In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
It takes a certain type of person to walk away from a successful career to pursue a lifelong passion, but that's exactly what Marla Malcolm Beck, co-founder and CEO of Bluemercury, did. After majoring in economics at University of California-Berkeley and attending business school at Harvard (NBD), Beck, a consultant at the time, decided to create a beauty business that made sense in the bourgeoning digital age. Bluemercury opened its first location in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and launched a beauty e-tailer website back in 1999. But to say that the company has come a long way since would be an understatement. Seventeen years and more than a hundred stores later — including two new locations in the Hamptons and in Tribeca — the company is still doing what it does best: giving beauty advice, offering some seriously awesome facials and discovering the best up-and-coming brands.
You have such a savvy background in business and finance. Did you know you always wanted to go into beauty?
I don't think I ever imagined I would work in beauty. I had a more technical business career as a consultant and beauty was really just a hobby. I was always a beauty junkie and knew everything about beauty products. When I was in high school, I'd get facials from Dermalogica — a brand that was really young and based in California — and my skin was amazing after I did that. And when I went to grad school in Boston, I used to drive 40 minutes to get a M.A.C. lipstick that was sold in only one place in Boston, at Bendel's. This was all pre-Internet. I had went into finance, setting up companies, and just didn't like the brands. They were like office parts distributors and maintenance companies and I just thought, I have to do something I love.
I met [my husband and Bluemercury co-founder] Barry when I tried to buy his company. He was a great entrepreneur and kept saying, "Why are you working for someone else? You should start your own company." I worked in D.C. after graduate school and there was a tiny beauty boutique that had Kiehl's and Nars — and it was the only place you could buy Nars in D.C. This was back when there was no such thing as a stand-alone beauty store. There were only department stores and drugstores. No Sephora, no Ulta. They weren't brands that were all around the country. So Barry joined me and we bought that store’s location, and that was the very beginning of building a retailer business. We had the spa there, named it Bluemercury and started from there. We built the business from that one location; I turned my passion into my career.
What inspired you and Barry to create Bluemercury? I know he came from a more entrepreneurial background, so how was creating Bluemercury different?
He did more business-to-business ventures and he started a lot of companies including a national chain-store maintenance company that he launched with his brother. But it was a tedious industry. And so when I pitched him on beauty, he was like, "I'm in." It was completely different, but the skills that he brought were how to start something and how to get a business off the ground. It was great; he was the expert in construction and all of that stuff and was able to really accelerate the company.
How did you two go about the logistics of creating a business?
When you're 29, you have no fear. I had nothing to lose. So first, we had to knock on the doors of the beauty brands and commit them to sell to us. A lot of our time was spent in New York, meeting brands and seeing if they matched [with us]. That was a really long road for us, because they were used to department stores.
The second thing was really figuring out how to provide the consumer a different experience. Everything was sold at department stores behind glass counters, so you'd walk up to the store counter and ask [the clerk] for help and they'd reach under the counter and get it for you. There was no such thing as a multi-brand store, and so we decided to turn it on its head. All of our staff will be trained on all brands. No glass counters. Everybody can touch everything. This concept of friendliness and accessibility was so much of what we did, and the fact that the beauty experts were trained on all brands [meant] they could help a client across brands, and it was just revolutionary. It was just that experience, where you got that advice and the no-pressure sell.
If you open anyone's bag, there's a million different beauty products, and she doesn’t just buy one brand. We thought that then, too. So we set up a store based on how she wanted to shop, and honestly, I didn't come from a merchandising background. I was just a beauty junkie, so I chose products and brands that I loved, and it really resonated with the client. And we also had spas because I was a total spa junkie. We were the only spa in Georgetown at that point — it wasn't a common business. We were the first to do Brazilian bikini waxes back then in Washington, D.C. It was so many new things for the industry all at once, and it resonated right away. We were just testing and trying everything, and whatever worked, we kept doing.
Has your approach for scouting brands changed since founding Bluemercury, and what did you two look for when curating the brands carried at the stores
When we started, we only carried independent brands — brands that were owned and operated by their founders. These were brands like François Nars, who owned his own company. Trish McEvoy owned her own company; she came on a couple years after we started. Lev [Glazman] and Alina [Roytberg] from Fresh owned their own company. We worked with entrepreneurs and founders to build their businesses, and then by five years later they were all bought by other companies, by big corporations, and we had to find the next crop.
I think even now, we're getting back more and more to our roots of working with entrepreneurs and creators, like Rose-Marie [Swift] from RMS Beauty or or Jessica Assaf from Raw [is Everything]. It's a unique time where the industry and the client are open to young brands. We're back at our roots, which is working with entrepreneurs who are creating new things and companies. We're finding a lot of products in the natural segment. We have the best beauty products to cover every need, but not too much. It has to be something I would use. A lot of the new brands make it to my bathroom because I test it all to make sure that I love it enough to bring it to our clients.
How have you gone about expanding Bluemercury?
