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Where Magazines Fear to Tread: Beautylish Expands from MakeUp Tutorials into Ecommerce

Guidance and point of purchase, together at last.
 Where Magazines Fear to Tread: Beautylish Expands from MakeUp Tutorials into Ecommerce

So many eye shadows!

After two years of building a community of makeup nuts around cosmetic content, startup Beautylish is ready to monetize. Today the company launches an ecommerce offering, so fans of their YouTube tutorials need no longer rustle up their new favorite eyeshadow colors via their own Google searches.

Founder Nils Johnson may be best known for his work as an angel investor, putting early cash into companies like Warby Parker and Everlane, but Beautylish is his very own bouncing baby. 24 months in, the site receives more than a million monthly uniques and has almost as many Twitter followers as beauty beast Sephora. Makeup artists active on the site include Billy B., who works with Lady Gaga.

Funding to date stands at just over $2 million, from investors like Ron Conway, Max Levchin, Steve Chen, and Jeremy Stoppelman.

Mr. Johnson said he had to wait to launch the money-making piece of the puzzle until he had built a community to drum up demand. “We recognized that there was a lot of groundwork we needed to lay before just launching a shop,” he explained to Betabeat.

“We decided to start around content and education as the first half of the business, to make that discovery piece a lot easier when you get down to the nitty gritty of product,” Mr. Johnson explained, elaborating, “Even if you find something in Sephora, you may not realize the ways that you can apply that–does it work as a blush, does it work on the lip, can you use it on eye. What products does it work best with? Is it right for me?”

“It’s really giving people a better understanding of that piece before we just move into like the product side of the business. That’s why we felt content was so important to build a successful company in this category.”

Beauty magazines have long been important arbiters of the discovery process. But, as anyone who’s ever spent a fruitless 30 minutes combing the shelves of Duane Reade for that one nail color can attest, actually purchasing the products featured is a different matter entirely.

“Think about where the magazines leave off,” he said. “You find something awesome, and now you have to go to page 254 and in fine print they’re saying, okay, go to Opening Ceremony on Howard Street to find it. And then you go to Opening Ceremony, and they’re like, no we don’t have that, because they shot the magazine three months ago and the item’s already gone.”

“It’s not a great experience,” he said. To say the least, sir.

There was a moment where the Beautylish team felt they could pursue either high-end advertising or ecommerce as a monetization model. But, explained Mr. Johnson, “it quickly became apparent to us that the products people love don’t necessarily have the money to spend on the ads.”

“We felt that it was best to be able to provide a great experience end-to-end from the content all the way to receiving the box,” he said.

“I think that there’s very few successful community sites today,” he said. There are social media sites putting up professional content, and community sites focusing on user-generated content, but “I don’t think there’s an example that’s really brought that together in a powerful way, and that’s really what we’re trying to do.”

It’s a different model from the one that’s so in vogue right now–subscription services. While Birchbox, for example, tackles discovery through samples, Beautylish uses content. And that’s no accident. “To charge money for something that is free everywhere else, I question the ability to scale,” he said. The other problem, he added, is that beauty buyers tend to be loyal to particular brands. “If people don’t have the things that you want, you’re not interested.”

“Just putting 20 random things in your hand and saying, hey, try all these things–if you have no context for the use of those or why you’d be looking for them in the first place, I don’t think it’s a very effective way to sell,” he said.

“Although they have garnered a lot of attention, you can look at our numbers, we’re probably significantly larger in terms of traffic and social following,” he claimed.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com