How Hero Cosmetics’ CEO made once-shameful pimple patches a Gen Z status symbol

The cofounder and CEO of Hero Cosmetics might be best known for Mighty Patch, the ubiquitous barely-there pimple patch you may see on people’s faces everywhere from the grocery store, to the office, to a night on the town.

“When you have acne, you feel more insecure, you feel more introverted, you feel like everyone is staring at your face,” Rhyu, 45, told Fortune. “The products and solutions we offer really do work and really do save the day. It was really important for me to have something punchy, positive, and emotional.”

Hero emerged after Rhyu’s two-year stint in Korea for work, a country where skincare is decades ahead, and where pimple patches in public have been entirely normalized. With a pair of cofounders at her side and just $50,000, Rhyu sold her first set of Mighty Patches on Amazon for $12.99 in 2017. By 2022, the brand had notched $100 million in sales, and was acquired by consumer products powerhouse Church and Dwight for $630 million. 

In the latest installment of Secrets to Success, Rhyu told Fortune how her time at Fortune 500 brands informed her leadership, why she puts her pimple patches in the cosmetic aisle (rather than their natural home in the Band-Aid aisle), what Korean skincare knows that American beauty doesn’t, and why her company keeps its branding simple and translucent instead of neon and star-shaped.

The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What is Hero Cosmetics?

It’s a functional skin solutions brand focused on acne. We’re best-known for the “money patch” hydrocolloid acne patches. 

Where did you grow up, and what did your parents do?

I grew up in Seattle, Washington. My dad was a pretty successful entrepreneur, and I grew up with that inspiration in my life, and it fed a lot of my desire to be an entrepreneur one day. 

We were very comfortable. My dad was in the log-export business. He was a log broker, which is why we lived in Seattle, Washington. He also did a few things in real estate, and he was very business-minded. I always grew up with the desire and the ambition to follow in his footsteps and try to be as financially successful as possible.

In high school, I played tennis, I was on my high school tennis team and I worked at the tennis club where I was taking lessons. I had the usual odd jobs here and there. I did sales, for example, at a department store during my summers away from college.

I went to college at Brown University and I studied history and international relations. I actually tried to start a business while I was in college, a design agency called Three P’s. So again, I think that [entrepreneurial] desire was always there, but I never really had that strong idea until Hero Cosmetics. 

My first professional job after college was at a nonprofit called the Epiphany School, a charter school in Dorchester, Massachusetts. I worked in a fundraising capacity in the Development Office, which actually, at the end of the day, is really a sales and marketing job. That was my first job.

I actually graduated into two recessions, the first one being in 2001, and the second one being in 2008. My career has definitely not been linear. After that nonprofit job, right after undergrad, I wanted to go into business. I didn’t want to do something in marketing. That’s when I ended up applying to Columbia Business School. 

I started in 2006, and then I did my internship at Kraft Foods, Mondelez, in consumer packaged goods. I did an internship in brand management. I worked on the Planters Peanuts brand. From there, I went full-time at American Express. And then I got recruited to work for Samsung in Korea as an expat for two years. That experience of living in Korea for two years is where I first used a hydrophilic acne patch, which eventually became the inspiration for my new passion, Hero Cosmetics.

I always joke that I worked at some of the world’s biggest brands—Kraft Foods, Mondelez, American Express, and Samsung Electronics—and then ended up starting an indie skincare brand. 

Hydrocolloid patches were very popular in Korea? 

This was back in 2012 and 2014. Those are the two years I spent in Korea—12 years ago. I was 35. Korea is really known in the beauty industry to be very ahead of the curve in terms of beauty, innovation, and adoption. 

Back in 2012, people were already wearing them out in public. I would see people wearing them at the office, and I asked them what they were for and was told that they were for breakouts. I was suffering from a bunch of breakouts at that time. 

I went to a pharmacy, I tried one, and it changed my skincare routine because it works so much better than anything I had used before. I put it on at night, and by morning, it got all that gunk out. My breakout was visibly and noticeably improved. Immediately I knew more people needed to know about it. And I actually saw from some of my research that people were wanting this type of product, so that became the inspiration for what is now Mighty Patch. 

What was the branding like for the patches in Korea? Were they specifically branded for your face?

There were a lot of options back then. You could find some at pharmacies that were more medical or clinical-oriented. And then there were some you could buy at Olive Young, which is the Korean version of Sephora, which were a little bit more fun and cosmetic- and beauty-oriented. So there were two types of brands out there.

Growing up, I always had occasional breakouts. I never had severe acne, but at the worst moments, I would always have that breakout in the most embarrassing place on my face, like right on my nose or between my eyebrows. Like most people, I was always searching for a solution to get a better handle on my breakouts and acne. 

I used every single possibility out there. I went to dermatologists, used toothpaste, used the pink creams, and nothing really worked, because a lot of those products can actually be very drying on your skin. That’s why I really love the hydrocolloid acne patches because they are tough on the problem but gentle on your skin—and they’re just so easy to use and very effective.

