Welcome to Byrdie's new series, The Hustle. We're profiling diverse, interesting women and female-identifying folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
Today, get to know Sarah McDonald, the Head of Brand Marketing at Byte. Before landing at the at-home aligner company, McDonald spent time helping brands like YouTube and Winc Wines craft their marketing strategies. So, needless to say, her marketing savvy runs deep. McDonald was brought into the fold at Byte in 2018 and has played an integral role in helping the brand surpass $100 million in revenue all while working on a bootstrapped budget. With her at the helm of the marketing department, Byte has been able to launch innovative campaigns (like the brand’s “Don’t Tell Me to Smile More” ad) and dynamic initiatives (such as ByteCares). Ahead, McDonald shares how listening to her instincts led her to transition from a career in medical sales to marketing, her day-to-day duties at Byte, her advice for brand marketers, and more.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Oakland, California, a beautifully diverse community that I’ve always appreciated for its open-mindedness and inclusivity. While I’m a West Coast girl at heart, I decided to move east for college, where I attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. Howard is an HBCU, and during my four years there, I got to experience firsthand even more diversity within the Black community. I attribute so much of my success to both my childhood growing up in Oakland and my time spent at Howard because it allowed me to interact and understand all walks of life. And that is something that I intentionally consider and infuse into my career, leadership style, and daily decision-making. I could happily talk about that for hours.
I studied marketing as my major in college, and after graduating, I landed a job in medical sales. While it was impressive on paper (i.e., corporate, stable, and well-paying), I’m someone who looks to passion as a driving force in life. After four years in that career, I listened to my gut that it just wasn’t something I was personally interested in, and moved to L.A. with a goal to change that. I was eager to get my feet wet in the brand and social space but wasn’t sure how to switch industries at what I (wrongly) thought was a late point in my career. I landed a role at YouTube, where I worked directly with video creators and fell in love with the storytelling that comes with marketing.
After some time there, I decided to take a leap and switch to the Wild West world of startups. I wanted to keep pushing past my comfort level, taking bigger chances and challenging myself. I can be risk-averse, so changes are never easy, but I began to see the rewards of following your passion in your career. I found that fit at Winc, a direct-to-consumer wine club for millennials, where I wore many marketing hats and built out key brand channels. I jumped headfirst into all things social, and it primed me for my role at Byte.
What made you decide to join the Byte team?
After realizing (through some trial and error) that marketing and branding were my true passions, I really looked into the reason “why.” I recognized that what got me excited to go to work every day was the opportunity to make true connections with people in innovative ways. It also helped that the digital marketing world was (and is) constantly changing. I love exploring all the new channels and figuring out a brand’s voice on them. I later had an “aha” moment when my mom retired after 40 years of teaching. I’ve always looked up to her career and how she retired, knowing that she directly impacted so many lives through her work. This made me take a step back and reassess where I could best use my skill set to create real impact.
This is what ultimately drew me to Byte. I came on in the early (pre-launch) days after seeing that its mission went so much deeper than simply providing invisible aligners. It’s about making the inaccessible accessible. Thanks to new technology, our product is up to half the cost of competitors, so we’re able to produce top-quality dental care and orthodontics accessible to so many people. Suddenly families who had never dreamt of being able to afford orthodontic care could have a realistic solution. And beyond that, through our giveback arm ByteCares, we’re improving 50,000 smiles by 2025 (since the reality is that even our low costs can be too high of a financial hurdle for some). I realized this was more than just another fun brand or product; it’s a breakthrough movement that will really positively impact people.
And finally, it came down to the power of confidence that a healthy smile can bring. Being able to help more people achieve that all over the country is a huge challenge that motivates me every day.
Part of this is tied to my history with my own smile. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved experimenting with beauty and fashion. I wish Byrdie were around back then. I always had my nose in the latest Seventeen issues, taking diligent notes about makeup and skincare, and doing a few too many DIY fashion moments. However, something that was missing was this same obsession with oral health; I never really associated my teeth with beauty and saw them more as a nuisance you just had to maintain. I was one of many who neglected to wear my retainer after braces. And coupled with some not-so-great flossing habits, I started to notice that my teeth were shifting and saw new stains from my daily coffee indulgence. My teeth became a new and very real insecurity I’d never really dealt with before in my mid-twenties.
When I began building Byte, I started to connect the dots between health, self-care, confidence, and oral care. This is one of my challenges and biggest opportunities: how to make oral care cool and more mainstream in everyday conversations and to inspire others to take charge of their smile and find their voice.
How did your previous marketing experiences at YouTube and Winc Wines prepare you for your position at Byte?
I worked at these companies in the early days of social media and influencers, which granted me a lot of room to get creative and figure out the space. I ended up trying a little bit of everything, and out of necessity, essentially figured out marketing by just doing it. There were no set rules or best practices at that time; it was everyone for themselves. This taught me to trust my instincts, and I quickly learned that there’s no “correct” way of building a brand. This autonomy appeals to me, and I’ve been so grateful to Byte’s founders for handing me the reins and trusting me to establish and grow the brand’s voice.
Of course, nothing could have truly prepared anyone for 2020, but I’m so proud of our team who have worked so hard to make sure we’re meeting our community where they are in this “new normal.”
What are your day-to-day responsibilities as the Head of Brand Marketing?
My days vary wildly (as is common in startup life). But I can always count on lots (and lots) of meetings, brainstorm sessions, and content creation deep dives covering everything from social media, influencer and celebrity partnerships to public relations, website, and email content, and packaging design. Another component that always brightens my day is my ongoing work with our giveback arm, ByteCares. We’re on a mission to improve 50,000 smiles by 2025 in underserved communities, which has been so rewarding. My team and I work hard not just to check off our to-do list but to create meaningful moments and authentic connections with our customers through each brand touchpoint.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about working in brand marketing?
