One of the major challenges facing small business owners and entrepreneurs heading into Q3 of this year was figuring out how to take action and move forward in the face of uncertainty. But as we enter Q4 in what has been an undeniably complex year, it pays to take notes from those founders who have weathered many storms over the life of their companies. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Audrey Kunin, M.D., Founder and Chief Creative Officer of DERMAdoctor, on the factors that she believes have kept her award-winning brand relevant for over 20 years, and the key to staying on top when things seem like they’re ready to blow over.
Start By Doing What’s Rarely Done
As a young girl growing up in the 60’s with two generations of salesmen ahead of her, Dr. Kunin shared that it was her family’s encouragement that allowed her to hold onto her dreams of pursuing a medical career at a time when those thoughts were totally outside the norm. “They provided great support,” she said. “And no limitations to my dream.”
After taking a dermatology rotation during her third year of medical school at the Medical College of Ohio, Dr. Kunin says she became entranced with the vast array of what the field had to offer. But as she became more experienced in her practice as a dermatologist, Dr. Kunin recognized the overall lack of accessibility when it came to personal care. Believing that the option to consult with a licensed dermatologist should be convenient, informative, and economical, Dr. Kunin launched DERMAdoctor at the end of 1998. Starting as an e-retailer back when the idea of websites and online shopping was just starting to catch on, DERMAdoctor became the go-to marketplace for consumers searching for dermatologically-backed skincare solutions and the education they needed to solve their issues for good.
With their informative approach, DERMAdoctor became a trailblazer in the dermatological space by offering more than just hard-to-find products. By 2003, the brand had launched their own skincare line, eventually becoming the first female-founded, MD-backed dermatology brand carried in major retailers like Sephora and ULTA Beauty. Today, the DERMAdoctor brand is recognized as groundbreaking and with her no-nonsense advice given on such platforms as The Dr. Oz Show and QVC, Dr. Kunin is considered one of the most-quoted skin care authorities in the US.
Make The Effort To Understand Your Consumer
Dr. Kunin explained that it was the help she initially provided to her customers that led to the ideation of the brand. While answering email questions on their skincare concerns and giving advice and direction on what products they should be using, Dr. Kunin began to dwell upon the idea of the dermatological skincare industry as it was. “There were so many voids and gaps in the industry [in terms of the] types of products and solutions.” By listening to both positive and negative feedback, Dr. Kunin began to make way for a product line that could fulfill all the needs she was slowly becoming intimately aware of.
Being in tune with what today’s consumer is looking for and what the market currently has to provide them is also important. “I think that most people, when they launch their company, they’re more than likely their own consumer – I certainly know that’s what I brought to the table when I launched DERMAdoctor – but it changes over time.” It was the construction of their online business that helped Dr. Kunin’s team gather the market research they needed to fill the voids they were seeing. However, when it comes to making sure that their products continue to fly off the shelves, Dr. Kunin stated there was much more to it than looking at where the competition was succeeding and failing.
Stay True To Brand Identity No Matter The Cost
“You need to be true to yourself,” urged Dr. Kunin. She described DERMAdoctor as a skincare brand that works to make everyone feel seen, regardless of gender, age, race, color, or skin type. “There may be subtle differences in the manifestation of skin diseases and disorders, however, the bottom line is that they are treated equally.”And the brand has always been inclusive, even purposely choosing to give its animated mascot – dubbed Dr. Audrey after it’s founder – a chartreuse skin color to play up the fact that skin concerns are a global issue that affect everyone. But early on when a prominent retail buyer refused to let the brand sell in their stores without the mascot’s skin color being changed, the team refused.
“We didn’t get into that store, but we stayed true to ourselves. And our motto continues to this day that ‘we’re skin caring for all of you,’” she emphasized. “You can’t chase the fads.” Mentioning the fact that it’s almost impossible to change a brand model, DERMAdoctor has continued to focus on differentiating itself from its competitors, creating buzz for offerings through social media and events, and building to bring year-over-year growth for their retail partners to latch onto.
During Difficult Times, Lean On Systems Of Support
However successful, the life of a brand is seldom a straight shot to the top and founders often face many obstacles as they climb the proverbial ladder to longevity. For Dr. Kunin, the first of which came when it was time to decide on whether she’d pursue DERMAdoctor full time. “I had a family to raise, I had a medical practice, this burgeoning new business that was growing very rapidly, and there was only so much opportunity to be able to devote my time and my resources,” she explained. Once her husband – who is also a physician and the brand’s CEO – stepped in to help raise their family, Dr. Kunin had more time to devote to the creative process, becoming the brand evangelist she’s known as today.
“I could pick up at a moment’s notice and fly to Australia and go on wild harvests with the Aboriginal people for Kakadu plums and he was there. I knew I could rely on him. That was instrumental in the early days,” she shared of finding DERMAdoctor’s premier ingredient. And in her business, it was making the right hires at the right times that helped push things further.
“I’m a big believer in hiring people who are smarter than me in their respective fields who can really compliment my talents,” stated Dr. Kunin. “You don’t need to hire people who only bring your same insights and abilities to the table. You need people who are going to flush things out and really be able to carry out the advancement of other portions of the business. My team remains, today, even very small, but every person is super critical in the role they play and I could not function without their support.”
And since startup, the challenges haven’t stopped. On their journey to becoming the brand on the lists of many notable publications including O, The Oprah Magazine, InStyle, and the Wall Street Journal, the Kunins are quick to admit that it hasn’t been a cake walk. From the 2008 recession, to a run-in with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over technical verbiage on their packaging, abandoned IPO, and the COVID-19 pandemic, DERMAdoctor has indeed weathered many storms. Besides having a strong support system, Dr. Kunin also suggests having a well-diversified infrastructure to get you through.
“Things happen in the world that you can’t anticipate,” she started. “And if you have not diversified your business, you’re at higher risk of failure.” Dividing their business into thirds split between their domestic partnerships, global distributors, and online retailers, DERMAdoctor has been able to keep themselves well-positioned in the face of crisis.
“I’m not going to pretend it’s been easy,” started Dr. Kunin on navigating the fallout of the pandemic. “But [diversification] allowed us to have an income source to maintain our business so we didn’t have to lay off any people, we didn’t have to furlough anyone.” By having a robust lane for internet sales already in place, the team easily channeled their customers without losing steam. Additionally utilizing their company knowledge to secure their supply chain early on, DERMAdoctor was able to thrive during “massive” disruptions in their ingredients and package sourcing.
Stay Prepared And Keep Looking Ahead
To Dr. Kunin, company resiliency boils down to staying prepared and looking ahead. From relying on clinical research for creating science-based formulations to becoming more attuned to what the FTC wants when it comes to marketing, Dr. Kunin has made it a priority to learn from the past and look to the future.
Crediting the pandemic for keeping her creative juices flowing, she revealed that DERMAdoctor will have approximately 11 new launches between the time of our interview and March 2021, as well as a new podcast set to launch this fall that will focus on health, wellness and lifestyle. With a strong pipeline and a CCO dedicated to turning lemons into lemonade, it seems there’s no stopping DERMAdoctor, no matter the weather.