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Tatcha Founder Vicky Tsai’s #1 Tip For Dealing With Burnout

“Before, I optimized for productivity. Now, I optimize for energy.”

When Vicky Tsai launched Tatcha in 2008, her mentality was all about the grind. 12-hour (and longer) work days were the the norm, each day packed to the brim with product development meetings, media appearances, and constant travel. Though Tatcha exploded in popularity at the time, it all came at a cost. “Stress causes the body to go on fire, so I was always sick,” says Tsai. “I had perpetual sinus infections. I had polyps. [I had eczema and rosacea] all over my face, and I was taking steroids to try to help.” Tsai sold Tatcha to Unilever in 2019, and a year later during COVID, the company asked her to come back to lead the brand with her magic touch once more. But in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and rise of Asian hate crimes — and with some time to rest and reflect — she knew she had to take a different approach than before.

Tsai took the tools she had learned from studying in Japan to not only heal her own skin, but also the burnout she experienced from the early years of building Tatcha. She reflected back to a pair of indigo farmers she met in Japan, who supplied the key ingredient for a line of Tatcha products specifically created to soothe and nurture stressed-out skin. Indigo has a long history of healing in Japan — back in ancient days, samurai would wear cloths soaked in indigo to battle, so that if they were injured during battle, the herb would immediately start to heal the wounds. It’s the key ingredient in the brand’s new Indigo Cleansing Balm, a buttery-soft concoction that doesn’t strip the skin of moisture like other harsher cleansers.

Ahead, Tsai shares the lessons she’s learned over the years as the founder of one of the beauty industry’s most belove brands, how she manages her 24/7 schedule by optimizing for energy, and her number-one piece of advice to budding entrepreneurs.

Tatcha is inspired by Japanese culture. Are there elements of it that also influence your own life?

I started studying with Ito San, a monk at one of the oldest temples on Kyoto, over a decade ago. [I learned from him that] your mind and your body are completely connected. That's when I was like, my skin, when it's [reactive], is actually reflecting how I'm feeling mentally and spiritually. So if I don't take an inside-out approach, I'm never going to get it at the source.

How do you stay grounded?

I cycle through different things. Sometimes I meditate, sometimes I journal. I have a lot of practices including forest bathing, which is the big one for me.

Now that you’re back at Tatcha, what are some lessons you’ve learned from building the company in the early days that you’re applying to your leadership now?

In the beginning, I optimized for productivity and treated my body like a rental car — like I'm going to get a second one in this lifetime. I finally had to realize that this is the only one I get, so I have to actually take care of it. Long story short, I realized I can't go back and lead the way I led the first time. I’m now doing six jobs, it’s much more complicated, and I'm 13 years older. I don't have the energy that I did then.

But if I show up burnt out, tired or stressed, I'm feeding that energy to other people, then they feed the energy to other people, and to other people. There's a saying that if a CEO catches a cold, the organization gets pneumonia.

What are you doing differently?

Before, I optimized for productivity. Now, I optimize for energy. If I don’t do that, I don’t have anything left to give to anyone.

How can someone optimize for energy?

Over the course of a week, I started charting everything that I did that gave me energy and everything that I did that depleted my energy. And I started mapping my time so that I did most of what gives me energy when I need it. And then the stuff that depletes my energy, either I don't do or get somebody else do it, or I do it in a time where it's okay that I don't have a ton of energy. As a result, if you optimize your life for energy, you're more productive.

It makes a lot of sense. Have you seen any positive effects since you’ve taken this mindset?

I think you show up for yourself and your relationships differently. I think you're a better leader. Entrepreneurship is an all-in game. It's not a side hustle unless you want an Etsy business, right? If you really want to create something meaningful, of value, it's all in. But you can choose whether you want to burn yourself out or whether you want to be sustainable about it.

Also, you're not giving up anything by being kinder to yourself. I think when you're kinder to yourself, you're kinder to other people. And doesn't this world need a little bit more of that?

Do you have any other advice for budding entrepreneurs and brand founders?

I think that business has both the opportunity and the responsibility to make an impact in our communities. Nobody is coming to save us. We have to save ourselves. So if you build purpose into your company, it can keep you sharp, it can keep you inspired, it can give you the energy that you need to keep going when time gets hard.

When I feel depleted and I don't have any more energy to get through another strategy plan or another budget meeting, I just think about the fact that if we hit our goals, that's another million days of school for girls who would be sold into childhood prostitution, or into a childhood marriage, or forced into child factory work. And if they can go to school, not only is it going to change their lives, it's going to change their lives of their families and their communities, forever. By the end of this year, [Tatcha Education Fund will have] given 10 million days of school for girls around the world.

What the most important thing any leader should remember in the workplace?

The number-one thing we had to change in the company when I went back in for the turnaround was culture. Because if culture's good, then everybody figures out how to solve problems; roles, responsibilities processes get better. But when those things are broken, those are symptoms. Those are not really the issue. The issue is: do you trust me? Can we work together well? Can we figure out problems together?

If you could get a do-over of the early days of Tatcha, is there anything you would change?

I would be much gentler on myself. I would work in a way that was a lot more joyful and sustainable than I did. Am I happy with the outcome? Yes, but there was always a cost. The money doesn't buy you health and happiness. I made so many mistakes, and I'm wearing it in my body. Have an easier life than I had. And also enjoy your youth more than I did.

Any parting thoughts?

[As a leader], you have to create space for other people. I mentor and guide [my C-Suite] from behind the scenes, and they're doing things that I could never do.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.