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Very few people these days will buy beauty products, go to a restaurant, or travel without checking online forums like Makeup Alley, Yelp, or TripAdvisor. So why would you think about getting Botox or a boob job without doing a little research first? That’s the premise behind RealSelf, an online community for cosmetic procedures that launched in 2006.
The company just landed $40 million in funding. Following an investment of $2 million in the first two years, this round is one sign that noninvasive cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery are having a moment. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 17.5 million surgical and minimally invasive (meaning things like injections and lasers) procedures were performed in the US, a 2 percent increase compared to 2016. More than 7.2 million of these were Botox injections. But prices and individual experiences can vary wildly, so consumers get real talk, and pictures, at RealSelf.
The TripAdvisor of cosmetic procedures
RealSelf is free for users and features reviews of every procedure you can imagine — and some you probably can’t — written by real people. While there are reviews of specific doctors, RealSelf is more focused on procedures in general. The Yelp equivalent would be like reviewing how much you liked your spaghetti rather than how great you thought Carmine’s was.
It also provides a “worth it” rating analogous to Amazon’s star ratings. Many procedures score in the high 80s and 90s. For example, a “mommy makeover” (usually a breast lift plus a tummy tuck) has been deemed 97 percent worth it; Fraxel, a popular facial laser treatment, is only 69 percent worth it, per users.
The company says the five most researched surgical procedures on the site are breast enhancement, tummy tuck, butt enhancement, nose jobs, and liposuction. The most researched noninvasive procedures are nonsurgical fat reduction, fillers, orthodontics, Botox-like treatments, and facial lasers.
When searching for a procedure, users have the option of reading reviews, scrolling through pictures, reading through a Q&A section, watching videos, chatting in a Reddit-like forum, reading information articles, and searching for doctors and pricing. It’s part shopping guide, part therapy session.
One post from a 60-something woman reads: “I am worried about the toll this will take on my fiance. He thinks I am perfect the way I am ... (so sweet, right!) But I have had these saggy boobs and droopy stomach for too long. I deserve this! But I do have moments where I think I am absolutely CRAZY for doing this…”
Founder Tom Seery says he was surprised early on when women requested the company add image functionality. The site is definitely NSFW, at least in certain sections, featuring pages and pages of naked, headless torsos zoomed in on breasts and butts in before-and-after photos, scars and all.
“I figured nobody would want to post a picture of themselves because it’s such a private matter,” Seery says. “We enabled that feature and not only did we get pictures, but we were getting pictures from women who were saying, ‘Well, I wouldn’t even show my husband this, but here’s what I look like without my clothes on.’ It was just quite a surprising phenomenon.”
Pricing and doctor listings on the site are also a big deal. Each procedure lists an average price, as well as price ranges based on geography. Conversations and advice from users on how they financed procedures also abound, since they can run into the tens of thousands of dollars and are rarely covered by insurance.
While there is a stripped-down free listing available for doctors and practices, RealSelf charges anywhere from $200 a month to about $5,000 a month for doctors to advertise on the site. (The higher range applies to “really competitive markets where there’s a lot of audience,” like New York or Los Angeles.)
The site makes sure that potential consumers see doctors who provide services they’re shopping for, but RealSelf also requires that the doctors maintain a positive consumer rating on the site and actively engage with the community. Doctors aren’t always happy about the transparency of procedure pricing on the site, though.
“[Doctors] think that it’s not information that should be shared,” Seery says. “We just politely disagree and believe that it’s important, as a purchase out of your own pocket, that you have greater insight into pricing information. And also: Why does it cost what it does?”
If several big Silicon Valley players had a baby
This is essentially the question that inspired Seery to start RealSelf in Seattle 12 years ago. He says his wife went for a facial and the aesthetician recommended a laser treatment to her “that somehow burned your face off to make you prettier.” It cost $1,500. Besides a brochure she was given, she didn’t know how else to find out information or talk to other people who had actually had the treatment.
At the time, Seery worked at Expedia (which later spun off TripAdvisor), so the format is not a surprise. He quit Expedia to start RealSelf. Rich Barton, who was an executive at Microsoft and founder of Expedia, Zillow, and Glassdoor, was RealSelf’s first investor; the site was in his wheelhouse of businesses “bringing transparency to complex markets.” Seery raised $2 million from other Seattle and Silicon Valley investors.
RealSelf has been profitable for several years, making money from the doctor listings; revenue has grown by 209 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to Geekwire. RealSelf has about 10 million monthly unique users, lists 20,000 doctors, and tracks about 450 procedures, up from 137 in 2010. About two-thirds of its users are women, and 60 percent of its total users come from within the US.
Two weeks ago, RealSelf announced its $40 million funding round led by Elephant Partners, the VC firm co-founded by Warby Parker’s Andy Hunt. Hunt is on RealSelf’s board, as is Uber COO Barney Harford. RealSelf also just hired Amazon’s former head of video marketing Tanja Omeze as its first chief marketing officer. Seery says the investment will be used to launch RealSelf globally and in multiple languages, improve its technology, and try to increase awareness of RealSelf.
The fading taboo of aesthetic procedures
Compared to other review platforms, RealSelf has been under the radar. While it’s maybe not fair to directly compare them, Yelp has 77 million unique monthly users (more if you count its app and mobile) and TripAdvisor has 455 million. Obviously, more people go to restaurants and on vacation than get nose jobs. But RealSelf doesn’t really have any close competitors, meaning it’s the only game in town. (Charlotte’s Book also offers doctor listings, but it’s more of an editorial site with a focus on wellness.)
The bigger reason the platform may have attracted so much VC money is that cosmetic enhancements themselves are not taboo in the way they used to be. Plastic surgeons, led by the social media–savvy “Dr. Miami,” have taken to Snapchat and Instagram, showing Brazilian butt lift surgeries in real time. With conversations about cosmetic procedures becoming more commonplace and public, everyone from the Real Housewives to Washington politicians are partaking and, if RealSelf and its investors have bet correctly, searching for doctors to perform them.
Seery also notes that with advances in technology, a facelift is no longer the only option. And with more options comes more questions and more doctors with specific specialties. “Technology has brought new products to the market that consumers find very appealing because they don’t require the same downtime or risk factors as surgery. They’re more approachable and affordable,” he says.
This isn’t to say that there is no judgment around cosmetic enhancement. RealSelf is, after all, an anonymous platform. Would women ask such frank questions and post pictures of tummy tuck scars hovering just above their groins if they had to do so under their real names? Probably not. Seery says he has spoken to “reporters who are very, very biased and against this entire concept and hung up about it. I remember one reporter said, ‘I would rather eat my head than write about liposuction.’”
Even so, RealSelf has managed to stay out of any controversial conversations about plastic surgery and the hand-wringing around procedures like Botox. “We don’t promote cosmetic procedures,” Seery says, noting that RealSelf is “less subjected to the criticism that could be leveled against the industry at large. We don’t say, ‘Here’s the perfect answer to getting the skin you’ve always wanted.’”
Instead, they help you find someone else who will say it to you.