Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) talks with the Hue team about their personalized recommendation engine for beauty.
Tell us more about your background and what inspired you all to become entrepreneurs.
Shah: When I was five years old, my dad quit his job and started his own company, a circuit board manufacturing business, which now has 50 employees and has been in business for over 20 years. His passion for his business and the impact he was able to have on the lives of his employees inspired me to want to start my own company one day. However, I knew I would only want to take that step when I found a problem I was passionate about and a team that was worth taking that journey with, and I am extremely lucky to have found that with Hue.
Clay: Growing up I was insecure about my dark skin, and I would flip through magazines feeling like I wasn’t beautiful because I didn’t look like the models and stars. I will never forget the first time I bought powder foundation, the shade was at least two shades lighter than my actual skin tone, and I was embarrassed once I realized how rich and deep my complexion truly was. I wanted to start a company to ensure that beauty shoppers feel represented, confident, and beautiful when shopping for beauty products.
Guo: In my HBS admissions essay, I wrote that it was always my dream to work in the beauty or fashion industries. I have always been fascinated with makeup – in fact, one of my early childhood memories was “borrowing” my preschool teacher’s dark purple lipstick and wearing it around school—which I did get in trouble for (oops!). Fast forward to my teenage years, and I grew up in an Asian immigrant household that focused on STEM. Beauty and fashion became my way of expressing my identity—a creative outlet.
I didn’t come to HBS with the intention of being an entrepreneur, mostly because I found it “risky” and wasn’t sure if I was the typical founder. However, with most of beauty moving online during 2020 until the near future, I did realize there was an opportunity to leverage more tech in the beauty industry. Then I met Janvi and Nicole and thought “Wow, these girls are badass”—and the rest is history! For anyone interested in entrepreneurship, I’ve learned the most important things are 1) having a personal interest in the problem you’re solving, because it’s something you may work on for a decade or more and 2) finding the right Co-Founder team—from a values, personality and complementary skills perspective.
What is the problem that you are trying to solve?
Our team came together as three women across the skin tone spectrum (Black American, Indian American, and Chinese American) who all struggled to find makeup products that complemented our complexion. Growing up, we all experienced the feeling of not being represented in mainstream beauty standards and were inspired to combine our backgrounds in beauty and tech to solve this issue. We felt what was missing was the human element. We found ourselves spending hours searching on Youtube, Instagram and TikTok for people with our similar skin tones to see what products would look good on our skin. As we started talking to customers, we realized that we were not alone—people want to see real, everyday people like themselves trying on makeup products. However, the process of finding someone who matched their skin tone and skin concerns was time intensive and often unsuccessful.
What is your solution?
Hue is a tech platform that recommends the best makeup products for your skin tone and skin type. Our proprietary skin profiling algorithm, Hue ID, matches you to micro-influencers who share the same skin profile, Skin Twins, so you can see before and after photos, videos, and reviews from people who look like you as you’re shopping online. Our plug-and-play API integrates directly on beauty brands’ and retailers’ e-commerce stores for a seamless customer journey without needing to download another app or go to another website. On any product where you see the “Powered by Hue” logo, you can log in with your Hue profile and unlock your personalized recommendations so you never have to go through a shade matching quiz again. Our algorithm improves over time as you shop with Hue and we learn what products work best for your skin type and preferences. For brands and retailers, our solution provides a great customer experience that integrates both matching technology and user-generated content that is proven to significantly increase conversion, decrease returns, and improve overall customer confidence when shopping online.
Who is the team behind your startup?
Right now it’s the three of us full-time, and we are also supported by incredible advisors from HBS including Professors Christina Wallace, Julia Austin, Jeff Bussgang, Mark Roberge, and Lou Shipley, as well as executives from the beauty and tech industries. We currently have an amazing group of contractors that we are working with across engineering, UX, and project management, and we are also looking to grow our full-time team!
How did you get started?
We first met at a virtual speaker event last year with Vicki Tsai (HBS ’06), founder of Tatcha, a skincare company, and one of our inspirations as entrepreneurs. Clay asked Tsai a question about starting a company, which prompted the three of us to connect afterward to discuss the problem space behind Hue. We decided to participate in Startup Bootcamp together, and ever since then we were off to the races! We took a very scrappy approach to testing and iterating on our solution with real customers. One of the first ideas we prototyped was a multi-shade sampling kit. Within a week we set up a Shopify store, ran Facebook ads, and bought out the entire shade ranges of a few popular foundations at the nearest Sephora in Fenway. We’ll never forget the day we earned our first real revenue (a $5 sample kit order from a woman in Ohio) and we spent hours pumping out samples and shipping kits to customers from our “Hue HQ” (also known as Sylvan’s apartment in SFP 2). While we ended up pivoting away from sampling, tests like this allowed us to rapidly learn what customers wanted out of a shade matching experience and what they were willing to pay for, which has led us to our solution today.
Coincidentally, we ended up crossing paths with Tsai again about 8 months after starting Hue, because she was one of the industry experts on the judging panel of the Project Connect Grant we won through Unilever and WWD, and we got to tell her that she was a big part of what brought our team together in the first place!
Exciting news—we just signed our first paying brand partner! We are co-developing the integration with our early brand and retailer customers, and we are looking forward to launching the experience to the public this summer.
Janvi Shah (MBA ’22) grew up in Fremont, CA. Prior to HBS, she worked at Google as a product manager. She is the co-founder and CEO of Hue.
Sylvan Guo (MBA ’22) grew up in San Francisco, CA. Prior to HBS, she worked at startups including Airbnb and Tubi on growth marketing and analytics, and also spent time at Accenture. She is the co-founder and COO of Hue.
Nicole Clay (MBA ’22) grew up in Detroit, MI. Prior to HBS, she was a marketing director at L’Oreal, focused on the Lancome and Kiehl’s brands. She is the co-founder and CMO of Hue.