Elizabeth Scherle co-founded NYC-based Influenster seven years ago to provide a product discovery and reviews platform to shoppers. By partnering with brands like YSL, CoverGirl, Sally Hansen and many more, Influenster activates consumers in their social media networks while feeding marketers with real-time data and feedback. Members get the first look and test of products even before they hit the shelves — sharing their opinions about these upcoming launches with their social media followers! Today, Influenster has over 3 million members who have written over 14 million reviews on over 2 million products on the site and app.Before she launches upcoming partnerships with Laura Mercier, Burberry and Reebok, she told us just how she does it all…
YOU’VE GROWN CONSISTENTLY OVER THE YEARS. WHAT LED TO THIS SUCCESS?
Word of mouth! I’m so proud of Influenster for having grown to 3 million members organically on practically zero marketing budget. That shows how much our members love using Influenster and telling their friends, family, and social followers about it. We’ve been open to listening to their needs, giving them what they want, making them feel connected and empowered, letting them brag about the products that they test and review, and inviting their friends to be a part of the action. We adopt a similar approach to get brand partners excited about our business. By turning our clients and members into advocates, they can tell our story better than ads.
In addition, our investment in people and culture has yielded great returns. Seven years later, we have a team of smart, dedicated, and driven individuals who share our vision for the company. That collective mindset makes Influenster a better product every day. We make it a point to build an office environment where people look forward to coming in every day.
HOW DO YOU GROW A COMPANY WHILE STILL KEEPING TO YOUR ORIGINAL GOAL AND MESSAGE?
You don’t! While it’s important to identify and stay true to your overarching vision, it’s just as important to be flexible, constantly innovate and evolve your offerings in order to remain relevant and competitive. During the early days of Influenster, we started as a marketing vehicle to drive trials, social advocacy, reviews, and insights for clients while getting our members excited about sampling new products targeted at their interests. Over the years, we listened to our members who wanted to be able to write reviews on all products, not just the products they tested from our VoxBoxes. We then evolved our business model to keep the marketing arm of our startup while expanding it into a full product discovery and integration experience as a go-to product reviews destination for consumers.
Having said that, I’ve made it a priority to keep our company culture the same—authentic, collaborative, adaptable, and all about the community! It’s important for all your employees to know you and your vision that plays out in your everyday decisions and actions in the office.
WHY DO THINK WOMEN ARE ESPECIALLY ATTRACTED TO INFLUENSTER?
Women are passionate about products and want to be informed by people like themselves to make good shopping decisions. Because what’s worse than buying that $80 night cream that doesn’t work? Since beauty is a huge part of our business, women are the natural target audience for beauty clients like Yves Saint Laurent Beauty, Kat Von D, COVERGIRL, TRESemmé, and more. Our female members come to Influenster to find out about the latest products trending among 13 million+ other reviews, gain early access to test products that are about to hit the shelves and share their opinions about these products to their social followers!
HOW HAS SOCIAL MEDIA HELPED INFLUENSTER GROW?
Social media has given rise to influencers who are trusted among their social networks. They are an avenue for expressing individuality, personality, and opinions. At the same time, social media has opened up a new channel for brands to connect more directly and authentically with their consumers at a much larger scale. By working with social media influencers, brands are able to populate the digital sphere with user-generated content about their brands.
Beyond the boom in the industry, social media was the reason why Influenster was able to grow exponentially from the beginning with zero advertising dollars. Word of mouth has been around for centuries since people love sharing about the products that they are passionate about. Social media has been able to capitalize on word of mouth, make it more visual and cut through the clutter. Now, you just hear about a good mascara, you can see its effects on different people’s lashes, learn tricks about its application, and compare and contrast different mascara brands as well!
HOW HAS SOCIAL MEDIA CHANGED HOW WE SHOP?
Word-of-mouth has always existed. With social media, there is a new outlet for consumer opinions to be heard. Consumers, especially millennials, are increasingly looking at fellow consumers instead of brands to inform their purchasing decisions. We scour through Pinterest boards for inspiration, Instagram profiles for the latest fashion styles, Facebook for trending products, YouTube to learn how to use products etc. We discover things we might not have thought of buying before, e.g., seeing a friend wear bright blue mascara and discovering an unexpected penchant for a new look. All these social channels influence our shopping thought processes and behavior.
