With over 1 million subscribers on YouTube, and a fast-growing beauty brand under her belt, Liah Yoo is the standard for beauty influencers the world over. I’m grateful to have been introduced to her by one of Fire Ant’s valued subscribers (👋 Hannah Bae). When I had the opportunity to learn about Liah’s story and how she built her brand KraveBeauty, I just knew I needed to feature her.
It’s remarkable to study Liah’s journey as an entrepreneur. She had humble beginnings as an interior design student, and at one point served as the e-commerce lead for Amorepacific in Korea. Fast forward five years and now she’s a one-woman wonder. What really impresses me about Liah is that during her ascent, she has consistently maintained a socially-conscious mission to make the world a better place through everything she does — from the products KraveBeauty produces, to the sustainability themed content and messaging she passes along to her legions of fans on social media. I wholeheartedly believe that Liah and her team have it in them to lead an entire industry into a more egalitarian future.
The latter part of the previous decade saw social media platforms being completely infiltrated by the beauty industry, thanks in part to the advocacy work of wildly successful influencers such as yourself. You started building a community on YouTube when the platform wasn’t nearly as saturated with beauty-specific content as it is now. How did you have the incredible foresight to start publishing content on the site relatively early on?
YouTube back then in the early 2010s wasn’t a platform for content creators to become millionaires. It was purely a place for people to share their obsessions. Maybe this is why there’s a certain nostalgic feeling we get from remembering the OG creators. And I found K-beauty fascinating and felt compelled to share my interest with people around the world.
At that time K-pop was also slowly becoming a thing internationally, and naturally consumer interest expanded to K-beauty. What are the members of Girls’ Generation wearing, and why do they have such good skin? There wasn’t any person specifically touching on these themes on YouTube, even though there was a clear demand in the market. I was living in Korea at the time which gave me the ability to buy Korean skincare and makeup products and review them. Everything happened organically. I was bored of my studies and found that broadcasting my hobby to thousands of anonymous people was a more comfortable experience than sharing it with a few people in real life.
You are among a rare group of beauty influencers who have launched a successful and enduring brand — backed and beloved by a loyal fanbase. Tell us about the ethos behind KraveBeauty, and what compelled you to launch the business.
Thank you! The idea was pretty simple. The market was oversaturated, and consumers were living in a state of constant analysis paralysis. Despite the abundant product options and information out there, people were more confused than ever on how to build a skincare routine for themselves. Nowhere in my life plan was there any intention to launch a skincare company. But I saw a clear problem and I knew I wasn’t alone in this as I was interacting with hundreds and thousands of women on a daily basis through my content. So I started KraveBeauty to liberate people from the stress, confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed associated with skincare, and instead empowered them to tune into their skin’s cravings.
The launch of brands like The Ordinary has democratized access to specialized, active formulas at a low cost that was once exclusive. And direct-to-consumer brands like Glossier have come into the market offering enhanced digital beauty shopping experiences, and their compelling content empowers more beauty conversations to happen digitally. With the growth of social media, new product launches have become a way for the industry to delight customers and for brands to stay relevant. The shorter the customer’s attention span has become, the faster the industry has released new products. Terms like “brand loyalty” and “customer retention” have become more scarce than ever. Beauty consumers were constantly excited but also fatigued with countless options. Maybe more of us are slowly realizing that the focus of skincare companies has shifted away from serving our skin’s essential needs. And maybe they’re creating more unnecessary wants.
On the topic of creating unnecessary wants, KraveBeauty’s socially-minded mission stands out in an industry that continues to turn a blind eye towards the impact of overconsumption on our environment. What does sustainability mean to you, why is it important, and what strategies and business models is the company experimenting with to be seen as a beacon of the circular economy?
There are many ways that companies can become more environmentally conscious but the hard truth is, the most effective way is to produce products more intentionally. Period. It doesn’t matter how reusable and recyclable the packaging is when a company is pumping out a million different unnecessary products in the first place.
Sustainability at KraveBeauty means being conscious and intentional with our production first and foremost. The beauty industry has become like fast-fashion and our goal is to do our part to slow down the industry in this consumption heavy society we live in. We hope to remind businesses to solve problems, not to create more.
One big problem the beauty industry is facing is that brands feel immense pressure to launch new products to stay “relevant” because there’s a fear that you’ll be forgotten if you don’t. As I mentioned, with the growth of social media, new product launches have become a way for the industry to delight customers and for brands to stay relevant. The shorter the customer’s attention span has become, the faster the industry releases new products. And if you’re running a company with investors and shareholders, there’s a pressure to realize profits quickly — and, unfortunately, the easiest way is to create more products since the cost of new customer acquisition on existing products is often higher.
I believe consumers have the power to shift the paradigm and determine the product launch cycle. Beauty consumers are fatigued with countless options already, and we want to remind them to enjoy signature and evergreen products over the trendy ones. And for businesses, we want to remind them that there are other ways to gain profits over mindlessly creating unnecessary wants.
Do you think the beauty industry is moving fast enough to refactor supply chains to accommodate a more sustainable future? How do you think competitors can potentially work together for the sake of the planet?
