The Top Three Questions Beauty Brand Founders Ask Formulators

In this edition of Beauty Independent’s ongoing series exploring topics relevant to beauty entrepreneurs, we ask 20 brand founders and executives: What three questions did you ask formulators that were particularly helpful in guiding your decisions about them?

Kristy Hunston Co-Founder, Avoila

First, what is your process like? Having a point person that was responsive and willing to educate us from start to finish was invaluable. We even included a consulting clause as an addendum to our contract to be sure we would be working with one person that would be collaborative in making a quality product that fulfilled our goals.  

Second, where do your ingredients come from? It was hugely important that we worked with quality ingredients. Our formulator specializes in using clean and simple ingredients to achieve a desired effect. And, he is insistent on using fair-trade ingredients only, which we love. 

Third, do you have any manufacturing partners that you'd recommend we work with? Choosing the formulator was only one component of bringing our product to life, so to have a starting point for manufacturing discussions was helpful. 

Heather Wilson Director of Brand Development and Licensed Esthetician, InstaNatural

Finding a quality and reliable formulator is one of the most difficult parts of product development. I strongly believe that the relationship with your formulator should be collaborative and transparent with a desire to create a long-term partnership. Based on that, the first question I ask is around their formulation processes and how they communicate and work with their customers. Everyone’s view on collaboration and communication are different, so it is important to be aligned with your formulator. 

Next, I discuss our brand’s formulation standards, which include having them review our guidelines and ingredient restrictions, and I discuss their experience in formulating to my standards. They can be an incredible formulator, but if they cannot formulate safe, stable and efficacious products to my standards, it’s not the right fit. 

Finally, I discuss capacity and turnaround times because alignment on this expectation is important in building a successful partnership. Every brand has different timeline needs and, if the formulator is operating at longer turnaround times, then it could cost the brand opportunities. Sometimes, finding a great formulator is an art and, while it takes more than three questions to determine if a formulator is the right fit, these three questions have been staples for me.

Max Oberloher Chief Operating Officer, Niche Beauty Lab

From our experience, we recommend having a formulator working with you as closely as possible. We do all our R&D in-house. That is, we have our own laboratory integrated in our office and a great team of formulators, who receive probably more than three questions everyday just from me.

What we value in our formulators is their agility and creativity, and we want them to be an integral part of the whole brand development process. This gives our company so much flexibility and space for creation because concept and product ideas can be proposed by a formulator based on their specific insight in the ingredient market and their research as well as by the marketing team who may have found the next big thing. 

In this way, our formulators are also kept up-to-date about the latest market trends and can consider these in their R&D activities so it is possible for us to develop 400 formulas every year. Thus, do not think about what to ask the formulators, but how to convince them to work with you on a day-to-day basis and to incorporate their knowledge in the development process.

Allison Moss Founder and CEO, Type:A

We were looking for a CM who could really be a partner, where if we needed to be flexible—pull up an order or push one back—they would really try to accommodate and make it happen. The top three questions were first, assessing expertise in the type of formulation. We dug deep to find out who their other clients were and what types of formulations they made the most of in their facility. They may say they do it all, but what is their core competency? Emulsions and complex skincare formulas? Hot pours that contain lots of waxes which can be tricky? Color and shade ranges? Shampoo, conditioner that are more straightforward? 

Second, we assessed their size to see how accommodating they could be on orders. Ask what’s the lead time for a standard order, and what flexibility do you have for growing companies? It was a red flag if up front they said that, in order to secure line time, all raws and components must be on hand three months in advance, for example. Facilities like that were too big for us, and we’d get lost in the shuffle. Third, is there a path to getting payment terms. The first order may require a percentage down, but, as we build history, how quickly can we get to net 30 payment terms.

Danielle Gronich Co-Founder, CLEARstem Skincare

I asked our formulator what she thought of certain common ingredients like coconut oil. She thought it was subpar just like I do. I asked for her thought process and philosophy with crafting formulas (e.g., how to make certain ingredients more effective by blending them with other compatible ingredients). I also asked her which products she really believed in to make sure our values aligned. More importantly, she has over 30 years experience and was wearing pink high heels with her lab coat, so that combination of qualities is what sealed the deal for us.

JAMIKA MARTIN Founder, Rosen Skincare

I'm actually the formulator, but, if I were to work with someone else, it would probably be something along the lines of: What is your experience with clean ingredients, specifically preservatives?  Can you share some sample products you've created the formulas for? This way I can get an idea of how innovative or flexible their formulas are. What are your terms if we need to make formulation tweaks?

