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Bona Clara CEO Jasmina Aganovic Explains Age-Based Skincare

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There's a new skin expert in town. Bona Clara has introduced a line that changes the way we look at our daily regimen, and this innovative premise of age-based care has its roots here in Boston. Founder/CEO and MIT graduate Jasmina Aganovic found her flow at neighboring local beauty brands Fresh and Living Proof before stepping out on her own. Aganovic's direct-selling model encourages further entrepreneurship among women nationwide, a further testimony to the smarts behind the line. Like many other ladies, we wanted to know the real reason for using a toner and what exactly collagen and elastin have to do with anything, so naturally, we took the opportunity to inquire.

What is your take on why skincare isn't one size fits all? When did you decide to look into this age-based concept?
The story starts when I was in college at MIT studying chemical and biological engineering and one of my big research projects was doing an antibiotic ear formulation for little kids with an ear drop. What does that have to do with skincare? Nothing. But we tested it on human skin for parameters like irruption and absorption, so after six months of experimentation my results weren't making any sense. I figured that I need to group my data.

The first thing I did was group the samples by male and female skin. My results were still inconclusive. Then I decided to group by age, and once I segmented it by decades, everything started to fall in super neat little categories. That was interesting to me because I didn't know that age affected things so much, even more than gender. The visual difference even between 20s skin and 40s skin is pretty dramatic, and the cells themselves.

It stuck with me because the industry doesn't really teach that. I worked in the industry for a few years and then decided to do a little more research on what happens in the skin by age and it is different biological processes going on—not just the collagen and elastin, but also melanin, the rate of cellular regeneration, the moisture barrier—which all change as we move from one age group to another. Our skincare routine should adjust for that.

What made you leap into creating your first line, Stages of Beauty, and then Bona Clara?
I worked with great brands like Fresh, where I learned about formulating natural products from Lev and Alina themselves, then I worked for Living Proof doing some R&D, which was very scientific for hair. I enjoyed the education behind brands, so when I launched Stages of Beauty the goal wasn't just age specific care but an educational line. That launched in 2011, and in its first year we did about 200,000 customers—really exciting for me and definitely not anything that I expected.

What I decided to do was look at what resonated with women who repeatedly purchased the products to get a better sense of what they enjoyed about the brand, which is how the word of mouth component came to me. Customers were talking to their friends about the products but also the education behind them. I offered them commissions for continuing to do what they were already doing, and it was very gratifying to give back to them. It felt like a partnership.

We started doing that Q4 of 2011. I wanted them to succeed so I started creating newsletter, videos, and communicating to help train them. By the end of the year it was a business opportunity. Starting in 2012 was when we dedicated ourselves to this concept of Bona Clara, which is separate from Stages of Beauty, to really empower women to start their own businesses. I hope to develop it into its own full-fledged beauty brand with hair products and color cosmetics. This industry is so fun; there's so much to do!

Is there harm in a younger woman, say someone in their 20s, using a product intended for mature skin and vice versa?
I'm definitely not about scare tactics or anything like that. I think if you have any anti-aging routine then good for you. That's incredible, that you're investing in yourself that way. Really it comes down to the efficiency of the formulation, making sure you give your skin exactly what it needs—no more, no less. For example, 20s skin is my favorite demo to take about (not just because I'm in my 20s). Women don't think about anti-aging in their 20s. They think heavy, greasy creams, but that's not what it's all about.

Oil production is completely normal in your 20s, you don't need a thick hydrating cream. What's going on? Our lifestyles are a little crazy; we probably stay up too late, drinking, having fun. That rides your body hard and it can recover quickly, but this manifests in our skin through free radical damage and toxic buildup. You don't need major peptides or retinols or anything like that, so being able to create a skincare routine that is light but allows your skin to detoxify and repair is key.

That's a pretty simple explanation, but I remember when I was sixteen I wanted to get into anti-aging because I was crazy and already showing signs of interest in this business. I went and bought an over-the-counter retinol product and I tried it and my skin freaked out. It became red and started to peel. My mom took me to a dermatologist, who said retinol is not recommended for women under the age of 30. The skin just can't take it. And I remember thinking that's interesting, because it doesn't say that on the label or on the packaging. It doesn't mean it's a bad product, it just wasn't right for my age.

What is the most interesting ingredient you're using in the line?
I took a particular liking to monk's pepper berry because it has all sorts of great anti-aging benefits repairing free radicals and it also is great in creating a healthy glow. The other reason I like it is this story of how the berries were used to make a tea that induced feelings of happiness. I thought that was a great alignment with our brand. You talk about skincare by age and women are nervous about getting older, which is so unfortunate. I really want this to be an optimistic, happy, uplifting brand.

What do you think makes the social selling component a right fit for Bona Clara? How are the customer experiences enriched by this business model?
It came to me in phases. When I launched Stages my ultimate vision of success was to have the line end up somewhere on a store shelf. But when we started exploring Bona Clara we realized these women were talking about the education behind the brand, and that doesn't come across if a product is sitting on a store shelf somewhere. One of our top reps from Taiwan and living in Florida has an incredible network for friends also from Taiwan, and she did so well early on. We sent her a check for $9,000 last July. I remember calling to congratulate her and she put the phone on speaker and danced around the living room. It was one of those moments that was so moving for me. It makes it more than a beauty brand.

What do you think Boston offers as a HQ for your company?
Boston is a great city for support local entrepreneurs, and women as well. Also, Boston just has so many incredible people; it's an inspiring place to be and bounce ideas off of people. Women love beauty and love talking about new and upcoming things, so it's been great to have a word-of-mouth thing going.

How do you think technology is moving beauty forward? How does it relate to the education component of the business?
It's been important in helping identify the biological processes behind our product in each age group. But also we've been focusing on the business platform for all of our brand reps. You think Avon and Mary Kay, you don't think social media. There hasn't been much innovation in direct-selling. Technology and social media really enhance the brand rep business. Ours will include customizable individual websites for each rep, an e-boutique if you will. They will also have a business portal to track their sales and communicate with other reps. We launched beta for that in January and hope to roll out the first version in early March.

What product in a day-to-day skincare regimen is the most misunderstood or underestimated?
I think toner is the first one that pops into my head. What does it do? Right after we cleanse our face the pH has changed. The skin has a naturally acidic pH, and it needs to defend itself from things it encounters throughout the day, like pollution. A lot of skin diseases are caused when skin is too basic (not acidic enough) and it's not able to defend itself. Eczema, also. Using a toner readjusts that pH to the healthy level. People also talk about how it helps your moisturizer absorb better, which is true.

For people who can't financially manage to buy into a whole product line, which product do you recommend as the best investment item?
A good moisturizer. We launched the entire brand on our treatment cream; it's a one-stop shop. It retails for $75 and will last you anywhere between three and six months. Our brand reps were also getting this question a lot so we launched our "Try Me" sets in February, which include minis of all five of our main products for $25. They come in cute sample packaging and it's a great way to experiment with several products to see what works when you do invest in the full size.

Within each age group can customers with differing skin types (acne-prone versus dry, for example) both benefit equally from the line?
Age turns out to be a larger determinant of what your skin needs than type. We don't segregate by skin type within the groups. We compensate for that with non-abrasive products. And our moisturizers are self-adjusting, so they absorb right in and don't feel like anything is there. It even survived testing in the winter.

· Bona Clara [Official Site]