How Dermatologists Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields Disrupted the Beauty Industry
By Maggie Bullock |
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
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.