On this podcast, we talk about how Linda built her brand before social media and Ecom platforms, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs being an asset to Karuna, targeting different price points as a strategy, and so much more!
Linda Wang is the Founder and CEO of Karuna Skin and sister brand Avatara, known for being the first to bring Asian sheet masks to the U.S.
Before starting her company, Linda spent 11 years in fashion merchandising, the training shaped her gusty instincts for spotting trends.
Her interest in skincare stemmed from an ongoing struggle since childhood with allergies, rashes, and eczema.
As an adult, her focus sharpened on resolving this deeply personal issue since it affects so many others around the world.
She launched Karuna in 2009, sensing these revolutionary time-saving masks would be a hit among American beauty aficionados.
The sharply-packaged retail line has gained the interests of beauty giants like Sephora, Ulta, etc.
From her years of training as a buyer and knowing how trends work, in 2017, she launched her second brand Avatara, inspired by her teenage nieces by offering fun, quality, clean, and affordable skincare products launched in Target stores nationwide.
During the last 12 years of building both brands, Linda encountered her share of challenges; increased competition, the explosion of interest in fast beauty, and the rise of more store brands entering the category.
In 2018, the Karuna brand faced hardship as the sheet mask category became commoditized, and in response, she pivoted and created the Balancing Collection, a daily topical skin care line now available at Whole Foods Market nationwide.
Sister brand, Avatara has also seen tremendous growth with Target, and anticipating more national doors rollout this year.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
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I think as long as you know you really make a huge presence on social media, I think that really can push your brand forward.
Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game.
On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results.
I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.
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Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce today. I couldn't be more thrilled to welcome another Buckeye to the show. It's always a pleasure.
Linda Wang is the founder and CEO of two national skincare brands, Karuna Skin and Avatara. Welcome to the show, Linda.
Thank you. Hi, everyone. I'm Linda Wang and I'm very excited to be here.
Oh yeah, we're gonna have a blast.
So just before we go back in time, and talk about the start of the brand, just let the audience know what type of products you're like bringing into the market with these brands.
Yeah. So I started a brand specializing in sheet masks. So for those ones out there [who] are skincare lovers, they probably are familiar with a product.
But for those who aren't, there essentially is a facial mask. It's a cloth pre-drenched in serum. So that's what the brands are known for.
Awesome. All right. So let's go back in time, what was going on? Where did the ideation of this particular product... What was going on in your life and where did it come from?
Yeah, absolutely. So before I started Karuna back in 2009, my prior life, I was a fashion retail buyer. So I used to travel a lot. And I...
My training really equipped me to look for the market trends currently, that are out in the consumer space. And so on my many trips to Asia...
My mom actually lives in Taiwan and she introduced me to this new mask application that was trending in Asia. And so if you go to Asia, nobody uses any type of mask, but a sheet mask, so that really fascinated me.
And then that whole application was inspired from when you go to a spa and at the end of your treatment, your esthetician would put on a nice cooling, serum-drenched mask.
And that's really how I discovered the product.
Absolutely. And then you experienced it, I'm assuming, yourself and then was it almost immediately serendipitous or was thinking on it, you noticed there might be a market for this back in the United States?
Yeah. Actually, it was correlating back to a childhood experience I had. I had eczema when I was little. And so I'm on a...
Many trips to a doctor's appointment, one of the Chinese doctors my parents took me to see, he asked me to put the ointment on, he made the "magical" or balm ointment.
And afterwards before I go to sleep, make sure I grab that ointment around with a plastic wrap. And so within days, the rash went away.
So when I discovered sheet masks and looked at the application, I really jumped in my mind and brought me back to that experience when I connected the dots and I said, "Oh my god, the plastic wrap is the sheet mask. The actual fiber, the fabric...
And it really allows your pores to open up and deeply take into the nutrient ingredients." So that's where the "aha moment" was happening.
But at the same time, because we're selling this in the marketplace, and there were no such applications trending at that time in the US, I sort of looked at the market and saw what type of products currently in the marketplace could tie back to that similar consumer behavior.
And that's when I discovered all those wipes that we are --it's in our daily lives today-- we're trendy at the time.
So we're talking about 13 - 14 years ago, where wipes were just coming onto the marketplace and it became a necessity. That's what we're using today.
So I tied that back to a sheet mask, and I was like, "Wow, this kind of fits in that trend and decided to take a leap of faith."
Absolutely. Let's talk about that leap of faith. So you've got this idea. How would you say that you were working on this idea until you actually had a product in your hand to test?
I would say probably one year. It really started from [a] blueprint. Just understanding "How many items do I want to launch? And what does that launch plan look like?"
And so the way I decided to go about it is A, I wasn't a professional in beauty or skincare, I was more so...
My experience was in apparel and fashion so I tackle it the same way looking at this SKU count, and just looking at "What are some of the common skin concerns that people are always shopping for." So...
