I’ve always worked for companies whose mission meant something to me. At L'Oréal (…) our goal was to help customers achieve a look that they liked so as to have greater self-confidence and project a better image of themselves.
“I’ve always worked for companies whose mission meant something to me. At L'Oréal, Chanel and Saint Laurent, where I worked, our goal was to help customers achieve a look that they liked so as to gain greater self-confidence and project a better image of themselves,” Odile Roujol tells us. She spent more than 20 years working in cosmetics before becoming the Silicon Valley BeautyTech expert that we know today. Her last salaried post in this sector was as President of Lancôme International. She confides: “I had the good fortune to be appointed to that post quite young so I was able to say to myself at 41 years of age, well, I’ve done the rounds.” So she switched industries, becoming Communications Director, then Head of Strategy and Data, at telecoms giant Orange. « At that time, I didn’t know much about tech. I just had a Blackberry and an appetite for what was then happening online,” she reveals. As part of her new job, Odile Roujol used to fly down to Silicon Valley every six months “to see Facebook, Google, Datasift and a number of other companies.” There she discovered a culture that really appealed to her. She explains: “Compared with New York City, where I lived for two years, the people are very unassuming. Every time I was talking to someone and pointed to the success they’d had, they would reply: ‘Oh, I was very lucky there – the right team at the right time…and they had a healthy degree of worry that enabled them to make further advances.’” So, as soon as the younger of her two children left the family home to go to college, she and her husband moved to San Francisco. “We didn’t just set off on a wing and a prayer,” Odile points out, “My husband had a business visa as a partner at AT Kearney.”
On her arrival she went to see several Venture Capital firms, “who are kind of the kings of the Valley because they are the ones who invest in startups. When they saw my profile, my experience and my international background, they put me in touch with the founders of startups in their portfolios, one thing led to another and I ended up advising some of them, even sometimes joining their board. At first, none of these startups had anything to do with beauty therapy. However, explains Odile, “At the same time I was receiving a lot of messages on Linkedin, especially from young entrepreneurs who were getting into BeautyTech and wanted to meet me.” So her network expanded rapidly. “Little by little, I began to get to know 30, 40, 100 people in the sector and VC firms and other investors were calling me to ask my advice on this subject,” she recalls. Then one of her friends pointed out: “You know a lot of people and you devote a lot of your time to mentoring but it’s all on an individual basis. Why don’t you set up a community?” Odile’s reaction was “Yes, why not?” and in September 2017 she hosted the first BeautyTech gathering in her living room. “I was expecting thirty people maximum, but seventy turned up,” she recalls. This instant success was the first step in the creation of an international BeautyTech community under the impetus of the former Lancôme executive.
BeautyTech around the world
Every three or four months, a BeautyTech meet-up takes place in San Francisco. “Nowadays we always have a venue provided by a VC firm, plus moderators who are also from the investor community and are very happy to be there and take part in the conversation,” underlines Odile Roujol. Also present at the sessions are usually owners of early stage startups and serial entrepreneurs who have already raised a lot of money – $70 - 130 million. The majority of those working in the Beauty field are women. “I also try to select women because I don’t think women entrepreneurs have enough say, although that’s now beginning to change, with women at the head of leading businesses in their sector, such as StitchFix and The RealReal,” she points out. The audience at these meet-ups is made up of “70%- 80% women, including people who are more interested in the Tech side of things than the Beauty aspect,” Odile reveals.
BeautyTech targeting Millennials
Ten chapters of the community have already been set up all over the world, including three – San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles – in the United States, and Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Latin America. “Brazil has a voice in particular as regards sustainable fashion, i.e. on everything to do with the environmental impact. The country contains the major part of the Amazonian rainforest so they’re aware of the issues,” Odile points out. In Europe, there are chapters in London and Paris, where two company founders – Ilan Koskas of FlexyBeauty, which develops specially-designed software for managing beauty and hairdressing businesses; and Isabelle Rabier of Jolimoi, which sells beauty products and offers tailored beauty advice online – run the communities. The next meet-up is scheduled for October. Over in Asia, BeautyTech meet-ups have already been taking place in Tokyo and Seoul. Odile tells us: “We’ll be opening soon in Shanghai, which I think is very important because the generation of Chinese people who are nowadays boosting the sales figures of L’Oréal and Hermès is changing rapidly. At the moment they’re still buying international luxury goods and beauty brands, but very soon they could be turning to local products, provided that the ingredients are traceable, that the manufacturing processes are rigorous and transparent…and even more so if a startup has a stated mission that appeals to them.”
