This is an episode of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about key lessons they learned immediately after their company's first year of operation.
Many new skin care and beauty brands rely on natural, vegan ingredients that are intended for all skin types. But not all of them are medical grade, and few are established by health professionals.
Founded in October 2019 by a nurse and a beauty industry veteran, The Route wanted to make medical-grade skin care products more luxurious but also accessible to the mass market while simplifying the skin care routines of busy moms like this one. Both women are in their fifties and live in Southern California.
Fortune recently spoke to co-founders Courtney Baber and Nancy Pellegrino, RN (a.k.a. Nurse Nancy) to learn more about their business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome and their plans for the next year.
For the sake of clarity, the following interview has been condensed and edited slightly.
Courtney Baber and Nancy Pellegrino, RN, co-founders of The Route. Photo courtesy of The Route
Fortune: What was your job before you started The Route?
Baber: I graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a major in communications and a minor in retail marketing. However, the most valuable education I received was with Estee Lauder, one of my earliest jobs in the beauty industry. I want to say that I have my masters there. And when I was at Sephora over a decade later, I helped bring indie beauty to Europe, which meant I had to travel and live and work abroad. The lessons and experiences I've had overseas have been like getting a PhD in life and business. Urban Decay was the culmination of all of these experiences and gave me the tools and ability to launch my own brand. The on-the-job training has been invaluable and probably taught me more than I learned in college.
Pellegrino: I attended Nursing School in Cal State Long Beach and did my Masters in Nursing from UCLA. I am proud to say I did my best in class. I started my career as a nurse at the cardiac catheterization hospital. I attended nursing school and started working in internal medicine with a focus on women's health. I've been doing this for eight years.
In 1991 I decided to go for aesthetic care, an area that was largely unknown. I was drawn to helping women in other ways. To do what I could to help them feel a little safer and more beautiful. I have always been fascinated by makeup, even as a makeup artist in nursing school, and the field of aesthetics seemed to combine my two passions, nursing and makeup art, well.
When I started in 1999 there was no formal training or program, so I traveled around the country getting my hands on every class and presentation I could. I did some research and then did some more research. I wanted to learn the best of the best techniques, participate in think tanks, and find mentors to perfect my craft as quickly as possible. I opened my own aesthetic store in Newport Beach in 2007.
What inspired you to start The Route? How is it different in the skin care industry?
Pellegrino: I met Courtney 12 years ago at NP Aesthetics. She was Senior Vice President at Urban Decay and just had her second child. We became quick friends and discovered our shared desire to create a skin care brand that is beautiful, medicinal, results-oriented, and uncompromising. As mothers of young children who had tried and tested virtually every cream, serum, and treatment in the store, we knew that together we could potentially create something amazing. I had dreamed of creating a skin care line a decade ago, but I never made it. When I met Courtney, I knew this was my chance and I reached for it.
With Courtney's prestigious beauty expertise and my experience treating thousands of women's skin, we knew we could bring a fresh but educated perspective. In addition to developing first-class products, we wanted to make medical skin care more widely available. And because there are so few skin care brands founded by nurses, we were even more motivated to get it right. We were looking for arguably the best medicinal skin care formulator in the world, John Garruto; He is often referred to as the godfather of cosmetic chemistry. When we met him, we knew he was the one we wanted to help create our formulas.
Baber: I think it's fair to say that Sister Nancy and I are early pioneers in aesthetic grooming and indie beauty, respectively. We've spent 60 years in the beauty industry and it was fascinating to see how the indie beauty industry has evolved over time. Combining decades of experience with our unique, complementary expertise is one of the things that sets us apart as a brand, and we have tried very hard to express it in our products.
Since we're both in our fifties, we started by looking at all of the reasons skin ages. We made sure the formulas stand the test of time and have been looked at through both medicinal and luxury skin care lenses. We have also made sure that all of the ingredients are used at their clinically proven effectiveness, as this will make them work as they are intended. We made a pact right from the start that we would not save any ingredients, which is too common in the industry. Going the easy route is not in our DNA. We want to do what works best, and we want to do it right. It's expensive, but if you want to see results, it's critical. It took us three years to develop the formulas because we are very thoughtful and careful in everything we do. We focus on creating brandable long-term success.
The Route makes vegan creams, foundations and invisible scrubs that are suitable for virtually all skin types. Courtesy The Route
How did you divide the workload among yourself? How has your workforce grown since the company was founded?
Baber: For the most part, of course, it split based on our areas of expertise. Sister Nancy is the cook in the kitchen who works with the formulators and the chemist. Nancy is also more of the face and voice of the brand because she's a nurse and has worked on people's skin for decades. She also creates more video content, social media, and education while I focus on strategy, operations, running the business, and leading the team.
Our workforce has mainly developed operationally. A year ago we didn't think we needed an operations manager, but we quickly learned that this is an important part of the business and something we should have had from day one. The day we hired a manager is the day things got all right and felt more manageable. We use consultants and contractors for everything else – creative, IT, social, PR, etc. – and decided not to set up payroll early. We'll probably start in 2021, but as a new business it's a huge burden. My recommendation is to rent only what you absolutely need, to use your network and to be able to work high and low every day – that is, send packages one day, negotiate a deal the next.