And then I mapped it out. "Okay, I'm gonna have a mask or hide… People are needing hydration. I'm going to have a mask with people with acne." So we create a clarifying mask.
So all those core skin concerns usually come about, that's how I launched the product. And then started going to visit factories, when I would go back to Taiwan and... And so interviewing...
I think I initially interviewed about 3 to 4 factories, and then landed on the first partner. And the challenging part initially is, you're a smaller brand, you're just starting out.
So a lot of these minimum order quantities are too large for me so it's really creative how to co-share some of the packing material, so you can reduce your MOQ. So that's pretty much...
That took some time, but in terms of formulation, just really working with our chemist and working through "I want my active ingredients to be more concentrated, and I want to remove parabens, and I want to make the formula a little cleaner. So it took some time to go back and forth."
So about a year.
Absolutely. You mentioned SKU count in there. And I wanted to dive a little bit deeper there and might ask a leading question here. But why is it important to limit the SKU count for an initial launch?
Well, I think there are 2 things to look out for. One is, you know, financial investment So when you're starting off, you don't have a lot of capital so you do want to limit your SKU count.
And similarly to what I mentioned earlier, with sharing co-packaging, where you're just not stuck with high quantity, because you don't know if it's gonna sell. So it's a risk worth taking.
Two, I think it's also because in order to be in a retail space... And what your end goal is... So if your end goal is going into a specialty retailer and you want to make sure that there is enough merchandising presence, if you just ordered…
If you just create 1 or 2 SKUs, then retailers most likely won't put you on shelf because you'll get lost.
Absolutely. All right. So you've got these products now. What's the next step? What's the go-to-market strategy?
Are you going straight after retailers with partnerships there? Are you trying to sell direct-to-consumer through your own website?
What was the next step?
So the next step then, it was, sales and distribution. So, you know, back in 2009, there wasn't social media yet. So there wasn't Shopify. (laughs)
So our go- to-market strategy was, you know, I started working with an industry pro in the beauty space, and he took me around shopping to these retailers, and to gain distribution.
So the majority of our business back then was brick and mortar. We did create an Ecommerce site. And I remember, again, being a founder, you're just like, you know, it's not as easy as it's today.
If you want to create a website, you just go to WordPress or Shopify. But back then you really had to figure out how to do it, do it scrappy, because I didn't have a lot of funding. So I ended up building, custom built a site and just got the domain and the back end was with GoDaddy.
But I remember waking up one morning, I was... First of all, I was really excited when the site went live. But I remember waking up one morning and a hacker had wiped my website out (laughs).
So that was definitely one of the moments of hardship being an entrepreneur. I literally cried. I was like, "How did my website get hacked?"
But yeah, the majority of our business was brick and mortar.
Oh my gosh, absolutely.
So with that brick and mortar partnerships, launching the business that way, do you have any advice for any entrepreneurs that are looking to scale their business and I guess in a more traditional way these days?
Well, there's so many ways of marketing your business today versus when I first started and even from going... We're 12 years now going on 13 years of operation. I feel like the digital platform has made the business so much easier to put yourself out there.
I think before it was a lot more word of mouth and reaching out to retailers. So I think as long as you really make a huge presence on social media, I think that really can push your brand forward.
Absolutely. So you launched your second brand Avatara as separate entities. So I kind of want to dive into that.
What was the thought process behind building up a separate business and brand and, you know, everything that goes along with that, as opposed to just launching something under the main line?
I'm sure there were a lot of conversations around that.
Yeah, absolutely. So, in about 2015 - 2016, we started seeing the marketplace flooded with sheet masks. Even at that time, K-beauty, Korean beauty was trending. So there was like a floodgate of skincare products, even in sheet masks in the US. And because of that...
And typically when there's a lot more competition, then the price point is being driven down. So at that time, my thought process was "Well eventually this trend... And taking back... I'm going back to my passion: Buying trends, just knowing trends from the procedure runway eventually will filter down to the masses, taking that bell curve and understanding."
And then that's when I decided in a matter of time, I will have to create a sister brand to target the mass market. So that's exactly what I did.
So instead of having someone to have that piece of pie, I want it myself as well. So in 2017, I launched Avatara. And our first partner was Target.
And so they're still a great partner to us today.
Absolutely. That's great advice. Yeah. And I guess, this is more 300-level commerce, but you'll see this a lot with especially CPG brands. The ultimate goal of those businesses is to have a product for each price point.
So having something that's cheaper for the mass market, and then having something luxury, and then whatever in between. There's a lot of great examples out there.
But it's fun to see a brand such as yours doing the same strategy.
Yeah, absolutely. And then we had to embark on a similar situation with Karuna. So we were selling our $8 masks, it was actually in the prestige. That's where we had them or prestige marketplace and retail channels. And so last year, we...
Well, actually 2 or 3 years ago, we started thinking about the future of the brand, and where do we belong because now sheet masks are becoming a commodity.
