What I Learned As a Product Developer at Sephora
Today we're sitting down with our Tiila Abbitt, ĀTHR Beauty Founder, to chat about:
- Her learnings as a Product Developer at Sephora
- How it led her to start ĀTHR Beauty
- What's next at ĀTHR Beauty *Exciting News!*
FIRST OF ALL, WHAT DOES A PRODUCT DEVELOPER AT SEPHORA DO?
Trend research: We developed products 1-3 years in advance, so that meant predicting the next big thing in beauty far ahead of time. The goal was never to follow trends, but to create something new and exciting to move to industry forward.
Working with Merchants: Planning which products would be launched next.
Ideation: Brainstorming new ideas meant traveling to trade shows all over the world to discover the latest trends and innovations in beauty. Also, visiting our manufacturers to hear their new ideas and latest discoveries.
Working with Manufacturers: Working with Chemists and Lab Workers to hone the formula to perfection.
Packaging: Sourcing packaging materials, honing package design, and traveling worldwide to learn about new innovations in the industry.
Testing & Approval: A back and forth process of checking, testing, and then finally approving samples for final production.
How did you get started as a Product Developer?
Since my background was in Fashion Design, I started on the accessory side at Sephora. I was responsible for the design and development of all the makeup accessories: makeup brushes, eyelash curlers, eyelashes, makeup bags, sharpeners - basically all the tools of the trade for their private label brand, Sephora Collection. But in true Sephora fashion, after 2 months on the job, they pulled me into this very high-profile Pantone Color of The Year launch. It was my first time developing makeup formulations but I rolled up my sleeves, dove in, and learned from some of the best people in the industry.
Not long after, I was put in charge of the entire Pantone x Sephora collaboration design + all makeup collaborations that were “a brand” + Sephora. I won over 19 industry awards for products I developed at Sephora but I am most proud of the Sephora Pro products - like the eyeshadow palettes and the Moschino launch.
The Sephora Pro Makeup Artist team named a shade after me in one of the pro palettes – it’s a bright fuchsia matte shade, really fun to wear!
Sephora Pro Editorial Palette, Shade: Tiila
THE TEN THINGS I LEARNED AS A PRODUCT DEVELOPER AT SEPHORA
I always say I got my 2nd Master’s degree at Sephora. I had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the most talented, knowledgeable, and experienced people in the business – Formulators, Product Developers, Merchandisers, and Makeup Artists. Here are the top 10 things I learned in my 7 years at Sephora:
1. Ingredient Intel
Even before the ‘Clean at Sephora’ program launched, Sephora had a no-no list of ingredients they would not allow in their products. As a result, I learned so much about ingredients – their function, how they work together, and how to swap out ingredients to get the same effect without any banned substances. I worked closely with Chemists and absorbed all of the knowledge I could.
When I started ĀTHR beauty, I put this experience into action right away. Since I've banned over 1400 ingredients from my products, knowledge of creative and effective alternatives is essential.
Currently, the US has only banned 11 ingredients from cosmetic formulations. The EU is far ahead with over 1300 banned ingredients.
2. Working with Manufacturers
When developing a new product, you create what's called a ‘Product Brief’ to give to manufacturers. This is a document that outlines what kind of product you would like to create. It includes things like the texture, the finish, the color, the feel, the balance, the ingredients you've banned, and the effect a product should have. The manufacturer works from your brief and you go back and forth until you're happy with the formulation. Basically the clearer and more thorough you are with this brief, the faster you will get the exact product you’re looking for.
Once the Chemists created an initial sample, I would go to the lab to shade match, test the formulas for color, payoff, the press of the product, how soft it was – basically every element of the product. This would continue until we reached product perfection!
My experience at Sephora is why I'm able to launch new products so quickly and smoothly at ĀTHR Beauty. I spend a lot of time at the factory talking to the Formulators, Chemists, and Lab Managers. We work together to think creatively, problem-solve, and bring my vision to life.
Packaging can make or break a beauty product. There are so many options for consumers to choose from, so to stand out, your packaging needs to catch their attention and inspire a sense of connection with your brand. With ĀTHR Beauty, I wanted packaging that is not only sustainable and zero-waste, but magical, cosmic, and deeper than surface level.
When I was at Sephora, I traveled worldwide to trade shows to learn about new packaging options and innovations. I learned what is possible and what people respond to.
When I started working with the Sustainability team at Sephora, I learned that 1/3 of the landfill was from personal products alone! Recyclable, sustainable packaging was (and still is) desperately needed in the cosmetics industry.
To educate myself on how truly sustainable packaging could be possible, I spent a lot of time researching how the whole recycling process works. I visited recycling plants to learn the lifecycle of a piece of packaging as it goes through the whole process. This knowledge really informed the packaging choices I’ve made with ĀTHR Beauty. For more on how we created the industry's first zero-waste eyeshadow palette, read our blog.
As my expertise and passion for sustainability grew, my role further expanded. I became the Head of R & D, Sustainability in addition to leading Product Development for all Sephora Collaborations.
I went to a Sephora Conference last month (as a Brand Founder this time) for brands that Sephora believes in and wants to help grow. One of their presentations was on sustainability and they presented resources on packaging and formulations that I had created during my time there. It was great to see all the manuals I put together being shared with the beauty community!
5. Trend Forecasting & Innovation
At Sephora, we would be developing up to three years ahead, so you learn to predict what will excite customers in the future. I traveled to Asia, Korea, Japan, Italy, and France to learn about the new innovations in beauty from Trade Shows, Manufacturers, and special events.
