Francesco Urso is zigging when the rest of the category is zagging. Many experts feel the future of the men’s category is gender neutral. Urso is doubling down on defining the men’s category with a laser focus on men’s needs and building a community. Never comfortable with the image of the superhero man, The Wolf Project‘s mission is to evolve what it means to be a man.
Bootstrapping the launch with a $100K personal investment and leveraging his big-beauty background, Urso has established product to market fit and he’s in the process of fundraising to expand the brand more broadly. Read more about bringing The Wolf Project to life, the brand’s perspective on masculinity, and the future of men’s skincare.
After spending over a decade at P&G, what was the impetus for jumping into entrepreneurial life?
I loved the 12 years at P&G, managing various brands and categories within household and beauty care, but also living in and appreciating the differences of major markets like Switzerland at the headquarters, Europe overall, Russia, and China. I loved launching category-changing innovations like Tide Pods (Ariel Pods in Europe), or learning how to win in beauty care in China, the most competitive retail and consumer environment today. The professional and cultural experiences I gained were tremendous and more than I could have dreamed of. There came a point where I wanted to dream bigger, so The Wolf Project was born out of a desire for discovery. It’s a premium men’s skincare line of natural products. The hero is the hydrating face mask sheet, a first in men’s skincare. It’s made of bamboo charcoal and soaked in lightweight natural extracts. We essentially packed one week of skincare in just one 15-minute use. The positive results on the skin are immediate and long-lasting. We design our products in Geneva, Switzerland, and we make them in Seoul, Korea.
How has your global experience in big beauty informed this new venture?
P&G represents the standard of excellence when it comes to marketing and production. We had the greatest attention to each detail the consumer sees, especially design. This in large part is what guides me and inspires me. Working on brands like Pantene, the #1 hair care brand in the world, taught me the importance of ideas and products that, together, can connect with the heart of people. Great products alone are short-lived. I have learned that consumers buy into the idea and value a brand represents. It’s much easier said than done, but I tried to do it at P&G and I am trying even harder now with The Wolf Project.
Men’s skincare seems to be having a moment. Can you share the origins of The Wolf Project? What’s up with the name?
Living in Asia got my wife and I in touch with the latest and greatest skincare products and technologies available. I found myself stealing way too many times my wife’s products, as I enjoyed them much more than what was available for men, especially in the West. I totally fell in love with face mask sheets, a very efficient and effective way of taking care of the skin. The results of just applying them for 15 minutes felt incredible. I started seeing my surface wrinkles lessen, my skin looked younger, healthier. I definitely look better today than 5 years ago, and this was achieved simply by how I take care of my skin! I couldn’t find a brand that made face mask sheets for men, so I decided to go for it. I am confident that the product The Wolf Project offers is the best face mask sheet available. And hence, the best skincare treatment a man can get. The brand name came one day in the shower, true story! I didn’t like that most brands had to include the “for men” to their brand name to make it clear. I wanted a brand that was intuitively for men without the need of saying it. The Wolf is a symbol of modern masculinity, the Project represents the community of like-minded men we are building.
What’s your product and formulation philosophy?
Everybody knows the saying “We are what we eat.” Our skin is the same, it is as good as what we fuel it with. I like to fuel my body with great food and ingredients, and I want to do the same with my skin. We formulate only with natural ingredients, like Raykami, a plant found in one of the last primal forests in Japan. It’s still cultivated using the same ancient techniques and has incredible anti-aging and skin radiance properties. All our products have it. Also, I wanted to create products that offered great benefits without the most common drawbacks. The mask and lotion are lightweight, they are absorbed very fast by the skin, so there are no sticky residues after use. The cleanser is powerful without drying the skin. It’s very hard to find that balance, and I am proud we have it on The Wolf Project.
What has been the key to building your direct-to-consumer? What role does it play in your overarching distribution strategy?
Men’s skincare requires education and a holistic experience. Men don’t speak up much and many would rather not shop for beauty products in stores. But all of us are very curious and have lots of questions. The DTC experience allows us to be close to our consumers, to share our passion and embark on an adventure together with them. It is the major pillar in our distribution strategy. We are expanding in selected online and offline retailers that can provide the customer experience and education we believe is important.
