A Modern Take on Classic Skincare
A Modern Take on Classic Skincare

"I think the big thing behind MARA for our earlier success was in the time of the 20 step skincare routines, we were offering simplicity and I don’t think that was being offered or advertised in a way that felt accessible and attainable but also was effective." 

- Allison McNamara

Elizabeth welcomes the inspiring Allison McNamara, founder of the algae based clean skincare line MARA, known for its popularity among skincare enthusiasts and celebrities like Hailey Bieber and Chrissy Tiegan. Allison takes us on a journey back to her TV days as a host, producer, and journalist, sharing experiences from the red carpet where she interviewed celebrities and navigated various products. Drawing from these insights, Allison learned how to effectively communicate messages to the right audience, which also just happens to be one of her super powers.

In the conversation, Allison details the steps taken to develop and successfully launch the award-winning skincare line, now available at Sephora. She shares some of her favorite MARA products including the Universal Face Oil and the body oil, and how she personally uses them in her daily routine. Finally, she underscores the importance of dedicating a few precious minutes each day for personal rejuvenation.


    Elizabeth Stein 0:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey.

    This week's guest is Allison McNamara founder and CEO of MARA, the algae-based clean skincare brand now sold at Sephora. Allison started her career in TV as a host and journalist on Pop Sugar before pivoting to skincare after inspiration on a trip to Turkey and the sea of NaMara. MARA launched in 2018 with just one product, universal face oil, and is now a cold favorite by everyone from Chrissy Tegan to Haley Bieber, and me. I love her products. In this episode, we talk about Allison's career transition from the entertainment industry to beauty, including her favorite celebrity interviews while working in TV, the benefits of working closely with PR which gave her a unique perspective on what brands were looking for and how to communicate effectively, and ultimately the steps she took to develop and launch her skincare line. Allison shares the importance of tapping into her intuition, launching with confidence, brand building, her favorite skincare tips for glowing skin along her favorite wellness hacks to feel her absolute best. This was such a fun conversation. Keep listening to learn more.

    It's officially oatmeal season and I'm so excited to share that you can find our Purely Elizabeth oatmeal products at select Walmart stores, just in time to get cozy with a warming breakfast. You can find our blueberry flax, oatmeal multipacks, and dark chocolate chunk oatmeal cups in the cereal aisle. Out gluten-free instant oatmeals are made with organic oats combined with five super food grades and seeds for delicious taste and texture. Our packs and cups make for an easy breakfast, snack, or dessert. And they're also perfect to take on the go. Click the Store Locator in the show notes to find a Walmart store near you. Happy oatmeal season and happy shopping.

    Allison, welcome to the podcast. It's so lovely to have you on today and meet you and I'm so excited to hear your story.

    Allison McNamara 2:25
    Thanks for having me. I'm so excited. I'm a big fan of yours as well.

    Elizabeth Stein 2:29
    Wonderful. Well, start with what you were doing before you started MARA as you were in the entertainment industry, something different. Would love to hear what you were doing. Did you always think that would be your career path? Or did you know it was just going to divert elsewhere?

    Allison McNamara 2:48
    I did go to school for journalism. And I always, from as early as I can remember, wanted to entertain people. I love storytelling. Whether that was acting or plays or doing a long-form poetry contest, I just knew I loved being in front of people. So when I got to college, I learned that broadcast journalism was something that you could study. I grew up watching E! News, The Daily 10, and so many of those amazing entertainment news shows that I look forward to every night. I decided to pivot from what I thought I was going to do, which was doing some more political analyst-type on-camera work to entertainment, and I got to internet E and MTV. It was so profound, that it shaped my formative years of college. And I just knew I wanted to be in that industry somehow or be in a way where I got to connect with people. So after college, it took a little bit of time, but I did start working on camera as a reporter pretty quickly for Pop Sugar and grew with that career. I went from doing small daily entertainment and fashion news shows to hosting a live-to-tape TV show. I had different shows on the FYI network and ABC. I was living out my dream life. But then it was also coming at a time when people weren't tuning into news the same way they used to. They weren't waiting till 6 pm to watch E. They were getting it on Instagram. I remember even getting a Star magazine or a Us Weekly magazine, like waiting until that would drop and going to the newsstand and getting that and that was like your fix for the week. So that all changed really while I was in the growing years of my early career. So I had to pivot and figure out what I wanted to do as the shifts were happening. And beauty has always been in my blood. It's something that my family's done while I was growing up. And it's something that I was always super passionate about. So, ventured on this journey as a side hustle. It was the era of the side hustle, that was the term that they were using in the 2015-16 era. So I started doing this and now I'm so happy to be where I'm at now. And I still feel like I get to touch a little bit of what I used to do by doing things like podcasts and interviews and promoting the brand. So it feels like it all wasn't in vain.

