[beginning of recorded audio]
Amy Liu [00:00:12]: Hi, my name is Amy Liu and I’m the Founder and CEO of Tower 28 Beauty, and to me, it’s a matter of sensitivity.
Kelly Kovack [00:00:24]: There is the common notion that beauty is only skin deep, but anyone that works in the industry knows that it is much more than that. I’m Kelly Kovac, Founder of BeautyMatter. There is a strong connection between looking your best and feeling confident and capable. The psychology of beauty is powerful and the marketers in this category are some of the best and most sophisticated in the world. Historically, the industry has propogated a perception of beauty reflective of unrealistic perfection and a lack of diversity, driving women into a perpetual and elusive search for the solution; however, there’s a new type of beauty emerging where we use these powers for good. After years of learning the ropes at other companies and meeting some amazing mentors along the way, Amy Liu, the CEO and Founder of Tower 28 has thrown her hat into the entrepreneurial ring to find the answers to her own sensitive skin issues.
So Amy, thank you so much for taking the time and joining us today. It’s nice to meet you.
Amy Liu [00:01:37]: Nice to meet you too, and thank you so much for having me.
Kelly Kovack [00:01:41]: Yeah, I’m excited to dig in and kind of learn more about what you’re doing. I always like to start at the beginning. And you know, you’ve been in the beauty industry a couple decades, working for some amazing founder-led indie brands, but you also come from an entrepreneurial family, and I read that you always had the dream of being a founder. You launched Tower 28 in 2019. So can you share a little bit about your backstory? And why did it take you so long to launch your own brand if that was your dream? That’s my big question.
Amy Liu [00:02:14]: That’s such a good question. So I grew up – like you mentioned, my parents came to America after growing up in Taiwan, really in search of the American dream. So I was born in Minnesota and then I was raised mostly in Los Angeles, and as part of that, I always watched my dad as this entrepreneur who kind of had all of the highs and lows, but he was super passionate about what he did. He was mostly a general contractor building townhouses and things like that, and my mom, on the other hand, she was an auditor and she went to work every day and she came home every day, but she never really had that same passion for what she did, and she really never talked about her work. So I think in my mind, I looked at my dad, and I was like, that’s what I want. I want to really feel what I’m doing. For all of the pros and the cons of it, I really wanted that. I went to college, I went to business school, I concentrated in entrepreneurship. To your point, I worked for other founder-led beauty brands trying to get a set at the table for – it’s been 18 years now. So it was a long time in the making, and it was this thing where everybody that I knew I wanted to do this. And to answer your question about why it took me so long to do it, it was fear. I mean, I don’t have another word for it, but I think I’m a fairly risk averse person. I was someone who was really, in a lot of ways, living for my resume and almost just really wanting to be prepared. And I think because I didn’t have the financial security of being able to do this on my own and the idea of failing was actually pretty scary for me, it just took me a long time. I don’t really have a better answer for it. And at the end of the day, honestly, if it wasn’t for a friend of mine who really just gave me a swift kick in the ass…
So, the true story is that I was going to business school and the guy who was the co-president of the entrepreneurship, venture management association with me, when we graduated, he went on to start a software company, I went on to continue to work for people, all the while having this dream and all the while telling myself I was learning on someone else’s dime, which was true, I did learn a lot. And then at some point, him and I reconnected, and he was like, what are you doing? Why haven’t you done the thing? And I was like, because I can’t. I don’t have a partner and I don’t have money, I don’t have the financial security to do it on my own. And he was like, well, why don’t you raise money, and then that way you can hire people and you don’t need a partner? And so that was really this aha moment to me, because he really was like, you’re not getting any younger. What are you doing? Either you’re going to do it now or you’re going to do it never. I mean, I’m 43 right now, so I started raising money when I hit 40, which was like this, I don’t know, seminal moment for me, really. It was like a milestone year where I was kind of like either shit or get off the pot, I’ve got to do it. So he was really the one who gave me that kind of kick in the rear, and then I felt so lucky because he basically – I was like, okay, fine, that’s great, I still don’t have money, and he essentially offered to be my lead investor. So he kind of put his money where his mouth was and I didn’t expect that, frankly. I had no idea that anyone I knew had the type of finances to be able to give me money, and I just was so unaware of the concept of raising money. To me, it was something that you read about in newspapers and that the people who lived in Silicon Valley did. I didn’t know – you know, even having been in the beauty industry for a long time, it’s only like…the brands I’ve worked for, basically – so like I worked for Josie Maran, I worked for Kate Somerville, I worked for Smashbox. All of those brands started on their own first and then at some point, they got private equity investment, right? Or, like, Josie never did. But the concept of – I didn’t know anyone would give you money with nothing but a deck. I just didn’t understand that.
So what was really great for me was I felt really lucky that he basically offered to invest, gave me the terms, and he said, don’t trust me, you should go walk around and ask people if these are good terms, if you should accept them, and I need you to raise the rest of the money. So he basically was like, how much money do I need to raise? And he was like, okay, I’ll give you half, and then you need to raise the rest of it within 30 days, which in retrospect, this all seems incredibly crazy to me, but it was all in that period between Christmas and New Years and everything was happening, and Hanukkah, and so it would have been 30 days, except for all of those types of days, so I ended up asking him for an extension and I did it in 60 days. But I raised $500,000 in 60 days and I think the only reason it was possible, if I’m being honest with you, is because I did spend 18 years telling people I wanted to do this – or not 18, 15 years telling people I wanted to do this because what was really surprising to me is that people came out of the woodwork and they were like – a girl that was my coordinator when I was at Smashbox was like, “Hey, I heard you were doing this and I want to put in.” And a guy I went to business school with and worked with, he was like, “I want to put in and my brother wants to put in.” So it really did – I think because I put it out there for a long time but I hadn’t acted on it, people were like, wait, this is your dream. I want to support you and I believe in you. And that could not have been more powerful or motivating for me, to be honest with you.
