Episode 169: Dr. Michele Koo, Founder and CEO of Dr. Koo Skin Care

Dr. Michelle Koo wants to bring out the best in you. As a plastic surgeon, she creates symmetry and optimal aesthetics in her clients through surgical options, but she also delivers results as a skincare expert. Her luxury skincare brand, Dr. Koo Private Practice Skincare, designed to provide plastic surgery results without plastic surgery, was patiently developed over two decades of research and development.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody, it's Jodi Katz, your host of Where Brains Meet Beauty® Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. This week's episode features Dr. Michele Koo. She is the founder and CEO of Dr. Koo Private Practice Skincare. She's also a plastic surgeon in St. Louis, and she's also a client of Base Beauty's. And if you missed last week's episode, it featured Jess Weiner. She's a CEO and founder of Talk to Jess. Hope you enjoy the shows. Hey everybody. Welcome back to the show. I am so excited to be here with Dr. Michele Koo. She is the founder of Dr. Koo Private Practice, and she's also a plastic surgeon based in St. Louis. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®.
Dr. Michele KooHi, thank you so much for the opportunity. I'm so excited to chat with you.
Jodi KatzSo full disclosure to our listeners, Michele is one of my clients at Base Beauty, and we love working with you and helping you grow your brand. And I met you through Maggie Ciafardini, who is such an incredible friend of the agency and to me. And I'm just so glad to know you. My whole team adores you.
Dr. Michele KooAh, that's so great. She's amazing. I love working with her. She educates me every day. And I am all ears to learn.
Jodi KatzYeah, Maggie's a gem. Well, okay, so let's talk all about you. When you were a little girl, Michele, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Dr. Michele KooOh my gosh. In fact, I had said I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. Oh, no, no. What did I say? I definitely said I wanted to be a doctor, and I didn't know what, but my parents said, "Oh, you have to be a plastic surgeon." I'm thinking, what? A plastic surgeon. What good am I going to do there? And then as I went through medical school, the more the things I learned and did, I thought, wow, I really could affect some change and really great change. I can really make people happy. And that's really honestly my goal, which is just to make you happy with yourself, right? To bring out the best you. And that's like, oh, I can do this. I can empower you. And so really honestly, this is such a perfect marriage for me because I benefit from it so much, that I am so grateful for my patients because I want to make them better. But I love it.
Jodi KatzWhy do you think your parents suggested plastic surgery?
Dr. Michele KooI don't know. Probably because I've always loved the way things look and I'm always rearranging things. I was rearranging my room all the time. And my mom's going, "What? Is this OCD? She is a wack job." No. I just love things in order. I love putting things in balance. I was always moving pictures around. So I think she saw my calling.
Jodi KatzThat's so awesome. So what I find so interesting about you is through my career I've met a lot of doctors, but some of them are really pretty stiff. And there's just this relaxed ease about you. Is that the way you are outside of the treatment room? Do I get to see a different side of you than maybe a plastic surgeon patient does?
Dr. Michele KooSo you know what, this is what you'll see as a doctor when you come to my office. So, "Hi, I'm Michele. What can I help you with today? What are we chatting about," is what I say, right? So that's how I feel. That's how I approach everyone. However, when I get in that operating room, you should listen to my husband say, "Oh my God. The entire staff is afraid of you." And I said, "They should be because when you're under anesthesia and I am operating on you, God forbid that I am not so zoned in that everything else shuts off." So when I'm in that operating room, it is all about you. And I am efficient, and I execute, and I get the job done. And I have no, excuse me, can I say this, bullshit to deal with because that is what it is, right? But when you're with me in the office, before, after surgery, during your skin consult, whatever it is, this is what you see right here.
Jodi KatzAnd how are you able to compartmentalize that right? Did you have to teach yourself how to flip that switch for what it's like in the operating room versus what you're like in the rest of your work life?
Dr. Michele KooThat's a really good question. And I think it's through training through general surgery, and being in the ICU, and being in the emergency room. And when you are the bottom line, someone comes in, they need to be intubated. They need their chest cracked. They need something done. And there is no... Believe me, I've had senior residents telling me how horrible I was. But when you're starting as an intern, you just do not know when and when not to turn that switch on and off. But when you're faced with a crisis or decision-making, and you are the bottom line, you take on that responsibility. And that's how I take on everything for my patients, my clients. And that switch has been ingrained in me through training.
Jodi KatzSo tell me about how you balance your work as a plastic surgeon with running Dr. Koo Private Practice Skincare. Is it like Mondays and Tuesdays, you do one thing, Thursdays and Fridays, you do another? What is that like?
Dr. Michele KooSo now I've carved out all the Friday to do purely skincare, but it runs every single day, right? It's every day of my practice because that is such a component of what I feel is your beauty and your first impression. Your first impression, your skin, is your first and most lasting impression. And it's so simple. It's so simple to create that. So I just felt that opportunity for my clients, my patients was completely being missed. And it's such an adjunct, and it's so accessible to so many people that perhaps my scalpel or plastic surgery is not. And so this was such a wonderful way of empowering, again, giving to my patients. So I supported them before the surgery, after the surgery. Yeah, it is just ongoing every day. And the reason I get it all done is because the 24 hour clock continuous cycles. There's no Monday through Friday through Saturday. Like right now, I'm in Aspen, but we are working, honey.
Jodi KatzSo usually we see a dermatologist create skincare products, but you're a plastic surgeon creating skincare products. Is there a difference?
Dr. Michele KooSo I like to think, so this is going to piss off a lot of dermatologists, please don't be mad at me. I love my derms and we work well together. I think it's just a different attitude. They are fabulous for when they will write prescriptions. They will also have their skincare. But I just felt in starting out that what the change I could get with all the products, all the other products that I was commercially using myself, and selling honestly, and what derms were recommending just were not impactful enough. So I wanted something that would get real results. I wanted scalpel results. I was very impatient. I am impatient. And that's why I actually chose surgery versus derm because I wanted to see that change quickly and meaningfully.