Prior to finding out about these patches, were you ever into dermatology before?

I wasn’t really into beauty or skincare. I actually learned about it a lot when I lived in Seoul for those two years. I learned about double cleansing and the different types of products and formats. My education started when I lived there, and then of course, now I’m in the beauty world, so I pay attention quite a bit. 

Why do you position the patches in the beauty section instead of the Band-Aid section?

I credit a lot of my success at Hero Cosmetics to my corporate experience. I learned a lot of things at Kraft Foods and Mondelez and American Express that I really still use to this day. One of them is really paying attention to consumer behavior. 

One of the consumer behaviors I noticed was that the hydrocolloid-patch format was actually already around for quite a long time, but they were in the Band-Aid aisle. And if you think about it, your breakout can be considered a type of wound, but there was nothing, at that time, in the beauty section. 

And really the idea was, can we take this hydrocolloid bandage that sits in the Band-Aid aisle, and make something very specific to acne? I had already seen that people were buying the big bandages and cutting them up into small squares or small shapes and putting them all over their face. The behavior was already there; people were buying them in one aisle, but using them for a beauty concern. And that was really the insight of, hey, I think we can turn this into a beauty product and really market something that’s specific for acne.

How did you end up creating your first product?

I created the first product pretty quickly, actually. I had contacted more than 10 hydrocolloid-patch manufacturers while I was in Korea, but only two responded. Of those two, the one that we ended up working with, we still work with today. They’re obviously a really important partner to our business, and we worked with them to really develop what is now known as the Mighty Patch. 

How old were you when the first product came out?

We launched the business in 2017. I was around 37. 

How much did you start out selling your products for?

We priced our initial product, which was the 36-count Mighty Patch, at $12.99. The pricing actually was kind of an accident, because we were selling on Amazon, and there were already some players that were a lot cheaper—around $5. And I actually wanted to price our products at $9.99. 

But the funny story is we couldn’t get Amazon Prime, and we were playing around with different things to see how we could unlock Prime. One of the ways was to increase our price to $12.99, and then that pricing just stuck. 

Why did you decide to start selling them on Amazon?

It was strategic, but also a very practical decision. Back then, I didn’t really know that Amazon was poo-pooed upon by a lot of players in the beauty industry. But for us, I saw that the consumer was already buying this type of product on Amazon. 

So again, there were a few other acne-patch players on Amazon at the time—not as many as today—but I saw that people were buying this type of product on Amazon, and the demand and the behavior was there. So it made a lot of sense for us to try it out. It was also the easiest, fastest, and cheapest, and we were bootstrapped. 

It didn’t take a lot of money, investment, or resources to get up and running. You can get up and running, probably, in a day if you have the right images and copy. Amazon was a place for us to test and learn and to validate the thesis that people would really be into this type of product and this type of brand. 

You mentioned there were a few other acne patch players; why do you think Mighty Patch in particular became so successful?

We’re still, even to this day, the number-one acne patch brand in the US. I think we have a superior product. We own a very special formula, and people can discern the difference between ours and our competition. 

We have a brand that really resonates with a lot of people because it’s very inclusive and emotional. A lot of people can identify with our messaging and content. In the beginning, we actually only launched the patches, but I wanted to expand out very quickly into different product types. 

I wanted to do a wash-off face mask, but someone told me to stick to patches, and do them in every shape, and every size for every need—just dominate this category. And I thought she was right, so that’s what we did. I think that expertise in this one category really led us to create a lot of trust, and it’s a big reason why we’re still number one.

How long did it take for your products to sell out?

The first purchase order for the brand was around 10,000 units, which we sold through in about 90 days. The launch and the uptick for us was pretty quick.

Can you describe your customer base?

It’s predominantly women. When we started Hero Cosmetics, the branding was actually very gender-inclusive. That was very intentional, because I wanted this brand to be for anybody and everybody who broke out. It wasn’t just for women, it wasn’t just for men. It was really for everybody. But interestingly, as we launched and built the business, the primary consumer ended up being more female. I don’t have the latest stats, but I think it’s around 75% female. They still are the largest consumer of most beauty brands and beauty products, ours included.

How did you fundraise to start the company?

We actually did not fundraise. Back in 2017, that was very against the grain. I tell people that sometimes zigging when others are zagging can work to your benefit. Back then, large funding rounds and raising VC dollars was very trendy. We did not do that; we decided to bootstrap. 

We have two co-founders, and all three of us put our own money into the business. The philosophy was: This business needs to stand on its own two feet. This product needs to be cash flow positive and profitable. So we were very, very efficient with our dollars. In total, I think we launched with about $50,000 between us.

Some other companies have now created acne patches with a very bright design? What’s Hero’s strategy behind keeping its patches transparent?

There is a lot of competition in the category now, and I actually credit a lot of it to our success. Some brands have colors and shapes and are more fun. We haven’t done that; we maintain that transparent, more discreet patch format. 

