What I’ve learned as Founder of a DTC start-up after the first year

Ning Li
Ning Li
Feb 25 · 9 min read

In February 2019 we launched Typology, a natural skincare brand with down to earth formulations, distributed exclusively online . This is the retrospective of our first year operations.

We launched Typology just over a year ago with one mission in mind: to demystify a complex and opaque skincare industry. In 12 months, the team grew to 25 people, we raised $10m in a seed round and shipped over hundreds of thousands of products. We are obviously still at the very beginning of the journey, but I felt that our one year birthday would be a nice opportunity to properly reflect and share some of my learnings. My goal is to be as transparent as possible, which isn’t always easy :)

Product: how to craft something radically innovative

Our product design process is about challenging the norm and rethink what skincare products would be, in a perfect world. Innovation and our ability to test and learn define our company DNA and raison d’être. What does it mean to be radically innovative?

One of our best selling products is our 9-ingredient Hydrating Creme. When we set out to design this product, we set the bar extremely high. We wanted to design a perfumeless, genderless, vegan and minimalist product with maximum 10 ingredients, made in France — that would achieve a perfect score on third party health apps (such as Yuka). That is by no means a simple task. However, we managed to accomplish exactly that. This is radically different from a majority of the moisturizers on the market that feature, on average 20–30 ingredients and score poorly at third party health apps as they contain potentially controversial ingredients in their formulations.

Typology Creme Hydratante, 9 ingredients

Another one of our products that we feel demonstrates this radically different approach is Woman, our 4-serum set that is built to adapt to a woman’s skin during her menstrual cycle. Now, 99% of our products are genderless (15% of our customers are male). Yet, this is an issue that just about every women can relate to. Women all experience differences in their skin as a result of hormonal changes throughout their cycle. However, no topical products take this into account. So we set out to build something slightly more technical, that would adapt to a woman’s skin throughout her cycle and be as natural as possible.

How to make digital work in a highly sensorial industry

Now, there are 2 key elements of cosmetics products (especially skincare) that are near impossible to experience through a purely digital environment: scent and texture. With make-up it’s very different since the experience is largely visual and today’s digital technologies are moving to greatly enhance the experience; for example, many companies are leveraging AR technologies to allow users to digitally try on make-up products before purchase. But technology still hasn’t found a way to overcome the barrier with scent and texture — and as a result, we’ve experimented with a number of techniques (both online and offline).

Online we’ve tried as much as possible to keep things simple, familiar and use a mix of different content formats to enhance the digital experience. For example, to best communicate scent, we will couple an image of the product with the raw ingredients inside. This isn’t a new technique by any means, but it works. When a user rolls their mouse over an image of our Sweet Almond Oil, we will show an image of a fresh, crunchy almonds. We also use a variety of different content formats (photo, text, video, etc.) to convey the full product experience as best we can. But we find that often, it’s customer reviews and user-generated that still do this best. Our website has received in average 4.7 out of 5 scores out of over thousands of independent reviewers.

Huile d’amande douce bio (sweet almond oil) — Typology

We took this one step further with our line of perfumes. Perfume is incredibly personal and therefore a little more difficult to do strictly online. We decided to make a line of very simple, uncomplicated scents that would mix a maximum of 2 ingredients. Those are the scents that people can easily relate to and familiar with, such as fresh rosemary, sweet mandarine and jasmin. As always, our ethos is that simplicity trumps complexity and in this case, simplicity also helps to sell the product itself.

Offline stores: this is an area that a lot of digital brands have ended up doing as well. But so far, we’ve tried to limit ourselves much as possible, as we are really striving to build a digital brand with an excellent digital experience. That said, we did have carried out some pop-ups in 2019 (at the Parisian store Merci and also a brief stint at the Hoxton Hotel). We chose to do these ad hoc pop-ups not to maximize revenue, but really to learn from offline retail (not our DNA nor expertise) and to engage with our brand fans. In the case of Merci pop-up, we found that we also were able to reach out to an audience that was much more international than we have today, with a lot of new Korean and Japanese customers (we still only ship to France and Belgium today).

Cutting through the noise to build brand awareness, without being flashy and loud.

Typology isn’t my first business, nor is it my first online retail business. But I’ve been surprised to see how much the internet has evolved since the launch of my previous company made.com. When I launched Made, we were perhaps one of the only few brands really serious about the online furniture business at the time and so it wasn’t impossible to stand out. But in the cosmetics space it feels like there is a new brand popping up just about everyday. Naturally it’s challenging to build brand awareness when there is so much online noise.

While the temptation is to be loud and catchy (use of flashy colours and “millennial / Gen Z friendly” emoticons, for instance), to grab people’s attention, we feel it was perhaps more important to create a beautiful visual language that can endure the test of time. The key for us to make a statement with dignity.

