As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Farra. Emily is a fashion writer and editor who has worked in the publishing industry for six years, most recently at Vogue. Her work has primarily focused on designers, fashion week reviews, and features, with a special focus on sustainability in the fashion space. She has traveled on assignment to Saudi Arabia, China, and India, among other cities. At Soft, she’s directing the brand’s voice and aesthetic through its social media presence, online content, and marketing efforts. Emily graduated from Indiana University in 2013 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in journalism and art history.
Thank you so much for joining us Emily! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve been interested in fashion, beauty, and design for as long as I can remember, and it was always my dream to write for Vogue. I don’t think I fully appreciated the skills I’ve developed over the past six years until we started working on Soft, though: Yes, I’ve become a much stronger writer and editor, but I’ve also gained an understanding of the market, learned how to detect and analyze trends, become more confident in my voice, forged incredible connections, and learned what makes a powerful story. I never thought that kind of editorial experience would translate to marketing or start-ups, but when you spend so much time interviewing designers and looking for the next big thing, you really start to understand what it takes.
A lot of the brands that pique my interest are the ones offering a solution or filling a gap in the market. I think that’s why the concept for Soft came really naturally: Over a year ago, my boyfriend Patrick became interested in skincare, particularly face masks, and so did our good friend James, but neither of them knew where to go for “men’s brands.” They didn’t want to shop at Sephora, but the men’s brands out there felt very traditionally masculine: Some were super minimalist with black, white, and gray packaging, and others were oddly rugged, as if to overcorrect for the “feminine” stigma around skincare. Most of them didn’t offer face masks, and none of them seemed to embrace the ritual of skincare and self care, which we feel is really important, too. So the idea for Soft started there: We couldn’t find a men’s brand that felt modern, relevant, and forward-thinking, so we said, “Let’s just start our own.”
It was never really a question if we would all do it together. From the beginning, the three of us brought something different to the table, and it ended up being a huge advantage. James is a software engineer and coded our entire website, and he has experience in building customer service platforms. Patrick has a Masters in Biology from NYU and worked closely with our lab in Los Angeles to create our mask formula from scratch. And I helped craft the brand’s voice and aesthetic, am building its social media presence, and am the point person for all press and marketing.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
I think it’s pretty obvious that it can be difficult working with your friends. In my case, my partners are my longtime boyfriend and one of our best friends — we came up with the concept on the floor of Pat’s apartment! We’re still figuring out how to be business partners and friends, and how to separate our “work days” with our “off days” (and try not to drive our other friends crazy when we’re all together). One of the first challenges I faced was when we started fleshing out the look and feel of the brand, and I had to really convince Pat and James that we needed to push the envelope and take some risks. From the beginning, we all agreed we wanted Soft to look fresh and different from everything else out there, but the final product is even bolder than we anticipated (thanks to our incredible graphic designer, Zan Goodman). We’re so happy with it and the response has been incredible. Ultimately, we learned that we each need to “own” certain decisions and put a lot of trust in each other; now, Pat and James are really letting me run with the creative aspects.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
From the beginning, Soft was about more than a product — it was about the story, and I think that’s true of many successful brands right now. At Vogue, we look for brands and designers who make beautiful things, but we really care about the underlying message: who are they, why are they doing this, why is this necessary? I knew Soft was a good idea right away because we came up with the product and the message at the same time. We wanted to create a modern skincare brand for modern men — guys who aren’t embarrassed to use a face mask, who aren’t concerned with “traditional” notions of masculinity, who appreciate photography and aesthetics. The message comes through instantly in the name: Being “soft” has long been considered an insult to men — James was called “soft” in high school football if he didn’t hit hard enough — and in addition to softening your skin, we want our brand to subvert the meaning of that word. Being soft is a great thing: It means you’re in touch with your emotions, you’re okay with being sensitive and vulnerable, and mostly, you’re just comfortable with who you are.
