Trymbl wants to be the Warby Parker of beauty products

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on July 8, 2013

From The News Desk

So far no one's succeeded at doing for e-commerce beauty products what Warby Parker did for glasses: free samples that consumers can try before buying. Companies like Birchbox ship monthly subscription beauty boxes, but consumers don't pick which samples they receive. Some brands offer limited samples of a couple products while a rare few offer their whole line, but there's no one-stop shop for beauty samples covering a wide range. Perhaps this helps explain why the beauty industry does more than $60 billion in sales annually but only 4.5% of it online. It seems there is that rarest of animals: an untapped market.

Trymbl, a new startup set to launch in August but is already in beta, wants to change that - sort of. Trymbl sells high-end/organic products and "invited" users can sample 95 percent them for free. Who's an invited user? Well, that's the catch. Trymbl uses a data filtering system it calls Fanery to identify likely product purchasers from sample freeloaders. Only those selected can become coveted invited members. Once a user is picked she's in for life and can sample three returnable products a month, choosing from 400 products and 25 brands like Sasy n Savy, Purely Pro, and Niki St. Pierre – largely upscale/organic products usually not found in mainstream department stores. Trymbl wants to make ends meet by taking a cut of sales, the amount depending on the partnership it has with each brand.

Two women - Mona Bajwa and Arshiya Shaikh - started Trymbl, and as with many startups the company sprang from their own frustrations. Since they were too busy to shop at stores they shopped online, but they couldn't use much of what they ordered (think: acne breakouts, dracula lipstick, greasy hair). Unreturnable, the products rolled forgotten to the back of their makeup drawers, which rapidly housed beauty graveyards. So Bajwa and Shaikh launched their own company.

Research soon revealed why no one had tried this sample-first strategy before: the curse of the freebie seeker. Free-loaders would order massive samples without ever buying a single bottle. Companies could drop thousands of dollars on publicity sample giveaways, only to find out later through surveying that most of their samples didn't go to their target audience.

So the women adjusted their business model by catering to women seeking high end, organic products. Anyone could browse their site and buy, but as customers clicked on each section (makeup, personal care, maternity, and baby) they would be prompted to answer a few questions about their preferences (what type of ingredients do you prefer? organic, toxin-free, oil-free, paraben-free?). Through a computer filtering system, certain customers would be flagged as high-end users. Product managers (the startup is still small so said 'managers' are currently the co-founders) sort through those who have been flagged and choose some to receive an invitation to join Trymbl and sample products for free.

If Trymbl succeeds, they will have learned a potentially lucrative answer to a question that plagues beauty brands: "How do we get our samples to our target audience?" Trymbl's creators believe they'll be able to use their "Fanery" data system to hand select those people. As users browse the site, answer questions about what kind of beauty products they like, purchase items or put things on their wish list, Fanery will classify them as a mass shopper, premium shopper, or luxury shopper. The co-founders claim the system can spot the much despised freebie seeker.

"We work with our brand partners who are producing these products at a cost," says co-founder Pachisia. "It's not free to them, and its not free to us, and it's not free to ship. So we have to look at where the best use of a product is - ultimately leading to conversion."

The startup will also be rolling out what it calls a beauty eco-system: dermatologists on hand to write columns about the latest skin research, video tutorials on makeup application, and products and experts in the same place. They've started to recruit their bloggers, but that side of the site isn't live yet. Their goal, in co-founder Bajwa's words, "We want to make sure we're presenting the right products for the right women who are actually serious buyers and are looking for that information."

It's a risky proposition, and one that Trymbl won't be able to fully test until it officially launches. Presumably savvy users might learn how to 'game' the system, get 'invited' and have access to free samples. If so, Trymbl will have to find a new way of differentiating between the freebie seekers and the target audience. To make money, the startup will also need to build up a base of users who are buying products through the site without 'waiting' to be chosen as premium members. If the Internet has taught us anything, it's that consumers don't like to wait for things they want now.

The venture also doesn't sound entirely environmentally friendly. For 70 percent of the products, Trymbl's brand partners wouldn't offer sample sized, so Trymbl will send the customer the entire, regular-sized product bottle. Customers can test it, and if they don't like it they return it at no cost…where it will meet its untimely demise in Trymbl's warehouse trash because most beauty and health products are not reusable (the fluid at least - the bottle will be recycled if it's made of recyclable material). Products with one way tube wall packaging are donated to women's shelters or returned to the brand for display/sampling purposes in retail stores.

That said, properly disposing is better than the inevitable products languishing in a drawer  until tossed wholesale into dumpster. That is, unfortunately, the current state of affairs for any bad online beauty product purchase.

As for who pays for the waste, Trymbl splits the bill with the beauty brands. According to Pachisia this isn't as costly as you might think because beauty products only cost 10% to 20% of the retail price. Like fashion, makeup is a high-margin business.

In some ways Trymbl seeks to become the Zappos of high-end beauty - no risk to the consumer, all reward, shop from my living room. It sounds lovely. But the odds seem stacked against it. Trymbl might find a niche audience among wealthy consumers who prioritize organic products, but will its "invite only" sample system attract enough customers to set them apart?