Earned Ep. 68: Ken Landis, Investor & Co-founder of Bobbi Brown, TULA, DIBS, on the Keys to Building Profitable Beauty Brands

Taylor Masket
Taylor Masket
Feb 21, 2023

In Ep. 68 of Earned, we sit down with investor and beauty industry veteran Ken Landis. While Ken likes to keep a “low profile,” he has a proven track record of success, co-founding some of today’s top beauty brands, including Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, TULA Skincare, and DIBS Beauty. He’s also served as CEO of Italian fashion house Benetton Group, luxury leather goods line GHURKA, and his own venture capital firm, Landis Capital LLC.  


To begin the episode, Ken reveals the core characteristics of a successful beauty brand, emphasizes the importance of a focused distribution strategy and unpacking his mantra of “narrowing deep.” He explains why Bobbi Brown Cosmetics started out in the ’90s by being “laser focused” on high-end specialty retail stores, and prioritized winning market share in the few doors they were in, rather than maximizing distribution. We then dive into Tula, and Ken shares why the skincare brand launched with a digital-first, influencer-centric strategy, which quickly paved a path to profitability—and the No. 1 spot in Tribe Dynamics’ EMV rankings.

We explore the difficulties of building a brand identity through retail compared to DTC, and Ken unpacks the differences in marketing a color cosmetics brand like DIBS versus a skincare brand like Tula. We discuss how the creator economy has evolved over the years, and how DIBS and Tula approach organic relationships versus paid partnerships with influencers. To close the show, Ken details the key factors that have attracted him to invest in a variety of companies, from beauty to tech to art to cannabis, before sharing his philosophies on effective leadership. 

We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts!

The following interview has been lightly edited for concision. 

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is on distribution strategy”: Ken Landis on the Key Elements of Building a Successful Beauty Brand 

Conor Begley: For you, particularly in beauty, you've had a pretty good string of successes here between Bobbi Brown, TULA, DIBS, and obviously a lot in between. What do you think are the core elements that make one of these new businesses, particularly in beauty, successful? 

Ken Landis: There was a large span of time between what we did with Bobbi Brown, which was launched in the early ’90s, to when we started TULA, and followed that with DIBS. I can say that there were fairly similar concepts there, which I think were helpful for making them successful, yet there were different tactics involved, because the environment was totally different between when we started Bobbi Brown and when we did TULA. 

I see a lot of early stage companies, and I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is on distribution and the distribution strategy. I think that's really one of the core elements of what makes a successful brand. Quite often, somebody will pitch me an idea on a beauty company and one of my first questions will be, “what's your distribution strategy?” More often than not, they don't have one. They'll say, “Well, we'll see who comes along.” I'm a big proponent of, it's not the amount of sales that you have, but the quality of sales you have. Anybody who knows me, who's worked with me, knows I have a mantra, which I use at least once a week with people, and it's both “narrow and deep.” If I get involved in an early-stage company, I want to start small and be relevant wherever you are, relevant in any distribution channel you're in, relevant in any door you are in if you're going into traditional retail. 

Let's go back to the Bobbi Brown situation. At Bobbi, the world was a lot different than it was today. There was no direct-to-consumer. There was no Sephora. There was no Ulta. There was a very, very dark demarcation line between the specialty stores and the department stores, and then department stores and a JCPenney or a Kohl's. You had to really understand what your distribution was. The big advantage we had is that there we were basically two indie companies at the time. There was MAC that came out before us, and then we created [Bobbi Brown], but we wanted to be differentiated from MAC so we chose the high-end specialty stores as our focus on distribution. We were laser focused on that distribution, and because there were very few indie companies, we were able to get some pretty spectacular deals for giving exclusivity. 

People used to ask us, “What was your distribution strategy?” We would joke and we'd say, “We say no to everybody.” It's really true. We would choose the store that we felt was the leading prestige specialty store in that city, then we would say no to everyone else until we became the number one brand in that store. Then we would consider some other distribution. We were really, really focused on market share within any door we're in. It's really narrow and deep for me. That was really, in my mind, one of the keys to success other than of course, product is everything. You have to have good product, but I see tons of great products that fail because they just don't have a good distribution strategy. 

Now fast-forward to TULA. Totally different retail environment. You have direct-to-consumer, you have Sephora, you have Ulta, you have Sephora at Koh’ls, you have Ulta at Target, so there's a lot more blurring of the lines. More importantly, whereas there were really only two indie companies when we did Bobbi, there are many, many indie companies now, and it's really hard to break through the noise. It's really hard to get the level of support that you need from a retailer to really create your brand and maintain the brand image the way you want it. You can go in and you're going to get a few facings on a new and notable section, but it really doesn't give you the ability to create your brand image the way you want it. I have to say between Bobbi and TULA, I saw many, many companies, and I really decided not to get involved because I thought it was too risky. There were too many people looking for the same shelf space, looking for the same consumer. You want to find some way of differentiating yourself. 

I found a phenomenal partner in Dan Reich, who is brilliant when it comes to e-commerce and brilliant when it comes to tech. Between the two of us, we had complementary skills. We became very close. We could finish each other's sentences, but I rely on him totally on the e-commerce side and he relies on me on the beauty side. We decided with TULA that our track would be to do the digital-first strategy. Within the digital-first strategy, as you know Conor, we focus very, very much on the influencer sector, and we created a specific distribution channel separate from paid media, separate from wholesale, that was that influencer channel. We managed it as a separate and distinct influencer channel. By doing that, we were narrow and deep within that sector. 

Conor Begley: You got all the way to number one [in our EMV rankings] deep.

Ken Landis: Yes. Believe me, we tried desperately to break the code on your EMV, but we didn't. We said, “Okay, fine, we like this.” I'm going to give you a little advertising here. It's not about the eyeballs, it's about the engaged eyeballs. That was really what we set out to do. We didn't go after the beauty bloggers. We went after small micro-bloggers who were either lifestyle bloggers, mommy bloggers, health and fitness bloggers, people who were interesting and who were our target consumer. We worked with them as partners. We built a whole team of people that just worked with the individual influencers to make sure they knew everything that was going on in our company, and we would give them ideas of what worked, what didn't work. We saw them as entrepreneurs just like we were entrepreneurs. We were able to build pretty impressive businesses with them. It allowed us to break through the noise and create a path to profitability pretty quickly. 


You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 67 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Revolve, K18, Instagram, and 2K, visit our Earned Podcast page.