07/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Interview: Entrepreneur Jane Wurwand, CEO of Dermalogica

Sometimes the route to finding the best skin products is about tuning out the noise and listening to yourself. Smug brands, dime-store estheticians, clever packaging (of course we want that crystal jar and the bejeweled case! It's healing properties are on the verge of mythic!), are not only confusing, but can lead to us spending an extraordinary amount of money on products that don't work, or that we don't need. I'm a casualty of this bullying, and have the barely-used products to prove it. Did I really need that night cream? No, I did not. Should I be using that creme cleanser on combination skin? Only a lunatic would. And more importantly -- should I have drop-kicked that Equinox facialist who told me I had dry, "terrible" skin when four estheticians and a dermatologist politely inquired if that woman was smoking something (not their words, my retelling)?

Although I consider myself pretty tough, laying supine while someone dissects all of your flaws has the ability to reduce me to a whimpering, credit-card-relinquishing, mess. Chalk it up to my type-A personality, but my knee-jerk response to a problem is: How do I fix it? And it's only after my visit to the Dermalogica concept store in Soho did I realize that I've never really been educated about my skin; I've only been sold products that promised to fix nebulous conditions. When I visited the spacious, sleek, and modern Soho space, I checked out the Skin Bar, where a skin therapist cleaned my skin and delivered a very detailed analysis of my 13 facial zones. It was key to learn about the kinds of ingredients that were efficacious for my skin rather than relying on individual products in the Dermalogica line (recommendations were made, but it was secondary), because the underlying concept of the Skin Bar is about arming the consumer with information so they can make educated choices at Dermalogica or their local drugstore.

And this concept of pushing knowledge rather than product, impacted me as a consumer and a potential brand evangelist. And since the tide has turned from crass consumerism to that which is necessary and effective, Dermalogica, as a skincare brand, couldn't be more relevant.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Dermalogica's CEO, Jane Wurwand, and she spoke about the brand, conservative global expansion, and the importance of listening to the consumer.

Although we're in the midst of a precarious economy, many are finding, ironically enough, that now is the best time to start a business. As someone who is a successful entrepreneur, can you speak to the process of how you launched your company?

JW: My process was to ignore all of the advice that well-meaning people insisted on giving me. They all told me that it would never work. As I grew more determined and more successful, I realized that people telling me that was crazy was usually a good sign that I was doing something right. Simply because most people are not risk takers and are in fact, risk aversive. Natural entrepreneurs are, by nature, risk takers and see the up side of the situation. We focus on the opportunity and not the challenge.

To get started, my husband Raymond and I [then boyfriend] were able to borrow a little money -- very little -- about $14,000. Then we simply began being and living in the reality which we had envisioned. We took a five-year lease on 1,000 sq.ft. space and set up our school for skin therapists near our apartment, because I had to be able to walk there -- I didn't have a car at the time. We began with the education, because this was where I saw the greatest need. My credo is that if you can identify the greatest 'pain' in an industry, then you have identified the greatest opportunity.

Two years into offering classes, I realized that there were no products, which were really suitable for the curriculum we had created. So, I set about to create products which I wanted to use in my classes. Again, chemists told me what I wanted was impossible. This was because I wanted to formulate without mineral oil, S D alcohol, artificial color, artificial fragrance, lanolin -- all things that were present in every other skin care product at the time, and are still present in many of them today.

They all said it couldn't be done. Apparently, they were all mistaken. My process always consists of listening to my own intuition. It's not that I think everyone else is wrong. If they, too, are speaking from a place of intuition, I'm very interested in what they have to say. If they're just nervous because I'm suggesting something outside their comfort-zone, well -- this is why I don't work for anyone else.

Dermalogica's business model -- strategic, organic growth, grounded in a mission of consumer education, empowerment and engagement -- is one worth studying. Smug brands, dime-store estheticians and clever packaging are not only confusing, but can lead consumers to spend an extraordinary amount of money on products that don't work, or aren't needed. Rather than focusing on luxury, indulgence, and pampering, your skincare line and concept stores are targeted toward education and skin health -- a rare breed in the beauty business. Can you speak to the reasoning behind the brand's positioning? And how it's relevant in today's economic climate, where discretionary spending is tightening and consumers are less likely to spend more on skincare products as freely as they used to?

JW: Our positioning of skin care as part of overall health has never been more relevant, more appropriate or more important. When I launched the company more than two decades ago, luxury and pampering were dominant cultural values. One of the troubles with the skin care industry is that these words are still used in the marketing of skin care services and products. It is my clear and firm opinion that skin care companies which still adhere to this outmoded value system will not be successful.

And our own message has evolved a bit in the past couple of years or so. Our message to consumers is that they need not commit to an exhaustive and expensive regimen of skin care treatments. In fact, we feel that retail products -- products that the client purchases and takes home -- must be at least 50 per cent of the transaction. Treatment by a skin professional is a good thing, but we don't want the cost of services to be intimidating to the consumer. When the skin care professional analyzes the skin through FaceMapping, a service that we offer at no charge, and prescribes a plan for home care, something else we offer at no charge, then in all but the most extreme cases, the client can establish and maintain excellent skin health without committing to a program of pricey appointments.

The failure with most companies is rapid diversification and massive product line extensions, which have a tendency to subsume the core product, and erode revenue. What intrigues me about Dermalogica is that your growth -- from a new teen skincare line to launching two concept stores in the U.S. -- is conservative, yet strategic. From the core business model, what is the process of developing line extensions and concept spaces?