And so people tend to pick it up where they go. So they could go to CVS or Target or Walmart and they can always find sheet masks. So it's not something that is so much more of a luxurious good/product.
So we started thinking about, "Okay, what is the future?" And so I created a skincare range. So 2 years ago, I started working on this. And then last... This year, actually, sorry.
This year, in February, we rolled out with Whole Foods exclusively nationwide. So that was really, really looking at the space again, and then pivoting and thinking like "Where do we need to be?"
And so from time and time again, we have always heard from our Karuna customers, how much they love our serum and products and how that makes their skin feel afterwards.
So it's only natural for us to think about how to expand the product range. [Instead of] having their user mask like once or twice a week, now they can use our products daily.
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Now you mentioned this a little bit earlier. When you were launching Karuna, Ecommerce wasn't the thing it is today and the technologies didn't exist like they do today.
How has direct-to-consumer and selling through your own site changed since the launch of the brand?
We definitely have grown, especially during COVID. So when COVID first hit, a lot of non-essential businesses were shut down.
So you couldn't go to stores to purchase some of your favorites or spas or clothes. So there is a lot of self-care happening at home. So our Ecommerce, our direct-to-consumer, definitely started seeing traction.
I have to say that year after year, we are building on our channel, but the biggest increase was during the last 2 years when COVID hit. So we saw an increment of like almost 200% in our sales. And a lot of that...
We're still finding our sweet spot in our direct to consumer. We don't spend a lot on digital ads, because I think what we need to do is really hone in on our core customers and have them engage more and make sure that they're being taken care of instead of spending a ton of money on acquiring new customers.
The way we acquire new customers is we definitely work through a lot with affiliate [marketing and] influencers and that has worked for us.
Yeah, absolutely. It's a very interesting thing with COVID. You watch certain brands that you wouldn't have immediately thought gained a bunch of traction during kind of the pandemic. And it really goes back to this concept of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
And it was like once everyone had their food and clothing and security, they started to invest in themselves and self-love.
And you saw massive gains in beauty first of all, but also in fitness and other categories around that. And it's been a really interesting concept to look at in hindsight.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that those wants and needs are always there. But when it becomes not accessible to you, then you start filtering down like, "Well, how can I incorporate that back in my life?
So for example, like, if you can't go to the gym during COVID then you turn your garage into a home gym, right?
Yeah, exact... (laughs) Same here.
And then if you can't get facials or get these like pamper treatments that you normally do, then you're just gonna pick up masks or whatever in store so you can do that yourself.
But that need and the one is still there, you just have to shift it. You shift your way of [delivering] it to yourself.
Absolutely. So you obviously have been a successful entrepreneur for over a decade now. Congratulations.
But a lot of our listeners out there are just getting started or they've got some ideas that they're brewing.
What advice would you have for entrepreneurs out there about diving in and starting their own business?
I always say [that] the journey can be overwhelming. And I remember when I first started conceptualizing Karuna, all the to-dos. That to-do list was very overwhelming to me, especially how to form an LLC and how to register with your city, business license, all of that. The list is endless. And I always...
What I did is I gave myself 10 items on a list and then continued to check things off before you add more. That way you could stay focused and not feel so overwhelmed.
But always just trust yourself that "You know what? I can tackle anything, I will get through it."
But just look at it and like, shorten your list so you don't get overwhelmed and run the other way. And then it doesn't happen. So that's my advice.
Yeah. With entrepreneurship, especially being the founder or CEO, your list is never ending but you gotta be really vicious about prioritization and just understanding that as you grow and as you replace yourself time and time again, with new hires and delegation, your list doesn't get any smaller.
Just the stuff on it changes.
Yeah. And you're always learning. This journey is really about learning. Just be hungry and learn. You're never going to be...
We're never experts at anything. You're just...
We're riskier. We're risk takers. And so you're just...
You just have to keep an open mind and continue to learn and that's how you grow.
Absolutely. Linda, is there anything I didn't ask you about today that you think would resonate with our audience?
No, I feel like I just honestly feel like I'm running a business today, you can already see a trend, that there are so many more smaller businesses out there. It's because technology makes it so accessible and makes it so much easier.
So I just think if anybody is inspired to create your own business, do it. Don't worry about failure, because you learn from that and you just have to take a gamble.
Absolutely. Those are very, very wise words. Alright, you've talked about these awesome products. Let's shout them out.
Where do people go if they're interested in learning more about the products?
Yeah. So we... DTC channels. So karunaskin.com. Otherwise, all of our...
So we have a skincare range there at Whole Foods stores nationwide. If you want Karuna's original sheet masks, you can go to Anthropologie.
And then the Avatara line is being sold at Target. And we will soon probably in a week or two be in Walmart stores.
It'll be in Walmart stores by the time this comes out.
Exactly. Okay, there we go. (laughs)
Awesome. Linda, thank you so much for coming on and sharing all that was today.
Thank you so much.
Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us.
We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes.
Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have. Make sure you subscribe, leave a review.
And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.