Francesco Urso started Wolf Project in 2019 because he wanted to create beauty products for men, by men. With experience as a former Procter & Gamble Brand Director in China, Russia, and Europe “across Beauty and Household Care,” he has taken it upon himself to lead the evolution of men’s skincare, in particular, and “the way men take care of themselves” in general.
At Wolf Project, Francesco Urso leads with the “ambition of transforming the way men take care of their skin” and “upgrading to more advanced skin care rituals like face mask sheets.” The company’s products are designed in Geneva, Switzerland, and then manufactured in Seoul, South Korea—the “most advanced skin care market in the world.” Wolf Project’s leading product is “The Deep Hydration Sheet Mask.” This mask gives men “firm, bright, younger looking skin” in just 15 minutes.
Prior to launching Wolf Project, Francesco Urso worked as Brand Director for Procter & Gamble. He served this role for the Chinese market, the Eastern European market, and the Central Asian market. For China, he led the “end to end management” for the Pantene line. For Eastern Europe and Central Asia, he managed “the top and bottom line delivery of the detergent and softeners business in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and all other Central Asian Republics.”
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Francesco Urso: With pleasure! Before I started Wolf Project I was a Marketing Director in Procter & Gamble Beauty Care. I started my career in 2007 in Geneva, Switzerland. I then led the detergents business in Russia and concluded my P&G time in China as a Marketing Director on Pantene Hair Care. Working and living in very different environment has been an incredible journey, I am very lucky. Asia made me discover advanced beauty rituals and I witnessed the effects on my inner and outer self. It was time to quit the safe corporate life to begin a new journey.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Francesco Urso: There were lots of hard times, and still are! I remember the beginning was challenge as I was coming out a job where I had to lead teams to bring to life a certain vision and strategy, the machine running was very big with lots and lots of people. I had no control nor knowledge on how to actually DO things. All of a sudden I was thrown into a world where alone, I had decided to build a brand. I didn’t even understand the whole “wheel” of elements that had to be put together. I did consider giving up, I talked about it with my wife and friends. The drive came from and still comes from the belief that Wolf Project is impacting the way men feel about masculinity around the world through our products and messages. I firmly believe in that and it motivates me when things get rough.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Francesco Urso: Well… let’s say there were a few typos on our first packaging because I didn’t proofread enough… or when the traffic and sales on our website skyrocketed because we were featured on Forbes… and we hadn’t set up Google Alerts properly so we had no idea it was happening! I also remember it took me maybe 2 weeks to figure out how to get barcodes for my products… only to find out I could buy them on worldbarcodes.com…. learning from all of these? Ask lots of stupid questions around you, very often the answer is simpler and much quicker than you think. New entrepreneurs are often too secretive about their world changing ideas, and too shy to ask for help. Both are big mistakes!
Jerome Knyszewski: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Follow a mission: having a purpose, a mission, being part of a greater cause has so many implications in our work. It inspires and unites the team at work, decisions are easier and quicker as it’s easier to know what’s right and wrong, it helps us design products and experiences that truly delight consumers. It’s the bedrock of a business and I believe THE most important element to truly create something unique. In P&G I always felt that our brands had a mission, but it was massively underexploited and under-communicated. I have witnessed what it means technically to sit on a sleeping mission. We made our mission very central at Wolf Project, to inspire all men with a more progressive vision of masculinity. We see how this impact our innovation, communication, relationship with customers and stakeholders. We surround ourselves with others that share this mission and build a better future together.
- Surround yourself with better people: great companies are never about a one-person show, and even if it looks like that from the outside, it rarely is. A leader needs to be able to recognize his or her strengths and get people around him that are better than him. It’s easier said than done and especially hard at the beginning of a company when we can’t truly afford specific talent for specific tasks…. But at least we need to then have a glidepath to it once the affordability issue is not there anymore.
- Always be honest about reality: this is truly important to me. I have seen many top leaders and top teams failing on this one. External reality is often replaced by internally positioned “better” realities, with better indicators than what truly matters in the market. For example, in P&G I saw flat or declining businesses (sales, market share) proud of a slightly increased brand awareness or great advertising scores. They were not facing reality, talking about the elephant in the room. The goal was a successful internal meeting. The best companies I have observed stay hungry and almost negatively biased on reality, always looking for the glass half empty instead of the glass half full. Like a sports team who won everything… how do they keep motivated? They look at the areas where they can still improve. I am maybe too negative and often I am criticized for being over critical with myself. I guess this is what has pushed me to do what I have done so far in my life and career.
- Stay humble: it’s easier for a leader, a CEO, to fall in the CEO syndrome. To believe we are smarter than others, that our ideas are better, our words are always right. It’s a huge pitfall. A leader needs to recognize that some people may not speak their full mind, may not contradict the leader and hence he needs to be OVER sensitive to other signs. In Asia we say “you need to read the air in the room” to get the true feeling on a certain topic. A leader needs to have the humility to do this, the sensitivity and always question him or herself.
- Innovate:this might be personal and I have a few examples to share later. I believe in a forward-looking world, all companies need to adapt and be at the forefront of innovation. It may be product, communication, consumer insights, any innovation that is relevant to their business model. But push forward is for me a mantra that has guided my whole life.
Jerome Knyszewski: Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Francesco Urso: Building on the above point, I believe purpose helps in many aspects of the business. Brands have the possibility to amplify certain causes, to accelerate their development. In my mind brands can be megaphones, can be heard like or more than the masses. Nike has been a great example over the years, pushing provocative topics on the tables of the policy makers. I believe that structural lasting changes in the world is done by governments and laws, but people and brands can and should accelerate this process with their own, distinctive capabilities and voices.
Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Francesco Urso: First, we should understand the whole funnel of conversion for our business. In our case, a big funnel is from social ad on Facebook and Instagram to purchase on the site. We should target the right audience, with the right message and help chose the right product. The strategies are hence consequent. Know the audience inside out, catch her at a good time in a good platform with a message that speaks to some tensions. It’s not rocket science, but it’s incredibly hard to do. For example on the social ads we ran, I am brutal about “would I click on this ad”, or at least “ do I think 1% of the audience would click”. It’s a great test to judge creativity.
Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Francesco Urso: Reputation and trust are not something we can “ask”, conversely, they are given to us by others. At Wolf Project we now know we have incredible products and we were lucky to have trusted opinion leaders (specialized press, grooming editors, influencers) to say it publicly. I guess we were good in product design and marketing and we got lucky that the right people liked the products.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Francesco Urso: Find 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!