“I had to learn pretty early on that I needed to hire and trust people who know the consumer world better than I do which honestly hasn’t been easy but has been really important for the business”
~ Chris Hobson, CEO, Rare Beauty Brands
“I had to learn pretty early on that I needed to hire and trust people who know the consumer world better than I do which honestly hasn’t been easy but has been really important for the business.”
~ Chris Hobson, CEO, Rare Beauty Brands
CEO Lounge: January 2021
CEO, Rare Beauty Brands: Chris Hobson (MBA 1999)
Interviewed by: Madeline Keulen (MBA 2019)
HBS Association of Boston Board Member and
Vice President of Leadership
MK: Chris, thank you so much for joining us. I’d love to start with where your journey began. Tell us about where you grew up.
CH: I grew up on a farm in Ontario. The only way out of town was playing hockey and I was very lucky that I had an eighth-grade teacher who saw me as a kid with some promising hockey ability.
He recommended I apply to a private boarding school and he fundamentally changed my life. When I moved there I went from an environment where 10% of kids would go to University and 90% of the kids I knew would get a job in the local factory to an environment where 99% of kids went to University. It changed the trajectory of my life. I went to McGill University in Montreal – I loved Montreal and played a little bit of hockey and a little bit of rugby. I started my first business out of my dorm room selling teams, fraternity, and sororities all their custom logo wear. I built that business ground up, eventually having 14 sales reps around Canada and US college campuses. I graduated with the Canadian equivalent of a 401K and was hooked on entrepreneurship ever since.
MK: After an early entrepreneurial start you ended up working at Procter & Gamble, a legend in building and marketing consumer products. What motivated that move?
CH: To be honest, it wasn’t intentional – I probably should have been more intentional and counsel my kids this way. I hope that they take a little bit more care more about their career trajectory. I was literally walking through campus one day and a buddy of mine from my high school said “hey there’s a job fair going on over in the student union building – we should go check it out.”
There was this P&G display of all these brands like Tide and Scope and I’m like wow P&G makes all these products that’s so cool! Literally the dumbest interview question you could possibly imagine but the rep and I really got along and he convinced me to interview. I started the interview process and nobody was more surprised than me that I kept getting asked back for more and more stages. All of a sudden I’ve got this job, I’m wearing a suit and tie and suspenders, and going to work at Procter and Gamble.
MK: What lessons did you take from that experience?
CH: For me, it was two big lessons:
The first was that I didn’t know anything about how to run a business before P&G.
I showed up at P&G Toronto – a smaller office than P&G Cincinnati obviously but I think our incoming class was 15 assistant brand managers or so. I was the only one without an MBA and I learned so much including how to run a P&L, build a brand, advertising, and structure analysis. I went from the 25 page undergraduate type papers to the one page memo. I still use the P&G discipline now. I write a quarterly investor newsletter to my investors and it’s structured like a P&G memo. In five years I learned to run a business through working on some amazing projects including launching Folgers Coffee into Canada as well as Old Spice, which at the time was quite stale and thought of as your grandfathers’ deodorant brand.
The second was that I’m more of an entrepreneur than the average P&G lifer.
There were a lot of meetings to set up further meetings. Meetings with 40 people sitting in – people at the table with Cincinnati leadership and then rows behind the table. I’d have 15 binders on my lap because somebody might ask me a question that I better have the answer to. Even the little things like having to fill-out a form for vacation was not for me. So I went to HBS and was probably one of the only folks not interested in consulting or banking. I was all about entrepreneurship and started to deprogram some of the P&G mindset.
MK: After business school you shifted industries. What motivated that move?
CH: In 1999 every dot com was going to change the world. I joined one that was creating tools and connections for high school students – we were five years too early and ultimately raised $40M and blew $40M with nothing to show for it. I wasn’t the entrepreneur – I was a product manager – and when I finally got senior enough and got to see the P&L I learned that we were employing 130 engineers to make $500k in revenue. It was crazy. When the dot com bust came, we all went to do different things.
I went off to enterprise software having realized that if I wanted to be a CEO one day that I really needed to learn sales. It’s not something that comes naturally to me so I felt like I really needed to go and do that. I carried a bag working for an enterprise software company for which I had the New England territory. I had to learn how to cold call, which I’m still not very good at, but I did it and I learned to manage complex sales and pipelines. I still rely on those skills today for my current company as I bring products into new channels and have to raise money.
MK: Ultimately you transitioned back to the consumer world to start your own company. What motivated your shift back into the entrepreneurial world? What was the transition like?
CH: I’d been in tech and was a fan of tech so after that company, I actually went to another enterprise company that got acquired. In the next venture I joined, I worked my way up to COO. It was a small company, $15M in sales, but we’d taken a troubled company, grew it well, got if profitable, and ultimately had a great outcome selling it to Fidelity. Though it wasn’t a 10x, our investors did well and we did well.
I began advising start-ups – I helped a researcher from Los Alamos National Labs spin out her solar tech and get the company funded by NEA. I helped an adjunct researcher at MIT get his mobile technology spun out and funded by Spark Capital. Though I enjoyed it, I missed having the puck on my stick and through a bit of networking met the woman who is now chair of my board at Rare Beauty.
There was a company in Providence that asked me to look at making patches in a lab that they wanted to bring into the consumer world. I thought it was really cool – the insight around patches for skincare that were able to deliver ingredients deeper into the skin was a story we could really work with. So I embarked on the journey in 2011 pivoting the company from a transdermal patch company to a consumer beauty company, cleaning up the balance sheet, letting go of a factory, and building the brand. We launched Patchology in 2014 and it’s been a huge success ever since. Once we had that brand, we planned to build more and became a true multi-brand portfolio.
MK: How have you seen the beauty industry evolve since your time at P&G? What impact have you sought to have at Rare Beauty Brands?
CH: I grew up in the land of TV, interruption based marketing, and top-down messaging. Now we’re in a world of community-focused, heavily digital marketing. In some ways it’s been a little disorienting but many of the lessons from P&G still hold true: how do you connect with a consumer, how do you get insights into consumer behavior, how do you meet unmet needs. But the brand isn’t in charge any more, the consumer is in charge. I had to learn pretty early on that I needed to hire and trust people who know that world better than I do which honestly hasn’t been easy but has been really important for the business.
MK: Who do you rely on for advice and support? Have you leaned on mentors throughout your career? And how has the HBS alumni community played a part?
CH: I have a few classmates from HBS around the country in the consumer world that are tremendously helpful. I can go to them with questions ranging on whether to hire or let go of an executive to whether or not Amazon makes sense for the business.
I’m also blessed with a really good board of directors. Both smart business people who know little about the consumer industry but were so sharp across matters, and independent directors who are domain experts.
MK: What do you look for in future leaders as you build your organization? How have you worked to develop people as the CEO?
CH: I was at a CEO peer group meeting recently hearing people talk about coaching and developing their people and admitted to them that I’m not the best at people. When you’re building an early-stage startup it’s about survival – finding product market fit, making something that people will buy. You become so focused on product, margins, and the business model. As the company has gotten bigger, I’ve brought on new executives. Now I have four key executives and I’m learning that the best thing I can do is get the barriers out of their way, inspire them, and allow them to do what they do best across sales, marketing, and finance. The book hasn’t been written here, but it’s something I’m actively focusing on.
MK: What is something most people don’t know about you?
CH: I used to lead bike tours in Europe as a summer job. As part of that, I learned to drive in Paris and now I drive like a mad man!