How the founder of Glossier, Emily Weiss, scaled from 0 to a $1B+ valuation
Of all the brands launched in the last 20 years, Glossier has formed one of the strongest. Read this story to learn the true history of how Emily Weiss founded Glossier, and the playbook she used to scale to a billion dollar business.
It all started with a blog. Emily Weiss was 25 years old and working full-time at Vogue when she started the beauty blog Into the Gloss in 2010. She had the idea for the blog while on vacation with her family on a beach in Connecticut. She bought a $750 used camera and the domain name for intothegloss.com in August of 2010.
She realized that while there were other popular fashion blogs at the time, nobody was covering makeup and skincare in the same way. She was spending time with fashion models and other beauty insiders on photo shoots and wanted to interview them about their makeup and skincare routines.
In the beginning, Weiss would go to her subjects' homes on weekends and sit in their bathrooms interviewing them about their beauty routines. She would take all the photos herself and transcribe the interviews at night in her apartment after her full time job at Vogue. Her articles reflected the real products that people were using, which were often a mix of high-end department store brands costing upwards of $100 and drug store brands that cost less than $10. There was a realism and intimacy in her articles.
Weiss was a hustler. She leaned heavily on her network of influential women in the fashion world and wasn’t afraid to reach out to those she had only met briefly. She would follow up multiple times with women who she wanted to interview for her Top Shelf column in the blog. This persistence paid off - she landed interviews with Kim Kardashian, Karlie Kloss, Jen Atkin and more.
Pre-launch Emily cold called an executive at Lancôme and pitched the idea for Into the Gloss and asked if they would be the first advertiser. Lancôme ended up agreeing and spending $5,000 for a month's worth of advertising. It was more money than Emily had ever had in her bank account.
From 4am to 8am, Emily would painstakingly edit articles before work each morning. The blog became a huge success. By early 2011, it had more than 200,000 monthly unique visitors. In 2012, Weiss left her job at Vogue and rented office space in NoHo and hired her first full-time employees: Michael Harper as Digital Director and Nick Axelrod as Editorial Director. In 2013, traffic reached 300,000 unique visits a month. Advertisers were happy as well. In addition to Lancôme, Into the Gloss landed marquee brands like Coty and Estee Lauder as advertisers. Harvard Business School reported in a case study that Into the Gloss advertising revenue reached $5 million annually.
Into the Gloss was Emily Weiss’ Masters education in the beauty business. By interviewing people about their beauty routines and interacting with her thousands of readers, she got a first hand look at the state of the current beauty market.
The idea to launch physical products evolved in conversations with investors. There were initially ideas for a social media app and a more shoppable version of Into the Gloss, but Weiss eventually honed in on the idea of creating beauty products targeted at the millennial and Gen Z customer which Weiss felt were ignored by many large beauty brands focused on older customers.
They decided to name the new company Glossier, a combination of the words ‘glossy’ and the French word ‘dossier’.
Emily knew they needed to raise money for the new venture, but she was passed over by nearly a dozen venture capitalists in her first attempts. She would take sample products to pitch meetings with mostly male investors, and they would say, “This is great, let me take it home to my wife to see what she thinks”. Emily was incensed. These investors would never say that if she was pitching a piece of B2B software or any non-beauty product. Rather than trying to learn more about the category they simply passed.
“It’s part of life. Rejection is part of life.” - Emily Weiss
It’s undisclosed how much she raised in the seed round, but experts put the total at less than $250k. She then raised $1M from famed consumer investor Kristin Green and Forerunner Ventures and another $1M from Ben Lerer at Lerer Hippeau.
They spent the money on hiring a chemist, buying inventory, getting a larger office, and hiring the first employees for Glossier. Emily went to her apartment and spent months heads down building and developing Glossier.
To develop the initial product line, Weiss flew with her first product development hire Alexis Page from New York to meet with a chemist at a contract manufacturing company in the Los Angeles suburbs. He was 6’ 4” and Weiss describes him as a “jacked dad”. They spent the next three months shipping samples from LA to New York each time iterating and providing feedback on the current formulations.
Emily announced on Into the Gloss that they were launching something new and started an Instagram mood board under the handle Glossier and within a week it had 13,000 followers.
