we’ve always stayed true to since pre-launch day one, is every single person is an influencer. And I think that that is so the message right now for politics, for seeing all these women going into Congress. You’re starting to really understand, more than ever, I think, the power of your voice and the importance of your voice and how necessary it is to speak up.
Yeah, absolutely. So you would have, say, an Emma Stone inspired cleanser, but not Emma Stone as the spokesmodel?
No. I mean, yeah, honestly she’d be way too expensive anyway.
Advice for entrepreneurs raising their seed rounds
Just wait. “What advice would you give to someone starting out to raise their seed round investment? Thanks, Wendy, The Beauty Buddy.” What is that? Okay Wendy, thank you.
I think my advice, this is my advice, not I think, because people ask me this all the time, my advice to someone seeking out their seed investment is to understand, and I’m going out on a limb here, this is just my observation, I believe that a seed investor is really betting on you. They are betting on the entrepreneur. They’re betting that I can give you this money, and I’m not sure what you’re gonna really make of it because there’s gonna be so many twists and turns and you’re so early, there’s no product market fit. It’s just an idea. It’s a spreadsheet and a bottle of wine. That’s what you got.
And so I think it’s really about how do you sell yourself? And it’s not to sell yourself to be right all the time. If anything, it’s to say, “Hey, I will tell you really honestly where this could go really wrong. I will tell you honestly what my blind spots are, I will tell you honestly step one, step two, step three.” And I think it’s getting people onboard with you. I think that’s really the secret no one talks about. They think it’s all about your deck and it’s all about who you know and all those things.
And I do think who you know does have something to do with it, but I will also tell you that when I was first raising our seed round of two million dollars, five-plus years ago, I didn’t know any of these venture capitalists. I didn’t even know what a venture capital was. I knew I needed a million dollars in order to pay for materials that would make beauty products and go produce beauty products. And it was a lot of cold outreach and getting people onboard. And 11 out of 12 people said no, or 10 out of 11 or whatever it is. Isn’t it like that Lady Gaga quote that’s like, “There can be 100 people in a room and if only one...” whatever.
So there was one Kirsten Green in the room and she was in SF.
Did sexism play a part in it, because every female entrepreneur I know has that moment. I mean, Katrina Lake had that moment.
Yeah, listen. I’ll be really honest with you. One thing that is just true is, it should be hard. It should be hard to build a business, it should be hard to raise money. It’s just hard. If it’s not hard, I don’t know why. But it should be. It should feel hard. So whether you’re a woman or a unicorn or a man or whatever, it’s gonna be hard.
I’m fortunate — well, I don’t know fortunate, I guess it is, but I’m certainly fortunate to have gotten the funding. I did not have, I didn’t face any sort of overt … overtly sexual harassment or, I don’t know-
Not just sexual harassment, in general, not backing women entrepreneurs.
I don’t know. I was so heads down and just about knowing it was gonna be hard and, will I ever know whether or not it was harder because I’m a woman than it would be if I’m a man? I don’t know. But I was just focused on winning.
Right. The reason I’m asking is because it cannot be that all men are so much smarter than women that they get all the funding, correct?
No. I mean, it’s a lot of pattern matching, right? I mean, the industry is based on a lot of VCs who used to be operators and the people who used to be operators 20 years ago in tech companies were men and so I think it’s just gonna take a lot of work for this shift to happen, but it’s already happening.
It is. There have been some changes in how you come up with funding. I mean, I’ll never forget when a VC once, I was like, “Why don’t you have more [female] partners? Why don’t you have more investments?” He said, “Well, if there had been a Marcia Zuckerberg instead of a Mark Zuckerberg,” and I said, “You’re such an idiot. I have to walk out of this room right now.” Because it was like, “What are you,” it was-
There needs to just be-
It was pattern matching.
We just need to build more companies that are big companies that are paving the way. I think a lot about two things, I think about the what, and I think about the how. I think about what we’re building at Glossier, what we’re putting out into the world, what value we’re creating, what we’re disrupting, what we’re transforming, and just as important as all of that is the how we’re doing it.
Because in 10 years time when we are in the world, operating at a very big scale, I want startups in the valley or startups in New York or startups in Idaho to be sitting around a table saying, “How should we build our tech team? How should we hire? How should we do this?” And think, “How did Glossier do it? Because they’re clearly doing something right,” and be able to look under the hood at the how we’re doing it and say, “I’m gonna do it like that.”
Although often, women-operated companies and operated by people of color are often seen as the exception rather than the rule. It’s the same thing with movies. Like, how did Black Panther get so good? Maybe you weren’t backing them in the first place and so they never got the chance. Do you know what I mean? So it is important that Kirsten started her company. I think she sees around corners precisely because she’s a woman.
“It seems as though Glossier’s average customer is a younger millennial. How do you think about growing with the customer through different life stages, ages?” Although, I did see a lot of mothers and daughters in your store.
Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, I think the average age of our customer is late 20s. In our stores, you see a lot of much younger customers. But Glossier is for everyone. We do have a lot of women in their 60s, women in their 50s, people who are, just two hours ago, someone whose 11-year-old daughter had every single product. I’m like, “Did you even know she had all?” He was like, “No.” Like, how is she paying for this stuff? So it’s-
Exactly. One of the things, actually, that we’re most proud of is Glossier is one of the first brands that is being passed up as opposed to passed down. So people who are in their teens or early, are actually saying, “Hey mom, you should really try this brow product,” and that’s been really rewarding.
Interesting. I’m never gonna have that happen. Although I have an awesome set of Ninja Turtle t-shirts and stuff. “If you have an awesome product but a small social media following, do you think it’s worth spending the energy increasing followers or focus on other methods of selling direct to customer?”
Well if it’s a beauty product, beauty is so social. And again, going back to how we grew, it was so much about people who had great experiences with the product. Think about every happy customer telling 10 of their followers, telling 100 of their followers. So I would say it’s more important to put something amazing out into the world, such that people will want to talk about it. In all of the fancy ways of growth hacking and ways that you can grow, I still believe that word of mouth and having someone really like something enough to go tell a friend is the most traditional and the most everlasting in terms of-
Yeah, you can’t buy love, right?
You can’t buy what?
You can, well, no, not really. Okay. “Could you describe your prototyping process for Glossier’s first products? How did you come up with the formula, how did you test it and how is Glossier’s marketing strategy evolved since its inception?”
First of all, is everyone in the office excited about it? So again, that’s kind of the litmus test, is, looking around when you’re showing, and this goes for anything in any business. If you’re all in a meeting and everyone’s not into the idea, clearly there’s an issue. So for us, it starts with looking around and seeing if everyone’s like … and then we know were’ onto something. Every product’s different. We have products that take six months to produce and to get right, we have products that take two and a half years to get right, like, the face wash took forever.
What was quick?
What was quick? So if we’re doing a new flavor for balm.com, which many of you might have, my personal favorite is Birthday Cake flavor, if we’re doing a new flavor, that’s the quickest. That might be six months or something because the formula’s already created and it’s just about switching the flavor. Whereas something like an OTC product, over the counter product, has an entirely different regulatory and testing schedule, and that might take a year and a half or two years for a sunscreen, for example, or an acne product.
And what is the one that, your favorite one that went through? Do you have one besides your-
I think the balm is amazing. I also, I’m so proud of our perfume, our fragrance Glossier You. In an industry where typically you spend millions and millions, I’m talking 30 to 100 million dollars launching a perfume, we spent zero marketing dollars launching this fragrance and just made the most amazing scent and it has just incredibly high reviews. Like, perfumes are usually really divisive. Ours has just consistently so much fandom and love, and it’s really turned into this cult classic product that I love and I’m really proud of.
All right, last question. “Glossier is able to cultivate and create this community and culture through your product and experiences. How does that community and culture translate to your team at Glossier and how do you hire people that share the same mindset/energy you have for the company?” And do you actually want the same mindset, I would ask?
There are elements that I think are critically important. Like, for example, really being devoted to the customer, being super curious, very inclusive. And being inclusive actually is a great point. It’s not about sameness. Inclusive is about welcoming different, diverse opinions, being able to say, “Hey, you disagree with me, I disagree with you, but I’m including you in this conversation because we’re gonna hash it out, we’re gonna get to the right answer.” So I think those things are incredibly important at Glossier and are traits that some of our best leaders really exhibit, consistently. And I would say from the point of culture, culture is kind of the thing that you think is totally normal, but then you go somewhere else, like, to a different company, and you’re like, “Whoa. My company is so different.” It’s not better or worse, it’s just things you take for granted that are in the fabric of the company.
And honestly, at Glossier, I think one of the things that we do is, we weave a lot of fun into what we do, and I’m not talking like, beer pong/startup fun, but we unveil or strategy every year at Camp Glossier. We take hundreds of people to two days of cool — we make cool merch, we do amazing activities. We had a kickoff 2019 dinner that was kind of like, I was joking as I stood there, it looked like a vow renewal ceremony of working at Glossier. It was like a big wedding, like, a big Glossier wedding. And it kind of was. It was like, the new year, it was like, “So, you’re all back, we’re recommitting for the year ahead.”
But we put a lot of heart and soul into what we do and I hope, I recently was sitting next to, at that dinner, actually, a young woman who’s an engineer who just started, and we were talking about how important it is that onboarding is democratized. Onboarding is all of our responsibility. It’s not just about two hour training. It’s not just about, here’s a memo. It’s about going up to someone in the bathroom while you’re washing your hands and being like, “Hey, are you new? I’m so and so, I do this.” And so I think that’s also something that’s very much unique to our culture.
And what about diversity itself and bringing a more diverse culture into your company? Do you feel that you’ve done enough of that? That’s something that is talked a lot about in tech companies, but is never achieved. And one of the things I’ve always, the excuses you always get, especially on boards — and, now, you have a more diverse board — is “standards.” Like, “We have to keep our standards up.” And I always notice and I always say this, that the only time standards are mentioned is when it comes to women and people of color. That’s the only time they use the word, “standards.” And it’s never that dumb 10 people who are on the board of Twitter who screwed the whole thing up.
