"What was your big break?" It's a question people often ask of celebrities, but at Allure, the beauty professionals and brand founders are the celebrities. In My Beauty Break, we'll dig into the behind-the-scenes details — the money, the aha! moments, and the mistakes — of the biggest brands in the industry. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Imagine being an esthetician, author, mother, and businesswoman. Charlotte Cho doesn't have to… because she is all of that — and more. Most prominently, she's a force in the beauty community, so much so that her name has become essentially synonymous with K-beauty.
It all started nearly 10 years ago when Cho founded Soko Glam — a retailer specifically focused on Korean beauty products — with her husband Dave in their Upper West Side, New York apartment. (Prior to launching Soko Glam, the California native moved to South Korea where she learned about the Korean skin-care philosophy, which has informed her business and her brands.) The e-commerce platform made K-beauty only a click away, eliminating the need to take a plane trip around the world or pay extra international shipping fees to get your hands on some of the best-sellers in Seoul.
In introducing K-beauty to the masses, Soko Glam undoubtedly helped propel the category into a $13.1 billion part of the skin-care industry. Recently, Soko Glam has become an even bigger part of that billion-dollar business, launching its own brands Then I Met You and Good (Skin) Days. Cho spoke to Allure about what separates her businesses from others in the K-beauty industry and her advice for cutting costs and thriving as a brand in our new normal that is the pandemic.
ALLURE: Okay Char… can I call your Char?
Charlotte Cho: That's so funny you say that because yeah, a lot of people do call me 'Char,' like my close friends from high school and college.
ALLURE: Char, this series is called My Beauty Break. What was your big beauty break? When did you think, "Oh my gosh, I think we've made it," or "This is something special?"
CC: I love this question because I think our story is so unique. I'm not sure if you remember this… I talked about it on [the podcast you co-host] Gloss Angeles. Soko Glam was always a passion project. And it was born out of this honest, authentic journey of finding out how to take care of my skin when I went to Korea after college. I fell in love with the ingredient formulations, the format, even the delivery systems. It was so unique and innovative compared to what I found in the United States.
I never said, "Oh, I'm going to use this to capitalize on this trend for the U.S." I never aspired to have that "girl boss" lifestyle that everyone talks about right now. I'm also not motivated by money. And so with that kind of background and context, I think about that when I look back at my eight-year journey of building Soko Glam, The Klog [the brand's editorial site], Good Skin Days and Then I Met You.
I think the "A-ha" moment was in the early early days when it was just me and Dave, my husband, working on Soko Glam.
We got this letter from someone who had been following our journey in the early years. And [Soko Glam] was just about a year old, and they wrote this long, lengthy letter about how they stumbled across Soko Glam after reading about us in an article. They personally struggled with really severe acne throughout their teens and young adult life. They were so traumatized by it and it was so persistent that they never really went outside. They lost confidence. They couldn't even look people in the eye — that was the kind of severity of acne. Dave and I were reading that letter and it was so thoughtful. It was so emotional that we even teared up reading it. She told us about how finding Soko Glam changed her skin, and talked about that transformation and how she had tried everything under the sun, whether it was department store products her dermatologist recommended, stuff over the counter. She just tried everything. I get chills even retelling that story because it was so powerful to us. That was our special moment. That was our, "Oh, my gosh, this is way more than just selling cleanser, or you know, creating this e-commerce platform. We're actually impacting people's lives."
Our mission is to help all people believe there are only good (skin) days ahead. That whole journey has allowed us to double down on education through The Klog and create our skin concierge, which is our one-on-one text message consultations.
A lot of people said, "That's not a good idea to create content on a separate site because you don't want to distract them from checking out." We were bolstered by the fact that there's this bigger mission — let's follow the bigger mission. That will help our community grow authentically and really help people. That has allowed us to make the right decisions versus try to go for something that's more short-term, like, try to get as much revenue as we can.
ALLURE: Was there a gleaming moment of special recognition?
CC: There was one time in the very early days of Soko Glam that we were featured in [the newsletter] Daily Candy. They just wanted the small little blurb about us. After the newsletter came out, our site sold out. Granted at that time it was just a few products and we were very new and there was barely any inventory — but when we saw the new customer names coming through, they were not Asian. The last names weren't the typical Kims, Parks, or Lees. That really opened us up to realize that so many people are interested and they're not Korean, they're not Asian. I think a lot of people in the very beginning — when K-beauty was not a thing in the United States — had been surprised that most of our customers, over 80-something percent, are non-Asians. And there's a definite interest in this skin-care culture and philosophy and products.