They officially launched Glossier in October of 2014. They launched with four core skincare products: a face mist, a priming moisturizer, a lip moisturizer, and a sheer foundation. Prices ranged from $12 to $26 which was above drugstore competitors but below prestige beauty brands. The offering was a modern take on the classic Clinique three-step system.
Emily penned a blog post on Into the Gloss announcing the launch. “Who are we? We are you, listening to everyone, absorbing all of this information over the years, and trying to get at the core of what beauty is—and needs—in 2014. Glossier begins with YOU, which is why our first products are all about letting your personality shine through…glowy, dewy skin.”
The first Glossier products sold in New York City were delivered via UberRUSH.
Some beauty experts complained that the products were simply dupes of popular existing products. The Priming Moisturizer was a dupe of Embryolisse Lait Creme (a popular French pharmacy product), the Balm Dotcom was Vaseline or Lucas Papaw, and the Soothing Face Mist was a knockoff of Mario Badescu Facial Spray.
Customers didn’t care. Weiss had built something more important with Glossier. She had the attention of her target market with Into the Gloss and had built a brand that resonated with Glossier’s sleek packaging and excellent branding. Sales took off.
Brand elements were super clear from the start. They launched with their now signature Glossier pink bubble wrap pouch with a ziplock top which quickly became a status symbol for those in the know about the brand. They also packed their orders with a sticker sheet full of now ubiquitous Glossier iconography like their three-eyed smiley face. They also leaned heavily into a dusty, light pink color that is now synonymous with Glossier. It was a take on Pantone 705C and became the brand's Instagram profile picture - just the color without any other adornments. And fans began associating that color with the brand. The pink combined with simple black and white became the brand's visual identity.
The pink became so popular among other brands it had its own name, dubbed ‘millennial pink’. Glossier was one of the first to use and popularize it.
During the brand’s first real Black Friday sale in 2015 they sold $250k worth of product on that single day.
By September of 2015 the Glossier team (including Into the Gloss) had grown to 38 people. In October, it launched the incredibly popular Boy Brow product. At one point in 2015 it had a waitlist of over 10,000 people. It was the company's first true Hero product. Boy Brow was truly unique combining a gel pomade with a hint of color. It rode the trend of bushy eyebrows that was beginning to peak in 2015 led by model Cara Delevingne’s signature thick brows. Driven by the success of Boy Brow, 2016 was a blockbuster year for the company. In the first quarter alone, the company hit its forecast for annual sales for the entire year.
They followed up Boy Brow with the Milky Jelly Cleanser released in 2016. The product development for this product was based on feedback from their rabid fans. They asked for input in a 2015 Into the Gloss blog post asking, “What’s your dream face wash?” The company iterated on more than 40 formulations before ultimately landing on the final product.
In 2016, the company grew by 600 percent year over year. In the face of this growth, the company was hampered by supply chain issues. Their small contract manufacturers couldn’t keep up with the torrent of demand. To alleviate this, the company used air freight to ship product from overseas as soon as it was manufactured. As a result of supply chain issues, the company had 60,000 people on waitlists waiting on backordered or sold out product.
In the Summer of 2016, the company created its first official rep program. They noticed tons of sales were coming from people sharing their discount code which anyone could get in their Instagram bios. They started with 10-15 reps who got their own landing page on the Glossier website where they could share their routines and favorite Glossier products. Reps would get 10% of sales and customers would get a discount on their first order. The program was a huge success.
In 2017, the company released their first perfume called Glossier You. It was marketed as a unisex fragrance without any top notes, just base notes of amber and musk. It became a hit. Fragrances have great margins and loyalty from customers. It was Glossier’s take on fragrance blending into the background with its subtle base notes.
In November 2018, the company opened its first flagship store in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. They designed the experience for maximum Instagramability. Each of the rooms was carefully curated so customers could take interesting and unique photos and selfies. The product staging area was called a ‘wet bar’ and was set up like a women’s public restroom with a countertop and mirror for customers to try products.
“Raising money is not success, raising money is fuel for success.” - Emily Weiss
The company raised a Series A round of $8.4 million after Glossier launched in November of 2014 led by Thrive Capital and Nick Brown at 14W. In the Fall 2016, they raised a $24 million Series B led by Eric Liaw and Louise Ireland of IVP. They then raised a $52 million Series C in early 2018 led by Index and IVP. In 2018, the company crossed $100 million in revenue and added one million new customers. In early 2019, the company reached Unicorn status when it closed a $100M Series D round led by Sequoia Capital at a $1 billion valuation.