    Elizabeth Stein 05:03
    So do I. What a fun journey though. I have to ask what was one of your favorite interviews that you ever did?

    Allison McNamara 05:12
    There are so many, but I think the one that I got the most excited about was interviewing George Clooney. Just someone that you grew up watching and my mom loves him, and I love him. So that was a cool experience. I think just the iconic actors and actresses are the ones that I got the most excited by. Another one was Angelina Jolie. I interviewed her in 2012, I think it was, at the salt premiere. And that was like a huge bucket list because I grew up watching her and just idolizing her amazing.

    Elizabeth Stein 05:37
    How amazing was her skin?

    Allison McNamara 05:39
    This was 10 years ago. But even then she looked flawless. And she just ages backward. She looks incredible.

    Elizabeth Stein 05:48
    I'm sure it was so many amazing experiences and a lot of learning lessons in that industry. What have you taken from that work that you've now taken into launching your own business, I'm sure there have been so many nuggets that have been helpful along the way.

    Allison McNamara 06:04
    There have been so many crossovers. But I think the most powerful one that I had in my toolbox when I was starting MARA was the fact that I would also write our shows, these short and long-form shows for Pop Sugar. And I was writing so many a day. Sometimes we were shooting 8 to 10 small segments or a 30-minute show. I was writing those. And so it taught me how to communicate ideas, punchy, and very quickly to the end consumer. I think that the rigorous boot camp of writing every single day made the whole ideation of MARA and the way of communicating our education to the customer pretty easy for me like it was very clear on what was on the messaging. So a lot of people have to hire copywriters, or they go through fancy marketing agencies. To this day, I still do all of the copywriting and naming. I love it. But that's my favorite part. I get so excited, I get to do so little of what I love to do because that's actually what I'm good at. And as a business owner, the fun stuff is only 5% of your daily, not even 5% of the total pie. You're doing so much more operational. So I think that's probably the part that I had a leg up on. And I think the other one would be being in media, being on the receiving end of pitches, because I would get pitched from beauty brands, and fashion brands every day about being included in our stories, I think working closely with our PR team, and just knowing the messaging of the product that the PR team is going to then be pitching out was vital. And to this day, I still receive so many press releases. So I think that has helped me understand what people are looking for and how to communicate it.

    Elizabeth Stein 07:40
    So you honed in on what your superpowers are and how you're utilizing them. Sounds like you have. That's the inspiration. So things were changing in the industry for you. And what was your family doing in the beauty space?

    Allison McNamara 07:58
    So my dad worked at a variety of consumer product goods companies, specifically in beauty and cosmetics growing up. So it was really fun, especially having a dad who loved to talk about makeup and skincare. There's nothing better, right? So we were always talking about marketing in general, he would always ask us so many questions about what's cool. What do you think of this? Is this a good face wash? Do you like the colors of this? So, I think that was fun. Like I think about that, like, wow, I do have the coolest dad. But it's such a cool job to share with two daughters because I have a sister too.

    Elizabeth Stein 08:32
    That's amazing. So things are changing, you have the background of your family, and then what was the catalyst to start to move forward and the inspiration and starting the brand?

    Allison McNamara 08:44
    Well, I had the idea in 2015, on a trip that I took with my family and I took when I was able to get the name trademarked, I was able to also get the Instagram and the website. I took that as a sign that should just really go forward with it. But also, I think I had both feet in, in a way, but I also was smart about it. So, I didn't take on any outside capital when I started the business. So I continued my job as well. I was working for myself at the time, I have another business called McNamara Inc. that did everything from copywriting to Instagram work to consulting. So I kept that going as my main job until two years ago. So that was three years after launch. So, I think it was really important to be very clear-minded about where MARA was going, but also be financially secure myself. So that didn't make me worried as I was working on this. And it was really hard. I think people glamorize having a side hustle, but I still work crazy hours, but especially when I was working two full-time jobs, that was tough but rewarding.

    Elizabeth Stein 09:47
    No, I think that's so important to think about what that looks like. Because for some people it can be doing two things and going headfirst and it could show up in a variety of ways and it's however you feel comfortable at the time, certainly. So, where did the name come from?

