NYX founder Toni Ko, one of America’s richest self-made women
Nora chats with Toni Ko, the founder of NYX Cosmetics, about how she built her company from the ground up in 1999 at age 25. Toni shares marketing and sales insights from decades in the beauty industry, and talks about her decision to sell NYX to L'Oreal in 2014 for a reported $500 million. She also details why she made the decision to return to the industry in 2019 with the launch of Bespoke Beauty Brands. For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out realvision.com/businesscasual.
Host: Nora Ali
Producer: Olivia Meade
Video Editor: Sebastian Vega
Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus, Griffin Jennings
Fact Checker: Kate Brandt
Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop
VP, Head of Multimedia: Sarah Singer
Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm
Nora Ali: From Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you conversations with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now let's get down to business.
If you've ever met me or even seen me, you know I love eyeliner. It's the one mandatory beauty item you will always find in my makeup bag and on my face, which is why I was especially excited to chat with someone who totally changed the makeup industry by first selling cheap eye pencils in the late '90s and early 2000s. It wasn't easy to break into the industry back then. Today, it does seem like nearly every celebrity and influencer is launching their own makeup or skincare line. But Toni Ko, the founder of NYX Cosmetics, was no celebrity, and far from being an influencer when she built NYX from the ground up at age 25. Toni is a first-generation immigrant who came to the United States from Korea at the age of 13. A third-generation entrepreneur, she learned the ins and outs of her family business before she decided to start NYX Cosmetics in 1999. With her mom as her first investor, Toni managed to generate over $4 million dollars in retail sales during her first year.
But that isn't the whole story. As Toni told us in today's episode, she hustled big time. She told us that 99.9% of the money she made in the early days of NYX went back into the business. She minimized her expenses by living at home with her parents, and she invested money, time, and energy into marketing. This meant lots of IRL trade shows at the time, long before the days of social media and the digital marketing that comes with it. And it paid off for Toni. NYX is in virtually every drugstore that sells makeup, and Toni sold NYX to L'Oréal in 2014 for a reported $500 million, which at the time was one of the biggest beauty acquisitions in history.
She decided to return to the beauty industry in 2019 with the launch of Bespoke Beauty Brands, which partners with influencers and celebrities, and provides them with the infrastructure to build their own niche beauty brands. Toni shared her perspective with us on the future of influencer marketing and celebrity-driven brands. Toni graced the cover of the Forbes' Richest Self-made Women issue in 2016, and this summer earned a spot on that list for the sixth year in a row, for good reason. Over the course of her career she has generated over $1 billion dollars in retail revenue. We'll dive into how she got there, starting with those inexpensive eyeliners after the break. Toni, hello. Welcome to Business Casual.
Toni Ko: Hi, Nora. How are you? Good to see you.
Nora Ali: Great to see you. I'm doing great. I have been a fan of you for a very long time, so I truly am very excited to chat. I exclusively use only two types of eyeliner. One is a brand called Kokie Beauty, and the other is NYX. I've been wearing eyeliner since I was 11, so thank you for creating the best products in the world. I appreciate it.
Before we get into your amazing story of founding NYX, I'd love to start with a little icebreaker. It's a segment we call Professional Pet Peeves. I want to know, if you could wave a magic wand and get rid of something at work that annoys you—it could be in person, it could be remote, anything you want. Something that annoys you that you could get rid of, what is your professional pet peeve?
Toni Ko: Voice memos.
Nora Ali: Really?
Toni Ko: Voice messages. I hate leaving voice message and I hate checking voice messages.
Nora Ali: Interesting, but if someone calls you, would you rather them just text you what they would be sending you a voice memo of? You'd rather get a text or an email?
Toni Ko: That is my personal preference. I don't like to talk on the phone either. I've always been that way, and I'd much rather receive a text message or an email.
Nora Ali: You came up with that so quickly, and I agree. I would rather get a text any day. But do people cold call you? How do you feel about cold calls, even if it's someone you know?
Toni Ko: I have my ringer off all the time, actually. I don't have it on. I only have it on if I have a call scheduled and I know there's a call coming in. But 24/7, they're off basically. Basically, I don't answer calls.
