How Beautyblender Created A Sponge That’s Become Synonymous With Makeup Application—And Is Moving Beyond It
Working in the early 2000s on the show “Girlfriends,” makeup artist Rea Ann Silva created the teardrop-shaped pink sponge Beautyblender at the dawn of high-definition television to ensure not every pore and pimple could be seen by viewers at home. What she couldn’t predict at the time was that the forthcoming social media age would make the Beautyblender as indispensable for regular consumers as it was on set. Today, 17 Beautyblender applicators are sold every minute, and the brand has landed in practically every major prestige beauty retailer on earth, including Sephora, Bluemercury, Cos Bar, Space NK, Macy’s and Ulta Beauty. Beautyblender generated $175 million in revenue in 2019, a year which saw it move past controversy over a shortage of dark shades in the launch collection for its foundation franchise Bounce. Today, Silva is facing perhaps the toughest challenge yet for her business to turn it into a big name beyond the sponge that shot it to beauty industry fame. She says, “Beautyblender is identified as a tool now, and my job is to get the company acknowledged not only as a tool company, but as a color brand.” Beauty Independent spoke to Silva about product extensions, how knockoffs helped Beautyblender, the reasons why color cosmetics sales are slumping and whether she’d ever sell.
How did you go from creating a tool to use on the stars of “Girlfriends” to launching a brand?
During the first season of shooting that show, I was experimenting with different shapes and, when I landed on the egg or the teardrop shape, my crew and I would sit and cut those shapes. By the end of that season, I realized that I needed a way to make the Beautyblender shapes in bulk. It was just for me on set and my crew, but I also knew that, if I could find a way to make them in bulk, I could provide them to other makeup artists. I started researching and looking into how to manufacture a sponge like Beautyblender.
It was a big challenge to get the Beautyblender manufactured. Let’s just say ignorance is bliss. Had I known how hard it was going to be, I may have given up, but I knew it was beneficial for me and my peers. I started out by looking at other sponge products on the market and trying to figure out who made and distributed them. This was before Google, so I was researching on the backs of bags and boxes. I knew that, if I could get the ear of somebody at those companies and explain to them who I was and what I was trying to do, I would be able to hopefully find someone who could help me figure out what I needed to do. That’s basically what happened. There were really only a couple of companies making cosmetic sponges, and one of them happened to be in Pennsylvania as opposed to China or somewhere else off in Asia. That was the best place for me to start.
The word “launch” is such an official world, and it’s something that’s a planned activity by big cosmetic brands. Now, I have official launches, but, given the nature of how the product was made and what it was made for, there wasn’t really an official launch. After securing someone that would help me create the Beautyblender, I was getting prototypes, and testing different shapes, colors and densities. The idea of the Beautyblender was getting leaked out to my professional community. There was initially a soft launch with professionals, who remain the foundation of the brand today. I want the support of my peers so the product isn’t just a trendy thing, but a utilitarian tool.
That was probably 17 years ago, but you have to understand it was really just a product that was marketed to other makeup artists. I wasn’t thinking about making a consumer hit that would be at Sephora globally. That was so farfetched. I didn’t even dare to verbalize any of that. When I started to retail, it was to professional beauty supply stores like Frends, Naimie’s and Nigel Beauty Emporium. If you want to talk about when the brand was more visible to the public, that was 10 years ago. That’s when I went online with Sephora, my first big retailer. Before that, what was happening was that makeup artists would show Beautyblenders to their friends, sisters and mothers. Independent boutiques, many of which unfortunately didn’t exist anymore, would reach out, and I would sell a dozen Beautyblenders to a store. That was happening up until the point that I started my relationship with Sephora. It was just a very small operation.
The Beautyblender retails for $20. How did you establish its price?
Beautyblender’s price has not changed since the beginning. It was a total mathematical equation. I priced it based on the cost of goods for the quantities I was producing. As you scale up, you get economies of scale. You get to make more money as you make more product. Beautyblender is the category creator. It’s the original edgeless sponge. Back when it started, there was no such thing. It was a pretty expensive tool at the time considering that most people got their sponges for free.
How did people react to the price?
People were like, “Oh, you will never sell these. They are so expensive.” The way I looked at it was very different. The cosmetic sponge was the most well-known beauty tool at the time, and the tools we were using as makeup artists hadn’t evolved. Knowing that filming was going to be done in high-def, I thought there was going to be a need for this tool. It was my job to tell my customers that they were getting makeup sponges for free because they weren’t really working for them. If you have no problem paying $20 for a makeup brush and you keep your brush—you don’t throw it away after one use—the same can be said for my product, and it’s expensive to make. It’s an actual tool and not a disposable implement. Also, there were ethical issues with the foam material that was being thrown away on movie or TV show sets. How could we keep the tools around longer and keep them out of landfills? All of that amounted to being able to command a higher price.