So I think that would be the biggest difference. Plastic surgeons put everything in terms of an aesthetic eye. Our viewpoint is how can I make this better? How can I make it prettier? How can I make it better for you in proportion for the rest of you, right? Because we move things. We move. My husband says, "You'd bring toes to the nose if you could." And I said, "Yeah, I actually would." But that's what it is. We just look at things differently through an aesthetic spyglass.
Jodi KatzSo speaking of aesthetics, is there a different desired aesthetic in St. Louis versus what you see in LA or New York, or other cities around the world? Does St. Louis have a point of view when you think of that?
Dr. Michele KooI would say yes. I would say you have that regionally from everywhere, from Paris to London to LA to Manhattan versus Miami, right? It's a different look. And that's where the beauty of someone that's very discerning will look at you and say, "Wow. Tell me about you. Tell me what you do for fun. Tell me your lifestyle. What kind of clothes do you wear? Do you show plunging necklines? Are you a minister? Not a minister's wife. But I want to hear what you do because that is then what you want to create, right?

It's very different. You know that. Culturally, what's accepted is different in St. Louis. I think Missouri, St. Louis tends to be more suspicious of everything and are more guarded. So if I'm trying to sell them products, it's difficult to try to sell them. Why am I paying this? And why is this? Why do I have to spend so much money? But you know what, I have incredibly loyal followers here because they see that it works. And so what if they're paying a little bit more because it works, right?
Jodi KatzRight. So let's talk about retinol because, you can Google it, there's probably a millions of searches on retinol. And in the collection, there's an encapsulated retinol program that's really important to the progress that you want your clients to see. Well just tell us again, educate our listeners on what retinol is, and then what makes the encapsulated retinol in your products different?
Dr. Michele KooAbsolutely. So most people, honestly, including myself, cannot tolerate retinol. This is where I sort of began. And all the data is very, very compelling on retinol is the one workhorse, the ingredient that everybody needs to smooth your skin, to increase more collagen, your elastin, what are called glycosaminoglycans, that's the plumpness.

