At a recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, Dr. Robb Akridge (known as “Dr. Robb”) met the inventor of a kid’s toy called ROXs. ROXs is an interactive game with light-up rocks that kids run towards and tag. It intrigued him with its originality. But ROXs’ founder was downtrodden after pouring all his money into a company that had no investors; and, he didn’t know the ins and outs of running a business.
“He said, ‘All I’m worried about is keeping my family fed,’” Dr. Robb explains.
Serving as a mentor to entrepreneurs in his role as board chairman of the nonprofit Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors (ICMAD), which represents almost 700 cosmetic distributors, manufacturers and suppliers, Dr. Robb is positioned to spread a wealth of knowledge to fellow and aspiring business owners. As the global president and cofounder of skincare conglomerate Clarisonic, Dr. Robb knows a great deal about that.
From funding a business to teaching entrepreneurs how products should be tested and every step in between, “I can help a lot of people out in multiple categories,” he says. “How do you finance your business? That’s my main thing.”
Read on as Dr. Robb tells the story behind the creation of a skincare device that revolutionized the industry, offers advice for other entrepreneurs and predicts future beauty trends.
SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE
Dr. Robb took an interest in science at an early age, aspiring to be a Jacques Cousteau-type (“but that didn’t work out,” he laughs). Earning a bachelor’s in science degree at the University of Texas with a minor in marine biology, he set his sights on getting a master’s degree in biology, botany and mycology from Southwest Texas State. Unable to find a job in the fields of mycology or marine biology, he worked in laboratories as a research assistant in areas such as pediatric cardiology, neurobiology and anatomy.
Always thirsty for knowledge, Dr. Robb hit the books once more to get his third and final degree from Texas A&M—a Ph.D. in microbiology with an emphasis in infectious disease. “Basically I studied parasites and how they avoid your immune system, so it’s very bizarre that I’m now talking about beauty,” he says.
After a four-year postdoctoral fellowship in Seattle studying the HIV-1 virus, Dr. Robb took a second fellowship at the University of Washington’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, continuing his work on AIDS vaccines for another four years.
During his time in the state of Washington, Dr. Robb grew fond of his newfound home—so much so that he wanted to stay there after completing his fellowship. So, he responded to a local ad in the classifieds section of the newspaper. A company creating a sonic toothbrush, Sonicare, was looking for a senior scientist to study plaque removal; Dr. Robb was their guy.
BUSINESS IS BOOMING
After Sonicare was acquired by Philips, Dr. Robb remained with the company for one year. Then one day, Sonicare co-founder David Giuliani asked Dr. Robb if he’d be interested in starting a new company. Giuliani also enlisted three others to assemble his team of five (three active partners and two silent partners), consisting of three engineers, a chemist and Dr. Robb.
Not knowing what their business would even be, the team began studying market trends (“everything from the shipping industry to home appliances,” Dr. Robb says). What they observed was that the skincare market was going to boom—thanks to the baby boomers.
After consulting a dermatologist who said that acne was one of the leading problems for his patients, they learned that it all starts with a plugged pore. In an effort to learn either how to unplug a pore or kill acne-causing bacteria, the team studied LED devices to discover whether they could produce a certain wavelength and kill bacteria; they also tested sonic technology, an area they were well versed in, to see if it could be used to flex the skin around the pore and gently cleanse it of debris.
The main challenge that using sonic technology posed was cleansing the skin without being too rough and causing more problems. Wiggling the skin a short distance, adding water to push away from the bristles and designing softer, polished bristles allowed their device to cleanse the skin without scratching the surface.
“What we discovered was that it wasn’t just for acne; it was for everybody. It was sonic cleansing. We created Clarisonic,” Dr. Robb says.
In 2002, the founders got serious and began launching their product. “It was because we knew sonic technology that we didn’t have a lot of the roadblocks a lot of entrepreneurs have,” Dr. Robb says. The team was quickly able to develop prototypes, and Dr. Robb was in charge of developing the brush heads, testing and conducting safety studies.
While Clarisonic is a cosmetic device, the founders wanted to treat the product as if it were a medical device; so, they conducted studies with an in-house clinic group and had their protocols evaluated by an independent review board to ensure Clarisonic was safe for consumers. By setting their product to a higher standard, they gained the attention of dermatologists, spa owners and consumers—including the most influential woman in the world.
THE BIG O(PPORTUNITY)
It’s every company’s dream to have a product featured as one of Oprah Winfrey’s Favorite Things, but, like anything rewarding, the process was challenging. It all started when Oprah’s director went to a New York dermatologist who recommended she try Clarisonic. After testing it out, she raved to Oprah about how much she loved it.
