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How Glossier Hacked Social Media to Build A Cult-Like Following

Former blogger Emily Weiss had a hunch: If she could translate women's real needs into products, she could build a beauty company unlike any other.

This story appears in the September 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Growth Hacking, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.

Photographed by Nigel Parry; Grooming: Hair by Cecilia Romero for Exclusive Artists & Makeup by Aliana Lopez

On a Thursday afternoon in late spring, 32-year-old Glossier founder and CEO Emily Weiss rides the elevator to the penthouse level of her company's downtown Manhattan headquarters. She's a thoroughly millennial girlboss in jeans, sneakers and a royal blue sweatshirt with weiss embroidered in small white script. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and for the founder of a beauty products company, she wears notably little makeup -- just some mascara and possibly a swipe of Glossier Lip Gloss, a recent product release touted online as having a "fuzzy doe-foot applicator."

A former teen model, Weiss is beautiful but not intimidating, either by nature or by design (probably a little of both). After all, her company's popularity is directly related to her ability to cultivate a feeling of friendship with and among her customers. Just enough relatability is key.

In the elevator, a short woman in her 50s turns to chat her up.

"Do you work here?" she asks.

"I do!" exclaims Weiss.

"People really love it, I hear," says the woman. "It's my first visit. I work around the corner. I'm Elizabeth."

On 6, the doors open to reveal Elizabeth's destination. It's the Glossier showroom, the brand's only existing retail space, at least for now. It opened full-time in December of last year -- a floor-through, gut-renovated homage to millennial pink: pink-and-white packaged products arranged on pink lacquered displays, pale-pink-subway-tiled walls, staff dressed in pink mechanics' jumpsuits, fresh-cut pink and white flowers and flattering lighting. It's 5 p.m., and the space is buzzing with a few dozen devoted Glossier fans of varying ages, ethnicities and genders. We're told that Hilary Duff, the actress, has just left. "People really do come here to hang out," says Brittney Ricca, Glossier's manager of communications. She means it. Last summer, someone had a pizza delivered here.

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If it weren't already obvious, Glossier inspires a kind of devotion and intrigue unmatched in the traditionally fickle beauty space. In less than three years, and with just 24 products that range in price from $12 to $35, the startup has become one of the industry's biggest disruptors. Weiss won't share figures but says that revenues are up 600 percent year over year and the brand has tripled its active customer count over the past 12 months. Its flagship now does more sales per square foot than the average Apple Store, with lines out the door and a very impressive 65 percent conversion rate. And last November, Weiss announced on Glossier's blog that the company had raised $24 million in Series B funding, representing a total $34.4 million in venture capital to date, which will go toward opening additional retail locations, shipping internationally and expanding product categories. In July, the company announced it would begin shipping to France, the U.K. and Canada, with more countries to come. And soon it will move its headquarters to a new, 26,000-square-foot space at the flashy One SoHo Square in New York (where MAC Cosmetics, an Estée Lauder company, also has an office) and add 282 new jobs to its current team of 85, funded in part by a $3 million tax credit from the state of New York.

The day before, Glossier had released its latest hotly anticipated product: Invisible Shield, introduced to the Glossier community as "a sunscreen that doesn't suck." It was inspired by persistent customer calls for a sunblock that wasn't sticky, greasy, white or tinted, and didn't smell like sunblock. It took two years to create. And it's selling fast. In the past 24 hours, Weiss says, she's gotten "so many DMs from people on Instagram writing to say, "Thank you so much for listening; we've been waiting for this moment.'"

Weiss writes every one of them back. Because she, too, has been waiting for this moment, ever since she had an insight years ago that has since bloomed into a corporate philosophy, and a runaway success. The beauty product industry has thrived on making women feel bad and selling them overpriced products that don't deliver, but it doesn't have to be that way. Weiss had a different idea, one as simple as it is revolutionary: Make them feel good.

Image Credit: Nigel Parry

Weiss grew up in Wilton, Conn., the older of two children. Her mother stayed home to raise her and her brother; her father worked in sales for Pitney Bowes. "He was very much the American dream -- didn't graduate college, printed his own business cards, worked his way up from door-to-door salesman," she says. "I learned the value of hard work from them."