I think of your skin as Jell-O, right? And the fruit in that Jell-O is your collagen and an elastin. And as we age that Jell-O thickness thins, as well as your fruit that's in there. And so retinol replaces the fruit. So it's rich in that Jell-O and that Jell-O layer just, boom, expands out again. Everybody needs retinol. I mean, that is why there is four different concentrations of retinol in there to be tolerated by the most novice user to the most deepest, deepest of creases from sun damage and age. You start at the simple, and then you graduate up as you need it.
Jodi KatzSo you said that most people can't tolerate retinol. Why is that? What is happening to the skin when you're using retinol that could be aggravating?
Dr. Michele KooSo in its raw form, tretinoin, which is the prescription grade is honestly a different percentages. It's still honestly in its raw, pure chemical form, too harsh for most people because it's not enriched with vitamins and natural oils. And I look at it as a supportive team, right? If you don't have the support vehicles with that trainer, you're not going to get anywhere. It's like if you're training for a marathon. So I look at my pigment refiners, which are also in my product line, as well as the retinol, as your true trainers. They're going to pace you. But if you don't have the right hydration and the vitamins and the nutrition, you are not going to get anywhere because it is a team effort. And that's what this system has meant that every single product supports each other to create a much better sum than the individual. Just the sum of the parts is so much greater worked together. So that's kind of how I look at it. The retinol is just your trainer. But it needs support.
Jodi KatzSo Michele, I'm sure that you see this all the time, like, "No, I just want the purest strongest stuff." Right?
Dr. Michele KooYes.
Jodi KatzThat's what people say. So if a doctor gave a prescription for a pure retinol, does that mean my skin would get red and scaly, would it burst on fire. What would happen to my skin if I just used the purest chemical form of that?
Dr. Michele KooMost people, that's exactly what would happen. And some of it is because the pure chemical doesn't absorb and it doesn't penetrate to the layer that it needs the penetrate to. But these are encapsulated. They are placed into a, if you think of a bubble, a beautiful bubble of vitamins and essential amino acids, so that it actually finds the gateway and the pathway to get into the deeper levels of your skin to be able to simulate the collagen and the elastin. To get rid of the bad, just have your cells turnover so that the bad pigment problems will diminish.

It starts to reorder the layers as they should be. Because with age and sun damage, those different layers become very disorganized. And that is what retinol does is it reorganizes your skin levels. If you use the prescription grade, or a very strong percentage that you don't even need, it's going to sit on the top of your skin, and it's just going to burn the shit out of your skin. It really will annoy your skin. It'll turn it red and fiery. And it'll make you extremely sun sensitive, which even creates more damage.
Jodi KatzRight. So you told me you've been working on these products and formulating and reformulating for over a decade. Is it almost 20 years worth of research on these products?
Dr. Michele KooIt really is. The clinical, I really have my patients to thank for this because way back when I would say, "Oh, do you want to try this? And let me have you use this." And they would do a lot of products that I would be trying to sell. Because I was experimenting myself and using them. And then they would keep coming back and saying, "But I'm not seeing any changes." And I go, "Damn. Neither am I. So let's try this." And so then I started saying, "Oh God, these are just not right." So then I started actually blending and mixing.

And if you go to my office, you'll see that all the things back there are massive numbers of containers of different formulations that are written on them. And then I started actually assembling my team, which I'm still assembling now, right? So I assemble my team of pharmacists, my chemist, my biochemist, and then experts from the beauty industry to help me really create the feel as well as what I provided, which was the clinical information, the clinical data. Because I knew what worked, and I knew what people have been asking for, literally for 27 years. And then I would iterate and iterate because just like your skin is alive, and that is why I iterate because you need to keep getting better, right?
Jodi KatzSo did you think that it would take 20 something years to get to the point you're at now? Did you ever imagine it takes this long to develop the right products?
Dr. Michele KooYeah, I kind of did. Other people would have done a money grab. I think they would have put it on the market a lot sooner. But the purpose of this was to find the right products, the right ingredients. And so my formulators kept saying, "You don't need to put more of this in. You don't need to do this. We can get by with this." And I said, "But this is not the DNA of this product. This is to be able to get something that is real and pure, and good for the environment because it's not eco toxic. And we're going to go with green containers, or we're going to go with glass."

