By Suhair Khan (Co-Founder, Developyst)
As someone who panics regularly at Sephora and ends up with bags of beauty products that I don’t need and that do not work for me – bronzer that leaves my face looking a putrid shade of apricot, lip gloss that didn’t seem as garishly glitterish when dabbed on my hand – I am constantly telling people that I am not a makeup person.
Help is definitely on the way, and it is all online – Beauty startups specialize in personalized products and services allow users to organize the vast amounts of information out there – and to get their hands on cosmetics that actually make sense for individual skin tones, allergies, schedules and tastes.
It remains to be seen if these companies will revolutionize the beauty industry – and clearly nothing can replace the experience of touching, feeling or smelling beauty products. Taking a cue from the Pinteresting generation of women who want to curate their own sense of aesthetics in fashion, design and now beauty, these startups are facilitating, and in some cases, building the trend toward personalization in cosmetics.
Plum Perfect (Personalized Product Recommendations)
A platform for the everyday cosmetics user, Plum Perfect leverages the power of technology to create personalized product recommendations based on individual characteristics and preferences. Founder Asmau Ahmed (pictured) is a former chemical engineer who wrote the business plan while at Columbia Business School.
The idea was borne out of personal experience which I can very much relate to – no colour bucket ever suited her skin tone and she wanted to be able to explore options on her own time, without the stress and distractions of a department store.
Users upload a photograph via the Plum Perfect mobile app or social media, and the image is scanned by a customized pigment reading technology that extracts colour and shade (although this is biased by lighting and focus in the uploaded photo) to create product matches – a completely automated product recommendation system in the traditionally high-touch world of cosmetics. Recommendations are brand-neutral – the website tells users ‘no’ when a product is not right – building loyalty and repeat users is a priority. As data is collected over time, suggestions become more exact and in depth.
Leading up to the official May 2012 launch, the team bootstrapped until funded by venture capitalists in San Francisco and New York (Kapor Capital and Golden Seeds). Since then, usage has grown dramatically – by 150% every week. With complete faith that Plum Perfect’s model is potentially scalable, the enterprising Asmau plans to replicate the idea for both fashion and home products.
P.S. Bty (Personalized Product Recommendations)
Introduced through a mutual friend, European transplants Caroline Dahllof and Mitra Roknabadi bonded over a shared love of cosmetics and dislike of shopping, realizing they were not alone. They came up with the idea of giving everyone access to their own personal “beauty consultant” via Skype, email and chat.
Wharton MBA and Brown alumnus Caroline (pictured, above) brings a background in tech – she is the founder of a mobile app company, worked for Apple on iLife, and designed special effects and software for the movie industry. Her co-founder Mitra (pictured, left) worked in cosmetics for brands including Chanel, Nars and Shiseido; and has partnered in retail with Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus.
Psbty launched in September 2012 as a unique virtual personalized shopping service.
Unique in catering to both men and women across the age bracket of 25-55, the platform lets users chat about their beauty regime and preferences (or lack thereof) from a comfortable setting, get personalized time and attention, and browse away online to their hearts content with expert guidance in hand. I got my beauty consultancy over video chat, and I am hooked. No more orange bronzer for sure.
Truth Art Beauty (Customized Cosmetics Products)
On the other end of the spectrum of beauty startups, Truth Art Beauty allows users to create and customize beauty and skincare products. Harvard Business School classmates Caron Proschan and Emily Graham launched a platform in 2011 which is actually going head to head with major cosmetics companies.
In an age where customers are increasingly sensitive to what goes in and onto their bodies, the two are taking a bet on the trend towards consumers worrying about what goes on their skin. The two are bringing the concept of luxury to picky cosmetics users – being able to select your own unique mix of organic ingredients.
Before business school, Caron worked with Bliss Cosmetics; and Emily’s background is in healthcare, but she had been mixing her own lotions for years.
