Francesco Urso of Wolf Project: “Stay humble”

Stay humble: it’s easier for a leader, a CEO, to fall in the CEO syndrome. To believe we are smarter than others, that our ideas are better, our words are always right. It’s a huge pitfall. A leader needs to recognize that some people may not speak their full mind, may not contradict the leader […]

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Stay humble: it’s easier for a leader, a CEO, to fall in the CEO syndrome. To believe we are smarter than others, that our ideas are better, our words are always right. It’s a huge pitfall. A leader needs to recognize that some people may not speak their full mind, may not contradict the leader and hence he needs to be OVER sensitive to other signs. In Asia we say “you need to read the air in the room” to get the true feeling on a certain topic. A leader needs to have the humility to do this, the sensitivity and always question him or herself.

As part of my series about the “How to Take Your Company from Good to Great,”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Francesco Urso, founder of the men’s skincare brand, The Wolf Project. He is shifting gender norms and changing the way men interact with their skincare routine. Francesco started his career in the beauty space as Procter & Gamble’s Marketing Director for Pantene Hair Care in China. As he learned more about the beauty and grooming space, he saw an opportunity to bring Asian beauty rituals to a market that was seriously lacking quality products. This led to the launch of Wolf Project, quality skincare products made by men, for men.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

With pleasure! Before I started Wolf Project I was a Marketing Director in Procter & Gamble Beauty Care. I started my career in 2007 in Geneva, Switzerland. I then led the detergents business in Russia and concluded my P&G time in China as a Marketing Director on Pantene Hair Care. Working and living in very different environment has been an incredible journey, I am very lucky. Asia made me discover advanced beauty rituals and I witnessed the effects on my inner and outer self. It was time to quit the safe corporate life to begin a new journey.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

There were lots of hard times, and still are! I remember the beginning was challenge as I was coming out a job where I had to lead teams to bring to life a certain vision and strategy, the machine running was very big with lots and lots of people. I had no control nor knowledge on how to actually DO things. All of a sudden I was thrown into a world where alone, I had decided to build a brand. I didn’t even understand the whole “wheel” of elements that had to be put together. I did consider giving up, I talked about it with my wife and friends. The drive came from and still comes from the belief that Wolf Project is impacting the way men feel about masculinity around the world through our products and messages. I firmly believe in that and it motivates me when things get rough.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Well… let’s say there were a few typos on our first packaging because I didn’t proofread enough… or when the traffic and sales on our website skyrocketed because we were featured on Forbes… and we hadn’t set up Google Alerts properly so we had no idea it was happening! I also remember it took me maybe 2 weeks to figure out how to get barcodes for my products… only to find out I could buy them on…. learning from all of these? Ask lots of stupid questions around you, very often the answer is simpler and much quicker than you think. New entrepreneurs are often too secretive about their world changing ideas, and too shy to ask for help. Both are big mistakes!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We have the courage to push the boundaries of what is accepted for men, all men. We bring some historically feminine rituals to the world of men, in a very manly way. We stand out because the brand name and the story clicks with the audience, and the products are incredible!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

First, to accept that your success is not fully in your control. Make sure to give your best, be resilient, driven, disciplined, but accept that it may just not be enough and it’s not within your control. Second, enjoy the journey. Building something from scratch, from a dream, is a dream itself. I finally understood the phrase “when you do something you love it’s not work”. The struggles and doubts can cast a shadow on the journey but remember not to give in too much to them. Last, to breathe and unwind. I still struggle a lot to do it, but in the rare moments when I do, I do realize its power. Each person has a way, sports, meditation, breathing, playing, going out.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

The list of people to thank is long. I have been very lucky. My ex-boss at P&G, Lucas, helped me understand that in spite of being successful in what I did, I would have never be fully happy. The first angel investors, who believed in me and my project before I even believed in it. Adam Hurly, the grooming editor of GQ who used our products and first wrote about them. The list is long. Probably the most important person is my wife Maya, who always supported me and pushed me. I owe her everything that has happened to me in the last years.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Great companies are the ones that stand the test of time, creating value for consumers and stakeholders over a very long period of time. I witnessed it when I was in P&G, a company touches consumers lives all over the world since more than 180 years (incredible!). In every country P&G plays, it is the market leader with leading brands. I would love to replicate this with Wolf Project, creating a major player in the grooming segment, inspiring other brands to follow a more progressive and responsible vision of masculinity.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Follow a mission: having a purpose, a mission, being part of a greater cause has so many implications in our work. It inspires and unites the team at work, decisions are easier and quicker as it’s easier to know what’s right and wrong, it helps us design products and experiences that truly delight consumers. It’s the bedrock of a business and I believe THE most important element to truly create something unique. In P&G I always felt that our brands had a mission, but it was massively underexploited and under-communicated. I have witnessed what it means technically to sit on a sleeping mission. We made our mission very central at Wolf Project, to inspire all men with a more progressive vision of masculinity. We see how this impact our innovation, communication, relationship with customers and stakeholders. We surround ourselves with others that share this mission and build a better future together.
  2. Surround yourself with better people: great companies are never about a one-person show, and even if it looks like that from the outside, it rarely is. A leader needs to be able to recognize his or her strengths and get people around him that are better than him. It’s easier said than done and especially hard at the beginning of a company when we can’t truly afford specific talent for specific tasks…. But at least we need to then have a glidepath to it once the affordability issue is not there anymore.
  3. Always be honest about reality: this is truly important to me. I have seen many top leaders and top teams failing on this one. External reality is often replaced by internally positioned “better” realities, with better indicators than what truly matters in the market. For example, in P&G I saw flat or declining businesses (sales, market share) proud of a slightly increased brand awareness or great advertising scores. They were not facing reality, talking about the elephant in the room. The goal was a successful internal meeting. The best companies I have observed stay hungry and almost negatively biased on reality, always looking for the glass half empty instead of the glass half full. Like a sports team who won everything… how do they keep motivated? They look at the areas where they can still improve. I am maybe too negative and often I am criticized for being over critical with myself. I guess this is what has pushed me to do what I have done so far in my life and career.
  4. Stay humble: it’s easier for a leader, a CEO, to fall in the CEO syndrome. To believe we are smarter than others, that our ideas are better, our words are always right. It’s a huge pitfall. A leader needs to recognize that some people may not speak their full mind, may not contradict the leader and hence he needs to be OVER sensitive to other signs. In Asia we say “you need to read the air in the room” to get the true feeling on a certain topic. A leader needs to have the humility to do this, the sensitivity and always question him or herself.
  5. Innovate:this might be personal and I have a few examples to share later. I believe in a forward-looking world, all companies need to adapt and be at the forefront of innovation. It may be product, communication, consumer insights, any innovation that is relevant to their business model. But push forward is for me a mantra that has guided my whole life.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Building on the above point, I believe purpose helps in many aspects of the business. Brands have the possibility to amplify certain causes, to accelerate their development. In my mind brands can be megaphones, can be heard like or more than the masses. Nike has been a great example over the years, pushing provocative topics on the tables of the policy makers. I believe that structural lasting changes in the world is done by governments and laws, but people and brands can and should accelerate this process with their own, distinctive capabilities and voices.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

