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Lawrence Ingrassia is an award-wining journalist and the author of " Billion Dollar Brand Club."
In recent years, you no doubt have seen a growing number of new brands pop up everywhere you go online – and you've probably bought some. Where did they come from? Who are the entrepreneurs behind them? Why did they think they could take on long-dominant brands?
This is an excerpt from " Billion Dollar Brand Club," authored by award-wining journalist Lawrence Ingrassia and published on January 28 by Henry Holt and Company.
The book explores how an unlikely band of entrepreneurs launched a business revolution in the way new brands are created and sold online. One of the most successful direct-to-consumer brands, Dollar Shave Club, was founded in Los Angeles and got its initial seed funding from Science Inc. in Santa Monica. This excerpt from Chapter 6, "The Algorithm is Always Right," tells the story behind eSalon, based in El Segundo, and how it tapped data analytics to create customized hair coloring.
The customer, a woman in her mid-to-late forties, knows what she wants when she logs onto eSalon.com to order its customized hair coloring for the first time: dye to match her natural blonde color – and cover up her grays – with the lightest blonde shade it offers. As she clicks through a series of about a dozen questions, the algorithm inside eSalon's computers starts churning away. Without anyone from the company having met or even talked to her, it will understand her hair coloring better than she does by the time she finishes answering the questionnaire.
How long is your hair? it asks. How much gray do you have? How straight or curly is your hair? How thick is your hair? What is your ethnicity? What color are your eyes? What is your natural hair color? What is the closest shade to your natural color?Would you like to maintain your current color?
To help her, the questionnaire shows thirty-one photos of different shades of blonde, with very small gradations from lighter to darker colors. At the end, she selects the lightest blonde color eSalon offers, just as she intended. But that's not exactly what she will receive.
eSalon has collected data from more than five million people. Based on this woman's answers, it knows the best color formulation to achieve the blonde look she wants, regardless of what she thinks. eSalon's computers have learned from crunching the data that many first-time customers who fit her profile and order the lightest blonde dye have been disappointed; they felt their hair came out looking too blonde – too "hot" in hair coloring jargon. The numbers show that eSalon has a higher reorder rate from customers who asked for a slightly darker color for their next order, so that their hair wouldn't come out looking quite so light.
Knowing all of this, eSalon automatically sends the customer – without telling her – a formulation that has 98 percent of its lightest blonde share with 2 percent blue added to soften the color, or cool it, rather than 100 percent blonde. "After seeing this data, we adjusted our algorithm so that new customers who are a natural pure blonde and want to keep that look automatically get that little bit of blue added," explains Tom MacNeil, eSalon's chief technology officer. "They're happier with the result, even though they're asking for the blondest of blonde that we have."
For eSalon, and almost all direct-to-consumer brands, data is the coin of the realm. The data they collect directly from each customer provides a significant advantage over bigger, long-established brands. Clairol doesn't have this data, because the customers they deal with directly are retailers. The people who use the product are largely anonymous to Clairol; they walk into a drugstore, pick a box of hair coloring off the shelf, pay for it, and walk out.
eSalon's shelf is its website, and it collects information about each customer who walks through its digital door and answers its questionnaire. The longer a woman remains a customer, the more eSalon knows about her – and not just her. eSalon aggregates all of that individual data and uses machine-learning algorithms and predictive analysis to inform virtually everything it does: from adjusting its product formulations to introducing new products (like color for highlighting hair) to testing seemingly insignificant word changes on its web pages. "In the end, we're a tech company selling a beauty product," says Tamim Mourad, one of eSalon's co-founders.
Data mining is critical to the biggest challenges facing all direct-to-consumer brands: holding down the cost of attracting customers and keeping them after a purchase or two. Using the data it has gathered, eSalon has improved its retention rate from below 50 percent to about 70 percent on its customers' initial orders. One of the key metrics, especially for subscription companies, like eSalon, Dollar Shave Club, and Hubble, is a customer's lifetime value, or how much she will spend over time. The cost of acquiring customers can be offset only if a lot of them become repeat customers who buy month after month or, even better, year after year. "It's all about retention, because nobody makes money on the first order," explains Francisco Gimenez, another co-founder.
Businesses have used predictive analytics for the past couple of decades, but the growing power of computers, along with the ability of online brands to gather huge amounts of data, has made machine learning central to their success.
Tamim Mourad and several of his colleagues at eSalon discovered from experience the importance of technology to a startup. In 1998, before the direct-to-consumer brand revolution began (indeed, before many of the entrepreneurs behind many of these startups had graduated from college or even high school), they started an internet company, while they were in their twenties. The company, PriceGrabber, was one of the original online price comparison sites. In 2005, Experian bought the company for $485 million – yielding a huge gain on the founders' total investment of $1.5 million.
