GUY RAZ, HOST:
Just a quick update about our upcoming live show in Columbus, Ohio. Yes, tickets are sold out for now, but keep your eyes on our Twitter feed or keep checking nprpresents.org because we hope to put a few more tickets on sale over the next few days. OK, here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARCIA KILGORE: I treated myself to a facial after an economics exam. And I had saved $40 or $50 to go to this place that was supposed to be the be all and end all of facials. And I remember walking into that place, and the esthetician looked through the lamp at my scan, and she actually went, what a pity. And I thought to myself, this is not a treat. And I left feeling so horrendous. And I remember just seeing my reflection, and my face was kind of raw and blotchy and thinking, if I ever had a place like that, I would never make my customers feel bad about themselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show - how an 18-year-old named Marcia Kilgore moved from a small town in Canada to New York with just 300 bucks and turned herself into a serial entrepreneur, the founder of five companies, including Bliss cosmetics and FitFlops.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: According to the Small Business Administration, there's a 50 percent chance that your business will fail within the first five years. So there are some things that entrepreneurs do to maximize the chances that their businesses will succeed, like plan and research the marketplace, the way Arthur Blank and his partner Bernie Marcus did for nearly two years before they launched the Home Depot or the way Jen Hyman from Rent the Runway did tons of market research and proof-of-concept testing long before she went to investors. All of this raised the odds that these companies would make it past five years, which brings us to today's show because this is truly a story about someone who never had a bigger plan.
Marcia Kilgore didn't set out to become an insanely successful serial entrepreneur. She never sat down and said, hey, I'm going to start a day spa and a line of skin care products called Bliss, and then go on to start four more companies. She was a personal trainer who had a side hustle giving facials, and what happened to her happened organically. It just evolved into something bigger and bigger. Marcia actually grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Go ahead - find it on the map. It is a very cold place, even by Canadian standards. Anyway, a pretty middle-class home - dad was a real estate agent; mom took care of the house until age 11 when Marcia's dad died after battling cancer. So her mom went back to work, and Marcia, well, she started working, too, which is how she became an aerobics instructor and then got really into fitness - so into it that, at age 15, she decided to become a bodybuilder.
KILGORE: Yeah, I mean, I could probably bench press 185 pounds. I could probably...
KILGORE: ...Squat 300. It was actually a skill and a hobby that parlayed itself into, you know, what I could do later. So it was helpful.
RAZ: How did you even get into that?
KILGORE: Well, OK - so I think I've always loved a big challenge. And when I was living in Saskatoon, which was a small city, and there wasn't really much to do, my sister - my middle sister - started dating a guy whose brother owned a gym. And he said, hey, you should come down to the gym and workout. I used to run a lot. And I thought, OK, well, you know, let me go down to the gym and check it out. It's something to do because really, you know, Saskatoon - 10 months of the year, it's pretty cold. And there were only two television channels back then, so it was pretty dry. So I went down to the gym, and I remember them hooking me up with this female bodybuilder. Her name was Sherry (ph) something, and she was Miss Canada Bodybuilding at the time.
KILGORE: And they gave me a couple of sessions with her. I learned how to do all sorts of, you know, different weightlifting moves and routines. And she worked me so hard. It was a basement gym, and I could not walk up the stairs to get out of the gym.
KILGORE: And I just thought, well, you know, this is an interesting hobby. I've got this free membership. Let me do it.
RAZ: You - I don't know if this is, like, a myth or not. But apparently, you became, like, a weight class bodybuilding champion in Canada.
KILGORE: Yes, it's not a myth. I won - let's see - Miss Southern Saskatchewan, middleweight. I think I also won - now don't laugh out loud - Miss Moose Jaw.
KILGORE: Yeah, Moose Jaw. I said don't laugh out loud. But, you know, it was great because I could also - I mean, I taught aerobics when I was a teenager as well just to earn extra money. I waitressed. You know, it sort of lent itself to many different things that were useful.
RAZ: And was the idea - I mean, did you have jobs and did you earn money in part because you - I don't know - felt like there was some financial insecurity at home and that you - and it was a way for you to kind of have some control over your own financial situation?
KILGORE: I think that I knew my mother was under a lot of stress, you know, just from being a single mother and trying to make ends meet, and I didn't want to be a drain. And if I could pay my own way in terms of at least not asking her for any money, then that was something that made me feel, you know, that it was relieving stress from her. Certainly, I never made enough to pay the rent, but I didn't have to ask her for anything.
RAZ: OK, so you're in high school and you're doing a bunch of jobs, you're a bodybuilder, you're teaching aerobics, so you were already, like, a fitness-type person as a teen. And then what was your plan after high school? Did you go off to college?
KILGORE: Well, when I was 17, my sister who was living in New York at the time - so this was my oldest sister, Jodi - she told me that if I could get accepted to Columbia University and get - you know, pass all of the different entrance exams, then she would pay my tuition.
