Peach & Lily founder on sheet masks and redefining skin health.
Sometimes a career trajectory seems to anticipate exploding trends that it’s hard to imagine it being anything but serendipitous. Take Alicia Yoon, who left a cushy gig at a consulting firm to found her own Korean-beauty e-commerce site, Peach & Lily, right on the cusp of the K-beauty phenomenon. It's very possible that we're all so obsessed with said phenomenon in part due to her influence because, well, she did make all the latest in Korean skincare health a hell of a lot more accessible for us non-Seoul-bound frequent fliers. Yoon makes up for our ignorance, chalking up the miles to learn all about the newest innovations directly from the source and bring it right back to us. So we caught up with her on home turf to talk about paving the way for a new beauty ideology, creating sheet masks, and why Googling your company name before settling on it is kind of imperative.
"I went to esthetician school in the ’90s in Korea, where I grew up, and I'd kept up with Korean beauty since then. I saw how innovative Korean beauty products were, how differently skincare is approached in Korea, and I couldn't believe it wasn't already a part of the beauty dialogue in North America. This passion to see that become a reality gave me the courage to leave my job. I actually really liked my job! I was a consultant at BCG—it was a great place to work. Deciding to start Peach & Lily was definitely a leap of faith. I had no funding, no brands, no employees, but I had a lot of excitement and confidence that Korean beauty was something that would catch on in North America."
ON THE RITUALISTIC SIDE OF SKINCARE:
“Growing up, I always thought beauty rituals were intriguing. I remember when I was a little girl, I would be pretty voyeuristic in the section of the public bathhouses in Korea where women would sit in front of mirrors indulging in their beauty rituals. I loved watching my mom and my grandma in their beauty elements, too. This cultural approach to ritualistic skincare left this powerful image in my mind that it’s almost a sensual, personalized and empowering thing. I grew up seeing it as a form of self-care and self-love.”
ON TRANSITIONING FROM ONE CAREER TO THE NEXT:
“When I was 17, I started going to esthetician school. It was the first time beauty was more than this beautiful ritualistic thing, and I learned about the science behind skin and products. Giving my friends and myself facials and reading books on skincare and testing every beauty product under the sun stayed a hobby throughout college and up until starting Peach & Lily. When I was a consultant, I even gave facials to my managers when we would go on business trips. It was so hilarious but also so awesome because beauty is this really unifying thing."
ON KOREA BEING THE BEAUTY INDUSTRY'S LONGTIME SECRET PLAYGROUND:
"While I was at BCG, I learned that these huge Western beauty brands had been going to Korea for skincare formulations for decades. I had this 'Wait—what? Really?' moment because I thought my love for Korean beauty products was because of my own bias. But when this cosmetic chemist said to me in passing, ‘Well, insiders know that the beauty formulations coming out of Korea are some of the most advanced in the world...’ that's when I knew that I had to start Peach & Lily!”
ON PUTTING EVERYTHING SHE HAD (LITERALLY) INTO IT:
“The hardest decision in my career happened in the earlier days. It was early on in 2013, and we had a strong community of customers, but Korean beauty was still seen as very niche. It isn't easy pioneering a new category. There's a lot of education and patience involved—and a lot of faith. I knew I needed more time with the business to continue to grow Korean beauty as a category and make a place for it in mainstream beauty conversations and on major national retail shelves.
All my savings went into the company. I wasn't taking a salary and I hadn't made rent for a couple months. I was on the verge of getting evicted from my home. Then I met this investor who wanted to fund Peach & Lily, but it became clear that, with this funding partner, I wouldn't be able to see through the vision I had for the company. It was scary to turn that money down. In hindsight, it seems like an obvious choice, since it ended up working. We worked even harder as a team, turned the financial corner and then received funding from the right investors down the road. Without the benefit of seeing how it would play out, it was one of the hardest choices to make. I'm glad I stuck with my instincts, though!”
ON HOW A BIT OF GOOGLING LANDED HER ON THE NAME:
“I wanted something easy to spell and say. It had to be available online. It had to be clear and free of trademark issues. And I wanted something that hinted at natural, radiance, fresh and beautiful. I also wanted it to subtly point to an Asian heritage without explicitly saying ‘Korean Beauty Shop.' Peaches and lilies are motifs in Asian artwork that I always found alluring and calming.
