Foundr Magazine publishes in-depth interviews with the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. Our articles highlight key takeaways from each month’s issue. We talked with Holly Thaggard, founder of Supergoop!, about bringing SPF sunscreen to the masses. To read more, subscribe to the magazine.
Holly Thaggard is passionate about sunscreen.
“I’ve always had this vision to literally change the way the world thinks about sunscreen,” she says.
That passion drove her to create the multimillion-dollar skincare company, Supergoop!, that, when it launched in 2007, started turning the world of sun-care products on its end. Last year,
Supergoop! reached $250 million in sales.
Thaggard didn’t simply put another sunscreen product on the market and hope for the best. She combined her sunscreen with a curriculum on the importance of sun protection, which she launched in private schools. At the same time, she kept building a luxurious yet fun brand that consumers really wanted to make a part of their morning routines—both for themselves and their children.
But Thaggard’s journey didn’t begin in a startup incubator or in the boardroom of a venture capitalist. It started in a third-grade classroom and with the tragic news of a friend’s diagnosis.
The Beginning of Supergoop!
Thaggard started her career in education, but after one year as a third-grade teacher, Thaggard found the classroom setting a bit claustrophobic.
She still loved teaching, but she decided to take an extended break and pivot her career to performing as a harpist.
Fast-forward 10 years. Thaggard’s friend and former college roommate broke the news that she had been diagnosed with skin cancer. The news rattled Thaggard, who never expected someone so young to develop skin cancer.
Her friend, who was going through her residency as a dermatologist, told Thaggard something that would change the trajectory of Thaggard’s career.
“She said, ‘Holly, it’s not about beaches and bikinis. It’s about that every single day, little bit of exposure, that’s cumulative.’”
This was the early 2000s, when sunscreen and SPF were relegated to beach days, not daily skincare routines. And this is where Holly saw an opportunity.
Thaggard’s parents were entrepreneurs who had taught her not only to look for the whitespace, but to find ways to make the world a better place through entrepreneurship.
In 2004, Thaggard started digging into sunscreen and skincare. What she found was what she calls a very sleepy market.
“There was no innovation at all in SPF, and UV broad spectrum protection in particular,” she recalls. Instead, she found very clinical-looking products branded with the names of doctors for credibility.
And every formula she found included oxybenzone, a chemical that some people worry might act as a hormone disruptor (though most studies suggesting a harmful effect have been conducted on rats using much higher doses of oxybenzone than are found in sunscreen).
Thaggard wanted to turn all of that on its head. She wanted to create a brand that people would want to use every day, a brand that feels luxurious, and a brand that was free of concerning chemicals yet still protected consumers, especially children, from sun exposure.
“I literally started dreaming about SPF and figuring out crazy ways to get it into everyone’s routine, so that it became a luxurious experience and not a chore, not something that they had to do when they were headed to the beach,” she says.
Not Just Another Brand
But for Thaggard, this was going to be more than a skincare product. It was going to be a mission.
Thaggard still loved being an educator, and teaching consumers—especially young children—about the importance of sunscreen.
“We had to educate first, and we spent quite a few years, when I started building my team, talking about why SPF before we could even talk about Supergoop!,” says Thaggard. “Because people didn’t feel like they needed to be wearing sunscreen every single day.”
As she began to build out her product, talking to chemists and working out FDA regulations, she reflected on her time in the classroom.
“Never once did I even see a tube of sunscreen on the school campus. Yet we were out there in the middle of the day, under the sun and often staying in after-school sports,” she recalls.
“And so it was that one short year, those eight months in the classroom, that, 10 years later, inspired me to create a new category in the industry.”
Instead of writing a business plan, Thaggard wrote a curriculum, a way to educate schools, parents, and students about the importance of sun protection.
She wanted to get her products into schools. Little did she know, public schools prohibited sunscreen on campuses because it is an FDA-regulated product.
So, she started looking for a different angle.
“I started knocking on private school doors and talking to everyone that would listen about how badly Supergoop! was needed in the classroom,” Thaggard says. “And that program took off and I had six schools throughout Louisiana and Texas.”
As Thaggard built her brand through schools, she realized part of her journey would include changing state laws around SPF in schools. She calls it her passion project.
“I’ve never missed an opportunity to be on Capitol Hill, talking to the Congress and representatives,” she says.
But there was another problem: She wasn’t going to be able to scale her product knocking on school doors one at a time and fighting battles with lawmakers.
Building a Retail Brand
When she realized that her strategy wasn’t going to scale, says Thaggard, she had to pivot and learn the business of retail.
Boutique-style chains became Thaggard’s target retail customer. They were large enough to take her product nationwide, but small enough to work with her personally.
“I had to focus on those retailers that were influential in every major city in the U.S., but weren’t so large that it prohibited me from being able to show up, tell my story, take everyone in the skincare beauty department to lunch, and bring an army of people that were willing to spread my message and get behind the brand itself,” she explains.
Soon, a chain of children’s boutiques called Giggle, as well as Pottery Barn Kids and FAO Schwartz, were stocking Supergoop!.
“They loved inviting me into the store on the weekends to literally stand there and talk with every person that would come by about, ‘Hey, I know you’ve got your stroller and your little kid’s piano, but have we figured out the SPF? They’re going to wear it their entire life.’ And so I started learning the business of retail through kids boutique retail,” says Thaggard.