So it was so hard to honestly find all those things. I have to tell you that is why it took that long. And even every day, I look at the products, and I listen to my ongoing patients. And they tell me every day like, "Wow, I wish I could have this." I'm going, lights on. Ding, ding, ding. I'm going to run back there right now as soon as we're done talking because I'm putting it on my list. I have other things that we're working on for your hair, for your stretch marks, for your crepey knee skin, for your neck skin, all those things are currently actually being developed right as we speak.
Jodi KatzIt's so interesting to me because you said that you're not patient, right? You started out the conversation telling me that you're not patient.
Dr. Michele KooYes.
Jodi KatzBut yet you've been patient to continue to iterate and evolve the product. Why do you think you've been able to be patient with that process? Because that's hard and it's expensive.
Dr. Michele KooIt's really hard, and it's way too expensive. I mean, I'll tell you that right now. Which my business partners say, "You are crazy." But you know what, I love it. It is a passion of mine. I am selling them now because they are so good. But every three years or so, as I gain more information and data, I will change. And I think it's because my passion is to create the best that I can. And so, my name's on it. I really believe in it. I don't want to, I could have, sell you things that, like everyone else, or over the counter or whatever. I could have done that. But this is really something I am very proud of, something I don't have to be embarrassed about. And we guarantee the products. It's just such a good, pure product from my heart to you, the consumer. So I am patient because I see the results, and it just makes me so happy when someone says, "Oh my God. Look it. I get compliments that I've never gotten before." That's what keeps me going.
Jodi KatzAnd whenever you are pushing us for why isn't it happening faster, I think about your product line because there's a sequence, right? You tell me, I can't use a level four retinol if I haven't gone through level one through three. So I think it's so great that you reinforce with the customer through the way the product is organized that you do have to have patience, right? Because if you skip to level four, your skin's not going to be happy, and you're not going to reach your goals. And that's a pretty patient attitude. So for someone who says she's not patient, you built patience into the system. So it must be in you somewhere.
Dr. Michele KooRight. Well good teachers like you and Maggie tell me I have to be patient. And I will tell you that right now, because every once in a while, that little ugly monster comes out that is wielding that scalpel. And I'm like, "Okay, I'm not seeing results. And I'm kind of upset here." And I go off the reservation, but then I slowly come back and say, "It's a build. It's genuine." So I get that. I totally get that. And there is that side of me too, because as a plastic surgeon, you have to be incredibly meticulous and patient. You can't rush through it. I definitely do appreciate the step-wise fashion of getting there. But I also recognize in plastic surgery, three hours, or three and a half hours, or four and a half hours, whatever it is, because it is the safety of the patient under anesthesia that I'm guarding at that point, right? So it's a very, very fine balance between the two.
Jodi KatzWell, let's put your entrepreneur hat on. Take off your doctor hat. We have a lot of fans of the show who are entrepreneurs, or people who want to start a brand, that are thinking about it. And other than the products, iterating and getting the formulas right, what's been the hardest part or what you thought was most expensive or surprising in lifting this brand off the ground?
Dr. Michele KooWow. The formulations, yeah. Finding the right partners to manufacture with. Because I've chosen a lot of ones that I wasn't happy with, or partners that I was even private branding with. And there are several actually private branders that I actually you reached out to directly when I was quite young. And they would just look at me and think you know nothing, I'm a chemist. What do you know? What do you have to offer me? So then, I go, "Okay." I was humbled. "All right. Sorry, I'll go away." I kept plugging at it and plugging it in. And that's the perseverance, I think, that you learn when you go through medicine because it is such a long path that you have to persevere.

So then I would call other people, and more people, and I actually engaged several, and didn't do well. I didn't have a good experience at all. So what I would say is you know you're going to fail, you know you're going to make mistakes, and you know you're going to stumble. It's going to cost you actually a lot of money. But you just pick yourself right back up and just have heart. And you have to believe, and everyone who tells you if you don't have the passion for it, don't do it. And when I was studying like, oh, yeah right, sure. But that is exactly right.

