Most skin damage happens before the age of 18, but when a girl’s skin is most vulnerable, especially in her tween years, there are few skincare products to choose from, and the number of brands using natural ingredients is even slimmer. It is this need that inspired Christy Prunier, a former film executive, and her now twelve year-old daughter, Willa, to start Willa Skincare, which is not only changing the market for skincare products for young girls, but above all, promotes a lifetime of a healthy skincare routine and confidence for its customers.
From the kitchen table to the boardroom, Christy and Willa have created a successful business motivated by a simple idea and a need. How did they do it? That’s exactly what we wanted to know, when we asked Christy and Willa to share their story with us.
Women Talk: 10+ Questions with Christy Prunier
Can you tell us about how Willa Skincare came to be?
CP: Four years ago, when Willa was 8, she was taking a bath and asked me why she had to use the “babyish” products that her 3-year-old sister Julia was using, and why there wasn’t something for girls like her. It was a great question, and I was certain we could find natural skincare products made for girls like her. So we looked and looked, from drug stores to department stores to high-end pharmacies and everything in between. But we couldn’t find anything except the pink bubble gum scented, made in China, Miley Cyrus products that no mother wanted their daughters putting on their skin.
This realization made me think about my own skincare story, which was bad skin as a tween/teen, followed by my first facial skin cancer and MOHS surgery at 29. At that point, I started getting serious about taking care of my skin. But every dermatologist I’ve seen over the past fifteen years has told me that all the damage I have done to my skin is a direct result of what I did (or didn’t) do when I was younger. Up to 80% of skin damage happens by age 18 – so for Willa’s age, when you can do the most to ensure healthy skin for a lifetime, there was nothing. I didn’t want Willa to repeat my story, and so Willa Skincare was born.
What did you learn in the film industry that helped you transition to creating your own skincare brand?
CP: While producing feature films and developing a skincare line for girls seem radically different, there are similar skill sets involved. When I was developing films, my job was to find material (book, article, screenplay, pitch) that I could develop into a film people would want to see. It involved finding those great ideas and then finding the best talent to execute – be it a writer, director, actor. From there you are the one driving that project with that creative team.
With Willa, I identified a void in the marketplace (something I knew people would want), and after a year of research and focus groups (many with Willa and her friends), I identified the best labs and dermatologist to help me execute this project, along with enlisting Willa’s old babysitter (who worked in fashion and went to Parsons) to design the packaging. So the two careers I have had both involved identifying a great idea and executing it with the best talent, and hopefully my best judgment.
What is your role within the company? What is Willa’s?
CP: I do everything; there is no task too small or too large. From personally responding to every call from a customer, to selecting new products for development and overseeing that process, to working with graphics, to redesign our website, writing, and fundraising. I now have a fantastic team of freelancers who work with me in supply chain management, marketing, graphics, public relations, but it’s 24/7, all consuming.
Willa does a lot! We try to carve out a day on the weekend when she will review new products in development, provide feedback on website changes, brainstorm concepts for our first Willa magazine to respond to customers who want to talk to her. We also work at Henri Bendel at least one Saturday/month. It is a great opportunity for her to connect with these girls who love the products as well as learn what they’d like to see from us in the future.
What’s it like to build a business with your daughter? Is the entire family involved?
CP: The whole family is involved. My husband is a news producer, and reads everything and advises me on everything. My youngest, Julia, is 6, and tests all the formulations and weighs in on new components. My son Jack, who is 11, is just super supportive, and given I spend so much time just with Willa, that means more than you can imagine.
How do you balance Willa’s priorities in regard to school and her role in the company?
CP: Willa is a really strong student; she loves school. It is her #1 priority and I have never needed to remind her of that. The Willa Skincare business happens as much after school and on the weekends as possible.
Willa has learned a lot over these past 4 years. She’s seen how each product has taken at least fifteen re-directs to get it exactly right. She’s seen the initial packaging design and how it took years and hundreds of incarnations to get it where it is today. I’m sure she would say it hasn’t been easy, but it has certainly been worth it.
What do you think Willa is learning from helping to lead a company?
