How Glow Recipe Pivoted From a Curation Site to a Beauty Product Brand

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Are you aware the current U. S. cosmetics market is worth over $95 billion?  

With the fast growth of the cosmetics industry, it’s become competitive and saturated — especially for startups.   This industry can be even more challenging to break through when you’re trying to sell something that you’re audience could be less familiar with.

With this in mind, Glow Recipe, founded by Sarah Lee and Christine Chang, aims to create U. S. awareness to Korean beauty (or K-beauty) trends, as well as its own lines of natural, fruit-based cosmetic products.  

A lineup of Glow Recipe's fruit-based k-beauty products

But, before Glow Recipe sold tens and thousands of cosmetic products and built an audience of more than 1 million social media followers, it actually started as a simple product curation site aiming to highlight other K-beauty brands.  

In a recent episode of The Shake Up, Alexis Gay and Brianne Kimmel sat down with Co-CEOs Sarah Lee and Chang to learn how they built a well-known beauty brand and positioned their services and products for the U. S. and other global markets.

Here are just a few great highlights from the episode, as well as an audio player so you can listen while you read.

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Glow Recipe Highlights

How and Why Glow Recipe Began With Curation

[00:18:54]  Gay:   It seems to me like through the task of several businesses, but particularly Glow Recipe, Americans are increasingly aware of K-beauty and the philosophy behind it…. I’m wondering if you could just tell us a little more. What are the actual key markers of K-beauty?

[00:19:17] Chang: The entire catalyst for us starting this was actually the realization that there is a burgeoning fascination with Korean beauty at that time. This was all the way back into 2014. We were also seeing not just consumers but also worldwide companies looking to Korean manufacturers and Korean labs for the newest innovations and skincare, ingredients, and technologies.

… W e were also seeing that Korean beauty articles… were very focused on [K-beauty] as a 10 to 15-step regimen…. It could almost be a little — in terms of content — too clickbaity, versus really getting at the heart of the problem, which is that Korean beauty is about a philosophy…. It’s something which we ourselves learned at our mothers’ and grandmothers’ knees growing up.

We both have these amazing memories of… our grandmothers using watermelon rind and rubbing that on the skin to suit heat rash, or our mothers just marching over to the pantry. And I know Sarah’s mother — one of her favorite ingredients was cucumber slices. Or my mom would like to use greater potato and [00:20:30] just that holistic very easily, the accessible way of natural ingredients, incorporating that into your self care routine. We would frequently mask together with our moms while watching TV. And it wasn’t a chore. It was not an arduous 15 step thing you had to have through.

[00:22:19]  Kimmel: Can you tell us more about that evolution from becoming the trusted source in your friend group for K-beauty products to then curating this phenomenal new experience that turned into an amazing community in a very big market.

[00:22:45]  Chang:   We flew over in 2014 to Korea without so much as a website to have some brands aboard. And we pounded the pavement to locate these brands that lots of of which we’re still very close to today…. The commonality was that they were all helmed by really passionate brand founders that had unique products, really clear product formulation philosophies, and we felt like these were the brands… that must be introduced to the U. S. and other global markets — because of the sheer astounding innovation, beautiful textures, and ingredient stories we were seeing…. After a lot of convincing… We were able to get eight or nine brands on board.

On that trip, we kicked off our site straight away…. There were a lot of mishaps along the way. I cringe a little bit when I see the early iterations of our site, because at the time you’re like, “Hey, it looks great. “… Now, looking straight back on it, there were some clear optimization opportunities, but it was so fun.

… Every day, we were making emails ourselves. We were cold calling journalists ourselves. We were figuring out the social media content…. It was a lot of scrappiness, but additionally we really enjoyed it because we knew each and every step we were taking was getting us closer to our goal of bringing K-beauty philosophy to the wider audience and the way that we thought was right.

christina chang discusses the early days of Glow Recipe as a startup

… We knew that in the course of time, we would have to just take that step ourselves because we ourselves had that formulation philosophy internally that individuals wanted to really materialize and manifest through, through our own brand and the right timing for that ultimately came. So a couple of years after launching RSP as a curation site, we launched our own in-house food-for-skincare brand that you see today, and on the shelves at Sephora in mid-2017…. And that was… a really close partnership with the retailer to make sure that we were successful in launching the brand.

Why Glow Recipe Pivoted from Curation to Product Creation

[00:26:29]  Lee: I believe the first reason why we started as a curation business model was because we wanted to give the platform and the opportunity to these brilliant founders and brands to go global by providing the content and education and marketing.

As we were able to gain that credibility in the market, I think that’s when we needed to really think about what we wanted to do as founders.

What we wanted to do was combine those [Korean beauty] tenants and create our own brand because we didn’t think that all of the influx of Chinese and Korean beauty innovations were fully understood by the American consumer. We felt the urge to break down that barrier and create our own brands which are actually much simpler.

