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Millennial-led Beauty Brands Carve a New Path

When it comes to attracting young talent in the workplace, it’s anything but business as usual.

Amy Fan lists her title as general manager of Onomie Beauty on her LinkedIn page, but truth be told, Fan thinks that title is virtually meaningless.

“We don’t use our LinkedIn titles here. We don’t have a sense of a hierarchy,” says the 27-year-old. “I consider my title resident fire fighter. I oversee everything from operations to marketing. One of the easiest ways to prioritize my time is which fire I have to put out next.”

Such disregard for the traditional parameters of office culture are typical of Millennials, the generation of 19-to-35 year-olds whose take-charge, plugged-in, social-mission driven, fast-paced, collaborative approach is upending traditional corporate conduct. Companies are being remade to suit their personalities, and the implications are vast, not just for cubicle manufacturers, but also for how larger, established companies attract young talent—beyond just the allure of a paycheck.

“It’s not a wave about age or youth. It’s a wave of change,” says Adina Grigore, 31, cofounder and chief executive officer of S.W. Basics. “It is innovative and different, and the products are selling because they are different, but also because the companies and the corporate cultures are different.”

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Millennial-led beauty brands aren’t replicating the ways of their predecessors or larger competitors. They are looking outside of the industry for inspiration in how to lead their companies. Dan Schawbel, partner and research director at Future Workplace, reports that Millennials covet posts at media and technology companies, where the perception is that employees can make a big impact quickly. Their company role models are firms such as Warby Parker, Casper, Everlane, Tesla, Amazon and Toms. “We definitely look outside of the beauty industry for most of our inspiration,” says Claire Moses, 26, creative director of Verb Products, a hair care line, naming Casper, Warby Parker and Everlane among brands that inspire her.

Dan Brenner, 27, chief executive officer of InstaNatural, reveres Amazon and Tesla for their broad visions and agility. He says Amazon considers its “company more like a platform than like an entity. They are super opportunistic,” he explains, “and they see what is going on and implore their people to think innovatively.”

When it comes to attracting Millennial talent, the knock on legacy beauty conglomerates is that they’re plodding and unresponsive. “At a lot of larger companies, if they want to make a shampoo, for instance, it will take them 24 months. We built our Bevel kit in six months, and customers were buying it six months later,” says Tristan Walker, 31, founder and ceo of Walker & Co. Brands Inc. “By the time these larger companies are making their first product, we are making at least two or three.”

Unlike more established beauty companies, Walker recruited largely from outside of the industry, assembling a team of 25 employees without a single one having a beauty background. “It allows us to innovate, ask the right questions and be courageous, and not be marred by past history,” he says.

Employee diversity that’s not limited to race and gender is also important to attract fledgling executives. Traditional resume highlights don’t necessarily apply. “You have to be smarter these days and more inclusive. The word diversity is broader than ever,” says Schawbel, noting Ernst & Young dropped education prerequisites. Walker emphasizes, “We want the largest number of rich perspectives, period. We want to be diverse not only from a race, gender or income perspective. Our folks run the gamut completely to get a diversity of opinion.”

For a company like StyleSeat, that includes geographic diversity. “A lot of our community is in the South and Midwest,” says cofounder and ceo Melody McCloskey, 31. “If we had just employees born and raised in San Francisco, it would be doing our community a disservice.”

The well-documented sense of entitlement among Millennials means that they tend to shun traditional corporate hierarchies as well. “Millennials are more about transformational leadership than older generations, especially Boomers, who are about autocratic leadership,” says Schawbel.

So a visit to a beauty company led by the sub-40 set often looks different than a traditional environment, modeled not on the corner office, but on the tech ideal of open floor plans, airy lofts and glass-encased conference rooms, if there are conference rooms at all. Meetings often occur in community spaces whether inside or on a walk in the park. The architecture accentuates a spirit of cooperation, and blurs the lines between departments and job functions.