RAZ: Wow. How was she able to do that?
KILGORE: She was a model. She was living in New York City and making decent cash - decent cash. So I came to New York. I had $300 in my pocket, and I was supposed to go to Columbia. And that year, unfortunately, my sister's financial situation was not as strong as she thought it was going to be. And so as I hadn't applied for a student loan for a foreign student early enough, it was too late for me to get a loan. So I kind of was in New York with my 300 bucks and no school to go to, and I had to figure it out.
RAZ: And this was, like, 1987?
KILGORE: Yeah, 1987.
RAZ: Wow. So you don't have money for school. You've got no work. So what did you do?
KILGORE: You know, this is the interesting thing. So I started - you know, when I first arrived in New York, I got myself a gym membership with the little money that I did have because, of course, once working out is part of your life, you really have to go, and you have to go pretty much every day for an hour or else you start to kind of lose that endorphin dependency. And so there was a really great gym called Better Bodies. And I met a film director there named Douglas Keeve. We chatted, you know, while we were working out. And at one point, he said hey, do you think you could be my personal trainer because I want to look more like you? He was very tall and kind of lean, and I was probably a little bit more muscular but not bulky. And so he wanted to have a physique like mine. And so he was my very first personal training client.
And then other people through him - he introduced me to - and I started to train them, and my sister then realized that I was a personal trainer and started to refer models and actresses and actors and stunt men and, you know, all kinds of people to me. So I ended up having, you know, quite a collection of interesting personalities as personal training clients and started to build up the money that I needed to go to some part-time classes at NYU.
RAZ: So I mean - and did you have a plan? Like, did you think, all right, I'll do this, I'll take some classes at NYU, I'll be a personal trainer, and then - but, like, long term I'm going to do this or that? Did you - was that even, like, part of the equation?
KILGORE: You know what, Guy? I had no plan. I think I was in survival mode. I knew that doing personal training - getting up at 5 a.m. and sometimes having your last client at 9:30 at night, and then sleeping maybe five and a half hours and starting all over again, and maybe going to a class somewhere during the day - that was unsustainable. And I used to fall asleep in my economics classes because I was so tired. And then I started to develop quite a bad case of acne. And it was probably because New York can be so humid. I was running round all day, and you wanted to look decent, so you would put makeup on, and then go do, you know, a personal training session with someone where you're sweating, and then you would put more makeup on because you didn't have time to go home and wash your face in between that client and the next client. So my skin got really bad. And one summer, I treated myself to a facial after an economics exam that I took at NYU. And I had actually walked uptown. I had saved $40 or $50 to go to this place that was supposed to be the be all and end all of facials. And I remember going in there, and I had been under so much stress trying to write this exam, studying really hard, working all the time, you know, paying for everything myself. And I - this was supposed to be a real treat. And I remember walking into that place, laying down on the table, and the esthetician looked through the lamp at my skin. And she actually went (sigh) and then she said what a pity. And I thought to myself, OK, OK, this is not a treat (laughter).
KILGORE: She actually then proceeded to go out into the, you know, common area at that spa and bring in the spa manager, who was a gentleman who came in, and they both looked through the lamp at my skin and sort of tisked and - oh, no, what a disaster. And I left feeling so horrendous. And I remember taking the subway home. And as the subway pulled up in front of me, you know, they have the stainless steel sides, so you get your reflection. And I remember just seeing my reflection, and my face was kind of raw and blotchy and thinking, if I ever had a place like that, I would never make my customers feel bad about themselves.
And I remember I decided to take a crash course in skin care and it took this - I think it was probably three or four weeks - crash course in skin care, you know, basic skin care and how to do facials. And I started to convince my personal training clients, after I would take them jogging or give them a yoga class or whatever it was, to let me practice facials on them.
RAZ: Wow. And, like - and you would have all the, you know - I don't - I mean, I haven't had a facial done ever. I'm just going to...
KILGORE: I'm shocked.
RAZ: ...I'm going to put that out there. Were you just, like, showing up in people's apartments with, like, all the supplies you'd need to give, like, a facial? Like, I'm trying to picture this. Were you lugging around, like potions, and lotions and things like that?
KILGORE: Oh, yeah. I mean, this was a huge bag of stuff. First of all, I carried a steamer, which is a very outdated piece of equipment. I would never steam somebody's face now. Back then, it was what everybody did, and that was kind of the method that we learned. And we thought that was good for the skin. And, you know, since then, we've learned that it's not so good for the skin. So I would carry this steamer, which was probably like a small coffee machine, and then I would have probably 20 tubes and jars and cotton pads and towels. And, you know, it was sort of like a giant backpack, right? If you were going to go hike the - you know, the trail - the Pacific Coast Trail - if you were going to go hike that, I was probably carrying around that much stuff because I would then also bring my personal training equipment, which probably, you know, 30 kilos.
