Laura & Lillian of Fur
12.12.16 | KATE PALISAY
At first, an all-natural pubic hair oil might seem like the kind of bohemian business idea that could only have come from some very funky and alternative hippies. But Fur co-founders Laura Schubert and Lillian Tung are much less "far-out" than they are down-to-earth and business savvy.
After shooting the very photogenic bottles of Fur Oil for our recent Studio piece, we wanted to learn more about the women behind the brand. Laura and Lillian have been best friends since middle school and were by each other’s sides through undergrad at Harvard and business school at Columbia, but they never imagined that their careers - Laura’s in management consulting and Lillian’s at beauty giant L’Oreal - would cross paths. Then, in 2014, Laura and her sister, Emily Schubert (the third and final co-founder of Fur) came up with an idea that they knew Lillian needed to be brought in on
“We were always talking about what’s new, what’s different, what’s coming up...and somehow we got to body hair, and pubic hair,” recalls Laura. “And [Emily] says to me, ‘Well what if you want to grow it out? You still want product.’ Everyone wants product no matter what they’re doing, just to make yourself look nice, to care for yourself, and to have this sort of ritual. And for pubic hair there was really nothing.” The only results returned from their internet searches were about pubic hair removal, not care.
For Laura, existing products and attitudes about pubic hair were missing the mark. “We just felt like modern beauty was moving so much more towards, ‘define your own beauty, whatever that happens to be,’ and also toward natural products, and we just felt that this was one category that wasn’t embracing the way things were moving,” she says.
“I was the first person to say that [nobody would buy pubic hair oil],” Lillian confesses. “I said it was a terrible idea, are you sure you should launch it?” But when she began to use the product herself, she quickly came around and realized the potential market for Fur Oil, realizing, “we have so many options as a modern woman or man nowadays, that you should have quality products that you can use everywhere.”
Convincing others of the product’s potential was by no means any easier, but just as Lillian quickly did, many initial naysayers have come around to Fur Oil. Laura remembers, “I would try to call people and get vendors on board, and they would hang up on me, and then five seconds later call me back and say ‘You know what, wait a minute, this isn’t so weird.’”
Cold-calling was a major part of their strategy for building a business, right down to finding a chemist.
According to Laura, “the person you want to find is a really good chemist who has no interest in working with you because you’re too small. So you say ‘okay, totally get it, who should I call?’ and they know the industry. So if you do that enough times, eventually you get to the right people.”
Relying on the advice of others building startups has been a great way to figure things out, says Lillian, “because everyone’s facing the same challenges, and there’s no guidebook really. So you just talk to people. That’s how we really cobbled together much of our business together successfully.”
While talking openly about pubic hair, and the nature of Fur’s products has come naturally to the founders, finding the right way to position the brand to consumers has required a certain amount of tact, and it’s been essential to strike the right balance in their brand messaging.
“We don’t feel like we’re shocking,” says Laura, “so sometimes it’s a little hard to tow that line,” as a brand built around a traditionally taboo topic. It’s difficult to change perceptions and attitudes when they are so deeply rooted in our society.
Some people think Fur is being shocking just by using the word “pubic,” Lillian says, “but it’s just the direct, most natural word. What else do you want us to call it?" There’s plenty of precedent for censoring our speech when discussing our own bodies, especially when it comes to parts associated with sex and intimacy. Lillian observes, “there’s a shame-based aspect to when you don’t use the true and honest word with it...it’s like, ‘oh, you can’t say that word.’”
That idea of pubic hair being shameful brings Laura to another gripe: “People try to push us a lot to [industries] like sex shops and porn,” she says, “but we feel that we’re very firmly in the beauty realm.”
When people do push Fur Oil, as a feminine self-care product, out of the beauty realm and into the sex industry, they’re operating on an underlying assumption that pubic hair is explicitly sexual. It’s a trap that can easily find its way into the visual language of discussing pubic hair and women’s bodies.
While developing Fur’s branding and messaging, Lillian noticed a trend in existing representations of female pubic hair, saying “it’s always about have and have not, and the visual aspect of pubic hair, like is it in the triangle, and bare or not there. For us, it’s beyond just what it looks like, but also what it feels like. So that’s why our products work with the skin, and work with the hair, and so everything feels soft and silky.”
