Seeing Face Value

When Drs. Eliot F. Battle and Monte O. Harris opened the doors to their cosmetic medical spa in March 2002, they did something that would send a shudder up most small business consultants’ spines: They made a conscious decision not to advertise.

“We wanted to grow by our reputation, media exposure, and referrals from other physicians,” says Battle, 48, co-founder of Washington, D.C.-based Cultura, which blends the fields of dermatology, plastic surgery, and laser surgery in a luxury day-spa environment. It was a bold move, considering that through their own competitive intelligence they found six spas, 30 plastic surgeons, and 50 dermatologists that advertise consistently through local print, newspaper, radio, and television ads. “We knew that our patients would be our best advertisers, so it’s been all word of mouth.”

For the two noted academic physicians and researchers, success has also come from their innovative approach to ethnic skin care. Harris, 38, is a facial plastic surgeon, and Battle is a dermatologist. Together, they serve a worldwide client base from their single location in Washington, D.C., which brought in $1.3 million in sales in 2003 and $3 million in 2004.

Considered one of the world’s premier laser surgeons, as well as the leading authority of cosmetic laser therapy on darker skin types, Battle is a Howard University and Howard University Medical School graduate and a Harvard Medical School fellow whose laser research helped create the new generation of safe, noninvasive cosmetic lasers. A graduate of Morehouse College and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Harris is a pioneer of cosmetic facial rejuvenation for darker skin tones.

Harris says the pair joined forces after seeing “a neglect and lack of support in cosmetically treating people of color.” Both spent time researching a more customized approach to ethnic skin care, then invested roughly $1 million in equipment.

Customers range in age from 18 to 80 and are 80% female, says Harris. Recently, Cultura’s new “color blind” skin lasers have been attracting more African American men looking for relief from shaving bumps and ingrown hairs. Harris says Cultura’s clientele is 60% people of color.

One frequent customer is Ericka Dunlap, Miss America 2004, who for years purchased her skin care products over the counter, not realizing that what she needed was a product targeted to her specific skin type. Then she discovered Cultura, where she now goes for frequent facials and skin care products.

“The products I was buying helped to solve the problem for the moment, but I never realized that there were actually underlying issues that needed to be addressed,” says Dunlap. “From Cultura, I’ve learned that it’s much better to use products that contain medicine and that are prescribed in order to get to the root of the problem and give your skin the best possible care.”

Battle points to Cultura’s 2003 Washington, D.C. Chamber of Commerce Emerging Business of the Year Award as a key milestone for the company. “That’s when Dr. Harris and I looked at each other and said, ‘We have a business,'”