SkinOwl’s Annie Tevelin On Generating Profitable Growth Without Being Too Salesy
Annie Tevelin, founder of the skincare brand SkinOwl, is the original SkinOwl. Long before Facebook groups were brand-building exercises, she doled out sage beauty advice on the social media network to an invite-only assemblage of 1,600 people with the bird of prey name. “An owl is a messenger of wisdom and their heads rotate, and I looked at the industry from all directions to be the voice of reason,” says Tevelin, a former Lancôme makeup artist. When the industry didn’t provide solutions to her cystic acne, Tevelin took matters into her own hands, enrolled in cosmetic chemistry classes at UCLA, and developed an oil formula for the product that would become Geranium Beauty Drops to do the job existing OTC remedies couldn’t. She presented it to the SkinOwl group on Facebook, and PayPal orders started piling up. “There was no business plan,” says Tevelin. “I was just being pulled in the direction of a void.” SkinOwl has gone from Facebook to faces around the globe, and Tevelin filled Beauty Independent in on the course it traveled to get there.
Pretend we’re a retailer. Give us the quick pitch on your brand.
It’s a skincare line created for the consumer because it’s created by a consumer. I have never had an investor. I don’t have a trust fund. I’m not a celebrity. I’m just a consumer with acne who never found a product that worked. You can guarantee the product will work based on my own journey.
How much money did it take to launch your brand?
The first year, I would say $10,000 and that was with creative friends doing me solids. There wasn’t a huge influx of customers, so we were selling small quantities.
When did you reach profitability?
We did as of year two. Because there was no business plan and, therefore, no financial plan, it was a huge shock. I was always looking at SkinOwl’s reputation over the amount of money that we made. I wanted it to be a product that everybody was affected by positively. I can’t say I ever really thought of numbers early on. I was scraping by to have enough money to buy the next round of amber glass bottles. I wanted to work for myself, and I would do whatever it took to do that.
Who is SkinOwl’s target customer?
I definitely have the customer who has acneaic skin and nowhere to turn. My customer was me. It’s someone who’s breaking out. She’s tried everything. Nothing has worked for her, and she’s fed up. It puts us in an interesting position because we tell her, “Please hold out for one more product. We know you’ve spent a lot of money, but try it.” I’ve trolled Instagram for people who have hashtagged cystic acne and sent them the product for free. I know they are so discouraged, and I don’t want to give them the option of saying no. I recently sent a bottle to someone in Australia, and now she’s like Geranium Beauty Drops or bust.
“I was always looking at SkinOwl’s reputation over the amount of money that we made. I wanted it to be a product that everybody was affected by positively. I can’t say I ever really thought of numbers early on. I was scraping by to have enough money to buy the next round of amber glass bottles. I wanted to work for myself, and I would do whatever it took to do that.”
How much year-over-year growth has SkinOwl registered?
We have more than doubled our business every year we have been in business.
Where is SkinOwl available?
We are sold in The Detox Market, Credo, Pharmaca and Cult Beauty. We have distributors in Berlin and in Hong Kong, which is brand new. We are in Harvey Nichols as a result. Two years ago, we launched internationally with Cult Beauty, which is based in London. The people we have partnered with overseas have done a good job at telling my story. Especially in England where Cult Beauty is, people know me as the girl who had acne and created a line. Lavender Beauty Drops is the number-one SKU there, which is for redness and acne. It sells out like crazy. Even though green beauty is happening in the EU, people are transitioning from the icky stuff to green, and SkinOwl is really approachable. It’s had great growth because it’s a starter green beauty line for a lot of people.
Has there been a rejection that particularly stung?
Very early on, I remember Anthropologie wanted to carry us. Who knows how many brands they sought out at that time, and they obviously went with another brand. It was so long ago that I would consider contacting them now. I love Anthropologie. There are so many stores, but when you walk into Anthropologie, you feel like you’re in a special place, and I think we’d do really well there.
Amazon, yes or no?
We don’t sell to Amazon, but we sell through Pharmaca’s portal on Amazon. It has increased visibility for us, and it gives the shopper ease.
What was the EU certification process like?
A pain in the ass. Of course, it’s great because that’s the world you want to live in where someone is really going after the safety of your products. America would be a much healthier place if we had rules like the EU does. It’s no joke. As long as your business keeps growing, you have to go through it again and again. It is easier now in terms of submitting the paperwork. We know what they want to see, and our Berlin distributor has been instrumental in getting it taken care of for us.
What’s your e-commerce strategy?
