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How Sarah Lee & Christine Chang introduced the K-beauty phenom Glow Recipe to the world

If you’ve been following along on my Instagram you’ll know how excited I was to be recording this next episode with Sarah Lee and Christine Chang, the founders of Glow Recipe.

You’ve probably seen this brand on social media — their Instagram has more than 725,000 followers at the time of recording — or maybe you’ve heard about their most loved Watermelon Sleep Mask which sold out 7 times consecutively and amassed 5000 person waiting lists at the time of launch…


In today’s episode I got to chat to Sarah and Christine about the wild ride they’ve been on over the last few years and what it’s been like to build a brand at this scale. It’s packed with the good stuff and loads of advice for other entrepreneurs and I’m just so chuffed that this interview came about.


We ended up having a few tech issues so bear with us while we have a giggle throughout the ep, and in the end we ran out of time to do the 6 quick questions! But it’ll be back to business as usual for the next one so don’t worry.

TOPICS WE COVER:

  • The origin story of Glow Recipe

  • Bootstrapping the business through self funded startup capital

  • Pivoting from a DTC ecommerce k-beauty curation website to a product line of their own

  • Bringing k-beauty to the American consumer and introducing a new product to a new market

  • The Shark Tank experience

  • “One step at a time approach. You need to be patient and resilient and stay focused on what matters for your business.”

  • Navigating the relationship of being close friends and co-founders and the key to success

  • Launching in partnership with Sephora and advice for other brands wanting to follow suit

  • Lessons from working in a huge global corporate company; L'Oréal

  • The realisation moments that led to the first product; Watermelon Sleep Mask

  • The importance of packaging and focusing on the experience of a product; how it feels in your hand, what it looks like, how it makes you feel, what it looks like on your shelfie

  • The Influencer launch strategy they used

  • The ONE key moment that really moved the needle and sold out the entire site

  • How the brand keeps the community engaged and evolving, in particular through social media and surprise and delight pop-ups

  • Why it’s important to listen to your community and implement the feedback you receive

  • What’s working in marketing at the moment

  • Advice for women wanting to launch a brand

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


I can start right now. Glow Recipe Skincare is actually three years old. The anniversary is in May. So we're actually still a very young a company is five and a half years old. And he started off originally as a DC site really focused on curating natural and clean KBB. And that heritage still continues with Krispy Skincare because we're very focused on ingredients. So a lot of our skin care is powered. It's fun, it's sensorial. And it really speaks to this overarching philosophy that we want to set the Cabiria approach to skin care, which makes it really about this health care movement versus something that's more of a chore that feels overwhelming or something that's rigid and has to be X number of steps. And so. We actually had we were just talking about the anniversary and pinching ourselves, that within three years that we were able to really come together with our global community, especially on social media, and create this dialogue around skin care. I mean, this year we recently launched, for example, real clothing, which is a private space just for our community members. Of course, anyone's welcome to join, but it's an extension of very much our philosophy once again, where we want to create really authentic spaces and conversations around skin care.


And I think that over the years that our community has been a big part of how we've made our decisions, how we've made development decisions and having a space where we can interact with them that way has been really, really meaningful. So this year as a whole has been off to a really amazing start. We are a team of 30 people in New York, and that's where our offices are right now. Everyone, of course, is working from home. And it's a really great group of people that we call them content creators and storytellers, everyone in their own right. So it's a really bright, diverse group of people that bring a lot of ideas and a lot of collaboration. And right now, we are in Sephora, in the US and in Britain, and then we're in Australia and Dubost in Germany. So still very much in the early days of our global expansion. And it's interesting to also see a lot of customers from all over the world, us, and ask us when are you launching in our country? What are you wanting in this region? So we're working on it. But right now, it's it's just a really exciting time for the brand.


Yeah. Really exponential growth.


And so now that we've got, like, kind of the top


Line, let's go back to the very beginning of how you guys met and why you decided to start a big e-commerce platform and business together.


Yeah. So we started Glaspie about five and a half years ago. It was 20, 14. And prior to that, we were both in marketing and product development in L'Oreal. So we each worked about nine, 10 and 11 years in different brands and rotating between different functions. And really, we're trained for the marketing role and how much we contribute to the business in terms of that perspective really comes from our L'Oreal days. I do think that every step of the way, if that's the next step and that's kind of how we build our foundation for our careers. When we started out, we were we were already friends for a really long time. We met back in Korea, in L'Oreal Korea, and we built our friendship based on our passion for beauty and to sharing how what we were going through as junior marketers at that time. And without planning this together, we coincidentally ended up in New York around the same time as well, which was very unique to find. And I ended up being transferred to the New York office. And L'Oreal Christine was here for a Masters. She missed working for L'Oreal. She ended up coming back to the office and we were colleagues again. So quite often we would catch up and talk about our days from from work and talk about the company and overall the beauty industry. And one day that this was earlier in twenty fourteen, we were just catching up and over wine and she masking as all new ideas come from.


