The Founder of Essie Reflects on the Evolution of Her Iconic Nail Polish Brand
In 1981, with a background as a ladies hosiery buyer for major department stores and a passion for nail polish, native New Yorker Essie Weingarten launched her eponymous cosmetics company with a flight to fabulous Las Vegas and 12, vibrant, idiosyncratic and inventively-named colors -- and she soon gained a powerful word of mouth following.
She pounded the pavement as she grew her business, getting booths at trade shows, learning about different markets and getting face time at salons that could carry her product, all the while getting inspiration for her collections from worldwide travels and everyday occurrences.
While her colors have graced many a red carpet and been worn by countless celebrities and politicians, Essie says she knew she had arrived when she received a letter in 1989 from Queen Elizabeth II's personal hairdresser, asking if she could sell them Ballet Slippers polish, a classic shade of pale pink, for Her Majesty. "I was like; can I get on a plane and bring it over? How many women can say that?" She attributes customers enduring affection for the brand to their ability to connect the wearing of the polish to "a special moment in their life. Some personal thread that makes them feel good."
She and her husband and business partner Max Sortino sold the business to L'Oreal in 2010 and have recently parted ways with the company. But 34 years and more than 900 colors later, the Essie brand continues to be a force in the beauty industry. "How fortunate could a girl be? It’s a love story and I loved every minute of it. I never went to work," she said, looking back on the experience.
We caught up with Essie to talk about the importance of unwavering commitment, living and breathing your brand and knowing when it’s the right time to turn the page.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you were first starting out?
A: The biggest mistake I made starting out was that I really believed [every customer] wanted to put their own name on the bottle. When we started, it was known as the label-less little bottle. If [I knew then what I know now] I would have started from day one nurturing the brand [and putting my name on it]. The brand is king. Your brand is the most important thing. It has to be an extension of you. It is a learning curve. You never know what's going to be thrown at you. But every obstacle should make you stronger and better.
Q: How can young entrepreneurs benefit from this lesson? What is your best advice for them?
A: You must always be true to your brand. An entrepreneur lives and breathes their brand. If they think it's party time and are going to go out every night and tomorrow's going to be another new day and you can start again, it doesn't work like that. You really have to be committed to your brand. You have to love what you’re doing, if you don't, go get a job. This is a full time commitment. [When I was starting out] if I saw a new salon [walking down the street], boom, I was there. That's the difference between entrepreneurs and someone who has a job. An entrepreneur knows they are going after it and they want it. There is nothing like it. It's your own destiny, so whatever you put in, you get out.
Q: What did you learn as the brand grew?
A: As you grow your brand, all of a sudden, something happens. Everyone starts to get very interested in your brand. You start to get phone calls investment bankers, and then you get phone calls from strategic partners.
And you speak to these investment bankers because you have to listen. You never know, and all of them make it sound so great, 'oh, you know, I'll just buy a piece of your business; you can continue to work it.' And then you hear from strategic people the bigger you get, because there is nothing like growing a brand as an entrepreneur. When you're an entrepreneur, you watch the brand crawl, and walk, then you see it run and then you see it jump and that's when everyone wants it.
But you did the hard work, you planted the seeds, and it was a commitment. And you have to be ready when all these calls come in. They wine you and dine you and everyone wants to take you to a better restaurant or buy you a better bottle of wine or champagne. And at the point we really didn't want to sell the business because we were having fun. And as long as you have fun, and it's yours, it's your destiny. So you really have to know when you're done. Because when you’re done, you're done.
Q: How is the environment different for entrepreneurs today than it was when you started your business?
A: I have seen the evolution of business change dramatically. When I first started in 1981, and I went to a bank to try and get a loan, they looked at me like I had two heads. Today, if you have a good business plan, I want to see someone who is going to turn down giving you money. Between banks and investment bankers, everyone is looking for a place to invest money. I had to have every single dollar that I needed to invest in the business because no one was going to give me anything. It was a different world.
I think it's easier now with the Internet, you get much closer to your customer. Nothing keeps you apart from getting what you want. Years ago, it was much more difficult. People weren't walking around with a phone or a laptop. Just think about the ease. To me, this is the time to get anything you want done. But be committed. If you're not committed, that's a problem.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.