Kelly Kovack [00:07:41]: Yeah, I think we all need those people who give us a good swift kick in the ass when we need one. I mean, I personally had that person for BeautyMatter who was like, “I know you’re talking about this platform. How much longer are you going to talk about it? Just do it.” And I was like, ugh, it’s not ready, and he’s like, “It’s tech, Kelly, you need to launch with an ugly baby.” I’m like, “We’ve met, right? I don’t do ugly babies.” But six weeks later, I did it, and here we are. So we all need those people in our lives. And I would imagine knowing that everyone believed in you, did it shift kind of the fear to a different kind of motivation, like I’ve got to do it because these people believe in me? I cannot fail.
Amy Liu [00:08:24]: For sure, and to say that everyone believed in me is probably not the right statement either, because I definitely did pitch to a few people that were like, “This is not…I’m not interested…” I don’t want to be overly dramatic and take too much credit here.
Kelly Kovack [00:08:38]: But for those people who were close to you and truly wrote the check because they believed in you, I think it kind of also shifts motivation.
Amy Liu [00:08:48]: 100% it shifts motivation. And to give you kind of a glimpse under the hood, I approached a lot of different types of people when I was trying to raise money, because like I mentioned, I did it in a very short period of time. So it was like anyone who knew an institutional investor, I started tapping into my network, and then I was talking to friends and I was talking to family, none of my family ended up investing. But it was one of those things where my best friend invested as my lead investor the second round. So I raised two times, and she invested the first time and what they were willing to invest as a family, I actually cut in half because I was too nervous about the implication on our relationship and in our friendship. But then in the second round, because I had a little bit more assurance about what was happening, they became our lead investor. So now, my investor, like if you look at my cap table, it’s people I genuinely am friends with, people I go to dinner with, in a non-COVID world, people I would go on vacation with, and it is super inspirational because I think different than if I had raised money from, like, I don’t know, a bank or a nameless institution, or even institutional funding where I didn’t know them as well or had a different relationship, this has been incredibly motivating because I feel like I’m doing it with everybody for everybody and not just for everybody.
Kelly Kovack [00:10:12]: It’s kind of like a family business.
Amy Liu [00:10:14]: Kind of, yeah. And I think we as women have that a little bit. Like, we’re able to – if you just do something for yourself, not to say men don’t do it, I just don’t identify with it as much, but as I woman, I do think women are more, I want to do it for the village, I want to do it for other people. We have a harder time, from an ego perspective I think, being like, I am doing this for me! So I am super grateful and it has been really motivating.
Kelly Kovack [00:10:38]: So you came into it understanding the business, understanding how products actually get made, and what it takes to build a business, so you certainly had kind of a leg up there. But what did your development process look like for creating the brand? What was the opportunity? Because I’m sure you did the due diligence, finding the white space. You had that kind of, if you will – you knew what the playbook was. So what was the opportunity you were building into and what were your non-negotiables? And sort of what did your kind of bringing the concept to market process look like?
Amy Liu [00:11:15]: So many good questions. Okay, let me see if I can go through them one at a time. Yes, I think there has been such a huge benefit to my experience because in some ways, I didn’t know how else to do it except to do it the right way. So by that I mean all of the brands I have been with have done all of the – to be honest with you, cosmetics is really unregulated, right? So you could launch a product and not do all of the requisite testing of stability, compatibility, I don’t know, all of the different things. But because I was part of organizations where that was incumbent in the process, I understood it to be the only way to do it. And I’m so grateful for that because I knew how to make sure I was checking the boxes in advance so I had less failure in product, right, afterwards. Because I think at the end of the day, to answer your question about a non-negotiable, this is an extremely competitive marketplace. It always has been, but right now we are at a fever pitch because the barrier to entry is so low. So product has to be king, queen, whatever you want to call it, it has to be amazing because consumers just have too many options nowadays. They vote with their dollars, they will not stand for products not being high-performance, and quality is everything. So I feel like I’m really grateful that I learned to do things the right way. At the same time, I will say that having had the experience that I’ve had, I’m also super aware of the competitive landscape, and I think sometimes that can be debilitating because you’re so aware – I don’t know, even launching Cream Blush. So Cream Blush is one of our best-selling products. I love Cream Blush as a person. But you know, there are other people who looking at it, I was like this other brand launched Cream Blush and it doesn’t do well because it likes to sweat, it did all of these things, and now it’s not popular anymore. So there’s a bit of it, I guess, where you can almost know too much about something, and you can talk yourself out of things because you feel like almost a naysayer. I am a naturally optimistic person but at the same time, highly critical, right? So I’m not necessarily like, oh, this is going to be great, we’re just going to launch it and we’re going to go. I don’t have that blind optimism that I actually associate with a lot of founders. The founders I’ve worked with, if you ask them, almost every editor would ask, “Are you surprised by your success?” And Kate Somerville and Josie Maran would be like, “Absolutely not. I always knew I was going to be successful.” And I have to tell you, there’s a part of me that really is so jealous of that type of confidence and that type of blind optimism, where I am more like, I see all of the obstacles and I see all of the hurdles going into it. So it’s both a blessing and a curse to have the experience that I do, I think.
