Beautylish wants to makeover the makeup biz with new e-commerce option

Watch out Sephora, one more beauty startup is starting to nip at your heels.

For the past two years, San Francisco-based Beautylish has focused on developing a strong community of makeup artists and enthusiasts who contribute comments, ratings and reviews about hundreds of products. But on Wednesday, the company is announcing a new e-commerce option, called Boutiques, that will enable users to purchase items from their favorite brands directly through the site, rivaling subscription commerce startup Birchbox as a cosmetics company designed to thrive in a digital age.

At launch, Beautylish said it is partnering with Sugarpill Cosmetics, but every few weeks, it plans to introduce a new brand Boutique, reaching potentially 15 brands and hundreds of items by the end of the year.

“When you look at e-commerce, there are only a few categories that are really left offline today and beauty is one of them,” said co-founder and CEO Nils Johnson. “It’s $20+ billion industry and nobody owns it online.”

Launched in 2010 by Johnson, an investor in Warby Parker, Everlane and other e-commerce startups, as well as Vu Nguyen and Sameer Iyengar, Beautylish has raised a few million dollars from investors including SV Angel, Innovation Endeavors, PayPal(s ebay) co-founder Max Levchin, YouTube(s goog) co-founder Steve Chen and others. (The company declined to say exactly how much it’s raised.)

With a combination of original and user-generated content, Beautylish said it gets more than one million monthly unique visitors and has built up a social following of nearly 500,000 Twitter followers. That number,  it points out, is ten times bigger than Birchbox’s Twitter audience and almost equals Sephora’s following.

E-commerce option meets community-driven demand

As opposed to beauty magazines that provide just one person’s experience in a product review, Beautylish lets members hear from and communicate with others who might share their style, skin tone or other relevant traits. It also gives members a place to learn about new products and techniques from professional makeup artists.

The focus on community over the past two years has generated demand, said Johnson, and the new e-commerce offering is intended to meet it.

For consumers, it’s a convenient way to purchase the items that they read and watch videos about on the site and, for brands, it’s a way to reach new and current consumers in the context of their beauty-related conversations.

Through its e-commerce features, Johnson said, the company will offer items from indie brands consumers might not have heard about, items from favorite, well-known brands, as well as products created exclusively for Beautylish.

Market for aspiration trumps market for products

In the past year, Birchbox has gained considerable momentum with a subscription model that lets members sample products that they can later buy as full-size versions online. For people who are interested in discovering different products and makeup brands, but are maybe not the enthusiasts participating in Beautylish’s community, it’s possible that Birchbox’s approach might be more appealing.  Instead of having to seek out reviews and comments, they can opt to have a box of options just dropped on their doorstep.

But Johnson said he doesn’t think the subscription model is the best fit for most businesses. Instead of locking users in for $10 a month and sending samples they might have no interest in, he’d rather focus on providing an experience that helps users discover the looks they want to achieve and then lets them purchase the products that will get them there.

“Beauty is about transforming from who you are to who you want to be,” he said. “The market for aspiration is much larger than the market for products.”