How Glow Recipe Evolved From K-Beauty Curator to Global Skincare Brand

Glow Recipe founders Sarah Lee and Christine Chang
Glow Recipe co-founders and co-CEOs Sarah Lee (left) and Christine Chang (right). Source: Glow Recipe

When Sarah Lee and Christine Chang left their jobs at L‘Oreal to start Glow Recipe in 2014, they saw an opportunity to introduce Korean beauty innovations to the American market. What began as a curation site spotlighting the latest in K-beauty has since evolved into a high-growth skincare brand with a cult following, thanks to a successful pivot and enduring focus on community.

Gaining a Global Perspective

Lee and Chang first crossed paths working in marketing at L‘Oreal Korea. There they gained firsthand experience taking Korean beauty products global and saw how trends popular in Seoul would catch on internationally a few years later.

"I think the beauty of working at L‘Oreal was really the 360 degree view and experience we got," Chang told Glossy. From product development to acquisitions, the experience gave the pair a deep understanding of how a global beauty conglomerate operates.

The L‘Oreal network also gave Lee and Chang strong relationships with up-and-coming Korean brands and manufacturers that would serve them well in their next venture. "We saw all this incoming innovation from Korea and knew these were products that deserved to be on the world stage," said Chang.

Curating the Best in K-Beauty

Montage of early Glow Recipe website and products
A snapshot of Glow Recipe‘s early days as a K-beauty curator. Source: Glow Recipe

Coupling their industry knowledge and love of K-beauty, Lee and Chang soft-launched Glow Recipe in late 2014 with a simple mission: to curate the best Korean skincare products for American consumers.

They traveled back to Seoul to visit trade shows and meet with nearly 100 brands. "We were looking for brands that had unique products, really clear product formulation philosophies, and we felt like these were the brands that needed to be introduced to the U.S. and other global markets because of the sheer astounding innovation," Chang recounted on The Shake Up podcast.

After much vetting, Glow Recipe launched with just 8-9 brands on its site. But getting those initial brands on board took convincing. "Without so much as a website to show them, we had to pound the pavement," said Lee. Payment terms also required some finesse. Strapped for cash, Glow Recipe negotiated net-60 payment terms with their brand partners to maintain enough working capital.

To build buzz, Lee and Chang leveraged their beauty industry contacts to personally introduce Glow Recipe to magazine editors. They also gifted products to influential makeup artists and facialists. "We used all of our savings, but little things like that really helped build credibility for Glow Recipe as a company," said Chang.

Engaging a Community

Beyond PR and partnerships, Glow Recipe focused on creating educational content to make K-beauty trends accessible. Lee and Chang wrote blog posts decoding ingredients like snail mucin and product techniques like double cleansing.

The founders also provided personalized recommendations to every customer who reached out via email or social media. "In the very beginning we literally responded to every single message ourselves," said Lee. "Really having that high-touch customer interaction was so powerful because people felt like they were being heard."

These efforts cultivated a highly engaged Glow Recipe community eager to learn about the newest K-beauty innovations. The strong word-of-mouth traction caught the eye of retailers, with Sephora picking up some of Glow Recipe‘s curation assortment in 2015.

The Pivot to Product

Glow Recipe's initial skincare products launched in 2017
Glow Recipe launched their own skincare line in May 2017 with the now cult-favorite Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask as a hero product. Source: Sephora

Even as their curation business grew, Lee and Chang felt they could serve customers better by developing their own line grounded in all they had learned about K-beauty.

"What we wanted to do was combine those tenants [of K-beauty] and create our own brand, because we didn‘t really think that all of the influx of Chinese and Korean beauty innovations were fully understood by the American consumer," explained Lee.

After three years of curation, Glow Recipe was ready to make the leap. In 2017, they launched Glow Recipe Skincare with just two "holy grail" products: the Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser and Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask.

The transition came with inevitable risks and unknowns. "It was really hard to gauge the level of success the brand would have," acknowledged Chang. "There are so many brands in the industry, and each one needs to have a real point of difference."

For Glow Recipe, that difference stemmed from the founders‘ unique perspective on the market after years of customer feedback. They zeroed in on a white space for skincare that combined the efficacy of K-beauty naturals with a sensorial, joyful experience.

"So many brands at the time were very clinical or dermatologist-founded," said Chang. "We wanted to infuse skincare with that sense of joy and self-care, and really focus the conversation on healthy skin rather than perfect skin." The resulting formulas featured real fruit extracts in playful, colorful packaging.

Glow Recipe‘s positioning resonated with consumers and retail buyers alike. At launch, Sephora brought in the brand‘s full product assortment. The Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask in particular became an instant hit, selling out multiple times and racking up a waitlist of thousands.

Maintaining Momentum

Since the pivot, Glow Recipe has kept up its momentum with a steady cadence of launches developed in response to community feedback. Bestsellers like the Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner and Plum Plump Hyaluronic Cream have cemented the brand‘s status as a leader in healthy, happy skincare.

Glow Recipe has also expanded into new categories including lip care and body care with the same fruit-forward approach. Notably, their first body product, the Watermelon Glow Pink Dream Body Cream, generated a waitlist of over 8,000 people ahead of its 2020 launch.

Now sold through Sephora and Cult Beauty in 20 markets as well as on their own DTC site, Glow Recipe has maintained triple digit growth each year since 2017. The company reportedly generated $100 million in revenue in 2021 with only 30 employees (Sources: The Business of Fashion, WWD).

Glow Recipe has raised a total of $15 million in venture funding to date, most recently closing a Series A round in December 2021 (Source: Crunchbase). While the founders declined to comment on valuation, industry estimates peg Glow Recipe‘s worth at around $400-500 million based on typical beauty industry revenue multiples.

2021 2022 2023
Revenue $100M ~$150M* ~$200M*
Growth Rate 100% 50%* 40%*

*Estimated. Sources: WWD, The Business of Fashion

Lessons in Leading Change

Looking back, Lee and Chang attribute much of Glow Recipe‘s successful pivot to staying focused on serving their community. From their curation days through the transition, the founders solicited customer input at every step.

"Our community really guided our product development process," said Chang. "They told us what kind of products they wanted to see from us, down to ingredients and packaging."

The strength of their brand relationships and influencer network also proved pivotal. As they introduced Glow Recipe‘s own products, the founders made sure to keep supporting the K-beauty companies they had once curated.

"We‘re all brand builders and creators at the end of the day," said Lee. "So even after we stopped selling their products, we stayed close with a lot of those founders and still recommend their brands whenever we can."

Reflecting on how the beauty market has evolved since Glow Recipe‘s launch, Chang emphasized the importance of continual innovation. "With the rise of indie brands and digital media, consumers have so many choices now," she said. "It‘s not enough to just launch something, you have to keep giving people a reason to come back and maintain that emotional connection."

As Glow Recipe looks ahead, global expansion and hiring top talent remain key priorities for scaling the business. But through all the growth and change, the founders are determined not to lose sight of what enabled their pivot in the first place: staying true to their original vision and community.

"Everything we do ladders back up to our mission of helping people glow deeper," said Lee. "As long as we keep listening to our customers and infusing everything with that sense of joy, the rest will follow."