RAZ: Wow. So you - so you had this, like - this sort of side thing going while you were also a personal trainer. And - I mean, at what point did you sort of start asking people to pay you for facials?
KILGORE: Well, I don't think that any of my personal training clients - I don't think I ever charged them for a facial. And then, at one point - and it was kind of one of those beautiful, organic things where I was doing a lot of young models. I was their personal trainer. And there was an agency that used to send me all of the young models who were a little bit out of shape to get them in shape. And that agency had a couple of girls who were the bookers. And one of them had quite bad skin and started to come for facials. And then she started to send me all of the young models who had bad skin. And I started to really gain a reputation for being able to clear up bad skin, at which point I got other people coming in who were not necessarily just, you know, young, new models but, in fact, more well-known individuals who happened to live downtown, hear about me through the grapevine and, you know, started coming in and paying for that service.
RAZ: And where are you doing this at this point?
KILGORE: Well, it started out in my apartment. And then I rented a tiny, little space, probably, I'm going to say, 300 square feet. It was just a one-room studio. I had a little closet where people could change and a chair where they could wait. And that was what I had, and people would come in for their facials there.
RAZ: So you were probably - you were - you were constantly working, but it sounds like you were - I mean, you were doing pretty well. I mean, you had money as a personal - coming in from your personal training. You had money coming in from the facials. Like, that's - I mean, you had big expenses, but you were - sounds like you were covering them.
KILGORE: Oh, yeah. I was covering my expenses. I was a very low-maintenance person though, so I lived in the East Village in my studio or it was, like, sort of a - you could kind of call it a one-bedroom. And I had a futon for a sofa. I had a tiny TV that one of my personal training clients had given me because they didn't want it anymore. It sat on a crate. I had a vacuum cleaner, and, you know, a lamp and a radio. That was it. So, you know, I was - I was a minimalist, let's say.
RAZ: And were your clients still mostly models at that point?
KILGORE: Yeah. It was quite funny because I only had one door, right? It was a door and people would just stand outside the door and knock and then I open the door. And I remember from time to time opening the door and the person standing there was so outstandingly beautiful - male or female - that I wouldn't be able to speak. But I would open the door and just kind of gasp and lose my breath, and then I'd have to kind of, you know, get my composure back, and welcome them in, and show them where to change and then give them a facial. But that was when it really exploded. And everybody started to come in - from Uma Thurman, I did Nicole Kidman, Demi Moore, Annie Liebowitz came in.
RAZ: Wait. How did you get all these super-famous clients? Like, was it - what was your - what was your technique?
KILGORE: If I tell you, I'll have to kill you.
KILGORE: I'm just really thorough. I think it's really important to be thorough, and do - you know, just do the best job you could. Now, listen, most facials would take an hour, right? So a facial is generally an hour. I might be in there for two hours with somebody if they really needed it. For me, time, you know - if I had the time and I could have somebody have their treatment for longer, I would do it. And I think you get results when you put time in.
RAZ: So at what point did you think, you know, this really could be a business, like, I need to think about turning this into just something beyond this 300 square foot - you know, a little sort of walk-in closet to something bigger?
KILGORE: I think I realized that it could be a viable, I guess, career when my appointment book started to be full for five to six weeks in advance. People would call and I couldn't necessarily get them in at the time that they requested. And I was working six days a week and still trying to hang on to some of my earlier personal training clients and realizing that it was just so hard to be able to do both that I might have to, you know, someday give that up; also realized that I could train other people to do the same thing.
And that wasn't something that ever entered my mind before because, obviously, you know, when you think that your early path is you're going to go to a university, and you're going to have a profession, you're going to work as that profession, I'd never - again, no one in my family had ever had their own business or given me that example that you can run a business, that you can employ people, that you can grow an idea. So I think probably after two years in that tiny, little 300-square-foot space, I hired someone who came in and started to learn how I was doing treatments. And then I found a bigger space that I could rent, which was just two blocks away, and started to build out what was then called Let's Face It.
RAZ: So when - how did you become Bliss? How did that - how did that name become the name of your company?
KILGORE: So at Let's Face It, it started to become so busy that we were booked. And there were, at that point, probably five estheticians - esthetician being a person that gives facials. And we worked on different shifts, so some were part-time, but we tried to make the most of the 12 to 14 hours that we could be open in our building during each day. And we were also open on Saturdays. And at one point, probably after about two years, we were so busy that when people would call, they wouldn't be able to get an appointment for anywhere between, you know, 14 and 16 months. And so...
KILGORE: Yeah. Well, you know, it was so amazing, because people come in, they would have their treatment, they would leave - they would be so happy, and they would book for that same timeslot for the next 12 or 18 months. I remember - actually, great story. Do you - were you - do you remember the huge snowstorm of - must have been 1994 or '95 in New York where there was snow piled up for 12 feet on the side of the roads? And...
