What does it take for a 33-year-old female blogger to raise $100 million in venture funding, build a $1.2 billion business, and make Time’s Next 100 list?
According to Emily Weiss, the founder of Glossier who accomplished all the above, it takes an unbeatable brand. “I am crazy for good branding,” she said, “and I admire companies that get it right.”
Get it right, she did. Emily, who started adult life as an intern at Teen Vogue and then as an independent beauty blogger, has flipped the established beauty industry upside down with her creative messages, packaging, and products. Here’s how she did it:
Why the Beauty Industry Is So Difficult to Disrupt
Women and men have been applying makeup as a beauty treatment for about 5,000 years now. From ancient people who applied beauty treatments made from henna, chalk, and soot to modern folks who rely on elegant lipsticks and eyeliners, the beauty industry is rooted deep in human consciousness. And people will pay handsomely to look beautiful. In the U.S., the average woman spends about $3,000 each year on cosmetics. The global beauty industry is worth about $532 billion and employs a million people.
Beauty isn’t skin deep either; our appearance is inextricably linked to our identity. Tammy Faye Bakker, whose heavy makeup made her a magnet for the paparazzi in the 1980s, once said, “I’ll change my makeup when Dolly Parton has size-32 boobs.” Beauty becomes part of who we are, and the products that make us feel beautiful occupy space near our hearts.
Shaking up such an established industry isn’t for the fainthearted. But then, as Emily says, “Nobody said being platinum was easy.”
The Intern Who Launched an Empire
Born in 1985, Emily Weiss grew up in Wilton, Connecticut where her father served as an executive at Pitney Bowes and her mother worked as a stay-at-home mom. A childhood spent among Connecticut’s upper classes may sound posh and privileged, but Emily’s parents modeled the values of hard work in front of their daughter. Her dad never graduated from college; instead, he printed his own business cards and went door to door until he bagged a sales job. That entrepreneurial work ethic rubbed off on Emily.
From an early age, Emily loved all things beautiful. In 7th grade, she wrote a letter to Vogue about a fashion spread in the magazine, saying, “Thank you for showing young women how to wear short skirts in a classy way, Signed, Emily Weiss, Wilton, Connecticut.” The 7th grader never expected her words to show up in print, though. As she later said, “When they published it, I died.”
In high school, Emily leveraged a babysitting job with a neighbor who worked for Ralph Lauren into two summers of internships with the fashion giant. “It was like, ‘I like your kid and all, but what I really want is to work at Ralph Lauren,” she admitted later. Emily’s work ethic as an intern proved legendary. In fact, Ralph Lauren’s senior design director was so impressed with Emily that she recommended her to Teen Vogue’s editor-in-chief who promptly hired her. At Teen Vogue, Emily worked her way from intern into staff member.
When Emily turned 18 and time for college rolled around, she packed up and headed for New York City where she planned to study studio art at New York University (NYU). Emily didn’t spend all her time studying, though. She put in plenty of work hours on her internship at Teen Vogue. Emily’s efforts paid off when she landed a spot on US TV show The Hills where she was called “The Super Intern.” She interned at Teen Vogue for three years in several different departments while earning her college degree.
Blogging for Beauty
After graduating from NYU in 2007, Emily began her career as a fashion assistant at W Magazine and later as an on-set styling assistant for Vogue where she worked with Elissa Santisi. Fashion magazines were her life for three years. But Emily never just put in time on the job. “You have to be so many things,” she later said. “You have to be a sponge, you have to be respectful, you have to roll up your sleeves. I really earned my right to be there. I was just like, ‘Put me to work. I love work!’ ”
Near the end of her tenure at Vogue, Emily decided to put her knowledge of the fashion industry and its publications to use. In 2010, she launched a blog called Into the Gloss. Beauty blogging isn’t unique, but Emily’s approach was. She made beauty easy, friendly, and accessible. Whether she was giving makeup tips, haircare help, or skincare suggestions, Emily turned beauty into something quirky, fun, and affordable.
On the blog, Emily talked about real-life beauty products, not just stuff for the runway, and her practical, authentic style endeared her to legions of Millennial women. Plus, Emily’s professional links to the beauty and fashion publications she worked for helped her snag interviews with models who could share their lives and advice with Emily’s readers. INC called her approach, “an effortless aesthetic.”
Effortless or not, it was an aesthetic that worked. In just four years, Emily had one of the world’s most popular beauty blogs, a beauty brand, and a team of 30 people working for her. With her side hustle generating so much success, Emily knew it was time to leave Vogue and strike out on her own.
Going Live with Glossier
Emily relaunched the website, upped her article count, and hired Nick Axelrod, a friend who had also worked in publishing, as her blog’s editorial director. Overnight, readership tripled. Emily had a massive following. All she needed was money to turn those followers into buyers.
“When I started approaching venture-capital firms for funding, I heard the word ‘no,’ a lot,” Emily later told Quartz. “Eventually I figured out that as much as these seasoned investors were assessing whether I was the right fit for them, I was doing the same.”
