"We landed on selling makeup in a really weird way," admits Alex Lin.
Lin, 25, is a co-founder of Hush, an app and website selling inexpensive skincare and makeup that launched in its current version in January of this year. Hush offers both well-known national brands and intentional dupes of more expensive brands, like Urban Decay. The brand has been through several iterations, but that's part of the "weird" story.
Lin attended Babson College, a school that's known for its entrepreneurship programs. He dropped out at 19. "I literally dropped out the semester after I saw The Social Network with Mark Zuckerberg. I was like, 'Well, if he can do it, everybody can do it!'" he laughs. "I raised some angel investment in Boston and decided to take a semester off with my roommate to try to pursue our entrepreneurial endeavors."
Those endeavors included G6pay, an ad network provider, and LVL6, a multiplayer online gaming company that was sold to a Chinese company in late 2015. Lin's also a graduate of the Y Combinator incubator program, so he has strong ties to the Silicon Valley startup community, though Hush is now headquartered in LA. He teamed up with Cooper Mor, 26, the former creative director of LVL6, and Will King, 25, co-founder of UpOut city guides, to decide what to do next.
"We'd been selling virtual things for so long we thought selling something real would be interesting," he says. "The idea of selling something people could hold was very exciting for us. We wanted to do retail on a mobile phone."
The idea the trio landed on was recreating the T.J. Maxx experience on your phone by offering name-brand items at bargain prices. They raised seed funding to the tune of $2 million in the process. The first iteration of Hush launched in January of 2016. "We came up with the name Hush because it was supposed to be like, 'Hey, hush-hush, you can get great deals on our app,'" explains Lin. There were no brand filters, just an "endless feed of products." Products that no one bought, as it turned out... except for the makeup.
Lin theorizes that people balk at buying anything over $30 on mobile, instead saving potential purchases on their phones and doing more research before buying online later. Whatever the reason, the clothes on the app weren't selling. "We moved into makeup because we saw that everybody was just buying the makeup, essentially," he says. "As tech guys, we decided to double down on what the data was telling us."
As just guys — never mind the tech part — how and why did they think they could be successful selling makeup, a product that is used and purchased overwhelmingly by women? "It's something that gets asked of us a lot, especially by our investors," Lin concedes. It's not the first time the three tried to tackle a category aimed at female consumers, either.
"Along the way we tried taking a stab at fast fashion for a month or so. We were like, Well, this can't be that hard, right? We tried it and — oh my god," Lin says. "We would show women [the clothes] and they'd be like, 'Dude, that looks so disgusting.' At the end of the day, despite us trying, we were humble enough to know that maybe we're not good at everything."
Lin points out that now about 60 percent of the employees at Hush are women. Put in other terms, there are 11 employees, and seven are women. "They've been incredibly helpful, kind of like a North Star to where we should be building toward," he says. "There's nothing better than surrounding yourselves with your potential users, and it's really helped our business grow faster."
The founders also hit up that mecca of makeup, Reddit, to crowdsource ideas and opinions from the Makeup Addiction subreddit. What followed was a lot of free advice, from sources ranging from website designers to makeup enthusiasts, who overwhelmingly wanted to a see a "brand" tab, which now exists. There was also some tough love, like the comment from this redditor: "I'm left wondering why so many things are on sale. Are you a discount/closeout site? The cautious buyer is left wondering are the products grey market? about to expire ? etc. A tab with Our Story, or Our Mission or something like that can help to explain what the deal is." (This still doesn't exist on the site.)
Hush is also lucky to count among its advisers Beth Ferreira, a managing partner at WME Ventures who has done stints at Fab.com and Etsy, and Alexis Maybank, the founding CEO of Gilt who is also the founder and CEO of Project September, an immersive visual shopping platform.