Stumbles & the Future
Glossier launched Glossier Play, their makeup sub brand, in March of 2019, but they shuttered the brand after less than a year due to poor performance. Customers didn’t associate Glossier with the colorful, less subtle, nighttime looks that Glossier Play was selling. Perhaps they were ahead of their time with this launch since a couple of years later a similar look became popular after HBO’s hit show Euphoria popularized heavier, colorful eye makeup.
In January of 2022, the company laid off over 80 employees (one third of its workforce).
When Glossier launched, it was one of the first beauty brands to seriously embrace a direct to consumer relationship and social media. Today, nearly every beauty brand is focused on DTC and social. It’s also never been easier to launch a beauty brand so celebrities including Haley Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and more have flooded the market with new offerings.
Emily stepped down from the CEO role in May of 2022 and was replaced by Kyle Leahy who had previously held executive roles at Cole Haan and Nike before joining Glossier. Kyle pivoted the strategy from only selling through Glossier owned channels to begin to sell Glossier wholesale. Their first third-party retail partner was Sephora where Glossier launched in February, 2023.
The strategic pivot appears to be working. The brand is on track to do over $100M in sales in Sephora in its first full year in the retailer (exceeding Sephora's forecasts by over 100%). Glossier also said that total sales including DTC and Sephora are up 73% year over year and expects retail sales to reach $275 million in 2023. According to Leahy, Glossier has less than 1% market share and 51% brand awareness which points to a runway for future growth.
Brand: It isn’t One Thing, it’s a thousand little things ✨
Glossier succeeded because they nailed their brand. It wasn’t a celebrity spokesperson, or a breakthrough skincare ingredient or technology. It was their brand.
The difficulty in executing on a brand playbook like Glossier’s is that it’s never made up of a single element. Glossier didn’t become Glossier by having minimalist, visually appealing packaging. Although packaging was part of the brand, it isn’t the entire story. Nor is their distinctive product photography or world-class copywriting. Each contributes to an overall brand impression, but no single element is enough to create a strong brand. A brand is made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller elements that come together to form a Brand.
What makes a Ferrari a Ferrari? Not just speed or XYZ feature. It’s the hundreds of little things that feed into the overall brand. It’s the quality of the leather in the seats, it's the horsepower of the engine, it’s the Formula 1 team, it's the signature red color, it's the prancing horse logo, it's the founding story. All of these things come together to form the Ferrari brand. It’s the reason why someone will pay 10x for a Ferrari that will get them just as well from point A to point B as a Ford Fusion.
We think that when all of these elements of brand come together, a bit of magic is created, and it can be frustrating for the purely analytical folks to comprehend.
Typically by calling out a feature of the playbook the steps to recreate it are relatively straightforward. Not so with brand. It’s too all encompassing and multi-faceted. The best advice we can give on recreating a brand as strong as Glossier is to review every brand touchpoint and ask yourself whether it can be improved. We find that it is often the forgotten / neglected areas where brand shines through. For example, many in beauty treated their protective shipping containers as a necessity; Glossier used it as an opportunity to innovate and create their iconic pink bubble wrap pouch. Shipping confirmation emails can transform from a necessity to an area to share brand voice.
Beauty is an incredibly competitive $500 billion global industry. In beauty, product differentiation exists, but the key factor that will determine success or failure is brand. That’s why we think it’s instructive to study how Emily Weiss built Glossier. In such a crowded category, bad brands die quickly, and those that succeed, do so by building incredibly strong brands. Go where the brand competition is fiercest and learn from the companies in the space and hopefully bring their playbook to less competitive verticals. If a brand strategy works in beauty, it will likely work twice as well in a less crowded category.
Media 📰 to Product 💄 Company
Glossier was early to a trend that will continue: starting as a media property and becoming a product company. There are tons of benefits to starting as a media company. You have a built in fan base that implicitly trusts your brand. It’s a source of free traffic for your brand. It will give you early momentum. It’s also a source of feedback and inspiration for product development. You can poll your community and interview them about potential products. The problem some media companies face when transitioning into product companies is ignoring the product. It isn’t enough to white label a mediocre product and assume your followers will buy you out of stock. If you’re going down this route, you need to dedicate time and effort to product development.* A large following will help your early launch, but a great product is the only thing that will create a sustainable business. When you marry a media property with a great product like Glossier did, the results can be extraordinary.
