One year later

More than a year ago, I left the tech world. I have gone on quite a few adventures since then. Diving in Koh Tao, surfing in Bali, backpacking in the Californian backcountry, snowboarding in Utah and Europe, and many other excursions marked my year-long sabbatical. I said hello and goodbye to many people. I stepped away from the career that offered me the opportunity and privilege to take this sabbatical, so it was a bittersweet decision to not continue my career in the industry that gave me so much.

Six months ago, I decided to create a skincare line for young men. Transitioning into this business has been quite an adjustment. I spent nearly a decade in an industry where products can be changed and deployed to billions of people with a press of a button. Admittedly, I was one of those “tech snobs” who biased against “low tech” industries. I couldn't fathom how people chose to work in industries where new product launches were rare. For a long time, I considered physical goods a reminder of an archaic past and out-of-touch generation. Having "drunk the Kool-Aid," I was convinced that I would be working in “high tech” for the rest of my life. Well the joke is on me, right?

So how has it been so far? I have learned a lot (and realized my naiveté in the process). Creating a physical product requires a focus, commitment and patience that I have not experienced in my previous roles. For example, we spent several days with our supplier discussing which shade of gray to use for our containers and boxes. For an app or website, one would deploy one shade and see how users respond. If they react negatively, push an update with a new shade instantly. The cycle continues until one finds the shade with the highest conversion. 

For a product that exists in real life, there is no "update" once the design is delivered to the factory. Any changes risk delaying your product launch by months, if not years. "Good enough” is acceptable for digital products where one can iterate to perfection, but this doesn't cut it for physical goods. A physical product only has one chance to attract a potential customer's attention and motivate him or her to buy that product. There are thousands of cosmetics manufacturers in South Korea. (Yes, you read that right. Not hundreds. Thousands.) Finding the right manufacturing partner can be overwhelming. Vetting suppliers in a foreign country and new industry makes it more challenging. 

Although my aesthetician and dermatologist recognize my atypically sophisticated knowledge of various skincare products and ingredients, creating something as simple as a cleanser is not an easy task. Product formulation, package design and manufacturing, compatibility testing, compliance review and filling are among the long list of things required to create the product. Then, there is the question of how the product will get to the customer's hands from Korea. Long lead times are not consequences of old manufacturing processes and bloated organizational cultures. It is a complex, coordinated effort between multiple stakeholders all over the world and their relentless pursuit to really understand their customers and create the "perfect" product for them. 

I began to understand why hardware startups are more prone to failure than software startups. Misalignment, not failure, can often lead to delays of months, if not years. (Magic Leap, Juicero, Skully and many others come to mind.) Also, software can't really cause physical injury to customers in real life, but hardware can. Therefore, one has to be really anal about not only the product's quality but also the liability and potential to hurt people post-launch. Now I look at the world with a different lens. Every time I make my matcha in the morning, I don't only think about how it tastes. Where did my matcha come from? How were the tea leaves chosen to be in this batch? Why were these particular leaves blended in this can? Who blended this? How did this tea get into my hands? When you start to think about the number of products we interact with in our daily lives, it becomes quite awe-inducing and overwhelming.

Yes, I may have bit more than I could chew. Common sense would've dictated that I first gain experience in the cosmetics industry before jumping into the deep end. Nonetheless, instinct suggested that the established players have acknowledged the growing men's grooming market, but they will falter for two reasons. First, they have built highly efficient, productive businesses covering the entire customer lifecycle of women, but their understanding of male consumers are fragmented and focused on older demographic. Second, social media, especially Snapchat, is putting unedited, authenticity front and center. Everyone is now an "always-on" content creator and empowered to build their personal brands from a young age. Gender, as we know it, is blurring, and the younger generation are associating gender as a primary feature of their identity.

This generational shift is why I'm so excited and frightened at the same time. It would've been much easier if I decided to start a company in video games and digital media, but I've gravitated towards beauty and cosmetics. As our body ages, it's become so critical to listen to our bodies and take care of them. My skincare ritual was one of my first and ongoing commitment to love not only my body but myself. When first impressions mattered, I didn't have to worry about how my skin looked like in front of others. I felt I could conquer anything from exec meetings to first dates. 

I'm convinced that there is latent demand for such products, and I want to help customers take control and invest in themselves. By choosing to build a product not for myself, this endeavor forced me to reach out and have intimate conversations with male friends and strangers about their relationships with their skin. This is not about me but about them, my potential customer. I knew that men faced the same insecurities like women, but the stark similarities surprised me the most. Men fret about their physical appearances as much, if not more, than their female counterparts, and they don't have the same forums to discuss among men in fear of their "masculinity."  

A year ago, I would've never pictured my life the way it is now. I gained a greater appreciation and respect for those choosing to build physical products. This journey became more than building a physical product. It was about learning how to be selfless and help others be more comfortable in their bodies and skin. How can I be more encouraging and supportive for men to be comfortably vulnerable and realize their own potential? This entrepreneurial chapter isn't about me but how I can help redefine not only women't but also men's roles in our communities.