On Building A Skincare Brand

Published: April 14th, 2020
Alli Reed
Founder, Stratia
from Los Angeles, California, USA
started May 2016
market size
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
210 days
growth channels
Word of mouth
business model
best tools
Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
35 Pros & Cons
2 Tips
Discover what tools Alli recommends to grow your business!
social media
Discover what books Alli recommends to grow your business!
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I’m Alli Reed and I founded Stratia, a science-based skincare company. I personally formulate and develop our products with a focus on using well-researched, truly effective ingredients and formulations. I call it “unsexy skincare” - we skip the designer fragrances and trendy super berries and water distilled from the tears of supermodels, and instead use ingredients that have been proven, through decades and many peer-reviewed studies, to actually make a positive impact on your skin.

Our flagship product is Liquid Gold, a lightweight moisturizer that mimics and reinforces your skin’s natural moisture barrier. The outer layer of your skin has a bricks-and-mortar structure, where the bricks are dead skin cells called corneocytes and the mortar is a fatty mixture of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids. Liquid Gold uses these same three ingredients to shore up that mortar and keep your skin healthy, resilient, and clear.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I have a pretty typically millennial career path. I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in music (why? Your guess is as good as mine) and a minor in chemistry. While I was there, I co-founded the Berkeley Student Food Collective, a student-run food co-op. After I graduated, I used my experience with the BSFC to go into the nonprofit world, working as the development director for Homeless Youth Alliance. From there, I bounced to for-profit event planning, then to copywriting, eventually ending up as a creative strategist at a tech-based advertising agency.

Starting and running a business is not something you can be good at right off the bat. You will make many, many mistakes. Get back up, be grateful for the opportunity to learn, and move forward.

While I enjoyed that job, I didn’t find it particularly fulfilling, so I turned my attention to a new hobby of mine: skincare. I’d been learning more about skincare as a consumer, while also using a science-minded approach to delve deeply into how skincare was made and why it worked (or didn’t work). I missed lab time from my chemistry studies, so I used the powers of the internet to teach myself the basics of cosmetic chemistry and started formulating my own products in my kitchen.

Eventually, after a steep learning curve and a lot of trial and error, I ended up with two products I liked: Rewind and the aforementioned Liquid Gold. I decided to sell them as a side project, hoping the readers of the skincare blog I’d started would buy a few and it would be a nice source of fun money. When I launched Stratia in May 2016, I made a whopping 8 bottles of Liquid Gold to prepare. I had spent about $3,000 of my savings over the preceding months on ingredients, bottles, LLC incorporation, etc., which constituted the entirety of Stratia’s start-up costs. The company broke even in month 2.

Over the next year, the company took off completely organically. People liked the products and shared them widely, particularly on Reddit and Instagram. In March 2017, I ran out of hours in the day and had to quit my advertising job to go full-time with Stratia. I hired my first employee in January 2018. I started paying for advertising of any kind last year. We’re now a team of four, working out of a dedicated office/lab space in Pasadena.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

When I started Stratia, I never expected it to be a full-time job for me, much less a successful full-fledged company. I was lucky enough to find a passionate and loyal audience who shared the products they loved, and Stratia took off completely organically.

The first two years felt like being strapped to a runaway horse; I was doing everything I could just to keep up with demand. I manufactured all the products myself, so I was limited by the physical capacity of my equipment (which, for the first year, was my kitchen, and then a dinky little windowless warehouse in unincorporated West Carson). I put zero thought into marketing, growth plans, anything beyond keeping inventory in stock and providing decent customer service.

I hired my first employee, a part-time warehouse assistant, around 2 years in. She’s still with me two and a half years later, now a full-time production coordinator and an indispensable part of the team. (I’m realizing just how indispensable right now, as COVID-19 is forcing me to work alone and try to do everything she does.)

My next hire, six months later, was someone to cover customer service and social media. She took our scraggly little Instagram profile and made it something special. She’s also done a fabulous job handling customer service, which is often our only human touchpoint with a customer, so it’s always been a top priority for us.