Kelly Kovack [00:14:10]: And so as you were going into it, what was the white space that you identified? And kind of what were the non-negotiables aside from doing it the right way and checking all of the boxes?
Amy Liu [00:14:21]: Basically I’ve had eczema my entire adult life, and as somebody who has had eczema my entire adult life one of the things that I was really looking for personally was product that was safe for my sensitive skin. So I was looking for those products that a lot of times, those products, I felt like every time I went to a store, people directed me to products that really looked like they were for a patient. So whether it was a Cetaphil or a CeraVe or some sort of oatmeal wash or First Aid Beauty, everything – all of those products are great in their own way, but I think a lot of people reach towards those products because they reach towards them for a moment in time, and their skin goes back to normal and they’re like, “Okay, I’ll go use my fun products.” I also think a lot of that is more understandable in a skincare environment, but when you get to makeup, you expect your makeup to be kind of fun and accessible, and that’s what it should be, right? It should be part of your lifestyle. And so I felt like that was a real opportunity to find a way to make it more fun. And then when I started working at Josie Maran, I started hearing a lot more about clean beauty, which was really – she was a pioneer in that, and they say that what goes on your skin goes into your bloodstream, right? And as somebody with eczema, I really felt like, what about me? If it’s 70% for the average person, if my skin barrier is damaged, really everything is going into my skin. And I was pregnant at the time. So you become more aware of these things because you want to eat cleaner and put things on your skin that are cleaner. So I actually tried to make the switch to clean beauty, but when I did, a lot of those products were incredibly irritating to me, because essential oils are often inside of products in an effort to not have fragrance. And I don’t demonize essential oils, I think they’re great for a lot of people, and there’s also different essential oils, so some of them are better for me than others. But on top of that, there was a time when people were really focused on trying to make products 100% natural. And then you had all these plant botanicals and things that were happening. And I just found a lot of clean beauty was irritating, to be honest with you.
And so the idea for Tower 28 was I can’t be the only one who is looking for products that are not only safe for my sensitive skin, and by that I mean not only people with eczema, but people with acne, with any type of rosacea or any inflammatory issues. And then also wanting clean. And on top of that, I really felt like clean beauty was really expensive. I still think it’s really expensive. I wanted to be able to offer products that were similar to the conversation with food I think we often have, of why is it only wealthy people get to go shop at Whole Foods or whatever? I wanted it to be something where you could still go to Sephora, which we’re distributed at, and you could shop in this amazing environment and have this curated product line, but at the same time, have it be at an accessible price point. So all of our products are $28 and under. They start at $12 and go to $28, and that’s really intentional because I wanted it to be something more people could use.
The non-negotiable for me is because we talk so much about being safe for sensitive skin, I really am very careful about all of the testing and all of the ingredients that we do not include. So we use the National Eczema Association’s Seal of Approval Guidelines as our no-no list, and then we also look at the Credo Beauty no-no list and the Sephora Beauty no-no list from a clean perspective. So honestly, when we launch a product, the process of product development is basically one where we’re like, okay, no, no, no, no, no, but it has to do all of these things, and then it also has to get tested by all of these celebrity makeup artists because I’m friends with them and I want them to tell me it’s good product, and after having been in the industry for a long time, I know I can’t afford to have something that tanks, so I really want it to be good enough to be good enough for everyone, even a celebrity makeup artist. And then we do all of the testing. So I think at the end of the day, the non-negotiable is the product philosophy being upheld in addition to really maintaining the price and offering a product that I feel good about, and fills a need gap. I think there’s just so much product out there now.
Kelly Kovack [00:18:35]: I mean, eczema is really sort of – it’s an issue for a lot of people that really doesn’t get talked about. I mean, I think more and more as this kind of skin inclusivity moment we’re having, people are talking about it. But I know that sort of working and getting – kind of playing with eczema claims is no joke. When you add that onto your list of requirements, it really does differentiate your products from sort of a claims standpoint.
Amy Liu [00:19:06]: Yeah, definitely, and I think that when you have an issue like eczema, or acne, I think just to give you – I don’t know if you have any skin issues yourself, Kelly, but just to give you a glimpse into the mind of someone who has had issues for a long time, it’s one of those things where yes, you want to cure your issues, but you also certainly don’t want to make them worse. And for me, what I’m hoping that we can provide people is almost some solace, or we like to, on my team, call it like a safe space, and the idea that we’re creating products where you can feel like – I’m not sure my blush will cure your eczema, that’s not what I’m saying. But I’m saying I’m doing as much diligence as I can to make sure it doesn’t make it worse. So that it is non-irritating, it is non-comedogenic, it is fragrance-free, it is tested, because I think there’s a lot of guilt involved when you want to put makeup or other products on your skin, that you feel like you are the one who is almost trading your vanity for making your issue worse. So I’m really hoping to provide a little bit of relief and some confidence.
Kelly Kovack [00:20:12]: And I also think for so long the language around sort of these skin conditions is one of shame and covering it up rather than sort of, I mean, you can’t make the healing claim, but sort of making your skin healthier, because often in sort of that shame covering it up, you’re exacerbating the situation.
