Topicals Founder Olamide Olowe started winning by going where other skincare companies weren’t…

Joining me on the show today is Olamide Olowe, founder of Topicals.

Founded by two young women of color with chronic skin conditions, Topicals is transforming the way you feel about skin by making the treatment of stigmatized skin conditions like eczema and hyperpigmentation synonymous with the luxury and fun of self-care. Believing you shouldn’t have to hide, feel less-than, or settle for products that don’t serve or speak to you, Topicals products are effective and luxurious, but won’t break the bank.

In this episode we cover so many need-to-know things especially if you’re just getting started. Like the importance of marketing where other brands aren’t. And spoiler alert, the brand did more than 50% of their launch revenue through a surprising channel.

Putting the customer at the very forefront of what you’re doing and building strong relationships, and an interesting campaign with the help of Lindsay Lohan.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Yeah, my name's Olamide Olowe

I am the CEO of a skin care company called Topicals. We make skin care for chronic skin conditions and we're on a mission to transform the way people feel about skin through effective products and mental health advocacy. We talk a lot about mental health advocacy because people with chronic conditions are two to six times more likely to experience depression or anxiety. We donate a percentage of proceeds to mental health organizations now like Therapy for Black Girls, Five Girls Foundation and Fearless and one hundred.

Wow, that's so incredible. Amazing. Let's go back to life before you started Tropicals to talk about what was getting you excited about starting your own business in the first place.

Yeah, that's a really, really great question. So interestingly enough, I grew up as someone who was really interested in beauty but didn't really understand that you could make it into a career. I was the one who was always mixing ingredients in the kitchen, the cayenne pepper and olive oil to make Herath the base staff and look back because I was obsessed with the YouTube generation. And so I grew up knowing that I wanted to go to med school. My dad's a doctor. They built and run their own medical clinics for a while. And so I figured I followed in my family's footsteps and do something in the medical field. And so I started from dermatology because I thought, wow, you could do skin and hair and nails, but in a medical setting. So I attended UCLA on full scholarship. I was also a runner there. I got a full scholarship to Rentrak and got his M.A. in the summer of twenty fourteen, excited to be a student athlete. A quickly realized that doing both of those together is super, super hard. So I was juggling staying up super late to study for biology tests. But then also I had to lift weights in the morning at six a.m. and then practice in the afternoon, cutting in between classes. And so I realized that I wasn't going to have the same time that most of my colleagues did do clinical rotations or shadowing the doctors. So I thought, let me do something more entrepreneurial. I've always been entrepreneurial. My parents are entrepreneurs. Let me try something entrepreneurial that kind of mixes the med school and the skincare dermatology side of things.

And so I ended up really, fortunately, meeting a young woman named Michelle Dennis and we ended up cofounding a beauty brand called Shakra. In partnership with Moisture. She moisture's one of the largest multicultural beauty brands in the world. And Shakra was pretty much our thesis around young women of color not having brands that support them around puberty. And so our first couple of products targeted dry skin and sensitive skin for young women. We did that for about two years. I was so fortunate. This was in twenty, fifteen, twenty sixteen. We pitched to major retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Ulta. We eventually took the brand direct to consumer in twenty fifteen because that's when Instagram was booming. That's when they had launched a was trying to figure out social selling. And so we convinced the higher ups and we said instead of going through retail, let's go online and two years into that. So 20, 17 year college, our parent company Send Out Brands was acquired by Unilever for half a billion dollars. And that was eye opening to me. I was like I'd never, ever had never heard the word billion. But like seeing that that was a reality, especially in an industry like CPG was so mind boggling to me. And I thought to myself, I loved what I did here. I don't want to go to med school, at least right now. I want to start something, but I want to start something that feels really close to me that almost has like a one to one kind of example with what happened at Shameless.

