Brandy Hoffman, a beauty executive, and Patricia Santos, a VC, met while championing a brand in Korea, China and Southeast Asia. Over the course of many long-haul flights, the pair formed not just a fast friendship, but also the foundation of a fully crowd-sourced beauty brand, Volition. Their vision: real women submit ideas for products they’ve been searching for and Volition’s chemists and labs vet the ideas for feasibility. Two years later, sales are growing 70% month over month and five of the brand’s bestselling formulas have launched at Sephora. Here, the cofounders share their secrets for success.
Claire Coghlan: Why a fully crowd-sourced beauty brand?
Patricia Santos: 42% of millennials want to help companies develop their products and services. Meanwhile, beauty has a product failure rate close to 80%, which costs our industry billions per year. We deploy community wisdom to solve that problem.
Brandy Hoffman: To give the customer a true voice in driving the direction of a brand while having a direct line to the labs and product developers solves one of the most basic problems beauty companies face: how do you create truly differentiated product in a sea of sameness?
Coghlan: Patricia, what did you observe as a VC that convinced you Volition was a winner?
Santos: I saw a lot of female entrepreneurs come through our doors with amazing product ideas. Some couldn’t get funded. Some didn’t have the right retailer relationships. Some didn’t have access to the right labs or chemists. I realized there was an untapped well of innovation and product ideas. At the same time, I was watching beauty become driven more and more by social platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, etc. Breakaway brands like ColourPop, Ipsy and Huda Beauty kill it by tapping into these platforms to drive sales and product discovery. We use social to not only drive sales and discovery but also product innovation and community engagement.
Coghlan: You vet all ideas for feasibility for free. How detailed does an idea need to be?
Hoffman: Some are well researched, with a detailed ingredient lists, and some are just a problem looking for a solution. For example, “I’m going through menopause and this is my issue. Can you help me?”
Coghlan: If cleared, the idea becomes a product. At that stage, the community votes. What happens next?
Santos: Success is determined by whether the product gets enough votes. The threshold is based on numerous factors, for example, what are the economical viable quantities needed to manufacture or is tooling or special testing required? Once they meet the threshold, select products are sold through our retail partners based on what makes sense for their consumers. VolitionBeauty.com is the only place for the entire collection.
Coghlan: Innovators share in the revenues of products they helped create. What percent?
Hoffman: It ranges depending on where the idea is in development and if proceeds are being directed to any charities. We just received a thank you card from an innovator saying she’s house hunting because she now has a down payment!
Coghlan: Patricia, your two boys were in diapers when you launched. How did you balance toddlers with a start-up?
Santos: It was much easier than in my previous finance career! I agree with Melinda Gates — we’re sending our daughters into a workplace designed for our dads. When we were working out of my house, the boys were running around, taking naps, drawing at the conference table. It kept the culture casual and energy high. It also forced me to make my being a mom part of the company we were building — instead of being ashamed or apologetic like I was at previous jobs.
Coghlan: What makes you feel successful?
Hoffman: Success to me means being the only member of my family to go to college. I grew up in a very rough, poor neighborhood on the south side of St. Louis, MO. I had an amazing, hardworking father, but he died when I was young. I’ve never felt more successful than when I drove away from that neighborhood to start the next chapter of my life.
Santos: I’ve never felt successful! My family immigrated from the Philippines when I was 12, so I have acute immigrant mentality – there’s no safety net, failure is not an option, never take anything for granted because anything can be taken away from you, always. There’s always more to do, more to achieve.
Coghlan: Have you ever experienced failure?
Santos: I consider myself a failed venture capitalist! I didn’t play politics well enough. I was too honest about potential risks. There was one beauty deal I was championing and failed to get past a committee (all men, might I add, so it was an uphill battle to begin with). I failed that entrepreneur and I failed myself, and I vowed to never let politics, gender bias, prejudice or even my own weaknesses get in the way of good businesses, good ideas and great founders getting funded.
Coghlan: What terrifies you?
Hoffman: Losing my wife, my dog or our company.
Santos: The state of American politics. That racial tension, misogyny and discrimination still exist — at the level they exist — in our world today.
Coghlan: When was the last time you were moved to tears?
Hoffman: I balled when I saw the images coming out of Las Vegas. I saw a woman lying on the ground covered in blood while another woman held her hand. It represented such horrific evil but at the same time such compassion and hope.
Coghlan: What do you love most about your job?
Hoffman: I feed off the fact that we challenge what our industry accepts as “business as usual.” I was once told by a boss, “Beauty is a marketing industry and that’s the most important part.” I remember thinking, “Aren’t we making a product and shouldn’t that be the number one priority?” Our priorities are different and I love where we’re headed.