I'm sort of an evangelist about this. I really feel like beauty is so personal and to have it in your neighborhood, where you live, is so easy and just gives you a better life. There's a store near my house, and if I run out of something, I just can run in and grab my mascara. So there's a problem-solution orientation towards beauty right in your neighborhood. As we expanded, we kept picking new neighborhoods. Our second location was in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Our third was in downtown Philadelphia. Even if you look at our New York locations, it's really about being the local, neighborhood beauty store. We just love that our staff gets to know people's names and what they like. It's a really personal experience. I think intimacy is missing in retail a lot, so I love that it has a neighborhood store feel. I grew up with that in a lot of other categories, and we brought it to beauty. That's what wins for the consumer — if you have a personal relationship.
How did you come up with the name?
I've always loved the color blue, and we wanted something quick and strong for the name. We didn't want it to have anything to do with beauty, so Barry actually went to Barnes and Noble — this was pre-Google — and he called me on my cell phone and said, "It's 'mercury'". Mercury is the goddess of communication. It implies speed, it implies knowledge.
You've created an in-house skin-care line, m-61. What was that process like, and what made you want to create a brand that was unique to Bluemercury?
I'm an entrepreneur at heart, so when I see something broken, I have to go fix it. We had clients coming in and a lot of the time — this was in 2006, 2007 — saying, "I love the natural products on the market, but they don't improve my skin." And so I saw this opportunity to make the most natural cosmeceutical brand on the market. Dermatologists love the ingredients, — Retin-A, glycolic, salicylic acid — these things that really impact your skin, and then we married them with "super naturals" like tamarind and aloe, all made with a list of a hundred chemicals that can't be in the line. I saw this need, and so I created M-61. And it's accessible, it's not outrageous.
This morning I spent three hours working on product. I probably tried three different products; we were working with them because I still test every batch in every store. For Power Glow Peel, one of our most popular products, the lab just sent me a little vial to see if it's sufficient. It's like cooking: not every batch turns out the same, so we still test it. And because it's made with natural ingredients, it's hard to get every batch exactly the same.
How was the approach like for developing your cosmetics range, Lune + Aster?
There were a couple things that guided me in that direction. First, we didn’t have a paraben-free and vegan mascara in our store. So that was one point. Second was when I was skiing with two of my friends, one was in a major energy hedge fund and the other was a top decorator, and after a long day we were going out to dinner. They turned to me and were like, “You did your own makeup? How can we do that?” Here we had these women at the top of their fields, who were completely uncomfortable with makeup. How do you make easy-to-use makeup where you can get out the door in 10 minutes or less and feel polished and professional? The tagline for Lune+Aster is "makeup in minutes." It's reducing the complexity and helping you feel great about your makeup.
What is a piece of career advice you could share with our readers?
The best advice I got was from a professor at Berkeley, and he gave it to me in a different context because he was trying to get me to do a PhD, but he said, "You have to be the best at something." Find the thing you are the best at; and also, it's much easier to be an expert at something if you love it. Be an expert at something, and people will recognize that skill set over time. That was the best advice I ever got.
Another thing is that to get true personal growth, you have to go outside your comfort zone. Try to make sure that you have that uncomfortable feeling once in a while. That feeling tells you that you're doing something new. I'll give you an example: I went on ABC News for m-61 about a year and a half ago, and it was the hardest thing I've done in a long time, because you've got all the cameras and producers and bright lights and there's a million things going on. I was really terrified and my husband said to me, "But that is so good for you." I took a step back, and you know, he was totally right. When you have those experiences, that's when you grow the most. You should to have them at every phase in your life, but especially your 20s when you have nothing to lose. That's what it was like to start Bluemercury — it was terrifying, truthfully. Although I was fearless, there were still sleepless nights, [times where I] couldn't get out of bed — stories that all entrepreneurs have, but won't tell you — but that uncomfortable feeling tells you so much about how you're growing.
I wrote each of my kids a letter while they're at sleep-away camp for a couple of weeks, and we have a family motto: "Work hard, play hard." I remind them of that because they can play all summer, but also remember that they have to come back and work hard. And we also have another family motto for the year which is inspired by a quote by Erada Svetlana: "If it's both terrifying and amazing, you should pursue it."
What has it been like to build a business and work alongside your husband?
We've been at this for 17 years. It's a really important relationship. I joke that Bluemercury was our first baby, and then we had three real kids. We don't know anything different, and as the business has grown, we work on completely different things. There will be days where we won't see each other even though we're in the same office. Having said that, we travel together for meetings and so the journey of building this company together strengthens our family and our marriage. It's been incredible. We have different skill sets; I'm more strategic, more about marketing and the consumer, and he's really about operations and real-estate expansion. It's been a great balance.
What's next for Bluemercury?
We will continue to open Bluemercury locations — we're at 103 now — so we're going to continue to aggressively open locations in neighborhoods where we're not present. And M-61 and Lune + Aster are both really young brands, so we'll be expanding those. Barry and I are entrepreneurs; we're always going to start new things. We're not lacking for new ideas and opportunities. We just have to focus on what we have.
Shopping for beauty and finding new products is more confusing than it's ever been. There's more information and more products, so making it easier for people to find the right products is absolutely necessary. Our mission at Bluemercury has always been to be the best at giving beauty advice, and that will continue. I think that's why we’ve been around so long, because our mission is really global. Whatever we do to promote that will sustain us over time.
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