A brand’s identity truly touches every part of the business. As much as I am thinking of the key channels on a public-facing basis, I am also working with all internal teams to figure out how to make sure the brand is properly reflected at every touchpoint. Everything from hiring strategies and on-boarding training to product development and supply chain plans–your brand is an integral part of it all.
What’s the most fun or fulfilling part of your job?
I love that my job’s end goal is to help instill confidence in our customers and how we get to be a part of their journey from day one, cheering them on through the finish line. To read their reviews and see the beautiful before and after shots when they finish their aligners is the icing on the cake. Going back to my career goal of working towards something I’m passionate about, I’m lucky in that my work with Byte touches on so many things I care about: education, community, beauty, health, wellness, pop culture, the list goes on.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Brand marketing can be very subjective. Unlike other positions, like accounting or sales, where there are clear cut definitions of what success looks like, building a brand from the ground up looks very different. What’s cool to me might not resonate the same with team members, which can sometimes lead to the old “too many cooks in the kitchen” debacle. From day one at Byte, I was vocal that our brand needed to be diverse, authentic, and personable, and that sharing our customers’ stories would be a foundation of our own identity. I shared examples of other brands I hoped to be aligned with. And this helped set a tone and level set expectations as I continued to make critical decisions on social media posts, influencer choices, etc., moving forward.
What’s the project you’re most proud of doing in your career?
My work in building ByteCares as an organization that truly supports the community is something I’m so proud of. It can be challenging to guide strategy for a company’s giveback arm alongside a “day job,” but the impact we’ve made in such a short time is so encouraging. A highlight of this journey was bringing on Kerry Washington as our Creative Advisor, and she’s been instrumental in helping grow the giveback side of the business.
While we’ve worked alongside many different local charities, one project with ByteCares that stands out was our partnership with Midnight Mission, an incredible organization in downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row. We had the honor of supporting 40 men as they transitioned back into the world, coming from homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness setbacks. Through ByteCares, we brought oral hygiene and better smiles to them as they began to interview for jobs and enter back into the community on a new foot. While not all graduating class members could use aligners, our team distributed personalized plans to restore each members’ confidence through their new smile.
What’s the most interesting story from your career?
Honestly, the most interesting story of my career is 2020 as a whole. I’ve had to reach so far outside of the skill set I have on paper to address the year’s events head-on and exercise my leadership role in the company. At the onset of the pandemic, I helped lead our response to COVID-19. We became one of the first companies to dedicate our manufacturing services and 3D printers to producing ventilator parts and face shields for healthcare workers. When I first started in brand marketing, I certainly never thought I’d be speaking to the heads of hospitals to triage their most urgent needs and coordinate shipments of PPEs to help protect frontline workers.
My leadership was also definitely tested during the protests against systemic injustice. I knew that as a brand that values authenticity and community, we had to use our voice and show our solidarity. And as a Black woman myself, I had to find the courage to speak up and be a voice for my community during one of the hardest times to get through. It was empowering to feel the Byte team’s full support in our response, both in how it was treated internally and how we messaged as a brand externally. It was a moment that encouraged me to reflect on and embrace my own personal background and then call upon it to guide our brand’s response.
Have you had any mentors or anyone who has helped you get to where you are?
I truly believe relationships are everything. Every job I’ve gotten has been because of the relationships and connections that I formed and nurtured. Mentors don’t have to be directly connected to your exact position or even your specific industry; it’s just as important to find inspiring people you admire regardless of their expertise. One thing that I always stress is when nurturing relationships is to make sure it's a two-way street. People often want immediate returns if they are helping others, not realizing it likely will come full circle if you do it for the right reasons.
Every job I’ve gotten has been because of the relationships and connections that I formed and nurtured.
A mentor in particular who has helped shape my career is Carla Santiago. I met Carla while working at Winc on an influencer campaign. It could have easily been a one and done interaction. But, we connected about being women of color in the business world and nurtured our relationship via coffees, supporting each other's projects, and more than anything, just being there to listen. Fast forward a couple of years, and she called me to share that there was a business opportunity for a company that was about to form called Byte. She said she had told the founders all about me and that I should meet them for lunch.
As you can see, that connection changed my career path beyond measures. Carla, along with a couple of other mentors, has consistently shown up for me, believed in me, and been a resource for me. I try to pay this forward, specifically to other women of color, at every opportunity.
How do you stay motivated and positive during stressful times at work?
I try to remind myself to take one day at a time and break my to-do list into smaller steps so I can feel motivated as I check even the seemingly minute tasks off the list. When I need an extra boost, I look at our Slack channel, where our company shares hundreds of customer Byte testimonies, and feel so inspired by what we’re doing, which keeps me pushing to do more.
What does beauty mean to you?
To me, beauty means confidence and authenticity, a healthy mind and body, and finding those things that make me smile.
What advice or words of encouragement do you have for aspiring brand marketers?
Just do it. It can be intimidating seeing all of the beautiful brands, campaigns, and products out there, to the point where you don’t know if your skills add up, but everyone has to start somewhere. Build that website, pick up a camera, and get to know the other side of the job, start an Instagram page to play around on. Also, stay curious. When you’re out in the world looking at emails and scrolling on Instagram and pause on something, actively think about what made you stop scrolling and pay attention. Why did you forward that specific photo to your friend? Why did you just open that brand’s email? Start to ask yourself how that brand or campaign captured your attention and why.
What are your five favorite beauty products of the moment?
My Byte aligners and BrightByte Whitening Treatment ($30), Rizos Curls Refresh & Detangle Spray ($20), Vanity Planet Aira Ionic Facial Steamer ($95), Farmacy Very Cherry Vitamin C Serum ($62), and Black Girl Sunscreen ($19).