The two then turned to chemists and experts to advise them on product formulations. Using ingredients which are natural, pure, and contain only active botanical ingredients, they’re giving increasingly picky customers optionality with multiple ingredients. For eye balm, you can choose between the regenerative pomegranate and protective raspberry base creams and layer on ‘bio boosts’ made with ingredients ranging from gingko to pumpkin to calendula. For body scrub, the list is even more extensive, with a choice of exfoliant, bio boost, and two separate layers of oil. None of this breaks the bank at $50 for the eye balm and $32 for the scrub. Plus, no questions are asked and there are free returns if you’re not happy.
The website is beautiful and has a really zen aesthetic. I also love their blog – it is centered on lifestyle, food and product posts which encompass the company’s holistic philosophy. Although the founders are planning to keep the focus on cosmetics products only (they just launched launch a Pure Soy candle), I am hoping there is much more to come.
Coterie (Online Inspiration, Social and E-Commerce)
Coterie is building a network of customers looking for the latest in luxury beauty products. This members-only, high-end cosmetics product platform provides exclusive offers on carefully curated prestige beauty products. The platform is editorialized with a slick website (for their discerning target clientele) and accompanying blog.
Providing customized recommendations and automatic replenishment through what they call the ‘Virtual Vanity’, Coterie is building a database to capture personal data and behavior to provide a better recommendation and curation experience.
San Francisco-based Catherine Magee met her co-founder, Michael Alaniz, while working at Bare Escentuals – both with years of experience in the cosmetics industry – and decided to bring new social and e-commerce technologies to help women discover beauty products online.
Now backed by two VC firms, SofTech VC (Fab.com and Evernote) and Javelin Venture Partners, they closed their seed round in April 2012. Less than four months after launch, they’ve got tons of press and are up to almost 100,000 members – a hopeful sign for luxury online make-up sales and shoppers.
Bloom (Online Inspiration, Social and E-Commerce)
Positively well-entrenched compared to many of the more recent startups, Bloom launched in August 2010 to inspire women. The site covers the gamut of helping users discover the latest trends, figure out how to get a specific look, follow trendsetters, share style, and finally, shop for the products that make it all happen.
Julie is a successful entrepreneur with tons of experience in the e-commerce space. She wanted to capitalize on the trend towards niche Social networks; and to create a framework for customers to organize the overwhelming information from YouTube, Blogs and Magazines on the latest products and trends. This platform helps users filter through increasingly detailed sub-categories (50,000 products are now tagged in the massive database), and the Bloom Mobile App allows users to directly shop looks from their smartphones.
The amount of information remains slightly bewildering for a first time user – and probably works best for people who know what they’re searching for. Professionals use the site as a digital portfolio and network builder – which seems useful – smartly tapping into the shift towards local search.
Poshly (Online Inspiration, Social and E-Commerce)
The only cosmetics-centric company to receive the Next Generation award from L’Oreal, this startup sees itself primarily as a tech platform, facilitating a connection between brands and customers. Founder Doreen Bloch sees herself as a product of Silicon Valley, having grown up in Palo Alto and studied at UC Berkeley.
She began to think more broadly about the future of digital and the nexus of fashion, beauty and tech after three summer internships at Yahoo! and founding UC Berkeley’s first fashion magazine.
Currently in beta stage – so results remain to be seen – Poshly is collecting data on user preferences through a series of ongoing Beauty Giveaways, to create a ‘portrait’ of the consumer based on hundreds of characteristics including skin type, preferences, lifestyle to algorythimically provide the best possible matches. Dozens of major partners – including Revlon, Benefit, L’Oreal – are already signed on. There is lots on the horizon, and in early 2013, Poshly will be transitioned into a full-blown e-commerce site.
These views are my own and do not reflect those of my clients or employer.
Women 2.0 readers: What’s your favorite beauty-minded tech startup that is founded by a woman entrepreneur?
About the guest blogger: Suhair Khan is a Co-Founder of Developyst, an education-focused social enterprise that started in Pakistan. She currently works at Google and lives in San Francisco (but feels like she is always on the move). She writes regular columns on art, travel, style and technology for Vogue India and Google’s Women in Tech blog. A social entrepreneur, she is excited about the nexus between technology and social impact. Follow her on Twitter at @SuhairK.