How Dermatologists Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields Disrupted the Beauty Industry

Photo Credits: Rodan + Fields

This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of NewBeauty. Click here to subscribe.

Now that the term “work wife” has entered the pop culture lexicon, the notion of starting a company with one’s best friend is standard operating procedure for entrepreneurial types. But when dermatologists Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields invented the now-iconic three-step acne treatment Proactiv in 1990, it was still a relative rarity (for women, at least). From the get-go, Drs. Rodan and Fields have been as savvy about business as they are about skin care. In 1995, they cut a licensing deal with infomercial giant Guthy-Renker that made Proactiv one of the best-selling acne products of all time. In 2002, they founded their namesake brand, Rodan + Fields, with a trio of four-step regimens. A year or so later, they sold the company to Estée Lauder and regretted it almost instantly. So, in 2007, they fearlessly bought it back and relaunched it with a scheme that, at the time, was so unfashionable, it was almost taboo: multilevel marketing. Now, 300,000 independent consultants sell the products in the U.S. and Canada; the brand’s annual conferences are sold-out, concert-style affairs that play to packed crowds. It’s no surprise to learn that Drs. Rodan and Fields are still practicing dermatologists; however, it may surprise you to learn that the company is the number-one selling skin-care brand in North America

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NEWBEAUTY: You met in the mid-’80s at Stanford, when you were both doing your dermatology residencies. What initially drew you to each other?

DR. RODAN: You know the saying, birds of a feather flock together? Well, Kathy and I kind of stood out from the crowd. Our residency class was all guys—buttoned down, preppy ironed shirts and tan pants and Weejuns. Like a lot of female friendships, bonding happens over fashion. There with Kathy, in her white heels, just off the boat from Miami. And I was from Los Angeles, and known as “Rhinestone Rodan.”

NEWBEAUTY: Rhinestone Rodan! Why?

DR. RODAN: I’m attracted to shiny little glittery embellishments.

NEWBEAUTY: Did becoming business partners have to do with a sense of solidarity—being two women in a male-dominated field?

DR. FIELDS: Dermatology was way ahead of its game—our class was about 50 percent women in 1984. Actually, Katie wanted me to get married. I was coming over a lot on evenings, and she was fixing me up with some really great guys. [Laughs] I found my own in the long run. What we shared, really, was a passion to help people with their skin. It was hard to even see a dermatologist in 1990. And Katie identified a really giant niche: acne in adults. The textbook said 3 percent of adult women had acne. Katie goes, “I think all 3 percent live in San Francisco, or there’s a big problem [with that data].” Insurance refused to cover [acne treatments] for anybody over 18 or 20, more or less, but this was women in their 30s, 40s, 50s coming in with potentially scarring acne. That’s when we got serious.

DR. RODAN: I became a dermatologist because I had acne as a teenager. When I got out into practice, I was seeing tons of acne patients of all ages. What really dismayed me is that I was writing the same prescription for topicals and orals that I’d been given 15 years earlier for teenage acne, that didn’t really work all that well for me and caused a lot of side effects. [Over the counter regimens] were spot-treating—applying medicine to a pimple—rather than the way a dermatologist would treat the whole face on a daily basis to prevent acne. Getting ahold of acne is all about prevention. Not reacting after the fact to the pimple.

DR. FIELDS: A quick story: A patient came in with a referral to have a mole checked. The mole was fine, but her skin was really bad. The doctor told that patient, “Hey, what do you care? You’re married.” Ugh. Those are fighting words. Insurance and big business really didn’t give a damn. To them, acne was just cosmetic. Katie and I know how personal bad skin is, whether it’s acne, wrinkles, brown spots, or eczema realization. You know, we own it all. 

NEWBEAUTY: And you got back into the teen acne game earlier this year. A molecule called BPO2 is in Spotless for teenagers. How does that interact with the microbiome?

DR. FIELDS: We’ve always thought acne was caused by the presence of P. acnes bacteria. It turns out almost everybody has P. acnes. When [a pore is plugged], the oxygen level inside the pore goes down, and the acne bacteria goes wild. This crazy-bad bacteria now takes over the good bacteria. Benzoyl peroxide has been a cornerstone of treatment for 50 or 60 years, but it’s been usually in crystal form and has limited penetration. With Spotless, we’re using a tiny micronized crystal form of benzoyl peroxide to get through the plug. And then we deliver it in a leave-on form—the first-ever stabilized liquid benzoyl peroxide. The liquid O2 molecule brings oxygen in there to bring the bad bacteria back in line.

NEWBEAUTY: You’re both still practicing dermatologists. What can people accomplish at a derm’s office that they can’t do at home?

