In 2016, with three consistently booked nail salons in Los Angeles and a large, international, organic social media following, a natural next step for Olive & June would have been to open locations in every millennial-trafficked neighborhood across the country, but founder Sarah Gibson Tuttle gave herself a different mission: "I needed to figure out how to teach everyone in the world how to paint their own nails," she tells me.
You might be thinking: Can't everyone pretty much figure that out on their own? But Gibson Tuttle's research proved otherwise. (And also, remember how hard it is to paint with your non-dominant hand?) So in March, the brand debuted six 7-Free pastel and neutral nail polish colors and the Poppy, a universal polish bottle attachment that dramatically reduces the level of coordination required to paint one's own nails. And on Thursday, it's following that up with the Studio Box, a kit comprising every tool you need for an at-home manicure: a Poppy, nail clippers, a nail file, a buffer, a clean-up brush, a nail-polish remover pot, cuticle serum, a travel pouch, a five-step guide and a manicure placemat. It's all housed in a functional box that features a phone holder in case you want to watch a nail tutorial, or film yourself, while painting. Everything is sold direct-to-consumer online and pretty affordable: The Poppy on its own is $16, each polish and top coat retails for $8 and the Studio Box is $50.
At-home products weren't part of Tuttle's plan in the beginning. "My original vision was to have salons all over the country and for Olive & June to disrupt the salon space," she says. "Initially, it was as simple as 'Drybar for nails.'" She got off to a good start. Olive & June salons were Instagrammable before "Instagrammable spaces" were really a thing, and by coming up at the height of the nail-art craze, its customers — many of them celebrities, influencers and editors — were naturally sharing their manicures on Instagram, which the Olive & June account would repost with hashtags including "#oliveyourmani." Over time, the account became a source of nail inspiration for those outside of Los Angeles as well. "People were coming from all over the world wanting to get their nails done," says Tuttle.
"I wanted the space to look like a stylish best friend's house," she says of the interior design. Social media was always a priority for Tuttle; in fact, she runs the company's account herself to this day, consistently responding to comments and DMs — pretty rare for a founder of a growing business at Olive & June's scale. "I think the mistake some brands make is, as you scale, you look to outsources parts of your job," she says. "Every time I've tried to get help on social, engagement takes a big hit." Tuttle is acutely aware of what nail-art designs and colors perform the best, and what sort of lighting looks best in the feed. "Nail salons are word of mouth, and Instagram amplifies that," she explains.
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With an audience that reached far beyond those who could visit her salons regularly, in a space that had been pretty devoid of innovation, Tuttle took some time to figure out how to scale the Olive & June brand. She turned down acquisition offers and "took a deep dive into the industry to figure out what was happening in nails," not just in big cities, but across the country. She determined that the biggest opportunity was not in scaling her salon concept, but instead disrupting the at-home nail industry.
"I was like, I have to figure this out and a nail polish bottle in its current form is not going to get it done," she explains. In her research, she found that consumers "were buying bottles once in a while, but not really using them," and that the challenges around the non-dominant hand were their "biggest hangup" about at-home manicures. But, she found that after someone painted their own nails about seven or eight times, they got more confident. The problem? "Who's going to wait until eight times? I certainly wasn't." She set out to create a tool that would provide success on the first try, so that consumers would then feel confident doing their own nails on a regular basis. That's how the Poppy was born.
"That's where it started and then it blossomed into a lot more," she says. "To me, innovation was key. I didn't want to just do a well-branded product; I said I want to change this industry. I want to take this 10% of the market and make it 50%." In addition to market research, she was inspired by her many friends in the beauty entrepreneur world, like Jen Atkin, who's been vocal about the beauty industry's waste problem when it comes to excessive packaging. That inspired Gibson Tuttle to make the Studio Box functional, as opposed to extraneous packaging you just throw away. Gibson Tuttle also wanted to target at-home nails the same way Atkin looked at at-home hair care: "Ouai was created for consumers while most hair products are for professionals," explains Tuttle. "Polish bottles are made for manicurists to paint with their dominant hands."
The new at-home products are now the focal point of Olive & June's website, which has also been rolling out its own educational content like answers to common nail questions and step-by-step tutorials. So far, there's no video, but that is part of the strategy going forward.
When Gibson Tuttle and I spoke, Olive & June had doubled its March sales goal, selling out of the Geri nail polish shade and nearly selling out of the top coat, all without any paid advertising. She did, for the first time, hire PR, and gifted product to influential friends and supporters of the brand to spread the word, some of whom the polish shades are named after. (Eva = Eva Chen.) She's also still diligently answering questions on Instagram; even when it's a not-so-positive one like, "My nail polish chipped in three days," she'll respond with advice on how to make it last longer next time. It's all about building community.
Gibson Tuttle's plans for the future of Olive & June are all about teaching consumers how to better do their own nails and providing them with the products to do so. Details are under strict embargo, but in May the brand will be rolling out product at a major national retail chain in collaboration with another well-known polish brand. Gibson Tuttle says she has another 30 product ideas already that she's starting to develop, but also wants to wait and see what customers ask for. And while Olive & June won't be opening any new locations, Gibson Tuttle says she is interested in exploring "what IRL opportunities exist on the teaching side," bringing up the idea of a masterclass, or something akin to the Apple Genius Bar, but for nails.
And she's not necessarily set on completing this at-home nail revolution alone. Just like fellow beauty entrepreneurs have been supportive of her efforts, she's welcoming of anyone else looking to disrupt this space. "At home is where the focus should be," she says. "Let's turn a $1 billion market into $4 billion market. I'm willing to lock arms with any founder to do that together."
Update, Tuesday, May 14, 2019, 2:00 p.m.: On May 19, Olive & June will launch a new range of its nail art stickers at Target, its first-ever retail partner, in a limited-edition collaboration with Essie. The set of six stickers, which cost $7.50, include summer-y motifs like palm trees, flamingos and rainbows, will debut alongside 30 sum Essie shades.