* The reverse is also true. We know plenty of DTC companies that have attempted to add media arms by hiring well known editors to run their blog (never just called a blog but given a fancy name), and the results are rarely successful.
Glossier has incredible copywriting. It was one of the first companies to speak to their customers like they were speaking with friends. This was very intentional. Lots of companies try and fail to recreate this tone. It isn’t enough to throw some emojis in an email subject line or use a bit of slang and call it a day. At Glossier, Annie Kreighbaum counseled copywriters to pretend as if they were writing their marketing copy to their best friend. She would then have them read their copy aloud and ask themselves if they would actually say what they had written to a friend. This catches a lot of copy that sounds casual and friend-like but actually comes across as inauthentic. For example, you would never say to a friend, “Your luscious locks need some extra TLC”, but many marketers might write something like this thinking that it captures the casual, friendly tone they are going for. To correct this, read every piece of copy on your website and in ads and ask yourself if you would say this to a friend. If you wouldn't, reword it until you would. It will create the true brand voice that lots of companies try to imitate but few succeed in creating.
Customer focused product development 🧪
Glossier incorporated customer feedback heavily in their product development process. From the comments on their blog post asking readers about their perfect cleanser to inviting 40 superfans to the Glossier headquarters to eat pizza, drink rose, and give feedback on an upcoming flavored lip gloss launch. Too many consumer brands are not close enough to their customers and their customers' problems. It’s easy to trot out the Henry Ford maxim “If I asked my customer what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”, but the reality is that most consumer products are incremental innovations on existing products. Very few consumer product companies are built on never before seen products. We think successful brands realize this, and use the customer as their key source of innovation ideas.
Stores as Destinations 🎪
Glossier isn’t unique in expanding into physical retail. Many other DTC companies like Away, Warby Parker, and Outdoor Voices have also used a physical retail strategy in their playbook. What separates Glossier from the rest, is the attention to detail that is put into their retail locations. Their stores aren’t simply minimally furnished, vaguely mid-century modern places to sell product. They are destinations.
Emily was inspired by Disney and Disneyland in her approach to store design. Disneyland is an immersive experience where fans can interact with the brand and products. Glossier stores are similar. Each is unique and each has areas that aren’t aimed at simply selling product but immersing customers in the brand.
The stores take cues from other immersive experiences like the Museum of Ice Cream and the Van Gogh immersive exhibit. They have plenty of backdrops for customers to take appealing photos and selfies. The immersive experience creates a deeper connection between Glossier and its customers. It also serves as great free advertising as customers want to post photos from their experience in the store. The uniqueness of the stores and pop ups also give local press a great reason to cover the brand.
The results of their stores are impressive. Their first showroom in their Lafayette Street office did more sales per square foot than an Apple store with a 65% in store conversion rate. The first Glossier flagship store averaged 50,000 visitors a month with lines running around the block.
Grassroots Community Organizing 🤝
“I think about it a little bit like, how are religions scaled?” - Emily Weiss
Glossier has built an incredible community of rabid fans. One of the keys to their success is their grassroots tactics. Glossier uses the same playbook as a well-run political campaign. If they were to run a candidate for President, political commentators would applaud their ground game.
Before launching a new store or popup, the team will find a half dozen superfans on Instagram. They will reach out to these fans and get to know them on a personal level. They will then invite them to the openings and leverage their local networks to build buzz around the openings.
The brand personally responds to every comment and DM they receive on social. Today, this is common for brands to do, but when Glossier first started doing it, it was novel. It created a direct one to one relationship between the customer and the brand. Customers felt heard in a way that was unique.
Glossier also created a community of its top brand advocates. It started as an informal group of 40 superfans who engaged the most with the brand. Glossier created a Slack channel where this group could meet and discuss Glossier as well as other topics. Friendships formed in this group were so strong that people were invited to each other's weddings.
Community organizing tactics like this aren’t nearly as effective without a compelling brand, but even small brands are likely to have a core group of folks who are obsessed with the brand. If you don’t have an obsessed core group of fans, step one should be to iterate until you do.
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