Roles and paydays for actresses are declining, but she was among the first to market with her own lifestyle extension, The Honest Co., as everyone (Blake Lively, Reese Witherspoon) takes a page from her playbook
This story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Seven years ago, a pregnant Jessica Alba tested a popular mild baby detergent and broke out in a rash. Having been plagued with asthma and other issues that required repeated hospitalizations as a child, she may have been especially sensitized to problems that might afflict her unborn baby. Alba also had noticed the rise of autism rates and ADHD among children in recent years. To her, chemicals and toxins in everyday products must be partly to blame. "I was like, 'What is going on? What have we done to the world?' " says Alba. Stylish but understated in a black jacket and pants at the 6,000-square-foot Santa Monica offices that she decorated herself, Alba makes an impression: a serious, hands-on leader at the company that she labored for years to launch.
When her search for safer products left her unsatisfied, Alba, now 33, decided in 2007 to create "a trustworthy lifestyle brand that touched everything in your home, that was nontoxic and affordable and convenient to get," she says. After a four-year quest, Alba found the right business partner, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom attorney-turned-entrepreneur Brian Lee. Now, slightly more than two years since The Honest Co. launched in 2012, the private company is moving toward an IPO with an astonishing valuation at a little less than $1 billion, according to Dow Jones VentureWire.
A tree of employees' pictures at the company's offices
With an array of products from brightly patterned diapers to household cleaners to hand sanitizers, The Honest Co. has more than 200 employees and sells its wares online and in retail chains including Nordstrom, Target and Whole Foods. Lee declines to discuss profitability but estimates the company's revenue in 2014 will more than triple from last year, exceeding $150 million.
In an age when roles and paydays are fewer and farther between, Alba epitomizes the move into personal brand extension. Now the mother of two daughters, Honor, 6, and Haven, 3, with whom she seems game to appear in paparazzi shots, she has marketed herself as the ultimate mother: someone with looks and taste but down-to-earth instincts — happy to be seen as a "regular" mom during the day and a glamorous red-carpet presence at night. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, with her 6-year-old Goop, and other stars who have put their oar into the brand-extension waters (Reese Witherspoon announced her upcoming line of Southern products, Draper James, this year), Alba isn't seen as elitist or entitled. (Her profile as an actress in such movies as the Fantastic Four and Sin City franchises arguably is lower-wattage.) She appears uncomplaining and accessible, calling out to her "tweeples" on Twitter about what she's "stoked to be a part of." Plus, her multi-ethnic background (her dad is Mexican, her mother Danish and French Canadian) gives her a reach not necessarily afforded every actress in Hollywood.
But with any business that enters the arena of nontoxic lifestyle products (a market worth $10 billion, according to a recent report by research and consulting firm Natural Marketing Institute) — especially one with a name like The Honest Co. — comes scrutiny. There has been chatter in the media about a supposed rivalry between Alba and Paltrow, which began during a March 2013 interview promoting Alba's best-selling book The Honest Life, when she compared herself to Paltrow: "I didn't grow up with a bunch of money, so my tips are much more grounded." Paltrow then reportedly was overheard disparaging Alba as a hypocrite and in April posted an item on Goop questioning the safety of Honest Co.'s Multi-Surface Cleaner. Alba says the idea that there is friction with Paltrow is "craziness." (Honest Co. partner Christopher Gavigan, a family friend of Paltrow's, says she offered to take down the reference, but he declined. Paltrow did not respond to a request for comment.)
Products are displayed throughout the headquarters
Alba, whose father was in the military and whose parents each worked multiple jobs to support her and her younger brother in Los Angeles, among other places, has been a working actress since she was 13. Although she never went to college, she talks with sprinklings of MBA-speak and Internet lingo: The photos of babies on the wall in a meeting room are "little bits of brand identity," she says.
Although Alba is known in the celebrity weeklies and on gossip sites for her style, she found her connections and image little help when launching a company. "I spent a lot of nights crying and being devastated but more determined the next day to make it happen," she says. Alba adds that she consulted with a lot of business experts, some of whom she knew through her husband, producer Cash Warren: "I pitched my idea to a lot of smart people and businesspeople [and] talked to a bunch of bankers and Internet guys."
The key to her success, she says, was finding Lee, who started LegalZoom.com with Robert Shapiro (known for representing O.J. Simpson) and ShoeDazzle.com, a fashion company co-founded with Shapiro and Kim Kardashian. (Alba takes care to point out that Kardashian "was just a straight endorsement — he found her," as opposed to the other way around.) "I knew my strengths and weaknesses," she says about searching for her strategic partner for four years. "I'm very creative, I'm a dreamer. I'm practical, but I think big. I'm not a businessperson. I'm terrible at math."
The company's logo
When Alba first approached Lee, he rebuffed her. Then she went to a book party for Gavigan, author of Healthy Child, Healthy World: Creating a Cleaner, Greener, Safer Home and the CEO of a nonprofit dedicated to helping parents avoid toxic products. She hired Gavigan as a consultant, and 18 months later, the two circled back to Lee. They joined forces, and Gavigan became the partner in charge of product development and oversight. Alba promoted the company with multiple appearances on morning talk shows and her family lifestyle book, which hit No. 3 on The New York Times best-seller list three weeks after it was published in March 2013.
Most of The Honest Co.'s business comes from its website, which has drawn some complaints from consumers who signed up for free samples and automatically were enrolled for monthly deliveries, then found it difficult to drop the service. The Better Business Bureau has logged 30 complaints since the launch. Alba and Gavigan say customer service now is improved; the bureau currently gives the company an A-minus rating.
The other issue: Does the company deliver on its promise of safety? As cited on Paltrow's website, the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which rates products according to the presence of toxic ingredients, has given a grade of C to several Honest products, including its laundry detergent and multisurface cleaner. It slapped the company's stain remover with an F, though its dishwasher gel gets an A.
Alba, at her desk
Alba dismisses the grades, saying the evaluations are "outdated" because they only flag the presence of an ingredient without measuring how much of it is in the product. "If anyone understands the science, they know it's not true" that the products contain harmful levels of certain ingredients. Besides, she adds: "We never touted ourselves as being green. We just have nontoxic, highly effective products that are beautifully designed and affordable." EWG spokesperson Shannon Van Hoesen says the group stands by its ratings but grants it does not evaluate "the specific amount" of ingredients because "that information is not on the label and is usually considered proprietary by the manufacturer."
Now in the office almost daily, Alba is committed to growing her business, though she says she can't imagine giving up acting, which taps into "an entirely different side of my brain and my heart and my everything." She adds that her acting career helped give her the strength to create The Honest Co. "At first, people pretty much expected nothing from me," she says. "That 'I have nothing to lose' attitude I took from acting, applied it to business and tried to trust my gut. Trusting my gut is something that I underestimated in business."