Amy Liu [00:20:37]: 100%. I think exacerbating it is exactly the part I was trying to help people feel safe that they weren’t doing that, but I do think there’s a lot of shame around it. I went for years, honestly, I just wore pants and long skirts and things like that. I would get eczema behind my knees, and people would literally – it would kind of dry down into something that looked almost like a bruise when it was not kind of scaly and things like that, and people – strangers – would stop me and say things about basically was I getting beaten or something. It was incredibly embarrassing, and I think also as somebody who’s been in the beauty industry for a long time, selling in the next spring/summer line of products or the next fall/holiday to Sephora and then looking at my merchant and saying, “But don’t look at my skin. This product’s great, don’t look at me.” I think there’s a lot about that that I really do understand what that’s like for people who experience a lot of shame, like you said, around skin conditions.
Kelly Kovack [00:21:39]: So you’ve gained traction pretty fast and I’m sure a lot of that has to be when you’re in the industry for almost two decades, you know people, right, and that certainly helps, but you still have to perform. I mean, you kind of have the most coveted distribution, you’re in Revolve, Credo, and Sephora and all within a year of launching. And from what I’ve heard, you’re kind of killing it and constantly selling out. You know, sometimes it’s easy to get the appointment if you have a good brand and you’re a good sales person, it’s easy to get the shelf space, but it’s the velocity and the selling through, right, is really kind of where the rubber meets the road, and clearly you’re doing it all. But for people who don’t come from the industry, what is kind of your insider secret for pitching, landing, and selling through in what are really super competitive retail environments?
Amy Liu [00:22:37]: I mean, super competitive. So let’s go through those each, one at a time. Pitching is a really interesting one. So I actually – it’s funny because despite the fact that I do know a lot of people at Sephora, I know the founder of Credo, etcetera, and I think I’m lucky because I had access and those doors were open to me, which is not true for everybody, I was really reluctant to use those credits or good will because I wanted to make sure I was ready. And again, kind of like leading up to launching in the first place, I had a lot of fear. I felt like, okay, well maybe I need to get some traction first, maybe I need to like, whatever. And it actually was – I could tell that the woman who was the assistant merchant, so the woman who was, like, the assistant merchant when I was at Josie, so she was quite young, is now the head of clean makeup, and I knew that I could get a meeting with her, but it’s still business, right? It’s not like just because she knows me she’s going to bring our products into store. So, anyways, to back up, if I had any advice, it would be this, because somebody else gave this to me, so I would love to share it.
I was planning on going into Sephora and basically doing what you had kind of said earlier, which is sharing a deck, talking about the need gaps and the white space in the market, giving statistics, and being very – almost academic and linear about it. And I was telling this woman, who was a mentor of mine, about my plan, and she said, “What are you doing?” She’s like, “You need to really bring the product to life for them,” and I said, what do you mean? And she was like, “Apart from bringing literally the sand, the surfboard, and the ocean into that room,” she’s like, “You need to bring the brand to life,” and I thought in the end, it was such a good idea because it really helped me almost change my perspective about what my goal is. And I think the thing that people have to understand is that when you’re in a retail partnership, after you sell in your products, you’re really counting on the retailers to help you then continue to sell the product to the customer, right? You have to do a lot of work yourself, whether it’s social media, content, training, the product itself, but you’re also looking for them to help you curate and bring your vision to life, and so I think the first thing is, you have to really sell everybody you’re working with, whether it’s your vendors, your team, or the retailer, right? So in the end what we ended up doing was we brought in these coolers with popsicles inside of them. So one of the first products we launched, which is still one of our most successful, is this product called Lip Jelly, and it was meant to be like a modern-day juicy tube, where they’re very bright and colorful, but then when you wear them, they’re like a sheer tint and super wearable, almost like you just ate a popsicle. Me and two girls on my team, we came in and we played this boom box, I think we played like – we downloaded like Apple’s Summer Hit List or something like that, and we played this boom box, and then we handed out popsicles and lip gloss around the Sephora office before our meeting, which I have to be honest with you, it was way more awkward than it probably sounds, because offices are quiet, and so we’re walking through and we’re handing out these lip glosses, and it ended up being I think one of the best things we could have done because after the meeting, the merchant called me and she was like, “Yes, we want to offer you space, yes we want to bring you in, but do you know how many people came up to me and said, ‘This lip gloss is incredible, you have to bring this product in’?” Because we were gifting it to the girl in customer service, the person in ops, or whatever it was, and I guess ultimately, my point is everybody is an influencer. Everybody influences somebody else. And so you’re constantly selling, you’re constantly trying to get people’s both feedback, but also the opportunity to get them to try something so they can tell someone else. And so I think any way that you can find those moments is really critical, and I think that’s what we’ve done really well, is basically try to find those people, so whether it’s influencers, which I have not had a previous connection to, or it’s your retailers or whoever it is to really help you sing your praises, but they can only do it if they really love the product.
Kelly Kovack [00:27:00]: So I think that’s such good advice, you know. I am perpetually inundated with decks, be it for sales presentations or investment decks, and honestly, it’s a little bit like brands, they all blur into the same thing. If I see the size of the beauty market one more time… You know, you kind of also need to know your audience, and I think the advice of almost approaching it as a performance is such good advice because at the end of the day, you want people to remember you and the product, not a well-designed deck.
