“What was your big break?” It’s a question people often ask of celebrities, but at Allure, the beauty professionals and brand founders are the celebrities. In My Beauty Break, we’ll dig into the behind-the-scenes details — the money, the aha! moments, and the mistakes — of the biggest brands in the industry. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Amy Liu calls herself “risk-averse.” But anyone who has built their own business will tell you risks come with the territory, including Liu. As the founder of indie, California-inspired brand Tower28, she had to go out on a limb and her wager resulted in signing with a major retailer like Sephora from the very beginning.
Tower28 describes itself as “non-toxic makeup for sensitive skin.” It’s undeniably a statement full of buzzwords that are rampant in the cosmetics landscape today… but it’s also accurate. Liu has put in the work to make sure her products are safe for even the most vulnerable skin. As someone who has dealt with eczema for most of her life, she wanted to create a brand that wouldn’t cause a flare-up when she used the products but was still exciting and fun to use.
Not even two years after launching, Tower28 now sells 12,000 tubes of their ShineOn Lip Jelly a month. The brand’s hero product, however, is the SOS Daily Rescue Facial Spray: a $28 mist for the skin that utilizes hypochlorous acid to soothe the skin from acne to psoriasis and, of course, eczema. What’s more: the products all have the Seal of Acceptance by the National Eczema Association.
Read on to learn exactly how Liu funded her brand, why professional relationships are important, and her best advice for pitching Sephora.
ALLURE: Where did you get the courage to start your own brand? Was there a moment that you were like, “I’m doing this and it’s happening?”
Amy Liu: I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur. My dad was an entrepreneur. But the problem is I’m also really risk-averse as a person. And cheap, by the way. (Laughs) I’ve never been in debt.
The concept of raising money felt like it wasn’t even a possibility. I didn’t know anybody who had done that. I went to business school and studied entrepreneurship. Instead of starting a business [right away], I went and worked for other people because I thought, “I’ll learn on someone else’s dime.” And I did that for 16 years. I worked for Smashbox Cosmetics, I worked for Kate Somerville, I worked for Josie Maran. And I kept telling myself that I was getting a seat at the table, and I was learning, but I never took the leap.
The big thing was it costs a lot of money to start a company and a brand. You hear of a lot of people who are able to do those types of things because they have their own funding available. I wasn’t an influencer. I don’t have my own platform. Nothing about it felt like a “shoo-in.”
The big break I got was this guy who was the co-president of the Entrepreneurship Venture Management Association at my business school. We were professional colleagues. We kept in touch, and he eventually sold his company. I said to him, “Okay, so what I really want is an executive position with something funded, I want equity…” and he was like, “I thought you said you’ve always wanted to do something on your own?”
And I’m like, “That’s true. But one, I don’t have money, and two, I don’t have a partner,” because I always felt like I wanted to do it with someone else. The idea of doing something on my own felt so daunting. He essentially gave me a deadline: $500,000 is what I told him I needed and he was like, “If you can raise $250,000 within 30 days, that means you have a good idea and you have people who believe in you. I’ll give you the other half.”
I raised (funds) from friends. Basically, a lot of people had a little bit of money. And he ended up putting in money, too. He was definitely my big beauty break.
ALLURE: What would you say the takeaway is for someone who hears that part of your story?
AL: Tell people what you want to do. Because you never know who-knows-who that can help you. You have to manifest your own destiny.
It sounds so cliche, but I think you have to be nice to people, too. You don’t know how your paths are gonna cross. I’ve been able to interact and intersect with people that I’ve known for a really long time. And that makes it more fun.
ALLURE: Let’s talk about the SOS spray. Would you say that’s your hero product?
AL: It’s certainly my hero. I literally have had chronic eczema from the time I was 18 or 20, especially on my face. There were periods of time I didn’t wear shorts, I wouldn’t wear a bathing suit. Because if I did, people would literally stop me and ask me [if I was okay] because my eczema would kind of end up looking like a bruise sometimes. It was something that really embarrassed me for a long time and I can 100 percent tell you that this product has saved my skin. That’s literally why we call it “SOS” (Save Our Skin).
Now I get acne and I have wrinkles. I have all those other issues, but I’m so grateful to be able to address them. Before I wasn’t even able to use anything really interesting from a skincare perspective because I was so worried about making [my eczema] worse.
ALLURE: So explain how you found the magic ingredient in the SLS spray.
AL: A friend of mine, her husband is a surfer and he was using a product that had hypochlorous acid in it to help with his reef cuts. After he was getting reef cuts, he was spraying it on his body, mostly his feet I think. She had some of it and started spraying it on her face. The reason he was using it on those reef cuts is because it’s known to be antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, so it will keep the area clean. It’ll help it heal. She was like, “I don’t know what this is, but I started spraying it on my face and people keep telling me I’ve never looked younger.”