And it’s often the case that some of these companies, that I’ve noticed, that they’ve failed because they lack a diverse group of people talking to them. That’s the reason there’s bullying on Twitter, it’s because most of the people who work there have never been bullied. They never understand people have problems.
If you’re not the person in the room working on the product, started with the devices, Alexa and Siri, you can say, “Help, I’ve been raped,” and they’re like, “What is rape?” It’s crazy. So-
But not just that, but thinking about, because beauty’s always been that way in terms of people of color and things like that. How do you look at that?
For us, it’s intrinsic to, it’s a core value that we have in terms of inclusivity. We have a people of color group at Glossier that is actually involved in a wide variety of decisions in the company. I also think it’s something that’s never finished. So when you say, “Do you do enough of that-”
I meant in products too, in terms of making products.
Oh yeah, for sure. Very inclusive of shade range. It’s just something that’s baked into everything we do. With that being said, I would say you’re never done, right? There’s always more that we and others can be doing. And I think for us, it’s something that in particular, certainly with women, it’s something that we’ve really tried very hard with, and increasingly will try to make sure that we’re representing customers, the population. I think the best products, whether they’re digital products, when you talk about Twitter, I think it’s fascinating.
I remember, wasn’t it with the Apple Health, it would track your Blood Alcohol Level but wouldn’t track your period at first? I think there’s so many product decisions that it’s like, it’s just good business, also. It’s like, why are you not including the right voices around the table to be able to build better product?
That argument doesn’t work, interestingly enough, in Silicon Valley. It’s fascinating when you show them, study after study.
Yeah, I don’t know. But I think for us, it’s something that-
You can’t even appeal to their greed. It’s so entrenched. It’s really fascinating. Usually you can, ‘cause they really like money there.
So last question, I have one from a friend of mine who really likes your products, what is Glossier’s “non-makeup makeup look” signal about the millennial, gen Z customers they’re selling to? Do you think you have a non-makeup makeup look? I’m ending on a makeup question.
For sure. One of the things we wanted to ensure with our products is very user-friendly products, so, things that don’t require 15 brushes and are super tricky to use and are gonna be complicated and aren’t gonna be able to just be intuitive. So intuitive products have meant certain decisions around making things that are blendable, that are sheer, that are layerable.
That being said, we really encourage our customers — and our customers span tons of different kinds of makeup wearers. We have people who use Boy Brow who wear 50 makeup products every morning and spend two hours on her routine, and people wear Boy Brow as the only product she uses. So we’re really excited about that and also continuing to build products for all different kinds of looks. So that’s something that I’m excited for you all to see this year, some of the things we’re coming out with where it won’t be so no-makeup makeup, but will still be incredibly intuitive, incredibly user friendly and very fun.
Okay. My very last question, there’s a lot of entrepreneurial women and presumably men here, what would be the one piece of advice you’d give them to do that you’ve done well and one that you would not do?
I think the one really practical piece of advice, particularly when you’re starting and there are so many questions, just, everyday is like, where do I begin? Really. And I think one of the most, the trickiest thing is honestly yourself when you’re in that stage because there’s just such analysis paralysis, and there’s such a feeling like you’re missing out, like, there’s an answer that you don’t know. Like, there’s some playbook or there’s something and you’re missing. You don’t know, you can go find the answer.
And I think the piece of advice I would have there is, just do the next right thing. Like, it’s truly a journey when you’re starting out and you’re an entrepreneur. The next right decision, every time. Just keep thinking, what’s the next right decision? And I think that helps you get somewhere, that really helps you just get some momentum and leads you in the places you’re supposed to go. Because you cannot possibly chart that journey. You just could not map it in your mind.
What was the second part of that question?
One thing that you would not have done, that you’d have taken back? I ask every entrepreneur this.
One thing that I would not have done, that I would’ve taken back? Title inflation. This is very specific, but I was actually talking to our people person, our HR person, we call People Team, to say, “You need to write a blog post on Medium or something that’s like The Secret Killer to Startups: Title Inflation.” You’d think it’s running out of money or having bad product market fit. I actually think it’s this very specific thing, maybe I’ll write a blog post about it, but just don’t give out titles. Don’t give out titles, don’t make people VP, SVP, Co-CEO, Whispering Operator Extraordinaire. Just don’t do it because if you’re gonna build something for many years, you’re gonna have to unwind that and it’s gonna be really painful.
Yeah, so Thing 1 and Thing 2, that kind of thing?
Thing 1 and Thing 2?
Yeah. You’re way too young for that.
No, just marketing. Marketing. You’re in marketing, you’re in sales, you’re in finance. Go do finance for years. Because it’s just, I’m getting very ... But it’s good advice, I’m telling you guys. If anyone here or anyone listening is thinking, is starting something. Just areas.
Okay. All right everybody, Emily Weiss from Glossier.