Amy Liu [00:27:33]: Right, and I think you want people to understand and almost, like, feel your point of difference, right? Because everybody learns differently. Some people can read, some people can hear, but to feel, if you can bring a moment to them where they can really understand and experience you as a brand, I think that’s really incredible.
Kelly Kovack [00:27:55]: So, what’s your advice – alright, you got the yes, you got the shelf space. What advice do you have for people on how to sort of set yourself up for success at launch and make sure you get the sell-through to keep the shelf space?
Amy Liu [00:28:11]: Yeah, so I think if we’re talking about retail sales, I think it’s incredibly important to be partnering with your retail team. So whether it’s the merchants, the marketing people, anyone there, it is really a partnership. I think some people have a misguided idea that if they launch at Target, Sephora, Ulta, it’s like stack them high, let them fly. That’s not really going to happen. It is up to you, as a brand, to create demand and for you to partner with them to make sure that they can help you tell your story in any way that you can. So by that I mean, I think pay attention to what they’re doing and what are the things they can help you with, and really look to them to be your advocates. Every retailer is a little bit different in the way that they work, so some people are a little more pay-to-play, meaning that if you want to be on the end cap, you can pay to be on the end cap. But that’s not the way it works at Sephora. So because Sephora is much more what they call a democracy, then it really is a pitch process internally. So you have to make sure that you are top of mind for all of these people. So one thing I think is really important is we do gift pretty liberally when it comes to that. So a new girl joins a team, I’m like, great, here are some new products because I want you to try them, right? We want everyone on the internal Sephora team to be our advocate and to be thinking about us. And part of that is, honestly, just building true, authentic relationships, right? Letting them know what you’re doing and coming to them with ammunition. They can only help you as much as you’re giving them the ammunition to help with. So whether it’s hey, I’m making this sample and I need you to figure out the best way to put it into play, or it’s I’m launching this product, what are all of the different ways you can animate it and bring it to life for me? And then it’s a reciprocal relationship because you’re both in it, and just like any good marriage, both people have to be partners. But you do have to bring something because you have to create the demand.
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I want to dive in a little bit to influencers, which, you know, is another one of those sort of – it’s one of those trends where I’m like, yeah, this is not new. When I was at Bliss in 1996, we did that too. This is not new. It’s just, you know, there’s just social media, there’s more fuel behind it, right? But I kind of felt in doing the research and preparing for this, I felt like we’re kindred spirits because you have – I don’t want to say micromanaged, but you have micromanaged the process and you have built your influencer program kind of one relationship at a time and done it internally when a lot of people – a lot of people kind of outsource that, and I’m always like, I shake my head. I’m like, how could you possibly think that outsourcing a relationship is going to get you to where you need to be? So that was kind of one. And the other thing was that you made a statement that you believe the sales associates at Sephora should be considered influencers, and I was like, oh my god, yes! I have been talking about how people on the sales floor are the ultimate influencers, in that store, at that moment, for that customer, like you are the brand. And people dump all this money into influencer programs and forget about the people who are actually selling the products on the floor, and it’s kind of like such…I don’t know, it’s one of those things I feel so passionate about and so I was so excited to kind of have a conversation about your influencer strategy and the importance of activating those people on the floor that often get forgotten.
Amy Liu [00:32:45]: Yeah, I think it’s such a true statement and I could not agree with you more. The influencer one, to your point, is not a new concept, right? So to your point, in the 1990s or previously, maybe influencers were celebrities and editors with a few people that had a lot of control. Now I think it has, again, democratized, and because social media is free, everyone gets to build a platform and have a voice. But the truth is we’ve always been influenced by each other. There was always that person in your group that was the beauty guru that everyone went to. Now, it’s just a little bit easier to find that person and to identify them. And I think store associates have always been a huge unlock in that situation because I mean, quite frankly, that is their job and you’re standing there in the store and you immediately need information. As much as we can research information online, there’s nothing like looking someone in the eye and seeing them, and if I see somebody who looks like me or has the same skin tone as me, or I see their lip color and I like it, there’s just no comparison or replacement for that type of testimony, right? You just can’t change that.
I think my influencer strategy, similar to I think any good investment strategy, is one about diversification, and it’s also based on kind of, again, my investment strategy is based on what I can afford. So to say do I believe in macro influencers and paying for big content, even if I did believe in that, I can’t afford it, so it almost doesn’t matter. So instead, I think we have organically gifted a lot of people. So we’ve gifted the Kardashians I can’t even tell you how many times, we’ve tried to figure out – someone gave us an address and we would send them like 12 of them so they would get it and their entourage would get it because a lot of people say that if you send it, maybe the assistant picks it up and just opens it and keeps it, so we were like, okay, let’s send a ton and we’ll see! We gifted so many times, and not until recently did like Khloe Kardashian finally talked about it, and then you’re like, oh my god, that’s amazing. Does that actually move the needle? I think the macro influencers, because they’re talking about so many things and people know that they’re getting paid, I don’t know if it always converts. However, it’s like a Super Bowl commercial: it’s great for awareness. So whether or not it actually converts, I do think we’re still living in an age where there’s a whole marketing concept of the rule of seven, where you have to see something seven times before you actually can convert, and the same thing with remembering things. But if it used to be seven, I don’t even know what it is today, maybe like a thousand? We’re so bombarded and we have such short attention spans now with social media being what it is that I really, genuinely think you need to see it and hear it so many times, whether it’s coming from press, whether it’s coming from a podcast, whether it’s something you’re reading, an influencer talks about it, your best friend tells you. So now the playbook has to be much more broad; it can’t just be like, okay, I’m going to get…you can’t count on I’m going to seed this macro and that will convert and I’m going to be good. It has to be a combination of everything, from the Khloe Kardashians of the world to the person who works at the Sephora store. And frankly, that’s the type of testimony I really want too, is I want it to be believable, I want it to be authentic, I want it to be genuine, I don’t want it to be paid. And part of that is I can’t afford it, but part of it is also, I think, it’s the right way to build a business.
