As it most commonly happens, Allison Conrad freaked out when she found her first grey hair. However, unlike everybody else, she refused to settle for the ‘wait first, dye second’ culture around ageing hair.
As a response to her own need, Allison Conrad founded Arey, a company best defined by its own tagline: “the wrinkle cream for your hair”. Based on scientific research and with vegan and cruelty-free formulations, the business tackles a still unpopulated niche with supplements and products in an impressive journey.
Growing up, what did you envision you would be doing as a career later in life? Was it connected to what you are actually doing now, or something completely different?
That’s so fun to think about! I come from a family of doctors and scientists, so I actually grew up thinking I wanted to be an orthodontist. I had a lot of teeth work done as a child, so that was sort of what I was working towards for a long time.
But then I fell in love with art history in college – I actually majored in art history and minored in economics. I didn’t take a single science class, much to my parent’s surprise!
To be honest, I really didn’t know where my path was going to go in college. I interned at Sotheby’s, so I thought maybe I would work in the business side of art. And, then out of college, my first job was working for Martha Stewart. That was a bit different, but it was always sort of ’left brain, right brain’ – a creative industry, but being on the business side of things.
So the path was definitely not linear. Looking back, I think it makes a lot of sense when you can see your career path in hindsight. It’s actually funny because, when I was five, I actually pointed out to my mom that she had grey hair. And I was like, ’Why didn’t the other moms have grey hair, Mom?’ And she was devastated by this.
The next day she went out and dyed her hair, and I was such a precocious, sort of obnoxious kid! We think about that a lot now, where she’s like, ’This is so crazy that you’re working on grey hair’. It all started at five years old.
When did your idea for Arey start to look like a real business that you wanted to invest in?
So it was a personal problem, right? I saw my first grey hair and I went to my hairstylist, who’s my business partner. His name is Jay Small. And I had a panic attack because I knew my mom went grey in her late twenties.
I was like, ’What do I do about it?’ I want to get on top of it. I want to be proactive about it. I use wrinkle cream for my wrinkles, and sunscreen for sunspots. I’m exercising, I’m doing all the things to make ageing as comfortable and as nice of a process as possible. And he was like, ‘You know, that doesn’t exist, right? You have to wait until it’s grey enough, and then you dye your hair’.
You cover it up. It’s a reactive process, and I was frustrated by that. I wanted to understand what causes grey hairs. Because I assumed it was mostly genetics. But we found out there’s only one gene that causes grey hair, and it accounts for 30%. So there were all these other lifestyle and diet factors that weren’t really being addressed.
That prompted us to look further into this. And then, sort of simultaneously, my dad came across this article from 2019 linking increased risk of cancer from mostly at-home hair dye. And my dad, who is a doctor, and a pharmaceutical consultant, said to me, ’I think you’re onto something’. I think people are going to start questioning the products they’re using on their hair and the fact that genetics is not the only story here.
That gave me a little bit more confidence if my dad thought this was something worth pursuing. So we did!
What was the feedback like when you started?
It was so interesting! We were very lucky because Jay had this clientele that he could reach out to on the customer side. I was excited about the product, but there needed to be more than just one person who would buy this product. So he asked his male and female clients: ‘If we started with a supplement, would you want to take it?’
And it was like, ’Yes, sign me up! When can I start taking that pill?’ So we were able to do a consumer study with his clientele to make sure it works.
We were very lucky, and I think this is something to be said about starting. I’m 41, so I started this company when I was 39. And I had some experience, I had some network under my belt, and we were able to work with one of the top supplement manufacturers in the US through a connection. They would never normally take on a startup ever.
And that was really the same with every single person that has been involved in this journey, it’s like a light bulb that goes over, how has this never existed before? We were very lucky to have folks that we could start with and also scale with them because they’re bigger companies that were able to take us on.
What would you say is your measure of success or your definition of success today?
From a business perspective… Of course, there are the revenue numbers and our subscription rates and retention. But the biggest thing for me is when I see customer reviews come in because we will only exist if we make good products.
We believe in it, but to have other people see that it works and believe in it and get so excited about how their hair looks… That is what I live for. That is what keeps me going and gets me up in the morning. It’s so fun to do that and create something that resonates with people and brings confidence.