We are in the midst of flipping our site. It should be ready for holiday traffic. The whole site is going to look different. It’s going to be much more user-friendly and photo-centered. It will have less copy and more feels as the young kids would say. We have partnered with a videography firm out of London and taken a lot of videos. We are going to tell the stories of the other people building this brand. We will talk about who we are, what we stand for, what the SkinOwl culture is and what our workday is like.
“I got an email from our distributor that said, ‘If your company grows next year the way it did this year, we won’t be able to satisfy demand.’ There is a choice. Do you plumb the earth as much as you can and take what you can get now? Or do you find something that’s just as awesome an antioxidant, and be honest and transparent with your customer?”
Is the website a substantial part of SkinOwl’s business?
It’s 51% of our total business, and we do a lot of wholesale business. We are able to do cool things on our website that we don’t necessarily offer at retail. We do limited-edition products. We don’t do a lot of sales, but we might do a GWP or we have fun contests with incentives to drive people to the website. It stays very active.
You discontinued SkinOwl’s popular Mangosteen Beauty Drops PM. Tell me about that decision.
Mangosteen came out very early on at SkinOwl, and I wasn’t really schooled in sustainability and sourcing, and how much might be too much. Three years later, I got an email from our distributor that said, “If your company grows next year the way it did this year, we won’t be able to satisfy demand.” There is a choice. Do you plumb the earth as much as you can and take what you can get now? Or do you find something that’s just as awesome an antioxidant, and be honest and transparent with your customer? I found out about maqui berry. It’s harvested by the indigenous Mapuche tribe in Chile, and they are extremely difficult to access. It is the number-one fruit antioxidant in the world. I literally think it has legs and scoops up anything free radical or toxic. We are the first to use it in skincare.
What’s been the response to the discontinuation?
Before people read our article telling the full story, they were like, “Noooooo! You are taking away our baby.” Then, when they read it, they were like, “Thank you for being honest.” I like storytelling. I like a beginning, middle and end. I thought it was an opportunity to do the right thing. It was cool to get people to know SkinOwl on a deeper level. These are the sorts of decisions we are working through, and we want to invite them in to be part of the process.
Do you think the beauty industry will increasingly have to cope with ingredient shortages?
Yes, if you are pulling ingredients from the earth, then you really have to do your research and be sure that the ingredients you are using can scale with you. If it comes down to it, I rather be a small batch brand that have to keep going through this.
Do you have a mentor?
Early on, I had a mentor named Meredith Powell. She’s a big deal in Vancouver, Canada for entrepreneurs. She said slow and steady wins the race, and don’t try to grow overnight. It’s kind of like decorating a house. If you move in and everything is done, a month later, you might go, “Nothing is my style.” Give yourself time to build your brand, so you know the kinds of relationships you want to have with the world around you. We’ve done that.
What sacrifice have you made to be an entrepreneur?
I would say compromises instead of sacrifices. When all of my friends were going on vacations and buying new wardrobes from 2011 to 2014, I was living off a credit card and building a business instead of buying things for myself. I was married in 2015 and divorced in 2016. It wasn’t a horrible story, and I have so much respect for my ex-husband. We met when I started to grow SkinOwl, and I hit the ground running. He never stood in my way. So, I would work as long as I needed to work. I was parameter-free. I had my computer open to 9 at night. I should have shut down the computer at 6, turned off SkinOwl and been Annie Tevelin.
“I was married in 2015 and divorced in 2016. It wasn’t a horrible story, and I have so much respect for my ex-husband. We met when I started to grow SkinOwl, and I hit the ground running. He never stood in my way. So, I would work as long as I needed to work. I was parameter-free. I had my computer open to 9 at night. I should have shut down the computer at 6, turned off SkinOwl and been Annie Tevelin.”
What sort of company culture are you trying to nurture at SkinOwl?
We work out of my house, and all the operational stuff is done there: packaging up orders, brainstorming, formulating the products. There’s a big backyard, and there are dogs. We have cozy couches and Netflix. We bring in lunch once a week of somebody’s choice. It’s not an 8-hour workday. It’s a 5-hour workday, and it’s Tuesday through Friday because I want people to have a life. When we are here, we get down to business, but’s a culture that begets self-care and work-life balance.
How do you embody your brand in public?
I want to be a person first and a business second. I want to be a friend and confidante. The best thing is to be yourself and not be a shark or someone diving right into sales. People want to work with and buy from someone they feel comfortable around. There is no “Mean Girls” mentality at SkinOwl. We are girls’ girls.