Working on some of the most anticipated and beloved beauty launches in every category, I learned what is needed in a high-performing beauty product. I worked hand-in-hand with the Sephora Pro Makeup Artist team whose expectations of any beauty product are very high. I learned how to develop products that are pro-artist quality, but still wearable & usable for anyone.
With ĀTHR Beauty, I create clean, non-toxic, organic, and sustainable formulas but I do not sacrifice any level of performance. The same payoff, longevity, blendability, and beautiful pigmentation can be achieved with completely clean ingredients.
7. The Whole Product Lifecycle
Being familiar with any one component of creating and bringing a new product to market is helpful, but having gone through the whole process many times over makes launching new products at ĀTHR Beauty really efficient.
8. Sourcing & Integrating Feedback
For every product we launched, we worked hand-in-hand with the Sephora Pro Makeup team. We also scoured ratings and reviews to see what customers were looking for, what was missing, and what they absolutely loved.
I learned that fine balance between the makeup artist lens and the everyday woman. Items had to be beautiful, unique, and aspirational, but also functional, wearable, and easy to work with.
We also worked with store managers and merchants throughout the process and would do look-back reviews to see how products performed and what we could've done to make it better. You can always improve, and that culture of constant learning and progression really shaped how I create products.
9. Makeup + Art
I studied color theory extensively in my Art School days, and at Sephora, I learned to apply my eye for color to cosmetics. With the Pantone collaborations, we'd sometimes be working with a shade that was difficult to wear. I was tasked with creating palettes and products that would celebrate that color, but still be wearable and balanced with other shades.
At ĀTHR Beauty, I play with countless shades of color when I’m developing a new palette. I enjoy color so much and I spend a lot of time combining shades with each other, putting them in different orders, and making sure they all work together beautifully. I go over it many, many times and eventually land on the perfect combination that speaks to my spirit.
I just love expressing myself through color. I was actually courted by Nike years ago to be one of their Lead Color Designers. Even my house is an explosion of color! I have a magenta couch, my kitchen is neon teal and my kids' rooms are lemon yellow. When I was a kid, I had to majorly negotiate with my mom for more color in my room. Her whole house is white and I just wanted color, color, color all over the place!
10. Where Clean Beauty Wasn’t Measuring Up
For years, I kept trying all these clean beauty brands and feeling disappointed in their efficacy. They just didn’t compare to conventional brands. Especially with eyeshadow and colored cosmetics – I found the colors were so lackluster and the formulas were just not up to par. That’s why I started with eyeshadow – I love to express myself with color and I couldn’t find the shade range I was looking for. It was the most frustrating thing to buy as a consumer.
WHY I CHOSE TO START ĀTHR BEAUTY
I just kept seeing the hole in the market and I thought for a while ‘someone’s going to do it’, and time went by and nobody was. So eventually I decided that I should be the one to make it happen! It was really just about making a product that I would want to buy.
I wanted to create a brand that was safe & non-toxic, but also creative and empowering – products sprinkled with magic and mysticism. I wanted people to feel good about purchasing my products – from the ingredients to the packaging to the connection to this planet and your own personal power. I want people to become ‘supercharged’ while using ĀTHR Beauty products, hence the tagline: Supercharged Sustainable Cosmetics.
WHAT GOT YOU INTERESTED IN CLEAN BEAUTY?
I have always been obsessed with ingredients. It started when I became vegetarian as a teen and my mother had no idea what to cook for me. Finding the newest ingredient was always one of my favorite things to do - in both food and beauty. I worked in an organic restaurant during college and was cooking with quinoa before anyone knew how to pronounce it!
In terms of beauty, I always knew that your skin is the largest organ and you’re absorbing all of the ingredients. At the time though, my makeup routine consisted of a tinted moisturizer and some lip balm. Once I started working at Sephora and fell in love with makeup, I started seriously looking for healthy products since I was wearing a lot more of them.
There weren’t many natural, organic products available at Sephora at the time, and there wasn't really a place to physically try high-performance clean beauty. Then Credo Beauty opened, and I was able to actually test these products in-person. That was the beginning of my transition to a totally clean beauty routine.
Now as a Brand Founder, both Credo Beauty and Sephora have been beyond supportive of ĀTHR Beauty. You can find our first two palettes in both stores plus our new Summer Solstice Palette exclusively at Sephora. Look out for the 'Clean at Sephora' label on clean beauty products like ours.
WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR INSPIRATION FOR NEW PRODUCTS?
It always starts with the product that I’m going to be creating – I start with a theme. I think about what shades would resonate with the theme and how I can think outside the box.
In the end, I want all my products to be wearable but also sophisticated and something completely new. I do not want to regurgitate things that have already been done.
SPEAKING OF NEW PRODUCTS, WHAT’S NEXT AT ĀTHR BEAUTY?
If you love our shadows, we can't wait for you to see what's coming next! To complete your star-dusted glow, we’ll be launching three Crystal-Charged Cheek Palettes this Sept and three Diamond Highlighters this Aug!
Crystal-Charged Cheek Palettes
Infused with Rose Quartz, Amber, and Ruby, each palette includes matte blushes and shimmer highlighters in three shades. The perfect balance of touched-by-the-sun warmth, and crystal-infused shimmer.
As if stardust fell from the sky and landed on your perfectly illuminated cheekbones, you will literally #shinelikeadiamond with these diamond-infused highlighters. The three shades will be:
Keep an eye on our Instagram for more details, plus photos & swatches very soon! Can’t wait for you all to try!
Thanks for tuning in and for supporting a female-owned, single-employee beauty brand! All the <3 to you.
-ĀTHR Beauty xo