Richard Hong had a problem: He struggled with acne. Unsure of what to do, he asked his sister Chelsea for advice.
She created a skincare regimen for him, and it worked. Friends noticed and asked Chelsea to help them, too.
Over time, Richard realized his problem was far from uncommon. Plenty of men care about how they look, and want to take better care of themselves, but have no clue where to start -- and hate to ask for advice.
So in classic entrepreneurial fashion, Richard and co-founder Darwish Gani launched the direct-to-consumer brand Lumin. The Lumin process is simple: Customers fill out a short skin and lifestyle questionnaire, and get a personalized skincare regimen, either on a one-time or subscription basis.
The results are are far from "simple": In a little over a year, Lumin has amassed hundreds of thousands of worldwide subscribers and boasts eight-figure revenues.
Even so, challenges lay ahead. Legacy brands with deeper pockets -- and extensive retail distribution capabilities -- could enter the space. So could other startups who see the same opportunities.
Some already exist. Two examples: Bevel, Walker and Company's male grooming brand. (Currently, Lumin only provides products for men.) And Sisley Paris, the family run skincare company that focuses primarily on the luxury end of the market.
And competition aisde, as every startup founder knows your reputation is only as good as the products and services you deliver today; one major misstep and you can lose the ground you've worked so hard to gain.
With that said, though, their results, at least to date, are impressive -- and could provide food for thought for other entrepreneurs. So to find out more, I talked with Richard and Darwish. (Since, like most great partners, they basically speak with one voice, I've combined their responses to keep things simple.)
Ideas are good but implementation is everything. How did you turn your personal experience into a business?
In the process of trying to look better I tried going to a few retail stores. The atmosphere was intimidating, the salespeople were pushy... so I had my sister talk me through what I should buy online. First she asked me questions, which turns out to be the same thing we do with our customers. (Laughs.)
Since we're both from Korea and know a lot about Korean skincare products, that's where we started. I, and some of my friends, definitely saw results, but in terms of building a business we didn't want to incur the expense and time involved in sourcing finished products from Korea. So we did our research: Cold-calling manufacturers, trying samples, testing and revising and testing some more...
The time we spent was worth it. The primary reason we're successful is that our products are superior. Everything starts there.
It sounds like you're understating the challenges of implementation.
True. (Laughs.) For example, we bought our own machinery. Sometimes the instructions weren't in English and had to watch videos to learn how to operate them. We designed and sourced our own jars. We purchased different components from different suppliers.
While that sounds more complex, we chose the complexity. While other people may view it as a headache, complexity helped us deliver a better and more controllable product experience. And provided data we could use to understand which pieces in the chain we should optimize first, and next, and next...
When everything is done for you, it's a lot harder to make smart decisions because you really don't understand all the underlying processes.
So you have what you feel is a great product... but now you have to market it.
For men, going to the store for skincare isn't a great buying experience. The retail structure isn't positive, although that is slowly changing.
So we started primarily with social media. We tried a lot of different types of messaging and quickly realized people jus want to feel knowledgeable and empowered.
Tapping into those emotions built a fast flywheel: Once we got the message right, people responded, so much that we struggled to keep up with demand.
Which is a good problem to have... but is still a problem.
The more successful you are as a direct-to-consumer brand, the more likely you are to experience early issues with customer support, operations... with everything.
We did a good job of matching supply with demand, but that meant the company looked really different every few months. (Laughs.)
Fortunately, that means our conversations aren't about finding ways to grow faster, but determining how fast we can grow in a healthy way.
If growth means you can't deliver a great customer experience, that growth just isn't healthy.
As the company has grown, how have your roles changed?
One thing we've both realized is that as founders we shouldn't always focus on solving the biggest problem. It's natural to do that... but it's more important to focus on creating the biggest opportunities.
Our job is to pave the road, open up that road for everyone else, and change the definition of what is possible.
That's a question every entrepreneur should constantly ask: Am I solving a problem, or creating bigger opportunities?
Build a great team, and they will solve most of the problems.
Sometimes that's a hard distinction to make, since solving problems can lead to opportunities.
True, but for any company, the biggest cost is opportunity cost.
When you're a small company it's easy to determine your costs, understand your revenues, understand your growth... the difference between running a startup and running a business comes down to thinking of every option possible, and choosing the best one.
Again, the biggest cost is always opportunity cost.
Growing companies need people. Lessons learned from hiring?
While it's antithetical to what people often say, you get so much value from junior hires. You're told you need to bring in highly experienced executives, and we have them... but you gain tremendous value from people who don't have that level of experience. The two can be extremely complementary.
We've also learned that you should always be true to what you need at a given moment. Basically, pattern matching. If you're honest about yourself, and the situation you're in, that makes finding the right person a lot easier.
Especially since the right people are capable of growing with your business.
One of the best things about being an entrepreneur is that it's more fun than working at a "normal" job, and that comes down to the people you work with. It's exciting to bring in people who are really good at a wide range of things. It's exciting to work with people who respect each other and are so collaborative.
You don't need silos. You need smart, talented, smart people who understand what you're trying to do -- and want to do it as a team.
Since you talked about opening roads... where do you hope to be in the next two to three years?
We assumed our customer base would tilt to New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles... basically, relatively affluent men who live in major cities.
Once we launched we quickly realized we were touching people in places we didn't expect. The "average" guy wanted to take better care of his skin; he just didn't know how.
Seeing how universal the desire for skincare was made us more conscious about price, messaging, accessibility... and shifted our mindset about what the company could be.
We believe skincare could be more common than cologne, and as common as deodorant, by the end of the decade. We're seeing it in every region around the world, at different income levels, demographics, urban and suburban settings... men want to take better care of themselves.
But that realization, that lens, came from looking at core data. Not from sticking to preconceived notions.
Most men don't know how to ask about skincare, and frankly feel a little bit odd doing it. Our goal is to give them an option to feel empowered, knowledgeable, and safe.
That's where the brand is focused: On changing the narrative.
That's also the opportunity, and if we keep doing that well, we can become a global leader in skincare.