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How To Build Intention In Your Daily Routine With Skincare: With Terry Lee, Co-Founder/CEO Of Panacea

Terry Lee is the Co-Founder/CEO of Panacea, a skincare brand that introduces intention into your daily routine. By starting your day with a simple skincare routine, you build the necessary confidence and momentum for larger wins throughout your day. Previously, he was COO at MeUndies for three years. He also worked at Johnson & Johnson in sales and marketing and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2009.

What is your “backstory”?

My backstory is that I don’t have any business being in the position I am today as Co-Founder/CEO of a growing company.

I studied Pre-Medicine and played soccer in college with the desire to become a sports orthopedic surgeon. I didn’t take a single business class at Notre Dame and it wasn’t until my senior year when I was interviewing for med school that I realized this intended path wasn’t for me.

I grew up not knowing what “business” meant. My dad is a neurosurgeon and my mom was a stay-at-home mom taking care of three kids (shout-out to all the moms with kids; you are the backbone of the labor force). We never talked about business. It was an obscure concept that was only shaped by movies I watched, conversations at school, and content on the internet. The only thing I cared about when I was growing up was having fun and becoming a pro soccer player. And doing well in school in case soccer didn’t work out.

During my senior year of college, I had an “Oh shit, what am I going to do now?” moment. I had a pre-med degree, lack of desire to pursue medical school, and no experience in anything else. I decided to learn as much as I could about other career paths and make a decision. Business was the first area I explored.

My dad put me in touch with his one business friend, Roger, who had started a recruiting company called Cameron-Brooks, which helps Junior Military Officers (JMOs) transition into leadership positions within Corporate America. Roger assigned me a lot of reading and homework for six months in preparation to interview with companies at one of their recruiting summits. After attending the 2-day C-B recruiting summit (I interviewed with 15+ companies over a weekend), I accepted a position at Johnson & Johnson (J&J).

I worked at J&J for three years in marketing and sales. During that time, I became fascinated with the concept of being an entrepreneur. This was 2011–2012 when Facebook was preparing for its IPO and other tech startups were dominating the news. I became fixated on working at a startup, so I left J&J for a 3-month unpaid internship at a startup called CoachUp that had just launched. If my goal was to give your parents a heart attack, then I was doing well.

The internship turned into a leadership role at CoachUp (a consumer marketplace that connects athletes with private coaches). While working at CoachUp, I rediscovered a passion for tangible products (less tech) and a desire to move west (after 27 years, I had grown tired of the cold, long winters).

I cold-emailed an entrepreneur named Tristan Walker (side note: I attended an entrepreneurial discussion held by CNBC and Tristan was one of the panelists; This was the first time I had heard about entrepreneurship and got hooked.) I was going to move to SF and figure out a way to work for him, when I took a pit stop in LA to take a few weeks off before heading up north. Within the first week, I got bored, so I met with the MeUndies team via my high school friend, Dan King, who was their Head of Marketing. We arranged a 3-month consulting agreement, which ultimately turned into a 3-year stint as the COO. I’m incredibly proud of what we built together as we grew the company from a couple hundred thousand dollars per month to $35mm+ by end of 2016, from <10 employees to 75+ employees, and most importantly, we built lifelong friendships and experiences that will last my lifetime.

I’m reminded that my career has come down to great people paying it forward; being intellectually curious and working hard to find the answer; and a lot of luck and serendipity.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?

The most interesting story is how we met Michelle Trinh, Co-Founder/Product Lead of Panacea.

Michelle and Jason (Co-Founder/COO of Panacea) met a few years ago on a flight from Paris to LA. Jason’s phone had run out of battery, so he asked Michelle if he could borrow her phone to make a call and that sparked a conversation between them. At the time, Jason was working in LA and Michelle was working for L’Oréal in NYC. They exchanged information but didn’t connect for a few years.

Fast forward the summer of 2016 — Jason had just joined Panacea and Michelle was moving to LA for a new role within L’Oréal. Michelle emailed Jason to see if they could grab coffee because she was new to the area and looking to meet some new friends. Jason happened to look Michelle up on LinkedIn (thank God for Jason’s investigative instincts) and noticed she had worked in beauty/skincare her whole career. Specifically, Michelle was previously International Marketing Manager at Kiehl’s and was responsible for skincare brand management and product development.

Jason (without telling Michelle) invited me to crash their coffee meeting, and that conversation was the genesis of an incredible friendship/partnership that led to Michelle joining Panacea as a Co-Founder.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Panacea is the anti-beauty beauty brand.

Most beauty brands are focused on making your skin look healthy and glowing. To make your skin look beautiful.

What if beauty could be the conduit to something more than just vanity?

Panacea is not a beauty brand. Panacea is a brand that creates skincare products as the conduit to introduce intention into your day.

Panacea has a non-traditional story, and we weren’t supposed to get this far. Panacea started as an idea during a ski trip (there’s something about the fresh mountain air that inspires the best ideas and conversations) in January 2016. And since then, we’ve molded and shaped Panacea into a tangible brand.