    Allison McNamara 10:03
    MARA is the last four letters of my last name. My last name is McNamara, but it's pronounced MARA as a brand. And MARA means sea and Gaelic. I'm an Irish citizen, and the actual name was inspired by the Sea of Marmara. I was on a trip to Turkey, and I just thought MARA would be a cool name for this brand that I was already starting to put together in my mind. Again, like I love storytelling, so I plan to do it around the ocean with and very minimal, heritage feeling. So, everything just fell into place. And the easiest part of the whole journey, honestly, was the branding and the naming. Everything else was tough. That part came together very nicely.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:42
    Wow, that's incredible. I love how all those signs just pointed together so seamlessly.

    Allison McNamara 10:50
    Yeah. I'm big on like a gut feeling, too. So I think when things are easy, the world's giving you signs that you're going in the right direction. So, I ran with that intuition.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:59
    That's funny. For me, when I started thinking about what the name would be, my family was all together, I wasn't with them. And in one afternoon, like in 10 minutes, they sat around and someone came up with the name Purely Elizabeth. I wasn't there. They called me and they're like, “What about this?” And I was like, “Yes, that's it.” I just knew in my gut that that was the right thing. So sometimes it's those gut moments, and then everything else was hard. But the naming was easy.

    Allison McNamara 11:24
    Yeah, if you know and it's so perfect for your brand too. And I think those brands, you can tell when there's like a lot behind the name and the meaning. And I love that. I love it when there's more of a story than just going to a creative agency and having them come up with something for you. I think both ways can be beautiful. But I do love it when there's a little bit more personality behind a brand name.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:43
    Totally. So you talked about intuition. What are some ways that you tap into your intuition and use it today?

    Allison McNamara 11:50
    So, this is ever-changing. I feel like if I would have answered this a few years ago, it would have been different. But right now I'm really into listening to frequencies. So, I've been listening to the 432 frequency, which is positive vibrations. And I usually play that as I'm falling asleep.

    Elizabeth Stein 12:05
    Do you just go on Spotify and play 432 lists?

    Allison McNamara 12:10
    I get asked this all the time. So, I should clarify. So I use an app called BetterSleep. And you can pair frequencies with different sorts of sounds. So I love a deep brown noise. So I put deep brown noise with a little bit of the 432 frequency. And I just let that play on my phone relatively close to my bed, not too close. And I love that just in the distance. And I try and do visualizations as I'm falling asleep. So that's one way. But then I think with your intuition, you just have to give yourself time to be alone. I love just going on long walks without music without my phone, and letting my inner voice show through. Because I feel like as business owners and as people we're bombarded with so many other people's opinions all the time. So sometimes it's important whether it's a morning, walk with your dog that's phone free, whatever it is, just being alone with your thoughts, I think it's really important to be able to harness your intuition.

    Elizabeth Stein 13:06
    I agree. And I think it's hard as the years go on in the business, at least I found for myself, I felt much more like gut feeling intuitive earlier on, then I went through stages of feeling and maybe it's to your point that you have so much coming towards you so many people given your opinions that you almost get lost in that. So, getting to those routines of getting back into it is super important.

    Allison McNamara 13:31
    Definitely. And I think you're right, everything ebbs and flows. And I do think at the beginning, it is easier to rely on your gut for sure.

    Elizabeth Stein 13:39
    Okay, so let's get back to the beginning for you. So what was it like launching? So you have this idea. You get the branding down, the easy part. Now comes the hard part what is the product? How do you formulate and source and all of that, I know it's not as easy as not that food is easy, but you can only say go on your kitchen mock up a couple of things, it's easier. What is the process like for you?

    Allison McNamara 14:04
    There are so many different ways to do it, we ended up using a completely separate cosmetic formulator because we own our formulas. So worked with an independent team to develop clinically the products that we created and that did take a long time.

    But I was pretty specific in the ingredients that I wanted. I knew I wanted Moringa and algae to be the stars of universal face oil. How did I pick those two? just deepen research. You know as someone who researches skincare and is a journalist by trade, I felt like there were face oils out there on the market. This is 2015. And a lot of them use jojoba and Marula oil which are both great but I felt like they didn't have those properties that sank into the skin and I felt like they left in a more oily finish. So I was looking for something that had deep hydration but didn't leave an oily residue and Moringa is known for that. It's also one of the most nutrient-dense plants on Earth, so vitamins A through F. Incredible for just overall complexion balance, redness, and inflammation. I noticed it wasn't being used widely in skincare at the time. So I wanted to find ingredients that were incredible for skin but also weren't widely distributed, because I wanted to create something that truly was a first of its kind. So mixing the anti-aging algae with the moringa was the DNA of the brand. So, I came to my formulator with that, and then we built out the rest of the profile. It did take a long time to nail the entire formula. But I think the harder part is when you want to scale up, and you have to go to a contract manufacturer. And then you learn all about a bill of materials and sourcing components. And we do all of that in-house. So it was a challenge. There were so many learning curves. And I remember that first year, we launched in 2018. 2017 was probably one of the most formative years of actual business learning in terms of production for me because I had never done it before.

