Face Time

When Christy Prunier’s young daughter complained about her soap, who would have thought an idea big enough to scare Procter & Gamble would emerge?



photograph by Visko Hatfield

Nearly four years have passed since Christy Prunier struck upon the idea of developing a skin-care line for the lucrative market of adolescent girls ages seven through fourteen commonly known as “tweens.” The concept, she says, sprung from a bathtime conversation with her daughter, Willa, then eight years old, who was unhappy about having to use the same “baby” products as her younger sister. Late last fall, the “Willa” brand was introduced with a one-item teaser, a lip gloss, through J. Crew’s website and in its stores. In March, sixteen more of Christy’s products, from face wash to sunscreen, hit the shelves at three hundred Target stores across the country.

Between inspiration and rollout, the Riverside mother of three has ridden the wave of emotions that every entrepreneur rides on the way to learning whether that brilliant idea was so brilliant after all and whether the result will be riches or heartbreak. As Christy will attest, it is no small matter to ask one’s brother to invest a considerable sum of money, or to put up one’s home as collateral for a small-business loan, or to trade away countless hours that might have been spent with loved ones, all on a roll of the dice, however well-informed the bet may be.

Execution is everything: Product choices. Packaging. Logo. Distribution. Pricing. The details, big and small, that demand one’s attention seem endless. “It all has to work perfectly because you don’t have second chances,” says Christy, a former Hollywood movie executive. “You don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. It has got to work and it has got to be exactly right the first time if you expect the consumer to come back.”

These are the specters that visit Christy in the night. One imagines her lying in bed wide-eyed, staring into the darkness, pondering all that could go wrong. But just as her small company grew out of her domestic life, so does her solace. “David, my husband, has this expression that I love,” she says, when asked if she worries about a powerhouse, like Johnson & Johnson, starting a similar line of products before her enterprise can really take flight. “He’ll say, ‘Skate your lane.’ If the kids are tattling, for instance, he’ll say, ‘Willa, skate your lane!’ In other words, don’t think about what other people are doing. Just focus on yourself and on what you’re trying to accomplish.”

What Christy hopes to accomplish, of course, is to build a successful business, perhaps even one that will be acquired by one of the bigger companies someday. And while she’s not the first to come up with the idea of skin care for tweens, she’s hoping that her approach and the launch in Target, which includes ample shelf space and a six-fold ramping up of distribution if everything goes well, will propel the Willa brand to the top of the heap.

Staying on Target

Christy’s main competition comes from brands with names like Good For You Girls, Sparklehearts, and Joon, most of which are sold online or through smaller retailers. Walmart offers a number of skin-care products for girls, but they are part of a bigger, controversial line of cosmetics for youngsters. Pottery Barn, meanwhile, offers beauty products through its teen division. All of them want a piece of a personal-care market for youngsters, both tweens and teens, that could hit $8.5 billion this year.

The message behind Willa is that kids should begin taking responsibility for the care of their skin at an early age, when the sun tends to inflict its worst damage. Skin cancer is the biggest fear, but premature aging of the skin is another threat. Christy, who tells an all-too-common story of slathering baby oil on herself as a teenager and baking in the summer sun, has since had three basal-cell carcinomas, a type of skin cancer, excised from her face. She says she wants something better for her children— daughters Willa and Julia are eleven and six, respectively; son Jack is ten—and the other kids out there. “This is like sustenance, this is water, this is something that should be part of your child’s life, the same with toothpaste,” she says of her products. “This is not some vanity plate either. This is about health and wellness.”

Initially, Christy figured she would go door to door to get her product into stores. But when her main laboratory, based in New Jersey, told her that it would produce no fewer than 10,000 to 25,000 of each item, she knew she had to go bigger. She started thinking about where she likes to shop, and where daughter Willa likes to shop. At the same time, since her products were going to be for everyday use, she knew they had to be affordable. So it was that she would travel to Minneapolis on three occasions to convince Target Corporation executives that Willa could be a winner.

When they finally gave her the go-ahead to sell in their stores, there was no turning back. “They normally launch a new brand in fifty stores,” Christy says. “They’re launching us in over three hundred. They’re putting us on the top shelf. They’re giving us four feet of shelf space, between Burt’s Bees and Yes to Carrots. And they’re allowing us to create our own shelving unit, which they don’t do for most other brands, because they wanted to make sure that it’s positioned properly and that the messaging is clear.”

And while that’s a good start, the greater challenge lies ahead: winning over the girls and their mothers, who tend to be the gatekeepers for such purchases. Indeed, selling to tweens can be a tightrope walk. The girls have to like the products, of course, but to win their allegiance they have to identify with the brand. It must also pass the coolness test. It’s no coincidence that Christy’s lip balm comes with a handy clip for the girls to attach to their backpacks, or that purple was chosen for the packaging design over pink, the result of focus-group feedback, or that Christy and company labored many hours over the logo to create the perfect “Willa Girl.”

