Apr 19, 2013
Career choices classically result in anything but a clear, direct trajectory. Yet, an inherent stigma is many times associated with changing fields or exploring diverse work experiences. If startups are encouraged to pivot during their development process, why is the opposite not true for individuals? There is something to be said about the person who follows an unconventional path. This person may be categorized as “unfocused” or have an undefined future, but could also be the perfect person to drive an innovative breakthrough at any given moment.
A paradigm of success, Jasmina Aganovic, Founder of Bona Clara, embodies this person. One could argue the wealth of her past work engagements provided her with a unique perspective with which to ideate her skincare company. The ability to turn that initial concept into a successful startup, however, was entirely a derivative of her and her team at the now very successful Bona Clara.
As a chemical and biological engineer, MIT ’09, Aganovic decided to forgo the path common to graduates of her major. After her research stint at GSK, she chose to turn to the VC business instead, craving a smaller company culture and direct interaction with the end customer. Exploring her underlying interests in business, she worked with new technologies at the seed-level stage while also dealing with major Japanese cosmetics and hair care producer, Shiseido.
This dynamic switch from research to finance, led to the awareness of existent opportunities in the beauty industry wherein science could play a game-changing role. According to Aganovic, the beauty industry was undergoing a shift in incorporated ingredients as retailers such as Sephora were blacklisting traditional elements.
Taking full advantage of all opportunities available to her, Aganovic traveled to Spain on a fellowship from the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce to work in a dynamic space bridging science with beauty. Her work consisted of applying gold nanoparticle technology to skincare at a Spanish startup, Endor Nanotech.
Continuing her interest in the beauty industry, she then gained further valuable experience at Fresh and interfaced with QVC and Sephora via her spokesperson position at Living Proof.
Aganovic’s varied experience in both the beauty and research domains placed her in the prime position to take advantage of the next opportunity to come her way, HFM, now known at NutraClick. It was at this Cambridge based startup that Aganovic pitched the innovative concept of Bona Clara in the form of a skincare line, Stages of Beauty. She had always wanted to define a brand from concept to market and HFM’s unique positing as brand incubator and digital advertising servicer allowed her to do so. The concept for Stages stemmed from the research Aganovic had worked on as an undergraduate. While testing antibiotic eardrops made for babies, she found a significantly lower variance when segmenting results by the age of human skin samples. Without her valuable stint in the beauty industry, she might never have found she could leverage these findings towards developing age defined skincare products.
Before Stages of Beauty, skincare was largely problem based, but Aganovic formulated a disruptive line that redefines skincare by age. However, Stages is not just another skincare line, it is an educational experience for the consumer as well. It troubled Aganovic that the general public lacked a deep understanding of the products formulated by the beauty industry. To combat the ignorant perception that this industry was superficial and in essence, only “skin-deep,” she crafted a story speaking to the customer’s experience while educating the masses of the smart engineering critical in everyday beauty products.
After testing the social selling model with Stages, what came next was a rapid launch of Bona Clara. The social selling domain was ripe for transformation and the infusion of digital and modern effectiveness into the old-fashioned Avon model met with immediate success. In Jan 2012, members of the Stages team branched off to dedicate their undivided energy to the Bona Clara brand.
What makes the selling model so appealing is its ability to engage customers and employees as one. Employees initially start off as customers, and quickly evolve into brand ambassadors. Employees and customers are both a reflection of the brand and help grow the business quickly by marketing the product skillfully. Yet, social selling is a complicated space and vastly underestimated. In spite of this, Aganovic’s startup managed to achieve success with a very difficult business model by leveraging their proprietary software, in particular. Bona Clara built an innovative digital platform to streamline the process of managing brand ambassadors all over the country.
This platform also has the capability to accommodate varying learning curves with an adaptive algorithm. In this way, personalized and tailored training tools provide a “level” playing field for employees. The digital platform allows Bona Clara to recruit diverse representatives so there is no “typical” ambassador. All are welcome for the chance at a flexible, commission-based job. Relying on ambassadors, who form an extension of the brand, is risky for some companies. However, Bona Clara’s shared value creation proves to be beneficial thus far. Representatives are commendably motivated to distribute the brand’s revolutionary beauty products. All brand ambassadors receive a welcome kit and the excitement of the brand continually grows as digital resources such as training calls, newsletters, and videos are provided to their ambassadors. Regional field development directors such as Deborah Coleman, previously at Avon, provide additional in person support in certain geographical areas to encourage and inspire ambassadors to host Bona Clara parties and educate their friends.
As successful as Bona Clara is now, the beginning, ramp-up stage was laden with hitches, typical to most startups. , Shipping products to ambassadors was a messy and expensive process and there were problems when transitioning brand representatives from Stages to Bona Clara. According to Aganovic, time or lack thereof was probably the biggest factor working against them. However, metrics for success were reformulated to emphasize impact as opposed to simply the number of products sold on Sephora shelves and optimism was instilled as a practice.
For Aganovic, the entire experience has been greatly inspirational. The big picture of her brand’s impact on its employees and customers motivates her to overcome the difficulties of managing a startup. Hearing of representatives finally be able to go on a honeymoon with the commission they earned is just one of many stories that fuel Aganovic’s passion to continue with this line of work. She hopes to continue the journey by expanding Bona Clara’s aged based skincare line to additional verticals such as body and hair care in the near future.
The future of MIT’s own entrepreneur Jasmina Aganovic may not reflect a predetermined path, but at the very least is incredibly promising. In following her lead, the opportunity to pioneer a novel contribution to society could present itself if we broaden our experiences and dare to associate with disparate fields. Hackathon’s are intellectually stimulating events that unite individuals of differing experiences. People of varied backgrounds mix to form inter-disciplinary groups that ideate fresh approaches to the most complex problems. Why can’t the same model be leveraged and encouraged at an individual level? Famous inventor and innovator Thomas Edison once said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” The same could be true for missed chances concealed from us because we choose not to uncover them, perfectly oblivious to the great opportunity that may arise if we boldly venture outside our comfort zones.