Bobbi Brown, 59, On How To Be An Entrepreneur And Have Fun

Photo via Neiman Marcus

Photo via Neiman Marcus

Bobbi Brown launched a cosmetics line in 1991 because she was sick of red lipstick. Four years later, Estée Lauder acquired the “natural look” brand, offering her both cash and creative control. The brand remains an industry leader, with Brown—a multitasking mother of three—at its helm.

Alison Beard: You started as a freelance makeup artist. At that early stage of your career, how did you find clients and persuade them to hire you?

Bobbi Brown: I approached networking as my full-time job. I knew I had to show my portfolio to the people who were hiring and, in a very short amount of time, “sell myself” as someone who really loved and believed in what I was doing and had talent and would fit into a crew. I was very young and wide-eyed and enthusiastic.

AB: What were the most important lessons you learned when you launched your cosmetics line a few years later?

BB: The most important was to follow my gut. Don’t put something on the market just because everyone else is doing it. Do what you think is right. I’ve made so many mistakes—who hasn’t?—whether it’s hiring people I thought would be perfect (who weren’t) to getting talked into products or categories I wasn’t sure of. As the company got bigger, I thought maybe I should listen to people with more experience. But I’ve learned that the best thing for my company is to do what I believe in.

AB: You didn’t have any business expertise at first. How did you move up that learning curve?

BB: I pretty much make things up. I mean: What is an entrepreneur? Someone who just dives right in and tries something and if it doesn’t work, tries something else. You don’t overthink it. You don’t strategize. You just do it. I started the business with partners: my husband and another couple. In four years we were beating Estée Lauder in our biggest store. They came calling, and we sold the company.

AB: Is it hard to run your own brand within a big organization?

BB: There are hurdles—things you have to get over or around. When people give you their strong opinion, you just tell them, “It’s a really great idea. Thank you.” Then you go back and do what you think is right. Usually in big companies, there’s so much to do that no one really dwells on everything that’s discussed. And because the brand is growing, they don’t come back to me. They don’t insist; they suggest.

AB: You’re credited with starting the natural makeup trend, and many other companies have since copied your aesthetic as well as specific products. How do you respond to that sort of competition?

BB: I’m overjoyed. Honestly, I’m never at a loss for coming up with something new, and in my mind, what I do is better, so I’m not afraid.

AB: How do you stay innovative?

BB: I’ve never had any issue with that. The problem is deciding what to do, because there are so many different ideas and only so many hours in the day and so much room at the counter. So I look for opportunities, I listen to the marketing team, and we make our decisions based on a lot of facts. In addition to being very visual and creative, I’m also super practical.

AB: What happens when you miss a trend?

BB: I listen to what the market is asking for and, if I don’t like the current form of a product, I won’t just put my name on it. I need to figure out why people want it and recreate it. I don’t need to be first. I just need to be best.

AB: You talked about your family and the juggle involved in that. How do you manage it?

BB: I started the company when I was pregnant with my first child, and he’s 24 now. There was a lot of torture in the beginning because I didn’t want to be away, didn’t want to miss his first steps. So I took my family on trips with me as much as I could. My husband is a businessman and an attorney, but he works for himself. And I had my own company, so we had that flexibility. Not everyone does. But I think you have to take it where you can. Make sure to schedule your kids’ first day of school, school holidays, sing-alongs, doctors’ appointments a year in advance. Do all those things, and hopefully you’ll be able to work for a company that respects that.

Interview via Harvard Business Review