Laura elaborates, “it’s the idea of intimacy, of touch, which is sort of really what we feel it should be about. Not the look, which again, is more about the male gaze.”
“Thus the name, ‘Fur,’ explains Lillian.
The founders hope that their brand opens a dialogue about the many different ways women may choose to wear and care for their pubic hair, all of which are equally good, or “right.”
Lillian says, “So many people ask us the question, ‘so is the Brazilian out?’ and we’re not here to tell you what’s in or what’s out - it’s about having that conversation about having the options. I think we try to open the conversation, but not pigeonhole the conversation.”
“We don’t want it to be this trend-driven area, which we feel like it has been,” says Laura, “It should be what you like to do, maybe it’s based on the season...maybe your partner has some input, maybe he or she doesn’t. But it should really be your choice.”
To create an oil that is above all about self-care and working with the hair and skin, it was important that Fur be a completely natural product.
The few products already on the market dealing with similar areas are, says Lillian, “filled with alcohols, or cortisones, or chemicals that might fix the problem immediately, but can be really harsh and irritating. So for us,” she continues, “knowing the area, which is this interesting intersection between skin and hair, which has thinner skin than the rest of your body, you want to use products that are gentle enough that they’re not going to irritate, but effective enough when you use them daily or over time.”
So, how did they find the safest ingredients to use in their product? Laura personally ate - yes, ate - every iteration of the product during its development. Really.
“I did,” confirms Laura, laughing.
“And had interesting consequences as a result,” says Lillian, who remembers her friend citing such unpleasant reactions as an itchy and numb tongue.
Laura explains, “for a while we were experimenting with fragrances, but natural fragrances.” After the uncomfortable results of taste-testing the product, they decided to skip fragrance of any kind, and leaving the final version as a blend of just nine oils.
“We were in a restaurant around the corner with our chemist, and we knew we had the final version when he said, ‘I really think this is it,’ and he poured it into an olive oil dish, and we dipped it in bread and we ate it, all of us.”
Laughing, Lillian recalls the reaction of the waiters, “they were like, ‘who are these crazy girls!?’ And we always go to that same restaurant too, so they absolutely know us and they do think we’re weirdos.”
Weirdos, maybe, but also ass-kicking entrepreneurs who’ve launched a buzz-creating beauty product in a category of its own.
“I actually don’t know how people do it alone, says Laura, “I think that would be really hard. [Starting a business] is just hard work, and you have to do everything all the time, and execution is everything. You know with a team so small...everyone has to work really hard and really pull their weight and there’s no coasting.”
Lillian agrees that finding a great partner is essential to starting a business, saying, “rarely is there ever a clear answer on what you should do...you have to talk through it, and neither of you is ever going to know what the answer is.”
Their three-way partnership has worked so well because, as they explain, they each fit into one of three complementary roles: Emily is the Dreamer who came up with the idea and the branding for Fur; Laura is the Thinker who plans strategy and the long-term vision; and Lillian is the Doer who thrives on execution and short-term completion of projects.
Even with an ideal partnership, launching a business is daunting. And with all the daily challenges, it’s easy to forget the importance of slowing down every so often, both to celebrate successes, and to assess where there may be room for improvement. Laura, Lillian, and Emily have made a point to address that in a quarterly lunch where they lay it all out on the table.
“I think that’s really important in a startup because you’re always running,” says Laura.
Given the fast growth of their company, any advice they’re offering is probably worth following. Fur is now sold in close to 100 stores nationwide, and just recently launched on Goop. With each new shelf that proudly displays a bottle of Fur Oil, whether in a store or someone’s bathroom, a doubtful voice that said nobody would buy a pubic hair oil is proven so very wrong.
When Laura and Lillian attended a startup class just before launching Fur, someone thought their business plan was a joke idea, something they made up on the spot just so they could participate. “They didn’t realize that this was a real business,” remembers Lillian. But when launch day came around, something amazing happened: they were right. The market for pubic hair oil was there, just waiting to be tapped.
“And if we look back at all the other participants in the class,” says Lillian, ‘we’re the only ones with a real business now.”
That skeptic in their class? Probably not laughing anymore.
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