In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
The current state of the beauty industry is a veritable arms race of face creams. Cosmetics giants are looking to successful indie brands with established fan bases and acquiring them at a rapid-fire pace. L'Oréal bought It Cosmetics and Atelier Cologne in 2016 and then turned around and scooped up three skin-care brands for a reported $1.3 billion in January of 2017. Meanwhile, Estée Lauder spent upwards of $1.5 billion acquiring both Too Faced and Becca, and there's plenty of speculation surrounding the thriving, buzzy free agents that remain (Anastasia Beverly Hills, Drunk Elephant, Glossier, to name only a few). But when asked if that type of lucrative acquisition is something she'd ever aim for, Paula's Choice founder Paula Begoun, who launched her eponymous company more than two decades ago, doesn't mince words. "I wouldn't buy me if I was Lauder or L'Oréal or P&G — I can't imagine they would. How could they rationalize buying a company that has been so critical — and continues to be critical — of their products?"
Calling out beauty brands for what she sees as subpar, ineffective or misleading formulas is core to the Paula's Choice brand. And for Begoun, it's personal: She became the industry watchdog decades ago as an author and then turned around and built her own massively successful beauty company while maintaining her critical watch over the market as a whole. It's a personal mission of Begoun's to spread correct information about skin-care to the world, another reason she's not looking to sell her company anytime soon. "I can't imagine giving that up. It just seems like it would trash everything I've hoped to do in my career," she says.
While plenty of skin-care brands (including the aforementioned cosmetics giants) are preoccupied with figuring out how on earth they can get millennials and Gen Z-ers to purchase their products, Paula's Choice has remained steadfast in its non-flashy, almost clinical packaging. It's about being scientifically backed and effective, not photogenic. And yet, Paula's Choice has become beloved by bloggers and beauty editors alike. What it lacks in millennial pink-ness, it more than makes up for in innovation, ingredients and utility.
Having formulated more than 150 products, penned dozens of books and spent nearly an entire lifetime working in the beauty industry, Begoun knows her stuff. To put it simply, Begoun is a beauty industry badass with a wealth of knowledge and the gumption to put that knowledge toward challenging the industry as a whole. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to ask her about her career trajectory, the state of the beauty industry — and, of course — her best skin-care advice.
Can you walk me through how you first got your start in the beauty industry and what drew you to it in the first place?
I was a makeup artist starting around '78, '79, but the real impetus came about very young, from the age of 11. I got my period and I got terrible acne at the same time. I also had terrible eczema, really horrendous. I spent years going to dermatologists and using every product imaginable on the market, and I still had acne and eczema. That pain and frustration just led to a lifelong desire to know what worked and what didn't work. Why did a product — even [one] from a dermatologist — say it would do something that it didn't? That started a long career. [I started with a] science background in university that I never thought I would apply to skin care; it was more just that I had a passion for science and for writing. I was looking to get a sub-degree in some kind of journalism, and then I was also good at makeup. I sent myself through school doing makeup. All of the skills kind of came together, and then I eventually wrote my first book in 1984.
So your passion for beauty really stemmed from your own experiences with skin concerns.
I'd do anything to hide, anything to look better, anything to stop the torment I saw in the mirror. I just got very good at [makeup]; I could reproduce anything I saw in a fashion magazine. I still find that surprising.
Every time I wrote an edition of one of my beauty books, I kept thinking it was the last one. But 21 books later, that wasn't the case, because the industry endlessly kept changing, and I endlessly desired to stay up on the research. Each book brought another edition, and I eventually wrote Don't Go to The Cosmetics Counter Without Me. Around the fourth edition of that book — and having done multiple editions of all of the books — I thought I would rather die than write another book. The last one I wrote was 700 pages. I thought: I need to earn a living and this is the industry I know, this is what I'm most passionate about. People would tell me, 'You always say this is good, but; this is good but the packaging isn't, or [it has a] fragrance.' They said, 'Why don't you come out with your own?' That was 1994. It was 10 years to the day after writing my first book.
I started with 10 products in 1994, launched in 1995, and here we are 150 products later and about nine or 10 more editions of my book.
What were your priorities when you were first conceptualizing the brand and formulating the products?
The core philosophy that hasn't changed from day one was the need to be gentle. So many skin-care products — even when you think they're not irritating — are irritating your skin. It was the research back then, and it's even more insidious today. We now know how insidious inflammation and irritation is to the skin. It's even more revelatory to me than it was back then. Everything we developed for Paula's Choice was based around gentle, nourishing ingredients to restore its mantle. And you have to exfoliate because built-up dead skin cells get in the way of healthy skin.
We also focused on liquid formulations, so you're able to layer potent ingredients. That is a unique philosophy that has been with the line from the beginning. A lot of the core concepts haven't changed; if anything, they've been more enhanced and we know more about them. What's changed is the breadth of ingredients and what we can do with them, especially with the issue of sun protection and exfoliation and giving skin antioxidants.
