Bobbi Brown is one of the biggest names in the beauty industry. In 1991, she launched her eponymous makeup company with a line of 10 lipsticks. After only four years, she sold the company to Estée Lauder for a reported $74.5 million, staying on as chief creative officer and helping grow Bobbi Brown into a billion-dollar brand over the next two decades. In 2020, she launched her newest beauty project, Jones Road, a line of clean, “no-makeup makeup” — and the company expects sales to top $120 million this year. If all that wasn’t enough, she’s the author of nine beauty and makeup guides and a monthly contributor on the Today show, and has even opened a boutique hotel.
On October 24, Brown joined her friend and fellow serial entrepreneur Donald Weiss ’67 for a fireside chat. Weiss taught entrepreneurship at CBS for 25 years. The evening was hosted by the School’s Lang Entrepreneurship Center, which helps students and alumni catalyze startups and investors who shape the future, and the Columbia Beauty Club, a nearly 300-student professional organization that works to expand beauty-related career resources and programming at CBS.
During the chat, Brown told the story of her journey from mailing lipsticks out of her home to being a billion-dollar brand mogul. She talked about the imperative to trust one’s instincts, emphasized the importance of quality of product above all else, and gave advice to entrepreneurs starting their careers. The following are takeaways from the chat.
A Great Product Is the Most Important Thing
“Formula!” Brown exclaimed repeatedly. “Formula is the most important thing.” For Brown, quality of product is paramount, but her prices remain accessible. So how does she balance cost and quality? Cut back on packaging. The beauty industry may be crowded these days, she said, but few brands are making quality products; too many brands are opting instead to go big on packaging and marketing.
Meanwhile, Brown said she works to make products people will “want to buy again and tell their friends to buy.” And she doesn’t let trends dictate her product development: “I’d rather get more customers buying the same thing. It really matters to me what I put on the market. There has to be a reason.”
Brown said she often receives decks with product ideas that are unclear or a fully formed product idea with no plan for how to produce it. She advised young entrepreneurs to be clear and intentional early in their journeys about the details of their product and how it will be made: “You have to know what the product is. You have to come up with it first.”
Listen to Yourself
Brown is curious. She said she wants to know other people’s opinions and asks for them often. But she doesn’t always listen. “I’m the final word,” she said. Brown started Jones Road without a dollar of outside investment, and for the first time, she’s excited to be able to follow her gut freely: “The amazing thing about starting a brand is that I knew what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want anyone telling me it wasn’t a good idea.”
Brown tossed out names from multiple naming experts and instead opted to take inspiration from a map. She went against the advice of friends and colleagues about launching into the pandemic economy. And she proved everyone wrong: Only in its third year, and with just three brick-and-mortar locations, Brown expects profits to double in 2023.
For Brown, following your gut is about believing in your vision. She said it was her loyalty to her own creative intuition that led her to where she is today. “I don’t try to do things because I think they’re going to be a huge success…. I don’t try to do everything that everyone else does,” she said. “It wouldn’t work. You have to figure out what you do.”
Product Alone Won’t Cut it –– PR Seals the Deal
Though Brown focuses on quality, she also acknowledges that public relations is indispensable. “You need to make it, pack it up, tell people about it, and ship it. It’s all important,” she said. She attributes much of the success of Jones Road to her presence on TikTok. Within 10 weeks of posting on the app, Jones Road’s daily sales quadrupled. After a popular beauty influencer gave her foundation a bad review, she made a joke video in the style of the influencer. “I always love learning new makeup techniques, and I learned one today,” she says in the video, and then proceeds to put on a comically huge amount of foundation. The video went viral, garnering 1 million views within 24 hours. “I learned a new word,” she said at the fireside chat. “I ‘clapped back.’” Still, in life and in business, Brown emphasizes being nice: “It’s not about who you know; it’s about who you are and how you treat other people.”
Failing and Struggling are Important
Throughout the evening, Brown reiterated the long-term benefits of failures and struggles. “If you’re not struggling, something is wrong,” she said. “I didn’t become Bobbi Brown overnight.” In 2019, she launched a line of supplements, Evolution_18, which never got off the ground. She unabashedly called it “a case study for Columbia Business School of what not to do.”
After the company failed, she picked herself up and moved on. “If something doesn’t work, it’s just a message to say, ‘Oh! I gotta do something else.’” When asked if she would have done anything differently, Brown said she would do it all exactly the same way: “The most amazing thing about launching Jones Road is that I know not just what to do, but what not to do, and that’s pretty invaluable.”