My most recent hire was a year ago when I brought on our marketing director. That was a real turning point for the company; a point when I wasn’t just desperately trying to hold on for dear life, but could actually start chasing growth and building long-term plans. Our marketing director has built out a robust and totally unique marketing strategy from the ground up, and we’ve seen that reflected in our revenue, growth, and engagement.

(I’m proud to say that at this point, Stratia’s employee turnover is 0%: everyone I’ve ever hired still works here.)

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

That’s an interesting question. I’m writing this on March 31, 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus shutdown. Right now, it feels as though everything, from my own company to the economy at large, is in a state of suspended animation, waiting to find out what will happen when we all wake up. The sole directive right now is to survive: keep my employees employed, keep inventory in stock, keep bills paid. Growth can come later.

The future is always opaque, but now more than ever. If you’d asked me two months ago what our future looked like, I would have said: steady but aggressive growth. Continued focus on DTC paired with select partnerships with independent retailers. Growth into international markets. Careful and intentional product launches. Grow as much as we can without sacrificing one iota of our mission and vision.

I hope that’s what our future still looks like, but as a small business, we have to stay flexible and responsive. Ask me again in three months.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

My formula for entrepreneurship is a three-step approach:

  1. Make a mistake.
  2. Through that mistake, learn what the correct thing to do would have been.
  3. Repeat daily.

Like many people, I struggle with being bad at things. I want to be the best at something the first time I try it, and if I’m not, I get discouraged and demotivated. Starting and running a business is not something you can be good at right off the bat. You will make many, many mistakes. Get back up, be grateful for the opportunity to learn, and move forward.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Stratia has been on Shopify since day one, and it’s been a great fit for us. We had a custom theme built for us; since we only have 7 SKUs, we didn’t need complex collections pages or sorting abilities, so this theme helps us showcase each product in-depth.

We use Shopify Fulfillment Network to fulfill orders, which we were actually beta testers for, and are very happy with them. Our favorite Shopify apps are ReCharge, which allows us to integrate subscription purchases, and Stamped.io, a review platform.

For customer service, we use HelpNinja, which is an affordable and fairly simple solution for small businesses that don’t need a ton of bells and whistles for their customer support. We use Klaviyo for email marketing, which I know nothing about but our Marketing Director tells me it is great.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

To be honest, I never felt a connection with any of the “entrepreneur”-based books or podcasts. I’m sure there are good ones out there, it’s just not something that has ever resonated with me.

I listen exclusively to comedy podcasts, and for some reason read mostly nonfiction accounts of natural disasters. I’m not sure what that says about me.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

There are a million different ways entrepreneurship can look, and mine is very specific. That said, I can only really give advice based on my own unique perspective, so with that disclaimer, I would say:

  1. Don’t just know your market, be a part of your market. I was able to find Stratia’s niche because I was an avid skincare consumer and participated in online skincare communities long before I even thought about starting a business. If I’d been external to the community looking in, I might have assumed I’d need to start an all-natural, all-organic beauty line. Being immersed in the community, I saw that there was a group of skincare consumers who were tired of the glut of “natural” brands and we're looking for something more scientific and evidence-based.
  2. Don’t upgrade until you’ve hit the ceiling. I use this motto for every growth decision I make. Have I hit the limit of what we can do with our current email platform, or does the marketing pitch for this new one just sound sexy? Am I looking at bigger offices because the lack of space is impacting hiring decisions, or because it would be nice to have new neighbors? Keep your current setup until it’s holding you back, no more and no less.
  3. Never, ever work with friends or family. Every time a loved one is out of work or on the market, I’m so tempted to say, “Just come work for me!” Fortunately, I’ve managed to resist. In my personal relationships, it’s all about giving and take. At work, I’m the boss. The two don’t mix well, and you’ll end up either losing an employee or a friend.

Where can we go to learn more?

Want to start a skincare products business? Learn more ➜