March 01, 2017
Strategy Meets Passion at Origami Owl
by Heather Martin
Headquarters: Chandler, Arizona
Top Executive: CEO Brett Blake
Products: Custom jewelry and accessories
Brett Blake is kinda hard core. He built his corporate muscle marketing products with names like Body Beast, TurboJam and Rev3—products that sound like they do not mess around.
In mid-2015 Blake became CEO of Origami Owl, which creates the Upsey Daisey Living Locket and the Rubber Duck Sparkle Charm, among other delicate, glittery pieces. These products aren’t messing around, either. Blake has just found his softer side.
“When I came to Origami Owl, I came with a tainted perspective,” said Blake, who has worked for notable giants in direct selling. “It seems a little girly for a guy like me. But I was so impressed with the founders.” Bella Weems and her mother, Chrissy, had built a custom jewelry company that was generating a lot of attention and revenue in an emerging direct selling space. But to Blake, they still seemed grounded in purpose and connected to their Origami Owl team.
Before he took the job, Blake and his wife attended a potluck at Origami Owl headquarters, called “the nest.” And he remembers Chrissy and Bella introducing him to almost everyone, by name, in the room—whether they worked in an office or on the product line. “You can change almost anything about a business,” he says. “But what’s almost impossible to change is the intentionality of the founders. I wanted to be part of that.”
Blake is now part of a company that may be 180 degrees from what he’s used to, but it’s a strong, growing, and diversifying company, and one that is serious about changing some rules in direct selling.
Companies founded by two mother-daughter teams join forces: Origami Owl’s Chrissy and Bella Weems (left) with willa’s Willa Doss and Christy Prunier.
Perhaps Origami Owl was a game changer to begin with. Founded in 2010, the startup caught the public’s eye partly because of the novelty of its young co-founder, Bella, who was just 14 when she started selling custom lockets that she and her family assembled at their kitchen table. (She wanted a car, and mom and dad said she had to find a way to pay for it.) The rest is quick history: In just seven years, Origami Owl has attracted more than 45,000 independent consultants, called Designers, and has become a “family of brands” with the 2016 acquisition of the willa teen skincare company.
“We began as a company full of passion and had little strategy, and evolved to a company full of strategy and had little passion, but we’re starting to find a balance,” says Chrissy Weems. “Our new CEO is very strategic about creating a company with the capability of leveraging the passion of our founders.”
She says that early on the company’s strategy had been to hire anyone they could and to do whatever possible to meet early demands. “Survival was our strategy and with time we found more experienced help and evolved to what we are today. We are certainly state-of-the-art from a fulfillment and operations stand point.”
Origami Owl declined to disclose current revenue for this story, but the company reported $250 million in sales for 2014, putting it at No. 60 on 2015’s DSN Global 100. Executives are eager to discuss the company’s product expansion, though, which is coming from an increase in marketing, more frequent product launches, and, most recently, the merger with willa.
The company wasn’t necessarily on the hunt for an acquisition when it started talking with willa, Blake says. But with similar founder stories—willa also was created by a mother-daughter team, Christy Prunier and her daughter, Willa Doss—and similar desires to make a difference in women’s and girls’ lives, the match started to make sense. “There was such a fun, immediate association,” Blake says. “We really wanted to empower Willa and her mother,” Weems adds. “So much of it happened so organically and beautifully.”
Within a few months, the deal was done and this past January, the Origami Owl Family of Brands announced via Facebook Live that it is launching the Willing Beauty skin care line for women. Willing Beauty, which will include the teen-focused willa line, won’t be in Beauty Advisors’ hands until April—but in its first nine days, the pre-launch drive drew more than 5,000 inquiries from potential Willing Beauty Advisors.
And this is where the direct selling right turn comes in, Blake says. About 10 percent of those inquiries are likely from Origami Owl Designers, according to JD Powers research. And the company has figured out a way for all Designers to represent both businesses at once, something nearly unheard of in direct selling, he says.
“ ‘If you’re a distributor in one company, you can’t be successful in working another company.’ This has been a tradition in direct selling forever,” Blake says. “But it would be against our values to not let our Origami Owl leaders participate.” And through the concept of social sharing they can, Weems adds.
Here’s how it will work: Willing Beauty Advisors will spend less time selling and more time sharing skincare intelligence via video on Facebook. “In our space, there are a ton of people trying to move into social media,” Blake says. “But they’re just selling their stuff over and over to the same group of people. Instead of asking our field to go out and sell stuff, we provide them information that other people will find valuable.” Blake adds that these videos will not feature Willing Beauty products. They simply will be shared by Willing Beauty consultants. “If we share content that others find valuable and we respect their intelligence and don’t try to veil an ad, then eventually they’ll reciprocate and want to know more,” and they’ll want to buy.
Weems and Blake explain that Origami Owl has built a back-end bench of skincare specialists to create and answer questions about the content and a team of people led by a QVC home shopping specialist to handle the sales.
“Our Beauty Advisors don’t have to be the product experts,” Blake says. “But the transaction will be credited to the Beauty Advisor who shared the information.”