Nora Ali: I have found my person. I am the same way, Toni. It's very narrow windows. It's the five minutes before I'm expecting a call is the only time it's off of Do Not Disturb. Amazing.
All right, let's get into the story of NYX. You first launched it in 1999. Can you just set the scene for us? What was the makeup landscape like then, whether it's trends, the kinds of makeup people were wearing, what was available to people—what was it like then?
Toni Ko: Yes. Oh, my god, 1999, such a long time ago. This is when lip liner was huge. There's this one color, it was called nutmeg. It's like a reddish brown color, and every girl I knew wore nutmeg lip liner. It wasn't nutmeg by NYX Cosmetics, nutmeg was kind of like Post-it for a sticky note pad. It was just a universal name for this color that was this reddish, auburn-ish brown color. Every girl either wore the entire lip liner as a lipstick inside, or they wore it outside really dark and wore a frosted pink or a frosted beige color lipstick inside. I'm a victim of that fashion too, so all my photos from the '90s, I have the same look. I've switched over to a red lipstick, but that was the look, that was it.
Nora Ali: Then that inspired the first products that you launched with, which we'll get into: eyeliners and lip liners. But before you launched the company, you worked for your family business that was wholesaling perfume and cosmetics. Would you have gotten into the beauty industry on your own, do you think, if your family wasn't already in that space?
Toni Ko: I do think about that. I think I'm very fortunate to be put in a place where I was able to have that experience growing up, learning about the beauty industry inside and out. I honestly think I would have done something in beauty, because I have obsessive love for the products that I sell. I think it's a very passionate position I come from and it's a pure general love for the business that I am in. I think that's really the foundation of the success of the companies that I have created.
Nora Ali: And your mom was your first investor.
Toni Ko: She was.
Nora Ali: Yes, which is amazing. $250,000 from your mom. You had joked in a previous interview that it was back pay for not having paid you when you were working for the family business, because they housed you, they fed you, but you weren't on salary when you were working for your family business, which I thought was so funny. Did your mom, did your family believe in your idea when writing that check, or was it more just to support their daughter, to encourage failure, to just try to take a risk? Did your family believe in you?
Toni Ko: I think my mom really did believe in me. I've always been a headstrong person. I could be very stubborn and I could be very passionate in the things that I believe in and things that I love. She knew that I had this sense of style for the product and she knew that I had a very deep sense of drive. If I believe it, if I want to do it, I'm like a bull in a china store. I just go gangbuster, just do it. That's always been my style. I think she really believed in me and I'm very fortunate for that.
Nora Ali: Is there anything about their work ethic, your mom's work ethic, that you've applied to how you decided to build your businesses, your leadership style? Anything you learned from them growing up in Korea?
Toni Ko: Oh, absolutely. My father, first of all. I'm older, so I have an older generation parent as well. That generation has that disciplined style parenting, so I grew up living a very disciplined life. The thing with discipline is that it too is a part of a habit that you create for yourself. If you live a certain period of life that is very time scheduled, very disciplined, it just becomes a part of you and it just becomes part of your habit. That really helped me running my company, because there are a lot of times you get very tired or you're not feeling well, but you just have to push forward. That's when the discipline comes in. That was very helpful.
I am a third-generation entrepreneur, both on my mom's side and my dad's side. My grandfather was an entrepreneur, my dad was an entrepreneur, so it was just very natural for me to start my own business. My mom, she's super savvy, she is very smart. She was born in the year of the monkeys, I don't know if that resonates with the US culture. But people who are born in the year of monkeys are known to be very well adept with anything that they do with hands, and they're savvy and snappy. Mom's just like, she exudes the person who's born in the year of the monkey, so she just gets things done and she finds creative ways, creative solution.
And working with her at our family business, no one set me down and taught me anything, but it's just being in that environment and being like a sponge and observing all the information and all the data points and everything. Every day was a learning experience, it's like a business school. You're going to a business school every day. Being on that floor, dealing with the customers, inventory issues, product display, dealing with suppliers day in and day out, is really the best form of business education that you could have.
