COVID-19 Culture Venture

Startups Plan For Better Hair Days

For many of us, the past year has been one, long bad hair day. Salon visits are curtailed, and few of us are feeling motivated to primp for days of face masks and Zoom meetings.

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It could be worse. Messy coiffures aren’t the biggest problem most of us faced in the past year. And unlike many other things—pandemic, political turmoil, the job market—it is something over which we can exercise some control.

Hair-focused startups and their backers are hoping to play a role. In the past several quarters, investors have poured over $240 million into an assortment of companies offering custom color, restorative treatments and even technology to grow new hair.

And that’s only hair-specific startups. If we add in personal-care companies that include hair treatments in their broader product mix, the numbers are even larger — with over $2 billion globally in investment in the beauty industry over the past year, per Crunchbase data.

“It’s a huge category,” said Amy Errett, a partner at True Ventures and founding CEO of hair color startup Madison Reed.

Hair care is also an industry that’s seeing sharp shifts in consumer behavior, many of which will likely persist.

What’s changing

Of course, some COVID-inspired changes in consumer behavior — like the rise in self-administered haircuts — should thankfully recede post-pandemic. Others, like the growth in DIY treatments and increasing use of online platforms to obtain personalized products and services, are better poised for long-term growth.

Hair color is a case in point. Prior to the pandemic, roughly half of Americans’ hair color treatments happened at home, and the other half at salons. With COVID, at-home treatments spiked. Madison Reed alone grew topline revenue by 127 percent last year, Errett said.

“The issue in general in DIY is once you learn to do something, there’s a sense of accomplishment and you’re saving money,” Errett said. “So many people won’t go back to their old routines.”

The numbers bear that out. Subscriptions for regular color shipments from Madison Reed more than doubled since the pandemic began, indicating that consumers plan to make this a routine practice and not a one-time thing, Errett said.

Madison Reed is one of a number of upstarts offering online platforms for hair care products that employ quizzes and other customization techniques to match consumers with appropriate products.

Among this cohort, the most heavily funded recent investment recipient is Function of Beauty, which offers personalized hair care products tailored to its customers’ hair profile and goals. The New York-based company raised $150 million in a December Series B round led by retail-focused investor L Catterton.

Next up is Keeps, a startup aimed at preventing and slowing age-related hair loss. The New York-based company arranges consultations with physicians and specialists, and offers prescription medications, shampoo and topical scalp treatments. It has raised $70 million in venture funding to date, including a $45 million Series B in August.

Where the money is going

In the chart below, we look at 13 hair-focused companies that have raised sizable sums. Of those, 10 raised their last round in 2020 or 2021.


We don’t see a lot of pure-play hair companies going public or otherwise scoring big returns. However, exits for more broadly focused brands with a hair care component indicate public investor appetite for the space.

Hims & Hers, a digital health and personal care platform that includes hair-loss treatment and prevention among its verticals, went public via SPAC in January and was recently valued around $4.3 billion. And Honest Beauty, a baby and beauty brand co-founded by actress Jessica Alba, has reportedly filed confidentially for an IPO at a valuation that could reach around $2 billion.

Tough times

While much of this sounds encouraging, it’s essential to note that the robust startup funding environment and soaring public market valuations come amid an exceptionally trying time for the professional haircare industry overall. The past year has been devastating for the salon industry, historically a major job provider and bastion for small, owner-operated businesses. Many have closed permanently. Those still in business are operating at reduced capacity and must comply with a host of new regulations aimed at reducing potential COVID-19 spread.

Post-pandemic, we can expect a changed landscape but certainly a resurgence in consumer demand. For many over this past year, the idea of idling in a chair, maskless, while a skilled professional patiently washes, snips and styles our unruly locks sounds like the height of luxury.

It helps that so many salons over the years have invested in creating a full-on pampering experience, layering on a full range of beauty services, chic decor and complimentary beverages, even spa-type treatments. But even the in-and-out franchise haircut chains seem pretty luxe for anyone who’s been sheltering in place.

Yet as we wait for a return to the new normal, many of us will still have to suffice with personalized online platforms and the occasional non-self-administered snip to get our hair through the pandemic. The results won’t be red carpet-worthy, but hopefully good enough to get through the Zoom staff meeting.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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