Elemis Co-Founder & CEO Sean Harrington on Why Fear of Failure “Does Not Breed Success”

Taylor Masket
Taylor Masket
May 2, 2023

In Ep. 78 of Earned, Conor sits down with Sean Harrington, co-founder of luxury skincare brand Elemis. Founded over 30 years ago by Sean, Noella Gabriel, and Oriele Frank, the brand is more relevant than ever, selling to the L’Occitane Group for just shy of a billion dollars in 2019, and achieving a 73% year-over-year increase in EMV last year.


To start the episode, we hear how Sean’s relationship with his co-founders has evolved over the last three decades, and the unique skill set that each of them brings to the table. We then ask Sean about his core business learnings and tenets, and he explains why a positive mindset, talented people, and a willingness to take risks are all key factors in building a successful brand. Sean also emphasizes how the fear of failure “does not breed success,” and why he empowers his team to test and learn. Next, we talk about Elemis’ strategies to cut through the noise in today’s saturated beauty market. Sean shares why the brand invested heavily in influencer marketing early on, and how loosening up on the brand codes and giving influencers creative freedom helped Elemis establish an authentic community. To close the show, we discuss how being acquired by the L’Occitane Group has helped Elemis break into the APAC market, and hear the brand’s vision for worldwide domination (the good kind).

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, and Google Podcasts!

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The following interview has been lightly edited for concision. 

“Fear of failure doesn’t breed success”: Sean Harrington on Why It’s Critical to Test and Learn 

Conor Begley: I had a mentor when we got started and we weren't making a lot of money at first and were just trying to figure it out. And he was like, “Sometimes it's okay to stop.” I was like, “No way. I'm going to drag this thing kicking and screaming into existence whether it wants to exist or not.” And I do think, like you said, having that conviction is actually quite critical.

Sean Harrington: Fear of failure is an insecurity that really doesn't breed success. At the end of the day, you will have failures, you will have challenges, you will make wrong decisions. The key is what you gain from it, what you learn from it, and how quickly you fix it. Particularly in today's world, with fast-moving social and digital marketing, it's all new, it's all pioneering. So testing and learning is key. You've got to be prepared to fail.

In fact, fear of failure is one of the reasons why people don't make it work, because they're too fearful to try things that would be a game changer. And the bigger you get, the harder that becomes because you’ve got more to lose.

You have to really be pretty convicted, and that's why I think it's good for a brand and a business like Elemis to still have a founder-led team after 32 years. We have all of those inner learnings, we know what's worked and what hasn't during that entire period. It doesn't mean we know everything, and we learn more from our other team members and our other directors and executives than we do from our experience, but it's all relevant and it all contributes. 

Conor Begley: Yeah. Toto Haba, who's essentially the CMO at Benefit Cosmetics, said, “We expect 75% of our digital content to flop. That’s our expectation.” And it's very intimidating, especially when that's your job, to have that kind of a failure rate. But I think having a founder-led team that’s thinking long-term and has seen what's worked and not worked makes the team a lot more comfortable taking those risks.

Sean Harrington: It's such an interesting time and it's an exciting time, but wow, is it fast? And the reality is, in today's digital social marketing world, there is so much noise. I mean, our lives are on this cell phone. No matter where you are in the world, this phone is dictating life. And [an idea] to create something beautiful or create something fantastic is one of thousands, and it just doesn't resonate because there's so much noise hitting everybody, whatever age you are, particularly Gen Z. Their incoming is beyond belief and their outbound is beyond belief.
To really find relevance amongst all that noise is the Eureka road. It's the road to success, because without relevance, noise is noise. And it isn't enough to just buy noise or buy space or put your brand out there in front of people or create theater or video or content that just gets you EMV or gets you scoring points. You have to find relevance. Relevance doesn't come from doing the same thing everybody else does. Relevance comes from being significant, and it comes from being more pioneering, and it comes from taking risks, because you've got to be carving a new path today in everything you do to find relevance, which means the speed and pace of this is so quick.

