5 minutes with Stephanie Capuano, Founder, 31st State

31st State is an online retailer that prides itself on being the only vegan, natural product range for Gen Z. As a result of the Covid pandemic, 31 State enjoyed a huge surge in direct-to-consumer sales so we caught up with founder Stephanie Capuano to find out how she managed to carve out a niche within the crowded beauty sector.

5 minutes with Stephanie Capuano, Founder, 31st State
Stephanie Capuano (centre) with her teenage sons.

Tell me a bit about the 31st State story.

31st State was launched in September 2017. California (the 31st State) is my home state – but it’s more than that – it’s an outlook, a state of mind and an attitude that I wanted to bring to this brand. Clean, open minded, fresh-faced and well accepted in setting trends globally, California is a global force in fashion, culture and youth, which is at the heart of 31st State.

Why was it launched?

As a mother of two teenage boys (and a teen daughter), I created 31st State as a destination personal care brand that offers a natural but stylish alternative to the new generation of teenage boys, who are beginning to craft their identity as they grow into young men.

I was frustrated by the lack of available choices for my sons in the personal care market from the “big brands” and established companies. 31st State was borne out of a desire to recreate the feeling I experienced during my formative years growing up in California – clean, effortless and minimally fashionable.

What I wanted was products that were made from cleaner, high quality ingredients for my boys. What my sons wanted was for the products to really work, and be cool, of course. Stuck between green-washed and fake natural products that smelled awful and lacked efficacy, and stereotypical male aftershave type products laden with chemicals, there seemed to be no option for boys like my sons, or me, the purchaser.

5 minutes with Stephanie Capuano, Founder, 31st State
Stephanie Capuano (centre) with her teenage sons.

How does 31st State go about making sure the products are vegan?

Working with the formulation expert, I was able to understand the unique chemistry of younger male skin prior to developing the brand so we could take these into account. We found there were a number of unmet needs that, once addressed, could make a huge difference to how Gen Z looked and felt about themselves. The products contain copper, zinc, magnesium and silver and natural actives such as lactic acid.

What gap in the UK retail market does 31st State strive to address?

When I founded 31st State, there was nothing available on the market made specifically for Gen Z, namely males. Although there were cleaner products for other demographics, there was nothing for just for teen boys, and definitely not anything aspirational. Early on, I saw that the big companies weren’t focusing on this demographic in part, because I don’t think they really understood the generation. I don’t think you can reengineer a men’s brand for a younger generation. Gen Z wants something that is built for them and by them.

How did 31st State handle the lockdown period and how is it coping with the pandemic?

“When I founded 31st State, there was nothing available on the market made specifically for Gen Z”

Our business is primarily direct-to-consumer, but we also sell on a variety of retailers like Asos and Ocado. During lockdown and beyond, direct-to-consumer sales have been doubling, and even tripling, in some cases compared with this time last year. We attribute this to the dramatic shift in the retail space and an increased focus on hygiene and ingredients. We have been well-positioned to manage the surge in digital sales, with our bigger challenges coming from supply chain and manufacturing disruptions.

What’s in store for 31st State in 2021?

Looking ahead, we have a couple of skin and body care products in development and could foresee further alignment with the wellness category.

Gen Z is a fascinating demographic to serve. There is so much space to talk to this generation about sexual wellness and mental health in a different way. They have no stigma attached to conversations around mental health and are open about seeing therapists, or taking antidepressants or supplements, and they are open about their sexual wellness, too.

How is 31st State addressing some of the challenges facing the retail industry as a whole?

We have great working relationships with our current retail partners. Our experience has been that more than ever, there is great mutual respect and a renewed sense of creativity in how we work together to drive sales.

Describe your role and responsibilities at 31st State.

As a start-up founder and chief executive, especially in our early stages, we can’t afford to hire as many consultants and specialists as we’d like to help make this vision become a reality. So, at the moment I am wearing several hats and solving a lot of different problems.

First and foremost, I am always thinking strategically about what I can do to push the company forward, constantly questioning whether the right people are in the right places, if roles need to be re-organised, if people like their jobs?

While some days are heavy on admin, my role is always focused around setting strategy and direction and creating, living and breathing our culture, values, and behaviour. With the help of the team, I am focused on implementing short and long-term plans, making important managerial and operational decisions and trying to appreciate the needs of everybody from investors to employees to our customers.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before 31st State.

While I am originally from California, I have been in London for 20 years. I am married with three teenage children. Before I launched 31st State, I worked in pharmaceutical and biotech PR in San Francisco, New York and London, as well as in business development and marketing for luxury brands in fashion and travel. I am also a partner in boutique safari company, &Three Collective. Travel is my passion and I spend as much time as possible in Africa.

“During lockdown and beyond, direct-to-consumer sales have been doubling, and even tripling”

What got you into retail in the first place?

Founding 31st State came from a true need of wanting cleaner and more natural options for my boys. When I realised there was nothing else on the market, I knew I had to create something. Sharing these creations through retail was the natural next step.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

One of the most challenging aspects of running 31st State has been the marketing aspect and making sure we are speaking to our respective audiences effectively. Before I even picked up a pencil to develop the brand, marketing was our biggest challenge because our end purchaser is often different than our end user. Generally speaking, our purchaser is a mother for her son. Striking the right balance between appealing to a mother’s sensibility and the desires of a teen or young man is the holy grail. All this said, we do see from our sales with Asos, for example, that young men aged 24 and up are purchasing for themselves.

And the most rewarding?

Hands down, the greatest reward has been working with this totally inspiring demographic. They are the next generation of consumers, leaders and voters and we are thrilled to be a platform for their voices.

From the start we wanted this to be a brand for Gen Z, by Gen Z. While I am a parent to three members of this generation, I can’t tell you what’s really in the mind of an 18-year-old, and from the start we always felt like we needed to be asking them and listening to them. During quarantine we attempted to bring our community of mostly 16 to 24-year-olds closer together, building on our existing blog with a project called Gen Z, The Corona Diaries.

We wanted the community to write personal essays and submit photos, talk about their feelings during lockdown – we really hoped they would open up about not being able to go to school, university or summer festivals, about not being able to see friends and spending more time on social media. We ran the submissions, unedited, on the site and the community continues to submit blog posts to us on a variety of issues including Black Lives Matter, the US presidential elections and their views on what lies ahead in a rapidly changing world.

What advice would you give someone embarking on a career in retail?

It goes without saying that a career in retail right now, especially in a start-up, is not without risks and as ever, it’s hard work.

The hardest part is mental – getting over fear of failure, fear of standing out and fear of rejection. It requires training yourself – changing your mindset – to get past this barrier, drive through the next barrier. And after you’ve done that, to do it again the next day. The best investment you can make is into changing your mindset.

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