What are your thoughts on the cultural shift we are witnessing around gender and masculinity?
This is a subject that is very dear to me and hence close to the values of the brand. We live in a world that wants and needs to be more equal, especially in the wake of the #metoo movement. The image of the superhero man has never felt right to me. I am an advocate for a man that is able to be in touch with his inner emotions and communicate them openly, a man that sees himself as totally on the same level as a woman. A man that takes care of his inner and outer self, as he knows that it’s an expression of his masculinity. I am glad that the world is finally shifting to what I consider a healthier image of masculinity. The Wolf Project wants to be at the forefront of these values, helping men take better care of themselves as an initial step to becoming better humans.
Many experts think the future of the men’s category is unisex. Your brand positioning is laser focused on men. Why did you make this choice?
Men and women have different preferences and broadly react differently to different stimuli, be it visual, verbal, or a holistic experience. I believe both types of brands, unisex or gender specific, have a place in the market in the years to come. The Wolf Project, given its mission to evolve what it means to be a man, wants to be laser focused on its audience.
What do you think it takes to build a successful brand in the men’s category, now and in the future?
I have built brands in the household arena and the beauty arena and consulted for several fashion start-ups. The recipe has been the same across all: a powerful consumer insight, a product that delivers or creates a specific need, a creative idea that connects emotionally. This is paramount across any brand. In beauty, we need to master the art of beautiful design and craft. In DTC, I believe we need to leverage technology and add growth marketing to the mix and build an engaged community. I don’t know where the future will go and how the recipe will evolve. The Wolf Project will be there and will bravely innovate and re-invent itself when needed.
What differentiates your value proposition in the current men’s product landscape?
Our products are unique in many ways. The face mask sheet is tailored to the face, skin, and needs of a man. We design our products in Switzerland, and we produce in Korea, one of the, or the, most advanced country when it comes to cosmetics. Selling directly to consumers on our website allows us to keep prices significantly lower than equivalent quality products. A box of 5 masks is $25, the lotion and cleanser $20. The same quality goes easily for double our prices. Our consumers are loving the value for money that The Wolf Project delivers.
Tell us about the “black” mask. We understand our “woke” times created a bit of controversy around this product launch?
The mask sheet is black because it is made of bamboo charcoal, charcoal made from burnt bamboo. It allows the sheet to be highly porous and hence to let the serum penetrate quickly to the deepest layers of the skin. Thanks to this sheet we are able to essentially pack one week of skincare in one single 15-minute usage. We are aware that the nature and color of the product may spark controversy. At The Wolf Project, we focus on giving our customers a great product and brand experience, and so far, we are doing that very well.
What is your vision for the future of The Wolf Project brand?
We want to be a major player in the men’s grooming arena. We now know that the brand and the products are loved by consumers and hence have the potential to do so. I want to create a brand that encompasses not only products, but also physical spaces where men can enjoy the latest skincare treatments in the key cities of the world. This is inspired from my days in Russia, where I enjoyed going regularly to the “banya” and the skincare centers in Seoul, Korea. The Wolf Project will live through its products and its flagship locations.
The men’s category has seen some very sizable acquisitions of men’s brands by strategic players. The focus of these brands has primarily been reaching man through shaving. Do you think these brands and the consolidation has changed the men’s category?
Yes, certainly the DTC brands like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s have shaped the category forever. They proved that a small brand can win against giants in very consolidated and stable categories. They have proven that an alternative business model can win, that consumers want more and more a true brand experience. These brands have significantly shifted, and in my mind improved, what it means to build a brand today.
The men’s category is in a very competitive category. How have you funded the business to date?
I was fortunate enough to be my own business angel in the first part of the launch. I have reached the product/market fit on my own means, bootstrapping the first $100K. I am now raising funds to launch the brand more broadly, build a team, and scale operations faster than what I can do alone. I am engaging with several business angels and VCs and will soon choose the best way forward.
What would your ideal investment partner look like to scale the business?
I would love to partner with an investment fund that has experience in the DTC sector and ideally in beauty. This would allow a very synergistic collaboration, amplifying our mutual skills and experience. Of course, they’ll need to believe in the values and the power of the idea we are carrying forward—this is the best glue for a successful partnership.
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