It’s true that beauty brands can only innovate at the speed of how fast supply chains can implement change. Much of what consumers want to see — sustainable packaging and sourcing — is oftentimes outside the brand’s control. Multinational companies can invest in advancing the ecosystem and infrastructure which would move the needle, but that can oftentimes be limited to their own benefit. Or small brands can come together to support and fund green chemistry research but that wouldn’t guarantee an immediate ROI.
That brings me to the point of demanding policy changes and enforcements at a government level. There’s nothing more impactful than implementing new regulations that would help the entire ecosystem to accommodate a sustainable future.
Bio-based plastic, compostable plastic, and new materials are cool and deserve to be welcomed in the space. But the reality is, if the U.S. recycling system remains the same and the infrastructure does not progress, there will just be more material that goes to landfills. So the government should enforce a stronger policy to ensure a circular economy, and incentivize businesses to invest in advancing the infrastructure. Only then can the impact of these new materials be truly meaningful.
It doesn’t take watching a lot of your content to notice how you bleed authenticity — you present the truest version of yourself to the world, and aren’t afraid to be transparent. Where do you find the courage to be so fearless with such a massive platform?
Thank you for taking it that way! I think it’s just easier to be yourself than trying to wear another persona. Again, I’m a person who finds opening up to thousands of anonymous people to be a more comfortable experience than to a couple people in real life. I rely on my online friends to gain confidence and that’s why I often confide in them.
Also, I just wish successful people that are idolized would be more vulnerable and transparent in sharing their ups and downs. Because they’re humans at the end of the day. But society has painted a glossy picture of “they got their sh*t together” and portrays them as super-humans.
Being an entrepreneur is hard and represents the ultimate roller coaster ride. You’ve openly talked about ditching the notion of always having a plan, and instead choose to surrender to the universe. Which laws of the universe speak most to you, and how do you lean into them in your everyday routine?
That’s such an interesting question. I do set plans but I also leave room for flexibility to change plans. If you run a business, you’ll quickly learn that almost 90% of things don’t go according to your plan. So if you’re a massive control freak and your plan has no room for contingencies, you’re only setting yourself up for more stress.
I am a Christian, so naturally I lean into biblical lessons when I’m stuck. Among those, surrendering to God and trusting his plans has built my resilience muscle from the rocky roads, and opened me to amazing opportunities that I wouldn’t have ever planned for myself.
As someone who is ostensibly living the dream of so many young and budding entrepreneurs, what advice would you give to someone that is just starting out — be it in the beauty industry or in something else?
It’s really easy for anyone to start a business nowadays. But if anyone is interested in creating a brand that stands out and is used as a force for doing good, I’d really hone into defining what problem the business is trying to solve. Otherwise the business could just add more problems to the market.
I read that you’re a big fan of Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. Which of his leadership principles have you adopted as the owner of your own business, and also instilled in your employees?
I don’t know much about his leadership principles, but I was greatly inspired by how he runs his company. A couple thoughts on this:
- Build a brand that lasts: Patagonia was founded in 1973 and it just hit a billion in revenue not too long ago. Sometimes growing the business sustainably and profitably seems like an odd thing to do in this day and age where the startup scene celebrates and idolizes those who make big exits or achieve “unicorn status”. But Patagonia has taught me to think of the legacy KraveBeauty is leaving behind and has given me the assurance to take it slow to do things right.
- Be the change you want to see in the world: Patagonia is known for its advocacy for environmental issues. But before they were able to jump into activism, for decades they invested in pioneering supply chain transparency, introduced newer, more sustainable garments, and implemented a circular economy system in house. It’s become a norm for us to expect brands using their platforms to raise awareness of social and environmental issues, but I’m more interested in truly walking the walk and putting our money where our mouth is.
- Create a clear operations guideline: For purpose-driven companies, there’s a tendency to be more laid back or prioritize purpose over results. I think this is because they sometimes fail to articulate what the business purpose means to each department and how they can achieve it. Patagonia has struck a beautiful balance of being strongly purpose-driven and every layer of the company has a clear understanding of what Patagonia’s mission and values mean when translated into each department.
These themes sparked me to create a clear and solid guideline for our internal departments of what success means, and how the values are translated into R&D, marketing, and operations. Another plus side is that this makes the decision-making process way easier.
You clearly have an aesthetic eye, presumably due to your background and training in interior design. I have to ask, who are your style icons and design inspirations?
I’ve never been asked a question like this! I don’t have a style icon. I just appreciate good design that solves a user problem.
As a parting gift, what’s one video, book or other resource that you’d like to leave our readers with that will make them smarter?
Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It’s a really difficult book to go through without pausing every second, but that’s because every sentence written is so profound. There are many great business books that teach you all sorts of “hacks” but at the end of the day, I feel like everyone on this planet will become a better version of themselves if they practice self-awareness regularly. And this book definitely pushes you into that zone.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Bonus content: For all the budding entrepreneurs in the Fire Ant community, check out Liah’s tips on how to launch a beauty brand below 😊
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