We were thinking about how our jobs kind of evolved into really focusing on product development and looking at five, ten years down the road. And the fact that we were looking at Korea beauty as the next big thing. We were thinking how amazing that was and how surreal it felt because we were both Koreans. And I kind of felt I was interesting that we were kind of that middle person taking the Korean beauty technologies, but launching them under the L'Oreal brands. And then we had this aha moment where we felt that we could actually do this faster speed, but also help the brands in Korea that don't necessarily have the expertise or experience to to go overseas, especially the US market, the most saturated and complicated market and beauty with the different ethnicities and all different types of tones. And we kind of thought that this was a unique opportunity for us because we were the only two Koreans in the company actually at that time of ten thousand employees in the office that had this bilingual, bicultural but also beauty backgrounds in both Korea and the US. And so we just had this moment and thought of. We could do this ourselves, bring in Korean brands of real time, utilize our network in Korea because we knew the insiders of the beauty industry in Korea, too, and that's kind of how you have your hands with the first in market trends and formulations of whatnot.


So we decided to quit our jobs and and create a recipe. We came up with that name to really provide the best recipe for glowing skin and glow is the skin ideal in Korea. So we started our website, Krispy Dotcom, at that time with the mission to curate the best beauty technologies and formulas, along with education from Korean beauty. And it was all focused on clean skin care at that time. We use a language harsh, free, because clean wasn't the word that we were using as a category, but it really meant no parabens. No toxins in general knows that dyes or fragrances really, or natural skincare products that focus on really amazing stories, ingredients that were really rich in antioxidants. So we were passionate about it. And we started training for, as I think the first time we flew out to Korea, we came up with nine new contracts with exclusive brands that we were able to partner with. And that's how it all started. But it was very nimble, bootstrapped. It was just the two of us. We had maybe an intern or two in the beginning to help pack our boxes from our office, but that's how it all started. And then it evolved, of course, over time. But, yeah,


A lot of questions I get asked about when I'm going to talk on podcasts with people is about the startup capital needed in the beginning. Did you have to put a lot of your own money in to get started?


We put in twenty five thousand dollars each of our own savings and we are still bootstrapping independent. So over the years. You're right, a lot of start ups, a lot of entrepreneurial endeavors have it's quite normal for many companies to take on investment. And that's not to say we haven't explored of example being when we were on Shark Tank at the end of two of the 18, the entire program is about funding. But as amazing as that experience was, we actually got three investment offers on the show that day from three of the sharks and ultimately ended up shaking hands with Robert. But after months of after the show and going back and forth with his team, we realized that the goals that we were looking for, an investment partner, was a little bit different. So we amicably parted ways. So that was the closest we've ever come to getting investment. But it's not to say once again that we would consider it in the future. I think that it just once again has to be a strategic partner, because from day one, we've been very careful about our cash flow, our spend, how we approach certain investment investments in resources. And because of that, we've had we've been cash flow positive six months, three of our business, which is very early on. And that's given us the luxury to really take a step back and make sure that if we do potentially consider any partners down the road, it would have to be a strategic partnership where we're looking for for other aspects in partnership outside of just funds. So I think that approach to David has served us very well, and especially in a time like this where. You know, so much is changing us, so much is pivoting, I think, our continued approach of always being. Scrappy but creative and figuring things out. Has actually served this quite well during this time, and that umbrella value of how we operate also has been a good foundation for our team to have it together.


Yeah, and I think as well, like I was reading something that you wrote in another interview about how people can get swept up in the fact that you guys have a really amazing glossy Instagram now and glossy website and everything looks really perfect. But if you go back to the early days when you guys are really hustling and you see what you were doing until 3:00 in the morning, packing the boxes and writing the notes and sending out the hundreds of emails to all the influences and the people kind of forget that part of the story and that part of the journey.


Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think having had that experience makes us really grateful for what we have today and our team members and not taking anything for granted, but also knowing so in depth. What goes into every facet of the business is has been good grounding for leading the company today.


And I think for any new entrepreneurs that might be listening to your podcast, I think it's important that everyone thinks because it's not what you see. There's a lot of behind the scenes. I actually was answering one of the questions for how I built the business, and that's exactly what I said. It's like you can't it's like one step at a time approach, like you need to be resilient and patient and stay focused on what matters for your business. And there's a lot of hardship along the way, too, and ups and downs. But everything kind of builds up together and creates one beautiful story at the end of the day.


Yeah, absolutely. Do you think that as a kid, you had an inkling that you would have your own business one day?


So personally, I always wanted to have my own business. I didn't know what it would be. Honestly, I had too many interests, whether it's music or art or marketing, beauty, whatever it might have been. I was very interested in so many different fields and industries, but I think everything happens for a reason. When we started both interning for L'Oreal in Korea and started working for the company and learning about marketing and developing products, we were never bored as any single day because within L'Oreal they're over thirty five brands. And so you basically move from one branch to another to get new experiences. It almost feels like you're moving to a new company. And so that kind of equipped for me that really equipped myself to be adaptable, to adjust to new environment, but also never get bored of being in one company because everything's just seem to be so fresh and challenging and exciting all the time. And the company trained us to be more entrepreneurial. Interesting, even though it's a large company. So I think that kind of built everything to this foundation that we had when we started our own company. But yeah, we always dreamed that one day we'll have our own companies.