So the big thing about moisture is that they saw that there was this discrepancy between the beauty hair care aisle and then the ethnic hair care out there was like this segregation. And so as I was doing my own research about things that I was interested, I started to realize that like dermatological skin conditions, like eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, those kind of skin conditions were relegated to the equipment aisle. And then all the other skin conditions that had kind of become mainstream, like acne were in the beauty skin care aisle. And I realized that there were no brands that people had an emotional affinity to in the aisle and realized that I could pretty much take kind of like the same playbook that I learned that moisture and maybe apply it to the skin care market. And that's how topics came about.

Holy moly. First of all, you're a superstar.

Thank you. So many things going on there. Wow. So does that technically make you like a university drop out then? Because you're like, I'm here, but you know what? I'm going to leave and start my own business. My mother would not allow.

So I did graduate from UCLA in the spring of twenty eighteen, which my major, though, so I did premed. So I, I had to do my premed Rex. But then eventually I said I wanted to do something a little more in the social sciences is like my actual major. So I got a B.A. in political science with a concentration in race, ethnicity and politics.

Gosh, wow, amazing. So what were people around you saying when you will like, OK, I'm actually going to start my own business, I'm not going to go into med school.

What was the reaction of the network of people around you immediately and then the kind of wider circle of people, you know, friends of friends and people who you were talking to about your idea?

So let's go from the inner circle first. My mother was horrified, absolutely horrified. She was like, you've worked so hard to get to UCLA. You worked so hard to study why doctors are med school like this is what you wanted to do. And my dad, who is just as wacky as I am, would like to do it. He was like, who cares if he was like, he's like, you'll never be twenty one ever again. So do wild things at twenty one. And you can always he's like, you figure things out all the time. I'm the first of three and I have a younger sister who's twenty two and I have a younger brother who's 18. And so my parents were like yeah you'll figure oh my dad was like you'll figure it out. My mom was horrified. Luckily though, I think my dad kind of calmed her down. So I actually didn't know until August of this year that my mother was completely horrified and very worried for me. She never really said anything, I think, because she didn't want to dampen my spirits. But my dad was always super encouraging. My boyfriend was super supportive. He was like he actually gave me my first twenty five hundred dollars to incorporate the company. He was like, You have a dream to do this thing. I have seen how meticulous you are about other things. So here's twenty five hundred investors in your business and start to incorporate the company.

And he was like my first money in. I already return the money back to him, but like he was my first money. So that was great to have that. I think outside of that though, my friends were kind of like, what are you doing? Why would you give up? Because at the time I had already decided like med school was going to wait a little bit. I wanted to do other things. So I had accepted a job to do consulting, management, consulting, and the salary was like eighty thousand dollars for a fresh undergrad. I was twenty one and my friends were like, why, what could you why would you take this down like any other like I just don't understand. Like that's so much money. None of us are getting offers like that. Why would you not take it. And then I think generally other people kind of in the business sphere saw me as someone who I think at the time people were like, oh, she's so cute. Like, you know, she doesn't realize how hard this is. Like not I don't think they discourage me. But they were also just like this. Twenty one year old girl has no idea what she's getting yourself into. And to be very frank, I don't fully know. I think I've adapted well, but like I didn't fully know. So that's kind of how the ecosystem was.

I also do think, though, that that naivety at the very beginning when you're thinking, you know, I'm going to start a business, it's kind of better.

I think it pushes you further because you've got to figure it out. I think if you knew how hard it is from the very beginning, maybe a lot of people wouldn't start.

I think you're absolutely right, I think is a risk in starting a business, and if you know too much or you have too many responsibilities, that it's very difficult to make the jump if you know, you have to pay X, Y and Z bills. If you know you have to support X, Y and Z people, that is a lot more difficult. It's a lot more difficult to start a business, which is why I do truly feel for people who have student debt or who have families because it's a big risk. And so I hope to see more programs get started for people at that stage who do have student debt or who have children or some other financial obligation where starting a company isn't exactly in their cards. Because I think entrepreneurship is a beautiful thing and I think it helps our ecosystem. It changes people's lives. And so I don't think the opportunity to be an entrepreneur should only be gifted to those who are privileged enough to have access to networks that have access to capital.