What was it like to break into Sephora?
Sephora wanted us only online, and I wanted to prove to them that we were a viable brick-and-mortar business. I was really motivated to show Sephora that Beautyblender was a game-changing revolutionary new makeup applicator for them, and it’s agnostic. It doesn’t only work with one kind of makeup. It works with all brands and all types of makeup. It makes your makeup application look flawless. By this time, you can imagine that the whole professional makeup artist world was using my Beautyblender at fashion weeks, in commercials, on the red carpet and more as a pro tool. So, any time Sephora would send out scouts to look around to see what was going on in the beauty business, they would always find Beautyblender, so they knew there was potential there. But you have to have more than potential to go into Sephora. You have to be able to support the potential.
What had happened with Sephora is one of their internal brands started marketing a knockoff that was in-store. People bought it thinking it was Beautyblender, but it wasn’t the same tool at all. It was a horrible imitation of Beautyblender. They would get complaints and, eventually, they realized they needed to bring us in-store and not just have this other product. In some ways, this is a story of how knockoffs can help your brand.
When did you start to see Beautyblender knockoffs?
It didn’t start right away because you have to prove yourself as a product that is yielding a certain amount of attention and potential profit. People just don’t invest in things because they look cute. It took several years, but, when it started happening, I was freaked out. Then, I read “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.” In the book, it says Coke needed Pepsi to live, and IBM needed Xerox to live. You can’t exist in a category yourself. You actually need competition in your category. I knew that there was no way the knockoff brands would take my spot because I’m the original and the category creator. That can’t be taken away from me. It just became my job and my team’s job to keep sending out the message to the world that we are the best and the original.
What’s the distribution strategy today?
Sephora changed the distribution strategy dramatically. We went from shipping to independent retailers to needing to scale up and create enough product to satisfy Sephora’s orders and several distribution centers. The strategy with Sephora is to play in their field. Not only do you grow with your original product, but they support you and encourage you to grow with brand extensions of that product.
You don’t get all 400 stores at once. You start with a small amount and, if you are successful there, they start growing you bigger and bigger and bigger. Once we reached a maximum of all of their stores in the United States, we looked at strategies outside of the United States because Sephora is global. The distribution strategy became how do we grow and plan enough product to distribute outside the U.S. and what did that mean in terms of pricing and manufacturing. It’s a big strategy, but it’s a step-by-step process.
How were you able to support scaling up for Sephora?
I didn’t take a salary. I was still working as a professional makeup artist for eight years into my business. I reinvested the money I was making as a professional makeup artist and all the money the brand was making back into it. My manufacturer worked with us to scale up in a way that was reasonable for us to afford without taking on an investor. I look at this brand as a legacy brand. I didn’t want to bring on investors if I didn’t have to. If I had the money, why would I continue to own my business? I know there are a lot of people that think differently, but that’s how simplistic I’ve been about it.
How do you think about extending your brand into new products?
In retail, newness is king. Coming out with new products that are extensions of your brand, culture and identity is the way you survive. For me, it was really about listening to my customers. One of the first extensions I did was a black Beautyblender. I heard from makeup artists who said, “The Beautyblender is cool, but it’s pink, and we have male clients who are intimidated by having a pink sponge being used on them.” That was my experience, too. There were movie stars who wished it was more masculine. There’s another purpose for the black Beautyblender. The universal uniform of makeup artists is black. So, the black Beautyblender paid homage to my community.
Aestheticians then came to me and said, “We really love Beautyblender, but pink is a bit loud for our environment.” The aestheticians asked, “Can you do it in white?” There was also a segment of consumers concerned about dyes. So, Beautyblender Pure, which is the white one, is devoid of any color. It’s the natural material without dye. Then, I made the Micro Mini. Some people have very sensitive eyes and, a lot of times, when the Beautyblender came toward their eyes, it would make them blink, and it couldn’t quite do its job. I made the Micro Mini to make it easy for makeup artists to work around the eyes. After 9/11, I wanted to make a solid cleanser instead of the liquid cleanser to be TSA-friendly. So, along came the solid that makeup artists can carry with them on planes and not have to check.
Why did Beautyblender expand into foundation?
