She is reimagining the entire enterprise of selling beauty merchandise to women, from product design to the transaction experience. During her four years at Starbucks, Jane Park developed a keen understanding of just how crucial the happiness of the customer is at every turn. "It's about thinking through every step of the customer journey," she says.
When she launched Julep, Park's first move was to open a small chain of beauty parlors. These brick-and-mortar outposts—carefully designed to encourage social interaction via communal spaces with movable furniture—function as mini labs in which to test products on actual customers. Park trained facialists and vernisseurs (a term that is to manicurist as barista is to coffee pourer) to listen closely to reactions and report back. Julep uses that info to tweak details such as colors, packaging, and scents.
After Julep launched its own e-commerce site in December 2011, it expanded the test-lab concept into the digital sphere. The company now has a core group of about 5,000 customers, known as the Idea Lab, who've been culled from interactions over social media and website feedback. Mavens, as members of the lab are called, get weekly emails with questions both broad ("What is the thing you like least about your mascara?") and narrow ("Which of the following scents would you want your body milk to smell like?"), all a natural extension of the conversations started in those parlors. "Whenever we could do something that involved input, we let the lab know. It's the spiritual testing core of our brand," says Park. Lab feedback can be brutally honest; only about a third of the concepts Julep initiates make it to market. "The idea of failing fast has been part of our DNA."
The concept of focus-grouping new products is hardly revolutionary, of course. There isn't a beauty company on earth that doesn't do some version of it. But Julep has an unusually close relationship with its testers, making them feel as if they're part of the company rather than anonymous guinea pigs behind a one-way mirror. The idea is to create a community—and a deeply loyal customer base. "We feel like product development and marketing are one step," says Park. "When we're testing something, we're actually also kind of marketing it at the same time."
For an example of how this all works, take Julep's most recent innovation, the Plié Wand. Park had long noticed how hard it was for lay manicurists to paint their own nails, especially with their nondominant hand. Park hired Silicon Valley design firm Ideo to crack the problem, and together they created 230 prototypes in an attempt to replace that hopelessly unergonomic application brush that's come atop bottles of nail polish from time immemorial.
Finally they found a solution that seemed promising, and Park sent out the bat signal to the Idea Lab, inviting nearby Mavens to drop by Ideo's Palo Alto offices for some experimenting. One of them was a fan named Erin Herbison. "When you get to see everything that a company puts into its product and how passionate the people are, it really builds a brand loyalty," says Herbison. "Plus it's fun to brag that you got to meet Jane." Eventually Julep settled on a magnetic, weighted applicator extension that could bend for precision and comfort. The plan is to introduce the product online and at pop-up stores, and if customers like it, the Plié Wand could go into wider production later in 2014.
Julep's next jump is to take the Idea Lab bigger. An upcoming site revamp should make it easier to join in, and a new app will make feedback and other interaction easier. Park is excited to see what happens once that 5,000-person army gets multiplied. "We are always looking to make the experience incrementally better," she says. "The world isn't stagnant. There's new technology and innovation all the time. If you can continue to improve, you should."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.