Nora Ali: This idea of discipline is really interesting and also resonates with me. I'm Bangladeshi and my parents raised me to be very disciplined, very careful, trying to assess risk in every move that I make. I do wonder, you have this initial seed funding from your mom of $250,000, did you feel like you balanced the risk-taking and the discipline well? I ask because I'm starting my own company. I have funding, but at first it was hard for me to even spend anything because I was so disciplined. But you have to take risks in order to grow business. How did you think about balancing discipline and risk?
Toni Ko: I think we could separate the two, actually. I don't think the two necessarily goes hand in hand, because you could be disciplined in spending your money in a way that is an investment. There's two ways the money leaves your hand. One is spending: You will never see this money again. Two is investing. This money will leave your hand, but it's going to come back to you with little kids. That's where the discipline may come in. Are you going to go out and party like a rockstar because you just made $100,000 or half a million, a million or whatever that money is? Or do you have the discipline enough to keep that money and then invest it to become a foundation for your business to grow further?
It could be married, but it's really two separate thing. The way of the discipline, I was raised as being on time. Even things as being clean and neat and organized, and those kind of disciplines. Pushing your mental status to the next level, not giving up because you're tired, not not showing up because you're not feeling well. Those things will always happen throughout the time of an entrepreneurial journey, but are you going to quit? It's just being tenacious and not quitting.
Nora Ali: For our listeners, I would like to inform them that you were very punctual for this recording, you're disciplined with your time. You do show up on time, so I appreciate that, which is not always the case. But when you think about the best way to invest money when you're growing a business initially, what did you find most helpful in figuring out how to allocate money when you're growing this business? Especially when you are selling just a couple of products at a very low price point, which we'll get into. How did you navigate that in how to use that money?
Toni Ko: A hundred percent of the revenue that was generated went back into the business, not a hundred percent, 99.99%, because I lived at home, had a car that was a family car, I just drove the family car. I basically did not have any living expense because I lived at home with my parents. That actually enabled me to invest 100% of the revenue back into the business. That's what I did for the first two years of my business, was I probably took maybe $5 a day, $10 a day to have lunch, then the money to pay the rent. The first year of my business, I call it the employee of three. It was me, myself and I. I basically did everything. It was really minimizing expense to the bare, bare, bare minimum. I had to pay the rent, that's one thing I had to pay. I had to put gas and I had to buy lunch, but unless it was absolutely necessary to spend, it wasn't spent, but it was invested 100% back into the company. That money was invested in two ways. One was marketing, but it's not the traditional marketing of hire a model, do a photo shoot and then buy advertisement. It was go to the trade shows, so paying for the booth, there are logistics, the money that's needed to exhibit a trade show. Then the other was to continue developing new products, making new items. The cost of inventory purchase that you have to do, because when you run a business, you buy inventory and most of the time you have to pay up front. And when you sell, you have to sell on either net 30, net 40, . There's a gap between when your money is deployed and your money comes back.
Nora Ali: When did you know to hire? When did that happen?
Toni Ko: A little over a year or two, probably 18 month mark. I really needed help at the warehouse portion of the business because I was packing all the merchandise and I was doing all the deliveries myself. I really needed somebody to help me with that.
Nora Ali: There's literally only a limit to how much you can do physically with your own hands.
Toni Ko: I was answering calls, I was doing bookkeeping, I was designing products. I was doing everything and I just did not have time to make all the deliveries to all the customers because the product was so popular. I couldn't keep the product on shelf.
Nora Ali: What a good problem to have. I love that. We are going to take a very quick break. More with Toni when we return.
Toni, let's talk about the price points. Where you started for the lip pencils and eyeliners were about $1.99 apiece. That was compared at the time to, say, $10 for other products you might find out there. How did you nail it down? How did you decide what the price point was going to be, but also keeping the quality high of your products?
Toni Ko: Yeah, in 1999 there wasn't really the mass price point products at all. Because I had been in the beauty business, in the family business, we distributed products that were on the mass, like super mass. Any quality products that I wanted to buy were department store products. You either had department store products that were really expensive, or you had really cheap or budget products that were affordable, but they just were not good. The color payoff wasn't good, the texture wasn't smooth and it was clunky. There were these eyeliners, you actually literally had to burn the tip of the eyeliner pencil to get it to apply. It was that bad. I really wanted to marry the two.