KILGORE: OK. Every - everything around us was closing. Crate & Barrel closed. Dean & DeLuca closed. Everybody closed. Our phone that day was ringing off the hook with people saying, has anyone canceled? Can we get in? Because they were hoping that an appointment would become available and that somebody else would've canceled their - and nobody canceled their appointments. Somehow, despite the weather, everybody still made it down there because God forbid were they going to cancel their appointment. So yeah, it was amazing.
RAZ: So I guess it was, like, 1996 when you opened an even larger storefront, right? And this is when you called it Bliss, right?
KILGORE: Yep. And it was a much bigger area - floor play - than we'd had at Let's Face It. We had 10 treatment rooms, and we had a nap room, and we opened in the beginning of July of 1996.
RAZ: How did you have the money to do this? I mean, it must - you must have - I mean, you had to rent a space. You had to probably take a three-year lease. You had to put lots of money down. You had to convert the space. I mean, did you bring in outside investment?
KILGORE: At the time, it was pretty scary. And I - again, you know, having not had the experience of anyone or, you know, really any business school experience, I didn't really consider - I didn't even think about outside investment. What I knew was that if I gave facials myself, all day long, every day - and I could probably take Sunday off - and charged, you know, maybe it was $80 for a facial then, that I could still pay that rent by myself. And that was a calculation that I made. In terms of the build out of the spa, I took a little bit of a flyer on that one because at that time, of course, we were booked for 18 months in advance. And I kind of did the calculation in terms of what - you know, what we made when we were full, all day long, every day.
Now we were really lucky. The timing was great on this. About two months before we opened Bliss and while we were still in the construction phases, American Folk did a beautiful piece with a beautiful Irving Penn portrait of a girl having milk poured over her head and talked about three creams. And one of them was a - I think one of them was Creme de LaMer, which, you know, Estee Lauder went on to buy, and turned it into a big thing. And one of them was a Swiss oxygen cream that we sold. And when this article dropped, thousands of people started to call to buy this Swiss oxygen cream. And it lasted probably for four or five months of, you know, this article having such an incredible effect on the sales of products out of our little facial place, that a lot of the construction costs were almost covered by that one article.
RAZ: It's incredible. So I mean, you think about, like, renting a space in New York City today - in Manhattan today - and it's insane. Like, you have to be a multimillionaire. You have to put down tons of money and fill out tons of applications. And you did this in 1996, which - I mean, was it a time where you could still kind of do that and not be a millionaire?
KILGORE: I think so. I think it was probably one of the last periods of time that you could do that and not be a millionaire. There seemed to be a little bit more trust in terms of here's - you know, here's this kid - I remember the landlord just kind of looking at me thinking, well, here's this kid, and she's obviously responsible, and she's got this decent business already, and, you know, let's give it a shot. I - certainly, I flinched, and it was terrifying filling out the paperwork. And it was - you know, looking at it, and thinking of the responsibility of that overhead. But for me, because I'd never had anything, to lose everything was not a big deal.
RAZ: So here's what I'm trying to figure out. There were - there were spas, and they're still there in New York. But you come in and you have this day spa, let's call it, that somehow was - just exploded in - I mean, there were just articles, and people were lining up and making appointments. What was it about Bliss? What were you offering that was different from those other places?
KILGORE: You know, I've always - and since then, all the businesses that I've started have been places that I want to go. So I wanted to go to get a facial or get a body treatment or get a pedicure in a non-judgemental place where people were having fun, where the music was not about whales singing or - you know, I hated that kind of music. I loved, you know, jazz and really good, soulful music, so I used to mix the music myself, and I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to be a place that I would like to go that I would feel comfortable where people would be accepting of me, you know, and so that's what we did for everybody else. And I think it was fantastic because it was very egalitarian. You would have those superstars in there, so Madonna and whoever, but then you would also have secretaries. You've had kids from NYU who had, you know, terrible problems with their skin and just wanted relief from it. And they were, you know, going to school up the block, so it was easy for them to come to us. You had really everybody, and it was wonderful because everyone was treated exactly the same way.
RAZ: Yeah. I think I'd be nervous giving Madonna a facial.
KILGORE: She was very curious. She's one of those people who had tons and tons of questions. You know, what are you doing now? What is this? What is that supposed to do? But, you know, strangely, I wasn't really nervous giving anybody a facial. It was so much fun. There were so many characters, from the people who worked at the front desk to the clients. You know, New York is so full of amazing characters. It is like watching a television show, right? It didn't seem like work at all.
