When 26-year-old MIT grad Jasmina Aganovic attends alumni networking mixers, she’s accustomed to the inquisitive looks from former classmates when she describes her profession. The chemical engineering graduate strayed a bit from her path. She’s not working in a lab. Instead, think of Aganovic as a 21st-century Mary Kay.
Aganovic is now head of a skin-care company called Bona Clara and she has assembled a growing army of hundreds of women across the country to sell the product. The technical term for these women is “brand ambassador.” But really what they are is her Avon ladies of the Internet.
“This was not the direction that I thought the brand was going to go in,” she said. “But someone suggested I look into it, and as I looked into the history, I started to get excited.”
The initial idea was to put her anti-aging skin-care line in stores such as Sephora. But she realized that these products were primarily selling through word-of-mouth, Repeat customers were sending friends and co-workers to the website. At that point she came to the realization that selling her serums might best be done through the brand ambassadors.
“This had everything to do with the women who were selling the product,” Aganovic said. “I wanted to thank them and give back to them because they were helping to grow the brand. I started offering them commissions, not really knowing what I was doing. And then I started developing training materials.”
The brand representatives don’t go door-to-door or drop off catalogs. Instead, they refer friends to their individual websites. In return, the reps earn a 30 percent commission on orders.
“It’s not at all what my background is. I’ve been doing international policy, not skin care,” said 34-year-old Shannon Darcy a former State Department employee who now works for Blue Cross Blue Shield and sells Bona Clara. “I don’t know anyone who even uses Avon or Mary Kay, but what I like about this is how she talks about innovation and comes from this biochemical engineering background. She’s created this product but merged it with an old-school social selling model.”
Darcy is fully taking advantage of social media sites to help get the word out to her friends. Sam Hamadeh, founder and CEO of PrivCo, which researches privately held companies, said he’s seen the Avon model slowly emerging in a few new companies. With the social media component, he said “The Tupperware party will eventually become the Tumblr-ware party.”
By setting up websites for individual saleswomen, he said Aganovic has solved a problem that has plagued similar companies. Instead of requiring customers to enter a representative’s ID number when placing an order on a company website, Bona Clara customers can simply go to the brand ambassador’s website to order.
“By doing this, Bona Clara has solved one of the key challenges that everyone from Amway to Mary Kay to Tupperware has faced: high turnover and the constant need to recruit more sales reps,” Hamadeh said.
The business model came after Aganovic discovered her interest in skin care while working in a bioengineering lab researching an antibiotic eardrop. But she was primarily drawn to the way the eardrop interacted with human skin.
“We were testing it, and I was just watching how the skin was responding to the formulation,” Aganovic said. “I was always thinking of it from the perspective of the skin, even though this was for an ear.”
Given her early success, she’s hoping to expand into makeup. She’s no longer feeling quite as different as her MIT peers at those networking events.
“In my mind there was this whole hurdle I needed to overcome,” she said. “My friends went to work for Apple and Google and all these other hot companies, and here I am looking at doing an Avon model, which isn’t so sexy. I’m feeling a lot more confident these days.”Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.