Editor's note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2020 Best Industries report.
When Emily Doyle and Oliver Sweatman moved from New York City to Vermont in 2009, their plan was to start a new business and live a healthier lifestyle. Doyle had worked in sales for hair-care and cosmetics brands, while Sweatman had sold a men's grooming company that he co-founded. Upon realizing they were sharing many of the products in their bathroom, the couple decided to create a skin-care line they could both use, made with natural ingredients.
"We thought, 'Why are all these products always marketed in such a gendered way?'" Doyle says. "It was really refreshing--and, for us, important--to let go of the beauty and grooming world and just talk about great, healthy products that work."
Founded in 2009 in Waterbury, Vermont, their company, Ursa Major, released a shaving cream the following year and has since added a deodorant, moisturizer, body wash, and more than 10 other products--all packaged simply in shades of blue and green, with scents like "cedar and spearmint" and "geranium and sage."
Ursa Major was among the first wave of personal-care brands making gender-neutral products, a growing segment in the cosmetics industry. Now, both startups and more established companies are aiming to capitalize on the trend. Non Gender Specific, founded in 2018, bills itself as "the brand for all humans." Last year, Bic released a line of gender-neutral razors on Amazon, Lululemon rolled out a collection of gender-neutral "self-care" products aimed at athletes, and Unilever-owned Schmidt's Naturals announced a gender-neutral deodorant developed with Justin Bieber.
Owning a niche
Following a rocky start, Ursa Major's path has been largely drama-free. Doyle and Sweatman first tried to make a moisturizer with SPF, but developing a product that both worked as a sunscreen and had the right consistency proved onerous. They changed suppliers and instead launched a shaving cream in late 2010. (The company now sells a face lotion with sunscreen.)
Since then, the business has been growing steadily, adding one or two new products each year and averaging around 50 percent growth in annual revenue since 2015; it expects $10 million in 2020 revenue, according to Sweatman, the company's CEO (Doyle is president). In October, Ursa Major raised $4.8 million from the private-equity fund Fenwick Brands, having previously raised less than $5 million from angel investors. With the new funding, the company brought its employee count to 18.
Self-described "skin-care nerds," Doyle and Sweatman are aiming their products at outdoorsy people who are willing to spend more for premium formulas, but would rather not think too much about their grooming routines. Sweatman describes Ursa Major's target customer as "proudly low-maintenance," with an active lifestyle.
Prices range from $6.50 for a pack of five face wipes to $54 for a vitamin C serum--more expensive than drugstore brands but less than those of other high-end companies like Aesop, which sells its concoctions for as much as $120. The company's products are sold by outfitters like REI and Free People, in natural-foods stores, and at smaller, upscale beauty retailers such as Credo and the Detox Market, whose customer base skews female. Department stores are not an option because they tend to segregate products by gender, Sweatman says. Only about a third of the company's revenue comes from retail stores (both brick-and-mortar and online); the rest is split roughly evenly between Amazon and direct sales from Ursa Major's website.
Ursa Major is well-positioned to benefit from two concurrent trends: Consumers are rejecting gender stereotypes about who should use which products, and they're also seeking assurance that their personal-care products are made ethically, with healthy and ecofriendly ingredients. CB Insights' Industry Analyst Consensus estimates the size of the global natural and organic beauty market at $22 billion.
While "clean," "natural," and "non-toxic" are marketing terms that don't have official definitions, they typically refer to products made without synthetic ingredients that are known or suspected to be harmful. Ursa Major discloses all of its products' ingredients and says it avoids ingredients that have potentially hazardous byproducts. The company also says its products exceed the standards set by Credo and Follain, two "clean beauty" retailers known for subjecting brands to rigorous ingredient evaluations.
Startups like Ursa Major could have an advantage over larger companies that try to tweak their products to respond to these trends, says Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry adviser at market research firm NPD Group. "It's very hard to move a big ship," she says. "Whether it's gender-neutral, sustainable, vegan, cruelty-free, natural, clean--all of these really buzzy things--many of these newer independent brands are coming into the market born that way."
One of the challenges facing Ursa Major is the addition of new competitors in its increasingly crowded market. The Ordinary, launched in 2016, offers an array of clinical-sounding skin treatments with a hipster apothecary vibe, while Non Gender Specific sells a gender-neutral fragrance in a "plantable" box containing wildflower seeds. "Your barriers to entry have fallen away," Jensen says. "You can pretty much go into business by creating something in your kitchen and going out on Etsy and starting your own brand."
As gender-neutral branding and natural ingredients become the norm, startups will have to find new ways to stand out. For Ursa Major's founders, that means making their packaging more sustainable--the company recently started making all its eight-ounce bottles with 100 percent post-consumer recycled material--and doubling down on marketing their brand to their target customers. "Clean, effective products are going to become table stakes," Sweatman says. "So it's sort of, what's next?"