The moms, on the other hand, who usually approve and pay for such items, want to know if they are appropriate for their children, safe, and priced right. They’re looking for natural ingredients, for starters. And while Christy’s line includes no makeup per se, any color in the lip gloss, for instance, must be minimal. “You really have to approach both consumers in a separate way,” says Tyler Heiden Jones, a cosmetics industry veteran who became Christy’s business partner a year and a half ago. “It’s a fine line where we know we have to get the approval of the mom, but at the end of the day if the kid’s not excited to want it, we’d be dead in the water.”

How the East Was Won

There are a lot of balls to juggle, but if Christy is anything, it’s determined. She grew up in Riverside, the fourth of five kids. Her father, John, was a longtime internist at Greenwich Hospital, and her mother, Suzanne, designed gardens, among other pursuits. Suzanne says that even when Christy was an infant, she had a indefatigable spirit. She remembers restricting her to her playpen while her older brother and sisters were allowed to play freely. “When she was in a playpen and the other three were on the porch outside the playpen, the tenacity in those eyes that she was going to get out of there and be with her siblings was so apparent, even at that young age,” says Suzanne, chuckling at the memory.

Christy would graduate from Greenwich High School in 1986, then Georgetown University, where she majored in English literature and government. And though she initially planned to go into television news, she found herself intrigued by other forms of storytelling. She worked for a year at HBO in New York as an associate producer for a documentary called Detective of Death, about celebrated forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden. But what she really wanted was to get involved in moviemaking.

In the early ’90s, she moved to Southern California, where her sister Danielle and brother-in-law put her up while she sought work in the film industry. As luck would have it, Mike Medavoy, one of Hollywood’s most prominent film executives, was starting a new company, Phoenix Pictures, and she became his first hire. Over the seven years she worked there she would go from development executive, separating the wheat from the chaff for potential movies, to senior vice president of production, with a hand in most every aspect of the business. Films she helped bring about included The People vs. Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson), The Thin Red Line (Sean Penn and George Clooney), and Apt Pupil (based on a Stephen King novella), among others. The last screenplay she bought, in fact, would become Black Swan, which earned a spate of Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, and for which actress Natalie Portman won an Oscar for Best Actress.

It was a heady time, as Medavoy welcomed her into his inner sanctum, teaching her the business and introducing her to some of the biggest names in Hollywood. On Friday nights, he and his wife held screenings and dinner at his estate in Beverly Hills, casual affairs that included guests like Gregory Peck, Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty. “You can imagine why I never wanted to leave and come back East,” Christy says. “It was pretty dizzying.”

Truth be told, she was coming back East quite frequently. Christy’s husband-to-be, David Doss, was then executive producer for NBC’s Nightly News with Tom Brokaw in New York. (He now runs his own production company, developing news-related television specials.) Every weekend for five years, including the first three years of their marriage, one would fly cross-country to be with the other. It got to the point that Christy could recite United Airlines’ flight schedule, and if she was running late, in those days before 9/11-inspired security precautions, the flight attendants would keep the plane door open for her as she rushed through the airport.

After the World Trade Center attacks, when the airlines were trying to get the public back flying again, Christy even appeared in a television commercial for United, talking about those back-and-forth years in voiceover. “Can this relationship survive?” was the question that loomed over the thirty-second spot. The answer came in the final shot, with Christy holding little Willa and Jack, the mother asking her daughter if she could say airplane. “Airpain,” came the reply.

It was her pregnancy with Willa, in fact, that convinced Christy that the time for a single-time-zone marriage had arrived, and by 2001, she was back and living with David in New York. She wanted to keep active, so she took on some projects for the Museum of Modern Art, cocurating a series of conversations with filmmakers about their craft. Before long, son Jack and second-daughter Julia came along. And though she enjoyed motherhood, she still felt a hunger to be working. David and others urged her to get back into movies. But the heart and soul of the industry was in Los Angeles, she knew, and to do it right that’s where she would have to be. What’s more, that work was all consuming. It made no sense for a mother with three kids.

Then, over Memorial Day weekend in 2008, while vacationing in Maine, young Willa voiced her displeasure about having to use her sister’s body wash and other “baby” products. Christy scoured the stores with her daughter, looking for skin-care products for girls her age, but to no avail. So it was that Christy’s company was born. She contacted a friend, a makeup artist who had been involved in starting some lines of cosmetics, and asked about laboratories in the New York area. Then she set to researching which of those companies would be the best for the products she sought to create, and what’s more, which ones could help with the heavy lifting of bringing the items to the marketplace.