Telling yourself that you have something to share, that you can express yourself and help others to progress – that’s something very important in Silicon Valley.
In addition to promoting connections and enabling people to get to know one another, Odile Roujol underlines that the BeautyTech meet-ups help to spread “the Silicon Valley spirit – an atmosphere of sharing, a willingness to bring other people in and help them broaden their network and their grasp of what is happening. Something really amazing is happening in the San Francisco Bay area. It’s really easy to meet up and talk with people whom you might not necessarily know, even competitors." This culture of experience-sharing is part and parcel of the idea of ‘giving something back’ – a notion dear to the hearts of many US Americans. “Telling yourself that you have something to share, that you can express yourself and help others to progress – that’s something very important in Silicon Valley,” Odile points out. This is why she asks the panellists who come to talk to the international BeautyTech community sessions not to deliver a monologue but to try to stimulate a real conversation, a quality dialogue.
BeautyTech investment now on the rise
Nevertheless, the BeautyTech sector is still in its infancy. Odile Roujol points out that “on the whole, VC firms don’t invest much in mass market consumer goods or products for direct sale to end-customers (D2C). In the Valley, most Venture Capital specialists focus on business-to-business (B2B) products and services, software-as-a-service (SaaS), Artificial Intelligence, and so on, and they’re generally much less interested in consumer products. However, that’s now changing.” The reasons are clear. Deals in the Beauty sector are becoming more frequent and the amounts invested significantly higher. For instance, L’Oréal acquired IT Cosmetics for $1.2 billion and more recently took over Modiface, while Unilever has taken stakes in such startups as Gallinée and Beauty Bakerie. Consequently, “VC boutiques have begun to get interested in this market. Then we’ve had the effects of the MeToo movement (which has highlighted discrimination against women in various sectors – Editor’s note). A number of young women have been appointed to high executive posts, many of whom have taken charge of D2C and Beauty products,” explains the former L’Oréal executive.
The Beauty sector expert underlines: “The experience is key, especially for Millennials. Think of Live Stream or what happened with the video game platform Twitch and its live competitions. In the same vein, just imagine that, instead of following a YouTube tutorial, you could actually book a remote session with a makeup artist, on a Sunday morning with ten other people, and you could see them on your screen applying makeup and then at the end a list of those products is displayed and you can buy them online. You could even do that with a community of half a million people and a makeup superstar such as Huda Kattan in Dubai. You wouldn’t have more than maybe four faces actually on-screen but the idea is that everyone would be connected to the session at the same time.”
It remains to be seen “whether this kind of innovation will work on the major websites or will come to us through startups like GlamCam, which I currently advise in San Francisco,” says Odile Roujol. However, the basic principle of “interaction with an interest community will be part of our future,” she insists, pointing out: “5G will increase the capacity of our devices tenfold in comparison with what we have today. In the near future, Augmented Reality, Computer Vision, Artificial Intelligence, etc, will be much better served by 5G and we’ll see a new wave of services and business models, which – if they are to succeed – will have to be run by a founder who has a well-defined goal, who is obsessed by the need to perfect the company’s customer knowledge so as to be able to offer them a customised experience in line with, for instance, their profile, and also of course by the need to provide them with high-quality products.”
What is absolutely certain is that the sector is changing rapidly and that major corporations are adapting fast. “A data culture is most likely now developing at their various divisions. So far, major firms have mostly been taking over brands with given products and a given target audience, and so there you have a business division that might not necessarily be profitable within three years but this will enable the company to become highly efficient in terms of having a deep understanding of customer data and will help foster a culture change among firms that are all too often perceived as dinosaurs from the Old Economy,” predicts Odile Roujol.
The expert who is much sought-after as an advisor to startups has a very personal idea of how she can help fledgling companies progress, and some plans for the longer term. She confides: “Every time I see a startup, I reckon that I can help them a lot in just a single conversation – with my 20 years’ experience I can save them six months to two years. If the founder or CEO has a clear goal and a vision, he or she can be guided and will be able to grow the business and scale up much more rapidly. However, I think there’s room for a BeautyTech Venture and co-creation Studio, working with just a few startups at a time, rigorously selected according to their founders’ approach and plans. You need to provide them with support and assistance in terms of their strategy for the business, growth, customer acquisition – that’s where they can lose a lot of money if they get it wrong! – help them with the development of their algorithms, and you can save them a lot of time if there’s a common tool available. Then they will need to do some bench-testing of the formulae. I have in mind to set up this kind of company co-creation studio one day as part of the Venture Capital business. This came to me spontaneously, it wasn’t my actual intention when I set up the BeautyTech meet-ups.” Watch this space!