We’ve done that very intentionally to be inclusive and accommodate everyone, from the 14-year-old to people in their 50s. I think the way that we can do it is to be discreet. We acknowledge that the bright colors and shapes may work for some people, but it won’t work for everybody. We launched with the more translucent, discreet patches, and we’re the experts in it. That’s sort of our thing. 

You’ve mentioned that you believe a lot of these other companies created pimple patches due to Mighty Patch’s success. 

My thoughts on competition are: A rising tide lifts all boats. I think we’re all creating this category together. It’s a new category, a new product format, and I welcome other players because the education they do in the marketplace really helps us all. 

It’s become pretty common to see people wearing patches out in public. Why do you think people are feeling so comfortable doing so?

When I see people wearing acne patches out in public, I actually feel really proud about what we’ve done. I was really trying to make acne more acceptable and really talk more positively about acne and understanding that it’s no big deal. So many Americans, and really people all over the world, break out from time to time. 

I think over 60 million Americans will have acne at some point. So I love seeing people wear them to the office or just out and about, because I think what it means to me is we’ve done our job and broken down the taboo aspect of acne and made it okay to be almost proud of it.

It’s also very popular for people to wear pimple patches on social media. What’s that impact been on the business?

Social media, for us, obviously has been such a key factor in our rise as a brand and as a business. Especially in terms of educating the market, because, again, it’s a new product category and a new product format and education was really key. So social media, Instagram and TikTok—we call it the magic moment. The magic moment is when you peel off the patch and can show how well it works on social media. That shock factor of, oh my god, look at all that gunk. That type of content goes viral a lot, and that virality helps with education. Social media, obviously, has been so crucial to the success of our business.

What was the process of creating the Mighty Patch formula? How many tests did you have to go through until you found the perfect one?

We relied a lot on our manufacturer for the formula, which many beauty brands do. It was a formula that has been perfected over the years. Every brand has their own formula for making the hydrocolloid gel, and we found what we felt was the right balance in terms of adhesion, and efficacy, and something that was discreet enough to be wearable in public. I think we landed on the right one. 

Why and how did you choose the name Hero Cosmetics?

When we were starting the brand, it was really important to me that we have a name that was both emotional and positive, because from my personal experience, when you have acne, you feel more insecure, you feel more introverted, you feel like everyone is staring at your face. And the products and solutions we offer really do work and really do save the day. It was really important for me to have something punchy, positive, and emotional. 

When we came up with Mighty Patch, I just knew that was a perfect name. It connected the power and the strength and was sort of whimsical. The Hero Cosmetics name is because we wanted our products to be the ‘hero products’ in people’s everyday skincare routines.

When did you actually start creating different products? 

I never wanted Hero to be just a patch business or patch brand. It’s funny; the downside of being so strong in this patch category is sometimes people think that our brand name is Mighty Patch. But actually, the brand name is Hero and Mighty Patch is just a product, and we do have other products. I always wanted to create an acne brand and acne-care brand that was a full solution. 

For a daily-care treatment, we have something that we refer to as “Repair and Restore.” And actually, what we see in our business is that most people come through the Mighty Patch franchise. We acquire brands through the Mighty Patch product, but a lot of people are so satisfied with that experience that we ended up cross-selling and upselling across our portfolio. 

But we do have a suite. We have a toner, we have a cleansing balm, we have the rescue balm franchise, and we have a lot of other products. And so we welcome people through Mighty Patch, and then we introduce them to the other suite of products from there on.

I never wanted Hero Cosmetics to be just a patch business or a patch brand. Mighty Patch is our most well-known franchise. We did start with them. We are the experts in this category. It’s amazing to see how we built the Mighty Patch as an acquisition engine into the brand for consumers and it lets us introduce them to our entire suite of other products.

Do you have a perspective on work-life balance?

I think when you’re an entrepreneur, it’s less about balance, and more about work-life integration. For example, I was living in Paris for six years. And there’s a six-hour time difference between New York, where our business is based, and Paris. Luckily, over there, we ate late, at 8pm. But I would not take meetings or calls after dinner. I told the team, I’d respond to emails or Slacks, but I wouldn’t take calls.  

For me, it’s really just about finding a schedule that works for you. It’ll be different for everyone. I don’t think we can expect anyone to be on all the time, 24/7. Setting those guardrails is healthy for everybody.

What’s your philosophy on remote work? Do you find it challenging to have a group of predominantly remote employees?

I like remote work. I work from home, but I do go to the New York office from time to time. My philosophy is that you need a balance of both. I would find it difficult if you’re 100% remote all the time, because I think culture is really important, and it’s hard to build culture online. 

The other thing I don’t like about remote work is that I don’t get to build relationships with people. If you’re just on a screen, I don’t really talk to you, which, to me, is kind of sad. But when I go to the office, I love having casual watercooler conversations, like: What did you do this weekend? Any new restaurants you’ve checked out? I love doing that with people who I might not have meetings with on a daily basis. For me, it’s both. I think both are great. 

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