If you believe in this, and you know you can do it better, and there is a product you can deliver, and you can deliver it well, you have to put it all in. Because that's why 24/7 I do this. Sometimes you get my texts, don't you Jodi, at two in the morning or whatever it is. And you're thinking, what the is she texting me at this hour for? So yeah. I think you have to believe. You have to just stay with it. And yeah, you pick a lot of wrong people. But eventually if you keep plugging at it, you'll find the right team. And I can't emphasize how important that is.
Jodi KatzI'm really so proud of you because there's been so many versions of this, right? So many versions of the formula it sounds like, so many versions of suppliers to formulate to make the formulas. You had a different version of your packaging. You had a different version of your website. You had a different version of social media. And now, doesn't it all just feel right now, right? You had to almost spend all that money and use all that time to get here.
Dr. Michele KooYes. It feels really, really good. And I can't emphasize enough. You have to really enjoy working with the people you work with, right? Jodi, I love working with you. I love your patience with me, which is so important for me because I am impatient. Anyway, so yeah, it feels very good. I know I'm a restless soul in that because I always want to strive and get bigger. Because I told you what my goals were. And Maggie's going, "Well, geez. You're not going to get there for this amount of time." I think yeah, I will. And I'm going to do it in my timeframe and let's do it together. You either come along or we're not going to come along. But yeah, I'm definitely on a mission because I want people to use this. I just think it's so fabulous. Really, it just works. It's effective.
Jodi KatzSo we'll have to figure out a way to communicate this. But I think that there's products that you buy off the shelf, right, at a Sephora or department store, or an Ulta. Then there's prescription products that you get from your doctor. And then you created these to really be in between, right? To be closer to what you get as a prescription, but not be a prescription. So I think in other ailments, we call that prescription strength or something. But I think we need to figure out a way to communicate that from a beauty and aesthetics point of view. What do we call that category when the formulas really are so close? They're as close to being a prescription as you can be without being a prescription.
Dr. Michele KooWow. That is a really good question. And that is something that I struggle with, right? Because this is how do I create that awareness? How do I get that story out, that information? But you're absolutely correct. It's really a blending. You're getting the best of both worlds. Because I've worked with the experts that we pulled in on the team when I was actually doing the formulating of, okay, what do we need to put in there that's not a filler. I don't want a filler, but I want it to feel like luxury.

And we used a real scents and real botanicals and real serums, oils, right? But then you can't just rely on that because that's your heart telling you to be green. That's your heart telling you you can do it with all botanicals. But your brains know that you need something stronger because you see your skin getting older, and more discolored and uneven, and you're having to use foundation. So then you start going to the prescription. You start seeing that plastic surgeon or the dermatologist, and they give you prescriptions for retinol.

Well, how do you blend the two? Here it is. Here it is right here because I've taken just under what would be prescription strength so that it becomes pregnancy safe, encapsulated, found the ways to protect it so that it is safe and not irritating for you. But put it enough in higher concentrations so it is actually much more impactful than just, not to disparage any brand names, but certain things you would get at Sephora, anywhere that you have the beautiful Le Mars that make you feel so fabulous. I mean, they're all wonderful products, but they don't have the actives in the levels of concentrations because I have married the science, the medical with the beauty. And this is where your brains meet beauty, right? This is the marriage of the two. You've hit it on the head of the nail where you can blend medical, you can get prescription results, yet, it feels like luxury, and it just feels so good.
Jodi KatzSo I think we need to carve out and name this. It's not prescription, it's not store, not retail. We need to create a new name for this category. So we'll work on it.
Dr. Michele KooIt's Koo.
Jodi KatzMaybe some of our listeners will write in and give us some ideas on what we can name this category. Because it's hard to be the first, right? Because you have to teach everybody. It's more work.
Dr. Michele KooOh, that's a great thought.
Jodi KatzYeah, it's harder.
Dr. Michele KooThat's a great thought.
Jodi KatzRight? So you're taking prescription value retinol, but you're making it actually work more gently on my skin. So you're going to say it's better than prescription because prescription's going to be too irritating, right? So it's better than prescription for most people. But it's not prescription. So what do we call that? We have to figure that out. That's our job. Well, Michele, I love talking with you always, and I'm so grateful that you shared your wisdom with my listeners today. And I'm, of course, so excited to be on this journey with you.
Dr. Michele KooThank you so much.
Jodi KatzAnd for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Michele. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes. And for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram at Where Brains Meet Beauty® Podcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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