Jane Says: Julep CEO on Leadership, Growing Pains, Community, Family
Jane Park, co-founder and CEO of Seattle beauty brand Julep, is trying to build “the most transparent and collaborative company” in any category, not just in the massive beauty products industry where Julep is differentiating itself by forming deep relationships with customers online and in person.
Park, who leads 240 employees and has raised $56 million from some of the biggest names in venture capital since launching Julep in 2006, takes leadership lessons and observations on startup life from her experience as a parent of two, in addition to stints heading new ventures at Starbucks and as a strategy consultant with The Boston Consulting Group.
Xconomy sat down with Park in Julep’s Lower Queen Anne headquarters in advance of her fireside chat at Xconomy Xchange: Beauty and the Data Beast—Seattle Innovation Stories on Tuesday, Nov. 18. She will be joined on stage by Jason Stoffer, a partner at Maveron, the Seattle consumer-focused venture firm that made an early investment in the company.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Xconomy: Julep has four Seattle-area salons, where 100 of its employees work. Tell me about the importance of the company’s beginnings with bricks-and-mortar salons and the role that part of the business plays today.
Jane Park: We designed our parlors to enable conversation and connection, and that’s really been the DNA that we’ve brought online. So the reason that we collaborate with our customers online is that we were always about this two-way conversation with our customers and inviting them in to help us grow.
At the end of the day, what we’re trying to build is the most transparent and collaborative company, not just in the beauty category, but ever. And so, I think our roots in really understanding the customer—when you are holding somebody’s hands and feet and you are in that intimate of a situation with them, there’s a different level of trust and customer service dynamic that comes with that.
That whole idea of thinking about her comprehensively—everything from, hey, she has a fancy purse so we need a purse hook, or there’s a ledge at our cash wrap so you can put your purse down while you pay. That’s the kind of detail that as we’re building digital products we want to think through as well. What are the little minutia that make up a fantastic experience, that make you feel understood.
The average company has to recruit a focus group. We actually find it really helpful that there’s hundreds of women going through our parlors every day.
X: You talked about the most transparent and collaborative company in any category. Did you set out with that in mind, and if so, why is that important?
JP: You end up with better ideas. The beauty category is fun. I set out to create amazing products and if you’re working this hard, you want to do it in a way that you’re excited about and proud of. So it’s just inherent in me and my co-founder Kate MacDonald that we don’t have ego and we’re always asking for help.
One of the things we found along the way in building Julep is that that always ends up with better results. You end up learning things you didn’t know on your own and all you have to do is ask for help.
Taking that concept to our customers has really helped us design better products. There are TED talks on this—the wisdom of the crowd. It’s definitely garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t ask the right questions, you get crap. You can’t go to the customer and say, ‘Hey, tell me how to grow to $1 billion next year,’ because that’s not the right question. But if you are committed to doing things better every day, to innovating, to not being beholden to the past rules, and then you also let really smart people—and in particular your users—into the conversation, you always end up with better innovation.
X: You’re managing tons of incoming information like any business does, but are there some specific ways that you’ve been able to integrate that customer feedback?
JP: Absolutely. We’ve done it in a ton of different ad hoc ways; we’re now trying to gather up the best practices and formalize it as a place in our app, or how to engage people digitally and make them feel part of Julep.
For example, we were thinking about what the next color extensions should be on this lip treatment that we developed, and instead of us just coming up with it, we just put the different swatches online, on our blog, and then we asked people for feedback. It’s actionable. When they vote, we will literally use what they have picked.
X: Is there a tension there in that sharing with your customers? Obviously, it’s open and competitors could be looking into that open design process as well. How do you balance the need to keep a competitive edge with that impulse to be open?
JP: What’s great is that because we’re so super-fast with our product launches, it’s less of an issue for us. We also are not miserly with our ideas. We feel like we have so many really great ideas that it’s not any one idea. If you only have one idea, then protect it with your life, because that’s your only idea. We have so much—it’s just the way we see things as a company is always asking, ‘What would we do today if we had our magic wand?’
Every company is hiring these innovation consultants and trying to figure out a way to have ideas grow inside your own company. It starts out with enabling risk-taking behavior. That’s not rocket science. There’s probably a million business books on it, but to do that well, it is about the culture. It’s showing yourself failing, for example, which a lot of chief executives don’t want to do. It’s being transparent about it to your team when you do. Pointing out, OK, here’s where I screwed up, and what I learned.
X: Given your focus on your relationship with customers, I would imagine you’d be pretty upset to read the Better Business Bureau’s assessment early this year that Julep has been “unresponsive” to complaints about customer service and billing related to Julep Maven, which includes a monthly shipment of beauty products and other benefits. What’s happening there from your perspective and what you feel has been done to resolve it?
JP: I think this has happened to a lot of companies. We never got the complaints basically, so I didn’t respond to it because I didn’t see them. [The complaints] go to the Better Business Bureau, so there was no communication directly with us that we received.
So, hey, we fixed that. I wish they had called me before they said we weren’t responsive, but we have since fixed it. The last thing we are is unresponsive. We are a social media company so we were responding to customers on social media. And I think the Better Business Bureau is better suited for physical, small retail. It was just a mismatch of where to go for help. We’re responding instantaneously all the time on Facebook and Twitter, and on phones and e-mail.
We had a slight uptick. Hey, we were busy and growing and I think the customers who went to the BBB, were just, we didn’t see their feedback, otherwise for sure we would have responded.