    And every day, it felt like I was being thrown a new acronym, they had no idea what it meant or a word that I had never heard before, or finding out that I needed to have something else to get to the finish line. So that was challenging, but now you learn. I look back and like wow, one product, so easy. Now I have so many more SKUs. It's so much more complex, but grateful for the way I did it. Because I think launching one SKU allowed me to be successful with that one SKU and then build upon that.

    Elizabeth Stein 16:24
    As you were ramping up over that time, what do you think it was that helped you, give you the courage to be fearless and do it? Because it's not like a couple of months. You're dedicating those couple of years to building out this thing that you don't know what's going to happen and where it's going to go. And that takes a lot of guts and being fearless to do so. Was that sort of just part of your DNA?

    Allison McNamara 16:52
    Yeah, it's funny. Now I have more trepidations. And I did back then because there's more on the line. But I've always been pretty fearless. And it takes a lot to scare me, I had no qualms about launching my line. I completely believed in the product they created. I knew it was unique, I knew it would stand out on the shelf. I felt very confident about how I branded it and what was inside it. So I had no hang-ups. And there was also nothing really to lose besides the costs that I put into the business. But at the time, we only made one SKU. I didn't buy a massive order of bottles, I found the bottles that we use as dead stock. So I only bought what we were manufacturing. Dead stock is usually used in a fashion where its brand ordered blanks of the bulk of T-shirts ended up only buying and dying 10%. So then the warehouse is stuck with this deadstock, which is completely usable. But it hasn't been claimed by someone and I just so happened to find these blue bottles as deadstock. I went to all the different trade shows too. And it was just so serendipitous. And now it's a key part of the brand. And I work with the same manufacturer to custom-make all the rest of our components now. But I found that it's dead stock. I still had overhead. But I didn't have crazy overhead the way that some people do when they launch a brand. So I think because of that, I wasn't quite as nervous. And I was also really excited. So I think you have to have excitement about what you're doing. We can't live with fear, we have to live with excitement. And so now I always try and remember that because I think as you launch more products, as you have more of a name in the industry, there's more pressure to keep outdoing yourself. And I think that's where the challenges arise. But at the beginning, no, I think ignorance is bliss, at least for me.

    Elizabeth Stein 18:38
    Yeah, I agree. If you had known, you may not have started in the first place.

    Allison McNamara 18:44
    Yeah, I still probably would have done it. But I think there's a lot that you take as you go. And if you would have known before, you've been like, oh, do I want to have that anxiety? Do I want to go through that stress of that, just all the things that come with it?

    Elizabeth Stein 18:57
    Yeah, I was just thinking the other day about how if and when the time came to start a second business, what would it be you think about founders who started a second business and you assume they'd always be successful, but then they're not. And I wonder if part of that is because you do know so much that you're not going in with the different mindset where you already know the things and you're putting up that wall versus just going in completely unknown and making different decisions based off of that.

    Allison McNamara 19:30
    So interesting. I'd love to see someone who has the time to do a deep dive into such businesses and compare and contrast. Because I do think you bring up a good point. It's just that when you don't know you're constantly in the state of learning, and you're also hustling to figure it out where if you know you feel like you already have it all figured out, maybe that changes the course of how the business presents itself to the world. So, that's interesting.

    Elizabeth Stein 19:53
    So if someone is brand new to the brand, what product do they start with? And what's that hero product of yours?

    Allison McNamara 20:00
    I created this line to have every category have a hero product because I felt that people were just launching too much. And there were too many steps. And it was so convoluted. I honestly have such a hard time answering this question because I think every product is such a standout. I would think if you're new to oils specifically because we're mostly oil-focused at MARA, I would say start with our universal face oil. We call it universal for a reason. It's great for all skin types, acne, oily, dry skin, it's so good. You'll see the hydration and the results that we're known for.

    Elizabeth Stein 20:36
    That was your first product, right?

    Allison McNamara 20:40
    That was our first product. That's why I launched because I felt like it was the one that everyone could take advantage of. And it wasn't eliminating or alienating anyone from being able to try the products, because cleansers also are an incredible product. And that's something that you use every single day. So I think the cleanser or the universal oil would be a great way to start.

    Elizabeth Stein 20:58
    So at what point after you launched the universal oil did you feel like, okay, this business is going to make it and this is successful? And now let's go and roll out more products into the marketplace. What was that first year? What was that like?