HOW DO YOU CULTIVATE YOUR BRAND PARTNERSHIPS?
My #1 rule is go after the right brands that you know you can help. It was tough at the very beginning. My background was in sales but my contacts didn’t really cross over so I had to start from scratch with no connections, no resources and no investments. In order to get the right story in front of the right audience, I spent hours researching and reaching out every day. It was hard not to get discouraged from the constant “no’s”, but I believed 100% in our product and decided to give the brands free trials as mentioned earlier. […]
In order to maintain these partnerships, we’re all about over-delivering. As we grow, we listen to clients’ needs and deliver new methodologies, tools and services that exceed their expectations. We never ever get comfortable—we’re constantly innovating and improving. We stay on top of trends and offer them valuable in-house content and studies such as reports and infographics on the Gen Z and Millennial demographic.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF YOUR JOB?
I love being at the forefront of growing a business from nothing and coming up with new products and offerings for both our members and clients. Being in charge means that I have the flexibility to implement immediate change and this is not something I take for granted. That being said the best part of my job can sometimes also be the hardest — owning the responsibility and being the decision-maker — even when I may not always know the answer. And this may sound corny, but sometimes I look around at the office and am so proud of the environment we have shaped, the jobs we have created and the friendships that have been made.
Finally, Influenster allows me to get up close and personal with the best beauty brands in the industry! I’m definitely a beauty product junkie so having the opportunity to be on the cusp of upcoming launches and the latest technologies has been truly inspiring.
AND THE TOUGHEST?
I am a firm believer in hustling regardless of what stage your company is in. The tough parts of running a business never go away, but they do evolve.
In the beginning it was the obvious things like blowing through my savings and missing out on a social life, while having the fear that it could be all for nothing. Today, it’s more along the lines of feeling like I have to be everywhere and be everyone to everybody. However, I’ve been doing this long enough to know and accept that there will be days where you feel like you’re on top of the world and inevitably days when you feel overwhelmed by what you want to accomplish.
HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN WORK/LIFE BALANCE?
Entrepreneurs are never really off the clock. The more our startups grow, the more responsibilities we take on and the greater the pressure to innovate and surpass your own success. Therefore, I think it’s really important to instill a working environment that embodies the balance between work and life. With Aydin as my best friend and business partner, and other partners in the firm as some of our closest friends, we all work towards making the office environment fun and relaxing for our employees. […]
It’s also important to draw inspiration and lessons from all aspects of life, especially things outside of your comfort zone. While I love my career, I don’t want to ever be one-dimensional. One of my personal passions is exploring new countries and cultures to broaden my way of thinking and understanding of the world. I carve out some time in my schedule every year to do out-of-my-element activities like overnight hikes through the villages in Myanmar, horse backing riding through valleys in Cuba and touring vineyards across South Africa.
WHAT DO YOU USE INFLUENSTER FOR?
To make better shopping decisions! I rely on the Influenster App when I can’t decide which beauty product is best for me. For example, the other day I was on the hunt for a new lightweight matte foundation in Sephora and was stressing over which brand would be best for my skin type. Instead of guessing, I scanned the bar codes of my choices, and voila, I read reviews and saw images of other Influenster members wearing the foundations and figured out the Lancome Foundation sticks were best the choice for me! Another feature I love is our instant Q&A. If I’m unsure about a product, I post a question about it and then another Influenster member who’s tried it will give me the answer I need almost immediately.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO START THEIR OWN COMPANY?
Ask the tough questions. While founding startups has gotten very trendy over the last few years (which is great), you have to be realistic and think hard about your motivations. Why do you want to pursue your own business? If it’s to get rich, think again. The gratification from starting your own business stems from building something from scratch vs. monetary rewards that typically won’t show until years down the road. […]
Give, in order to get and grow. If you’re struggling to get your product or service off the ground, offer potential clients free trials in order to win them over. Once you build case studies and rapport, you’ll be in a much better position to gain new business moving forward.
Finally, just go out there and do it. I remember I was spending so much time drafting up a business plan which is not my forte. Once you’ve done your research, spoken to and studied other entrepreneurs, organized your ideas and tested them, take the leap of faith to go out there and make things happen.