My advice would be: Understand what made customers click during the period of growth. Be honest and brutal about it, there must be something that has been lost and led to the period of standstill. For example, I have lived this when I worked for Ariel (Tide) in Europe and Pantene in China. Gigantic brands selling hundreds of millions of dollars a year unable to grow, in spite of having superior products and better brand equities. We had to be honest about the issues we were facing, stop sitting on our big fancy chairs of the leading brand and go back to the drawing board. On Ariel, the problem was product innovation. Ariel had always been the innovator of the market, constantly improving a tedious process, laundry, over the past decades. We hadn’t done it any longer. I spoke to hundreds of consumers in France, UK, Spain, Italy. With those learnings we launched a massive innovation, Ariel PODS, in 2013 that still sets P&G apart from all major competitors. We faced reality, put down a huge bet and went all in. It worked. Pantene in China was simply seen as a cheap common brand by the ultra-selective advanced Chinese consumers. We hadn’t anticipated the speed of behavioral change in China. We innovated with better communication, better media planning and new product launches. Whilst it was not as category breaking as on Tide, we came back and with the power of the incredible resources and distribution we had, we are now winning.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

I try to look beyond the day by day progress and understand if month by month and quarter by quarter we are still on track to meet our long-term objectives. Also, I never spend one mental second complaining about the new COVID reality and blaming it for anything. It is just the new reality,I am sure other businesses in other times had different realities that were maybe equally difficult. Maybe not, but I don’t care. What would those thoughts bring me? Self-pity and justifications for average results? I always look at what variables I can influence and for example, today I can’t influence if consumers will leave their homes and go to CVS and buy our products. So I understand what is in my control to help other parts of the business. Probably the #1 strategy is hence mental.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Self-discipline. We imagine leading a company as taking big decisions in big rooms with lots of people. The truth is that a leader has thousands of micro-decisions to make every week, micro thoughts from people management, investment, business strategy, stakeholder relations, personal balance, time allocation, etc. I believe that the “system” behind taking these decisions is rarely discussed but it deserves a whole college course!

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

First, we should understand the whole funnel of conversion for our business. In our case, a big funnel is from social ad on Facebook and Instagram to purchase on the site. We should target the right audience, with the right message and help chose the right product. The strategies are hence consequent. Know the audience inside out, catch her at a good time in a good platform with a message that speaks to some tensions. It’s not rocket science, but it’s incredibly hard to do. For example on the social ads we ran, I am brutal about “would I click on this ad”, or at least “ do I think 1% of the audience would click”. It’s a great test to judge creativity.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Reputation and trust are not something we can “ask”, conversely, they are given to us by others. At Wolf Project we now know we have incredible products and we were lucky to have trusted opinion leaders (specialized press, grooming editors, influencers) to say it publicly. I guess we were good in product design and marketing and we got lucky that the right people liked the products.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Make the experience worth talking about. Why should a consumer care and share it? For example, at Wolf Project all of us spend at least one hour a week calling random customers. We just pick the phone and give calls (to the ones that have accepted to be reached out to). Almost always our customers are very very positively surprised and also very talkative! They are surprised we take the time to care about their experience, to ask their opinion, which we do take seriously! For example, we found out a few interesting insights about upcoming product needs that we already implemented in our R&D plan.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

No, I don’t. Social media is just media, denying it is delusional. The risk has always been the same, it’s just the medium that has changed. Back in the days a brand could be ruined on TV, broadcasts, shows, magazines, newspapers. Now it can be ruined by any consumer posting. It got easier and broader, but the risk is the same. So if a company is not on social media (all media) is just a sign of a massive disconnect with today’s world.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Resilience. I see many founders who start something and after the first difficulties give up. That’s the #1 reason of failure. Of course, some, and maybe me, also will fail in spite of persevering.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Our brand mission really inspires me. We believe in a more progressive vision of masculinity, We believe it takes courage to set ourselves free from clichés, that “being a man” is more than just being “tough”, that men are not defined by their sexual preference and brands can help the conversation. We believe self-care is the first step to becoming a better man. So if anybody wants to join to spread this message and champion this cause, we’d be more than glad!

How can our readers further follow you online? on Instagram, Linkedin and tiktok!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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