After taking a couple of years off, the PriceGrabber founders began brainstorming about starting another business.
In the fall of 2008, Mourad and his wife were having dinner with a couple who owned a beauty salon in Beverly Hills. The other woman, who was a hair colorist, tossed out a business idea. "She said that women who color their hair at home don't do it well, because there is a dearth of information," Mourad says. What about starting a web site that explained how to dye your own hair? He didn't see a way to make money from that. But he asked her, "Is it possible to formulate color for someone sight unseen, and mail them something they apply at home? If that works well, then you're delivering a product that is better than the standard hair coloring in a box at drugstore, that would approximate what someone could get at a hair salon. If you could do that, you could charge a price that was a premium. There's a business model."
He went back to his former PriceGrabber colleagues, all men who knew nothing about hair coloring. But the more they thought about the idea, the more they liked it.
It was a business ready for disruption, they decided. Off-the-shelf packaged brands were fine, but most offered only around fifty pre-mixed shades. "Many people who color their own hair at home in general are not happy, because the results are mixed," Francisco Gimenez notes. "But it is affordable, which is why they do it. At the high end, salons charge on average around $60 for base color, though it can go as low as $45 in some cities and is more like $100 or $150 in bigger metro areas."
The PriceGrabber guys concluded there could be an opening for a new brand priced about $25. In today's global marketplace, it would be easy to find suppliers to sell them professional-grade ingredients that go into hair coloring formulations – dyes, modifiers (to stabilize color tones), vitamins (to moisturize the hair), antioxidants, hydrogen peroxide (to remove the old color and activate the new dye), among others. The biggest challenge would be to figure out how to combine all these ingredients to mimic what a stylist does in customizing color for each woman who comes into a salon. "Can you formulate hair coloring for someone sight unseen?" Mourad says. "We had to figure out how to test that idea."
They first did a proof-of-concept test to see if women might be interested in buying customized color online. They created a rudimentary web site and then hand-mixed colors for about fifty women who had signed up, submitted a photo, and said what color they wanted. Then the women were asked if they liked the color better than the results they got with a do-it-yourself kit at a drug store. "We recruited people who were willing to put this product on their hair, with no idea who we really are. The results were positive enough for us to say we have something," he recalls.
The next step: tapping their knowledge of tech and data science to figure out how to replicate color customization on sale, for fifty thousand women, not just fifty. "We wanted to do something that was really innovative, not bullshit innovative," Mourad says.
Omar Mourad, Tamim's younger brother and another of PriceGrabber's co-founders, read everything he could about dyeing hair. "I didn't have any tangible color experience applying it on any person's hair. But I became a theoretical expert," Omar says.
Over the next several months, he and Gimenez took the lead in translating the rules of hair coloring into software that would determine the right customized mix to get the desired color. That can depend on a numerous variables: a woman's natural color, her current dyed color, how recently she dyed her hair, how much gray hair needs to be covered up, the texture and length of her hair. "You basically look at all of the combinations, and then build out a matrix for how to formulate," Omar explains. Using that knowledge, the team developed a questionnaire that included queries a stylist would ask a first-time customer. The questions themselves aren't rocket science. The rocket science happens when hundreds of thousands or millions of people answer the questionnaires, enabling you to gather more and more data to analyze.
The final step was to automate the formulation. In September 2010, the product was launched. As with an apprentice stylist, eSalon's formulations improved over time as the company got more customers and was able to gather more information. As of 2018, eSalon had dispensed 165,000 different formulations. That's out of a total, it calculates, of 2.2 octooctogintillion pigment variations (that would be 22 followed by 266 zeroes).
In 2019, rival L'Oreal introduced a new brand, Color&Co, that copied key features of eSalon, including an online quiz or a consultation with a colorist to help determine the "a unique custom-blend [color] made only for you." With competition ratcheting up, eSalon – with sales still a modest $30 million a year – agreed to sell a 51 percent stake to the German multinational Henkel. It cited the growing trend toward personalization and eSalon's "valuable customer insights" as reasons for its investment.
Lawrence Ingrassia's "Billion Dollar Brand Club" goes on sale January 28. He is a former business editor of the New York Times and managing editor of The Los Angeles Times.
According to a Forbes report last April, both the viewership and dollars behind women’s sports at a collegiate and professional level are growing.