X: Some of the complaints appear to stem from people misunderstanding the subscription model. Broadly speaking, we encounter a lot of startups that are doing monthly, product-X-in-a-box type businesses. What are some things you’ve learned about the challenges of running that smoothly?
JP: Long before Birchbox or Shoe Dazzle or whatever, we had subscription in our parlors. And it was something people have loved and we still have it. We started that in 2009. It’s not new to us.
Three months ago was the first time we ever had any issues like this come up. From a systems perspective, people need to call to cancel [a subscription], because we don’t have an online way to cancel. It works really great when you can answer the phone. And it doesn’t work great when you’re overwhelmed and people have long wait times. So that’s totally unacceptable. It was a growing pain that we’ve fixed.
X: Julep produces lots of new products each year. What are some of the ways you’ve found to do that efficiently from a production process point of view?
JP: It’s a lot of details to stay on top of for sure. I think it boils down to great, cross-functional communication. The people we hire at Julep have to be able to work really well with other people, and anticipate issues that might come up and get everybody on the same page so that when a supplier is late there isn’t pandemonium and chaos, but we have a contingency plan in place. I think it really is a cultural issue around how you communicate and are prepared to deal with the inevitable issues that come up when you’re dealing with the physical world.
We get to have the best of both, but we also have the challenges of both. Hey, software doesn’t melt when you have it hot out on the dock, but also, nail polish doesn’t freeze. Lipstick doesn’t suddenly not advance a screen because there’s too many people on it. So we’ve got the upside and the challenges of both.
Because we trust in the input and the collaboration that we have, we’re not paralyzed by the need to do more market research, or the need to get all of this exactly right.
We want the product to be exactly right, obviously. There are some places you don’t compromise. But a lot of the time, when traditional companies are launching new products, the holdup is not making the product better. The holdup is about senior executives not sure about whether to launch it, or creating the perfect marketing campaign and getting Jennifer Aniston to some photo-shoot location, and all of the work that it takes to launch a multimillion-dollar global advertising campaign. And it’s great when you don’t have to invest the time or money to do that, because you have a community.
X: Have you started to reach the upper limits of how many new products you can launch in a year, either based on the size of the organization, or what is right for the market?
JP: I don’t think we’re trying to launch more and more new products. We’re doing around 300 a year, and that feels about right for us. When we look at our top 10 percent of customers, they’ve bought over 600 different SKUs from us in a five-month period. So the variety matters to our customers, and the newness and innovation matters, so it’s really customer-driven.
We always say we want to be that boyfriend we never had, who was anticipating our needs before we even knew we had them. It’s really focused on the customer. It’s whatever she wants in terms of attention. If she wanted 1,000 [new products] a year, I would try to make it happen and could organize the company to do that. I think that’s too much for her to process.
X: There are some pretty huge names among your investors, including Jay-Z and Beyonce and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, through their investment vehicle. What’s it like to work with celebrity investors? Do they provide any kind of brand-promotion assets or other assets that are important to your customers that traditional Silicon Valley or Seattle VCs just don’t have?
JP: It’s always great for us in our category to work with really creative people who look at things differently—to have super-analytic people who run crazy spreadsheets, but also to have the creative, from-the-gut people. That’s the interesting thing about e-commerce. It’s such a combination of gut and creativity with A/B testing and data and planning.
Thus far, as a smaller company, it’s really just been about the ideas and mentorship. I think we’re just growing to the space where we might be able to work together more on a business-partnership perspective. We didn’t want to be a celebrity brand. We wanted to build our own brand. But it’s exciting to be big enough where now we feel like we could work with folks in a collaborative way. We’re now big enough to collaborate.
X: As you are finishing your seventh year in business, with some 240 employees, some $56 million in capital raised, do you still consider this a startup?
JP: Absolutely. Oh my gosh. The rate of change that we’re going through is so significant. It’s really about the growth rate that defines that stage. When a toddler is growing really rapidly, they’re super awkward and they trip all the time because they’re not used to their body. We’re at this stage, where we just figured out this thing called crawling and then walking and then running and then your body keeps changing and you’re tripping again. I think that’s what defines a startup more than anything else. So you could be really big, but if you’re continuing to double every year, then the culture and the way that you work together is very different.
X: Why is Seattle the right place to build this business?
JP: Seattle has a great mix of retail and technology. I think about amazing companies like Starbucks, Nordstrom, and Costco, that are so customer-focused, and then great technology companies like Amazon, Zillow, Microsoft. I don’t know of anywhere else that has the intersection of retail and technology the same way Seattle does.
X: You said in an interview this summer that you expected to care less about work after becoming a parent, but actually you were reinvigorated—more determined to create a work experience that was as compelling as your home experience. I think the stereotype is that startups are pursued by the young or unattached who can throw their whole lives into building something from scratch without concern for the collateral damage to family and other priorities. What are some practical ways you’ve been able to devote yourself to this business and also protect time with your family?
JP: I think it helped to have worked around the clock when I was younger. I don’t know that when I worked 18 hours a day in the office that they were all super-productive hours. So one thing about both me and my co-founder being parents is that we’re incredibly efficient during the day. There is no tolerance for taking up people’s time with inefficient conversation.
The more we’re growing as a company, that requires leadership and communication. That’s the kind of stuff you figure out so much more about yourself as a parent. If we do all of these things the baby will sleep. And then they start crawling out of their crib, or they start walking and then all of those lessons, totally not useful, and now I’ve got to start again. I think that’s really true of startup life as well. Just when you get the hang of it, it all changes.
Having Julep makes me a better parent, and being a parent makes me a better CEO.
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