It really has been serendipitous that each of us have such different skills, too. I didn’t fully appreciate that until I started sharing our story with other start-up CEOs. We didn’t have to outsource a coder for the website, because James did that; we didn’t hire a copywriter or editor, because I did those things; we didn’t need a science expert to analyze the formula, because Patrick did that. His sister Kristina is even helping us with order fulfillment, because she’s been wanting to start her own fulfillment company. Like I said: serendipitous.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
It’s pretty naive of me to say this, but I was really blown away by how willing people were to help and support Soft. Friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and even people I’d just met were excited about the brand and instantly connected us with likeminded people in the industry, or took it upon themselves to help spread the word about the brand. Any successful launch always goes back to the people, really. My close friend Dana connected us with our graphic designer, Zan; Dana’s husband Justin photographed our campaign; my best friend and colleague Steff styled the shoot; our friend John helped us build our Instagram; my other friend Zoe designed our Instagram Stories for launch day; and my friend Monica connects us with a dozen influential and helpful people, just because. Designers I’ve known for years are buying the mask and sharing it on Instagram. I’ve always prided myself on being self-sufficient, and the Midwesterner in me hates asking people to go out of their way to help me out. But I’ve learned to get over that, and understand that everyone who’s ever started a company has been in this position. There’s karma in it, too; hopefully I can pay it forward one day as Soft grows and evolves.
2. Go bolder!
I couldn’t be happier with the branding, photography, and message we’ve established for Soft. We’re an entirely self-funded company, so every decision was completely ours. I don’t think we appreciated that until we launched; it’s easy to see how investors or significant fundraising might have encouraged us to play it safe or appease to multiple opinions. Soft isn’t the only new men’s skincare line out there — several others have launched in the past few months — but we’re happy to see that none of the others look like us. That’s going to be a huge advantage going forward. It’s memorable, and it isn’t going to blend into everything else on the market, which was the ultimate goal.
3. Turn a challenge into a strength
Working with my boyfriend and our close friend was harder than I anticipated, but another friend, Michael, recently offered a different spin on it. He said one of the reasons he’s betting on Soft’s success is because the three of us are so close — not in spite of it. “No one knows the brand better than the three of you, and no one knows each other better than you,” he said. He convinced me that we shouldn’t see it as a challenge, we should see it as an advantage. It’s true that we’re all 100% on the same page, and while we still need to work on the “partner/friend” balance, the process of launching this brand together was incredible. There was no awkwardness in sharing our opinions, no formalities in how we structured our meetings; ultimately, that made the whole process a lot smoother, especially since the three of us are still working full-time jobs and don’t have time for excessive red tape.
4. Don’t beat yourself up over small errors
I think the three of us are perfectionists in our respective areas, so it’s really tempting to freak out when something minor goes wrong. But once you understand that everyone who’s ever started a company has gone through this, you learn to be a little easier on yourself. Obsessing over a tiny error and blowing it up into an argument (or, worse, playing the blame game) is a huge waste of time and an energy suck. In the weeks leading up to our launch, stress levels were pretty high, but we learned that it just isn’t productive to sweat the small stuff. There are bigger things we have to worry about now, and it’s made the smaller problems a lot easier to tackle.
5. Be patient.
It’s our belief that now is the best time there’s ever been to launch a men’s skincare brand. The men’s market — skincare, fashion, and beyond — is growing rapidly, and the “non-toxic masculinity” conversation is just getting started. There’s a real need and desire for brands that challenge the status quo and make a statement about conventional norms. At the same time, there’s more competition for people’s attention than ever, especially on Instagram. I think we had pretty realistic expectations for our launch, and it went really well — Vogue’s beauty team did the exclusive launch story, and we sold tons of masks — but we didn’t think too far ahead of the launch. We didn’t know how the following weeks were going to go, and we’ve learned a lot about maintaining the momentum and continuing to build awareness around the brand. We’re starting to talk about retail partnerships (mostly with small New York stores) and are gearing up for the holidays, which is a huge opportunity for us. I think a lot of brands expect to launch and see consistent, massive growth, but that just isn’t realistic (unless you’ve got a few million dollars to spend on marketing and ads, I suppose).
