How Beauty Army is using lessons from NASA to sell lip gloss and mascara

Arthur Guest has two master’s degrees — the second from MIT in aeronautics/astronautics — and has worked for NASA on the future of human spaceflight.

Now, he’s selling beauty products. Guest is the co-founder and CTO at Beauty Army, a subscription-based e-commerce site that is trying to add more personalization to online shopping. “As my friends say, two years ago I was designing spaceflight missions to Mars, and now I’m selling mascara,” he said.

Totally random transition? In fact, Mars missions and mascara have more in common than you might think.

Guest got into the beauty business when CEO Lindsey Guest (Arthur’s former wife and now co-founder at Beauty Army) approached him with the idea of using data to create a better beauty business. Now Guest is using his background in predictive modeling to let consumers try out product samples that fit their preferences, and introduce brands to potential new customers who can give them valuable feedback.

It sounds simple enough, but figuring out how to take a consumer’s listed preferences and turn that into products she might buy is another story.

While Birchbox has popularized the notion of paying $10 a month to have a box of random make-up samples show up at your door, Beauty Army would argue that its model makes more sense. There’s no doubt that getting a surprise box of products in the mail is a lot of fun, but I’ve opened Birchbox or other similar sample beauty boxes where there isn’t a single sample in the box that I would ever use. That’s because every customer gets the same thing, even though everyone has different beauty needs and tastes. (Imagine an 18-year old being sent anti-aging cream, for instance.) If I’m not even going to try a sample, the chances that I’ll pony up and buy the full-size version are nil.

Beauty Army products

Beauty Army lets women fill out a basic questionnaire on their tastes, and then gives them nine samples from which they pick six each month that are mailed to their door for $12 a month. There are plenty of blogger reviews of the services online, but most of them tend to like the choice that Beauty Army gives the consumer.

“What we did was create a personalization algorithm to go into your subscription preferences, and then based on the attributes we gather from them, and the attributes we gather from our brands, we recommend the best products,” Guest said.

The company is still small, and has far less traction than a company like Birchbox (which counted 100,000 subscribers back in September 2012, and has likely grown since then). Beauty Army, which first opened its doors to customers in January 2012, now has about 120,000 members, has earned more than $800,000 in revenue, and as of April this year, had about 4,500 paying subscribers.

But even if Beauty Army has a smaller subscription base right now, the brands know that the people getting their samples have actively picked them — which Guest argues makes the users more likely to try the samples and leave reviews (more than half do just that).

Guest explained that if a brand comes to them and wants to give out 1,000 hair product samples, Beauty Army won’t just tell them they gave the products to 1,000 women who like beauty samples. The company can say: We gave your sample to 1,000 women who have curly hair who are interested in hair-care products, for example. They can say which states the women live in (through anonymized data), and they can provide feedback to the brand as to how that product did within certain demographics based on the reviews those consumers left.

The challenge is taking a user’s questionnaire answers and turning them into a beauty box that the consumer will actually like. That’s where Guest’s background comes into play.

“What you actually want could be completely different from what you say you want. It’s all about weighing the metrics that you have,” he said.

Beauty Army is setting its sights higher than just a subscription business, since it can incorporate reviews to provide what it says is a smarter e-commerce experience for non-subscribers as well. While the company is still new, and it tends to highlight less well-known products for sale, it can use the feedback and reviews it gets from consumers to create suggestions for everyone else.

“We’re using subscription as the stepping stone to the full beauty market,” he said.