Kylie Jenner emerges from the double-doors of her brand’s Manhattan pop-up shop into a street filled with her fans. Beside her is Laura Nelson, a name and face likely unknown to the masses who came here for the lipstick. That lipstick, though, is the result of a collaboration: Kylie’s vision and Laura’s 17 years of experience in the beauty business.
In 2014, her own business sprung up, seemingly out of nowhere, and here, just three years later, she’s standing beside one the biggest celebrities of the moment, sharing in her glory.
But Laura didn’t just appear out of nowhere.
Seed Beauty, a two-year old company launched by Laura and her brother John, was built on the back of a 60-year-old family business. In 1989, the Nelson family purchased the established Spatz Laboratories from its founder. Laura and John forged out on their own, however, studying and working respectively in retail and product development, and finance and manufacturing, before coming full circle into the family business, she tells me:
“I studied retail and consumer studies at University of Arizona and directly out of school worked for Nordstrom doing special events and sales promotion across a couple of states and many different stores. It was a great training ground for me to really learn and to bring that forward into the other businesses I've been involved in.” – Laura Thomas, Seed Beauty
Meet Seed Beauty
The perspective Laura and her brother gained external to Spatz helped them inform business decisions and ultimately launch Seed Beauty.
Spatz deals in product development and manufacturing for global beauty brands, with facilities in California and China. Seed Beauty took that model and gave it the boutique treatment. The business would become a true partner of its brands, adding capital, brand incubation, and fulfillment to its hands-on offerings.
“Brand incubation”, Laura explains, is a level up from the traditional celebrity brand and manufacturer relationship. White label or private label, as these arrangements are often referred, are largely transactional.
Don't call Seed Beauty "white label". The company is working hand in hand with brands to grow them from the ground up.
“Brand incubation is truly starting a brand from scratch internally and growing it from all aspects. Part of the process that's important is that you do not only do it once. It's a continuous process. It continues to grow and evolve. As Kylie grows and evolves, and her brand grows and evolves, it's important that we're keeping pace along the way so we're continuing to drive value for our customers.” – Laura
As Kylie grows and evolves, and her brand grows and evolves, it's important that we're keeping pace.
Seed Beauty’s business model is on the cutting edge of what’s happening with commerce, says Shopify’s Director of Marketing, Arati Sharma:
“Celebrities have always used white label products, it's just been there from the beginning of time, but ecommerce, flash sales, social media, the brand of humans versus their movies or their music, it’s accelerated that phenomenon at a really quick pace.” – Arati
The paradigm shift, thanks to social influence, is that anyone can amass huge audiences, suddenly finding themselves in a position to monetize that influence. What do you do with an audience, nothing to sell to them, and no business experience?
Laura recognized an opportunity.
The Democratization of Beauty and Commerce
Beauty in the US was a $62 billion industry in 2016, the lion’s share of that revenue owned by major brands, collectively owned by even bigger corporations. Launching a cosmetics brand is no small feat. Rewind several years and it was a nearly impossible one.
In 2017, the industry is experiencing a "democratization", says Laura.
“The democratization of beauty has been driven by two main factors, the first being social media. Information is being directly provided to the consumers so there's less filtering, less editing happening, and that really empowers the consumer to make really great purchasing decisions and get different perspectives directly from the brand. The second factor is ecommerce—consumers are able to buy those products online and brands are able to launch products when it works for them and their consumers. Traditionally you had big retailers setting the pace.” – Laura
Seed Beauty is setting its own pace, and boasts an impressive concept-to-consumer timeline of just five days. For brands born on social—a fickle place of rise-and-fall trends—staying nimble is essential.
Seed Beauty launched with its own consumer cosmetics line on Shopify Plus. ColourPop is a fresh-faced now 3-year-old brand that, due to owning its production cycle, can bring ahead-of-trend products to customers at affordable prices. The entire line morphed from concept to launch in just 12 weeks.
What’s the secret? (Almost) everything is done under one roof, Laura says—everything from manufacturing and assembly to branding and marketing to fulfillment.
Planting the Seed: Kylie’s Business Idea
Enter Kylie Jenner.
When Kylie had the idea for her business, she was only 18, the age that many of us were weighing another year in our parents’ basement against a general arts degree or a backpacking meander through Europe.
Say what you will about privilege or stardom, but Kylie chose the life of hustle and hard work when she didn’t have to.