Kelly Kovack [00:36:32]: It’s also – there’s no one that knows more about what consumers want than people who are standing on a sales floor talking with consumers all day long.
Amy Liu [00:36:42]: 100%, and I – pre all this COVID stuff, so we launched in Sephora in late January of 2020 and the plan was for me to start going around and visiting stores to do both trainings, sales support, that type of thing, so people really understood, but also so I could learn because I think a lot of it is I learn so much when I go into a store and talk to the Sephora sales associates or Credo or whatever, and I’ve done this with every brand that I’ve worked at, so it’s not specific to Tower 28. But to go in there and ask them and say, again, we don’t have access to NPD because I don’t pay for it, we can’t afford it, but I can go in and I can say, “Hey, which product do you think is selling the best? What’s your favorite blush? Why are people gravitating towards this?” and I can ask them lots of questions, and they love talking about it because they are so knowledgeable. So I think you’re absolutely right.
Kelly Kovack [00:37:40]: Yeah, I think we’re also in a very interesting moment because there are a lot of brands that are being built by leveraging data. And I had, I would say, a heated discussion about it where I felt like maybe I was the old person in the room, but I was just like I always approach it like you, the other way around. When I’ve been leading marketing teams, if you came on my team, you had to do a week at every single retailer that we worked at. And not everyone loved that. And I’m like, well, then you can’t work. If you don’t know what the people selling our products need, then how are you going to create marketing materials for them? And I always used data the other way around. I’m like, go stand on the sales floor and really talk to people, and then use the data to validate the hunches you get.
Amy Liu [00:38:29]: I 100% agree. I think it’s got to be a little bit art and a little bit science.
Kelly Kovack [00:38:36]: Yeah. And I mean, sometimes when I tell investors that, or when I’m doing a consulting project, they’re like, wait, what do you mean? You are going to go stand on a sales floor, not someone who works for you? I’m like, no, no, no, I’m going to go stand on the sales floor because what I hear, and how I kind of distill that, and somebody else is totally different. Yes, I’m going to go stand on the sales floor. And then they look at me like I’m crazy.
Amy Liu [00:39:00]: And by the way, the modern day version of that, meaning in the virtual version of that when stores weren’t open, I think is 100% being the one – I mean, I am honestly the one, oftentimes, in the DMs on Instagram answering people’s customer service issues. I sometimes sign my name and sometimes I don’t, but I am constantly doing the social listening around the brand because I do want to understand. So we do some things that are very straightforward, so we do surveys and polls and then we collect them and are like, okay, what’s the next shade of Lip Jelly going to be, so that’s a very straightforward version of it. But sometimes I’ll see someone post something about us and they’re like, I couldn’t decide between this shade or this shade, and I’m like, well, what could we do, from an educational standpoint, to help you understand that? So is there a piece of content that I can create? And I will separately DM them and be like, hey, I saw you had this issue, what is your undertone and what are you thinking about? I just do the diligence on my own because I really do think it’s art and science.
Kelly Kovack [00:40:05]: Yeah, I agree. I want to shift tact just a little bit. I want to learn more about the clean beauty school initiative that you started sort of last summer and kind of where that came from, what your plans are for that.
Amy Liu [00:40:21]: Clean Beauty Summer School is an initiative that I launched last year, initially in response to everything with Black Lives Matter was happening and came to a fever pitch last summer, if you remember, and I think like so many people, we’re kind of like, well, what do I do, right? How do I express my values and what I believe? But how do I make it not just perfomative but actionable and actually help people? And someone emailed me to our general email and said that Glossier essentially was giving out grant money, and they were like, if you decide to give out grant money, would you consider giving me some money? And ironically, I was literally applying for loans at the time, so I was like, well, I don’t think I’m really in the right position to be giving out grant money; however, as somebody who has just worked in the industry for a long time, I’d be happy to provide some advice or to chat with you for a little bit. So I spent some time with her and talked to her on the phone, and I thought, well, how can I do this and make it more scaleable? And even to your point previously in the conversation we were saying I have the privilege, because I’m worked in the industry for a long time, I’ve made connections along the way, I’ve been lucky enough to have mentorship access, education at a young age, and learned from all of my job experience, and what is it that I could actually do that I could offer? Money is hugely important. There are so many statistics around how there’s a lack of investment in BIPOC entrepreneurs. Because that is not something that I can readily do on my own, the next best thing is for those people that are able to get funding, or even if they’re not, I can help put together not just myself, but by tapping into other foudners and other people that I know in the beauty industry, I’ve been able to bring them together to create this Clean Beauty Summer School, so these BIPOC founders, as they’re going through their journey, can learn, and learn from the mistakes, frankly, that people like me have made along the way, and if they’re able to raise money another way, or if they’re able to get traction on their own, hopefully they’re able to prioritize their spend and just avoid some of the mistakes that I’ve made, for instance. So that’s exactly what we did. Last year it was Black-owned beauty brands only; this year it is BIPOC. Last year we got over 300 applications, this year we got over 200. I think part of that is because we required a video submission this year. And the applicants are honestly so amazing. Last year we had ten, this year we had a hard time choosing ten so we ended up choosing eleven. They go through ten weeks of classes from industry experts, they have five hours of mentorship