How ‘rebelling’ against norms led Allison McNamara to found Mara Beauty

Subscribe: Apple PodcastsStitcherGoogle PlaySpotify

Mara Beauty founder Allison McNamara was surrounded by beauty growing up — her father Michael McNamara is a longstanding executive in the space. But beauty wasn’t an obvious career path for her, at least not at first.

“I was actually a television host and reporter before doing Mara,” said McNamara, on the latest episode of the Glossy Beauty Podcast. “I worked at Popsugar, and for a long time, I did everything from fashion to beauty to entertainment, and hosted a show that was taken from digital to linear television. … I thought I was going to be the next Ryan Seacrest.”

After that show got canceled, McNamara had a rethink, which led her to revisit her childhood notebooks. There, she found page after page of beauty brand and product ideas.

“I thought of the idea for Mara and I didn’t know what would become of it,” she said. “I went on the journey of creating the business but had no true intention of like, ‘I’m going to build this type of brand.’ It happened organically,” she said.

Mara Beauty officially launched in 2018, DTC first before launching in Credo. In the four years since, McNamara has been sure to keep a thoughtful eye on what she delivers: new, innovative luxury products with a clear sustainability component.  “When I started the business, it was a side hustle. Now it’s become a true business, which is really exciting. But at the same time, I have such a clear idea of the products I want to create and where I want to go.”

Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

A compelling proposition
“I’ve always been a big hippie when it comes to the environment, so doing something that was fully in glass — that had a very environment-first approach when it came to ingredient sourcing and the way we manufacture — those were things that were passionate to me early on, before they were even trendy. This was in 2014 or 2015, when I was starting to put the seeds of Mara together. Places like Neutrogena [where McNamara’s father worked as global president and CEO] are all in plastic, and they were oil-free. I have an oil-based line. A lot of the things that I was exposed to were the things I rebelled against, which ultimately created what Mara is. … Everything that we do is tied to this proprietary wild-collected algae blend that we source from France and Ireland, and goes back to making sure that we’re not harming the environment, specifically the ocean. So [we’re] taking an ecotoxicity approach, making sure that the ingredients [we use] don’t harm our waterways or end up back into our oceans. That forms the DNA of the brand. … Because sustainability was so organic to how the brand was built, it naturally weaves itself [into] our talking points. Everything starts with the product development, the R&D and the research that goes into the formulation. Because we own our formulas, I have firsthand experience seeing every single supplier we use, where our [ingredients] come from, the safety data sheets, how far [ingredients travel] to Los Angeles, where we manufacture. All those things are really important for sustainability and for manufacturing, in making sure that the ingredient that you’re using truly is what it says it is.”

Slow and steady
“One of the key things we did that was not intentional was launching with one product. Each success of that product fed into the creation and development of the next product. The initial investments I made in the brand were [for] the first five formulations and then the actual manufacturing and components for the Universal Face Oil  [the brand’s first and hero product.] Once that product started taking off, I was able to buy the components and everything for the second product. It’s been that way since launch in 2018. It makes it a little bit easier to invest in one thing at that current moment than it is to invest in 10 skin-care products.”

A solid foundation
“I was originally hesitant to bring on an outside [investment] partner because I want to make sure I’m able to create the products I want to create. But now that we are in a place to accelerate our growth and are having some really exciting conversations with new retailers, and we are considering the possibility of bringing on outside investment with the right partner. But it’s with the right partner — that is the most important thing. When you’re forced into a decision because you have to make it, because you can’t pay your bills or you’ve got a huge P.O. that you can’t fulfill without bringing on someone else — I never want to be in that place. We’ve really made sure that we are cash positive and have made choices like not bringing on more employees. I have a very small team. I probably should have more people, but I do most of the work because I want to be able to save for the right opportunity and to make the decisions that I’m making now and be comfortable where I’m at and not scared.”

Get news and analysis about fashion, beauty and culture delivered to your inbox every morning.