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Dr Barbara Sturm Says to Focus on Passion, Not Money

The German "It"-doctor and founder of beauty’s cultiest skincare line shares advice on picking your team, keeping your family close and thinking with passion.
Dr Barbara Sturm | Photo: Jung Kim
  • Sarah Brown

DÜSSELDORF, Germany — Marla Malcolm Beck, co-founder and chief executive of Bluemercury, describes Dr Barbara Sturm's Molecular Cosmetics line of skincare, which debuted at the US retailer in January 2018 and quickly shot to a top spot, as "like a rocket ship." Indeed, Sturm's range of serums, masks and cleansers is a headliner everywhere from Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Violet Grey and Cult Beauty to Harrod's and Joyce, and the glamorous Sturm herself is certainly beauty's doctor-of-the-moment. But the globe-hopping Sturm, who is based in Düsseldorf but is rarely anywhere (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Dallas, Miami, London, Paris, Dubai) for more than a week at a time, fell into skincare rather by accident.

An orthopaedic surgeon by trade, she developed her first cream, a custom concoction made with one’s own blood plasma, in 2003 after realising that the protein and growth factor-rich plasma she was injecting into patients’ joints to treat inflammation and injuries could possibly have amazing benefits if applied topically to the face. “I wanted to heal my own skin because I had problems, and couldn’t find anything. I added the anti-inflammatory proteins made by my own cells, with my pharmacist in Düsseldorf.”

Dr Barbara Sturm flagship on Zero Bond St, New York | Photo: Tobias Freytag

Her couture MC1 “blood cream” is still available to private clients (for a steep price and requiring a blood sample), but it is her commercial Molecular Cosmetics range, first launched on Net-a-Porter in 2014, which has the beauty, fashion and business worlds enthralled. With investors circling, Sturm maintains that the brand — which she personally owns and runs with her husband Adam Waldman, the company’s executive chairman — has no need for investment at this time. “Our business is super profitable. We don’t need money; we need good, strategic people right now,” said Sturm, who is in the midst of filling out her executive ranks.

The brand, which started with a suite of straightforward, non-toxic serums and creams featuring the hero ingredient Purslane (developed to counteract inflammation and free radical cascade), has grown to include the recently introduced Brightening and Clarifying collections. Her Darker Skin Tones range was inspired by her friendship with the actress Angela Bassett, and was developed to address “the unique sensitivity of darker skin to inflammation and its damage,” explained Sturm. “Retailers were slow to embrace it, but their interest is perking up now. The consumer response has been wonderful and the demand is very strong.”

This month, she debuts her first freestanding store, a global flagship at Zero Bond Street in New York’s NoHo neighbourhood. Designed by her brother, architect Tobias Freytag, the 1,200 square-foot space features a retail area, a tea kitchen and two treatment rooms where clients can receive skin consultations and book the Instagram-famous “Sturm Glow.” Waldman and Sturm have eyes on Los Angeles and London for potential future locations.

Best Decisions: Thinking Passion, Not Money

“I never wrote a business plan; I just did it,” said Sturm. “My first cream I made only because I needed it for myself. If you need something and you can make it, do it, because everyone else probably needs it too.”

If you need something and you can make it, do it, because everyone else probably needs it too.

“I never had a clue what anything cost. I made my products and then went to the bank to get more money and told them, ‘I’m starting to sell!’ It wasn’t calculated and it all grew very organically by word of mouth. My optimism has sometimes been to the point of being naïve, but the lesson that I try to tell my children is you don’t have to plan everything; just stay curious and open-minded, explore opportunities. If you don’t have optimism, you don’t take risks.” The brand, which “is generally one of the top-selling skincare brands everywhere it is sold,” noted Sturm, had revenues of $15 million in 2018 and expects to triple that number this year.

But money is not what’s on her mind. “I never think about making money. I only think about what I love and what I want to do. When you’re passionate and obsessed with your product, it will work,” she said. “I hired a chief executive [who has since left the company] who was super structured and business orientated. He tried to tell me, ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ He didn’t want to bring my kids products to the market, but I said, ‘I need these products, my friends need them, so the market needs them.’”

“My products are very expensive to make, but I think quality always succeeds. If something is really good, it belongs on the market,” Sturm said. The Baby & Kids line, which “for the first three years had only one client (our daughter Pepper),” launched officially in 2017 and is gaining popularity, especially in Asia, she noted.

Dr Barbara Sturm flagship on Zero Bond St, New York | Photo: Tobias Freytag

Biggest Mistake: Building the Wrong Team

“I hired a friend to help me; it was horrifying. And it really hurt me on so many levels,” said Sturm. “If you have a bad feeling about someone, you have to end it right away. A business, especially as it grows, has to have the right people.”

She has made other hiring mistakes — with people who were inexperienced or didn’t have the right work ethic — but is getting better at taking more decisive action, she said. “I’ve kept people too long. I always try to make it work. I’m learning to be firmer; I’m getting better. It’s tough to find people who share the same ethics and who treat your business like their baby.”

Sturm and Waldman are currently looking for a new chief executive, as well as filling other top management positions. The company now has 40 full-time employees, and is expanding distribution into the Middle East and Asia, as well as cities like Paris (at the concept store Blush), where the brand has previously not been available. “We’re putting a whole big team together. We’re growing, growing, growing, which is amazing,” said Sturm. “But now it’s getting complicated because it’s getting super big.” While on the hunt for a new chief executive (a post that has been vacant since this past September), “I’ve had to get into everything and learn everything I wasn’t involved with myself,” she said. “It has been hard, but a blessing. That’s why every experience is good for something. I never regret anything.”

Sturm is also working hard to create a work-life balance, even if she is rarely at home. “I was spending a lot of time away from my family. Business occupies your mind so much,” she said. “My husband and I are always together, but now I travel with my four-year-old, and often my 23-year-old too. We stay together.”

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