from incredible founders like the Glow Recipe women, Alpen Beauty, Saint Jane, etcetera, Tisha from LYS, I mean there’s so many of them, Bread. So really great founders, really great brands. And then at the very end of it, there’s a pitch day, and in the pitch day, they basically pitch to both investors, retailers, and an editor. So it’s both institutional investors as well as an angel investor, so it’s Divya Gugnani from Wonder Beauty who is an angel investor, Alisa Williams from VMG, who is an amazing private investor, it’s a Sephora and an Ulta really senior executive, and then it’s also Kristina Rodulfo from Women’s Health Mag who is the beauty director there. So these are people who get pitched all the time, correct? And in the end, there will be one winner, and the winner will get $50,000 worth of prizes, including $10,000 in cash, a $20,000 retail sales support from Head Count, which is basically like training in-store, $10,000 from a law firm, which is basically there to help with any type of – anything from fundraising to copyright issues, etcetera, a retainer, and then a $12,000 PR agency with Six One, which is a PR agency that specifically caters to BIPOC beauty founders. So I think it’s a really exciting program. I’m so proud to do it. We started it last year. I just taught the first class yesterday and just met all of them. And I think like so many things, I think I get just as much, if not more, than I end up giving by doing it. I learn so much from them, I’m inspired by them, and I think it’s a beautiful way of creating community.
Kelly Kovack [00:44:52]: I love that brands – you know, I think brands are doing it, there’s a lot of kind of I’ve heard creative agencies doing it, setting up programs like this to kind of help. You know, the bar has never been lower to kind of get into market, but it’s also never been more difficult or cost more money to really be more competitive, I think.
Amy Liu [00:45:14]: 100%.
Kelly Kovack [00:45:15]: And that’s a huge delta to kind of cross. So yeah, I love the program you’ve put together, and if we can be of any help, we’re here. We’re always – we love supporting people who are – no, listen, I think it takes a village, right, and what we have is a platform and a voice, and we kind of think of our impact initiative is providing that to other people who are doing good work. So, anyway, I also want to say, what has it meant to you as a successful Asian-American beauty entrepreneur, the Asian community is also, we’re having this cultural moment that is kind of upsetting, just as much as Black Lives Matter, you know, the conversations with people during that is sort of what can we be doing as an industry to help educate, or, I don’t know, address those issues that are kind of almost in plain sight.
Amy Liu [00:46:16]: Yeah, I think it’s an incredibly important topic to me. As I mentioned, I was born here, raised here, yet spent my whole life with people asking me, “But where are you from?” right? And knowing very well that what they meant was not that I’m American and I’m from here. I was born in Minnesota; I feel very American. I feel very attached to my Chinese identity too, my dad actually lives in China, I speak Chinese, I’m very proud of being Chinese-American. I’m really sad about everything that’s happening right now, especially as somebody who has children, and I think they’ve experienced some of the racism – overt racism – around specifically COVID and everything that’s happened more recently in the last year. So it’s incredibly important to me. In terms of what people can do to support, I think it is just being outspoken and normalizing and standing up for what it is that is right. A lot of what I’m trying to do, and even before all of this happened with Stop Asian Hate, one of the things that was really important to me, and the reason why Tower 28 has this really beachy kind of vibe-y feel is because I grew up in an area that had a very strong beach culture identity, which is probably less to do with the area, but more to do with the time. I was in high school in the ‘90s, and that was really popular – that aesthetic was really popular and I didn’t see myself in it. One of the things I really wanted to do was create the version of the beach that I see. So we’re very aware – when we’re creating campaigns and thinking about it, and to be honest with you, the one that’s always the hardest for me to cast is the Asian because I really want to make sure that we’re depicting it in a way that’s not just stereotypical. So I’m not just looking for your standard Asian girl who has really fair skin and really black hair and is very thin. I’m always trying to find ways to show diversity amongst Asians, including southeast Asians, including, you know, I have brown hair naturally, I don’t have black hair. And I think one of the things that was hard for me growing up was not only did I see myself in pop culture in America, but then my dad moved to China when I was in high school and I thought, oh, well maybe I’ll fit in there when I go visit Taiwan in China, and I didn’t feel beautiful there either, because even when there were women in the media and pop culture, it was always the same looking person. It was always someone with very, very fair skin – just different, thick, black hair that was beautiful, and I just didn’t feel like I fit in either world. So to me, I think there is almost a responsibility for people who work in beauty because we are really defining this heavy idea of aspiration and what beauty looks like, and if you can’t see it, you can’t be it, but also unfortunately, a woman, a person’s confidence is so built on their outside appearance oftentimes, and I think the fascination I have in general with beauty is you can put on some lipstick and you feel so much better about yourself, right? It’s just true. And I’m not trying to be vain about it. And that’s what I’m hoping we can do for people. I really take it quite seriously. I think a lot about the images that we put out there, you know, I’m always pushing my team, even, to, like you mentioned earlier with skin inclusivity, let’s show girls with texture, let’s show girls with pores. I’m never retouching for those types of things, I’m just trying to retouch for is it the right color? Is it really looking like the color we want it to? Is it true? Is it distracting if you can see a piece of, I don’t know, whatever on their face? But yeah, I do think there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with having a platform and with being in an industry like beauty where you’re setting expectations and aspiration.