DR. FIELDS: The most important attractive feature between two people isn’t your long blond hair. It’s the quality of your skin. So, we really hammer that home: You can do a lot of great things before we start squirting things or burning things off of you with our big toys.

NEWBEAUTY: Is there an in-office “toy” you think makes the biggest difference?

DR. RODAN: I look at somebody’s face very carefully, analyze all of their asymmetries, and then try to give them symmetry and balance. That’s going to come from a combination of fillers and Botox, generally. So: injectables.

DR. FIELDS: Advanced fillers can bring back the round softness of the face, which is really your fat pad that’s gone. Restoring that bounce is what the eye reads as youthful.

NEWBEAUTY: Do you have a favorite?

DR. FIELDS: Basically, injectables can be lumped into deep, medium and superficial. It’s like building a house. You’ve got your foundation, your mid-structure and then the paint on top. But there’s no leading filler that’s safer or better in some magical way.

NEWBEAUTY: You bought Rodan + Fields back from Estée Lauder in 2007, and relaunched it. Where did the idea of multilevel marketing come in? 

DR. RODAN: We realized retail was dying. You could roll a bowling ball down the aisle at Nordstrom and you wouldn’t hit anyone. The thing that was bringing customers to our counter was word of mouth. Women were recommended to our products by a friend or their hairdresser. We thought: We should be rewarding the people who love the product, who use the product and want to sell the product. Now we call them our independent consultants.

DR. FIELDS: They’re an exceptional group of women. Impassioned, philanthropic, bright, very service-oriented. Somehow we’ve attracted people to us who are motivated to do good things, to give people self-esteem and confidence.

DR. RODAN: Really, they are the secret sauce of this entire business. These are smart, savvy doctors, nurses, financial advisers. Women who took time off to raise their kids and want to get back into the workforce to make their own money and call their own shots. They really love the product.

NEWBEAUTY: Multilevel marketing can also be problematic. Salespeople often have to buy the product themselves, and end up spending more than they make.

DR. FIELDS: Starting day one around a small table with me, Katie and some experts—we knew we didn’t want any of the old nastiness that goes with direct selling, where you have to buy products that you have to store in your garage—you know, more of the door-to-door, old-school way. We developed “consumer-connected commerce”: We have all the products. If you’re a consultant, you have a preferred price. But we have more than 2 million customers who are regularly buying. The consultants manage relationships and place orders through their personal websites.

DR. RODAN: The idea was to make it easy. We’ve evolved with the smart phone, so everything is done online. Everything is done efficiently. We [teach] business skills to help people become great brand ambassadors versus old-fashioned selling that turns people off.

NEWBEAUTY: You have 300,000 brand ambassadors now. Tell us about the community you’ve built.

DR. RODAN: Our model is really set up for three different kinds of consultants: We have [those high-sellers]; we have the product ambassadors—the people who are retailing the product; and we have a group of people who are selling a little bit. I think it’s the strength of the community that keeps the majority of people involved in selling the product.

DR. FIELDS: I was at a college interview and a woman sneaks up to me and goes, “Hi, I’m a consultant.” And she ran away. On the tour, I went back up to her and said hi. I could see she was wearing a wig. She said she had cancer, and “thank you for the privilege to be here with my daughter today—the team continues to work around me, so I’m not missing my income or my goals because they’re supporting me. The most important part of my life is to be with my daughter right now, and that’s what this kind of a company affords me.” People can be with family and make some money, whether they want to work hard or just play with it.

NEWBEAUTY: What is it like to walk out on stage at one your Rodan + Fields conventions in front of a roaring crowd of 10,000 adoring consultants?

DR. FIELDS: It’s incomprehensible. I can’t even describe the anticipation and quivers that are going on before we make our entrance. It’s emotional. You look out on the crowd and the enthusiasm is just insane.

DR. RODAN: What Kathy and I desire most of all is to be role models for these women. The collaboration she and I have had for all of these years, working together—we want to role model that, but also to share our struggles, because this is not easy. People look at us and say, well, they have it made, but what they don’t realize is that we made what we have. 

NEWBEAUTY: What would you say is the advantage of working for a female-led company?

DR. FIELDS: You know, our CEO is also a woman. Our C-suite is about 70 percent women, and when you put the VPs in with the C-suite, it’s creeping ever higher to nearly 60 percent—not because they’re women, but because they’re the best for the job.

DR. RODAN: I think it’s very nurturing. People really take care of each other. Most of our employees are millennials and they really love, again, that sense of community, of collaboration—that we can do something hard, and overcome challenges if we do it together. And our offices are open-space, there are really no walls. Even the executive offices are all glass. It feels like one big family. As you build a company, if you insert your values into it, you’re going to have a company you can be proud of, that will serve as a legacy to who you are and what you care about.