4 On-Demand Beauty Apps Get Put to the Test

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Remember Veruca Salt? “I want the world, I want the whole world, I want to lock it all up in my pocket, give it to me now!” Essentially she was predicting the iPhone. Because these days we are all carrying access to the whole world in our pockets and, via apps, we’re using it to get things our way: now.


Over the last few months, a wave of beauty and wellness start-ups have launched in the Bay Area, offering on-demand services to the time-crunched and discerning woman. Need your makeup done for a party starting in an hour? Hair colored before a big meeting this afternoon? Companies like Vênsette, StyleBee, Zeel, and Madison Reed are making these amenities—previously requiring a salon visit and a chunk of change—easy and accessible by bringing same-day appointments to your home, office, hotel—you name it.

Many of these companies claim to be the Uber of their category. But do they all stack up? Because say what you will about the taxi company’s controversial CEO, there’s no denying that Uber has redefined the 21st century business model. The majority of these new beauty apps are following Uber’s plan to the letter, with user-friendly platforms, stored client preferences and credit card information, and seamless, cash-free transactions that allow the pros and customers alike to rate each other via a star system.

I’ve never been much of a Veruca myself. My patience level aligns more with Charlie. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t become accustomed to a little instant gratification. And, besides, who doesn’t need a little beautifying?

Vensette

Backstory: Launched in 2011 by New York City entrepreneur Lauren Remington Platt, the service became available this past fall in San Francisco, which Platt calls “an appealing market, because it is one of the core locations our clients travel for business.” She says the app has quickly gained popularity here due to our strong charitable scene and fundraisers, such as opening night at the SF Ballet and the Fine Arts Museums’ annual Mid-Winter Gala.

The app: It’s beautifully designed with detailed examples of potential looks. For instance, clients can choose from among nine makeup styles (the “CEO” features a light smoky eye and neutral lip) and eight hairstyles (the “Tribeca” is a professional, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy–like ponytail).

Cost: Starting at $100 for hair, $150 for makeup; $200 if you book hair and makeup together

Experience: When Charla, my assigned hair and makeup artist, arrived, I took it as a good sign that I wanted my face and locks to look like hers. Charla’s background is in TV and film, and she treated me like a movie star, even offering a black Vênsette robe to wear during the service. I was heading to the opening of FOG Design + Art later that night and, before we started, she wanted to see what I was wearing. “I like to be able to picture the whole look,” she said. My navy Yves Saint Laurent shift deserved a bold eye, she suggested, and maybe a low chignon. I trusted her. After two hours of attentive care to my tresses and face, I had softly lined lids and a perfectly messy updo. A friend, however, didn’t have as breezy an experience. After booking the service the night before a black-tie gala, she received a phone call just a couple hours prior to the service: No stylist was coming—Vênsette had overbooked.

Verdict: It’s celebrity treatment at a price. Fewer than six months in, naturally there are some growing pains.

Style Bee

Backstory: Cofounded by Anahita Nejad 
and Anna Santeramo, the mobile hair and makeup site started in Los Angeles in 2013 and came to SF last May. “In today’s world,” Santeramo says, “looking good is not an indulgence. It’s a necessity.”

The app: No frills efficiency, featuring a refreshingly diverse group of models.

Cost: $50 for hair, $85 for makeup

Experience: With only a few hours notice (Santeramo says two hours is the minimum), Gina, one of 200 vetted, licensed artists employed by the company and a part-time staffer at MAC Cosmetics, arrived at my apartment. 
I told her I’d like a natural look, something appropriate for daytime. In a swift 60 minutes, Gina had me ready with soft curls and a tad-too-daring cat eye that, full disclosure, I ended up softening by smudging it with a Q-tip before heading out the door.

Verdict: Great for time sensitive situations and points for an app that celebrates all skin tones.

Madison Reed

Backstory: Amy Errett, a former partner at the venture capital firm Maveron, launched the company in 2013 and started selling its all-natural, salon-quality color online January 2014. And though its “Color to You” service, which sends stylists to clients’ homes, differentiates Madison Reed from other beauty lines, at the end of the day, the range of 32 hand-mixed hues is really what the business is about. They’re available for purchase online and used at salons including Alex Chases in SF and Palo Alto and Sally Hershberger in New York City. (Hershberger is an adviser to the company.)

The app: Incredibly thorough with friendly instructions on home application and a well-stocked shop of color, tools, and maintenance products. Although I had some trouble when I tried to sign in via Facebook to schedule an appointment, I called customer service and the representative cheerfully helped me set up something for the next week. (Licensed colorists are on call to text, talk, and soon video chat with clients from 8am to 9pm.)

Cost: $99 for "Color to You"; DIY color is $30 per box or $25 per month for subscribers.

Experience: “That sounds messy,” said a friend when I told her I was getting color at home. In reality, it wasn’t any more disorderly than what I’d been doing myself with boxed color bought at Whole Foods. Madison Reed’s clean, thoughtful packaging is also more appealing than my grocery store go-to. “It’s designed to be high end,” says Errett of the purple and white container, developer bottle and travel-size shampoo and conditioner. My colorist, Stephanie, one of 15 employed by Madison Reed, was much more thorough with the application than I typically am, brushing color over every strand from front to back. After we washed my hair in the kitchen sink (some clients prefer to let the stylist leave, hop in the shower, and then blow dry and style on their own), the resulting shade was a uniform cognac.

Verdict: A gift to women with uncomplicated tinting needs who don’t want to pay salon prices. Or as Errett has observed, “Many of our customers want someone to come to their house, color match them in person, and then teach them how to color their hair. They do that one or two times, and then they don’t need anybody to come back.”

Zeel

Backstory: Serial start-up entrepreneur Samer Hamadeh launched the on-demand massage app in New York in 2013 and, in August, brought it to SF. “Massage is popular everywhere, but especially in San Francisco,” he said, adding that Zeel is performing better here than in other markets because our culture is more aligned with living via apps. Zeel has 350 massage therapists on call.

The app: Well illustrated and user-friendly, the app allows you to choose between Swedish, deep tissue and prenatal massage, the gender of your masseuse, and the length of your session (60-90 minutes).

Cost: One-time massages start at $110, plus tax and tip. Monthly subscriptions begin at $99.

Experience: It was slightly unsettling for me to disrobe with a stranger in my home. Although I’ve had several massages in spas and know the routine, I didn’t even think about this part of the treatment until my massage therapist, Scott, had set up his table in my studio apartment, after lugging it up three flights of stairs. Luckily, he couldn’t have been more professional and polite. “I’m going to go wash my hands,” Scott said courteously and tucked into the restroom, giving me privacy while I undressed and got under the covers. The massage itself was great. Scott’s a skilled therapist who even arrived with his own Bose speakers and soothing classical playlist. So, it absolutely was not his fault that I couldn’t relax: I couldn’t ignore the chaos in my apartment—dirty dishes in the kitchen, clothes piled on the bed. Sure, there’s something to be said for convenience, but there’s also value in the transportive nature of a spa which my apartment lacks: a new fancy robe, trickling fountain, dim lighting.

Verdict: An easy-to-use app and expert treatment that, like the others, passed the Veruca test: I got what I wanted when I wanted it…now.

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