At StyleSeat, no one has an office. “I can see everyone in the company, and they all can see me,” says McCloskey. “I have worked in more corporate environments where there is a feeling of heaviness when you go to work. I don’t want that. I want hip-hop music playing, plants and great lighting. People who want more of that cubical type of environment don’t want to work here. It helps us attract people that have the same values as us.”

Onomie’s workplace is open literally and figuratively. “It’s a very laid back and casual culture,” Fan says. “The biggest thing I want to encourage is not only collaboration, but not worrying about making mistakes.”

When Brenner joined InstaNatural, he sought to make his employees’ experiences unlike those he had previously at Charles Schwab, where he found corporate striations restrictive. He solicits advice from his employees in advance of making decisions and instituted so-called ‘meeting ride-alongs,’ allowing employees to attend meetings that aren’t their department’s meetings. Today, 40 percent of InstaNatural’s meetings have one or more people riding along.

Soliciting input extends past the four walls of the office. Millennials care about community. At 33, Pinrose cofounder Christine Luby is the self-proclaimed “senior delegate” of the seven people who work at her fragrance brand where the average age is 27. She says the younger employees taught her to be less controlling over the product development process by involving Pinrose’s community of customers. “Our scent development is largely crowd-sourced, and that can be directly attributed to the 23- and 24-year-olds who wanted to try it out,” says Luby, detailing Pinrose now sends samples to its top 20 customers to assess products prior to releasing them. “It allows us to give our customers what they want, and it is a big differentiator between us and larger companies.”

Being immersed in the community means being on social media. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, which has replaced traditional consumer insight research to providing information about shopping behavior and product preferences.

At companies filled with young professionals, Schawbel says, a bring-your-device movement is taking hold. Employees “want to text and tweet on their time as long as they are getting work done,” he says. Millennial executives don’t view social media, whether it’s directly job-related or not, as a diversion to be castigated. They view it as integral to their businesses.

Zak Normandin, 32, ceo of Dirty Lemon, says his employees are constantly trolling the web for “fun stuff to repost or ideas we can communicate to make the brand better. Their job is to stay relevant and that requires them to always come up with new ideas and that doesn’t happen in a box. They are empowered to become actively engaged.”

Delving into the technology-enabled interaction of Millennials has ramifications for commerce, as Dirty Lemon is very aware. The detox beverage specialist has launched an ordering system relying on text messages. “This is the most familiar way that Millennials communicate,” says Normandin. “So, rather than having to take out your credit cards and open an app, you literally in two text messages say I want more of whatever product and, within the next 24 hours, you are going to have that product on your doorstep no matter where you are in the country. One of the big things we are trying to solve is how to make things more convenient and accessible for the Millennial and modern consumer.”

Many of the Millennial-managed beauty companies consider themselves tech companies as much as beauty companies. The embrace of tech brings a willingness to take risks that can be quickly analyzed to make adjustments. “Things cycle really quickly, and we will launch a product and veraciously improve it. That’s the beta model that a lot of technology companies do,” says Brenner.

Fan agrees. “It is about taking what data we have to make an educated judgment setting up a test to see if it is valid, and doing it,” she says. “The best way to do something is to not only learn from the status quo, but to actually do it.”

Beauty companies have started to talk about themselves in the broader terms that Silicon Valley tech companies do. Sabbatical Beauty heralds itself as “on a mission to change the beauty industry.” S.W. Basics proclaims, “Skincare isn’t going to change the world, but shouldn’t it at least try?” The sloganeering can be cheesy, but a nobler pursuit above hawking the merch is significant to Millennials. As Gallup underscores in its report, “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,” members of the generation “don’t just work for a paycheck—they want a purpose. For Millennials, work must have a meaning. They want to work for organizations with a mission.”

Still, this is a generation that is evolving faster than the lifespan of a Snapchat communiqué. Grigore’s flat hierarchy has evolved into a more definitive, decision-based leadership style, for example, while others are questioning the ethos of constant connectivity. Over at Verb Products, employees now unplug for 10 minutes or so daily for a meditation break. “It has allowed everyone to take a moment to reevaluate and not get too stressed,” says Moses. “It is just shampoo. As I get older, I realize that.”