Jane Says: Julep CEO on Leadership, Growing Pains, Community, Family

Jane Park, co-founder and CEO of Seattle beauty brand Julep, is trying to build “the most transparent and collaborative company” in any category, not just in the massive beauty products industry where Julep is differentiating itself by forming deep relationships with customers online and in person.

Park, who leads 240 employees and has raised $56 million from some of the biggest names in venture capital since launching Julep in 2006, takes leadership lessons and observations on startup life from her experience as a parent of two, in addition to stints heading new ventures at Starbucks and as a strategy consultant with The Boston Consulting Group.

Xconomy sat down with Park in Julep’s Lower Queen Anne headquarters in advance of her fireside chat at Xconomy Xchange: Beauty and the Data Beast—Seattle Innovation Stories on Tuesday, Nov. 18. She will be joined on stage by Jason Stoffer, a partner at Maveron, the Seattle consumer-focused venture firm that made an early investment in the company.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Xconomy: Julep has four Seattle-area salons, where 100 of its employees work. Tell me about the importance of the company’s beginnings with bricks-and-mortar salons and the role that part of the business plays today.

Jane Park: We designed our parlors to enable conversation and connection, and that’s really been the DNA that we’ve brought online. So the reason that we collaborate with our customers online is that we were always about this two-way conversation with our customers and inviting them in to help us grow.

At the end of the day, what we’re trying to build is the most transparent and collaborative company, not just in the beauty category, but ever. And so, I think our roots in really understanding the customer—when you are holding somebody’s hands and feet and you are in that intimate of a situation with them, there’s a different level of trust and customer service dynamic that comes with that.

That whole idea of thinking about her comprehensively—everything from, hey, she has a fancy purse so we need a purse hook, or there’s a ledge at our cash wrap so you can put your purse down while you pay. That’s the kind of detail that as we’re building digital products we want to think through as well. What are the little minutia that make up a fantastic experience, that make you feel understood.

The average company has to recruit a focus group. We actually find it really helpful that there’s hundreds of women going through our parlors every day.

X: You talked about the most transparent and collaborative company in any category. Did you set out with that in mind, and if so, why is that important?

JP: You end up with better ideas. The beauty category is fun. I set out to create amazing products and if you’re working this hard, you want to do it in a way that you’re excited about and proud of. So it’s just inherent in me and my co-founder Kate MacDonald that we don’t have ego and we’re always asking for help.

One of the things we found along the way in building Julep is that that always ends up with better results. You end up learning things you didn’t know on your own and all you have to do is ask for help.

Taking that concept to our customers has really helped us design better products. There are TED talks on this—the wisdom of the crowd. It’s definitely garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t ask the right questions, you get crap. You can’t go to the customer and say, ‘Hey, tell me how to grow to $1 billion next year,’ because that’s not the right question. But if you are committed to doing things better every day, to innovating, to not being beholden to the past rules, and then you also let really smart people—and in particular your users—into the conversation, you always end up with better innovation.

X: You’re managing tons of incoming information like any business does, but are there some specific ways that you’ve been able to integrate that customer feedback?

JP: Absolutely. We’ve done it in a ton of different ad hoc ways; we’re now trying to gather up the best practices and formalize it as a place in our app, or how to engage people digitally and make them feel part of Julep.

For example, we were thinking about what the next color extensions should be on this lip treatment that we developed, and instead of us just coming up with it, we just put the different swatches online, on our blog, and then we asked people for feedback. It’s actionable. When they vote, we will literally use what they have picked.

X: Is there a tension there in that sharing with your customers? Obviously, it’s open and competitors could be looking into that open design process as well. How do you balance the need to keep a competitive edge with that impulse to be open?

JP: What’s great is that because we’re so super-fast with our product launches, it’s less of an issue for us. We also are not miserly with our ideas. We feel like we have so many really great ideas that it’s not any one idea. If you only have one idea, then protect it with your life, because that’s your only idea. We have so much—it’s just the way we see things as a company is always asking, ‘What would we do today if we had our magic wand?’

Every company is hiring these innovation consultants and trying to figure out a way to have ideas grow inside your own company. It starts out with enabling risk-taking behavior. That’s not rocket science. There’s probably a million business books on it, but to do that well, it is about the culture. It’s showing yourself failing, for example, which a lot of chief executives don’t want to do. It’s being transparent about it to your team when you do. Pointing out, OK, here’s where I screwed up, and what I learned.

X: Given your focus on your relationship with customers, I would imagine you’d be pretty upset to read the Better Business Bureau’s assessment early this year that Julep has been “unresponsive” to complaints about customer service and billing related to Julep Maven, which includes a monthly shipment of beauty products and other benefits. What’s happening there from your perspective and what you feel has been done to resolve it?

JP: I think this has happened to a lot of companies. We never got the complaints basically, so I didn’t respond to it because I didn’t see them. [The complaints] go to the Better Business Bureau, so there was no communication directly with us that we received.

So, hey, we fixed that. I wish they had called me … Next Page »

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Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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  • Zbear

    I’m glad you asked Jane about the BBB reviews. Confusing as to why she seems to think that they don’t matter and is generally unconcerned about having an “F” rating? Also, I think it is worth looking at the employee reviews on Glassdoor. Jane Park gets so much breathless media coverage in the press, but her business practices seem shady when employees are not able to take vacation and do not get paid out for their PTO when they quit or are let go.