Last September, Ju Rhyu ’08 achieved two major milestones with her startup, Hero Cosmetics: The company reached $100 million in sales, and Rhyu sold it to consumer products behemoth Church and Dwight for $630 million. That’s quite impressive for a 5-year-old brand.
Rhyu started Hero after trying out acne-fighting hydrocolloid skin patches in Korea. Impressed with their effectiveness, she couldn’t understand why the treatment was virtually unknown in the United States. Her intuition about the product-market fit proved correct: Hero’s flagship product, Mighty Patch, now sells at a rate of one box every two seconds.
Shortly before the sale of the company, Columbia Business School’s student-run Startup Alley podcast invited Rhyu to share how she got started and what she’s learned along the way. Here are a few of her tips on how to succeed as an entrepreneur.
Four Tips for Startup Success
1. Define what success will look like to you. Rhyu was already employed full time when she launched Hero Cosmetics as a side hustle. She and her co-founders wanted to set benchmarks to determine whether their product-market test on Amazon was a success — and when they might quit their day jobs.
“In the beginning, we had a conversation about setting expectations,” Rhyu says. “[T]here are a lot of startups where it takes 10 years to make $10 million. Is that good for us? ... When are we going to know that this test failed?” With over $1 million in sales in just the first year, Hero passed the test with flying colors.
2. Position yourself to take advantage of opportunity. Investing in too much inventory could be a risky move for a startup trying to develop its customer base. But Rhyu understood that playing it too safe on inventory would have opportunity costs. “We can never be out of stock” became the mandate for operations. It was a strategy that would pay off during the pandemic’s supply-chain crisis: When other suppliers couldn’t deliver on time, Hero was able to meet retailers’ needs.
“We’ve been able to say yes because we have the extra inventory in our warehouse. It’s allowed us to lean into growth opportunities,” Rhyu says. Tying up cash with excess inventory won’t work for every startup, but finding ways to stay nimble and responsive to opportunity is a strategy worth emulating.
3. Polish your salesmanship. You may be the CEO of your company, but you’re also the chief cheerleader. No one can tell a company’s story like the founder, and you’ll always be trying to persuade people, whether through images, data, or personal passion. “What I’ve realized about startup life is you’re always convincing skeptics ... in the investor community, or with retailers who aren’t sure you’re going to work in their stores, or employees,” Rhyu says. “Sales skills are really critical. I’m the CEO, but I’m also basically the big salesperson at the company. You have to exhibit optimism for what you’re doing and where you’re going.” She also notes the importance of persistence and the willingness to try a third or fourth time: “I learned this at Columbia Business School in one of my classes: Persuasion is a journey.”
4. Find support outside of the company. As the founder, you’ll experience frustrations and setbacks, but choose your words and your confidants with care. “Definitely [being a founder] can be lonely because there are only a few people doing what you’re doing,” Rhyu says. “It kind of limits the number of people you can talk to, who can empathize. I think building a really good founder network is critical because those are the people who truly empathize with what you’re going through.”
From zero to $630 million in five years — it’s a journey we’d all like to empathize with. Listen to the full podcast and learn more about successful entrepreneurship, including why Rhyu washes the dishes and the investment in her company she regrets not making earlier.