Totally. Totally. Absolutely.

So I want to ask you how you got started, what were the first kind of key steps to start building this brand in the very beginning?

Yeah, anyone who knows me knows that I'm super obsessed with consumer behavior, so I spend a lot of time understanding why people buy what they buy. I am not a impulse buyer, so it's very interesting for me to understand why people purchase certain products. Services from who? How do they hear about it? And so I think the first thing I did is I knew that I wanted it to be in the skin care space and I knew I wanted it to be accessible to people online and potentially in stores. But I didn't understand what kind of products it would be, who how I would marketed, the kind of branding, the kind of conversation and tone of voice that I would have. And so the first thing I always do is get close to the customer either by doing interviews with people and just asking them, finding people who have skin conditions and asking them questions about like how does it make you feel that there aren't any brands that have to packaging for your skin care, particularly for your skin conditions? How does it feel to have to shop in a completely separate aisle or a completely separate store? What is your experience with dermatologists when they're telling you about your condition? Is it cold? Does it feel clinical or is it fun? And so when you start to ask these questions and you start to see people with almost even when you're talking to them about certain things, it allows you to see that that's something that bothers people.

I think another way to do that outside of just talking to people is social listening. So I love to listen on Twitter. So I will search certain words and just read people's tweets to see, like, what are people talking about, about a specific subject and just kind of learn from people. And then the third is just doing data research in different industry journals. So there are a lot of reports that come out that say this is going to be a big industry in twenty twenty one or these are the top interesting ingredients or top interesting categories. And so I take a compilation of all of that, and that's when I start to scream out what this brand could be.

Mhm. That's so interesting. I love your tips on listening on Twitter. I'm someone that loves to go deep and read it and get lost in the substance of what people are saying and all the different opinions in this kind of thing. I find it so fascinating.

Yeah. I read it is a little hard for me. I've tried but I don't think I understand the UI UX just yet, but definitely trying to get into Reddit because I think it's a great community.

It's great on your phone. I quite like the app.

Like I haven't really used it on desktop, but the phone is good, so you kind of start formulating your idea. It's starting to come together. You've got lots of validation from these people that you've been speaking to on video calls and face to face and things like that. What's the kind of next key milestones to getting this brand ready to launch?

Yeah, so I think once you start to understand what the customer wants. So for us, the first iteration of what I thought was going to be was actually prescription products, particularly prescription products that were for chronic conditions, making them readily available online, similar to like a hems or hers or like a Roman or any kind of these urology things. That's what I thought at first. I thought, OK, archaeology's doing acti. There are a ton of other skin conditions that I'd love to tackle. When I started to do the research, people started saying that they didn't always have a great reaction to prescription products. For example, people with eczema, a lot of people who started seeing this interesting phenomenon called W or topical steroid withdrawal, where people where their skin and become addicted to the active ingredient in the steroids and that when they tried to be off their body would go into full blown highs and then hyper pigmentation. We started seeing that with hydroquinone if used improperly, which nine out of 10 people are using it improperly. With that prolonged use, you would get a condition called Okeanos this, which is basically permanent skin cell death. And so we sort of started seeing a lot of things where either it was miseducation, misinformation about how to use certain products and realize that the customer was actually not really looking for a prescription product. In some cases. I do believe in medicine. So I do think prescriptions work and in some cases people do need them. But people were looking for alternatives.