Nine months before the Oprah’s Favorite Things segment was scheduled to air, Winfrey’s team requested a shipment of 400 Clarisonic devices—making no guarantee that it would be included as one of the final 10 selections. With hundreds of other products in contention, the list dwindled to 150 products three months later; after another three months, it was down to 80.
“And all that time you can’t tell your retailers about it,” Dr. Robb recalls, adding that if the word had gotten out, Clarisonic would have been out of the running.
When Oprah’s team announced Clarisonic had made it to the top 10, they advised the company to hire a phone service to handle an influx of calls to come and to boost their website because it would inevitably crash. Meanwhile, Clarisonic’s retail sales people had to hint to stores that something “big” was going to happen and convince them to stock up on 15,000 devices.
“Twenty-four hours after Oprah, you couldn’t find [Clarisonic] anywhere in the United States. We sold out in 24 hours. It took us three to six months to catch up,” Dr. Robb says.
The Oprah effect lasted long after the show aired, too. When Dr. Robb appeared on a 10-minute QVC segment, the product would sell out within three to four minutes and be taken off the air.
“That happened multiple times, where people couldn’t get their hands on it fast enough,” he says. “Nowadays there are so many products out there touting that they are the best in cleansing, but—and I’m being honest as a consumer—I have not found anything that can compare to Clarisonic. Other products are either using old technology or technology that doesn’t work.”
THE EXIT PLAN
The chairman of ICMAD, Dr. Robb says the organization’s goal is to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses, using its network of 700 companies partnered to help the cause, including big names like Tarte, Jack Black and It Cosmetics. From mom-and-pop shop owners and large companies that produce ingredients for cosmetics, to packaging and distribution centers, Dr. Robb says ICMAD also looks at legislation’s effects on the beauty business.
While his success story inspires entrepreneurs today, Dr. Robb says he was once a “poor scientist” not making much money. In fact, all five founders of Clarisonic chipped in to a common pot to have enough funds to start the business. Dr. Robb cashed out most of his 401K, and did that three times, before Clarisonic had angel investors to support it.
“When you develop a company, one of the things you should always think about is how you’re going to get rid of it, or what you’re going to do with it,” Dr. Robb says. It’s important to know your options. While you can pass on your business to family members for generations, you can also publicly trade it on the stock market, invest in capital groups to expand and sell it for you or sell it to a big fish, he says.
“So, we said, ‘How do we want to exit?’ This was before we even knew what division we were going into; we weren’t even thinking about skin care at this time,” Dr. Robb says. Clarisonic’s founders decided to go the “big fish” route, and even all agreed on a number for how much they’d sell the company for. Ten years later, L’Oréal acquired their company for the original amount they had agreed upon.
“We called up the bank and said it’s time to sell, and everybody agreed; you can’t get greedy… We had investors and we needed to watch out for their money, so it was a great thing,” Dr. Robb says.
GREAT SKIN IS ALWAYS IN
The beauty industry has changed a lot since Clarisonic was founded more than a decade ago, and Dr. Robb says that the consumer has become savvier because of social media. Customers are able to get an answer right away when they have questions about products, and Dr. Robb adds, “Brick-and-mortar stores are not as powerful as they once were.”
And then there’s the selfie craze. “Skincare-market sales globally, especially in the U.S., are not rocketing; this is just the skincare category in general. In fact they’re declining slightly or holding flat,” he says. “That’s because people are jaded. They’ll try something in a bottle and if it doesn’t work for them, they move onto the next thing. But, the makeup/color category has rocketed—and it’s rocketed because of the selfie.”
Today’s selfie-crazed consumer aims to look good in pictures, and because of YouTube and Instagram tutorials, he or she has tons of resources to put on makeup with confidence. “That’s actually pushed sales of all these makeup brands,” Dr. Robb says.
Looking to the future, Dr. Robb predicts that customization and direct sales to consumers will be key. The trend for the past several years has been to replicate treatments like peels or lasers at home. While devices will play a role in that, Dr. Robb says you can’t directly translate the benefits of a doctor visit or spa treatment into a retail product because the chemicals won’t be the same strength as what you’d obtain from a professional.
Always ahead of the curve, he says at Clarisonic, “We’re looking at every area of skin care thought of, and we’re going to continue to innovate.” We have no doubts that Dr. Robb will continue to use his industry knowledge to predict trends and help entrepreneurs hone in on their clients’ desires.