The CEO of Topicals tells Jason Del Rey how building a community before launching products is the secret to her skin care line’s overnight success.
In an already crowded market like skin care, which has grown explosively in recent years, how can you launch a new product line that stands apart?
That’s a question for Topicals co-founder and CEO Olamide Olowe. The science-backed skin care line for chronic skin conditions launched in Nordstrom in early August, and its products sold out in less than 24 hours.
In a candid interview with Jason Del Rey for the Code Commerce@Home series, Olowe detailed the strategy that made Topicals a nearly overnight hit: Years before launching or even finalizing the formulas of their products, Topicals built a community specifically focused on BIPOC women with chronic skin conditions.
“Community isn’t just Instagram followers or people on your email list,” she said. “Community is a shared sense of experiences.” Two years ago, Olowe and Topicals co-founder Claudia Teng decided to build a skin care company rather than attend med school. Their first step was to research how people talk about their chronic skin conditions, and how they accessed care.
“People with chronic skin conditions will never find a cure,” she said. They just adapt their lifestyle to managing the condition. “For us to go out to our community and say, ‘Use our product and aspire to have perfect skin’ — it’s not realistic and it’s damaging to people’s mental health.”
From their community, they heard about experiences that matched their own growing up: Clinical skin care products frequently neglect the needs of women of color. According to Olowe, 75 percent of dermatology clinical trial participants are white, which means many products on the market are not proven to be safe for darker skin tones. Some commonly used ingredients can even cause skin cell pigment death for certain types of skin through prolonged use.
“We have to question systems and understand why there hasn’t been inclusivity in dermatology,” Olowe said, noting the profession is “literally skin-based.” By building community first, Topicals is aiming to make its product development inclusive.
Another thing Olowe learned from Topicals’ community: People with chronic skin conditions want that treatment to work, but they also want it to be fun — to look and feel good.
“When you walk into a CVS or a Walgreens, the beauty aisle is separate from the chronic skin care aisle,” Olowe said. “There wasn’t a brand in that chronic skin care space that you were excited to pull out of a bag in front of your friends, or live on your vanity.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Twitter — not YouTube or Instagram — is the social media network that Topicals has relied on for community building and marketing. The company developed a following by posting detailed, educational threads on the platform about the science around skin conditions. They’ve also used their account to take on difficult topics, posting a thread about the science of tear gas irritation during the height of the George Floyd protests, when law enforcement around the US was using tear gas on protesters.
Olowe also discussed how she dealt with challenges in securing funding. She pitched 100 investors, forming connections by cold emailing, LinkedIn messaging, and dabbling in VC Twitter. What she learned: “They’re looking to invest in ideas that will transform a category.”
All that pitching paid off. Topicals investors include Netflix CMO Bozoma Saint John and Insecure actresses Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji. At 23, Olowe is the youngest Black woman to secure more than $1 million in venture funding, and she’s just getting started.
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