In 2022, the first 32 games of the NCAA tournament had record attendance levels, breaking records set back in 2004, and largely driven by the new and rapidly growing women’s NCAA tournament. WNBA openers this year saw a 21% spike in attendance, with some teams including the LA Sparks reporting triple-digit ticket sales growth, about 121% over 2022’s total. In 2023, the average size of an LA Sparks crowd swelled to 10,396 people, up from 4,701 people.
Women make up half the population, but “also 50% of the folks that are walking into the stadium at Dodger Stadium, or your NFL fans are just about 50% women,” noted Erin Storck, a panelist and senior analyst at Los Angeles-based Elysian Park Ventures.
Storck added that in heterosexual households, women generally manage most of the family’s money, giving them huge purchasing power, a potential advantage for female-run leagues. “There's an untapped revenue opportunity,” she noted.
In the soccer world, Los Angeles-based women’s soccer team Angel City FC has put in the work to become a household name, not just in LA County but across the nation. At an LA Tech Week panel hosted by Athlete Strategies about investing in sports, Angel City head of strategy and chief of staff Kari Fleischauer said that years before launching the women’s National Women’s Soccer League team, Angel City FC was pounding the pavement letting people know about the excitement ladies soccer can bring. She noted community is key, and that fostering a sense of engagement and safety at the team’s home venue, BMO stadium (formerly Banc of California Stadium), is one reason fans keep coming back.
Adding free metro rides to BMO stadium and private rooms for nursing fans to breastfeed or fans on the spectrum to avoid sensory overload, were just some of the ways ACFC tried to include its community in the concept of its stadium, Fleischauer said. She noted, though, that roughly 46% of Angel City fans are “straight white dudes hanging out with their bros.”
“Particularly [on] the woman's side, I'd like to think we do a better job of making sure that there's spaces for everyone,” Fleischauer told the audience. “One thing we realize is accessibility is a huge thing.”
L.A. Tech Week has brought venture capitalists, founders and entrepreneurs from around the world to the California coast. With so many tech nerds in one place, it's easy to laugh, joke and reminisce about the future of tech in SoCal.
Here's what people are saying about the fifth day of L.A. Tech Week on social:
#LATechWeek has been on 🔥🔥🔥. Yes the events are super cool at amazing venues. But, I’m blown away by the people. I’ve met so many founders building generative AI companies from the ground up. I’m so bullish on LA right now🥳. LA is for builders #longLA
Thanks @rpnickson 📸 pic.twitter.com/B6rT2jJYIs
— Dr. Kelly O'Brien (@Kvo2013) June 8, 2023
Successful LatinxVC Avanza Summit 2023 in LA! It’s been an amazing few days near the beach w great company. Thank you to our panelists & participants.
Huge thanks to our incredible sponsors SVB, Chavez Family Foundation, Annenberg Foundation, PledgeLA, Fenwick & West, Countsy! pic.twitter.com/oVuGIgFurk
— LatinxVC (@LatinxVCs) June 9, 2023
30+ gaming startups presented at the A16z Speedrun Demo Day in LA yesterday. Great thanks to the @a16zGames team for an awesome day of events! #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/DKq8IFo5QZ
— Grace Zhou (@graceminzhou) June 9, 2023
📣🤩 What’s the buzz? It’s #LATechWeek from @TechstarsLA & @TechstarsHealth joint demo day with the #Techstar HC team where our @fyelabs founder/CEO Suvojit Ghosh mentored both cohorts! #TechStars demo day highlighted 12 amazing emerging #startups in #healthtech #innovation. 🩺 pic.twitter.com/0RXClCtfDQ
— FYELABS (@fyelabs) June 9, 2023
Another successful Coffee On Slauson in the books for #LATechWeek.
Special thanks to the good people at Pledge LA, SVB and @GundersonLaw for the ongoing support and the @findyourhilltop staff for providing the space, eats & vibes. ♻️ pic.twitter.com/51cMDoEn30
— Slauson & Co. (@SlausonAndCo) June 9, 2023
The perfect combo to start #LATechWeek Day 5: pastries, coffee, and great convos with industry founders ✨
Fireside chats with @enriquealle, @wp, and @robynpark pic.twitter.com/booYPdekVV
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Of course @designerfund has the most amazing pastries at their event. #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/PjyWlGTQI4
— Jesse Pickard (@jessepickard) June 9, 2023
My favorite event from @Techweek_ has to be "Modern Storytelling & Business Building." Hosted by @STHoward #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/SV1eexMJ4k
— JonnyZeller (@JonnyZeller) June 9, 2023
And the finale of the night was courtesy of the one and only @zedd for an unforgettable end to the "City of Games" party! Hosted by @a16zGames and @100Thieves #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/hliI9yLKse
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Excited to be at the @a16zGames Speedrun Demo Day! Loved the energy and excitement from the companies that pitched there. It was also great to see @Tocelot and @ndrewlee at this amazing #LATechWeek event pic.twitter.com/NfLQO5lR27
— Andy Lee | andypwlee.bit (@andypwlee) June 9, 2023
Thank you to everyone who joined the Sony Venture Fund US team at #LATechWeek for our screening of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Last summer, we started building a presence in LA. Today, it's exciting to host such an event with the @Sony family and the LA VC community. pic.twitter.com/wdDm6qtHdL
— Sony Innovation Fund (@Sony_Innov_Fund) June 9, 2023
Time to eat, connect and build while @remi_rodney provided the vibes. 🙏🏽#LATechWeek @BuildOnBase @developer_dao @WeAreRazorfish pic.twitter.com/QIPh1gjvoA
— Hola Metaverso-Blockchain & New Web Tech Events 🎪 (@holametaverso) June 9, 2023
@Lux_Capital at #LATechWeek advancing the impossible to inevitable, from..