As a teenager, she dabbled in local modeling, did her friends' makeup for prom and studied fashion and magazines. At 15, she began babysitting for a neighbor who worked for Ralph Lauren, then tested out her budding hustling skills. "I said, "I love your kids,'" she recalls, ""but is it too bold for me to say I'd really like to intern where you work?'" It was not. After spending two summers interning at Ralph Lauren, she enrolled at NYU in 2003. Someone at Ralph Lauren introduced her to Amy Astley, then the editor in chief of Teen Vogue, and Weiss spent her sophomore through senior years cramming her classes into two days so she could spend the other three interning at the magazine.

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Teen Vogue became her first taste of fame. Fans of the MTV reality show The Hills might recall the time when "co-stars" Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port, ostensibly interns in the magazine's West Coast office, were pitted against "intern Emily." While reality shows aren't the best representation of reality, Weiss' scripted persona had plenty of truth. She was cast as a type-A New Yorker foil to Conrad and Port's laid-back Valley girls, a preternaturally poised undergrad who knew how to use the word chinoiserie. And famously (at least among Hills fans), she triumphed: In one episode, Weiss was invited to stay for a fancy dinner that all three interns had helped set up, while Conrad and Port were banished to go eat in their cars.

Weiss graduated in 2007 with a degree in studio art, then kept rising in media. She was a fashion assistant at W, then an on-set styling assistant for Vogue, where she routinely pumped the biggest talents in fashion for information. ("I was able to ask these women, What's that lipstick; what's the hair?") She also learned that while most women thought a lot about their own beauty regimens, they rarely talked about them.

Weiss suspected this stemmed from an uncomfortable fact: The beauty industry is all but built on telling women, even subtly, that they aren't good enough. Talking openly about using beauty products, therefore, can read as tacit admission of inadequacy, insecurity, vanity or frivolity. "I found that whenever I used to ask women about their approach to beauty, they would sort of shrink and be like, "Oh, me? Like, I'm really low-maintenance. I don't do anything,'" says Weiss. "And then you press: But surely you moisturize. And as you peel back that social conditioning around the idea that admitting you have a beauty routine must mean you're frivolous or maybe shouldn't be taken too seriously, you start to realize almost every woman has something to say -- "Actually, I've been using this same mascara for 10 years, and it's the most amazing product. Let me tell you about it.'"

Weiss wanted to debunk this stigma and erase this shame. To do it, she decided, she'd call upon her magazine training and create a blog. (This, after all, was the era in which blogs were transforming nobodies into style stars.) She sketched out a logo -- a blot of nail polish -- came up with a few regular features, and spent $700 on a camera and a website built by a friend of a friend. She called it Into the Gloss.

Into the Gloss launched in September 2010 with a post about fashion publicist Nicky Deam and a banner ad from beauty giant Lancôme. The cosmetics brand had explored partnerships with bloggers but struggled to find one that matched its taste level. Then Weiss spent a week pestering its then-PR director, Kerry Diamond, for a meeting. When Weiss finally got in the door, "she opened up her laptop and, like, unicorns and rainbows and sunshine shot out of it -- just, like, wow," says Diamond. The writing was cultivated but conversational, light but not silly; the graphic design, sophisticated and inviting; and the photography, beautiful. "It was everything we wanted but didn't know we needed," says Diamond. The brand signed on to advertise.

Weiss kept her day job and ran her site every morning between 4 and 8. Her audience grew swiftly -- a combination of Weiss' appeal and the fact that she produced genuinely compelling content that was often far more revealing and smart and personal than your average beauty coverage. Columns like "The Top Shelf," which she often conducted while sitting on the subject's bathroom floor, featured insider-y interviews in which supermodels, magazine editors and beauty and fashion execs revealed their daily routines, preferred products and, in a plot twist, quite candid struggles with insecurities (supermodel Karlie Kloss on acne, J. Crew's then-creative director, Jenna Lyons, on aging and ice cream). Beauty at Into the Gloss became not something that divided women but something that united them, offering a sort of catharsis, companionship and assurance.

