Bluemercury Founder Marla Beck on Why You Should Do the Things That Terrify You
Free Book Preview: Unstoppable
Editor’s Note: Inspire Me is a series in which entrepreneurs and leaders share what motivates them through good times and bad, while also sharing stories of how they overcame challenges in hopes of inspiring others.
Marla Beck’s whole reason for starting Bluemercury, a retail company for cosmetics and beauty products, was to break the department store model. “I was in my 20s, and I hated shopping for cosmetics [in department stores], because everybody would be rude to me because I didn't have a nice handbag or nice shoes,” Beck says.
She wanted to create a space where beauty junkies like herself could feel comfortable asking questions and find the products that would make them feel their best. However, her success was a slow burn. When she started Bluemercury 19 years ago, ecommerce was just beginning.
So much so that when she launched the brand’s first website, the response was essentially “crickets,” according to Beck. Less than a year in, she decided to open a single storefront in Washington, D.C. in order to keep the business afloat. “We saw the future, but we were wrong and so we had to survive,” she recalled to Entrepreneur.
In the meantime, Beck waited for the rest of the dial-up world to catch up to her vision of an online cosmetics brand, which she says was inspired, in part, by a lecture given by Jeff Bezos during the early days of Amazon that she attended while she was getting her business and public administration degrees at Harvard University.
Her patience eventually paid off. Her approach to selling makeup built a dedicated fan base, and as Bluemercury has grown -- with more than 150 stores in 22 states and it was bought by Macy’s in 2016 for $210 million -- Beck says that the most important thing to her is not losing sight of the personalized touch that has been the driving force behind the brand.
One of the top priorities Beck has as CEO is ensuring that everyone on staff understands why the brand exists today -- which can be tough now that she no longer has a hand in every new hire. But she maintains a sense of continuity by regularly speaking with employees and constantly asking customers and staff members about their dream products.
Women Entrepreneur caught up with Beck to learn about how and where she seeks inspiration to connect the past with the present.
What are some of the day-to-day pain points and long-term goals that require you to seek out inspiration as you run your business?
Our mission is being the best at giving beauty advice and creating a friendly, open and energetic atmosphere around helping people find the best beauty products. That was really easy in stores one or two or three. The pain point for me today is how to maintain that DNA across the company and 200 locations. At the end of the day I really care about having customers find the right products and not be intimidated or uncomfortable shopping for beauty. You deal with people and their concerns and things they want to fix so they can feel confident.
That comes back to our beauty experts and making sure that we have the knowledge and energy. I'm always thinking about, How do we connect? How do we maintain that DNA when I don't know everybody that works for us anymore? I used to interview every single person that joined our team -- no matter what position -- for almost 15 years. You try to put in mechanisms to scale that. Every Friday I do a conference call with our new recruits to talk about our mission and why Bluemercury was founded. It's so important that people understand your reason for being. It's not just about profit and loss.
When you know you're facing a serious challenge or obstacle, how do you motivate/energize yourself to tackle it?
If I can't figure something out, I have to go for a walk. I was working on this one product for [skincare line] M-61 over the past couple weeks. I do all of our product development. We have a new category that is launching in the fall. I couldn't figure out how to talk about it. We kept working on it in this meeting, and it just wasn't right.
I was just walking, and I just got it. I had to call the team [together] again, and we figured out the name and how we were going to communicate it. I get so much inspiration from walking in New York City. The walks are resetting for me. They invigorate me in terms of coming up with new ideas or dealing with any challenges.
What is a quote that inspires you, and why?
It’s a family motto: If it feels terrifying, you should pursue it. If you have discomfort when you're trying something new but you're excited about it, that’s exactly the right [feeling to have]. That discomfort means you're going to learn something new. But if you think it's amazing, that's the right thing [to pursue]. You have to have passion for the new thing. So we'll always talk about that with our kids -- what does the feeling of being terrified mean? Just means you're embarking on something new.
What is a book that inspires you, and why?
I like Marty Lindstrom's book Small Data. I believe in big data and believe we need to use that data and all the analytics, but I believe the answer is often in front of you by talking to people. A lot of our ideas for new products come come from our clients and from our staff in the stores. So this book really is inspirational for people that need ideas. It shows them that they don't need to get them just from data, they need to get out in the world and figure out where the new ideas come from.
Was there someone who told you could launch the company?
I was also a politics and economics junkie, which is why I got a public policy degree. When I was deciding what I wanted to do after school, a professor of mine said, “I see you as an entrepreneur; you have to start something.” Which was interesting, because I didn't see myself as an entrepreneur at that point. Because being an entrepreneur is tough. I saw myself as a leader, I knew I wanted to run something and be a CEO of a company. But [my professor’s words were] always at the back of my mind, and he ended up writing one of the first checks to fund Bluemercury. You never know where you're going to find someone who sees you for who you really are and can see that path you should be on. He was a real champion all the way through.
Who is a woman that inspires you, and why?
My [undergraduate] thesis advisor at Berkeley was a woman named Laura Tyson. She later became the business school’s first female dean. Her piece of advice was to be an expert at something. It was very powerful advice. I think that applies to whatever age you are or whatever organization or business you're in. You have to figure out something that you can be the best in the world at and try to be focused on that. Because it makes it easy for you to excel and lead. People are always looking for experts. So I give this advice to people in their 20s. If you are just starting a new job, think about what you can be an expert in for your company. [Make it] something where they know they have to go to you if they need that piece of information. Because then you're indispensable.
What inspires you at work, and why?
Our beauty experts and our customers. [I’m inspired] when I go into the stores and hear what they are thinking about and what they are interested in. One of the first questions I ask is, “What are you loving right now?” It tells you so much. So many of the ideas for new products many products come from our customers. I'm also inspired by my daughters. They are teenagers now, and they are absolute product junkies. But they use them differently, and they are very Instagram-driven. Bluemercury was early to the mask craze, because I saw my daughters wearing their masks and doing their homework and doing FaceTime with their friends -- that's why we came out with our own sheet masks.
What has inspired you to be a better person, and why?
My kids inspire me to be a better person. When my daughter was younger, I think she told me this in a Mother's Day card: "I love it when you take me to my soccer games even though you don't like to." I thought, “Oh God, am I really giving off that vibe? That's terrible.” And so what that taught me is to really be present and live in the moment when I'm with the kids, and also when I'm in a meeting at work or when I'm doing something that I may not be overly excited about. Let go, and live in the moment.
When you are feeling at your worst, what inspires you?
By walking, I get new stimulation. Maybe I walk into a bookstore to look at new ideas or into an art museum. I need to take my mind away and put it into a new creative pursuit to get to something completely different from what I'm thinking about. One of my favorite things is to walk the Strand Bookstore in New York City, because there is so much variety. Thinking about all of the different ideas out there [helps me when I am feeling down]. When you go away from what you’re working on and come back, you’ve made different connections for yourself.
For those women who are looking to start a business, or have begun one, what advice do you have for them to keep going?
It's so easy for people to say, "No, it's a bad idea." You're gonna hear that, especially if your idea is revolutionary. You have to just stick to it. Make sure you have enough money to do it just to survive, because good things happen when you survive long enough. It's been a 19-year journey for me of building and running Bluemercury. I think a lot of it was just survival. We got through two recessions. You are going to have so many roadblocks in your way that you have to have the grit to push through. You're going to get discouraged. It's just a fact of entrepreneurship. You're going to have mornings where you don't get up, because you can't imagine facing all the challenges you need to face. The highs are high and the lows are low, but you have to keep at it. That's the only way opportunities will come your way.