With the goal of improving the way men take care of their themselves, mainly in terms of personal grooming and skincare, Francesco Urso founded Wolf Project in 2019, which he also runs as CEO. With his company, he hopes to teach men that skincare is not the lone territory of women, rather they can and should also start their personal skincare regimen so they can look good all the time.
With Wolf Project, Francesco Urso wants to “provide men with the same skincare products that women use on a daily/weekly basis.” One of its flagship products is the Deep Hydration Face Mask, which follows a formula developed in South Korean labs. Men who use this product can be assured that the mask will give their skin “deep hydration and relaxation.”
According to Francesco Urso, the market for male skin care is only “5-10% of the size of female skin care,” even though men comprise half of the world’s population, and they also want to take care of their skin and do their own grooming. He hopes that Wolf Project can help “shift the stereotypes, introduce new products, change the way a man interacts with skin care,” so that the male skin care industry can grow.
Before Wolf Project, Francesco Urso worked as brand manager for Procter & Gamble, managing operations for the Chinese market, the Eastern European market, and the Central Asian market.
Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Francesco Urso: We have the courage to push the boundaries of what is accepted for men, all men. We bring some historically feminine rituals to the world of men, in a very manly way. We stand out because the brand name and the story clicks with the audience, and the products are incredible!
Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Francesco Urso: First, to accept that your success is not fully in your control. Make sure to give your best, be resilient, driven, disciplined, but accept that it may just not be enough and it’s not within your control. Second, enjoy the journey. Building something from scratch, from a dream, is a dream itself. I finally understood the phrase “when you do something you love it’s not work”. The struggles and doubts can cast a shadow on the journey but remember not to give in too much to them. Last, to breathe and unwind. I still struggle a lot to do it, but in the rare moments when I do, I do realize its power. Each person has a way, sports, meditation, breathing, playing, going out.
Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Francesco Urso: The list of people to thank is long. I have been very lucky. My ex-boss at P&G, Lucas, helped me understand that in spite of being successful in what I did, I would have never be fully happy. The first angel investors, who believed in me and my project before I even believed in it. Adam Hurly, the grooming editor of GQ who used our products and first wrote about them. The list is long. Probably the most important person is my wife Maya, who always supported me and pushed me. I owe her everything that has happened to me in the last years.
Jerome Knyszewski: Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
Francesco Urso: Great companies are the ones that stand the test of time, creating value for consumers and stakeholders over a very long period of time. I witnessed it when I was in P&G, a company touches consumers lives all over the world since more than 180 years (incredible!). In every country P&G plays, it is the market leader with leading brands. I would love to replicate this with Wolf Project, creating a major player in the grooming segment, inspiring other brands to follow a more progressive and responsible vision of masculinity.
Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Francesco Urso: My advice would be: Understand what made customers click during the period of growth. Be honest and brutal about it, there must be something that has been lost and led to the period of standstill. For example, I have lived this when I worked for Ariel (Tide) in Europe and Pantene in China. Gigantic brands selling hundreds of millions of dollars a year unable to grow, in spite of having superior products and better brand equities. We had to be honest about the issues we were facing, stop sitting on our big fancy chairs of the leading brand and go back to the drawing board. On Ariel, the problem was product innovation. Ariel had always been the innovator of the market, constantly improving a tedious process, laundry, over the past decades. We hadn’t done it any longer. I spoke to hundreds of consumers in France, UK, Spain, Italy. With those learnings we launched a massive innovation, Ariel PODS, in 2013 that still sets P&G apart from all major competitors. We faced reality, put down a huge bet and went all in. It worked. Pantene in China was simply seen as a cheap common brand by the ultra-selective advanced Chinese consumers. We hadn’t anticipated the speed of behavioral change in China. We innovated with better communication, better media planning and new product launches. Whilst it was not as category breaking as on Tide, we came back and with the power of the incredible resources and distribution we had, we are now winning.
Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Francesco Urso: I try to look beyond the day by day progress and understand if month by month and quarter by quarter we are still on track to meet our long-term objectives. Also, I never spend one mental second complaining about the new COVID reality and blaming it for anything. It is just the new reality,I am sure other businesses in other times had different realities that were maybe equally difficult. Maybe not, but I don’t care. What would those thoughts bring me? Self-pity and justifications for average results? I always look at what variables I can influence and for example, today I can’t influence if consumers will leave their homes and go to CVS and buy our products. So I understand what is in my control to help other parts of the business. Probably the #1 strategy is hence mental.
Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Francesco Urso: Self-discipline. We imagine leading a company as taking big decisions in big rooms with lots of people. The truth is that a leader has thousands of micro-decisions to make every week, micro thoughts from people management, investment, business strategy, stakeholder relations, personal balance, time allocation, etc. I believe that the “system” behind taking these decisions is rarely discussed but it deserves a whole college course!
Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Francesco Urso: Make the experience worth talking about. Why should a consumer care and share it? For example, at Wolf Project all of us spend at least one hour a week calling random customers. We just pick the phone and give calls (to the ones that have accepted to be reached out to). Almost always our customers are very very positively surprised and also very talkative! They are surprised we take the time to care about their experience, to ask their opinion, which we do take seriously! For example, we found out a few interesting insights about upcoming product needs that we already implemented in our R&D plan.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Francesco Urso: No, I don’t. Social media is just media, denying it is delusional. The risk has always been the same, it’s just the medium that has changed. Back in the days a brand could be ruined on TV, broadcasts, shows, magazines, newspapers. Now it can be ruined by any consumer posting. It got easier and broader, but the risk is the same. So if a company is not on social media (all media) is just a sign of a massive disconnect with today’s world.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Francesco Urso: Resilience. I see many founders who start something and after the first difficulties give up. That’s the #1 reason of failure. Of course, some, and maybe me, also will fail in spite of persevering.
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Francesco Urso: Our brand mission really inspires me. We believe in a more progressive vision of masculinity, We believe it takes courage to set ourselves free from clichés, that “being a man” is more than just being “tough”, that men are not defined by their sexual preference and brands can help the conversation. We believe self-care is the first step to becoming a better man. So if anybody wants to join to spread this message and champion this cause, we’d be more than glad!
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Francesco Urso: Follow us on Wolfproject.co on Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok!
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!