After a year of this, Weiss had amassed 10 million page views a month, several successful corporate partnerships and a small staff. She quit her job at Vogue to focus on the site full-time. But she sensed there was a wider audience to reach. Into the Gloss had succeeded in democratizing beauty, in a way, but it was still undeniably prestige. The women profiled weren't always relatable, zits or no; the products they suggested weren't always readily available or affordable. "That wasn't helping the mission," Weiss recalls, "which was really about creating your own idea of who you want to be and using beauty as just one way to do that."

Which led to her next question: What would help the mission?

Image Credit: Nigel Parry

In 2013, Weiss started approaching venture capitalists with a vague idea about products, or maybe an Into the Gloss-curated e-commerce platform. She told them that for three years, she'd been spending her days in conversations with women who had lots to say about what the big beauty brands weren't doing for them. Beauty consumers, she said, were overwhelmed by offerings, and brands weren't helping themselves -- "launching the craziest things that aren't user-friendly, or don't really work, or don't help you replace anything," says Weiss. The cabinets under women's sinks, her own included, were full of ziplock bags of stuff they never used.

Weiss wanted women to have products that would never let them down or see the inside of a ziplock bag. She was more interested in something being good than being new. But she struggled with what to do next. For one, she didn't have a clear business plan. For another, she was schlepping all over New York talking to "mostly dads" who couldn't appreciate the problem, or her simple solution. She didn't have, as she says, "some huge technological advancement or patent that differentiates my beauty product from another person's beauty product." She didn't even have a product, really. She had a mentality.

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Still, she kept at it. After 10 or so rejections, a meeting at Thrive Capital -- which liked what she had to say but told her to come back once she had a product -- led Weiss to venture capitalist Kirsten Green, the founder of San Francisco-based Forerunner Ventures. Green needed no convincing. She agreed that there was plenty of room in the $428 billion beauty industry for improvement. "Emily knew nothing about supply chain or customer experience or building a team," she says. "There were no products, no business plan. But when I saw what she could do on her own with no resources, how compelling she was, I knew I wanted to be in business with this person."

Green helped Weiss raise $2 million in seed funding, which she used to assemble a small team, including creative director Helen Steed, a beauty industry vet who'd helped build Bumble & Bumble, and COO Henry Davis, who came from the London office of venture capital firm Index Ventures. Davis was brought on specifically to help turn Weiss' almost unending list of creative ideas into actionable items. "One of Emily's greatest strengths was in recognizing the need for a business partner and charging her staff with the right responsibilities," says Green. "So many entrepreneurs view their companies as their babies. They micromanage, and they stall."

With Davis' help, Weiss settled on launching a product line. She believed she could make a better beauty product, with the feedback of her readers. "You don't need most beauty products," she says. "They're an emotional purchase. That's why the conversations are really important. What choice do you have but to ask your customer what they want?" She partnered with a California-­based chemist to create an initial line of high-quality basics -- essentials that were easy to use and affordable, and encompassed all she'd learned from her readers. For example, a moisturizer that wouldn't cause breakouts, didn't interfere with makeup, wasn't superexpensive, and smelled nice: literally what she'd heard women asking for time and time again.

Then there was price. The beauty industry runs on prestige pricing and equates high cost with high quality. That left a space open for Glossier to make a statement with low pricing. "A dirty little secret of the beauty industry is that Chanel No. 5 costs, like, $150, but to actually make the Chanel No. 5 costs, like, nothing," Weiss says. "Making a bougie, expensive beauty brand wasn't helping the mission, or very fun for me. We can all be united by that $12 coconut balm. You don't need to charge an arm and a leg." The packaging was also designed to inspire conversation. Glossier's bottles would be Instagram-worthy, with a lot of white space and each purchase came with a sheet of emoji-like stickers -- ­leading consumers to personalize their bottles and then share them on social media.

In October 2014, Weiss unveiled the brand's first four products on her blog, along with a note saying it "is the beginning, I hope, of a new way of looking at beauty." When Glossier's site went live at 6 a.m., she and her small team gathered around a single laptop, bleary-eyed from having not gone to sleep and crossed their fingers. They'd offered a first-day promotion in which New Yorkers who ordered before 2 p.m. could select same-day delivery. The response was overwhelming. "There were, like, 12 people working here," says Weiss. "We were Uber-rushing our first-day deliveries to customers in New York using, like, 30 burner phones. Everyone was doing something that was not their job." Weiss did a few deliveries herself, which Glossier filmed and put on Instagram. It was chaos. Beautiful chaos.