LAUREN NAPIER Founder, Lauren Napier Beauty

Initially, it’s wise to leave cost out of the dialogue. Obviously, cost is important to the process, but inquiring about policies, production, capabilities and innovation will help you create a quality product versus a cheap product.

JULISSA PRADO Founder and CEO, Rizos Curls

We have lots of different vendors and, for all of them it’s really only one question, and it’s not really a question: It’s do they “get” Rizos Curls, understand our brand and what we stand for? If I walk away from meeting a potential vendor and feel like they don’t really understand our brand, I will not work with them.  

There is so much at the heart of what we do that it’s not just about meeting certain cost targets or requirements. They have to really understand the brand and be genuinely excited to be a part of what we are building. What we are building are partnerships in the same way that, with customers, we are building community.

Ozohu Adoh Founder, Epara

I was very keen to understand how open they were to collaboration as the brand was born from a very personal place for me in particular. I wanted to be sure that they were open and receptive to feedback. I already knew they were highly competent. The determining factor in proceeding to work with them was how well we could work together. So, it was how open are you to collaboration and feedback? How nimble are you in responding to evolving and dynamic trends? And, finally, how much research were they willing to undertake with regards to my particular brief?

MELINDA HERRON Founder, 103 Collection

1). Are you a cruelty-free manufacturer? 2). What are your minimums? 3). Can you manufacture plant-based products? Although we had many other questions, these three were the most important for our brand. We only wanted to partner with manufacturers that shared the vision of plant-based products that are healthier for our customers.

BEN SMITH Founder, Disco

1). How experienced are you in working with clean and vegan brands? 2). What are the maximum volume orders you can handle? I asked this to ensure we were aligning with long term partners who could scale with us as our business grows. 3). What sort of tests are you running to ensure our products work properly and are shelf stable?

Renae Moomjian Founder, Niplips

1). Can you formulate vegan, clean beauty products? 2). What sustainable packaging options are available? 3). Are you willing to run low volume production as well as scale as we grow?

Radmila Juristovski Bosnic Co-Founder, Nala Care

We make our formulations in-house, so questions we ask ourselves before creating a new product are: 1). Would I use this cosmetic? 2). Can I obtain a certificate of analysis and regulatory documentation for every single ingredient, and are they free from any known carcinogens? 3). What value am I adding to existing offering of cosmetic products?

Mary-Andrée Ardouin-Guerrier Founder and CEO, Loving Culture

1). What is their level of commitment to their clientele? 2). How do they ensure product safety and consistency? 3). What are their overall offerings (from beginning to end)?

Dana R. Jackson Founder, Beneath Your Mask

1). What are their MOQs? 2). How many revisions they offer, and what is the fee if going beyond that? 3). What is their sample turnaround time, and how much does it cost to make a sample?

Calvin Quallis CEO and Founder, Scotch Porter

1). Are you experienced in formulating hair and skincare products? 2). What products/brands have you formulated/formulated for? 3). Have you developed clean beauty and grooming products in the past?

Anya Kudrjasova Creative Director, Glowdust Beauty

1). How many years of experience have they had? 2). What other brands have they worked with? 3). What were the biggest learning mistakes of their career as a formulator?

LISSETTE MONZON Founder, Lilly Be

I formulate all of my products. If I am working with a new ingredient, I will ask one of my mentors or the suppliers themselves. I usually investigate where the ingredient is derived from, if it is organic, natural or non-GMO. I need to know the specifications about how to formulate with it: temperature, percentages, contraindications, if it alters other ingredients in final formulation, stability, solubility, and how to naturally preserve it. After that, it is trial and error until I get the formula correct. I also send my products to labs for further testing to make sure they are stable.

Tom Reynolds Head of Brand, Coco & Eve

We don't settle for average products, so our formulators have to be best in class. We want to know about their experience and background in developing products in the categories we are in. It's important for us to gain true expertise to enrich our thinking and create amazing products.

How they think is vital. We want to work with people that constantly look to innovate and aren't afraid to take inspiration from other industries or categories to create something new. Finally, flexibility and resilience are crucial. Are they prepared to take a more difficult route for higher rewards?

SELMIN KARATAS Co-Founder and CEO, Kazani

I found my formulator through a referral in the beauty industry and, once I found out that they only work on natural formulations, I was pretty much sold. My next question was to ask to formulate products that were according to European Union standards.

If you have a question you’d like Beauty Independent to ask beauty entrepreneurs, please send it to [email protected].