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The Secret Company Behind KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics

Jul 20, 2018 @ 9:00 am

If you’ve watched “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” (and who hasn’t?), you’ve likely witnessed sisters Kylie and Kim touching base with the larger teams behind their uber-popular beauty brands, Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty. Onscreen, of course, the meetings are cut short—quick snapshots and a few lines exchanged without much context given to flesh out the other players gracing the camera. Their product launches and pop-up openings come and go at warp speed—but what it takes to bring these ideas to life, and the people involved in doing so, goes unseen.

That’s exactly how Seed Beauty, the company behind both Kylie and Kim’s brands, wants it to be. Founded by siblings Laura and John Nelson in 2014, the beauty brand incubator is responsible for much of these brands’ success. Seed made its debut with Colourpop, an instantly buzzy cosmetics company whose success is founded on strategic influencer partnerships. One of the first brands to trumpet the liquid lipsticks that would become a Kylie Cosmetics staple, Colourpop has collaborated with beauty vloggers like Kathleen Lights and Jenn Im. It now has 5.9 million followers on Instagram, toppling the fanbases of onetime beauty juggernauts like Estee Lauder (2.6 million followers) and Revlon (1.6 million followers). Partnering with the Kardashian-Jenners took this model to the next level.

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“At its heart, Seed Beauty is an entrepreneurial brand lab,” explains Jodi Katz, a beauty industry expert and the founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency. “Its whole reason for being is to not follow any industry rules.”

Seed’s sibling co-founders were inspired to launch the business after honing their craft while running Spatz Laboratories, the beauty industry supply company owned by their father. But they put a distinctly millennial spin on their father’s model: As the beauty bubble grew online, fueled by the rise of trend-driven YouTube and Instagram tutorials, the Nelsons saw an opportunity to manufacture products inspired by whatever was currently making waves on social media. Given that over 55 percent of people now say social media is the driving force behind their purchasing decisions, the timing was ripe.

The real key to Seed’s success—and the reason the Kardashians courted them—was speed. “There was an opportunity to bring the fast-fashion model to beauty,” says Laura Nelson, president and co-founder of Seed Beauty. While many brands now look to social media for product inspiration, Seed was doing so at a much quicker pace than the industry was used to, one better suited to a digitally native generation.

Today, the company boasts that it can take a product from concept to creation in a mere five days—a speed at which other companies, like E.l.f. Beauty and Winky Lux, are now trying to recreate. Given that traditional beauty companies like Estee Lauder and L’Oreal often take up to two years to develop and launch new products, this timeline is a feat.

It helps that Seed has total control of its manufacturing process, working on everything from product development to marketing, all under one roof on a 200,000-square-foot campus in Oxnard, Calif. All of its six brands—alongside the aforementioned three, there are a few hush-hush brands in development—are also digital first, allowing each one to develop new products quickly and launch them immediately.

“This flexibility allows us to remain culturally relevant and at the forefront of new trends,” says Nelson.

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As does endless social listening, the lifeblood of Colourpop, Kylie Cosmetics, and KKW Beauty. Seed employees use various platforms to closely track whatever’s blowing up the beauty space online, whether it’s a type of concealer or a new smokey eye, and are constantly chatting with the brands’ consumers for constructive feedback.

“We use our social platforms and tools to ask consumers what they want [rather than] telling them,” explains Nelson, who notes that the most important qualities in a beauty brand today are “relatability, authenticity, originality, and quality.”

Calling the Kardashians relatable might be a stretch. How many of us are flying on private jets and cavorting around Fashion Week, not to mention married to Kanye West? But their appeal, and the intimate relationship their fans feel they share with the Calabasas family, can’t be denied. Products from Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty routinely sell out, and tens of thousands of people line up for their pop-up shops, requiring ample security to keep the makeup-crazed crowds at peace. Many of their products—from Kim’s contour kits to Kylie’s lip kits—are often re-sold on sites like eBay for hundreds of dollars.

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It’s no surprise, then, that Forbes just announced that Jenner is on track to become the youngest-ever “self-made” billionaires, reporting that she’s built an $800 million fortune off her makeup empire in just three years.

Nelson, for her part, refused to speak about either of the celebrity brands specifically, only noting that Seed’s relationships were never intentionally confidential. Quiet might be the better descriptor.

Still, the Kardashian-Jenner women are said to be fairly hands on in the process, driving initial product vision from the get-go and checking in with the product development teams once to twice a week to make any necessary tweaks.

Nelson hasn’t always been so close-lipped, telling Shopify last year that it was Jenner who first approached her about starting a brand in 2014.

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“Kylie came about it from the same way that I've learned that she comes about many other things, which is to find the most direct path. That's one of the reasons that we work very well together,” Nelson said at the time. “Our capabilities in the business matched with her vision and reach—that's the magic that has allowed Kylie Cosmetics to have scaled the way it has been able to scale in just 12 months.”

Seed’s role in the launch of KKW Beauty last year has remained even quieter, which many of Nelson’s industry peers say is simply smart business—an attempt to keep the “secret sauce” inherent to both companies success, well, secret. Seed Beauty’s website provides little information, and it has no social media presence, which might seem ironic for a company trumpeting digital-first.

“It doesn’t surprise me that Seed’s founders are keeping a low profile. They understand the power of a brand to connect with the hopes, dreams, and fantasies of a consumer, and they know that they are not the brand,” says Katz. “Think of the swirl of excitement around a Kardashian product launch—[you] wouldn’t want Seed’s own amplification to get in the way of that incredibly voluptuous energy on social.”