Hyesung Won: A Korean mom who started a lipstick startup for all the daughters in the world

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To become a mother, to choose a career path, arguably the most important decisions in a woman’s life. For a lot of women, it’s not entirely up to their decision. Marriage and motherhood often become daunting tasks for career women as they struggle to balance work and family. Once you take time away from the career paths to give birth, it’s not always easy to find a job again even after a child grows enough. 

Then the idea of a mother of a little girl creating a startup sounds fantastical, almost unthinkable. All the more so when it is a beauty startup in South Korea, where competition is as fierce as it gets. But for Hyesung Won, CEO of YULIP, this is the reality.


You’ve been in the beauty industry, even before YULIP. What motivated you to create your own cosmetic brand?

I fell in love with cosmetics from a very young age, so I got involved in the beauty industry during my undergrad as a PR supporter for a cosmetic brand, then after graduation, I found a job as a beauty editor at a magazine. After 5 years, I shifted my career to become a PR professional for cosmetic brands at a PR agency, where I worked for 9 years. I left the job when I got pregnant.

I wanted to continue where I had left off in my career, so I searched for jobs from about three months after I gave birth to my daughter. It wasn’t easy. Unable to find a job and stuck at home all day long, I was feeling very depressed. Then, a friend of mine told me about Google’s ‘Campus for Moms,’ a baby-friendly entrepreneurship program for new moms. The program helped me to believe in myself and gave me the confidence to create my own brand, rather than wait for a job position to turn up.

YULIP’s ‘AM 11:00’ lipstick and ‘Lip Almighty’ lip balm

There are so many beauty brands and products in Korea. What made you decide to make beauty products made from natural ingredients, and lipsticks in particular?  

The biggest reason is that I myself needed this kind of product. I have very sensitive skin that is allergic to common ingredients used in cosmetic products, like paraben, minerals, and dyes. So, most products out there are out of my reach. My dermatologist warned me against makeup products and stressed that I especially need to stay away from lipsticks because their ingredients can stay on the lips for a week even after you remove it.

Becoming a mother kept me away from makeup even more because I was in constant skin-to-skin contact with my baby. Also, raising a newborn baby rarely left me the time or occasion to put on makeup.

The irony is, I really love makeup! Not just because it was my job as a beauty editor to test products, but when I see new products, I feel the urge to try them. Giving birth ruined my complexion so I wanted to wear makeup more, or to at least put on some lipstick for a quick fixup.

That’s why I started making lipsticks that have great color and texture, like the luxury brands, but using natural ingredients, like essential oils from sea buckthorn, camellia oil, and gardenia, so that women with sensitive skin like me or mothers with young children can proudly wear them. Even the brand name, ‘YULIP,’ comes from my daughter’s name, Yulhee, and reflects my dream to ‘make products that are healthy for both myself and my daughter.’

Many women give up on their entrepreneurial dream when they face the realities of childcare. You worked on creating YULIP for more than a year before launching it in the market – how was it?

I had my brand concept and a list of manufacturers ready to go by the end of 2016, but I hesitated until last spring. I realized that I didn’t want to give up without even trying, especially when the alternative was an interrupted career.

I worked on business proposals at night, after my baby was finally asleep, into the wee hours of the morning to apply for government funding programs for startups. All the while, I had to put everything on hold anyway if my daughter got sick or something. Thankfully, YULIP was selected by the Gyeonggi Women’s Development Center (GWDC) for free office space and by the Gyeonggido Business & Science Accelerator (GBSA) for seed capital sponsorship.

When I was finally ready though, a big corporation launched a cosmetic brand with a similar concept. I got very worried, but there was no way I could give up on YULIP. In my search for the best way to launch my brand, crowdfunding seemed the most attractive since it gave me the chance to tell the story, why I created this brand and what, as a mother and a woman, YULIP means to me and all the women out there.

For the first line of products to launch, I decided a 3-piece set of two lipsticks and one lip balm with colors suitable for daily use, targeting both full-time mothers and career women. All the while, I received a lot of help from the mothers I met at the Google Campus program. One mom and designer took charge of all the branding from the logo to the packaging, and another mom, who had experience in running an online shopping mall, helped me set up the delivery system. YULIP is what it is now thanks to so many other moms that I have the privilege to know.

YULIP’s ‘Lip Almighty’ lip balm and ‘AM 11:00, ‘Wed.Fever’ lipsticks

Not everyone becomes a crowdfunding success, but you earned more than 350% of your original goal on Tumblbug (a Korean crowdfunding platform). YULIP also sold out its first round of products on Makers with Kakao (a Korean mobile ‘made-to-order’ platform) and went into your second round. How did all of this happen?

The success of a crowdfunding project depends on the PR, but my main (and only) PR channel was social media, my personal Instagram account. Naturally, a lot of my posts were also quite personal, showing what really goes on behind-the-scenes to get a brand up and running while raising a child – and these, surprisingly, gained quite a lot of followers.

And fortunately, just before the crowdfunding page was up, the “Hey Startups!” Festival chose YULIP as a ‘Budding Startup’ and invited me to run a booth at the festival, which gave me a chance to show our product to potential customers offline. 

Once the crowdfunding page was up and running, I got so scared that I couldn’t even open the page to check how things are going – my friends updated me on the progress. All I hoped was that we get enough pledges to meet the goal, it never crossed my mind that we would get three times that much! 

You’ve had remarkable success so far as a one-person beauty startup. How were the responses from customers?

I was positively overwhelmed by our customers’ online reviews. Many commented that the lipsticks kept their lips moisturized, did not clump on the lips, and most of all, felt very comfortable on their lips. I was so happy that YUPLIP lipsticks were being used and recognized just as I dreamed. I welcomed few negative comments as well, because they showed me the areas I needed to work on.

There were also reviews from cancer patients or those suffering from atopic dermatitis whose ultra-sensitive skin can react badly to one wrong ingredient, saying that they don’t worry when using YULIP lipsticks. We all want to look good, which is why we wear makeup, but there weren’t a lot of products available for these customers before YULIP. 

I was also pleasantly surprised by how YULIP was received by middle-aged women. We had a booth at the “Megashow“, which is a lifestyle convention, and a lot of mothers who have daughters in high school or university bought our lipsticks. With the recent issues surrounding the safety of sanitary pads and toothpaste, I think more and more moms want to buy cosmetics that are made with safe ingredients for their daughters. I envision YULIP becoming a brand for all generations, its lipsticks used by both moms and daughters.

Hyesung Won, CEO of YULIP (Photo by Hyeyoung Choi)

It must be a lot of work to manage a growing business on your own, but you also have your daughter to take care of – how do you find the time?

I admire young female entrepreneurs who are full of passion and work 24/7. When I had just launched YULIP, I thought, if I were single, if I weren’t a mother of a child, then I would have been able to spend all day on business, and maybe things would have worked out better or more quickly.

But once YULIP found its place, I realized how lucky I am to be a mother. My daughter is the anchor that keeps me grounded amid the growth YULIP is experiencing. I would receive business offers and proposals and get overly excited, but then, when I am back home, spending time with my daughter, I realize this daily routine I have is what is most dear to me. This helps me to keep a balance between work and life. Without my daughter I would have plowed on, like a bull, giving my everything to my work. And knowing myself, I would have burned out before seeing YULIP grow as it has now.

On the other hand, it seems like a tremendous feat for the mother of a baby daughter to run a company. How do you keep up with your role as a mother?

I wonder if I’m not giving her enough attention, as other moms, or if she feels lonely compared to other children. So, even now, I try to get all my work done while Yulhee is at the childcare center, so that I can spend as much time with her as possible when she is at home.

It’s a relief that when it comes to childcare it’s more about quality than quantity. When I had to take care of Yulhee alone the whole day, there were times when I couldn’t keep my frustrations under control and ended up lashing out at my daughter. But now that I have my own time to do my work, I have learned to value the time I have with my daughter more. I try harder to do my best when we are together so that Yulhee knows how much I love and care for her, even when I am not around.

What is the next stage for YULIP?

I was thinking of introducing eyeshadow products as our next product line, but it’s quite difficult to manufacture eyeshadow products the healthy way I want in Korea. So, for now, rather than branching out to new items, I plan to focus on bringing a greater variety of colors to our lipstick line.

We are still building our brand, so what is most important for us now is to make sure that everyone knows ‘YULIP lipsticks are just better.’ A new 3-piece set, including a coral color lipstick, just launched last month, and I am more excited about it than the very first set.

The ultimate vision I have for YULIP is to become what I call ‘soul cosmetics.’ I want YULIP to be a beauty brand whose products not only lighten up our customers’ faces but also help women become healthier and more beautiful in body and soul. From the very beginning of YULIP, I hoped to realize this vision, not only through our products, but also through social contribution activities. As a brand, we’ve been leading projects in collaboration with organizations such as ‘Growing Mom,’ which is a consulting service for new moms, and are coming up with more ideas to help women in all stages and walks of life.

(Translated by Transdemics. We originally published this interview in Korean on December 6, 2017, so we’ve updated some details for this translation to reflect the time that’s passed since the original publication date.)

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