Three co-founders on what’s driving the personalization of beauty

We spoke to Pure Culture Beauty, Prose, and Proven Skincare about what’s next for the space.
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· 7 min read

A universally flattering lipstick is a compelling sell, but the rise of made-for-you beauty is suggesting an industry turning toward individualization.

Just as companies like Sephora and CoverGirl rolled out AR tools to let customers “try on” makeup and analyze their T zone, personalization-focused beauty brands have emerged with the promise that their product is the right product for you and only you.

Investment in the space has grown eight out of the 11 years between 2010 and 2021, per PitchBook data reported to Retail Dive, topping $1 billion as of September last year.

  • Compare that to the $1.7 billion raised in total by the entire beauty industry by that point in 2021.
  • Plus, out of 146 total deals in the beauty space, about two-thirds were within personalized beauty.

But, what does it take to formulate a product assortment that accommodates each customer’s specific needs? Retail Brew spoke to the co-founders of Pure Culture Beauty, Prose, and Proven Skincare about why they’re betting on custom products, and how they see the space growing.

Because as it turns out, customers don’t always want endless selection. Sometimes, they want to be told what they need.

Joy Chen, co-founder and CEO at Pure Culture Beauty

After running the bleach business at Clorox for 17 years, Joy Chen spent the last 13 in the beauty sector. Chen was the CEO of Yes To skincare before teaming up with MAC Cosmetics veteran Victor Casale to start Pure Culture beauty in 2019 after seeing a whitespace in customization.

“The skincare industry is filled with quick fixes and all-in-one products that don’t address the individual’s unique skin needs,” she told us.

  • Pure Culture uses surveys and at-home skin tests to create custom skincare formulas—a set goes for about $80—and regimens, taking into account consumers’ diet, lifestyle, genes, and goals (like fewer fine lines, not a big job promotion).

Why it works: “There’s a lot of confusion with the consumer, in terms of how they get information about what’s best for their skin…So we really believe that the only way to get at this is going to be customization,” Chen said. “Consumers today are demanding more. They’re demanding that they have something that’s right for them.”

Once Pure Culture fine-tuned its model, Chen made moves to scale it with a retail partner. Last August, Pure Culture teamed up with Hudson’s Bay and just yesterday, the company announced a new partnership with Target.

Chen said sustainability is another benefit of the made-to-order model. “In the future, when personalization really becomes a staple across the industry, there will be a lot less waste,” she continued.

What’s next: Chen believes we’ve only scratched the surface of beauty personalization. “It could get to [be] more genome-related. The level of sophistication on the customization could get a lot more sophisticated than it is even today,” she said.

“Right now, a lot of brands are only doing surveys, which is not enough. I think that the testing will get more science-based over time,” Chen explained, but how fast companies get there will depend on the shopper.

“We also have to make sure that the consumer is ready for that big step.”

Paul Michaux, co-founder and VP of product at Prose

Paul Michaux and Arnaud Plas were working on corporate strategy at L’Oréal before they—along with real estate veteran Nicolas Mussat—started personalized hair-care company Prose in 2016 to tackle two problems: 1) customer segmentation and 2) plastic waste and over-production.

“The outcome of customer segmentation is that you end up trying to create a product for everyone. And that doesn’t really work. It’s trying to put people into a box,” Michaux told us. “But at the end of the day, you don’t create a platform for anyone that really works.”

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Why it works: Michaux thinks that in order to break through the noise, a beauty brand has to appeal to individuals. Plus, he reasons, mass production is outdated, given the possibilities of curation. “Customers are looking for the right answers to their needs. People are tired of too much choice,” Michaux continued. “People are tired of wasting money on [things] that don’t really work.”

Michaux credits some of Prose’s success to its customer experience, conveying the company’s self-described “expertise” in a “seamless...interactive” online consultation service. He continued that “listening to the customer” is a crucial first step in finding the right solutions for them.

  • Prose customers take an online quiz, telling the company about factors, like age and hair type, that might impact their hair structure and ideal care routine. From there, the company matches them with customized hair products—shampoo, conditioner, curl cream, mask, oil…you get it.
  • The company, which said it’s been growing revenue by 2x–3x throughout the last three years, is currently on track to do over $100 million in revenue in 2022.

What’s next: Michaux predicts more beauty brands and more tech will specialize in personalization. Prose, for example, developed its own fully stacked in-house DTC technology, which spans everything from Prose’s website to machine-learning algorithms for the formula creations and routine recs.

In 2020, Prose even implemented an automated fulfillment machine, which lets the company “produce made-to-order products at scale,” Michaux explained.

  • It reprograms itself for each unique bottled formula, and Prose claims it’s helped output increase by 4x and precision by 5x.

“The tech allows us to create this at scale,” Michaux said. “The trend is here to stay.”

Ming Zhao, co-founder and CEO at Proven Skincare

Ming Zhao started Proven as a “personal mission” after struggling to find products that were suited to her skin type. After years of working in investing, consulting, and fintech, Zhao met her co-founder Dr. Amy Yuan, a computational physicist from Stanford, in 2016 and started working on a data-backed approach to skincare.

  • Yuan created the Skin Genome Project, an AI-driven beauty database that she and Zhao would use to develop Proven.

The Skin Genome Project analyzes data from 20,238 skincare ingredients, 100,000 products, 28 million testimonials, and 4,000 scientific publications.

  • Using this data, Proven creates personalized skincare products based on nearly 50 factors, including an individual’s genetics, lifestyle, and local environment.
  • Proven tweaks individuals’ formulations every eight weeks along with changing seasons, the skin’s tolerance to active ingredients, and life changes.

Why it works: “There’s also a growing demand for personalized products of all sorts,” Zhao claimed. “Personalization is touching every other aspect of our lives. Everything in medical care is personalized…Why should beauty and wellness be the only exception?”

“People often ask me, do you think personalized beauty is a fad? And I often ask them, ‘Do you think personalized, precision medicine is a fad? Do you think that we’ll go back to a time where the same couple of treatments…are applied to all of our body’s illnesses?’”

What’s next: Zhao points to AI machine learning and a predictive-modeling supply chain. “Personalization requires a thoughtful, scientific approach to product development, as well as careful, precise communication to consumers. Too many brands have jumped on the personalization bandwagon just to jump right off when they realize that it’s hard,” she said.

“This is not an area to move into without doing research, bringing the right team together, and truly dedicating the brand to personalized products.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.