..defense primes partnering with cutting edge defense tech startups, to..
..hardware x LLMs improving mental health.
From the rich and diverse LA ecosystem stems generational companies: pic.twitter.com/v5S5r8JtbU
— Shahin Farshchi (@Farshchi) June 9, 2023
LA Tech Week has been a blast! Met some amazing creators, founders and investors from all over the world! #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/AAh9JFELhe
— Chris Germano (@netslayer) June 9, 2023
Had such a blast at LA Tech Week and hosting events for @brexHQ
Top highlights were collabing with @pulley on an Emerging Managers / Founder mixer at the @poplco House, rooftop event in Venice, creator panel with @thechangj & proper Korean food with in KTown.
Exhausted is an… pic.twitter.com/mGQnSYGPdg
— Τyler Robinson (@TyyRob3) June 9, 2023
Did you have fun at @sophiaamoruso’s launch party for @trustfundvc? #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/gbrbXRQ9Xx
— Kay (@KaySnels) June 9, 2023
y00tilty in every city with @KaylaLor3n & @cryptochrisg813.
Welcome to the LA @y00tsNFT fam! #LATechWeek #3XP week. pic.twitter.com/6wWKlsTacx
— VanG0xH (@CryptoVanGoghs) June 9, 2023
Really enjoyed #LATechWeek. Here are some observations I made 👇
— s.personal.ai (Suman Kanuganti) (@SumanPersonalAI) June 9, 2023
Thank you @TheKofiAmpadu for including me in #demoday with the latest @a16ztxo cohort! It was a real full circle moment to witness the brilliance of both @ChrisLyons & @ZMuse_ & #PledgeLA very own. She’s why we’re #LongLA 🚀💕 #LAtechweek pic.twitter.com/itkKXMxQRb
— Qiana Qiana! (@Q_i_a_n_a) June 9, 2023
@upfrontvc Gaming Founders Podcast #iLOVELA #LATechWeek @Techweek_ @KatiaAmeri @mucker @fikavc @bonfire_vc @TenOne10 @WatertowerGroup @ganasvc @IAmRobRyan @john_at_stonks @eva_ho @dereknorton pic.twitter.com/LCbaGXCoW7
— Sean Goldfaden (@seangoldfaden) June 9, 2023
Hosts Kevin Zhang, Partner at @upfrontvc, and Eden Chen, CEO of @pragmaplatform, interviewed two special guests from @raidbaseinc Stephen Lim, Co-Founder & Product Director, and Trevor Romleski, Co-Founder & Game Director. 🎙 #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/hxHEAoELZ6
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Kicking off @a16zGames @100Thieves City of Games party at #LATechWeek 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/zQcZedG15f
— Jon Lai (@Tocelot) June 9, 2023
Yesterday at @socinnovation I got to have this AWESOME conversation with @iamwill — musician, producer, technology entrepreneur, and Founder & CEO of https://t.co/D60y1e2JOu #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/KBxK6rXyTG
— Anna Barber (@annawbarber) June 9, 2023
I absolutely love this game. Proud moment for the team @investwithatlas. #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/fPZvKXU7TC
— Tobias Francis (@TobiasFrancis) June 9, 2023
Had a blast at LA Tech Week this year with @brexHQ
From hosting & moderating my first creator panel featuring @BlakeMichael14, to a fun rooftop night in Venice, and to attending some amazing events such as Watertower’s emerging manager panel and a VC/founder tennis tournament pic.twitter.com/udjfmLHE0L
— Jonathan Chang (@thechangj) June 8, 2023
At Lowercarbon Capital’s LA Tech Week event Thursday, the synergy between the region’s aerospace industry and greentech startups was clear.
