Purpose At Work: How Alleyoop Disrupts the Beauty Industry By Empowering Women

How do you gain recognition and market share in a crowded industry? Brands that look beyond product and put purpose first differentiate themselves from the competition.

That’s certainly the case for Alleyoop. The beauty and body care brand is celebrating its one-year anniversary and has laid some impressive tracks in a short time. I had the pleasure of speaking with Leila Kashani, co-founder and CEO of Alleyoop and here’s what we discussed.

Simon Mainwaring: How did Alleyoop come about?

Leila Kashani: I used to do experiential marketing for brands like Nike. I was constantly living out of a suitcase. Even when I stopped moving around so much, I was super busy. Women today are taking on more than ever. I didn’t have time for beauty and body care products. There had to be a way to still make this accessible to me.

One day, it clicked. I was working at a toy company presenting a new line of products. Half way through the presentation, I realized the buyer wasn’t paying attention. She was looking at my underarm. I had shaved one armpit. It wasn’t intentional. We laughed about it. She said, ‘I miss spots all the time and need to do touch-ups but getting into the shower is so much work.’

The first product that made me take a leap of faith and start designing was a portable razor for quick fixes. It’s got everything you need to shave on the go with a water spray bottle and moisturizing bar inside. The razor completely changed the way we look at products.

SM: So are common products out of touch with today’s lifestyle?

We’re constantly being marketed to. The desire to keep up with the trends is overwhelming. Nonconforming women have had enough. Some women aren’t there yet. When they meet Alleyoop, they can also get on board because they realize things can be simpler.

People ask me why there’s no bundle on the website to buy everything. That’s the opposite of what I stand for. I want her to think about the products she’ll actually use. I don’t want to sell her something because it was a trend that’s going to come and go. I want her to come back.

Research shows that most women own from three to 19 lipsticks, but they only use one to two colors. We develop products based on what they really use.

SM: Why did you crowdsource your product innovations?

LK: I’m just one person. The rest of the world has different needs. If I didn’t speak to them, I might have designed something in a silo. It helps me not sell more than people need.

SM: Your products are sulfate and cruelty-free. Why is that important?

LK: There’s a bunch of beauty brands considered clean and eco-friendly. People expect that more and more. It’s a part of our way of life. If it can do harm, it should not be in our products.

SM: As a new, small company, did you feel any pushback from the established industry?

LK: The hardest thing for me was getting labs to take me seriously. I would say, ‘Make this and don’t put this in and don’t put that in.’ They responded with, ‘No. This is the fastest and cheapest way to do it. We’re not going to spend more time on you, your order sizes are too small.’ That was an uphill battle until just this year. Now labs are coming to present their ideas.

SM: Did you get a strong response out of the gate or was it sort of a slow burn?

LK: It was a slow build. There were moments of accelerated growth. It wasn’t a straight line.

America is getting smarter. We want to test, learn and educate ourselves on the products we’re purchasing. We seek research and reviews. In order to have a faster build, you have to have that information. Once we started to see those come in, we started to grow faster.

SM: How did COVID-19 affect you?

LK: We launched in Ulta Beauty in February. We also have retail in Urban Outfitters, but we’re mainly B2C. When COVID-19 hit, we were just announcing retail. It was definitely a curveball, but because our brand is all about decluttering and paying attention we fared decently.

Maybe you had five makeup brushes, but you’re only using three of those. You’re decluttering and coming to us for one brush that solves all your problems.

SM: In what ways have you shown up during COVID that provide support to others?

LK: We’re a startup and every day counts. Nonetheless, when COVID-19 hit, all we could think about was, ‘What can we do?’ We donated $10,000 of leftover lotion inventory to health care workers whose hands were getting dry from all the sanitizer.

In our morning check-ins, we talk about what we are going to do today to make the world a better place.

SM: So what is your company purpose?

LK: We want to help women move their lives forward. Alleyoop is named after the basketball reference. What that means to us is, ‘How do we help women achieve more on what matters to them in their life?’ That means giving them tools. It could be in the form of products, coaching or donations. We’re constantly partnering with organizations and looking at ways to help women move forward.

We continue to think about what those partnerships look like. We’re weighing whether to stick with one organization or constantly do a new one as we see fit.

When the Black Lives Matter movement happened we stopped all advertising. We sent the team out to protest. We will show up as the world needs us in different places.

SM: What lessons have you learned on the way?

LK: I learned that finding good people is hard. You’ve got to know the difference between when to hire for talent and when to hire for culture and where to draw that line.

In the beginning, it was all about talent and it wasn’t about culture. It wasn’t fun for me to come to work every day until I felt like I was with people who were in line with the belief systems and purpose. Once I figured that out, I hired based on culture first and skill set second.

SM: What’s your vision for the role of business moving forward?

LK: Business should have a voice and responsibility. I recently got on a call with a company that we’re working with to figure out how much plastic we’re putting out. We’re constantly educating ourselves and learning about ways to participate in environmental sustainability.

If we start something and all my competitors are doing it in a year, I will be excited. We need to stop looking at competition from the eyes of competition, but instead as teammates trying to move the world forward. There’s a huge potential for impact if we work together.

SM: How do you distinguish yourself from large players in the industry?

LK: As long as it’s aligned with purpose, it’s not noisy. We focus on our mission to help women.

SM: Have you been surprised by the reaction to a new makeup brand that does more with less?

LK: I was humbled and shocked. We started getting DM’s on Instagram from people asking to be brand ambassadors. First, it was 10 a week, then 20, then 30, then 100.

We have to make a separate account for people who want to be TikTok creators for the brand because they’re so inspired. We are inside, drinking the Kool Aid all the time. It’s inspiring to have customers tell us the time they saved that day and the space they stayed in and how much they were able to accomplish. They regurgitate back to us what our mission is.

SM: What are your plans for the future?

LK: I don’t look at Alleyoop as a beauty or body care brand. I look up to us as a brand solving problems for women and helping them move the world forward. Maybe one day we’ll be in fashion or other areas where we can simplify people’s lives.

If we think about swag, for example, we don’t launch a sweater that just has our name on it for you to walk around branding with us. Instead, we launch a gratitude journal. We’re trying to think about how to make the world move forward and help you accomplish more in your life. We’re going to let our customers drive us by telling us what they need next.

SM: So, you think of yourself as an innovation lab?

LK: When we first launched the razor, everyone asked, ‘What hair removal product are you going to launch next?’ Everyone in the industry thinks, ‘Stay in your lane. That’s your category.’

With the razor, I thought, ‘That’s all she needs from me there. Everything else is efficient. Where can I go next?’ Beauty needs help. Let me help you to get simplified.

SM: How have you codified your philosophy?

LK: We have a 10-point checklist we use to determine whether or not to develop a product. We consider things like, does it take up less space? Does it take less time? Is it something of value?

A lot of times we go through development. We test formulas.Then we do that checklist again. Then we say, ‘This might be more than what she needs. Let’s not do it.’ It helps us have a North Star to work towards. When we think about waste and products we think about how to get you to buy less by filling up every single product.

Simon Mainwaring: What gives you cause for optimism?

Leila Kashani: I’m naturally optimistic. You attract what you put out. As a leader, it’s important to listen. You become more open-minded to opportunities and changes that we need to make as a society.

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.