We’ve built our brand values around naturality, simplicity and efficacy. And even though our company is young, we’ve already gone through somewhat of a rebranding exercise. We initially were supposed to be called season.com.

Just a week before our initial launch (meant to be in January 2019) we were forced to change our brand name. It turned out that our trademark, “Season”, was too close to another French competitor, who requested us to change our name just before our planned launch. At the time, this presented a number of logistic challenges but in the long run turned out to be a blessing; we were able to find a name much more in-line with our mission and values. Typology.

Once we were up and running, we set out to gain more visibility. We worked with key journalists, influencers, ran ads on a variety of online and social platforms, and also advertised in the metro. All of these — in particular positive press relations and influencer endorsements, contributed to our word of mouth and ultimately our visibility — but there is one project we launched that I felt really highlighted our brand values better than any advertisement: #BlackforGood.

Black for Good is a campaign we launched for Black Friday, which is obviously an important moment for consumer brands. We wanted to turn Black Friday into something of a more positive event — to a moment of give back, from both brands and consumers. We would give back all the profits we make during this period to Eden Reforestation Project (a charity that supports local community to replant trees across South America and Nepal), and we also called for other forward-thinking brands to join the movement.

At the end, over 80 brands (of which 70% are also in cosmetics sector) joined our movement. We planted hundreds of thousands of trees but we also created a positive moment, an alternative to the mainstream consumption event.

Logistics: dealing with selling out and strikes

After my experience at Made and shipping furniture around the world, I was hardly expecting logistics to be an issue — and for the most part, it hasn’t been. However, there were 2 issues this year that definitely complicated things from a logistics perspective: selling out of certain products and the Paris strikes.

We sold out on many occasions of our best selling products last year. Some people may think that selling out of certain products is a good thing, that it shows high demand. And while it may be just that, I personally can’t stand selling out of a product because I hate making our customers wait. We source ingredients from sustainable, natural sources and a lot of our production are subject to plantation seasons (there are only so many months in Chili you can harvest our cold-press rosehip oil, for example. We ended up launching pre-orders as a feature for key items that are in hot demand as a way to satisfy our customers-in-waiting.

Huile végétale de rose musquée bio Typology (organic rosehip oil)

For those of you who live in France, you already know that we had a major strike in December which disrupted transport, businesses and daily lives. In our case, December was also a peak season where shipping is crucial — a lot of our customers are ordering gifts for their friends and families for the holidays. Although the strike did cause a lot of operational concerns (staff at our warehouse couldn’t come to work and we had to resort to interim staff, it also resulted to a slightly higher error rate, for exemple), we noticed that a lot of people chose to stay at home and shop online. We saw a huge jump in sales when the strike started. In a way the strikes accelerated the transition of offline to online sales :)

Company culture: talents are everywhere, what matters is finding the right ones that fit our values.

It has become trendy to join a start-up- especially a well funded startup in a hot sector. It’s not uncommon that for some of our job vacancies to receive hundreds of applications. But even with this inflow of applicants, it has always been an incredibly hard task to find the perfect candidate for the right job.

A lot of candidates probably have the wrong image of start-ups — a foosball-friendly family with loads of perks. The reality is quite different. If someone is joining a company — especially at our early stage — to look for perks or fancy offices means they are probably the wrong fit. Ambitious start-ups are hard and not for the faint-of-hearts; in hindsight we work best with smart, hard working people with no ego, that are really motivated by what we do — change the rule of FMCG industry. I believe my team’s happiness should come first and foremost as a result of their success in the workplace — by giving them challenging goals and helping them to accomplish them — and not because of the various perks. If you are feeling too comfortable in your current well paid positions, and your goal in life is work life balance, this company is probably not for you.

We have a team of 25 incredibly diverse and talented people — from 12 different nationalities (!) and from very different backgrounds. From other start-ups, freelancers or from more established companies like L’Oreal or LVMH. For a young company, early hires are key and set the tone. That’s why we spent an enormous amount of time interviewing and choosing the right talents — we only make a job offer after a long, 5 step recruiting process that ends with one full immersion trial day. I’d be lying if I said we hadn’t had any departures (one employee leaving after the probation period, and 2 other didn’t make it through the probation period) . But this is also why we’ve redesigned our recruitment process, to make sure we only onboard and train people that are in-line with our values and culture.

For those of you who read French, more here on our company page

Typology team
Typology team
First members of Typology team July 2019. Clemence, Salome, Laureen, Nassim, Fatima, Romain, Emin, Noemie, Margaux, Marie, Victoire, Ning, Solene, Sybille, Pierre, Guillaume, Lambert, Peter

Ning Li

Written by

Ning Li

Founder of Made.com (DTC furniture brand) and Typology.com (DTC skincare brand)

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade