Patti Pao embodies the real spirit of an entrepreneur. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and went on to obtain an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Having started her career in the beauty business and launched over 400 products for top brands including Avon, Elizabeth Arden, Guerlain, and Peter Thomas Roth, she has been at the forefront of game-changing product developments.
One of her many milestones was recognizing the power of glycolic acid and acquiring the exclusive rights to commercialize it early on. A true skincare pioneer, Patti identified an unmet need for gentler anti-aging products that deliver real results with minimal side effects.
While hiking through the pure fjords of western Norway, Patti toured the largest salmon hatchery and became transfixed by the hatchery workers' hands. While their faces betrayed their age, their hands looked much younger. The workers' hands were consistently submerged in water; Patti discovered that the secret was a novel enzyme hidden in the post-hatching water. This enzyme dissolves the egg shell membrane, creating an opening that enables the salmon fry to swim through unharmed. On human skin, the enzyme only dissolves dead skin cells leaving living cells intact.
Patti recognized a big opportunity to create an innovative anti-aging skincare line around this proprietary ingredient, Aquabeautine XL®, that provides the same benefits as other leading anti-aging superheros without harsh side effects. Fast forward to 2020, and the range of 17 Restorsea products is anchored by this proprietary (20-year exclusive rights) and patented (35 issued) enzyme released by salmon fry during the hatching process.
She prides herself on developing the only medical grade skincare line formulated with non-toxic ingredients, and without parabens, phthalates, PEGs, sulfates, silicones or mineral oil, and has received accolades from influencers and celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Emmy Rossum, and Justine Bateman. Restorsea is available through her website, and the Restorsea PRO collection is only available through licensed physicians.
Wendy Lewis talked to Patti to learn more about her journey to skincare success.
Who were some of your mentors throughout your career?
My dad Yih-Ho Michael was my mentor. He was an entrepreneur and visionary who founded and took three companies on the Nasdaq. My mom Joanne is the smartest person I know (with the greatest collection of Chanel), and embodies the way we all want to age by maintaining her youth and beauty and her mind. My co-founder Muneer Satter is also a great mentor to me. The universe gave him the ability to see six moves ahead of everyone.
How did you get your start in the aesthetics field?
I always wanted to work in beauty and fashion. I have worked since the age of 13 but never had any money because I always spent it on beauty products and shoes. In 1987 when I graduated from Harvard Business School, no one at that time believed that an HBS grad wanted to be in the beauty business. I was able to leverage the HBS extensive and active alumni network, and my job search led me to meet some of the most interesting people. I ended up getting 10 job offers the day before final exams. I accepted a position with Avon Products because I felt that their business model, which revolved around producing a brochure every two weeks, would provide sufficient structure to help me learn the business. While at Avon, I was fortunate to meet and be guided by three of the greatest dermatologists of the 20th century: Drs. James Leyden, Sheldon Pinnell, and Albert Kligman. These physicians taught me everything I know about skin.
What advice do you have for women who are rising stars in this industry?
I like to write in blocks of eight. In the Chinese culture, the number 8 stands for good luck and good fortune. So, I try to incorporate it in everything I do, including Restorsea’s fish logo.
Here are eight lessons I learned on the way to launching Restorsea:
1. Don’t Get Stuck in the Box. I develop beauty products for fun. I found the greatest ingredient I have ever seen, literally, by accident.
2. [Politely] Stalking is OK. I am wired to be bossy (which I guess is a good thing because Harvard Business School screens for bossiness). When I first started my consulting firm, the Pao Principle™, I thought good client service meant to not be bossy. I quickly learned that people like to be stalked, but politely. This is because people, including me, appreciate being pointed in the right direction. Everyone is doing a million things at warp speed. As an entrepreneur, time is your enemy. You can’t afford to wait around for someone to get back to you.
3. Don’t be Afraid to Put it Out There Even if it May be Half Baked. I am a perfectionist. Prior to starting Restorsea, I would never put anything out unless every “i” was dotted and every “t” was crossed. I learned that this is wrong. I spent one year developing a Day Cream and Eye Cream formula. When I finished, I sent the lab samples—which were untested, packaged in generic white plastic containers, in a Ziploc bag—to the Beauty Divisional Merchandise Manager at Bergdorf Goodman. A month later, she called me to say she would take my brand (which, by the way, still had no name). Because of her endorsement, we received multiple distribution offers. Restorsea started with fantastic formulas and that was it. From that point forward, I realized that you can wait forever to be perfect and not go anywhere, or you can just figure it out as you go along.
4. But, You Still Need to Write Your Business Plan. Once I secured distribution, I needed to raise money, which necessitated writing a business plan. I always cringe when I hear people saying, “I don’t have to write a business plan. It’s in my head.” I want to be clear that writing a business plan is not for your potential investors; it is for you. Writing everything down helps solidify your ideas so that you can answer their questions concisely and gracefully in extremely pressure-filled environments. Interestingly, my co-founder and most of my investors never even read the Restorsea business plan until after they committed to funding. Tip: Read the Harvard Business Review article: “How to Write a Great Business Plan” by William Sahlman.
5. Be Ready with an Elevator Pitch. Prospective investors are usually financiers, and financiers by nature are always in a hurry. They hate idle chit chat. They want you to make your point and move on. While having a well thought out and concise business plan with a supporting financial model will enable you to do this, I found it helpful to write out the highlights and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
6. Know that Your Business Plan Will Be Wrong. Business plans provide general direction but, because startups are ever-changing (the only thing you can count on is change), I make it a practice to rewrite our business plan every four to six months. While very thorough and comprehensive, we use it as a guide, recognizing that daily circumstances evolve, and we need to be able to react quickly.
7. It is very hard to Take Other People’s Money. The one thing they don’t tell you in the entrepreneur’s handbook is how hard it is to take other people’s money. Or rather, it is easy to take other people’s money, but it is very hard and stressful to lose it. For Restorsea, I have two goals: 1.) to make Restorsea a self-sustaining brand and 2.) to deliver all of my investors a minimum 10X return on their investment. If you have to raise outside capital, try to raise it from private individuals. Unlike institutional funds from venture capital and private equity firms, they are not pressured to deliver a short-term return.
8. Help People Just Because... I believe you need to help people without expecting anything in return. We found our lead investor as a result of this philosophy. One of my interns was looking to secure an interview for a summer job with a major consulting firm. I asked one of our investors to introduce her to a friend who was the head of a Chicago firm. As an aside to her email, she mentioned her investment in my company. Her friend immediately wrote back and said he would help secure an interview for my intern, expressed interest in finding out more about my company, and referred us to a fellow Harvard Business School classmate. The email exchange was fast and furious, and I met him for lunch the next day. During a two-hour lunch, he asked me to fly to Chicago with him to meet his wife and daughters. I flew with him to Chicago and had dinner with him and his wife. During dessert, they committed to funding the entire company.
How would your colleagues describe your management style?
I think they would say that I am very hands-on. I found that in order to be effective, I need to be able to pull all of the levers. This enables me to be able to constantly improve. So, I do everything except batch, fill, and assemble the products.
Name a quote or quotes that best describe your philosophy
I live by these quotes every day.
My father’s greatest advice; “Do what you love, don’t do it for the money.”
My mother’s best advice; “Keep going no matter what and look your best at all times.”
My Restorsea co-founder Muneer Satter’s best advice; “When you are in a hole, just stop digging.”