So it isn't just about how much noise you can create, or how much EMV you can score. It's about the quality of your content. It's about the authenticity of your content, your assets, and your product. And fundamentally, it comes down to the performance of your product. Because no matter what happens, if you are successful in converting noise to trying a product or a brand, at that point, you still haven't won. You've got to have something that works and that's different. There's a lot of newness out there, but when you try the products, when you challenge the formulations, when you look at the performance, if they fall short, which many do, it's a very expensive failure. So test and learn.

“We used the influencer marketing opportunity to pivot into a new way of thinking”: Why Elemis Leaned Into Creator-Led Marketing 

Conor Begley: Let's talk about influencers and social media. You guys leaned into that really heavily early on. Talk to me about what made you decide to lean in, and then how have you guys seen it evolve as a business? Because Elemis is growing very quickly in the data that we track from an influencer perspective.

Sean Harrington: I think first of all, you have to do it if you want to be relevant and competitive. Realizing that and then embracing it, adjusting our culture so that we became part of it instead of just playing within it, I think was the most important step. So we committed to it. We put all our eggs in one basket. We put our budgets into it. We pivoted out of all traditional media and really tried to focus. And we did that by employing people and putting management in place that understood the name of that game, who'd had experience and had a vision within that area.

I also think for us, it was really our move from the U.K. to the U.S. that taught us how important that was. So I actually moved to America because I could see that to try to manage everything from a distance and compete and win was going to be a really tough ask, because we had to not only change the culture of who we were and how we were, we had to change it all the way down through the business. So when I moved to the U.S., I took the brand to America, to New York, and I took with me product development and I created this hub in the U.S. that fed back to the U.K., but it was the driver. So we created the lead from America. 

We went to the U.S. and really used that customer base, used that competitive arena, and used that influencer marketing opportunity to pivot into a new way of thinking, a new way of being. If I'd stayed in the U.K. and we tried to manage a team in the U.S. to do that, the decision making wouldn't have been as fast. The commitment wouldn't have been as strong. We wouldn't have invested as heavily. So I think that was an important moment for us.

I also think we went too far in the beginning, and that probably helped us. It cost us, but we had our own photography studios, we had our own photographers, we had our own video content.And that's going back five, seven years. So we were in there shooting everything. We thought you had to be completely self-sufficient in everything you did. And then we started employing our own influencers and trying to be our own machine. I think we learned then that there was a level of authenticity and you needed to embrace it, but not own it. That was the other thing. 

I think the big change for us that was hardest was allowing our brand to be free in that environment. So instead of pushing our brand into that pipeline and into that world, we allowed that world to take our brand and interpret it in a way that it believed it was. And that was the hardest moment, because a brand is very solid.

If you imagine you would have your brand codes, your brand standards, you'd have your brand messaging, your brand copy, your brand images, and God forbid if you went outside of that, your brand was hurt. And when you get someone on TikTok that's turning the jar upside down, putting it on their head, and talking about the best ways to use this, that [are ways] we tell you not to use it, is the most popular video. That doesn't resonate with the brand codes. That's like a Chief Marketing Officer having heart failure in the corner. 

So I think those moments were quite key to us learning how to win, and we are far from winning. I mean, we're achieving great performance, great results, but for me, we've worked hard to get there and we’ve worked hard as a legacy brand to pivot and evolve. Now what we've got to do is lead. We've got to be more pioneering, we've got to push the boundaries, we've got to extend to what's going to be hot in the next 10 years, not what's been hot in the last five or what's hot now. We've got to find that next space. 

I really challenge our teams to dig deep. Now we are looking in the next year or two to add a huge playbook in both the USA and China to dominate and to own. We're not going to do that if we don't take some big risks, push the boundaries, and really come out with an edge and a point of difference that the customers believe in.

Keep up with new episodes of Earned by following the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts, or subscribing to our YouTube channel. To catch up on our previous episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Revolve, K18, Instagram, and Roblox, visit our Earned Podcast page.