JW: I think our greatest strength as a brand is that we are impervious to transitory trends. We observe, but we aren't always digging into other people's business. We have never made a decision based upon what anybody else is doing. So this spares us from being reactive, and spares us the ricochet or boomerang effect. For a while there, everyone in the world had a new pomegranate product. Now consumers are on to the next fad, and lots of people have pomegranate-themed inventory in their warehouses. Nothing against pomegranates, mind you.

With all this talk these days about slow-time and slow food, I feel vindicated. We've grown Dermalogica slowly, and thoughtfully. Because we are so connected to what we call our tribe -- the licensed skin care professionals who give treatments and prescribe products -- we have a unique sensitivity to its needs and the needs of their clients.

How do your U.S. concept stores differ from your global outlets?

JW: Consistent ideas apply across the board, around the world. The Montana Avenue concept space in Santa Monica has a unique quality in that so much of our brand identity is shaped by life in Southern California -- worldly, but not weary, filled with so much promise and optimism, and of course the emphasis on health. By necessity, the new concept space in the SoHo area of NYC has got that intense buzz you only get in New York! Each of the spaces has its own identity. They are all informal and even irreverent, in a way. Check them out online and see the contrast and also the similarities.

Looking back at the evolution of your company and brand -- is there anything you might have done differently in the twenty-three years you've been in business? Any critical lessons learned?

JW: We've done well and there is nothing elementary that I would change or do differently. Some things you just learn along the way. For instance, we once had a self-tanner in our line, and it was a nice one. But we decided to take it out -- since tanning is not good for the skin and we don't want to inspire Tan Lust. We are a skin health education company, after all.

In another case, we had to face the unfortunate fact that people loved our Multi Vitamin Hand and Nail Treatment, but the sun protection in the formula would dull the person's nail polish. So, we removed the sun protection component from the product, and it's one of the world's favorite, manicure-friendly hand care products. I still miss the sunblock in it though!

On the business front, I think I would have cut dead wood in the team sooner. When you are experiencing rapid growth you need all hands on deck and everyone at the wheel. Inevitable some people get 'carried'. Its important to identify who is being carried and replace them quickly -- they slow down the team and they distract the focus. They can be better used in another spot. As an entrepreneur, we have a tendency to always think we can mentor another to their strength, its not always true and we have to let go of our own ego about being able to 'grow' someone and admit some aren't able to do the job! Always hire someone with a great attitude who knows more than you and that you can learn from.

Any new projects underway for 2009 and beyond for Dermalogica?

JW: Because we have launched a succession of really big, successful programs in the past 18 months or so, including skin brightening, men's shave and our new teen brand "Clean Start', we really need to take the time now to allow these newer members of the brand family to mature. There is a calibration process, which takes place, not only among the products themselves, but also among all of our international markets -- we're in more than 50 countries worldwide now. One thing we do plan to do is offer some of our best-sellers in smaller sizes. We've already done this with two of our Body Therapy products. This way, people never have to deprive themselves and they are easier to pack and travel with.

Can you speak about your involvement with S.K.I.N. [Skin Care for Kids in Need], and how this particular organization has not only had a profound affect on you personally, but also how it's aligned with your business's mission?

JW: S.K.I.N. is meaningful to me on several levels and for several reasons. The most obvious reason is that my older daughter, Molly, is very good friends with the young woman who founded this non-profit organization, Daniele Wieder. I am quite proud of them both, in the sense that at 15 they represent their generation's raised consciousness. S.K.I.N works with preteen and teen girls and boys in the Foster Care Group home system. We go in and teach them the basics of taking care of their skin and give them the products for daily skin care and health. We help improve their skin and also talk about possible careers in the professional skin therapy industry. Four-year college degrees may not be on the cards for these young people but a beauty school training can lead to a successful career -- it did for me!

The project is important to Dermalogica because the empowerment of young women is so elemental to our brand mission. Part of what S.K.I.N. does is present these young people with possibilities through the mentoring aspect of the program. We open their eyes to their own potential, in the sense of professional potential, by arranging visits our headquarters. In this environment, they sit in on classes with students, many of whom are their own age or close to it. They also meet skin therapists, primarily women, who have created their own careers, success and personal wealth, often from very modest beginnings. We're hoping that a career path in skin care may be of value to many of them.

On an even more basic level, the "kids" who are part of S.K.I.N. are hurting. Their self-esteem often is badly bruised, especially if they have untreated acne. Adolescence is rough enough, and the life lived by these teens adds drama to the dermis! By helping them care for their skin, they become more confident, and feel more positive about the future.

Any advice you'd like to impart for burgeoning entrepreneurs?

JW: I have two pieces of advice, especially for women. The first is, give up on that fantasy of achieving and maintaining balance. It's an impossible dream. Instead, strive for resiliency. Be resilient enough to weather whatever life throws at us and be tough enough to withstand it and prevail.

Entrepreneurs by definition have to be resilient. This means that we must tolerate some level of discomfort and risk. There will be weeks when you are operating on Latte Power and just a couple of hours sleep. Not ideal, but you'll live. Make up for it when you can. Don't complain if you miss a meal or miss a work-out. Just bounce back harder!

My other advice is, don't go soft in the clutch. Many advice gurus tell women to breathe, relax, chill, whenever the going gets tough. That whole "light a fragrant candle and put on a singing whales CD" thing. I have to say, this is dead-wrong. Men don't relax when things get gnarly. Don't relax -- pump up, get out there are go get whatever it is that calls to you, whatever feeds your blood. When we are under stress and the economy takes a nose dive -- don't relax! This is the time to roar back fierce and brave and protect our territory!