RAZ: In just a moment, how Marcia sold Bliss and then turned around and founded a new company and then another and then another and then another. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So it's 1996. Let's Face It becomes Bliss, and it opens as a day spa in New York's Soho neighborhood. And almost instantly, the phones are ringing off the hook. So in a very short period of time, Marcia decides to expand to double the size of Bliss. She also gets married around this time to her boyfriend Thierry, and he joins the business. And the two of them decide to try new things, like make a line of skin care products under the name Bliss. And soon, they start talking about expanding to other cities. But just as things start to take off - this is three years into the business - a huge, multinational brand comes knocking - LVMH, the conglomerate that owns Louis Vuitton. And they want a piece of Bliss - 70 percent - and they're offering Marcia a lot of money. So the amount of money that's been reported was anywhere from $30 million to $50 million for that 70 percent stake, which is a lot, but you guys were just hitting your stride. So why did you sell at that point?
KILGORE: Well, you know, for about a year prior to 1999, we actually had a lot - it was a hot time for beauty companies. So retrospectively, there were a lot of cool, new companies starting and a lot of interest in those companies from the big beauty conglomerates. They were starting to buy up smaller players rather than, you know, trying to build their own. And of course, Bliss had such a reputation that we had more than one large company come and try and get us. And I think the most exciting thing for me at that time was the idea of not having all of the financial responsibility for that business on my head.
We actually were - we had expanded. And along comes a large company, starts looking at our books, which was also very funny because they had an accountant, I think, based in Chicago who couldn't believe that we were making this money without doing something illegal.
KILGORE: So they came in and they did a report and there were all these things in the report like, you know, Bliss purports to have celebrity clients, Bliss purports to be doing facials in the back. It was like, what do you think we're doing in here? (Laughter) It was really - it was quite funny to read. I guess they'd just never seen anything like it before. But it just - it seemed like after so many years of being kind of flat broke or, you know, on the edge, that it would be nice just to have a little bit of money in the bank.
RAZ: Yeah because, again, I mean, obviously Bliss was doing really well, but you guys were I guess still living pretty modestly.
KILGORE: Yeah. OK, so for anybody who's lived their entire life worrying about money or, you know, just kind of, you know, living very minimally, you do wonder if that's your motivation and if your motivation and all of those skills that you've developed will somehow profoundly change when suddenly there are some zeroes in your bank account. So that was a bit of a crisis thinking will I be different if I'm not starving? But it was just too good an offer to refuse. They had flown me to Paris on the Concorde. I had gone to the Christian Dior boutique. They took me to Orleans where their factory was where they were, you know, manufacturing mascara and all this.
And then you come back to New York - actually, I have to say, I came back to New York, I flew back on the Concorde and I'm on the subway, and there's, you know, Coca-Cola spilt all over the seats and garbage strewn everywhere. And I remember hanging on that subway car thinking, God, I wonder if I was the only person on the Concorde this morning that's in this subway. And it was just - it was funny because I could happily do both. But you did realize that maybe after having worked my tail off for 14 to 16 hours a day for the last however many years - at that point, I guess it would have been 11 years - maybe it didn't have to be that hard anymore.
RAZ: So, I mean, did it change you, like, suddenly coming into all this money?
KILGORE: You know, I think you get a few dollars in your bank account - and I did have a laugh. And we used to joke, when it got wired, you know, we said the eagle has landed. And, you know, we laughed and then we went and got groceries in our regular shop in Brooklyn. You don't see money, do you? It just goes into - it's numbers on a piece of paper. And it lands and then, yeah, maybe you might fly business class and maybe you might go and buy a few more clothes than you normally would maybe once. And then you realize, you know, what you love is what you love. And I think it takes quite a long time to start living differently when you've lived for so long with the same attitude.
RAZ: OK. So you guys - in 1999, you sold about 70 percent of the company to LVMH. And then a couple years later, like 2004 I think, you sold the rest of your shares to another company. And then you walked entirely away from Bliss. What was going on in your life at that point? Why did you decide to do that?
KILGORE: So LVMH, after 2001, they started to divest of most of their beauty businesses, and we were one of the first ones to get snapped up by another business. So Starwood Hotels & Resorts bought us because they wanted to have Bliss bars and they wanted to put those into W hotels and other hotels. And so, you know, that was also very flattering. So first I had, you know, one of the largest luxury groups in the world buy my business, and then I had the largest hotel group in the world buy my business, so, you know, two good hits there.
But they put somebody in charge of the business who was a young guy - probably the prodigy of the man who owned Starwood at the time - who really didn't understand customer service the way I understood it. And I felt like I was spending most of my day trying to teach him, but he was reticent. And for me, you know, to spend my time on that when the person is not necessarily open to the ideas just felt like banging my head against the wall, and it was very draining. So I decided to take a break from it, and I didn't really know what I was going to do, but I just didn't want to do that anymore.
RAZ: So when you left Starwood, what did you do? Did you - I know that you moved to London for a while. Did you just kind of hang out and enjoy not working for a while?
KILGORE: I probably had about three months off, and as soon as I had a little bit of energy back, I started to come up with a few new ideas for, you know, new brands and new things that I as a woman, again, saw a hole in the marketplace for.