Weems says she believes this will lower any perceived barriers for consultants who are inexperienced in skin care or social media or both. “We make it easy for them,” she says. “They don’t have to close the sale. They’re sharing content; we do a lot of the hard work for them.”
Origami Owl Designers who want to continue to sell jewelry online and at in-home parties, called Jewelry Bars, will continue to do so. “Origami Owl is all about helping someone tell their often personal stories, and I think that lends itself to more face-to-face engagement,” Weems says. She adds that Willing Beauty has intentionally been built to be more social. “In part, this is because we feel like we had to avoid anything that would require those Designers who are working both businesses to be away from home more. We aren’t so concerned about channel conflict, and have more of a desire to respect the personal time of our field.”
Among the product experts Origami Owl has assembled for this new venture is beauty industry veteran and willa CEO Annette McEvoy, who has been doing a lot of the hard work of directing Willing Beauty’s development and launch as its new CEO. McEvoy—who has been a creative force behind such brands as L’Oréal, Revlon and Bath & Body Works—is still new to direct selling but says she’s all in.
“This is a whole industry I hadn’t had my eye on” before willa—which started on retail shelves but became a direct sales product—McEvoy says. “I do like to sell products to millions of women,” she continues. This is simply a different way to deliver them. Not that simple means easy. “You have to appeal to the consultants emotionally to convince them to pick this up as a business. You have to completely woo them to you.”
But McEvoy is confident that Beauty Advisors will fall in love with what she and her team have created. Aside from its patented “HY+5 Complex” blend of ingredients—including vitamin C, alpine edelweiss flower, prickly pear cactus seed oil, marine glycoproteins, deep sea hydrothermal enzymes and hyaluronic acid—Willing Beauty is designed to be more accessible than other brands, she says. “Usually skin care is white, antiseptic and clinical. You walk down the aisle, and it’s like medicine.” Willing Beauty packaging is light blue and stamped with a gold heart, and the products have “more inviting” names, McEvoy says, such as “Do Over Nourishing Cleanser” and “Partner in Time Age-Defying Night Serum.”
The process of integrating willa into Origami Owl has been smooth, Blake says. willa was still relatively small when it joined Origami Owl—bringing with it just 500 consultants and several thousand customers. Because Origami Owl had the technology, distribution, and call center infrastructure in place, though, the operational ramp-up time for Willing Beauty has been short. But it’s the complementary cultures and shared visions that have made the real difference, Blake and Weems say.
Both companies believe in creating opportunities for women and teens to help develop confidence and independence. So as Origami Owl absorbs willa, Origami Owl’s Owlette program, which empowers youth ages 12 to 17, is combining with the willa Girls program. Aside from providing an avenue for young women to make money, the Owlette curriculum teaches the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and focuses on self-development.
“This is our way of being able to engage adult women in our mission of helping young people,” Blake says. “It’s a mistake that we haven’t been more vocal about that intention.”
Origami Owl also gives back through its philanthropic venture, Force For Good, which in 2016 donated $1.15 million to charitable causes—causes spotlighted on the company’s story platform, livesparkly.com. Willing Beauty’s social focus, the Willing Heart Project, will raise money to support single mothers struggling to care for their families.
While Willing Beauty is the hot topic around headquarters these days, “we definitely don’t want to take our foot off the gas at Origami Owl,” Blake says. In his 18-month tenure, he has accelerated the number of new product offerings—including the Sentiments Collection, a line of wearable pure essential oil Living Lockets—from twice a year to 12 times a year. And in keeping with his embrace of the soft side, Blake says he is thrilled with the sustained financial success of a recent licensing partnership with Dreamworks, through which Origami Owl has produced charms of characters in the movie Trolls.
“I’ve seen so many partnerships in the direct selling space,” he says. “And it seems like the apex is at the time of the partnership. Origami Owl has had a Major League Baseball partnership and a partnership with the NCAA—and those were exciting and had some positive sales early on. They didn’t necessarily have staying power.” The Dreamworks deal is just the beginning, Blake continues. “We have had other studios approach us—you will see more from us on a licensing basis.”
Blake also is eager to expand geographically. Origami Owl launched in Canada in 2015, “and we have our eye on other foreign opportunities,” he says.
McEvoy agrees that international growth is a smart move. “Willing Beauty could be a very big company and have a number of lines. My experience is that a really good product line developed in the U.S. works in the European Union, and the concept of it can work in Asia, as well.” She adds that developing color cosmetics could be a natural step sometime in the future too.
Blake says it’s also possible that Origami Owl will continue to grow through acquisition. “I’m not ruling out any in the future,” he says. “But I can say there isn’t anything on the horizon. Right now, we’re hoping this Willing Beauty company will be a really long-term and large growth opportunity.”
No matter what happens, Weems says one thing won’t change. “We want to be a global force for good,” she says. “We don’t have a number associated with that, but we sure believe our reach will be far wider than North America and we’ll be successful if we export the same commitment to leaving people better off who engage with us.