How an AIDS Researcher Became One of the Inventors of the Clarisonic

It started with cashing in his 401K and ended with getting a blessing from product fairy godmother Oprah on her "Favorite Things" show.
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It started with cashing in his 401K and ended with getting a blessing from product fairy godmother Oprah on her "Favorite Things" show.
The brush that changed it all. Photo: Clarisonic

The brush that changed it all. Photo: Clarisonic

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

The Clarisonic cleansing brush, which was launched in 2004, is probably one of the biggest beauty success stories of the last decade, and is arguably responsible for jumpstarting the current craze for electronic beauty devices.  To date, the company has sold over 10 million devices worldwide. In 2011, L'Oreal acquired Clarisonic's parent company, Pacific Bioscience Laboratories, paving the way for more innovation, including complementary formulas to go with the brushes, like last year's brightening kit

One of the inventors of the Clarisonic, Dr. Robb Akridge (fondly called "Dr. Robb" by pretty much everyone in the company), is a former AIDS vaccine researcher who made the jump to beauty entrepreneur via some fairly circuitous routes. Here, Dr. Robb talks about the early Clarisonic failures, what it was like to have the Clarisonic chosen as one of Oprah's "Favorite Things," and how you should spend your money as an entrepreneur. 

Dr. Robb Akridge. Photo: Clarisonic

Dr. Robb Akridge. Photo: Clarisonic

What were you doing prior to becoming a cleansing brush entrepreneur?

I’m a scientist by training. Usually what scientists do is specialize in one little narrow thing like warts on the end of a frog’s butt, and that’s all they study their entire lives, that one topic. I’m not that way. I have to have things that are constantly challenging me and interesting me. I’ve done everything from marine biology to botany to worked on AIDS vaccines. I set up a global network of labs throughout the world to set up experimental AIDS vaccines in 22 labs and 14 countries. After that I went to work for Sonicare toothbrush and I was the senior scientist there.

So you were exposed to sonic technology at Sonicare. When did you start tinkering with it to make a face brush?

David Giuliani, who was one of the primary inventors of Sonicare, asked me and another guy to start this company with him. We used to sit at a Denny’s and chitchat and look at market trends. We ended up with five founders. We would say, "Oh look, skin care’s growing, what’s the main problem in skin care?" And the answer was acne. We thought, Is there anything we can do to help people that have acne? It’s so socially debilitating.

Was there a beauty person sitting in that circle with you at Denny’s?

No, they were all geeky scientists and engineers. We had no background. We got a dermatologist to come in and talk to us about how an acne lesion starts. Once we decided to go down the road of trying to help people with acne, we used sonic technology and discovered a unique frequency and a unique motion that causes surface cleansing and also fluid forces that would flush out the pores. Once we discovered that, I decided we needed a panel of aestheticians. So I went out and got five people who either owned spas or worked in spas and we would give them our prototypes. I would tell these women,  “You have to be brutally honest when we give you a prototype." 

Can you remember any of the feedback?

Yeah, things like, “This is shit, this is horrible and it doesn’t work.” Our first prototype didn’t have bristles. It was two steel bars put on the end of a barber clipper that moved back and forth. [See picture below.] The two bars had a distance between them that would allow us to move the pores and it worked really well on tight skin like on your forehead, but when you got to your cheeks it would grab the skin and pinch it and wouldn’t let go. That one was a real loser. 

How did you originally fund the company?

We had no money. This was out of my 401K that we were funding this company. We were virtual from 2000 to 2002 and then we became [a] real [company] in 2002. 

Early Clarisonic prototypes. Photos: Clarisonic

Early Clarisonic prototypes. Photos: Clarisonic

When did you finally have a breakthrough?

During that time we gave these aestheticians a unit that was a black box with a cord coming out of it that looked like a ray gun. But it basically had the Clarisonic brush head on the end. I gave it to one aesthetician and after two days of use she was supposed to give it back to me. I knocked on her door and she said, "Can I keep it one more day? I really like this. I think I’m seeing some results." The next aesthetician did the same thing. When you have to pry it out of their hands, you know you have a product.

What were your biggest learning curves or things that surprised you in the process?

