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K-beauty was certainly taking off in the U.S. in 2012. But, when Hero Cosmetics cofounder and CEO Ju Rhyu discovered hydrocolloid patches to treat acne in Korea, it was one innovation that had not landed stateside.

“I was living [in South Korea] as an expat, and I was breaking out. I don’t really know why — maybe it was a different environment, different lifestyle stress — but I was breaking out and really frustrated. I saw a lot of people in Korea walking around with these stickers on their faces. I had asked around, like, ‘Oh, what is this? Why are people wearing these patches?’ And someone told me that it was for acne. I bought some and I tried it for myself; I was blown away at how well it worked,” she said on the Glossy Beauty Podcast.

After putting the Hero Cosmetics stamp on hydrocolloid patches, the brand debuted first on Amazon in 2017 and then launched its own DTC website the following year. Though Amazon dissenters in beauty have existed for some time, Rhyu said the platform was the “fastest, cheapest and easiest” way to come to market as a startup. “I wanted to prove out my hypothesis, which was that if I create an acne patch brand for the Western audience, it was going to be successful,” she said. Rhyu was more than right. Hero Cosmetics has spurred an acne patch phenomenon and is expected to close the year with more than $80 million in retail sales.

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

On developing a hero product
“I was living [in South Korea] as an expat, and I was breaking out. I don’t really know why — maybe it was a different environment, different lifestyle stress — but I was breaking out and really frustrated. I saw a lot of people in Korea walking around with these stickers on their faces. I had asked around, like, ‘Oh, what is this? Why are people wearing these patches?’ And someone told me that it was for acne. I bought some and I tried it for myself; I was blown away at how well it worked. I have dry and sensitive skin, so a lot of the the previous creams and ointments and things that I would use would really turn my skin red, flaky and dry, but the patches did not do that. I immediately started wondering, ‘Why am I learning about this now, and not many years ago, when I was a teenager? Why am I only seeing this product in Korea? Why is it not more available in the U.S.?’ I realized, ‘Oh, if this product really works for me, I’d love to make it more available to people all over the world.'”

Proof of concept
“We launched on Amazon. A lot of new consumer brands launch DTC first, which I understand why, but for us, we went on Amazon because, honestly, it was fastest, cheapest and easiest. I wanted to prove out my hypothesis, which was that if I create an acne patch brand for the Western audience, it was going to be successful… It was an easy way to test out product-market fit. So we launched with the Mighty Patch, our original product on Amazon… I think Amazon is much more of a transactional place… What we found is that, once we started telling the story outside of Amazon — so the ads, website, social — [that served as a] supplement. People love to transact on Amazon just because it’s so easy. You can get pretty much everything that you need and want, the checkout process is really fast, shipping is really fast. A big philosophy of our company is that we want to make our products available to whoever needs them and wherever they buy them. And Amazon happens to be one of the big places [they go to] buy acne products and acne patches. For us, it makes a lot of sense. I think that emotional part we can complement a lot with our other channels.”

Growing an assortment
“The acne care category hasn’t been disrupted, or there just really hasn’t been much innovation in a really, really long time.  I would argue a lot of [acne brands] are sort of not really relevant anymore, just because they don’t have clean ingredients, they’re not digital-first. I think it speaks to an old way of taking care of your skin, which was just sort of like: Dry it out and basically kill the acne-causing bacteria. I think what we’ve proved is that people are really hungry for innovation, which is why I think Mighty Patch really took off. People were just really hungry for new solutions, something that actually worked, something that didn’t kill their skin or dry out their skin. We’ve also seen that to be true with two other products that we launched last year, Rescue Balm and Lightning Wand, which are pretty innovative products in the acne care space. Those products on our DTC site [have] really strong performance, they’re top-three [best-sellers]. It just goes to show us that people are hungry for newness and innovation in this category. That’s one thing that we’re really trying to deliver on.”

Postponing fundraising
“We were profitable since the beginning. It was really important to me that our company be able to stand on its own two feet, so profitability was huge. We put off raising — it was always an option that we talked about, and I took a lot of meetings with investors during those first three years —  but then I think we got to a point where we knew we were growing really, really fast. We knew that we would need help for this next stage, and even if we didn’t need the money, per se, we knew that we needed advice and experts who had seen growth stories like ours. We actually went out early last year, in 2020, right before Covid sort of changed the world, and we felt like, ‘OK, we’re ready. This is the right time.’ And then Covid sort of put a wrench in things, and then we paused it. Then organically what happened was we met Aria Growth Partners  We sort of stayed in touch, got back in touch, and then we just felt like it was the right time. More importantly, it was the right partner.”