"As we all know, shopping is entertainment and a sport to many, so I love how Alex is bringing his unique knowledge of the gaming world and of social marketing to the world of beauty for a younger shopper," Maybank says. "He is making beauty shopping more of a game and in the process adding a new, very fun angle to how the millennial shopper is finding her next splurge purchase."
While Hush has a website, the mobile app is how the founders intended customers to shop. Maybank says that Hush is like "if Snapchat and HSN had a love child." Anyone who regularly uses Snapchat will recognize the swipe navigation. There's no search function, but there are categories listed at the top that you can click into and swipe through.
When you open the app, the first thing that pops up is a bundle deal that changes frequently throughout the day (complete with a countdown timer), made up of three to five items bundled together to sell at a lower price than they would cost separately. They're usually themed: A recent example, called "Contour Like Kim," featured a blush, highlighter, and bronzer. There are also Insta-trendy items like silicone makeup sponges.
Shipping is free on the app, but Hush requires you to spend a $25 minimum to get free shipping on the site. Otherwise, there's a $4.95 shipping fee for U.S. deliveries and $20 internationally. Brands include familiar lower-priced lines like NYX, elf, LA Girl, and Milani. Some of these aren't necessarily discounted, like a NYX primer that is $15 on Hush and at Ulta. There are plenty of deals, though, like a popular eyelash adhesive that is usually $6 selling on Hush for $4.
Hush carries lesser-known brands, like Beauty Treats and Okalan, as well. The latter seems to produce nothing but dupes of more expensive brands. Calling them "dupes" is actually probably generous — Okalan veers into pure knockoff territory. Take this palette, which is a dead ringer for Urban Decay's limited-edition Alice Through the Looking Glass palette, and $3 wine lip tints that pay homage to the original version by Labiotte ($10). A search elsewhere reveals blatant Kylie Cosmetics knockoffs on offer from Okalan.
Because Hush is still relatively small, it buys most of its inventory from wholesalers, though its founders have been in contact with brands directly to build up those relationships. Stocking Okalan was a newbie mistake, however, because while dupes are often desirable by those who know beauty brands, outright knockoffs aren't.
"Those are residual effects of when we were just three guys and we didn't know what was going on," says Lin. "It's something we're trying to move away from. We had to start with that because no one would sell to us. We're trying to stick more to the brands that people know and trust, and that lends credibility to us as well."
There's also a large number of Korean beauty products, like sheet masks from well-known brands like Dr. Jart, Leaders, and A'Pieu, because Lin is close to the founders of possibly in-trouble K-beauty site Memebox, another Y Combinator graduate.
Lin didn't want to share exact numbers, but says most of the metrics they measure are doubling week over week. "It's definitely starting to trend in that hockey-stick growth [a pattern where growth is linear then shoots up]. We're basically hitting product-market fit now," Lin says. The brand has started talking to influencers to work with them in a more official capacity (he would love to start real-time shoppable product reviews with them), and the Hush app has at times cracked the top 50 shopping apps in the App Store.
Maybank acknowledges that there will be more challenges for Hush in a fast-moving business like this. "Any time your product lineup changes as rapidly as it does at Hush, that is a hard business to scale and merchandise intelligently," she writes. "While a store might have a month to see what is working for their shoppers, Hush has just minutes to hours, and then they merchandise all over again. This is a huge learning curve to climb, but at the same time, imagine how much they have learned and been able to improve the shopping experience in a dramatically shorter time period than the typical beauty retailer." Processing $5 that someone spends on an in-app purchase in a mobile game, like Lin did in his past business, is a lot easier than figuring out how to deal with holes in your inventory after a popular $5 eye shadow palette runs low.
Ultimately, Hush hopes to appeal to young shoppers who don't have a ton of money to spend but want to experiment, like "girls who are interested in drugstore makeup," Lin says. "I hate that name because it sounds so uncool. We're trying to make it so that if you shop for budget makeup it's totally cool. Like H&M, how they shoot all their advertisements. [The products are] cheap but it feels expensive. We want to be that one place where it's very accessible."