Her desire to start a business sprang from a love of lipstick (she calls it an “obsession”) after she turned to cosmetics to help her through insecurities in her early teens. And she meant business. She approached Seed Beauty with her idea, and Laura knew that it would be a good fit for the business.
"Most people go about launching a cosmetic brand and it seems overwhelming and daunting and it’s a multi-multi-million dollar of investment and two years of lead time. Kylie came about it from the same way that I've learned that she comes about many other things, which is to find the most direct path. That's one of the reasons that we work very well together. Our capabilities in the business matched with her vision and reach—that's the magic that has allowed Kylie Cosmetics to have scaled the way it has been able to scale in just 12 months.” – Laura
Kylie came about it from the same way that I've learned that she comes about many other things, which is to find the most direct path.
Scale is a word that doesn’t even come close to describing the success of meshing influencer power at this calibre with a seasoned business pro. Kylie Cosmetics sold out of product on its first day, and later, tens of thousands of people would spend millions of dollars at her New York and LA pop-ups.
It’s a win for Kylie, but it’s one she shares with Laura.
But there’s a third “partner” in the business relationship, one more vocal and weighted than with brands in the past: the customer. Influencer brands have a continuous two-way line of communication with fans, feedback is very public, and every decision up for social media debate. In a way, it’s the downside of living very much in the public eye, but for Kylie, it makes her business stronger.
The flexibility of Seed Beauty’s concept-to-consumer product development means that Kylie Cosmetics can adapt to fan feedback on the fly.
“It's a very powerful and exciting shift that we've seen because there's a direct relationship between Kylie’s vision and the feedback that she's getting from her fans and customers, and then actualizing that into product. It’s all happening in very real time.” – Laura
💋 Kylie, the Entrepreneur: read our exclusive interview with makeup mogul Kylie Jenner, and watch videos from the LA and New York pop-ups. 💋
The Influencer as Entrepreneur
In the 80s and 90s, many celebrity brands had an “as seen on TV” feel, and were often viewed as a sign of fading fandom. Or, the products were disconnected from the celebrity persona altogether.
Today, celeb-backed companies like Goop and Honest Company are brands that can stand on their own feet. While they are often deeply woven into the stories of their famous founders, they are the legitimate businesses of actors and musicians and influencers reborn as entrepreneurs.
And the trickle effect is this: their successes are inspiring the next generation of influencers cum entrepreneurs, says Arati:
“Kylie, she's that aspiration for makeup artists. Makeup artists on Instagram already have this crazy cult following, even if it's small, but they have a cult following. Jeffree Star is a really good example. What they do, is they inspire this second, third tier of people to go build products, too. Because the manufacturing companies exist for everybody.” – Arati
It takes more than just slapping your name on a product, however. The bar has been set, and it's high. The next cohort of influencers can learn a lot from Kylie’s own entrepreneurial prowess. She's directly involved in every decision, working closely with Laura's team at every turn.
“One of the most amazing things about Kylie and how she leverages her reach is the direct communication and conversation that she's able to have with her consumers. For anyone that's entering this space and looking to become an influencer, I think it honestly starts with a conversation. It starts with asking questions, engaging with fans and followers, understanding what their ideas and perspectives are. That's where the powerful new ideas come from.” – Laura
It starts with asking questions, engaging with fans and followers, understanding what their ideas and perspectives are.
And those ideas are coming every day, turned around quickly as products under both the ColourPop and Kylie brands. I ask the dreaded 5-year-plan question, but it’s irrelevant, almost archaic in this business.
“We don't have to think about where we're going to be in five years because I think that in a lot of cases, that's a wasted effort. In the case of Kylie Cosmetics, and the other brands we're working on right now, it’s more like ‘what's our three month plan?’” – Laura
Brands born from influence are ultimately personal brands. When fans buy Kylie Cosmetics, they are not buying lipstick—they’re symbolically buying a little piece of Kylie herself. Her partnership with Laura therefore is one based on trust.
What can emerging influencers learn from Laura and Kylie’s story?
- Work with suppliers and manufacturers who can become true partners in your business
- Choose a partner who supports your vision
- Be the face of your brand, even when things go wrong
- Keep the communication going both ways, and let your fans influence product decisions
- Be nimble
“We want everyone to sell. We want musicians to sell, we want artists to sell. We want people with a following or a talent to also have a commerce component. You can monetize anything. You can start a business out of who you are.” – Arati
You can monetize anything. You can create a business out of who you are.