The reason for Panacea’s existence comes down to an unwavering vision; sheer will and work to execute against that vision; the invaluable support of our team of co-founders, advisors, investors, and partners; and a lot of luck and serendipity. Since that ski trip, we’ve weathered several near-death moments too and launched Panacea in November 2017.

One near-death moment that comes to mind is when we received news from our product lab that our SPF formula (we launched with three products: cleanser, moisturizer, SPF) would not pass the necessary requirements to launch in the U.S. What made this particularly difficult was that all SPF products need FDA approval as an OTC product to be sold in the U.S.

As a result, there is extensive, months-long testing (specifically formula stability testing) that needs to be completed before moving into production and then selling an SPF product. This news meant that our launch would be delayed by months (our launch had already been delayed once before by six months), and meant that we probably wouldn’t launch in 2017. This would mean there was strong likelihood we’d run out of cash to keep the business going.

After several conversations with our lab, team, and other SPF product development experts, we were able to make the necessary formula change without having to restart the stability testing. Although we experienced a few additional setbacks in the ensuing months, we successfully navigated the product development process and launched the brand in November 2017 with three products we’re proud of.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

My parents have been a constant, steadying presence in my life. They’ve always been the first to encourage and support me at every step: to abandon medical school and join Johnson & Johnson; to leave J&J to join an unknown startup as an unpaid intern; to leave a leadership position at a successful, venture-backed startup to become an underwear salesman; and to leave an C-Suite leadership position of a $100+mm consumer brand to start from ground zero.

They were the first investors in Panacea, and serve as my co-coaches and co-mentors in all aspects of building Panacea and pursuing life.

I’m reminded that there are two lotteries in life: the country we’re born in and the family we’re raised in. I can’t articulate how grateful I am for winning both by being born in the U.S. and being raised by my parents.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m still in the infancy of my career and hope to pay it forward and give back in abundance as I grow. With that said, I’d hope my initial success has brought the following ethos to the world:

The story you tell yourself is the story you tell the world.

You need to believe in yourself before others believe in you. And you control your self-talk. You are in full command of that narrative.

I used to tell my story from the perspective of someone who wanted to live life under the radar. Someone who lacked self-worth. Someone who feared rejection and shunned risk. Someone who played small. By telling my story from the perspective of someone who wanted to live life small, I was telling the rest of the world that I intended to live this way.

The story I’m now telling myself (and the world) doesn’t contain the themes of lacking self-worth, fearing rejection, shunning risk, and playing small. Rather, I’m telling my story the way it should be told — I’m creating the next great beauty brand of our generation — and as a result, the world is getting to know me for who I really am.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why?

The balance between gathering feedback vs. maintaining an unwavering vision.

When I started Panacea, I promised myself that I would seek as much feedback as possible because I had noticed many founders who have tunnel vision and ultimately, their lack of self-awareness led to their company’s demise. Recently, I learned that I optimized for gathering feedback at the expense of losing my own conviction and vision for our brand. As a result, I’m embracing my leadership position as the visionary for Panacea and returning to the original inspiration behind the brand. Moving forward, my goal is to effectively balance gathering feedback and maintaining an unwavering vision.

Dream big, and then force yourself to dream bigger.

Your outcome is dictated by how grand your vision is. We started Panacea as a skincare brand. A close mentor encouraged me to dream bigger. Beyond skincare and beauty. This was invaluable advice as it helped shape our vision for becoming a brand focused on introducing intention into your day.

Embrace the process and relish the journey. The prize is never fulfilling in of itself. The journey is what makes it worth it.

I’m reminded of this through every season of life. A friend once told me, “As a founder, the highs are really high and the lows are really low. You need to embrace the journey.”

Focus. Great companies say NO to 99% of things.

This is a constant reminder, especially at our early stage, where an opportunity to grow sales or partner with a larger brand is enticing.

Bring great energy and a positive attitude. No matter what, you can control these two facets. You’ll be surprised by how infectious these are.

I remind myself of this every day after I wake up. We have control over our actions, big and small. Bringing great energy and a positive attitude are 100% within my control, so I strive to embody both aspects every day.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.

Kobe Bryant.

I’m a huge NBA fan, and he’s my favorite athlete of all time. His on-court accomplishments put him in the conversation for the best basketball player ever. However, what is more impressive to me is his commitment to the process. He’s revered for his preparation, work ethic, and consistency. It’s unrivaled and inspiring.

Specifically, I love Kobe’s approach to success and failure, and his answer to the following question:

Are you motivated by the fear of failure or the desire to succeed?

In Kobe’s mind, there is no such thing as “failure” or “success.” As a result, he’s not motivated by either the fear of failure or the desire to succeed. Both of these mindsets are emotional-driven responses. He prefers to focus on tactical-driven execution, which minimizes the emotional aspect. And this is important because emotion will often cloud judgment and impair execution.

I used to be motivated (and paralyzed) by the fear of failure. Growing up (especially playing sports), my self-talk was “Don’t f*ck up.” I then learned to adopt a mentality driven by the desire to succeed. I’ve since learned that both are emotional-driven responses and that I am at my best when I focus on the process. The journey of learning as much as I can, working as hard as I can, and being fulfilled in that process. I now prioritize growth over outcome. Progress, not perfection, is the goal.