How Drunk Elephant’s Founder Turned A Rosacea Struggle Into An $845 Million Business

Drunk Elephant's founder Tiffany Masterson shares how she built her beauty and skin care business.

In Bustle’s Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice — from the best guidance theyve ever gotten to what they’re still figuring out. Here, Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson tells Bustle how she built an authentic skin care brand in an ever-crowded marketplace.

When Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson started her company in 2013, she was a stay-at-home mom struggling with rosacea and hypersensitive skin. The concept of “clean” beauty was just starting to surface, but she didn’t want her burgeoning line to be 100% natural, or to rely on fear mongering by condemning lab-made ingredients altogether (plus, most natural brands at the time heavily relied on essential oils, which actually irritated her sensitive skin). Instead, through process of elimination, she zeroed in on six key ingredients that were the culprit for the majority of skin sensitivities — essential oils, silicones, sodium lauryl sulfates, drying alcohols, chemical screens, and fragrances/dyes — and removed them from all her formulations. The result? A brightly-packaged, non-irritating, science-backed skin care line that would soon be the leader in a new skin care category dubbed “clean clinical.”

Fast-forward less than a decade, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any skin care devotee whose eyes don’t light up at the mention of Drunk Elephant. The brand’s playful name and packaging — a conscious choice by Masterson, who wanted it to feel sleek and elevated, but not as serious as its more clinical counterparts — is synonymous with cult products such as the acid-packed Babyfacial and brightening C-Firma Serum. The latter was recently updated to offer a more stable formulation, since its key ingredient ascorbic acid, a form of vitamin C, is notoriously prone to oxidation and discoloration. The new version, C-Firma Fresh, separates the vitamin C powder from the liquid, thus ensuring the formula remains fresh until you’re ready to use. “It’s really fun to launch something that you feel so good about, because it’s everything the consumer loved about C-Firma before, but just better,” says Masterson.

Drunk Elephant’s rapid success was soon noticed by Shiseido group, which acquired the company in 2019 for a casual $845 million. Masterson has retained the title of founder and creative director, and is still heavily involved in day-to-day operations. “It’s been a wonderful thing and I’m grateful, but I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot as far as my attitude or feeling about what this brand is,” she notes. “[The acquisition] just means more people, more help, more innovation and more access... and more meetings!”

Here, Masterson shares the biggest lessons she’s learned since starting Drunk Elephant, what she looks for when hiring, and how she stays organized.

What’s the hardest part of your role as a creative director and brand founder?

I think the hard part about my job is when people say things out there in the social media world about you and your brand, about your products, and about your philosophy, and it’s kind of an echo chamber of misinformation. You want to sit down every time you read something like that and say, “No, that’s not at all what happened,” or “That’s not at all what I mean when I say that.”

But that goes along with being a public brand with that kind of audience. My problem is, this brand’s my baby, so I always want to set the record straight.

What’s the most fun part of your job?

I think the most fun part is creating. I love recreating products that already exist and improving them. I love researching ingredients and finding ingredients that are not out there, that you don’t hear about as much, and that can do incredible things for your skin.

What’s the biggest skin care lesson you’ve learned?

An acid or a retinol will work differently on skin that’s not sensitized and is balanced, versus an acid or retinol on skin that is sensitized and reactive.

What are some of the biggest business lessons you learned in your first year of starting Drunk Elephant?

Listen to your gut. There are a lot of people out there who have opinions, a lot of people who have been down the same path before, a lot of people in the industry who want to tell you exactly how to do it because they’ve been with another brand or they’ve done it themselves. That’s not always right. From brand to brand, founder to founder, the approach can be completely different. It needs to be. Listen to your gut, follow your vision, stay true to who you are — or you won’t make it. Because you have to stay unique — that’s the way you stand out as a brand.

That doesn’t mean that people didn’t come forward and give me advice that I actually took and that changed my trajectory. So many helpful people did. There were also people who meant well and intended well, but [if I had listened to them], that would have changed what Drunk Elephant was.