ALLURE: Let's talk about funding. How in the hell do you get money to figure this out? You have this idea. How were you able to bring that to fruition? Did you have a nest egg saved?
CC: I think people overall get really surprised about the size of our company. [Editor's note: Soko Glam has just over 40 employees between the US and Seoul.] It's been eight years now, and we haven't relied on [venture capital] or private equity. That's helped us make decisions that have allowed us to focus on the community because once you accept funding, especially a large amount… there's this misconception that you're going to have all this money and all your problems will go away. And that you have so much credibility, but actually, the bill is coming. You don't have control anymore most of the time, and you also end up making decisions that are different. You start to lose control of what's right for your community. I feel very fortunate that we're able to not accept money, we bootstrapped it all the way through, for the most part.
For the first three years, Dave and I poured our savings into it. And that was a very scary time for us because we both were jobless in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world. I was working at Samsung, but I quit my job and we'd moved to New York, and he was going to school in the Upper West Side. That was a very daunting and scary time for us. Dave and I, we both came from immigrant families. They all kind of roughed it. They have a lot of grit because they had nothing and they owned businesses themselves. We learned from that technique from our parents and we have that same philosophy with Soko Glam. We sold our TV, our TV stand, our exercise bike in our small Upper West Side apartment. We had stacks of boxes because we were fulfilling all the orders. We were taping everything, sending it out, walking it to the post office. That allowed us to sustain ourselves. We did everything by ourselves for like, two to three years.
Then we raised a small round [of funding] in 2016, a $2 million round. We see we have all the control in the world; we haven't felt the need to raise again. We've been able to navigate these uncharted COVID waters pretty seamlessly because we're a very lean team. We don't throw money at our challenges. We've really flexed that muscle that we've been building over the years to be able to withstand kind of challenging times.
ALLURE: You said this twice and now I'm intrigued! "Don't throw money at your challenges." Give an example of what that would be.
CC: Oh, [there's] so many as a growing startup. One common theme is if you raise a lot of money, the first thing you do is throw it at marketing, which means digital ads. So Facebook, Instagram; it's a black hole. You could spend a million dollars a day. They say it's a new rent, right? Digital rent. I would say in the earlier days when Instagram was so new and Facebook was so new, it was a lot more affordable and you definitely got that reach. You got that awareness growth, but right now it's a very difficult time to even make a dent with the amount of money you pour into. Of course, you're gonna grow if you're going to throw millions of dollars at that. But it's not sustainable and felt like those customers didn't necessarily feel intrigued and compelled by our idea because they were brought in through an ad versus word of mouth. We have grown through word of mouth and people hearing about us and spreading the word. And those are our core customers that are still with us today.
ALLURE: When you say that you raised $2 million in 2016, were you raising that from friends and family?
CC: Institutional investors. They're not [private equity or venture capital]. It was really important to not need it — so it put us in control. There's a difference when you need the money to sustain.
I am actually part of this founder’s group and I meet with them every Tuesday. I tell these stories about how we stay lean and they're all trying to understand how to stay leaner in this pandemic world, because you can't even do fancy photoshoots anymore, really, for your launches. You have to be really scrappy and everyone's just trying to stay lean right now. Because they don't know what's going to happen. It's not always easy, because they try to do it and they're like, "Oh my god, it's so hard." It is a harder path. And it's easier to just ask an agency to do (it), but it's better to know exactly what your brand and your community need yourself — and do it yourself.
ALLURE: As a successful founder three times over, what would you say is the best advice you could offer someone launching a brand right now or launching a new product right now, in a pandemic?
CC: Great question, because I have a lot of friends who are trying to launch skin care or whatever it is, and they come to me for advice. They ask me, "Oh, what fulfillment centers should I use?" Or "What PR agency should I find?" They always ask me these questions and they want referrals.
And I'm like, you should definitely pack that yourself. Because it's not even just about saving money. You learn so much in that process. You find out how much time it takes to wrap up a package and how much material — the dunnage — that you need to put in the box. You understand the cost associated and the time that's spent so that when you go looking for a fulfillment center, you actually know what makes sense or not. Are they overcharging you? You become more your own subject matter expert. You could negotiate better too because if you're a new brand, it's going to take time for the brand to get off the ground.
If you're automatically looking for a third party fulfillment center to ship out your products, they're going to charge you an arm and a leg because you're not actually doing the volume right then that you need to succeed in business. And actually, they might not even take you because you're not a proven model yet. You don't know how many orders you're gonna get in a week or a month.