Her hard work paid off. In 2013, Emily raised $2 million in capital, which she said she would put toward new hires in tech, design, and editing. She already knew what she wanted to build — an ecommerce platform unlike anything already on the internet.
Thanks to investors, growth in Emily’s blog ramped up. Readers were sharing information and tips with each other, and Emily was keeping both ears open to the chatter. Instead of telling women what beauty products they wanted, she was asking them. And her blog let her collect vast amounts of information. After four years of writing, reading, and interacting with her prospective buyers on the blog, Emily knew exactly what women wanted to buy but couldn’t find on the shelves. And like any entrepreneur worth her salt, she planned to make it for them.
In 2015, Emily began teasing her 120,000 social media followers with her first product idea. Four weeks later, she launched it — a moisturizer that wouldn’t aggravate acne. Emily’s first four products cost between $12 and $26, putting them within easy reach of her blog’s readership. The new product line needed a name so Emily called it Glossier (rhymes with dossier), and launched it as a sister brand to her blog, Into the Gloss.
Why Glossier Proved So Successful
Between 2009 and 2015, female entrepreneurs received just 7% of the venture capital funding handed out. What boosted Emily into the ranks of the 7%?
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Emily later admitted. “I was 28 years old. I didn’t have an MBA. I went to art school.” But she knew publications, she knew women, and she knew beauty. Emily wasn’t hemmed in by the structures that supported — but inhibited — the legacy beauty companies that were her competitors. In a classic David-versus-Goliath showdown, Emily beat the giants of her industry armed with little more than good faith and ingenuity. Her secrets of success included:
1. Social Media. Because Emily could produce quality content for Into the Gloss and rerun it on her social media platforms, she could launch her products with far less expense than her competitors who were still shelling out money for traditional ad space. Emily maintained followings of between 75,00 and a million strong on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest. Unlike the legacy beauty brands who saw these platforms as media outlets, Emily viewed them as opportunities to create a community she could engage with.
2. Building the Right Product. Emily avoided the pitfall that trips up most entrepreneurs, which is self-focus. She didn’t’ make a product she wanted to sell. Rather, Emily made the product her customers wanted to buy. She knew for sure they would buy it because she had regular input from thousands of her target customers to rely on. “You could argue that she was gathering data for four years (on her blog),” said Richie Siegel, customer retail expert. Emily also co-created her products with her prospective customers. Glossier’s team believed that by moving the customer’s involvement further up the sales funnel, they would be sure to make what people want to buy.
3. A Talent for Branding. Emily never separated her product line from her popular blog. By making Glossier a sister brand of Into the Gloss, Emily could seamlessly transition between her media company (the blog and social media) and her product line. Building a brilliant brand, though, took patience and consistency, not just a big social media following. Emily didn’t jump at the first opportunity to monetize her blog or make a product she thought was cool. Instead, she led with content. “The best thing we can do is give people content,” said Henry Davis, Glossier’s president and CFO, told Forbes. “That is our main driver of growth.” For four years, Emily gave away top-shelf content without asking for anything in return. When she asked, therefore, she had built up the goodwill she needed in her customers.
Entering the Brick-and-Mortar Retail Space
Glossier began as an e-commerce platform, and the company still does most of its business online. Emily and her team haven’t avoided the brick-and-mortar space entirely, however. Glossier’s physical presence began with pop-up locations. Then, the first permanent showroom opened in 2017 at 123 Lafayette St., New York. In May of the next year, Glossier opened a second showroom in Los Angeles followed by more pop ups around the country. The company also cut the ribbon on a new showroom in London, expanding its presence into Europe. While the online space is native territory for Emily, she’s complementing her natural strength with the boots on the ground she needs to enhance her company’s online presence.
The Estée Lauder of the Future
Emily told the Financial Times she felt like she was creating the Estée Lauder of the future. “Is that because you think the current Estée Lauder can’t be the future Estée Lauder?” the Times asked her. As her answer, Emily pointed to the internet. Teens and Millennials spend increasing amounts of time online, and 80% of Millennial women say the number one factor in their decision to purchase a beauty product is the opinion of a stranger on the internet. That means the beauty brands of the future will have to be internet savvy in a way they haven’t shown they can pull off yet. “It’s really tough for any behemoth company to change channels and change direction,” Emily said.
A Quick Peek Into Emily’s Personal Life
Like all business stories, the narrative of Emily’s life includes more than startup costs and venture capital acquisition. She’s also got a little romance and some great advice on entrepreneurship. Divorced from Diego Duenas, Emily is now dating Will Gaybrick, chief financial officer at payment platform Stripe, another billion dollar startup. Not much slips out about the couple’s relationship, but they post romantic pictures on social media every so often and keep their fans happy.
As for advice, Emily has plenty to offer based on her own lived experience with a rapid-growth enterprise.
“The customer has never been more right than she is right now,” Emily told Vox. “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.”
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