Being in the beauty industry, I knew a supplier that was out of New York who made these color cosmetic pencils for some of my vendors, so I knew how much it cost to make a certain product. But then the suggested retail price was outrageously expensive at department stores for these same products. But that's because majority of the cosmetic companies, a huge chunk of the money, the revenue, goes into marketing. Buying ads in Vogue magazine, hiring the '80s, '90s supermodels—they were getting paid millions of dollars. To buy a page on Vogue was very expensive, so good 25% to 30% of all revenue will go back to these marketing fees for the well-known cosmetic companies. I saw that. I remember my grandfather, who was an amazing entrepreneur, the best marketing was word of mouth marketing. I was like, "I know a manufacturer who can make this quality product at this price point." I could sell it for one-tenth of the price that the department stores were selling it for. I'm like, "You cannot go wrong selling a value product." The value per position does not mean that it's a cheap product. It is, how much good do you get for how little you pay for? That's just the whole comparison. I knew immediately that because I was a consumer, because I've been in the beauty and all of my friends, I know what the girls are wearing. I know what color the girls are wearing. I know what texture we're looking for. I know the product efficacy that we're looking for, I know what we want as far as aesthetic wise. I could marry all this together and develop a brand. I'm an optimist by birth and I just saw no reason, absolutely zero reason for this to go wrong.
Nora Ali: Wow! You didn't have doubts of your ability, then? You were gung ho about it the whole time, that's awesome.
Toni Ko: Oh, gosh, yeah. But at the same time, I was 25 going on 26 when I launched a company. I was living at home with my parents, I'm not married, no children. I've got zero responsibility to support anybody or anything, and that's actually a really great gift because I had nothing to lose. Being in a position of having nothing to lose is such a powerful position. That is, I think, the best time to start a business, especially your first one.
Nora Ali: Yeah, we've actually heard that before on this podcast from full-time creators. Going back to this marketing of beauty products, word of mouth clearly worked for you because it's way cheaper products than you've ever seen before. They clearly were high quality. Did you have a marketing strategy besides relying on people telling their friends about the product?
Toni Ko: No. To be fully honest and transparent, I had zero strategy. I've worked in the family business and I've seen my family run the business, but I've never run it myself and I don't have an MBA from a college either. But I think that's actually a blessing that I just went head-in not knowing anything. But one thing that I'm good at is I'm a quick learner and I can figure things out pretty easy. I have very creative thought process and any challenge that gets put on my plate, I always find the way to figure it out.
But one thing I knew was to go to a trade show. Trade show was huge in the 2000s and the '90s. This was a place for B2B people to connect, to meet customers, and you also went to meet suppliers as well. I did bunch of trade shows, I packed samples, sometimes drove it to the convention centers myself. We did international trade shows, domestic trade shows, trade shows in Las Vegas, in New York. I was probably committed to doing about 10 trade shows a year. I started the company in 1999 and sold it in 2014, so that's 15 years. I've probably done about 150 to 200 trade shows, easily.
Nora Ali: What was the feedback that you'd get initially at these trade shows? Were people surprised that you were able to create a quality product at such a low price point?
Toni Ko: Different trade shows, different reactions from different customers, because you attract different type of buyers. For instance, there's a huge exhibition, it's called the CosmoProf. I mean, it's one of the biggest trade show for the beauty industry, CosmoProf Italy. That show, the first three years I sold nothing, but I kept going. I just continued going because every time a potential customer walks by, they are looking at the company, looking at the brand, looking at the product. They may not come into the booth to talk to me yet, but one of these days they will come back and they will enter the booth and then we'll start a conversation and the conversation leads to the next, but that's how you do business.
Nora Ali: Persistence. My goodness. If you weren't getting buyers at these trade shows for three years, where were you finding your customers then? What was your distribution in the early days?
Toni Ko: Mostly domestics first. There was this one show called the ASD AMD. It was in Las Vegas and this show particularly started as an Army surplus show. But this show attracted customers from South America, from Europe. There were a lot of mom and pop retailers throughout US. There was at one point over 5,000 individual mom and pop accounts throughout US that were in specialty beauty supply and cosmetics business. Those buyers, they all came to those shows, and that's where I was writing just order after another order. This is the time when we had those transfer order sheets.