RAZ: So I guess the - (laughter) we should point out here that it didn't take very long for you to decide to start a new business, which was Soap & Glory, and this was going to be, like, affordable, personal hygiene products.
KILGORE: Yeah. OK, so I remember just, you know, scanning newspapers and scanning these journals every Sunday and seeing the zeitgeist really being, one, about collaborations, and, you know, high street prices or, you know, really affordable pricing for designer stuff - and H&M was leading the way with this - and also about waste. There was starting to be a lot of interest in environmental concerns. There was this story about David Beckham only wearing his underwear once and throwing it out and how wasteful it was, you know, all of this.
And so I started to think, you know, people are really worried about the environment, and people want more for their money. And so how can I roll that all up and do a fun little brand that I can sell? And Soap & Glory, it was designer, affordable cosmetics. And then, of course, we also did very simple packaging that wouldn't be, you know, too hard on the environment and this - it sort of took all of those zeitgeist ideas and bundled them up. And so we launched at Harvey Nichols - really fun department store - and then Boots came knocking. And Boots is...
RAZ: The big drugstore I guess.
KILGORE: Yeah, the big drugstore, and they've got probably 1,800 stores throughout Britain. And so we rolled out into Boots, and it was actually very small for the first couple of years. We didn't do that much business, but within, I'd say, seven - six or seven years, we were probably retailing about $100 million.
RAZ: Wow. And you didn't - and you did not take any outside investment for this company...
RAZ: ...Because you didn't need to. You had - you could use the money that you had from the sale of Bliss to launch this next company.
KILGORE: Yes, and it was very organic growth. I mean, you - people think about these overnight successes, and very rarely are they an overnight success, right? Things do take years and they grow, but then once they grow big enough, they start to snowball.
KILGORE: And so it started to snowball. And at one point, I remember us doing these, like, crazy Christmas bags where there were these Christmas bags just stuffed full of products. And there were literally hundreds of thousands of them produced every Christmas. And, you know, the week before Christmas, there would be this special offer where you could go in and get this Soap & Glory Christmas bag. And if you walked around London, every third person was carrying three or four of these on their arms. It was such a big deal.
RAZ: Yeah. So in the midst of launching Soap & Glory, like a year later, you launched another company in addition to that. You launched a company that makes, like, flip-flop shoes called the FitFlop. So how did that happen, and why would you launch a second company whilst trying to launch a first company or a second company? Why would you launch a third company while trying to get your second company off the ground?
KILGORE: You know, this is a very interesting question - why launch two kind of simultaneously? However, I have just read this book called "Originals," and there's one chapter in that book where it says true entrepreneurs always hedge their bets, right? You don't give up your day job because you think that your, you know, side hustle or whatever it is is going to actually pay off. You always do two things at the same time because one of them may not work, and you want to make sure that you've got another one. And it's kind of like personal training while I was doing facials, right? And I guess I did that again where - with Soap & Glory when I started it.
You know, it was only a year later that I also launched FitFlop, and it was really based on the idea for one shoe which was ergonomically correct which would align your body while you walked. And because of my personal training days and trying to use my time more efficiently and having started this new business, Soap & Glory, thinking that I'd have work-life balance and then finding that I had no time at all actually or very little time to exercise, I was thinking to myself, what can I invent to make more out of this time that I have when I am walking? You know, how can I make walking really work for me in an optimal way?
So I then spent a lot of time on different trains in the U.K., going to different universities, trying to find somebody who would be able to help me realize this idea. And in fact, eventually I found Dr. Dave Cook at the University of South Bank in London, which was probably a mile away as the crow flew (laughter). So I eventually met with Dr. Cook, and I went in and I said here's the idea, blah, blah, blah, and he said, oh, I know how you can do that. So they told me they could make a prototype because they had a shoe design course going on within the university. (Laughter) When - I waited and waited and waited. About three months later, I come in to see this prototype, and it - literally, it looked like a lump of coal with some ropes on it. Then I was like we can't sell this. This is so ugly. No one will wear this outside no matter what it does for them. But we tested it, right? So we put it on some different university students' feet and we put electrodes on them and we looked at their forces. You can see whether or not the technology is helping to align the force that goes through your heel, which is your heel strike, when you walk. And it worked, right?
So this lump of coal with the ropes, it worked (laughter). So I then thought, OK, what do I do now? I've got this shoe. It does what I want it to do. I don't know how to make a shoe or where to go to get shoes made. And then I thought, well, I could go to Nike or Puma or whatever, and then I thought, no, I can't because they're going to steal my idea.