I wanted to do foundation before I even created Beautyblender. Beautyblender was like this lovely distraction that came and took me off course from what I thought I was going to be doing. I wanted to create a line of makeup for women of color because that was my specialty, and there wasn’t anything at retail that spoke to the color range we needed. We had makeup companies creating foundations based on what color sold most and not envisioning how much more they could sell if they created different shades. When I finally evolved Beautyblender to have the right support system to be able to start dreaming about makeup again, that’s when I went back to what I originally wanted to do to create this amazing foundation, and that’s what we did with Bounce. There was controversy, but Bounce as foundation has a beautiful formulation, and it is what I dreamed I would make.
What was the most difficult time in your business?
It was when I realized that I had not spent enough time talking about who I am as a brand founder. Beautyblender was created before there was social media and, with the growth of social media, has come all of this ability to really talk loudly about who you are and what you have done. In the generation of makeup artists I come from, we got work because we were good at keeping things confidential. We didn’t ask for autographs or take pictures of our clients. My agent would tell me, “You are not a fan. I don’t want to hear about you getting autographs or pictures.” I had been schooled to stay in the background.
It would have been helpful for people to know about my background and my career when I launched my first cosmetic product, Bounce. I’m a woman of color—I’m Latina—and my children are black. I worked with women of color throughout my career. Still, people accused me of being a racist because I had only 32 shades and not 42 shades. I realized that was my fault because I hadn’t spent enough time talking about who I was to the public. It’s easy for people who’ve never touched a product and seen it in real life to have an opinion when there’s no information about you out there. That was a big lesson I learned. Although it was a tough time, it was also the best time because it allowed me to really take ownership of my career and the amazing things I did in my 25 years as a makeup artist.
What would you have changed about the Bounce launch?
I’m always trying to learn from mistakes as well as from the good things that happen. In looking back, I think one thing I would have done was not use frosted bottles. Clear bottles could help distinguish the subtleties between the shades. When we look back at how the controversy started with one photo and a flash of a camera, had the bottles been clear and not frosted, maybe people would have given us a little bit more of a break. The other thing is that we always had 40 shades in our warehouse, but we decided to put 32 shades out. We think about what we are offering globally. Although 40 shades in the United States seemed to be the big number you needed to hit, that’s not necessarily true with our global partners, and we had to make a decision. Of course, it wasn’t the right decision because I think that, if we had 40 shades, we would have been fine.
When you started Beautyblender, you had a co-founder. What happened with your partner?
She was one of the makeup artists that worked on the TV show with me. Because I was such a busy makeup artist, I knew I was going to need help to grow the business, but she just wasn’t a good fit for me. We agreed to allow me to buy her out. At the time, I don’t think she thought Beautyblender was going to be a big brand, so she was happy to take the money and run.
Last year, former Shiseido executive Carsten Fischer joined Beautyblender as president. Why did you bring him on board?
I knew I was going into the color category, and I was going to need to find a leader who had experience in that world to work with me. Beautyblender lived in a nice cushy little white space where we were every makeup’s best friend. Beautyblender made every brands’ foundation look beautiful, and it was a great way to upsell. Brands loved that, but I knew that, as soon as I decided to enter the color category, I wasn’t going to be beloved in the same way. Suddenly, I was going to be looked at as competition and not in a small way because Beautyblender is distributed globally. If I could get anyone who uses Beautyblender just to try my foundation, it’s a hit. I knew I needed someone who could strategize with me to do that.
How do you plan to expand Beautyblender’s assortment?
My goal right now is to stay in the complexion category. I want to create tools that work well with my makeup and vice versa. I can stay in complexion category comfortably for the next few years before to breaking into other aspects of color.
What do you make of the softness in color cosmetics?
I think it’s due to a saturation of information, imagery and products. I feel it’s cyclical. With the internet, e-commerce, influencers and just all the access people have now, it creates fatigue. I feel people need a break, and they are going to use everything they have in their cabinets now. Has it affected us? Of course, it’s affected us, but we are still growing and profitable. I don’t know that everybody can say that. All it means for me is that we have to work harder and be smarter.
Would you consider selling Beautyblender?
I’m not thinking about selling the company right now and, trust me, I get multiple emails daily about that. My daughter Erica is very involved, and my son is going to business school now. Maybe they will stay involved with the business. I’m 57 years old, and I believe there will be a time where I will want to retire. If I do that, maybe I’ll do some sort of minority transition, but that’s the most I can see right now. We’re still self-funded. We don’t need to take money. I still own 100% of my business. From what I hear, I’m very rare. As long as I can stay unique, I will stay unique.