Nora Ali: Oh, my gosh.
Toni Ko: The young people don't even know what that is.
Nora Ali: That's amazing, just hearing about the difference between what it was like to build a business back then to now. We are going to take another very quick break. More with Toni when we return.
Toni, we were talking about the landscape of building a business, of the world of makeup in the '90s, early 2000s. Now obviously things are so different. It feels like a wild wild west when it comes to marketing and discovering new products. How would you market NYX if you had started it today?
Toni Ko: I have started another cosmetic company. It is not NYX Cosmetics, but it's a beauty incubator where I launch color cosmetic brands for celebrities and influencers. It is such a different market right now. The tactics that were used at NYX Cosmetics pre-2014 cannot be replicated and used with the same effect in the market space right now. Because my last company, NYX Cosmetics, really blossomed into what it was today, starting 2008 to 2014, '15, because we rode the first wave of this thing called social media. Back then, social media, the term didn't even exist. The term influencer didn't even exist. Everything was organic. I honestly have to be grateful and thankful that the company was positioned at an inflection point, we were at an inflection point.
But everything in business, life, personal business, friendship, love, no matter what it is, it's all about the timing. It's really 100%, 1,000% about the timing. We just happened to be at the right time, at the right place, with the right product, at the right duration of the company being around. It was just everything gelling together to make this beautiful brand and take it to the next level of success. Now, can that be done in this time? I think it is very extremely hard, because the TV advertisement, the magazine advertisement, advertising on both, just does not have the same power that it used to have. All the large corporates like Estée Lauder, L'Oréal have funneled their marketing dollars that were going to the TV, the traditional media outlet, is now being funneled into the social media outlet. So if you are a new brand and you're trying to compete with Revlon or L'Oréal or Estée Lauder on a peanut budget, with an elephant budget, it's just not going to work.
So you have to be creative, and the brands that I see right now that are doing well and competing are the ones where the creators are the marketing vehicle themselves. Or they're an amazing photographer. Those skill sets are the more important skill sets now. They could be an amazing speaker, like a media camera person, they could just talk their way into believing that whatever product...this glass of water is the best water that you're ever going to have. Or they're an amazing photographer or they're an amazing content writer or they're the influencer themselves.
Nora Ali: That's your whole approach with Bespoke Beauty Brands, is you're starting with that celebrity, you're starting with that influencer, and helping them incubate their products. What has worked so far? What have you learned as far as transitioning from being a celebrity, being an influencer, to launching a business? What are some of the success stories from Bespoke?
Toni Ko: Oh, gosh. The first brand that we launched is with KimChi Chic. She's a drag queen. She was on RuPaul's Drag Race. She's just got this very loving energy and she doesn't have as many followers as other people. There are other influencers who have double digit million of followers. KimChi, I think she's right now at 1.9 million followers on Instagram, less than two million. What I have learned is it's not the number of followers that you have, it's your connection with your followers. There are certain influencers where the followers develop this really genuine friendship with the influencers, versus there are some influencers who have a lot of followers, but they don't have the stickiness. We're looking for the stickiness.
Nora Ali: Is that how you decide who you want to work with, is that's part of the metric, is how engaged are you with your followers?
Toni Ko: Yes, and are you really truthful and genuine to the brand narrative that you are selling? Let's say if you are a car guy and you have 100 million followers, but now I'm going to sell you a lipstick, that's not going to work.
Nora Ali: To your point that it's hard for smaller brands to compete with the big behemoths because they have the money to spend—and I'm sure L'Oréal was thrilled to acquire NYX for half a billion dollars in 2014, because that was a way for them to grow, to get into new markets and into new customers' hands. But you've spoken in the past very openly about the depression that you experienced after selling NYX. You've said before that NYX was so tied to your identity that you didn't know what to do with yourself after you sold it. Do you feel like you're in a better place when it comes to work and who you are, or is that something that you're still grappling with, is separating out your identity from your work?
