When Deanna Pai lost her eyebrows to chemotherapy in 2015, she had almost every serum, gel and pencil at her disposal — she was a beauty editor at Cosmopolitan magazine — but no good solution. Her favorite brow gel “looked awful, like watercolor on skin,” she said, and she didn’t have the energy to try to pencil in a realistic brow.
“It’s really hard when there isn’t any hair to guide you,” said Pai, 30, who learned she had a rare liver cancer at 23.
What she wanted was natural-looking stick-on replacement brows made of human hair. The ideal was a pair that weren’t the exact same shape, because, she said, “the biggest giveaway of fake eyebrows is when they’re twins instead of sisters.”
So Pai, now a freelance writer in Manhattan, turned to a crowdsourced company called Volition Beauty. The startup lets anyone submit a product idea, which is then put to registered users of the site for a vote. The brows made the cut.
After much personal testing by Pai, who was particularly picky about the glue, shape and color, Volition introduced Mission Brows in 2017.
Mission Brows is by far the most niche of the 26 products Volition has created, but it speaks to the company’s philosophy: “If there is an audience for it, we will make it,” said Patricia Santos, a founder.
This, Santos said, is contrary to her years of experience in the beauty industry, “where a lot of innovative products don’t get made because they’re not million-dollar products. The audience for brows is small, but the people who need it really need it.”
Pai’s product is available only on the Volition website, but an eye treatment gel that’s also a primer (the idea of a makeup artist) sold out eight times at Sephora, and the Prismatic Luminizing Shield sunscreen (from a beauty editor turned real estate agent) sold out in 24 hours at its debut, then again in the same week. (Allure magazine was sufficiently enamored to alert its readers when the sunscreen was back in stock.)
Cindy Deily, the vice president for skin-care merchandising at Sephora, said via email that the retailer was drawn to Volition because of its “unique” customer focus. It “built a brand around the idea of asking people what they want, turning those wants, needs, and ideas into products,” she wrote.
Volition isn’t the first beauty company to crowdsource. In 2015, Glossier founder Emily Weiss asked readers of her Into the Gloss blog, “What’s Your Dream Face Wash?” The answers informed Glossier’s bestselling Milky Jelly Cleanser.
But Volition, based in Sausalito, California, is the first to allow “innovators,” as the company calls them, to drive the idea development — and profit from it. The percentage one receives varies, partly based on how developed the idea is when it’s proposed. The cosmetic chemist who already had the formula for the detoxifying silt gelée mask she proposed gets more than the innovator who has a seedling of an idea.
The women interviewed — so far, all successful products have come from women — could not give figures because of agreements they signed with Volition, but the company said that one innovator will make $100,000 this year and several others $30,000. (Pai, who has been in remission for three years, has donated her share to the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, which runs a Cancer to 5K training program that she said was key to her recovery.)
Some 4,000 ideas have been submitted in the last 2 1/2 years, though as word has spread, there are now about 100 a week. Volition first makes sure ideas are new and feasible. (A machine that delivers the perfect manicure didn’t pass muster because available technology can’t yet distinguish between nail and skin.) About 11.5% make the cut.
The company’s network of chemists helps develop the concept, then a campaign is posted on the site. This is not a first-past-the-post voting system. Volition software determines a different vote threshold for every idea, based partly on a guess of how many voters actually will buy the product, plus the minimum number of customers needed to make the economics work. (Nerd alert: The software is called Pyxis, after the urns used in ancient Greece to store cosmetics.)
Santos and her business partner, Brandy Hoffman, met in 2012, when they worked at Algenist. They founded Volition partly in reaction to their frustration with the beauty industry’s relative slowness to embrace diversity and inclusion.
“When people are talking about inclusion, they’re only talking about foundation shades,” Hoffman said. “It’s 2019. That should be the bare minimum.” She is gay and plus-size (her description) and felt “constantly minimized at meetings.” She recalled a team photo at one job, when she was told, “‘Brandy, you should have a quote, but you won’t be in the photo.’” (Volition recently raised $6 million in funding, led by Unilever Ventures.)
They are proud that ideas roll in from a range of beauty hounds. Volition’s Strawberry-C Brightening Serum came from Varika Pinnam, 20, a University of Texas at Dallas student whose DIY experiments with her sister revealed that fresh-cut strawberries improved skin brightness and tone.
Nastia Liukin, 29, the 2008 Olympic gold-medal gymnast, pitched a celery-powered moisturizer, musing that the celery juice she had drunk daily since she was 8 might benefit her skin as much as her mother always insisted it did her body.
“This was before celery juice was super-in and super-popular,” Liukin said, referring to when she suggested the cream. (Celery has hydrating and anti-inflammatory benefits. Volition said the vegetable’s phytonutrients also have pore-minimizing properties, though there are no independent studies that confirm this.)
Liukin, who discovered Volition when she picked up the luminizing sunscreen on one of her weekly trips to Sephora, went through the same process as everyone else. Unlike other innovators, though, she had nearly 1 million Instagram followers she could mobilize to vote.
Liukin likened the hands-on development of her Celery Green Cream to refining a gold-medal routine. “I know that sounds cheesy,” she said. She held her breath when her product was introduced in July. “I’m an athlete. I’m a competitor. I want it to be successful.”
You could say it stuck the landing: It sold out instantly, generating a wait list of 40,000.