And then, on a personal side, I would say… I have two children. I have two girls that are five and eight, and they’ve seen this whole journey with me. It’s just a really fun thing to do. My eight-year-old said she Googled me at school and goes, ’Mom, I Googled you and your website came up, you’re famous!’ And I was like, ‘Well, let’s calm down. That’s not the definition of famous, but that’s really cute.’
Are you someone who makes decisions based on enormous amounts of data, and you’re very logical about things? Or is it more of an intuitive process, or maybe a mix of both?
It’s definitely a combination. It’s back to this ’right brain, left brain’. A lot of my schooling is in numbers and analytics, and we built the business with that in mind.
Unit economics was extremely important and getting to profitability very quickly was very important, especially as a D to C brand. But it was also this intuitive process. If you’re creating something that’s not a hundred percent going to get rid of grey hair or a hundred percent reverse grey hair, why would you do it? And I just kept asking if this is something that I would take and want to have in the world.
And somebody gave me really good advice. You’re thinking about starting something, and you go to bed tonight, woke up the next day and somebody had created that business. Would you be completely devastated? I was like, ’If somebody else did this, I would just be so mad at myself that I didn’t do it.’
That’s just a great measure to ask yourself if it’s worth leaving your corporate job, going out of your comfort zone, or doing something else. It’s this intuitive thing that you kind of just know whether you should do it or not.
What would be your advice to a new entrepreneur in beauty, wellness or connected industries, or just starting out with a product idea?
What everybody was excited about when talking about us was that we did have great numbers to show, so we could show there was product market fit. We were growing the business. It’s mostly subscriptions, so there’s recurring revenue. We have good margins, and it was a good foundation for a business.
It’s possible to raise money before having something launched. You could raise money on an idea, but in the consumer D to C world, that is pretty hard to do. So you have to show something, you have to show some numbers. That also helps you in having a higher valuation too, as a founder, so you’re not diluting yourself as much.
And I put in some of my own capital. It was really not a lot. I’ve heard some founders give the advice of ’cash in your 401k, put all your savings towards something if you believe in it’.
I cringe when I hear that advice because that’s really risky and not everybody has the flexibility and the ability to do that. I was working for other people for a long time, and I put some money aside to be able to do this.
Then, we raised a friends and family round as well – it was like $400,000. And that helped too – it’s people believing in you, right? So you have to build out your network, connect with the right players, and know who you’re talking to in the investor space. Don’t waste your time talking to people who are later-stage investors in tech.
What kind of community do you think you, as an entrepreneur, need to rely on?
My first initial friends and family were people I went to business school with, and I have this group of women that we meet every month from the GSB, from Stanford, all different years, but every single one of them invested in the company, which was amazing.
I was very honoured to have that. But it was a nurtured community that I’ve been meeting with for six years. These folks know me, they believed in me. Sometimes, it’s hard to put yourself out there and tell people that you’re doing something and that you need help.
And whether that’s money help or connections help or advice, it’s a scary thing to do, but you do have to put yourself out there. Because you don’t know unless you ask.
I’m a big believer in nobody just handing you something. Nobody just gives you something. You have to ask for it. And you’re not worse off before than you were if the answer is still ’no’. It was ’no’ before.
So you might as well ask, that’s it. And, have that knowledge. Then you might get a ’yes’. And having a co-founder was very helpful too, because, Jay had his network as well.
It’s a really nice thing to have that support system of a co-founder and a team of people who have your back, believe in this concept and are willing to sacrifice for it.
What is one thing you wish women would do more of and one thing you wish they would do less of?
You have to ask for stuff. And I get it, sometimes it feels like it’s not a position of power if you’re asking for something. But I think if you go into something with confidence, and you have knowledge, you have research, and you know what you’re asking for, and you know who you’re asking, and it’s not an unreasonable thing, ask for it.
About doing less of… I’m so guilty of this, but saying you’re sorry for things. There’s a time and a place to say you’re sorry, for sure. And it’s a very powerful thing, especially with my children, when I admit to them when I’ve done something wrong.
As women, we tend to – and I know don’t want to make a mass generalization -, apologize for things, whereas men are less likely to do that. We don’t need to do that. We shouldn’t be sorry for asking for something. You don’t need to apologize after asking for something. It’s a totally reasonable thing to do.
Listen to our full podcast interview with Allison Conrad, Co-Founder & CEO of Areay HERE.