Should VCs be investing in beauty brands?

In the last two years, Unilever acquired Carver Korea for $2.7 billion. Estee Lauder purchased Too Faced Cosmetics for $1.45 billion. CVC Capital Brands bought PDC Brands for $1.43 billion. L’Oreal purchased a trio of skincare brands for $1.3 billion, and also  IT Cosmetics for $1.2 billion. E.l.f. Beauty did an IPO.

Venture capitalists didn’t invest in any of these beauty businesses. They also skipped Urban DecayTarte, Bluemercury, Hourglass, Becca CosmeticsDevaCurl, Paula’s ChoiceESPA — all beauty brands that have recently sold for hundreds of millions.

They’re not technology companies. But neither are shoes, glasses, athletic wear, razors, mattresses or the other consumer investments that VCs have been making in recent years. It’s partly because everything now has an online distribution platform.

So why have they missed out on this wave of beauty acquisitions? Some don’t view makeup as a suitable venture investment, but others think they’re late to understanding the market and all of its promise.

“The beauty category is one that has seen a lot of M&A activity over the years and I think it will continue into the foreseeable future,” said Hadley Mullin, senior managing director at TSG Consumer Partners. She was part of the private equity team that invested in IT Cosmetics a few years before its billion dollar-plus exit to L’Oreal.

Megan Quinn, general partner at Spark Capital, said that the buying sprees are because the incumbents failed to innovate. “You have these enormous conglomerates who have these legacy brands that aren’t translating to millennials, to Gen Z, and need to acquire this direct-to-consumer company in order to stay relevant.” Quinn said that she is hoping to find a skincare brand to invest in. “The margins in the beauty and cosmetics industry have been very healthy.”

Tanya Soman, a venture partner at 500 Startups, says that in addition to looking for younger demographics, beauty shops are searching for technology to improve shopping visits. “Brick-and-mortar retailers have also been trying to re-engage customers by looking to technology as a solution in order to provide a high-value in-store experience.”

Some VCs have already made investments. Sequoia Capital recently invested in Charlotte Tilbury and IVP has Glossier as a portfolio company. Polaris Partners invested in Living Proof, which was bought by Unilever. Several have invested in subscription services like Birchbox and Ipsy, although those are distribution platforms for other brands’ makeup samples, rather than original products.

Julie Fredrickson, CEO of Stowaway Cosmetics has raised venture capital from Slow Ventures and Vayner/RSE, but she said that pitching a largely male VC crowd was difficult and that many investors didn’t understand her business. “Most of these brands are commensurately underfunded compared to tech companies in similar positions,” said Fredrickson. “There’s a chance for a totally new dominant player and no one’s really gunning for it.”

Mullin believes that having a 40% female team at TSG Consumer Partners helped them identify IT Cosmetics. “Without a doubt, the fact that we have strong female representation in our leadership” leads to meetings with women-focused brands. “Entrepreneurs are really looking for a partner that gets their business.”

Soman says that “the reality is that most VCs are male, and it’s hard for them to see the value in a solution for a problem they don’t personally experience. What all VCs do see is ROI, and that’s what has given the beauty space the attention it deserves lately.”

Some will argue that beauty businesses are more suitable for private equity than venture capital. Many of these are legacy brands getting revitalized, which makes more sense for the PE flip-it model.

But others are young startups that found a buyer in a short period of time. Venture capitalists typically like to invest in the first few years of a company’s life and sell them within a decade.

The beauty category can yield venture-like returns,” said Mullin. She’s seeing some private equity firms act more like venture capitalists when it comes to beauty, with PE “investors partnering with beauty companies earlier in their life cycle.”

But she claims “it’s a very different type of value addition that’s required of investors than in the tech world.” It helps for investors to have an expertise in digital marketing and social activation, which is building a loyal customer base through social media.  She also says it’s important to be “incredibly thoughtful about how to build distribution.”

Frederickson believes that VCs are missing out on opportunities. “Venture is obsoleting itself as private equity and family offices increasingly go downstream because they’re willing to seek venture-style returns in verticals that venture capital is not prepared or is less educated about.”

But to be sure, not all beauty brands make good investments. Like most consumer products, the category is very competitive. There are too many shuttered brands to count.

There’s also Julep, a makeup and nail polish business that did receive venture capital. It was acquired in a roll-up deal and might not have received a price that justified the over $55 million raised in funding. 

Korean beauty platform, Memebox, which emerged from Y Combinator, ran into obstacles in the U.S. market. 

Yet in a world where businesses like Kylie Cosmetics can go from zero to $420 million in sales in just 18 months, there’s room for new entrants.