The rise of beauty startup Glossier over the past three years has extended far beyond the narrow confines of the beauty industry to become the talk of retail, fashion and even media circles.
The reason? Founder Emily Weiss, a former fashion assistant at Vogue in New York, has produced a radical business model that many believe to be at the cutting edge of retail – the triangulation of content, community and commerce.
Weiss has attracted more than £31m in investment, including a £19m Series B round secured in November. Most of that money came from San Francisco and Silicon Valley VCs who don’t tend to favour single-sector physical products. (Or women, for that matter – Bloomberg reported that only 7% of Silicon Valley founders receiving VC funding between 2009-2015 were female.) Weiss was even a headline speaker at Tech Crunch Disrupt in May.
Demand isn’t a problem. The brand’s mascara, blusher and lipsticks keep selling out. The latest round of funding will help Glossier build on its community/content formula and see it launch in more countries, including the UK.
Glossier can rely on the kind of latent demand expanding companies normally only dream of. Stories and posts on Instagram are littered with comments along the lines of, ‘Oh man, when are we going to get these in the UK??!!!’.
The expansion is, nonetheless, a test for what is still a fledgling business. Critics say its popularity within a single region doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate overseas. There is enormous hype around Glossier, and Weiss in particular. But in the fashion world (in which this new cosmetics business lives) there is a tendency to dish out dramatic lessons on how quickly a star can come crashing down.
Big cosmetic groups are known to be plotting radical new strategies to take on social media-driven brands. Which means Weiss is set to encounter a fresh and demanding set of challenges.
Despite those concerns, Weiss has shown remarkable savvy in harnessing a community and then creating a range of products that the community proselytises for.
It was while at Vogue in 2010 that Weiss decided to launch a website that offered women more accessible beauty content than the glossy magazines she’d worked on.
A Vogue fashion assistant launching a beauty blog in her spare time may not sound particularly innovative. Except Into The Gloss was. Its flagship feature, The Top Shelf, profiled the models and editors Weiss met on Vogue shoots, revealing their beauty routines, which proved a huge hit with readers. Within the first six months, she’d featured supermodel Karlie Kloss, actress Léa Seydoux and the CEO of fashion house Proenza Schouler.
‘I remember hoping she would ask me,’ says Jane Larkworthy, the long-serving former beauty editor of W magazine, who featured on The Top Shelf in 2011. ‘She tapped into a new market by removing the untouchable veneer and asking the questions that we all wanted to know but maybe didn’t think were appropriate to ask. The whole thing was very approachable.’
Kirsten Green, founder and managing director at Forerunner Ventures – and also now a Glossier board member – was impressed enough with the way Weiss had brought her vision to life with Into The Gloss that she raised the seed funding for Weiss’s nascent cosmetics business. ‘Although we didn’t have a brand name or a business plan, I was really compelled by Emily,’ says Green. ‘It was about believing that Emily was that special kind of entrepreneur.’
Although investing in a cosmetics brand that doesn’t exist might sound like a massive gamble, the groundwork that Weiss had laid with Into The Gloss had de-risked the opportunity.
‘She wasn’t somebody who walked out of nowhere and started her own line of skincare products; she already had this following and could just build on that,’ says Naira Aslanian, an analyst in the beauty industry.
When Glossier’s first products launched in October 2014, Into The Gloss was getting 8.5 million monthly page views and had 188,000 followers on Instagram. Weiss’s fans were buying into this new brand before they even knew what it was; the new @glossier account had 18,000 followers before the products had been announced.
It’s hard to overstate the role of Into The Gloss’s readers in the success of Glossier. Eric Liaw, general partner at IVP, the venture capital firm that led Glossier’s latest raise, described the site as ‘a market research goldmine’.
‘You could argue that she was gathering data for four years,’ says consumer retail expert Richie Siegel. Putting customer’s voices at the centre of the business was a smart move, Siegel says: not only was Weiss getting valuable insight into what her market wanted, it made the bond with her customers stronger.
In January 2015, for example, Weiss asked her community what they wanted in a face wash, and used the feedback to create the Milky Jelly Cleanser. She did the same thing a year later for a face moisturiser, receiving more than 1,000 comments on the website’s post. ‘It gets you closer to your audience; you’re allowing them to be part of this process of creating your brand. And who doesn’t like to feel special?’ says Aslanian.
Weiss’s skill has been in forming a coherent lifestyle around her empire. Glossier’s customers don’t just buy the products – they buy into the whole brand. Along with skincare and makeup, the website sells sweatshirts with the brand’s logo on it, like the one Karlie Kloss wore in her Instagram selfie back in 2014; at £47, it’s the most expensive single item on the website. The pink packaging pouches that products were shipped in were so popular they’re now sold separately to customers, at three for £9.
Weiss isn’t the only person to have leveraged a sizeable social media following into a product customer base. Influencer makeup brands like Kylie Cosmetics also generate huge revenues. But for all the evangelical fangirling beneath Into The Gloss’s posts, the Glossier girls are a world away from the blindly adoring teens that buy products from social media starlets like Kylie Jenner and Zoella. They’re career women, who wouldn’t ever sign up to a Kardashian-inspired face of makeup and are otherwise wary of being served up marketing stunts.
Weiss is candid when it comes to describing how she’s built the company, further breaking down barriers between her audience, which has seen her become a positive role model. After closing her Series B round in November, she posted on Into The Gloss to break the news, explaining to her readers where all the funding for Glossier to date had come from. ‘THANK YOU for sharing this process with all of us, this kind of transparency seems so rare but wow, how cool to feel so in-the-know,’ said one commenter. ‘It’s awesome to see a woman-led, woman-oriented business thrive and be acknowledged by the startup and business communities,’ said another. That Weiss’s first investor was a female VC – a sector dominated by men – adds nicely to this narrative of empowerment.
Another thing that sets Glossier apart from other influencer-led beauty brands is that it’s still desirable among those who traditionally hold the influence over what’s hot and what’s not: the editors, stylists, makeup artists who work in high fashion, and the magazines that cover it.
‘I’m currently consulting at a fashion house and all the women ask: “What do you think of this Glossier? Have you tried this Glossier?” It’s all they’re asking me about,’ says Larkworthy.
The brand’s phenomenal success hasn’t been without its teething problems. More than half of its products sold out last year, with customers waiting months for them to be restocked. Cynics have suggested this was a marketing ploy to boost hype around the brand.
‘I like to believe that they’re just growing faster than they ever could have guessed,’ says Siegel. ‘If you’ve got venture investors, they’re expecting this to be a company worth hundreds of millions, if not a billion dollars. I would much rather bet that it’s growing pains because they just wouldn’t be able to grow if that continues to be the strategy.’
Overseeing such rapid growth since 2014 has also meant Weiss has had to adapt her strategic approach. She’s admitted that she has had to resist reacting to lightbulb moments given her expanding staff count and list of stakeholders, and instead considered all the consequences of her decisions. But that’s not to say she’s stepped back her involvement at the micro-level in the company. Weiss claimed earlier this year that she still reads every customer comment and tests all the samples, helping ensure that even as Glossier grows further, the company’s output will continue to be built on solid foundations.