Paula's Choice is also known for its packaging. You won't use jars because of how that impacts the integrity of the ingredients. But were there jars in the beginning?
I did launch products initially in jar packaging. It wasn't until later in the research that the need to not have jar packaging became clear. In my first books, I said that irritation is bad, but if you don't see irritation your skin isn't being irritated, and it turns out that later research shows that that was incredibly incorrect.
Why is staying on top of the research and innovation — and passing that information along to the consumer — so important for the brand?
I think we talk about [education] a lot, and I think that I understand the vulnerability of women to want to be lied to. It's easy to want to believe the unbelievable and to be seduced by it. If you're the lone voice saying no to jar packaging, it's hard to make an impact. So the only way I could make an impact, the only way I could try to reach my mission, even before I had products, was to let women know what worked and what didn't work. I think that knowledge is beautiful, knowledge will help you be more beautiful, and that's fundamental to everything I've done from the beginning. I did it for myself, and then I didn't want women going through what I went through.
I write a lot, between [my education site] Beautypedia and Paula's Choice. We're about content as much as we are about product, and whatever we say we always cite the research. It really was an obsession, I just couldn't stop. [But creating content and selling my own beauty products] is still controversial. People still say, 'She only likes her products.' Why don't those people criticize Lauder for just recommending their own brand? I know what I do is controversial. I just couldn't choose between [writing and creating products].
None of my salespeople or customer service people are paid on commission, nobody gets money for upselling a product. We're able to maintain a company that represents everything I've ever believed in around how to take care of people and give them what they need.
Do you think having that established digital presence with Paula's Choice from all of the content has helped sell product, though?
Obviously online sales is a sector everybody wants to figure out. I had the advantage of being on the internet. Paula's Choice is only in a handful of Nordstrom stores, a little bit in salons and some stores overseas, but mostly I'm an internet company. The internet gave me the opportunity to be lean and nimble. When a product change came along — for example, the ability and knowledge to formulate products with UVA protection — we could get rid of the old product and create one that met FDA standards for sun protection with UVA benefits. There's always been the ability to be lean and nimble and maintain a concise source of information.
The internet has been the agony and the ecstasy. I don't have to live in medical libraries like the old days; I have access to thousands upon thousands of articles. The amount of research I have access to is astounding. But there is a plethora of horrendous information that gets tossed around back and forth, particularly the doom and gloom info on the internet that's just kind of endless. So it keeps me on my toes. I'm not giving up my day job. That's why there were 21 editions of the book.
How else has the internet impacted Paula's Choice as a business?
We're so global — an international mix of customers that have found me because of the internet. The global aspect of my company has just skyrocketed; I'm kind of Bruno Mars in Korea, I have a global following. The other thing that has shifted is definitely a younger demographic, and that surprises me. I used to say that women would come to me only after they got burned using bad products from other companies and then they would find me and see how great skin can be when you don't irritate it and use stable packaging and good ingredients. That seems to have shifted now, we definitely have a broader age range than we did.
So is focusing on brick-and-mortar stores not something the brand is focused on?
We talk about it, but I feel strongly that that's kind of like going back and saying, 'Let's use a typewriter.' It's an expensive channel. How do you train all of those people? I think it would take us away from our core concept of education and knowledge and being able to be nimble. You have to have so much on the market. What if research changes? So many brands are still wondering how to sell on the internet, why am I wondering how to get in a store?
What other opportunities for growth do you see for Paula's Choice?
I think that we just need to expand our reach. We don't advertise, we've been a grassroots growing company. We need to look at more traditional advertising. We have done a little bit, but we mostly are online. The goal is to use traditional marketing to expand our reach and wherever we are in the world. From the very beginning, whatever social media was around at the time, we were on. We used to be in chat rooms. Now, we have recently begun to do paid [influencer marketing], but it's mostly organic. Once you come to our site, our ads can follow you, so we [have started to experiment with] traditional internet marketing, and more traditional TV or print marketing.
What's your best piece of skin-care advice?
Sunscreen. It's not sexy. It's not what people want to hear. It's like they want to smoke a cigarette and want to eat broccoli and think that makes them healthy. It only takes one minute of unprotected sun exposure to begin sun damage.
What's your number-one favorite Paula's Choice product?
The Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid and the Resist BHA 9. In my older age, I've developed sebaceous hyperplasia, and my BHA 9 keeps it in check. Those are, without question, my two favorite products.
Given that you've had such a lengthy and successful career, what career advice do you have?
Everybody in my office knows I've had the same card in my desk since 1983. It's very old and yellow now. It says, 'The one who says it can't be done should never interrupt the one that is doing it.' I keep it right next to me. When I published my first book I was told, 'Nobody can be successful as a self-publisher,' and when I did my company, people said, 'You can't do your own line, it's going to fail. How do you reach people? What is the internet?' But if you have enough passion and you're willing to work your ass off, you stand a good chance.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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