[00:28:12] Chang: With Glow Recipe Skincare, it just felt right. Our community cannot get enough. Everyone was DM-ing us, our brand, our, our personal Instagrams nonstop asking about… the following draw, product suggestions, ideas. There was just so much passion and buzz for this brand. And we knew that we had struck a chord with it as it was this balance of — yes — Korean beauty philosophy, but also results….

Also, [one thing that drew audiences was] the truth that we were speaing frankly about fun skincare. For the longest time, I think skincare have been really dominated with a lot of very clinical brands…. Of course, so many brands which can be in that space are also really amazing. But I think that sense of sensory reality — that extra moment that touch that made your self-care routine that much more special — all of this was really, really appreciated and we felt like it was ours. [It was] lmost our dutie to the city to make sure that we were giving them what they wanted.

How Glow Recipe Maintained Brand Relationships

[00:29:45]  Kimmel: How did you think about… the early community that you had built around curation. Were there specific ways that you were able to learn from those founders or continue to develop a relationship with them when you made the transition from curation up to Glow Recipe?

[00:30:12]  Lee: some of the founders from the curation brands are still our friends to this date. So there is a lot of synergy that comes from that because we can always pick up the phone, call them, and ask them for opinions about certain things.

… W e’re both brand builders and creators, right? So we share so much in common. We terminated our curation business model, but the relationships and the friendships continued to this day. We still touch base with them once in a while, make sure that should they have any questions around navigating the U. S. market, we’re there for them because we would like everyone to succeed at precisely the same time.

When we were transitioning to a creation business, we were not only giving them connections to the networks that we had with the retailers. But, we were asking our clients to not forget about the products or brands. We were giving them site links to those products to continue to search them because we curated them for a reason.

Why Marketing Product Differentia is Key

[00:31:40]  Gay:   Did you ever have any doubts at that time this was the right move, or were you 100% confident?  

[00:31:53] Chang: I don’t think we had doubts per se, but then it is hard to gauge the level of success a brand will have. There are so many brands in the industry. We’ve had many conversations with many individuals in the industry about how saturated the market is. So each and every brand that comes into existence will need a real point of difference and a real reason. I think with Glow Recipe Skincare, we were able to really distill some of those personal experiences, those personal passion points in to the brand.

Just how do we provide products which can be different and really add value to [the customer’s] routine when they buy it and allow it to be part of their skincare wardrobe? That perspective, I think, has continued to serve us. And it goes back to those early days where we ourselves were answering every single customer email and writing notes to each and every person who purchased from our site.

Christina Chang on the cosmetics industry's saturated market.

Balancing Community and Product Management

[00:33:32] Gay: I’m wondering the method that you balance keeping that customer-first, community-first mentality with some of the less glamorous aspects of making a product.

[00:33:46]  Lee: We’re first-time entrepreneurs. One of the things that we’ve learned, are still learning, is how do we balance everything when we have to oversee every thing as founders and co-CEOs. I think the great benefit that we have today is that individuals have such an incredible, talented team…. I will say with confidence, they just understand the social space. Lots of our team members are in reality relatively young and incredibly plugged into TikTok. So that they just have their ears and eyes on the… social media marketing landscape in realtime. Because of that, we’re able to not only react quickly, but proactively share what we now have going on transparently with our community.

That communication aspect, but also the decision making internally for the company has been really instrumental…. We consider every team member as a content creator. When we hire people, we always ask about their storytelling aspect, or photography skills.

And we often have brainstorm sessions with our downline, just tasking visitors to think about a challenge that we’re facing, whether it is a marketing initiative or a new campaign idea where we’re stuck and we wish everyone to contribute,

Chang and Lee’s Top Leadership Challenges

[00:37:49]  Alexis Gay: What keeps you up through the night? What’s hard today. What challenges you as co-CEOs?

[00:38:06]  Lee: It’s a really timely question because there are some key challenges that we’re facing today where, as a company, we’re very rapidly growing. We’re very grateful for that, but that accompany a challenge around exactly how we can make sure that everyone stays motivated and our culture is maintained.

I believe any entrepreneur can relate with something like this. Cause at any point of your entrepreneurial journey, your team pretty much makes up nearly all of what makes a success or not…. I think people s everything. And thus we’re trying to figure out how to, you know, hire because we do must have at least 10 people more on we and the next month or two.

[00:38:52] Chang: We do have lots of brainstorm sessions since the team is saturated in ideas and we love having those creative conversations and just really giving everyone an opportunity to voice their thoughts and opinions.

… Going forward, it’s really up in the air, right? Because is that day in the life going to occur at an office, is it going to continue being worked from home? They’re questions I think every founder, every company owner’s, grappling with as we move toward getting out of the 100% work from home time that individuals all had to be in.

To hear the full podcast, as well as other episodes, check out The Shake Through to the HubSpot Podcast Network.  

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