CP: I hope Willa has learned to be tenacious. To see that if you believe in something, and give it your all, you can make it happen. We have taken enormous risks starting Willa, including using our home as collateral to get a loan from the SBA to finance the brand. I think she also has learned that the best results come from active listening. All our 17 launch products have come from listening to her peers.
The competition in the skincare market is enormous. What sets Willa Skincare apart from all of the others?
CP: There are only a handful of brands that are focused on tween/teen skincare. Of those, Willa is only one of even fewer with a tight focus on natural skincare, not makeup, for girls. What distinguishes the brand the most is that we developed each product after over a year of focus groups with girls. We wanted to understand their behaviors towards their skin, and skincare products, and then formulate with the goal of getting that girl to take ownership of taking care of her skin because it felt good. As a mom, I knew firsthand that just telling my daughter something is good for her (like kale) won’t make it a lifelong habit – she needs to enjoy the taste of that kale or it will never be incorporated into her diet. The same goes with great skincare. You have to love the way it makes you feel or it will never become a daily routine.
It seems like the line was picked up fairly quickly after the launch by some big name retailers. Was it as easy as it looks?
CP: It was easy in the sense that we had spent three years prior to each of those retail meetings to get the products exactly right. The rigor that went behind everything, from the dog clip on the lip shimmer component to the pump for the foaming face wash to the formulations and packaging, was all exacting. I knew we only had one shot with those retailers so I waited until we had our A-game.
Why is this important to help young girls establish a daily skincare routine?
CP: Healthy skin is all about prevention. Our tagline is “Start young. Stay young.” Think about your teeth; you didn’t wait until you had a cavity to start brushing your teeth. But your skin is your largest organ, and that relationship tends to begin with a problem, such as with a sunburn or a breakout. Your relationship with your skin should begin before there is a problem. Prevention is the best way to ensure a lifetime of healthy skin.
Your brand mission is to build girls’ confidence. How do you build confidence through skincare?
CP: When Willa was 9, we spent our summer in Connecticut with my parents. Willa loves dogs and wanted to have a dog walking business, so she put flyers in mailboxes on my parents street advertising the great care she would give these dogs on their walks. She walked many dogs that summer. She didn’t allow her brother or sister to help, she wanted to do it all by herself. It made her feel so good. When she is making good choices on her own she feels more confident. She walks taller and she is beautiful. But when I nag her, “Did you brush your teeth?”, “Did you practice the piano?”, this is deflating for her. The more they take ownership of making healthy choices in their lives, the better and more beautiful they feel.
What’s next for Willa Skincare? Is there a “Jack” line waiting in the wings for young boys?
CP: Willa Skincare will continue to focus on empowering these girls with effective skincare they love to use. The acne and sun lines are evolving, and we are working on a natural deodorant. I want to do a boys line, but I just don’t have the bandwidth now. But Jack, and boys in general, are very different. They want one product that does everything: washes their face/hair/body/deodorant, all in one.
Questions from Willa to Willa
WR: What are the top three lessons you’ve learned from this experience?
WD: I have learned a lot about having determination, patience, and active listening skills, which I can carry with me later in life. Determination is very important, because without it, we would not be able to continue with the business, and even the smallest problems would have brought us down. I have met so many amazing people doing Willa who have taught me so much, and patience and listening skills have enabled me to work with others and learn from them.
WR: If you were stranded on a deserted island, which one Willa product could you not live without?
WD: Good one! I have a bunch of favorites, but probably our SPF. Probably like a ton of other kids, I DESPISE sunblock – or at least the wet, sticky, non-rubbable-in, white stuff. We took a long time creating ours to make sure that it blended in with almost every skin tone and went on dry, which a while ago seemed impossible. However we did it, and it ROCKS.
WR: From one Willa to another, what do you like about the name Willa? Is there another Willa who inspires you?
WD: I don’t have a close family member or friend whose name is Willa, but it is really cool when I meet another girl with the same name as me. It’s almost like finding someone who has the same exact birthday as you, except more exciting! I like my name because it is different, makes me unique, and makes me feel strong.
The line’s seventeen products can be found on the Willa Skincare site, Target, Amazon, Drugstore.com, and J-Crew Crewcuts, among others.