For Glow Recipe cofounders Christine Chang and Sarah Lee, 2021 was a sweet, fruitful year for their skincare startup.
In August, the Korean beauty-inspired and fruit-based beauty brand launched in Dubai and quickly became the top-selling skincare line at Sephora Middle East. Then in October, it received its first external investment from a private equity firm.
After reaching $60 million in sales during the 2020 pandemic, Glow Recipe is set to wrap up 2021 with $100 million in annual revenue.
“As a beauty brand, once you go viral on TikTok it immediately converts to sales like never before.”
But the real frenzy started back in February, when Stephanie Valentine, aka Glamzilla, took to TikTok with her skincare routine. In it, the beauty blogger touted the glowy effects of the Watermelon Glow Pore-Tight Toner and Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops, later dubbed as “the Dewy Duo.”
“We’re fruit-forward yet clinically effective and that can all be shown via the world of TikTok,” says Lee.
Glamzilla’s post inspired another creator, Mikayla Nogueira, to share her skincare secrets featuring the same products just days later. “That was the best foundation application I’ve ever had in my life,” Nogueira exclaimed in her video.
As of December, Glamzilla’s original video exceeded 1.9 million views while Nogueira’s hit 16 million views. Both were unpaid and organic posts.
“As a beauty brand, once you go viral on TikTok it immediately converts to sales like never before,” says Lee. Just four days after Nogueira’s post, Glow Recipe saw a 600% jump in daily direct-to-consumer sales. The spike was also seen across global retail partners, including Sephora, Mecca, and Cult Beauty.
For the founders, it was like Christmas in March. Site sales that week rivaled that of Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined, with 84% of sales driven by new customers. “It resulted in an overall halo effect across the brand,” says Lee.
Lee and Chang, former employees at L’Oreal, left corporate beauty in 2014 to launch Glow Recipe by pooling a total of $50,000 in personal savings. They continued to bootstrap up until this year, when North Castle Partners invested an undisclosed amount into the New York City company.
“We were seeing that initial explosion of K-beauty in the States as product developers,” says Chang. “So many companies were looking at Korea for modern innovations in skincare technologies and ingredient methodologies.”
Initially, the company was a curation of other K-beauty products imported from Seoul. In 2017, they debuted their first namesake product, the Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask, in partnership with Sephora. According to the founders, it took 1,024 formulations to create the bestselling exfoliator and moisturizer. The instant cult-favorite has sold out eight consecutive times and had a waitlist of 8,000. While hydrating watermelon is Glow Recipe’s star fruit, its extensive line includes pineapple and plum-based serums, banana-based body creams and eye creams made of avocado. Other elements like niacinamide and hyaluronic acid also serve as powerhouse ingredients.
“Our fruit-forward products come from our heritage of having lived, grown up and worked in both countries, Korea and the U.S.,” says Chang. “That gives us a unique cultural perspective to the beauty traditions we grew up with but we also know how beauty is embraced differently here in the States.”
“Our desire from the very beginning was to really bridge that gap,” she continues. This involved simplifying K-beauty, infamous for its meticulous routines that could involve 13+ steps. It also involved rebranding it for the American audience. Continues Chang: “It was very promotional, and the packaging was often a little bit more on the kitschy side. And for us, it was important to help modernize things by creating content and storytelling.”
A majority of their storytelling took place on social media. In addition to growing their Instagram following by 205% over the past two years, the cofounders say Glow Recipe inherently has all the right ingredients for success on TikTok.
“We always pressure test our products through clinical trials and community testing and know our products will achieve visible results, which naturally lends itself to viral social reactions,” says Lee.
Since February, the two featured products on TikTok have sold out four times, with a 40% increase in DTC sales. While Valentine and Nogueira’s videos sparked a wave, it was up to the Glow Recipe founders to continue the sales momentum and squeeze the juice out of the viral opportunity.
“We wanted to amplify the tremendous organic response on TikTok,” says Lee. The team combed through comments on the original viral posts to identify untapped influencers and shipped products to their doorsteps within days.
They subsequently launched a limited edition ‘Watermelon Glow Up Kit’ that featured both of the viral products. The kit inventory that was expected to last three months sold out within three days, recalls Chang. On the site, they added the viral “Dewy Duo” term to their navigation bar and constantly optimized search terms based on TikTok trends, so customers could easily find whatever sparked social media buzz.
“We reposted customers’ videos, created our own tutorial with Glamzilla’s tips, and shared how the products work individually and together,” says Chang. Their moves resulted in hundreds of organic stitches and duets of the original content on TikTok as influencers and customers tried the duo on their own skin.
The company also had to react from an operations perspective to restock quickly, and to prevent sellouts. “We quickly evaluated inventory levels of all products,” says Chang. “We worked with our vendors to secure raw materials and build up safety stock to meet demand.”
While they strategically responded to the influx of new customers, going viral was never a goal. “Our goal isn’t to create virality, but rather to be true to philosophy,” says Lee. “We’re focused on skin acceptance and promoting real, healthy skin to empower our followers, also known as our ‘Glow Gang’.”
Glow Recipe experienced another turning point in 2021. Over the summer, the company decided to keep skin unretouched in all ad campaigns, and permanently do away with ubiquitous industry phrases like “poreless,” “flawless,” “anti-aging,” “ageless,” “anti-wrinkle,” “anti-aging,” and “perfect skin.”
“We believe that these phrases don’t help support realistic expectations around skin,” says Chang. She says this would run counter to the company’s true goal of empowering their community, also known as their “Glow Gang.”
“This transparency has created an environment that fostered real social conversation, which is foundational to virality when it happens.”