Toni Ko: It's been close to a decade since I sold my last company. I'm such a different person I am now than in 2014 when I sold the company. I was 39 going on 40. Now I am 49 going on 50; a decade. You transition from one person to the next stage of being a person. I am now more dedicated to my personal self-expansion and personal self-growth. I'm finally able to permit myself to have more of my time, because this is when my younger self being raised with such a disciplined father was that, with my last company, if I was not thinking, doing, work all the time, I felt guilty. I felt like, "Oh, my god. I'm a business owner and if I'm not here for that meeting, if I'm not for that event," I thought I was doing something wrong and I felt guilty.
And what I realize is that I don't actually have to be at every event and every trade show and every vendor meeting and every customer meeting. Actually, sometimes it's better to just have the team do it. That's why you hire a team for, instead of overextending yourself to all of these situation. One thing that's happened is I've finally grown out of that stage of feeling guilty for not being at everywhere all the time.
Nora Ali: Good for you. I think we can all learn from that, and try not to feel guilty if we don't show up to every single thing for work purposes.
Well, Toni, before we let you go, we have a fun segment. It's called Shoot Your Shot. I'd love to know, what is your biggest ambition, your wildest dream, your moonshot idea. It's your chance to now shoot your shot, so go for it.
Toni Ko: Oh, my god! This is so interesting because I just came back from Aspen. I was on this fellowship program by Aspen Institute called the Henry Crown Fellowship, and their class is called The Moonshot.
Nora Ali: Really? Oh, my gosh. Amazing. You're well prepped for this question. So what is it? What's your moonshot idea, Toni?
Toni Ko: Oh, my God, moonshot idea. My moonshot idea, number one, from going forward, everything I do in my life, if I'm not having fun, I'm not going to do it, period. When I'm 70 years old and ask myself, "How was life?" I want to positively say, "Damn, that was one hell of a fun ride." Architecturing my life to have that answer: That's my moonshot idea.
Nora Ali: That's amazing. That's my favorite moonshot answer we've gotten so far. Okay, final thing for you, Toni. It's time to play a quick game and it's called Two Beats and a Miss. So this is basically two truths and lie. One of these things is not a real beauty product found on Amazon, okay?
Toni Ko: Okay.
Nora Ali: Okay, I'll go through all of them and you let me know which one you think is not real. First thing, Unicorn Snot. This is holographic body glitter gel for body, face, and hair. It's vegan and cruelty free. The second thing is Fairy Sweat Face Mist. All-natural face mist that leaves you looking like a shimmery and dewy fairy. Last thing is a Zombie Pack. This is a wash-off face mask for aging skin. It's lifting and hydrating. So Unicorn Snot, Fairy Sweat Face Mist, and Zombie Pack. Which one is not real?
Toni Ko: Oh, my god. I'm so confused right now. I can't decide, but all three are great, all three are great. I think Unicorn Snot.
Nora Ali: Interesting. It is real, and it's the first product that shows up when you Google weird beauty products on Amazon. You can buy that if you want to be shimmery and glittery. If you had to guess between the other two then, Fairy Sweat Face Mist or a Zombie Pack?
Toni Ko: Ah, okay. I'm going to go with number two, Fairy Sweat Face Mist.
Nora Ali: Woo, she's a winner. Yes, that is not real; I made that up.
Toni Ko: You should trademark it, own it.
Nora Ali: I should. I don't know why I thought of it, but I made it up right before this conversation. I was like, "You know what, it sounds cool." It'd probably smell good, it's a little bit glittery, just to shine your face like a fairy. Okay, amazing. Well, I'll call that a win and I'll call this whole conversation a win. It was so fun. Toni, thank you so much for joining us on Business Casual and for blessing us with all the beautiful products you've created in your life.
Toni Ko: Thank you.
Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I am Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @NoraKAli and I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments and thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, just shoot me a DM and I will do my very best to respond. You can also reach the BC team by emailing business firstname.lastname@example.org, or call us. That number is (862) 295-1135. If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like the show, please leave us a rating and a review. It really, really helps us. Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Olivia Meade. Additional production sound design and mixing by Daniel Markus, with help in this episode from Griffin Jennings. Kate Brandt is our fact checker, Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia, music in this episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.