By  on July 17, 2014

In February, Desiree Tordecilla, executive vice president of Kevyn Aucoin Beauty, was faced with a robust, but perplexing sales trend.

Several of the brand’s retailers began reporting that they were bleeding through their inventory of two of the brand’s bestsellers — Celestial Powder in Candlelight and Sculpting Powder. By April, the products were sold out, and Tordecilla isn’t expecting to have more in stock until the end of the month. With a little digging, she traced the sales surge to Beautylish.com, a Web site that aims to fuse content, community and commerce in a bid to lure the most ardent beauty aficionados.

Beautylish had created special content for the Kevyn Aucoin brand that featured a series of techniques from the makeup artist’s book “Making Faces.” The segment on one of Aucoin’s most notable techniques — contouring — featured the two products. The site — which has 5.5 million followers across social media — pushed out the content via e-mail, and later posted it on its site as editorial.

The initiative was so successful, recalled Tordecilla, that, “I jokingly asked [Beautylish] to take it down.”

It may have created a thorny inventory issue, but the customized content helped triple the Kevyn Aucoin brand’s online business across all retailers during February, March and April, compared with the year-ago period, said Tordecilla. It also lifted the brand’s in-store sales by a range of 85 to 125 percent.

That impact is exactly what Beautylish cofounder and chief executive officer Nils Johnson envisioned when he and the site’s cofounders, Sameer Iyengar, a former partner and technology manager at YouTube, and Vu Nguyen, cofounder of Crunchyroll, launched the site in late 2010. Prior to that, the trio had been scanning the technology space for investment ideas. Johnson, an active angel investor who has put money into vertical concepts such as Warby Parker, Everlane and Minted, recalled that during that time, they had noticed a shift in the way many women were learning about beauty products. Consumers were increasingly heading online, particularly to YouTube, boosting the credibility and notability of beauty vloggers such as Michelle Phan.

That observation led them to develop Beautylish, a site that’s also brimming with community content posted by the site’s followers.

They launched the San Francisco-based company as a content-only Web site, and by 2011, it had begun attracting one million visitors a month. In 2012, they added the e-commerce component, and today, the business boasts some three million visitors across Beautylish.com and its app.

“The first couple of years, the site focused on building content and community over selling,” recalled Johnson, whose background includes retail and investment banking. Johnson’s also no stranger to Silicone Valley. Following his time in finance, he founded Gorilla Mobile, an international telecommunication company. “Content is the thing that brings you back with high frequency. E-commerce was a sensible model, because if you are teaching someone how to use a product, why not sell it as well?”

The site carries 41 brands, including several exclusive lines, such as the namesake makeup brush collections from makeup artists Wayne Goss and Billy B.

Johnson, whose primary focus at Beautylish is merchandising, said the site adds one brand at a time, then builds a virtual boutique for each.

“We create content to introduce the brand and its products to consumers,” he said. “We put effort into storytelling about the brand. In beauty, the stories are sometimes as powerful as the products.”

For instance, to help tell the story behind the organic cosmetics brand Ilia, Beautylish visited the studio of founder Sasha Plavsic, who created the line in 2011 as a collection of six tinted lip conditioners.

Beautylish favors brands that are founder-led, leaders in their category and tightly distributed, noted Johnson. In addition to Ilia, the assortment includes Eve Lom, RMS Beauty, Ellis Faas, GlamGlow, Inglot and Too Faced, among others.

Johnson would not comment on the site’s financial performance, but did say sales in the company’s most recent quarter gained 53 percent in the most recent quarter over quarter.

Johnson said, “We think we can create an experience that, over time, is more compelling than a retail store.”

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