I bought it and started using it. I get eczema on the nooks, like the inside of my elbows, behind my knees, that type of thing. I started using it on my body and it helped my body but I was spraying it on my face and it didn’t do anything to my face.
So I started working with a chemist and I told them, “I don’t know why it doesn’t do anything for my face?” He was like, “Let’s work on the pH level…Let’s work on the concentration.” We got it to a point where it started working on my face and then we bought 100 little [bottles], and I sent it to the girls on my team.
People who had nothing wrong with their skin or nothing going on, they were like, “It’s fine. It’s like a hydrating spray.” But people who had any type of inflammation—whether it was attached to a piercing, sunburn, acne—were raving about it. One of my interns got a boob job. After she got her boob job and she was spraying it on her sutures. She said that the doctor was like, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here? I’ve never seen anybody heal so fast.”
ALLURE: If somebody is starting a clean brand, are there certain ingredients or certain certifications you think they should be aiming towards? There are no FDA regulations around “clean” or “natural” beauty and sometimes there are natural ingredients that can be toxic.
AL: There are natural ingredients that can be terrible for you, right? Poison ivy is natural.
What you’re saying is absolutely true and one of the things that drives me crazy is greenwashing. I say our products are clean because they are “non-toxic” because we’re the only brand that uses both a combination of the Credo Beauty no-no list for toxicity and we also use the National Eczema Association no-no list for irritation.
They’re actually really different lists. We combine those two and then we include all the claims we want. For instance, we’re vegan, gluten-free, and hypoallergenic. We use formulators that are well known in the industry for making amazing products, not necessarily “clean” ones. Then, we have a third-party chemist that we work with that is a “clean” chemist. And when they say to us, “We can’t do this without adding silicones,” then my formulator is like, “Tell them to try this.”
ALLURE: It’s crazy that when we met, you’d only been around for like a couple of months. Tower28 felt just like such an established—I think the week I met you, you were launching at Sephora.
AL: Another one of my big beauty breaks is Sephora. There is the woman who is the head of clean makeup who was my assistant merchant back in the day. She has grown up [at Sephora]. I still had to pitch. But there is something about establishing relationships.
Irrespective of whether or not she liked me, she had some semblance of like, “Oh, I worked with Amy before she said she would do certain things and she did.” I think there’s a little bit of trust that happens and gets built that way.
Just because you know someone doesn’t mean they’re going to take you. We brought these coolers with us and we brought a boombox. We put popsicles and lip glosses in all of [the coolers] because it was the juicy, lip jelly idea. The idea that you would get this pop-of-color-from-eating-a-popsicle type thing from the lip jelly.
We walked around the whole office and turned on loud music and handed out these popsicles and lip jellies to everybody. The buyer calls me afterward and she’s like, “Everybody on the team, like people in operations, people in finance, people who are not buyers were like, ‘What was that product? It’s great. You have to take them.’”
That’s when I really felt like I knew. Everybody’s a decision-maker. You build influence in the ways that you can. For us, it was, “How do I get that watercooler talk, the buzz and support—and not just from the merchants?”
ALLURE: What advice do you have for people when they get an opportunity to pitch Sephora?
AL: I have a mentor in my life, Margarita Arriagada. [Editor note: she was the former Chief Merchant at Sephora]. And because I’ve always worked at brands that have been sold at Sephora, I’ve known her for a long time. When I told her that I had secured a pitch day with them, I was planning to bring a deck. I was planning to tell you like, “This is the whitespace these are the numbers. This is how I’m different.” And approach it in more of a straightforward, linear way. And the thing that she said that I thought was so good, was, “No, you need to bring the vision alive to them. These are going to be your advocates in the store. You need to bring the brand to them.” And she literally was like, “Outside of bringing sand and a surfboard, and the beach waves, I need you to bring Tower28 to them and make them not only read it but feel it.”
That’s how we ended up doing the popsicle thing. Because the thing is, whether you’re talking about sending your product in a box to an influencer, or you’re talking about selling into a merchant, you’re trying to sell this vision and everybody learns in such different ways. I think the girl in operations who loves our Lip Jelly was as influential in this situation as the merchant who was sitting in the room.
ALLURE: Lastly, I have a round of rapid-fire questions for you! What are the five products you wear daily?
What’s the first product you bought?
What’s the best business advice you have ever received?
My husband always says, “Don’t do anything that you would not be proud of having written on the cover of a newspaper.” Not to say that I’ve never messed anything up or that I’m perfect either, but I certainly move through the world with the intention of progress, and evolution, and integrity.
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