Image Credit: Nigel Parry

Six weeks after its launch, the company announced $8.4 million in Series A funding led by Thrive Capital. Weiss used the money to invest in technology and data analytics that would study Instagram and other social platforms, measuring not just how well certain Glossier posts performed but how well each product performed: Were people sharing them as product shots, or selfies, or not at all? Which user-generated posts sparked the most engagement, and how much more engaged could they be?

For an entrepreneur who had recently struggled to impress investors without a new technology, Weiss was hitting upon something at once obvious and revolutionary. Her customers lived on social, and her products are visual by design, which meant that, with the right tools in place, sites like Instagram could become Glossier's R&D lab and marketing platform. So first, she ensured that customers would feel heard on Instagram -- having her marketing, editorial and customer service teams take turns responding to all comments publicly or by direct message. (This still happens today.) And then, critically, the company began using Instagram to build mini focus groups and quickly create products based on what they learn. One post in February 2016, for example, asked followers what they wanted most in a heavy-duty moisturizer. More than 1,000 people responded; the company took that feedback and used it to build a product called Priming Moisturizer Rich, which it released in January.

This has become the way Glossier now talks with its consumer. It asks, it listens and it churns out a new product every six to eight weeks -- "enough time to get it, use it, shoot it, talk about it and then you have another one," Weiss says. And this approach has led to furious brand loyalty. Weiss says that 70 percent of online sales and traffic comes through peer-to-peer referrals, a number that's remained constant. Now Glossier is constantly experimenting with how to harness the power of that community to even greater strength. Earlier this year, for example, it launched a program in which more than 420 of its most active and influential community members sell products to their friends and followers; in turn, they receive a cut of the profits, as well as rewards that include sneak previews of products and trips to New York to visit Glossier and have dinner with Weiss. By summer, the program had helped generate 7 percent of the brand's annual revenue.

Recently, Glossier also began to dabble in out-of-home advertising, with campaigns on the High Line in New York City and on Los Angeles construction barriers. This, too, has gone viral. "Girls take pictures of themselves with the ads and tag us," says Weiss. "Can you imagine that happening with, like, Ford Motors?"

Weiss did make one big error in how she built her community, though. At first, she underestimated just how engaged it really was. By late 2015, Glossier had amassed several waiting lists for its products -- some that made news for reaching 10,000 people long. The problem came to a head in July 2016, when the brand sold a year's worth of inventory in a single month. "We weren't paying for marketing -- it was all social-driven, and as a new company, you can guess, but you have no idea what to prepare for," she says. Later last year, she hired a director of supply chain management from Apple. And with the high number of orders, she was able to fix part of the problem: Her manufacturers were suddenly happy to move a lot faster than before. "At the time, we were begging vendors to run 10,000 pieces of something." Weiss smiles. "Once we could say we wanted to order 150,000, they were much more accommodating."

A story: One day in late 2014, Emily Weiss was riding the subway when a woman introduced herself. "She came up to me and said, "I just love Glossier,'" says Weiss. Weiss asked what the woman did for work. "She said, "I just graduated college, and I don't have a job.'" As it happened, Weiss was in the market for an assistant. "Come in and interview," she said. The woman did, and she got the job.

After a year, the woman asked to work in product development. "She's 22 and never worked in product development," says Weiss. "But off she went to product development and helped develop four of our best-selling products, including one called Cloud Paint."

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Cloud Paint, a cream blush, launched in March. To market it, Weiss hired 10 makeup artists to use the blush on celebrity clients attending the Oscars and post the results on social media. Regrams throughout the Glossier community resulted in 1,700 user-generated images over seven days; by week four, there were 6,368 images of Cloud Paint on Instagram. "And I was so excited to be able to email my former assistant -- she got married and moved to Sweden, doesn't even work here anymore -- and tell her, "People love Cloud Paint, those colors are really good, and you did a great job.' And, you know, that was luck. Just a girl I met one day on the train."

But then that's the nature of building an inclusive company. When you listen to everyone, you'll find they all have something valuable to say.

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