Jon Shanahan wants men to wear makeup. He’s a co-founder of Stryx, a direct-to-consumer manufacturer of concealer and tinted moisturizer for males. The company launched in 2017. Shanahan joined shortly afterward, having created his male grooming channel on YouTube.
“I woke up [in 2017] … to shoot video,” Shanahan told me. “I had a huge pimple on my chin. I had the Stryx pen with me. It covered [the blemish]. You can’t tell that I was wearing it in the video. That was the first time it really set in that this is an interesting product and the right time.”
Fast forward to 2020, and Stryx’s products are in CVS Pharmacy stores nationwide in addition to Stryx.com. I recently spoke with Shanahan about the company’s growth and the future of marketing skincare products to men.
Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Stryx.
Jon Shanahan: Stryx is one of the first companies to make cosmetics from the ground up for men. Our first two products are concealer and tinted moisturizer. They’re built around the premise that every guy can benefit from touch-ups, such as pimples, under-eye bags, or razor burn. Women have a ton of options. Guys are expected to live with it. We’re out to change that.
Bandholz: You started off selling direct to consumers from your website.
Shanahan: Yes. Everything, especially in the first year, was completely DTC. Shopify is an amazing platform for that. At the end of 2019, we did an in-store test for CVS, the pharmacy retailer; we are in the midst of a national rollout. But we’re digital-first and DTC native.
Bandholz: You’re a fellow content creator. Did you start on YouTube?
Shanahan: I do not like writing. I was on YouTube first. The channel is called “The Kavalier.” I’ve since backed into having a blog to support the YouTube channel.
Bandholz: What was your vision for The Kavalier?
Shanahan: I wanted to model myself after Consumer Reports or the Wirecutter, with excellent independent information, and then build a business of affiliate revenue. This was in 2015, 2016. I want to give the best information and build trust. I only recommend products that I enjoy and believe in.
I thought that I could cover the whole space by myself. I had no idea how much that space would explode between 2014 to 2017.
Bandholz: Stryx was not your idea, right?
Shanahan: Correct. I knew the team behind Stryx because we were covering similar companies.
The story is this. I went to the Allen Edmonds [shoe] factory. I was invited by the CEO and the head of marketing to spend a day at the factory, interview their executives, and put together a video on my channel.
That morning that I woke up to go on the tour and shoot video all day, I had a huge pimple on my chin. I had the Stryx pen with me because I just packed it before I left for the trip. I wasn’t worried about what was on my face because I had covered it, and the video looks great. You can’t tell that I was wearing it. That was the first time it really set in that this is an interesting product and the right time.
Then later in the summer, the guys at Stryx said, “We’re interested in finding somebody good at content and community and branding. Do you know anybody?”
I had considered joining other brands in the past. None of them clicked, especially from a team standpoint, the way that Stryx did. And so I joined as a full-time co-founder a bit late in the company. From there, it’s been a wild ride.
Bandholz: In the early stages you worked on everything. What’s your current role?
Shanahan: We’re a small team. So I am still involved with everything. A huge goal of ours is to overcome the stigma around these products. There’s a massive education component for guys. It’s a lot of tutorials, how to integrate these products into your skincare routine, how to take care of your skin generally. And so YouTube was a big part of that. And then just being a co-founder is about raising money, investor relations, that sort of thing.
And now, with the CVS retail rollout, I’ve assumed some of those responsibilities as well. Ultimately in-store retail is a function of marketing, like our digital marketing channels. We make sure that the whole brand is aligned.
Bandholz: The Stryx website is beautiful, with fantastic photography. What was the vision for that?
Shanahan: Our thought was if we present our products the way that Apple does — beautiful photos, great design — then guys will buy them. And that happened at first, but that’s not how to sustain a company. We have a new site that’s going live in a few weeks, working with an agency. It’s a brand refresh, too, with a lot more guys in the photos, a lot more lifestyle photos, to show how the products work. Guys want results. And so our entire new funnel is around showing guys how the products work.
Bandholz: There’s that education component that’s going to be so big. At Beardbrand, the number one problem of building, essentially, a men’s cosmetics company is the whole, “Men don’t care about their skin.” Has that been a challenge for Stryx?
Shanahan: Yes. It’s a fine line. The politically-aware “woke” crowd doesn’t have a problem with concealer. On the flip side of that, you have what would be considered conservative America. They’ll say real men don’t wear makeup. They’re often Trump supporters. But the president wears something on his face every single day. You can see it in all his photos. Does that make him less of a man? And the answer is no. Historically men wore makeup.
Bandholz: You mentioned that you’re raising money. What’s the long-term goal for Stryx?
Shanahan: What is discussed now in the direct-to-consumer community is the DTC 3.0. What are the lessons of the DTC brands that grew from 2010 to 2014 when there was a lot of capital raised, a lot of arbitrage in marketing and direct channels? Where did that get them? We don’t see that path as being viable anymore.
So we’re building a strong business with good unit economics. The reason for the raise is to build on the opportunity in front of us. We have a lead in this category. We have products that are differentiated. They’re new. But our growth ultimately is hindered because our products last a very long time.
The faster we can expand the product line, the better. And the way to do that is with a bit more capital to let the unit economics work out. First and foremost, it’s about building great products. Because if you’re the first brand that speaks to somebody in a category and the product is right, customers will stay with you forever.
We take that extremely seriously. If a guy is trying us for the first time, we have an excellent opportunity to listen to him for his feedback. Our whole product roadmap is catering to the guys that are telling us, “I wish I had this from you as well.”
Bandholz: How do you create awareness around your brand and its products?
Shanahan: It was easy to get attention because we’re doing something out of the ordinary. We did an exclusive with Bloomberg on CVS rolling out a men’s cosmetic brand in 2,000 stores nationwide. The first men’s cosmetics brand to go nationwide. That can get attention.
Bloomberg picked it up as did The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. And so now the challenge is to continue to lead this category.
Bandholz: You mentioned marketing channels. Is it organic or paid?
Shanahan: It’s smart paid. Again, we’re talking about DTC 3.0. If we’re bringing in a customer, we don’t count on lifetime value paying off down the road. We want to bring these people in profitably.
Our plateaus have been around our average order value. We only have two products, three products as of June. The sooner that we can expand the product line, the better. A higher average order value will help us scale. We are now selling makeup to men who buy for themselves. We haven’t pivoted our messaging to women who buy for the guy in their life. That’s going to be a big one.
Bandholz: You’re the only person I know who uses TikTok. You swear by it.
Shanahan: TikTok has a very young demographic. I had lunch with a friend back in November who discussed TikTok. I’ll never forget how he explained it. He said the power of TikTok is not in attracting an audience. It’s the fact that you can edit and create super compelling videos within the app. The power is not that it’s a social network. The power is that it is an editor that can spread your videos. So I came home from that lunch and posted a video where I was fixing razor burn on my neck. I didn’t even know how the app worked.
The video is still up there. It’s only half done. But it got 300,000 views the first time I posted it. I was like, “Whoa, there’s something interesting here.” Over the next few months, I just experimented with the different sounds on the platform.
So from a top-of-funnel awareness platform, there’s nothing better than TikTok. I’m interested to see what’s going to happen with the supposed government-imposed ban coming. But from a brand awareness standpoint, I’ve never seen a level of audience engagement like this, except for a very few YouTube channels.
Bandholz: Are you still doing The Kavalier?
Shanahan: I plan to bring it back with one video a week and continue the audience. And I have a certain format of video that I like on that site. It takes a little more time. But there’s a lot more opportunity with Stryx and a lot more to be done.
Bandholz: How can people learn more about you and your projects?