    Allison McNamara 21:15
    The funny thing about the whole journey, I was not laissez-faire, but I wasn't super anxious or scared about the launch of the first product. I was prepared to make this business bigger than it was. I had already started working on five formulas when I started formulating in 2016. So, I did have my second product formula ready. But I didn't start doing all of the necessary things like ordering bottles and making unit cartons and getting all of that together until after the launch of the universal oil. So the plan was in my mind because I didn't have a business plan. I didn't even go to business school, I would have liked a marketing minor. And that's like pushing it. That's been very generous with my business experience. No, I didn't have like a business plan. But my mind was like, okay, if it goes, well, I'll feel it out after the first month. And if it is going well, then we'll start using the initial profits, or not even just profits, the initial money into the second product and order the bottles and the unit cartons and whatnot. And so, it was successful. So I started on the retinol oil. The idea was to launch about two products a year. We stick to that, we didn't launch any in 2019, we launched different sizes of things. We did launch basically two to three every year since then. And that's the general rollout that I try and keep to because I don't want to over-inundate the customer. And there's also only so many products I want to create. So, I don't want to like to do it all at once.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:44
    So what are some of the other key ingredients that you're using? Or is it algae and the moringa in everything?

    Allison McNamara 22:53
    No. So the algae is and everything we have a proprietary wild collected algae blend, and that's the secret sauce that's in every single product that ties it together. But we add different types of ocean and marine ingredients depending on the formula in addition to the blend, and then each product has a unique makeup. So some of them also share the moringa ingredient. But no, the retinol oil has 1.2% clean retinol. It uses four natural forms of vitamin A like Kay oil, which is more dense in vitamin A than rose hip. We have our vitamin C serum, which has a unique ingredient profile with no Moringa in it. So it has really beautiful 14 different types of vitamin C in the oil form. There's 15% THD ascorbate. It's just really beautiful. So each product is a ground-up experience when we formulate beyond the algae blend that we make sure everything works with.

    Elizabeth Stein 23:46
    So what's your skincare routine every week? Your skin is beautiful.

    Allison McNamara 23:53
    Thank you. I'm very simple and everything we create at MARA has to fit into one of these categories. It's a three-step routine. Cleanse, treat, hydrate. I do no more than three steps on any given day except mornings with sunscreen. So my morning is like I cleanse with our cleanser or I don't. Sometimes I don't wash my face in the morning. If I don't wash my face in the morning, my cleanse step is like essence to dampen the face because our skin receives serums better when we're slightly damp versus dry. You shouldn't ever put serums on dry skin especially if you're someone who leans dry like myself. Should always try and refresh the skin with an essence or a spray or cleanse before a serum. Then morning, it's always vitamin C followed by sunscreen. I love our MARA screen. I also love a few different types of sunscreens. Depends on where I'm going for the day if I want waterproof or not. And then at nighttime, it's always cleansed again with the mark cleanser. Then I'll either do our retinol oil or our lactic acid, I skin cycle. So I alternate between those two. And I always end with universal face oil.

    Elizabeth Stein 24:58
    And when you skin cycle, are you switching every other night?

    Allison McNamara 25:03
    No, I intuitively treat my skin. The lactic acid for me, which is incredible, it's a flower acid algae serum, I find that that's fine for me one to two nights a week. If I use it too often, I've got pretty sensitive skin, it's a chemical exfoliant. So it's exfoliating the top surface of your skin. I've never done well with doing that multiple nights in a row. But I could use retinol every single night and some nights I use a prescription strength retinol as well just depends on what your skin type is. For people who've got more acne-prone skin, or oilier skin, sometimes they can get away with using an acid or an AHA multiple times, like in a row or throughout the week. But that's just not my skin preference. So, it's all depends.

    Elizabeth Stein 25:44
    So when you are developing new products, and I guess just for anybody who's testing out a new product on their skin and seeing like, okay, how is this making my skin feel and look, how long do you give yourself to test and say like, here are the results that we want over X amount of time?

    Allison McNamara 26:02
    It depends on what the product is. Something like a retinol oil, for example, that took a long time for us because it takes like three to four months to see the full scope of what you're gonna get from the product. And you have to be using that one product consistently to see it. So that one took a little bit longer. Same with vitamin C, I think our treatments take a little bit longer in testing just to make sure that they're effective.

    Because efficacy is the top priority for me. I think products like a cleanser or which we went through a million revisions, that cleanser kept me up at night. It was so hard to formulate but worth the wait. But you can tell immediately if you don’t like someth

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