KILGORE: And then in the recesses of my mind - right? - I remember that I knew somebody who did footwear. At the time they were called Peter Black. They've since been bought by a Chinese conglomerate. But we called Peter Black Footwear, and we met with somebody who did sourcing for them. And then we had a mold made, which, again, you know, it was one of these things you've got to take a flyer. It was probably $40,000 to have the mold made. So you have to really hope this is going to go because $40,000 is not nothing. But at the time, I thought, you know what? I'd buy this shoe if the shoe was available, so I'm sure other people will buy this shoe. And so we drew one up. We made a prototype. It was incredibly comfortable - like incredible. And I remember sitting down - so of course I went to retailers that I knew from my American days first and then also to Boots in the U.K. who was selling Soap & Glory. But about a year before that, I had met with Bath & Body Works, and I explained the idea, and the buyer from Bath & Body Works looked at me and said, I'll take somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 pairs of those a year.
KILGORE: I was shocked. I remember walking away - because they wanted to meet at Claridge's, so we went to Claridge's, you know, and had tea and talked about it. And I remember walking out of Claridge's just thinking, whoa, this is, like - this is a whole new level (laughter).
KILGORE: I mean, I couldn't give 300,000 facials a year.
RAZ: I mean, it's incredible. I mean, if you think about it, right? So you sell Bliss. You walk away from Bliss in 2004. You then launch Soap & Glory in 2006, run that business, simultaneously launch the ergonomic shoe line FitFlop in 2007. You sold Soap & Glory to Boots I guess in 2014. And then last year, you launched a brand-new business - a subscription service for high-end cosmetics that are actually sold for very little money called BEAUTY PIE. How do you do that? How do you create so many - how do you stay on top of so many different ideas and companies?
KILGORE: You know, Guy, today I don't feel like I'm quite so on top of it (laughter). But BEAUTY PIE - the whole idea behind it was knowing, you know, in the cosmetics industry, how fun it is to go to some of these third-party labs and that you walk out of there with, you know, bags full of free cosmetics. And you know, you're walking through a cosmetics store with a bag that you just got from this third-party lab that's probably got a $2,000 street value, and they were all free and thinking, wow, you know, what if I could bring every woman into the luxury cosmetic factory with me and we could raid it together? How fun would that be? Like, what a thrill. It's like being a kid in a candy store. And so...
KILGORE: ...That was the idea behind BEAUTY PIE. How do I give women the same feeling that I have? Because the funnest (ph) part of being able to work in cosmetics is when these free boxes of stuff from the lab show up. And BEAUTY PIE's a little bit different. You buy stuff at the factory cost, but it's practically free compared to what you would pay for it at retail.
RAZ: What's interesting is that you don't seem to be sort of sentimentally attached to your companies. You launch them, you create them, you turn them into these incredibly successful companies, and you've sold at least two of them, and you may sell others. Do you - is there a certain point where you just say, yeah, I don't - you know, I just want to move on and start something new? Like, is it almost like when a business becomes too big or you just kind of get bored you want to start something new?
KILGORE: You know, I've thought about this one a lot because I do get asked, you know, why do you keep doing this? And I think about the thrill that is BEAUTY PIE right now, which is really like - I'm rubbing the sticks together. And I think it's what really drives me and what I really love, you know? Have you ever heard the expression your first marriage is for love, the second one's for money and the third one's for companionship? I think some famous divorcee probably said that one. But the companionship that I get out of having a business where I can really interface with women and I'm making them happy - and some men, of course. We have 4 percent men at the moment. But being able to make people feel that happy and have them communicate that to me is what gives me the biggest buzz.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it's - why do you think that your brain works that way, that you just are generating all of these ideas all the time? And ideas that don't just kind of float up into space - ideas that you actually stop, sit down and start to really - they almost seem to obsess you. They seem to just overtake everything in your world. Like, why do you think that happens to you?
KILGORE: Yeah. How did I end up like this (laughter)?
RAZ: Yeah - well, sort of yeah.
KILGORE: I - you know, I have thought a lot about that because you have to psychoanalyze yourself. And I also tell wannabe entrepreneurs - right? - I always tell them that one of the tools that they should have is an understanding of how the human brain works - right? - because if you can understand how your brain is fooling you when you might be reacting to something rather than making a sound decision or when you might be feeling insecure when you really shouldn't be or when you're jumping to a judgment that necessarily doesn't have enough information to back it up - now when you try to then go psychoanalyze yourself, I would say, well, I must be extremely competitive because I will come up with these ideas and think, I can't do that.
And then I'll think, well, come on, I have to do that. And then I'll think, God, if I don't do that fast, somebody else is going to do it. And I don't know why I care. I mean, why do I care if somebody else goes and does it? There must be some competitive aspect to it. And so I'm much more comfortable where I feel like I'm building something. And it's got to be genetic - right? - because there's nothing else that would really explain this.
RAZ: How much of your success do you think is because of your intelligence and hard work and how much do you think is because of luck?