I first started off with Lily & Plum, but when you Google 'Lily Plum,' a vibrator is what pops up first. So, we went onto the next fruit that stood for all the same things, and it sounded better the other way around, with the 'lily' after the 'peach'...so Peach & Lily was born!”
ON HOW SHE HAD TO LEARN ALONG THE WAY:
“Basically, I learned that being the founder and CEO means that I had to learn how to do a lot of things that I had no idea how to do—and I had to learn quickly.
And it's like, these new things constantly come up, so that's always the core challenge. I have to think 'What's the fastest and best way I can learn this? How much do I need to learn to get this done well and on time? And do we hire people to do this, outsource it or train people we already have?' This is my basic job description: figure out how to do new things well and quickly to get past what seem like hurdles and grow the business.”
ON HER TYPICAL-ISH 9-TO-5:
“There's no typical work day!
I'm switching gears all the time. In the morning, I might be totally focused on something really creative with my designer, and then by lunchtime, I'm in total analysis mode and poring over numbers. In the evening, I'm focusing on people and having a one-on-one with one of my managers to make sure they're properly supported.
I’ve been working with our directors and managers to make sure we're on track to launch some really fun products and services. So a lot of project management and strategizing. I also wanted to see how skincare is taught in the U.S. So, nights and weekends, I'm back in esthetician school—but this time in NYC rather than Seoul. It's a hectic schedule, but it really doesn't feel like work.”
ON OPENING HER FIRST BRICKS-AND-MORTAR:
“It was actually a chance introduction. Someone introduced me to an executive at Macy's after I spoke at the WWD Beauty Summit. At the end of that first meeting with Macy's, it was decided: Peach & Lily should open its first bricks-and-mortar store in Macy's. It was a surreal moment for me.”
ON HOW PEACH & LILY IS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER BEAUTY BRANDS:
“While it's important to keep a pulse on what's happening in the industry, being the best that we can be is the mantra for our team. This means that we curate only the best, which has resulted in an intensely vigorous process to select the very top items coming out of Korea and Japan. This means that we come up with exciting marketing campaigns as creatively as we can and that we service our customers the best way we know how. We've instituted a complimentary Ask Lily program, where anyone can ask questions about skincare, their routine or product recommendations, and a licensed esthetician will respond back with detailed and truly personalized recommendations. Being our best also means that we constantly learn and improve on our own standards.”
ON WHAT A TYPICAL TRIP TO KOREA LOOKS LIKE:
“I stay with my parents in the house where I grew up, so I love that these work trips also let me see my family. When I'm there, I'm scouring Korea for the latest innovations and trends. I interview top dermatologists, estheticians, beauty houses, makeup artists, store owners, celebrities, consumers, beauty brands and R&D labs to keep my finger on the pulse. This takes back-to-back meetings and at least a good week. I also try to check out new spas, treatments and techniques—that's definitely a perk of the job. What's amazing is that every time I go back, even though I go back around every month and a half, there's always something new to see!”
“Our Peach & Lily sheet masks are coming soon! I've been doing a lot of creative work in launching them. Then I have to put on a bit of a chemist hat and work with the labs in Korea to get the formulation right so that the sheet mask will perform the way we think a dream sheet mask should work, based on thousands of comments from the Peach & Lily community. Stay tuned!”
ON THE BEST ADVICE SHE EVER RECEIVED:
“Not original advice, but it still struck a chord for me: perfect is the enemy of good. Trying to get something just right can stop the whole show. I have this tendency to do that. So I've had to remind myself every day, literally, that good and done is way, way, way better than perfect and incomplete.”
ON THE ADVICE SHE WOULD PASS ON TO ANYONE LOOKING FOR A CAREER IN BEAUTY:
“Beauty isn't a commodity. It's a pretty psychological space. A person's relationship to beauty is complex and evolves over a lifetime and is also different depending on their cultural background. Figuring out how to deliver a message to your customer means knowing what the message is, who your customer is and what their relationship to beauty is. It's a fun thing to think about. Starting with questions like these, I think, can help a beauty company carve out its place.”