Beating the Bullies

To start, she developed seventeen products, including a face wash, moisturizer, sunscreen, body lotions, lip gloss, and more. As with many brands nowadays, her emphasis would be on natural ingredients. With her sunscreens, for example, she ruled out using chemicals like oxybenzone, a carcinogen, and homosalate, which has been linked to endocrine problems, both of which are common in such products. On the other hand, she included green-tea antioxidants, an increasingly popular ingredient in skin-care formulas, which are said to promote cell renewal and have an antiaging effect.

hristy reached out to people she knew. (“I’m always joking that she’s two phone calls away from anybody she wants in the world,” says Tyler.) The children’s babysitter, Francesca Harrell, who had studied at Parsons the New School for Design, helped develop the packaging design and logo. Christy’s dermatologist referred her to a colleague who could assist in developing the line. And a family friend who works for a consulting firm conducted focus groups.

Daughter Willa, meanwhile, had a hand in coming up with and testing every product the company created. She and her friends held evaluations, sniffing scents and applying lotions and face masks. Besides being helpful, the kids had a lot of fun. “At the end of each product development, when everything is just perfect,” says Willa, “I have a party, I go crazy, I’m very happy because it always takes forever to get it right.”

Christy’s Hollywood experience also proved to be an asset. “Some of the skill sets involved in making movies apply to almost anything you do,” she explains, “because you’re trying to figure out, ‘How do I take this idea and turn it into a movie that people are going to want to see?’ It’s harnessing a lot of different people with different talents and figuring out how to get things done and get them done on a budget, on time, and hopefully with a product everyone’s happy with.”

Not to be overlooked is Christy’s indomitable force of will, which steered the startup business past every rut in the road. “It’s not so much that she thinks big as much as it is that she thinks anything is possible,” says her brother John, an investment banker in Manhattan. “She doesn’t see obstacles as anything that she can’t get through or around.”

At no point was that more evident than after she received a threatening missive from Procter & Gamble in January of last year. Having come across the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s recent approval of the Willa brand name, the consumer products giant thought it sounded too much like its own line of “Wella” hair-care items. Now, P&G was insisting that Christy cease and desist from using the name or it would revert to “lengthy and expensive alternative measures.”

Usually, small companies knuckle under to the behemoths, whether the complaints are justified or not. It’s intimidating. And usually it’s too expensive to fight back. But Christy, after seeking legal advice, refused to give in. The Willa name was too integral to the brand and its authenticity, she felt. So, in a preemptive strike, she took P&G to federal court seeking a declaratory judgment to settle the issue. And though lawyers for the Cincinnati-based corporation tried to rattle her by subpoenaing would-be retailers of Christy’s products and going after her computer hard drive to fish for evidence, they ultimately backed down.

Two weeks before the case was to go to trial, the New York Times ran an article on the front page of its business section about what has become known as “trademark bullying,” largely focusing on P&G’s attack on Christy. While being interviewed, the mother broke down crying in front of the reporter and daughter Willa. It was a moving scene in the story, and hardly the kind of publicity that P&G could have wanted. In October, just before the case was to go before a jury, a settlement was reached. And though details are unavailable—Christy is bound by the agreement to say nothing publicly about the matter—the Willa brand remains virtually unchanged.

Now, with the products finally available in stores, it is make or break time. In December, the Willa lip balm that was available on J. Crew’s website sold out in one day. If sales at Target go as well as she hopes, Christy faces a major distribution challenge come mid-year: Target wants to put the products in all 1,800 of its stores around the country, leaving her to raise $1.5 million to supply that inventory. And that’s just the biggest of looming costs, which include everything from public relations to shipping, if she hopes to grow the company.

Failing to do so could spell disaster. After all, if skin care for tweens is truly a good business idea, it wouldn’t take long for one or two of the big players that have been watching from the sidelines to tap those customers that Christy is slow to reach, and eventually push her out of the picture. She knows all this, of course, and for now is skating her lane. “I don’t think a billion dollar company can do something as authentic as this,” she says. “And I think consumers are smart, and girls are smart, and they’re going to respond to that authenticity.”

The Willa brand is out of the blocks and running. Christy’s website, WillaSkinCare.com, is ready for visitors. She’s working overtime to reach the girls through social media, which is so integral to their lives. And two new products, a body wash and a deodorant, are already in development and will be available this summer.

These are anxious days for Christy Prunier, but exciting ones as well. Thousands of small businesses start every year, and most go down in flames. She’s aware of this, too, but remains undaunted. “There’s been a lot of great personal sacrifice to start this company,” she admits. “It’s been several years of sweat
equity to get this going. We’ve definitely put all our chips on red. It’s guts ball. But I believe in it.”

 

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