Welcome to Byrdie's new series, The Hustle. We're profiling diverse, interesting women and female-identifying folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
Today, get to know Jhoanna Marissa, the founder of Willa Creative Agency. In the beauty and wellness tech space, Marissa is revered as one of the most influential figures. She got her start working as a product designer and front-end developer, which laid the groundwork for her to launch her company in 2012. Her women-led, digital-first studio focuses on cultivating connection through design and technology. And over the past nine years, the company has conceptualized branding, web design, and content projects for buzzy brands like Dedcool, TheSkin, and Ren Skincare. As someone with a front-row seat to the ever-changing wellness and beauty tech industry, Marissa can gush endlessly about brands and trends. And though we picked her brain on those topics, we also asked her to share insight into her entrepreneurial journey and how her experiences as a Latina woman have influenced her perspective on beauty. Ahead, read everything Marissa had to say.
Before launching Willa Creative, what were some of the professional roles you held?
My first job was as an intern at a magazine. I thought I was so cool and loved every minute of it. After that, I went from being a Marketing Assistant to Branding and Partnerships Director at an entertainment marketing company in Los Angeles. It was there that I started dabbling into web design and creative work. However, this company focused heavily on experiential marketing in hospitality and music. While those are great, I wanted to work in fashion and beauty and focus more on digital. I started to see the boom of digital blogs and e-commerce, and that's where I knew I wanted to be, so I took the very scary leap to create something for myself. But both of those jobs gave me a good taste of hard work and wearing lots of hats which I was so grateful for.
What inspired you to start Willa Creative?
I was not able to find my dream job. I wanted to work in the digital e-commerce space, specifically in beauty and fashion. Back when I was looking, those roles were very sparse. So, I started to do it on my own and slowly cultivated the work environment I craved and began working with brands I loved.
What are your day-to-day duties as the founder?
I focus on client strategy and business development. I'll jump in and design or offer development support whenever needed, but my team is strong, so I focus on ensuring the company's growth and health are always in good standing.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Hands down, creating for brands and founders that I am constantly inspired by and who I admire. A close second is being able to create an agency environment that I can be proud of.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
It is knowing when to say no, when it's not the right client fit or when the timing just doesn't match up.
What are three lessons you’ve learned about entrepreneurship since launching Willa Creative?
I've learned the importance of company culture and trusting the team members you position around you. I used to think "fake it until you make it" was a good approach. But, I've learned that honesty and transparency are so much more valuable to company growth and sustaining relationships in business. So I recommend taking that route. It’s also okay to say no to projects that don't inspire you. You're better off saying no, and others will always come.
I've learned that honesty and transparency are so much more valuable to company growth and sustaining relationships in business.
You’ve helped conceptualize beauty and wellness brands like Dedcool, TheSkin, and Ren Skincare. Is there a project you’re most proud of?
That is so tough. I am authentically such a fan of all our clients and an actual customer of all of them. I buy and use their products daily. I take a lot of pride in the Dedcool website. I was one of Carina [Chaz's] first meetings when she was in the early stages of launching. As a team, it was a lot of fun diving into her website for the last refresh. She really puts trust in our team to break the rules a bit with her site's design. Then, theSkin is another project I'm proud of. One of my first loves in the digital space was the concept of merging commerce and editorial, and that's exactly what we got to do with theSkin. Users wouldn't know it from how they experience the site, but it is pretty complex how we covered reading, shopping, and affiliates on their website. I like beautiful, complex projects.
What does the future of beauty and wellness look like?
I have loved the constant evolution of diversity and transparency in beauty and digital. I see that continuing to be an ever-growing part of the beauty landscape. But lately, we are strategizing more around communication tactics than ever before. While the sales tactics are important, we realized that to be a long-lasting brand that becomes "essential" to your customers, you need to go beyond the acquisition and sale. It's important how brands speak to their customers, sell to their customers, and build relationships with them. We are also simplifying the UX of our digital products even more. We have learned that users want to find what they want quickly and efficiently rather than get tons of upsells, cross-sells, or pop-ups. So we are prioritizing space, ease, and customer personalization. With some of the newer sites we are building, we are stripping back the bells and whistles and putting the customer first.
Have you had any mentors or anyone who has helped you get to where you are?
Many. I am forever grateful for the solid network of women I have in Los Angeles. Willa Creative has always been referral-based. If it wasn't for putting collaboration over competition first and getting that in return with incredible clients, partner agencies, and collaborators, we wouldn't be where we are today.
What’s one piece of advice you have for women pursuing careers in the tech industry?
Band together with like-minded entrepreneurs or acquaintances. It's important to have allies who can think of you for jobs and projects. It's also important to have someone to ask for advice. Be clear on what you want people to know about what it is you do. Also, be curious to learn and be conversational about any of the roles and trade in the periphery of your specific trade. Tech is changing so rapidly, so continue to be a sponge and be curious.
How have you stayed motivated and positive amidst the stress of this last year?
By having honest conversations with colleagues and collaborators about common stresses and struggles. And I made sure I created space for my team to openly talk about any way they were feeling to keep up with team morale. It wasn't only lockdown that struck emotions. It was George Floyd, BLM, and the election. I made sure to give as many personal days as the team needed to participate in protesting, volunteering, and voting. We also launched a BLM feed on our website that made us feel like we were doing a small bit to drive change. I am so grateful for the successes in 2020 from a business standpoint, but that didn’t stop everything from affecting us this year. I continually do emotional check-ins with myself and my team.
What does beauty mean to you?
100% confidence and empathy. I am always inspired by kind and confident women.
How has your cultural background as a Latina woman influenced how you approach beauty and wellness?
My mom always would tell me about the importance of health from the inside out—both spiritually and inside your gut. Herbs and rich greens are a big part of my diet, and I also take time to check in with my mind and heart. There is a Mexican tradition of having limpias, where they cleanse any negative and toxic energies and thoughts from your body. It's one of my favorite relaxing treatments for cleansing of the inside. Nourishing the outside is all about moisture on top of clean and exfoliated skin. I love organic rosehip oil, rich night creams (like Biologique Recherche Vip O2), olive oil, and body butter.
What are your current favorite beauty products of the moment?
My biggest discovery this last year that had me toss everything else out is Ilia Beauty, especially their Super Serum Skin Tint with SPF 40 ($48). Their makeup is all I use, except for Saie’s Glowy Super Gel ($25). I am also a huge sunblock fan, and I swap between Elta MD and Barbara Sturm’s Sun Drops SPF 50 ($145). For skincare, I use iS Clinical Hydra-Cool Serum ($94) and Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel ($88).