Pellegrino: There are many people who are just graduating who are having trouble finding work. You know the digital world and can see things from a fresh perspective. It can be wonderful to hire her to help out with social media, and it was just that for us. We hired a few interns at the beginning and are also fortunate to have some really nice friends with invaluable expertise who enjoy us provided if required.
The founders said they wanted to make medical-grade skin care products more luxurious – but also accessible to the mass market – while simplifying the skincare routines of busy mothers like themselves. Courtesy The Route
Skin care is increasingly selling cosmetics in the beauty business. Why do you think this is? What role do social media play in your branding and marketing?
Baber: There is a movement of people who want to take care of themselves, including their skin and a more minimalist attitude towards makeup. Social media helped promote that fresh face, healthy skin, and the #nomakeup trend. People are now looking at beauty from a skin-first lens. And skin care is far more innovative and creative than ever. There's no shortage of amazing ingredients and I don't think it was that interesting or innovative 10 or 20 years ago.
Pellegrino: I agree with Courtney. When I first started with aesthetics, skin care was called "lotions and potions," the latter making them seem magical or unreal. And people are still a little skeptical about skin care claims. Now, thanks to the technology and science behind the ingredients, you can get truly transformative results. In the era of COVID, people stay at home, zoom in and choose comfort. They exercise, eat better, take care of their skin and let their skin breathe, which is always good and something I encourage my patients to do. A little freedom from the skin goes a long way. Simplifying your routine has become a movement too. For the most part, more is nothing more when it comes to skin care.
Baber: In terms of social media, this is an integral part of who we are and how we market ourselves. It is not negotiable. But you need to figure out how to play in the social media world in a way that makes sense for your brand. And it's not that easy. Your website and social media are the windows to your brand. Whatever you post there must reflect your brand DNA. And how you do it has to be extremely thoughtful and unique to your brand. But the first year is certainly a learning experience.
Pellegrino: We decided from the beginning to write the copy ourselves as often as possible because we wanted to be authentic and let our personalities and voices shine through. We will continue to do so.
What has been your most successful or biggest “Hero” product since it was launched? Have customers asked for new offers in particular?
Baber: By far The Party Peel. It is the gateway to the route. It's something you can get both instant and long-term results with, not to mention it's selfie-worthy and fun. It's our number one product.
Pellegrino: The Party Peel is the first product we made. It's patent pending and based on the most popular scrub I've done in my office. I wanted to bring it to the people at home, no appointment necessary. Customers have asked us for an SPF and detergent to round off the routine and really get the brand to give you everything you need. We agree and want them to be special and different just like our other products. These two products complement our essential line, which currently includes our day and night face and eye creams and our next generation retinoid, The Golden Rule. We didn't want to rush development, as with all of our products, it takes time to formulate and get it just right. I have piles and piles of tester bottles to prove how long this process takes for us. However, we plan to launch both in 2021.
The route was launched in October 2019 and rolled out in Ulta Beauty stores as the blocking orders started in March 2020. Courtesy The Route
How are you funded? And what was it like to collect donations given the ongoing economic crisis during this period?
Baber: We were self-financed until October 2020. Bootstrapping allowed us to really think about what we were doing and what we wanted to do without having to answer anyone else. When you need to supply 400 stores with inventory after just a few months in business, this is a big undertaking. To do so in the first year of business is an honor. It's challenging too, and we wanted to get it right, not compromise, and make sure things went exactly the way we wanted them to.
Not everything is seamless; For example, the week we started Ulta, the first lockdown orders went into effect and stores had to close, but we stuck to it and evolved accordingly. We have just raised our first friends and family members and think this will keep us going for the foreseeable future. We are very grateful and plan to make them proud.
Pellegrino: We waited until we felt we had raised money. We wanted what we had already done and what we were offering to be exciting and compelling. In these uncertain times, real evidence is vital and ensures that you can feel confident about what you are selling. Not just proof that we could do it before 2020, but that we were able to survive and ultimately (and fortunately) thrive in an economic era like no other. Both Courtney and I asked people who we wanted to go on this trip with us first. What we learned was that people believed in us and wanted us to succeed. That was so confirming.
After the pandemic and five years later, where do you see the route in the market?
Baber: I want to set up the brand to be hugely successful initially in the US and recognized as a premium luxury medical grade skin care brand. I also hope we can work with someone to help us advance the business and expand globally. I learned from mentors early on how to do one thing and do it really well. That's a great recommendation. There is only so much you can handle to prioritize and outperform yourself accordingly.
NN: I want to travel the world on a leisure trip and see the route in women's bags and suitcases. I want to see The Route in a thousand languages at the local street beauty boutique. I want to keep helping people feel beautiful in their own skin. I want to teach my daughter what I learned along the way and she will bring me on stage in business and in life.
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