Truth Serum

Jessica Johnson on how to succeed as a Maine entrepreneur in the beauty industry

Jessica Johnson spent her formative years in San Francisco, and she travels frequently to New York City to work with clients at the Carlyle and Surrey hotels. Yet she believes that the small city of Portland is the most propitious home for her pioneering beauty approach. Johnson launched an entirely new methodology in Portland with her original brows-only salon, and again when she opened Jessica Johnson Beauty and introduced a 30-minute facial. She works with a lab in Vienna, Austria, to produce proprietary skin-care products—but only a few. Johnson’s north star and guiding principle is that, when it comes to looking one’s best, less is more. She has set out not only to build up the confidence of those who walk through her doors but also to debunk the untruths that have historically plagued the beauty industry.

Can you tell us a little bit about your less-is-more philosophy? In a $532-billion-dollar beauty product market (and counting), not everyone ascribes to this concept.
My philosophy is based on 30 years of working with clients to improve their skin. Most people will benefit from doing less, not more. My philosophy is based on science and understanding what skin needs to function at its best. I’ve been working with this particular lab in Austria for over 20 years; the product development process is so long and in-depth. What inspired me was seeing a white space in the industry. That’s the first step—you have to identify the white space. Every skin-care company was making and promoting multistep programs. I saw a need to create something for the consumer who wants fewer products, and distilled this into two products.

How were you able to educate people about a different type of wellness treatment?
Nobody was specializing in brows here. I saw a need, and I filled it. I designed the facial that I wanted and couldn’t get anywhere. Most facials are long on time, high in price, and short on results. I took a risk—the “if you build it, they will come” approach. I knew I had built a better mousetrap, and clients recognized it instantly. The New England sensibility is a perfect match for my products, my services, and my approach to business. Mainers appreciate quality, and when they can get it they’re willing to pay for it. They’re very direct, and they like value.

The personal care and wellness sector is getting more crowded every day. What is the most challenging part of differentiating yourself in this space?
One challenge is that I’m a small business competing against multi-billion-dollar corporations for attention and sales. Another challenge is that the business is driven by celebrities and inf luencers. The advantage I have is that I’m a 30-year expert in the skin-care industry. I’ve created services and products that not only work but are a revolutionary approach to beauty.

What is the worst skin-care advice or the biggest misconception you hear repeatedly?
A big part of our mission is to empower women to become smart and savvy beauty consumers. There’s no shortage of terrible advice out there. The industry is a noisy, chaotic space, and it’s designed to feast on women’s insecurities and to confuse them. Women are spending a lot of time and money on products that don’t work, which leads to the worst skin-care advice: use more and you’ll look better. The biggest misconception I hear repeatedly is about ingredients. There is a lot of misinformation that has taken firm root in the marketplace and caused fear about product safety. A lot of this information is produced and promoted by brands, not reputable research facilities or industry journals. Brands talk about avoiding or removing toxic chemicals, but every chemical has a dose at which it is not harmful to the skin. For example, Botox will kill you when 3,000 units are injected but will smooth and remove wrinkles when 50 units are used. Drinking water is good for your health. However, drinking six liters of water can cause water intoxication and death. The concept of dose versus toxicity is misunderstood by most consumers.

What advice have you received as an entrepreneur that you would pass along to another small business owner?
Think long and hard about why you are getting into business for yourself. Many people start their own company because they think it will be easy, or fun. The reality is, you must have a mountain of grit to get through the hurdles. Most entrepreneurs quit because they don’t possess the grit. I highly recommend working with a mentor or a group that can help you navigate the rough waters, like SCORE, a volunteer mentoring organization composed of business experts.

Who is an innovator or disruptor that you find inspiring?
I really admire Marcia Kilgore, the founder of Bliss spa in New York. She inspired me to quit my job in 1995 and go into this business. She’s an amazing entrepreneur who started a multi-million-dollar business from her one-bedroom apartment. She made the spa experience fun and accessible. A true visionary and pioneer.

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