So everyone jumps to that, because they think, "Oh, I gotta check the box, gotta find a fulfillment center, I've got to find this, got to find that," but especially if you're starting now and you don't have any traction and you don't have like 10 million followers — you're not Kim Kardashian — then I think you should probably do it yourself for the first six months to a year to figure out what goes in this process. How many returns are you getting? How many times do your product packages get delayed? Understanding that really helps you understand this journey and really gets you into the nuts and bolts as an entrepreneur.
Also, you get to write handwritten notes. I have had customers that approach me literally at our events that go, "I've been your customer since the very beginning when you used to handwrite your notes." That's such a powerful moment and impact that you make in the beginning stages. And those are going to be your core customers that you could always reach out to.
ALLURE: What are your thoughts on the beauty industry right now and being able to succeed?
CC: I think the beauty industry is very saturated. I think it's great that it's become so mainstream that even celebrities are jumping to create their own lines left and right, but I think ultimately for all the people that are interested in starting a line, or just the beauty industry in general — I guess it's not really specific to entrepreneurs. But I think it's really important to be hyper-focused on your community and be hyper-focused on trust. When we started Soko Glam, literally the first year after we started people were asking, "Are you going to create your own skin-care line?" That's the next step. Dave and I were just like, wait, what? We just got started, we're not experts in the field. We have so much more to learn. We have so much more to talk about with our customers. We're not even close.
It wasn't until year six that we actually started creating our own products. That was after we had years of experience, and we actually had really great partners lined up that we trusted. We've also been through the product development process because we've actually co-created products with several top brands on our site. So we were truly ready. And we felt like we could make a great impact in the space by creating our own products. It is really important to make sure that we create custom formulas. Those are the things that matter. And it's not just about trying to capitalize on trends. Again, it's about doing it the right way. Making sure trust is the number one, first and foremost in the entire process. And I think that's really important for the industry to be credible.
ALLURE: And now, some rapid-fire questions. First, what are five products you wear daily?
1. Good (Skin) Days C's The Day Serum
This vitamin C concentration of 10 percent is potent and effective and delivers skin brightening results. It's our best selling serum on Soko Glam.
2. Then I Met You Living Cleansing Balm
I dare anyone to find a more luxurious experience than this cleansing balm. I'm super proud of it being an eight-time award-winning product [Editor's note: Including an Allure Best of Beauty award!] and continues to sell out over and over again — it has truly become a Holy Grail and always creates a waitlist buzz when we're sold out!
3. Thank You Farmer Sun Project Light Sun Essence
Sunscreen has been my go-to, even when working from home because I still get sunlight through my window. It's especially important since [at the time of this interview] I'm pregnant and more prone to melasma!
4. Maison Francis Kurkdijan Paris – Baccarat Rouge 540
I always get compliments whenever I wear this, and I've converted at least half a dozen people into fans of this fragrance too.
5. Korean Hanbok style pajama set from Soft Seoul
It's ALL about leisurewear. I'll wear this on my Zoom calls too.
What's your favorite K-beauty brand?
This is a loaded question! I'm going to have to pick two — and they are both affordable and clean Korean beauty brands. Neogen has been one of my favorite brands since I started my K-beauty journey because they are always known for their innovations in K-beauty. Acwell is another favorite. Their formulas are inspired by traditional Korean medicinal ingredients, such as licorice. The Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Toner is not only a personal favorite, but it has become a Soko Glam bestseller, along with the Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Essence Mist. These two brands consistently seem to make the cut on Soko Glam's annual Best of K-beauty awards.
What's your favorite makeup brand?
Em Cosmetics. Almost every makeup item I use is from Em cosmetics, from their Illustrative Eyeliner to their new Pick Me Up Mascara. Michelle Phan rebought this brand from L'Oréal and made it her own. I've seen the effort she pours into the product development process, and I'm constantly impressed.
Who would you consider to be your mentor?
Dave is my mentor and the CEO of our company. Working with your spouse is forever a challenge, but we've grown so much in our journey as married co-founders. I sometimes hate to admit it, but he's pushed me and challenged me in ways that would allow me to reach my fullest potential. I'm front and center for both Soko Glam and Then I Met You, and he's very behind the scenes, so by default I get a lot of the credit. But the truth is, we wouldn't have made it this far without him.
What's a trend to look out for in 2021?
Protective facial masks [we're wearing during COVID-19] are causing all types of skin issues. Our exclusive Maskne Relief Duo and our Maskne Treatment Duo were curated to specifically target this skin concern.
How do you take a "beauty break?"
I've been working on my second book, The Little Book Of Jeong, for the past few years, and it is [being published in 2021]. It's a personal story of how the Korean concept of jeong helped me on my entrepreneurial journey, and I hope that it will inspire others to build meaningful connections too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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