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I think when your brand mostly “lives” on Instagram, as most do in 2019, it can be really hard to “turn off” and avoid burnout. You start to feel like if you aren’t thinking about the brand or doing something for the brand online, it’s going to cease to exist. But the advice I got from friends at other companies is that you actually don’t need to be on Instagram every two minutes to keep your brand going; there is such thing as too much content. And again, things take time; you can’t expect to go from 600 to 60,000 Instagram followers in a day, or to sell out of your product in a week. We spent so much time working on the launch, and now that it’s behind us, it feels like we’re in “phase two” with new priorities and goals and ideas. The best part is that we feel more encouraged than ever now that we’ve seen sales and are getting such a positive response from friends, press, and influencers.
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?
So many people! I’ve named many of them above, but I have to shout out my friend Dana. I’ve worked with her for six years and watched her start her incredibly successful boutique PR firm, The Hours, with her cofounder Kara, and always thought she had the best taste and a great sense of the market. When I first told her about the idea for Soft during a casual breakfast (this was probably two years ago, long before we’d even done anything!), she instantly thought it was a smart idea and saw the gap it would fill in the men’s market. Her support was so encouraging, and ultimately it all came full circle: Dana’s husband Justin is an incredible photographer and shot our campaign, and Dana introduced us to Zan Goodman, who designed our logo and website, art directed the shoot, helped us find models, and became such an instrumental part of the team. The Hours ended up helping us with press around the launch, which was truly invaluable. The fact that all of these wildly talented, creative people even just believed in Soft was so validating, too.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I love my job at Vogue and am so fortunate to have an incredible editor, Nicole Phelps, and an equally incredible team of fashion writers, photo editors, beauty editors, graphic designers, managers, et al. It’s obviously a large team, and we’re working for a title with global reach; I have a lot of independence as a writer there, but have always had multiple bosses and colleagues to bounce ideas off or get approvals from. Being the creative lead at Soft has been a totally different experience, and while it was difficult at first — especially since I didn’t think I had any marketing experience — it ended up being a great learning experience. I feel a lot more confident in my choices now that the brand is live and is getting such a strong response. Going forward, I want to continue to hone my voice and push the envelope with Soft, and also learn how to really lead. Right now, we’re just three people, but hopefully we will start hiring employees in the near future, and that will be a significant challenge (and opportunity).
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Personally, I hope my experience will inspire other women in the editorial world to step outside their comfort zone and pursue their ideas. The hardest part isn’t coming up with the concept; it’s believing in it enough to bring it to life. I’m also the first to say that people in the fashion industry, specifically on the editorial side, are better equipped to launch a brand than they think. We spend every day looking for stories and distilling them for a massive audience; that’s a pretty amazing primer for creating your own.
With Soft, we’re really excited to be promoting a softer, more modern view of masculinity; I would love for Soft to be synonymous with that message. However, in the age of start-ups, I also want Soft to become an example of a brand that doesn’t compromise its vision or dilute its message over time. Unfortunately, I feel like that happens quite often with brands that grow too quickly or take on massive investments. We didn’t launch Soft because we want to be in every drugstore from day one; we started it because we really believe in this message and want to offer something truly different.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Our key motivation for Soft is to promote a softer, more modern idea of masculinity. In New York, and especially in the fashion and beauty world, it’s easy to feel like everyone is on the same page, but this concept of “non-toxic masculinity” is still really new and challenging in most places. That’s what motivates us the most — pushing that message, and (hopefully) inspiring men to explore their softer sides and embrace who they are. There are so many guys out there who are still afraid to resist societal norms, or they feel pressure from their family to be a certain way, and we hope Soft can ultimately help change that. We worked incredibly hard on making an excellent mask that people buy over and over again (whether they’re men, women, or non-binary — Soft is open to all) but it’s this conversation that really excites us.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
The best place to follow Soft is on our Instagram, @soft__skincare! You’ll find photos from our campaign, deep information about our product, press around Soft, and photos and videos of people using our mask.