The event sponsored by Lowercarbon, Climate Draft (and the defunct Silicon Valley Bank’s Climate Technology & Sustainability team) brought together a handful of local startups in Hawthorne not far from LAX, and many of the companies shared DNA with arguably the region’s most famous tech resident: SpaceX.
Here’s a look at the greentech startups that pitched during the Tech Week event, and how they think what they’re building could help solve the climate crisis.
Arbor: Based in El Segundo, this year-old startup is working to convert organic waste into energy and fresh water. At the same time, it also uses biomass carbon removal and storage to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in an attempt to avoid further damaging the earth’s ozone layer. At the Tech Week event Thursday, Arbor CEO Brad Hartwig told a stunned crowd that Arbor aims to remove about five billion tons of organic waste from landfills and turn that into about 6 PWh, or a quarter of the global electricity need, each year. Hartwig is an alumni of SpaceX; he was a manufacturing engineer on the Crew Dragon engines from 2016-2018 and later a flight test engineer at Kitty Hawk.
Antora: Sunnyvale-based Antora Energy was founded in 2017, making it one of the oldest companies on the pitching block during the event. Backed by investors including the National Science Foundation and Los Angeles-based Overture VC, Antora has raised roughly $57 million to date, most recently a $50 million round last February. Chief operating officer Justin Briggs said Antora’s goal is to modernize and popularize thermal energy storage using ultra-hot carbon. Massive heated carbon blocks can give off thermal energy, which Antora’s proprietary batteries then absorb and store as energy. It’s an ambitious goal, but one the world needs at scale to green its energy footprint. According to Briggs, “the biggest challenge is how can we turn back variable intermittent renewable electricity into something that's reliable and on demand, so we can use it to provide energy to everything we need.”
Arc: Hosting the panel was Arc, an electric boating company that’s gained surprising momentum, moving from design to delivering its first e-boats in just two years of existence. Founded in 2021, the company’s already 70 employees strong and has already sold some of its first e-boats to customers willing to pay the luxury price tag, CTO Ryan Cook said Thursday. Cook said that to meet the power needs of a battery-powered speedboat, the Arc team designed the vehicle around the battery pack with the goal of it being competitive with gas boats when compared to range and cost of gas. But on the pricing side, it’s not cheap. Arc’s flagship vessel, the Arc One is expected to cost roughly $300,000. During the panel, Cook compared the boat to being “like an early Tesla Roadster.” To date Arc Boats has raised just over $35 million, according to PitchBook, from investors including Kevin Durant, Will Smith and Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Clarity Technology: Carbon removal startup Clarity is based in LA and was founded by Yale graduate and CEO Glen Meyerowitz last year. Clarity is working to make “gigaton solutions for gigaton problems.” Their aim? To remove up to 2,000 billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere through direct air capture, a process which uses massive fans to move chemicals that capture CO2. But the challenge, Meyerowitz noted in his speech, is doing this at scale in a way that makes an actual dent in the planet’s emissions while also efficiently using the electricity needed to do so. Meyerowitz spent nearly five years working as an engineer for SpaceX in Texas, and added he’s looking to transfer those learnings into Clarity.
Parallel Systems: Based in Downtown LA’s Arts District, this startup is building zero-emission rail vehicles that are capable of long-haul journeys otherwise done by a trucking company. The estimated $700 billion trucking industry, Parallel Systems CEO Matt Soule said, is ripe for an overhaul and could benefit from moving some of its goods off-road to electric railcars. According to Soule, Parallel’s electric battery-powered rail vehicles use 25% of the energy a semi truck uses, and at a competitive cost. Funded in part by a February 2022 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Parallel Systems has raised about $57 million to date. Its most recent venture funding round was a $49 million Series A led by Santa Monica-based VC Anthos Capital. Local VCs including Riot Ventures and Santa Monica-based Embark Ventures are also backers of Parallel.
Terra Talent: Unlike the rest of the startups pitching at the Tech Week event, Terra Talent was focused on building teams rather than technology. Founder Dolly Singh worked at SpaceX, Oculus and Citadel as a headhunter, and now runs Terra, a talent and advisory firm that helps companies recruit top talent in the greentech space. But, she said, she’s concerned that all the work these startups are doing won’t matter unless we very quickly turn around the current trendlines. “Earth will shake us off like and she will do just fine in 10,000 years,” she said. “It’s our way of living, everything we love is actually here on earth… there’s nothing I love on Mars,” adding that she’s hopeful the startups that pitched during the event will be instrumental in making sure the planet stays habitable for a little while longer.