Although there had been skin care devices in the '60s, there was nothing out there for at-home use that could actually do what we were doing. There was no way to test how effective it was. Usually when you want to test a product, like a blender, I can go and see how they tested other blenders before it. There’s no method to test something to see how effective it is at cleansing. What we wanted to know is if you have dirt or sebum or makeup on your skin, how effective at removing it is this compared to manually? We had no way of showing the consumer because no one had really tested it. We had to develop our own tests.

How long did it take from realizing you had a viable concept to actually launching it into the market?

We launched it in 2004. Between 2002 and 2004 we were developing all the assays and safety testing. We had this unit that was held together with screws and glue and it was not the most luxurious looking handle. We went to the American Academy of Dermatology, which is the most prestigious conference for dermatologists in the U.S., and we set up a booth there and took orders. On the counter we had three working units. In production we had zero. We didn’t know if we could produce them in large enough volume to supply the orders.

So how much interest did you get at the conference?

A lot! Then we were like, Great, now we’ve got to build it. We actually had pop-up cafeteria tables where people would hand assemble each one. It’s still hand assembled here in Redmond, Washington. We have between 200 and 400 people assembling Clarisonics. You can keep control of the quality and what the product looks like if you do it in-house. 

Clarisonic was featured as one of Oprah's favorite things in 2007. How did that happen?

Our sales were growing at about 36 percent prior to Oprah. It’s a nine-month process. You’re called and told, "You need to send 400 or 500 products to us, you’ll never see them again. There’s about 300 other products we’re looking at for the show." But this is Oprah. If she had said, "Send 100,000" we’d have sent them!  We shipped them to her and the first cut they went from 300 [products] to I think 100. They said, "There’s still no guarantee you’re going to be on the show. And you’re not allowed to tell your retailers about it. So if word gets out, you’re pulled from the list." 

When you get down to the very end, they said, "You’re on the show, but if anybody talks about it on air during one of her shows, you’re pulled." A good friend of mine was scheduled to go on Oprah. She said, "I’m going to tell Oprah that I use the Clarisonic in my spa all the time," and I said, "Oh no, no, no, please just talk about yourself and your products. This is your moment to shine. Don’t talk about Clarisonic!" I couldn’t tell her we were going to be a favorite thing. When the show aired, within 24 hours you couldn’t find a Clarisonic in the U.S. It took us about three months to re-stock the shelves. 

Clarisonic's pedicure brush set, launched in 2013. Photo: Clarisonic

Clarisonic's pedicure brush set, launched in 2013. Photo: Clarisonic

How do you feel about the competition and the future of your category? It’s a different cleansing brush space now.

It is a different space now, but our true competition are the human hands, because most people don’t think they’re doing a bad job when they’re cleansing. They think they’re doing an OK job when they use their hands to cleanse and they’re not. I think these other products that are coming out are creating background noise that is causing confusion in the marketplace. Customers will buy something that’s cheaper than a Clarisonic, they’ll try it and they become disenchanted. When our beauty advisors actually get it into someone’s hands, they’ll say, “I don’t want that, I’ve already tried one.” And that’s the challenge we’re having now. 

If you had to give advice to someone who is trying to launch something into the beauty space, what would it be?

You have to believe in your idea no matter what other people tell you about it. They can poo-poo it all day long, but you must believe in yourself and go forward. And that means if you have to cash in your 401k, if you have to mortgage your house, if you have to borrow money somehow — don’t borrow it from a relative — then go for it. But the thing is, you have to be honest with yourself too. When we five got together, we all put money into the hat. We said, "Six months out, we have to accomplish the following three milestones." And if you don’t accomplish those, then you fold. There were several times we were pushing it at the very end and we were saying, "We’ve got to get this work done." That day came, and we evaluated it and then everybody had to put more money in the hat to go to the next round. 

Isn't it scary to dump that much money into a gamble?

In the early days, the only people who should be working for you — I’m talking about the first five to 10 people — are people that are actually investing their own money in your company. I worked from 6 a.m. until midnight for I don’t even know how long trying to get the Clarisonic to work, trying to get it to be optimized. It is a gamble. Not everybody makes it. [And don't put] all of your money in the basket in the beginning and just blow it all! We did not have marketing at all. We had ugly buildings, terrible heating and we shared offices with rats at times. You have to be very frugal with your money and put it in the right place. But we can create things in this country that other people can’t, because we have a system here that allows it. I always tell people, "Go for it!"