KILGORE: OK, let's see. OK. I'd say I'm certainly above average in intelligence. I'm not a genius. I know a lot of people who are, you know, much more intellectual than I am and actually much more strategic. And people would always say that I'm very strategic, but I don't think of myself as such a strategic person. I just tend to think of things in very simple terms. Luck - I've certainly had some. I mean, moving to New York and having a sister who was really good-looking and in a field where she could give people who could afford my services, you know, the - an introduction to me so that I could have clientele, and then more of those people would refer more of those people. That's certainly lucky.
However, if I wasn't good at what I was doing, I don't think I would have any of them - and if I didn't show up on time, and if I wasn't friendly and, you know, reliable. I suppose you get a bit of luck, and then you have to make something out of it. And I find when I see - and I'm sure you see this as well. You see people who are so talented or, you know, really genius at what they do, but they're not ever really successful; they're always struggling. And I always wonder, you know, is it just a choice that you make where, at one point, you say, you know what? I am worthy. I deserve this. Why not me? Because, you know, why not you? And if you're willing to work that hard, why shouldn't you then take the success that comes with it? And I think that's a very complex thing for many people. And somehow I've managed to overcome that.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it is amazing how many of these companies that you've created and all of the things you've done - by the way, have you ever come up with an idea that you thought was just going to do amazingly well that you just didn't pursue because it wasn't actually quite right?
KILGORE: Oh, I have one right now. But I - it's not that I'm not pursuing it because it's not right, but I can't say what it is because we're patenting it at the moment.
RAZ: You have an idea right now - you are going to launch something new on top of all of these other things that you do - incredible. Like, how do you - doesn't your brain want to explode?
KILGORE: (Laughter) Only if I've had too many espressos.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Marcia Kilgore - the founder of Bliss Spas, Soap & Glory skin care products, FitFlops ergonomic shoes, BEAUTY PIE makeup and also a fifth brand. We just ran out of time to talk about it. It's a line of environmentally friendly bath products called Soaper Duper. Marcia's built so many companies that on the last episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Oprah named her one of her personal inspirations. And please do stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you're building.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey. Thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And the business we're about to talk about goes back about 25 years before we all had cellphones. And back then, the most important handheld device in our lives was probably the TV remote.
STEVE KRAL: I mean, we watch several hours of TV a week, and it's a device that we use every day.
RAZ: This is Steve Kral of Chicago. And years ago, Steve worked at a big-box electronics store, where he discovered the many, many ways that a TV remote can die.
KRAL: The baby takes the remote and starts to bang it and destroys it. The dog bites the remote control in half. The bird pecks the numbers out of the remote control.
RAZ: Wow. That's one I've never heard of, a bird - a really angry bird.
KRAL: Yeah. I am surprised myself about why people are missing so many remotes.
RAZ: Anyway, Steve kind of filed all this information away in his head. And in 1992 when the electronics store where he worked went out of business, he and the other employees got a discount on the leftover merchandise.
KRAL: And while I was buying some of the used electronics, one of the store managers had a big box of remote controls. And I asked him, how much are those? And he says, well, I'll just give them to you. And I said OK, great.
RAZ: And Steve already figured that lots of people probably had broken and smashed remotes lying around, so he thought, hey, you know, I'll take this box of perfectly usable remotes, and I'll sell them for a few bucks.
KRAL: About a month later, I started selling these at the flea market, and they were just flying off the shelf. And I was like, wow, this is - you know, there was a demand for them.
RAZ: Not only were there a surprising number of people who needed remotes, Steve found out there were actually boxes of orphan remotes just floating around in the marketplace because the TV companies usually made extras. So all he had to do was become a middleman. And fortunately, this coincided with the Internet revolution.
KRAL: The Internet was crucial. If it wasn't for the Internet, I wouldn't be in this business now because I remember to this day, I started selling on eBay March 3 of '98.
RAZ: So you might be thinking, yeah, I get that the occasional family with, you know, a crazy pet bird might need to replace their remote, but is this thing scalable? I mean, could Steve actually make money selling these things? And the answer turned out to be yes because he figured out how to sell wholesale - like, he could sell a bunch of remotes to a budget hotel.
KRAL: So their TVs are quite old - let's say from the mid-'90s. They've got to update something. And they're trying to cut their costs, so they may buy a bunch of TVs from a refurbisher. And they may not get the remote controls, so then they contact me.
RAZ: So after years of doing this, Steve now knows how to source TV remotes of different makes and models from importers and manufacturers around the world. He charges anywhere from 50 cents to maybe 12 bucks apiece, which may not sound like much, but Steve says he makes about half a million dollars a year. And if you want to find out more about Steve and his company, Kral Enterprises, check out our Facebook page. And of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing what you're up to. And thanks for listening to our show this week. If you want to find out more or hear previous episodes, you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. Please also do subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts. You can also write us - it's firstname.lastname@example.org. You could tweet us, too - @HowIBuiltThis.
Our show is produced this week by Rachel Faulkner. Ramtin Arablouei composed the music. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Thomas Lu, Dayana Mustak and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Nur Kutsy (ph). I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.