And do you think that there was like an aha moment of when you realized that you were going to make the watermelon product in the beginning? Because I know that you you both talk about your grandmother's putting watermelon on your skin, and that was always something that was part of your story and your tradition. But do you remember the moment when you thought, oh, my gosh, that's it?


I think it was a culmination of several moments. So wanting to recreate some of the experiences that we able to have by traveling back to Korea and getting these amazing facials and treatments and finding these products on the ground and distilling what that meant. And so essentially gives you not only exfoliation, not only extraction, not only hydration, but all of you walk out feeling blowy and your best your best self. And how do you bring that to a to a jar, basically. And so we had worked with our chemists that we had found for some time to get to the formulation. And we actually did over a thousand submissions because we kept pushing for this duality of how do we get this perfect hydration, how do we get this doing this and lovingness from that of your skin bouncy. But Heti's also exfoliate and bring in these elements that should be part of a should technically be part of a longer fascial into this overnight experience. And it took a very long time because we had such high expectations for it. Plus water though, and hadn't really been used in skin care as a hero ingredient before our watermelon. And now fruit is very prevalent in skin that which is great to see. But it was a passion for us because watermelon was something that our grandmothers used to use on us. When we were growing up, Sarah and I both had this experience and in the hot summer months I would be used as a skin Suvir and healer.


And having had those kind of traditions be part of our growing up process, we wanted to make sure that we pay tribute to that ingredient in that story because it is part of our beauty heritage and how we became so interested in seeing her as well and being able to leverage this antiinflammatory mineral rich, amazing super food in this way and tell the story and educate on the ingredient we thought was meaningful as well for skin care as a whole. Because I think in order to get efficacious skincare care to date at that time, it was more about these clinical brands or doctor brands or different approaches that perhaps weren't as accessible and approachable. And by having a food ingredient with an active that people understood but wanted to know more about AJ carrying the two and bringing this to our results, but also ingredient stories was a big part of the success of the watermelon and some of that initial inspiration of the watermelon rind, the use of the skin. Silver was also part of the packaging design. So the packaging looks like a melted ice cube because that's how the water was was used as an ice cube alternative. So I was thinking through all of these facets, really helped catapult the product initially. And we were blown away when it's sold down and had a wait list at launch because that was not what we were expecting at all. But it was a great way to launch a recipe as a brand.


I want to get into talking all about the markets in just a moment, but I want to ask first about your relationship as co-founders and obviously extremely close friends and what's it been like?


Yeah, we've been friends for 15 years or even more. So it's been a really long time. And I think that's also why the co-founder sort of relationship has been smooth from the very beginning, because I think we already had trust and understanding of each other and we also had similar backgrounds with working L'Oreal and marketing divisions. So even though we had a crazy busy schedule from the very early days of our business, I think what really helped was efficient communication because we didn't have to add a lot of context to what we were trying to convey. Everything was very quick and easy. We still today sit together. Now we're off the office, but we're back in the office. We have a shared office with a desk pretty much attached to one another. And I think that that in addition to being very honest with one another and open about feedback or any sort of thoughts that we have in mind of being transparent is the key to create partnership, because I think that as a company grows and we've heard this from other entrepreneurs or partnerships, as a company grows, your team will grow and you do have to somehow divide up your projects or what you oversee. Of course, all the decisions are made together and anything that involves a lot of budget, for example, we always make sure to discuss before decisions are made. So that's kind of our promise to one another. But I think when it's so busy and you have to make quick decisions and if somebody is traveling, I think there is this underlying understanding once again that we're going to be flexible with allowing the other person to make some quick decisions.


And that actually helped us free up some time when we're traveling, because when you're in a different time zone, it's really hard to be in communication with your entire team for the full time. So in a way that helped us, if anything, because you can make things move quickly and not delay because of your travel schedule or because you're waiting for something else or your boss is not around. So the team has to hold off on anything before moving forward. Like we never had to deal with those issues. And I think oftentimes when co-founders also have very different backgrounds, for example, somebody is a CFO and if another person is in charge of marketing, there's always going to be a level of misunderstanding just because you have different perspectives and backgrounds. And for those types of partnerships, I think you add such amazing value and your own unique way, but you do need to communicate even more with one another just because you have different perspectives. In our case, we think pretty similarly and in most things that we decide on. So I think, again, things have been moving really quickly and helpful because of that. A team understands that, too, an entirely. And even though we now have separate projects for different accounts and sometimes products, we still make all the decisions together. And the team knows that when I'm traveling, for example, they can go to Christine and vice versa.


That's so great. And I think it really is different to a lot of companies in that you're right, usually it's a different skill set, whereas you guys have some similarities and some overlap, which kind of lends itself to the success of decision making and and the vision. I want to talk about the beginning of the watermelon sleeping mask, like when you were launching it and going into that process. Obviously, Sephora played a key role in launching that product line with you. How did that come about and what advice would you give other businesses who want to launch with huge