And so that's when I knew that it wasn't going to be prescription, it wasn't going to be kind of see a doctor via your phone or via computer. But it was going to be more of an education based company where we were shedding light on these skin conditions in a way that was super accessible. That's another thing we just started seeing that people just did not understand or know that they had certain skin conditions until it was broken down into terms that they could really understand and resonate with. And so once we figured that out, then Claudia was my co-founder. We met through a mutual friend and she had a background in clinical research at Stanford. And so we started talking about what it would look like to formulate products for these skin conditions. And so we formulated two products, one called Faded, which is a serum that works to reduce the appearance of discoloration and dark spots. And then like butter, which is a hydrating mask that can double as moisturizer for some people who use it alone for dry, sensitive or eczema prone skin. And so once we knew who we were talking to, how they want to be spoken to, then it started with me. And for us, we just Googled labs, we asked other friends that we knew who are in the industry to give us recommendations, usually a lot of it is recommendation based. And I know there's definitely a lot of work to be done in the product development sphere of the beauty industry because it's just very, very hard to navigate that system.

And to know that you're getting a good product, just good labs is a very, very hard process. And so did that start formulation. And then right as we were gearing up to launch, this was last year in March 20, 20, covid hit. And so when it hit, we were really taken aback because, I mean, we all I think everyone was just like this is something we've never seen before in the business world. People were just like, I don't know what to tell you. We started feeling a lot of hold ups, our packaging ingredients from different places. So we realized it just wasn't the best time to launch and that we could really pivot to doing more education, more community based learning with our audience. And so we pivoted to Twitter, which is an interesting case for us. We've been a case study with a couple of different outlets on this because most beauty brands live on Instagram, right. It's the place where you can show the product, the color, the hair, the texture of things. But it is expensive and very difficult to create good content on Instagram and Instagram is also really, really noisy. And so we knew that we were an education based brand and we started seeing skin care. Twitter really grow and started to realize that there wasn't that many brands on Twitter who were talking about skin care in the way that we were talking about it. And so we said, OK, like this seems like an arbitrage opportunity.

Let's focus here. Let's be consistent. And every Thursday, let's do a thread about a skin condition that we don't know about or about a topic that people have a lot of questions about. And so that started snowballing into us, tweeting a lot more on that channel, focusing a lot more there. And then using Instagram is almost like a mood board for the brand. As we were getting ready to launch an Instagram, we post people with physical skin conditions. We would kind of give a behind the scenes sometimes of like product process or growing the business, but really focused a lot of our attention on Twitter. And then our second time we went up to launch was in June. Right. As the Black Lives Matter protests were happening. And so we realized beauty products were the least of anyone's worries. I'm a black woman. Claudia is an Asian-American woman. So we understand racism very, very well. And so we decided that instead of putting our marketing budget towards launching the product, we should give that money to donating to causes that were really important to us, particularly around mental health, because our companies really rooted in that. So we donated money to the different organizations I mentioned earlier and then realized that this third times that we're going to have to get this company out of there. And so we finally launched on August 7th, 2020 in partnership with Nordstrom. And it was a whirlwind. That's all I can say.

I mean, third time's a charm. It sounds like it was a big charm for you guys. I read that you had sold out within forty eight hours of launching and the whole thing was just absolutely bonkers.

Do you think that that success really came from the move that you were doing on Twitter every week?

Definitely. I can even say from our own data that fifty percent of our revenue at launch was coming from Twitter, meaning the community we cultivated there was primed and ready to purchase from us. And on what I tell people when people ask me about advice for launching a company to fanfare launched a company that people want is to have that community before you launch. Because I think just in a typical friendship, a relationship, which is what we have, because we believe that's what we have with our customers, a relationship or a friendship, you would never meet someone for the first time and say like, hey, can you loan me ten dollars? You would never say, like, hey, can I move in with you? You wouldn't ask a question that would require a lot of that person. Similarly, as a brand, your first introduction to someone and in some cases it will be as you grow it as a brand and people care about you. But the first thing when you're launching it shouldn't be like purchase from us. It should be you have given something to someone or you've given them information or connection or inspired them in a way that then they get excited about the brand, not only for product, but just because they want to be a part of the brand story.

Totally, absolutely, and it's so true, and I think like people wa