Kelly Kovack [00:50:22]: Yeah, I agree. I think the responsibility is not something that people should take lightly. And I also – I think these topics and these conversations are really important to have. And sometimes they’re not the easiest conversations to have because you don’t want to misspeak, you don’t want to offend, but if you don’t have the ability to have an open conversation, then nothing really moves forward, either, because you don’t know what you don’t know. My experience is different than your experience, so unless we have the ability to have an open dialogue, nothing is going to move forward. We’re just like posting really nice Instagram posts saying nice words but nothing changes.
Amy Liu [00:51:02]: Yes, I 100% agree, and I think the thing that’s been interesting to me, as somebody who’s never had any platform of influence – honestly, as a person, I very rarely post to social media and I’ve never been a highly political person. I think a lot of people feel like, well, I don’t really have much of a platform, what can I do? And I think as this was all happening and I realized, wait a minute, for once in my life I actually do have a platform and there is responsibility that comes with that, so what do I want it to be? But also as somebody who is pretty risk averse and also conflict averse, and I hate to say it, but I definitely am somebody who – like I can see 100 positive comments and then I will see, you know, somebody will write something really negative and mean and I will go back and look at it. And I really wish that was not the mentality that I have, but I think it’s very human. It’s been hard, to be honest with you. It’s been both hard and easy – it’s easy to know what I feel and what my values are, and gratefully, I’ve attracted a team of people who also share those same values, so I think we celebrate diversity and inclusivity as a team. I think it’s very easy for us to talk about these things because it’s what we believe in and we’ve been able to really support causes, whether it’s sustainability, or right now we’ve been doing something to support epilepsy. We’ve been doing all of these things so it’s easy, but then it’s also hard because every time you choose a side, you inevitably are like alienating another one, and frankly, people can be really mean. I mean, when Black Lives Matter, again, last summer, was at a fever pitch, someone emailed me – we had posted something really supportive and someone emailed our general email and was like, “Whatever, you’re an Asian-American, you guys are the most racist of anyone and I don’t believe anything you say.” And I was like, wait, you don’t even know me. I don’t know – you don’t know who my friends are, you know nothing about me, so it is, it’s a hard thing to do, but I think it’s the right thing to do. And I think the more that we can find each other in our community and understand, I think it’s what you said, it’s talking to each other and figuring out how you do it is important, and using your platform when you can.
Kelly Kovack [00:53:24]: And being kind.
Amy Liu [00:53:25]: Even when it’s hard, be kind. I love that you just said that. I used to teach at FIDM, which has a beauty discipline, and the advice I would always give people is just be kind because it’s a really small industry, and if you want to be successful in general, in life, as a person, just be kind.
Kelly Kovack [00:53:50]: It’s so funny, I was going to ask you for one piece of advice to wrap up that interview, but I think you just gave it, and I think it’s the best advice because it is a big industry, but it is also a very small industry. Very, very small, I think smaller than people realize.
Amy Liu [00:54:09]: I haven’t really worked in any other industry, so I don’t actually know what other industries are like, but I will tell you I cannot believe the number of times I get asked about like, “Hey, do we like this person?” because we have to all realize that when you’re working together, you want to work with people who, again, your values matter more than they ever have. So you don’t want to hire someone who is in conflict to what you believe, and then you also want to make sure that there’s – especially on a small team, right? I’m maniacal about this part of it. I just want fit. I want people, I don’t want politics, I don’t want toxic culture. I’m not saying at a big corporation that’s okay, but I think you can hide it a little easier. And in a small team, the impact is huge. So yes, it’s being good at your job, yes it’s being hard working, it’s also just being a cool person that people want to work with.
Kelly Kovack [00:55:06]: I agree. I am so grateful. Thank you so much for sort of just an honest conversation and so much really good information. And hopefully this is, you know, one of many conversations.
Amy Liu [00:55:18]: Aw, I appreciate it so much.
Kelly Kovack [00:55:26]: For Amy, it’s a matter of sensitivity. For as long as she can remember, she’s been in love with the way beauty products have the ability to make people feel. Tower 28 has defined a white space, creating clean alternatives for eczema sufferers that are for all skin tones, skin types, budgets, and beauty philosophies. While the products and brand she’s built are impressive, building a beauty brand is hard; doing that as a mom is even more challenging. But somehow, Amy has found the time to share her knowledge and success with other BIPOC founders. Amy Liu and Tower 28 are using the power of beauty for good. So in the end, it’s a matter of sensitivity, and that’s what matters. I’m Kelly Kovac, see you next time.
Amy Liu [00:56:21]: Hi, I’m Amy and to me what matters is sensitivity. Our tagline is “It’s okay to be sensitive” because one, our products are made to be designed for sensitive skin and are made for all, but in addition to that, we really just want to create a space where people feel like it is okay to be sensitive. We’re in a time when mental health and mental health awareness is so important, and personally I feel like I’ve had to overcome so much fear and I just really feel like this is such an important time to be kind to each other.
Kelly Kovack [00:56:56]:
It’s A Matter Of is a production of BeautyMatter LLC. You can find more content and insights on www.BeautyMatter.com
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