Listen to your gut, follow your vision, stay true to who you are — or you won’t make it.

Do you have any advice for beauty entrepreneurs or small business owners?

A big lesson I learned in the beginning is that when you’re still small, yes, seek advice out from people who know more than you and people who have done that before, but also surround yourself in your immediate circle with people who are not from the industry. I was a stay-at-home mom [before starting Drunk Elephant]. I’d never been in the beauty industry. I live in Houston, Texas. So it was important for me just to focus on my vision and have people around me in that first year who weren’t from the beauty industry at all. We were all doing this together and approaching it with fresh eyes.

When and how did you decide to bring in key hires?

When I grew bigger and it came time to start thinking about selling the company, that’s when I really brought in industry veterans who had “been there, done that” for the part that I needed them for. To continue growing the brand and to help me scale up, they became super important.

How do you stay organized when running a company?

I’m sort of just fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants in that regard. I get it done, but I’m a procrastinator for sure, so I sometimes get it done last-minute. I’m also a perfectionist, so if I have to take five hours to hone in on something and get it done, I will.

Having to work from home with four children who were young, you have to force yourself [to stick to a schedule]. You wake up and you have a finite period of time with your children before they’re ready for school, then you have a set amount of time from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in which you have to get everything done. [I organize by thinking in] time blocks: This is what I’ve got to get done in the next hour, this is what’s going to happen the next hour.

Do you have a set morning routine?

Every morning I have the same routine. I wake up, I have my lemon water, I have a shake after that, I make sure the kids are up and gone to school, I sit and scroll through my emails and answer texts. I usually don’t have anything work-wise until 9 or 10 a.m., which is when my day starts with interviews and meetings with the creative team or the social team or the marketing team — all of these teams that you don’t want to lose touch with.

The company’s become so big now. [Post-acquisition], there are a lot of moving parts. You don’t want to lose touch with it. I try to focus on where my strength is, which is in creative, [product] development, marketing. And listen in on some of the financial stuff on occasion.

I wanted to act like a big brand even when I was a small brand.

Do you have any tips on hiring good people?

When I’m looking for good people, I look for shared values and people who were the best in the industry at what they did. Even if they don’t have the same expertise or strength or background, we all had to have this humble, kind, inclusive, not cocky [attitude]. There are a lot of people out there who approach growing the brand with a cocky [attitude], like, We’re the best. I just didn’t like that kind of personality because I wanted my culture to be happy and in harmony.

In my experience, you bring in the very best people that you can find. You shoot high. I wanted to act like a big brand even when I was a small brand. I kind of had this sense from the very beginning of Drunk Elephant. When Charles, my brother-in-law, was like, “You’ve got to cut costs here,” or “You can’t spend that kind of money there,” I was like, “Look, you’ve just got to trust me. We can’t cut corners, because if we do that, we’re that brand that cut corners. We’re going to act like a big brand as a baby brand and we’re just going to put everything into it.”

When it came time to hire executives, my CFO, my CMO, my CEO, it was the same mentality. We want the very best available. I never got away from that line of thinking.

How do you stay inspired?

I’m inspired every day, all day by just living my life and thinking, Oh wow, I could use this. I should make it. I’m always in the shoes of the consumer when I’m thinking [of my next product].

I’m a little bit of a health and wellness freak. I’m inspired by nutrition, for sure. I just love learning about what the skin and body actually respond to.

What do you think the beauty industry will look like five years from now?

When I launched Drunk Elephant, it was very much brand versus consumer and consumer versus brand because brands were untouchable. Now, they’re not. So we’re headed towards all sorts of accountability on ingredients, on everything from sustainability to formulation to even your workforce. Customers are demanding — they’ve got high standards for every single thing a brand does. A brand should [be], and is, held accountable for all of those things. The consumers, they are telling you what they need and want and what they don’t like. I think we’re just headed for more of that — better and more innovation and better formulations. It’s great.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.