GUY RAZ, HOST:
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BOBBI BROWN: I used to hire and interview every person that walked in that brand. And then I didn't anymore. And all of a sudden, there were people working on my brand that I'd never met before and that I might not have hired. And you know, it was a struggle. And I tried to let go of the details. But then I realized the details were what makes the company so special. And so I kept thinking I could fix it. If we could just do this - if I could get this, it could be better. And it didn't get better.
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RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.
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RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, how a makeup artist named Bobbi Brown built a billion-dollar line of cosmetics by doing one simple thing, making women look like they weren't wearing any makeup.
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RAZ: When I was a kid back in the 1980s, my older sister had a collection of those porcelain Mardi Gras masks on her bedroom wall. And they had these colorful faces painted with blue eye shadow and deep rouge streaks across the cheeks and the reddest lips that no human could possibly be born with. And the thing about those masks is they looked like models you'd see on the cover of fashion magazines, models who didn't hide their makeup - makeup that was loud and brash. And the look was anything but natural.
And this is the world that Bobbi Brown kind of broke into. As a young makeup artist in the fashion industry, she loved everything about makeup except, you know, the way it actually made people look. And so she was searching for a way to use it so that models looked like they weren't really wearing it at all - so you know, lipstick that was the color of actual lips or blush that didn't make you look like you were blushing or eyeshadow that matched your skin tone.
Now, this doesn't seem particularly revolutionary today. But back in the 1980s, when Bobbi Brown started to mash together off-the-shelf cosmetics to come up with a new look, she was trying something totally different. She was trying to convince women that makeup could be, well, almost invisible. And some of her fellow makeup artists told her she'd have zero luck trying to sell that natural look. But of course, today Bobbi Brown Cosmetics is a brand that's been estimated to generate over a billion dollars of revenue a year - a year. And Bobbi never thought of herself as a businesswoman. She didn't set out to design a whole new line of cosmetics. But even as a little girl in suburban Chicago, she remembers how much she loved watching her mom get ready to go out for the evening.
BROWN: My mother was the most glamorous, stunning woman. She looked like a young Jackie Kennedy. And I used to watch her put her makeup on with her false eyelashes, her eyeliner. She was skinny as could be. She'd be standing there with a cigarette hanging off of the counter. And I would just be sitting there watching her. And she - I watched everything. I watched her take her brown pencil, which now we know is lead, and fill in her eyebrows and with a toothpick put on false eyelashes and bronzer on her cheeks and a pale lip on and go out, you know, with my dad Wednesday nights and Saturday nights.
BROWN: And I was in awe. You know, I could never ever, ever be that glamorous. And I was, you know, the shortest - always - and, you know, not the skinniest. But I was really lucky because the other side of that, I had my grandmother and my Aunt Dallas (ph) who were more like me - really simple, wearing comfortable shoes, you know, people comfortable in their skin. And at the same time, by the way, the girls - the models that were really popular were Cheryl Tiegs.
RAZ: Oh, yeah.
BROWN: And all these, you know, blonde, Barbie-doll-looking girls, which I was not one of them. I, you know, had thick eyebrows and dark hair. And you know, I wasn't that. And then the thing that changed my life was going to see the movie "Love Story."
RAZ: Oh, yes - with...
BROWN: Ali MacGraw
RAZ: ...Ali MacGraw, yeah.
BROWN: And I'll never forget. I was somehow in middle - I must have been in 7th grade. And I remember sitting there and looking at this girl with dark shiny hair, parted down the middle, no apparent makeup. And literally, for the first time in my life, I said I could be pretty, too. She changed my life.
RAZ: Ali MacGraw...
BROWN: Ali MacGraw.
RAZ: ...In "Love Story"...
RAZ: ...Changed your life.
BROWN: Changed my self-esteem and my, you know, my confidence and figuring out who I am.
RAZ: So when it was time for you to leave home and go to college, what did you study?
BROWN: Well, I went to - you know, with a lot of my friends - there were probably a dozen of us that went freshman year of college to University of Arizona in Tucson. And I was so bored in school, you know, because you would sit in - you know, it's a huge university. And you'd sit in these big, giant halls with 500 - a thousand people and see this little teeny professor at the - you know, lecture us with, you know, an overhead projector. And I certainly - it was not the way that I was meant to learn. So you know, I went through the motions. And the end of the year, I came home. And I told my mom I wanted to drop out of school.
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BROWN: And my mom says, you can't. And I said, but why, Mom? It's so boring. I don't want to go to college. She says, I never graduated college. And she says, you have to. I said, but Mom, I have no clue what I want to do. And my mother said - I remember the two chairs we were sitting at - I was sitting cross-legged, as I always do. And she said, OK. Forget what you want to do with your life. If today was your birthday, you could do anything you want, what would you want to do? And I had no idea. And I remember, as I always do, quickly saying the first thing that popped into my head was I want to go to Marshall Field's and play with makeup.
RAZ: The big Marshall Field's in downtown Chicago?
BROWN: Yep. Actually, in the suburbs...
BROWN: ...Because that's where I lived. But I wanted to go to the store and play with makeup. So my mom said - you know, why don't you study makeup?
BROWN: And I said - yes?
RAZ: ...Just then? Right then and there?
BROWN: Just then. Why don't you study makeup? And I said Mom, I don't want to go to beauty school. And she said, no, I'm sure there's a college somewhere where you could study makeup. So I - actually, my dad's friend told me about this school in Boston called Emerson that will let me study makeup.
RAZ: This is the summer after your first year of college?
BROWN: Right. It was literally two weeks before I was supposed to go back to Arizona. And my car was actually, you know, packed when I made the decision to go to Emerson. So it was, like, days before. I flew up with my dad, went to Emerson. And they - and I asked if they had a makeup program. And they said no, but we have something called an interdisciplinary program. And you can create your own major. And sure, you can study makeup. I said I'm in. I'm going.
And honestly, when I got to Emerson, I found myself because it was a school full of kids like me - creative, fiery, entrepreneurial. And you're creating films. And you're creating, you know, all different art projects. And I remember even doing films - and, you know, they pair you with someone. And instead of doing things the normal way, which is like, oh, what kind of film should we do? - I remember thinking about what kind of makeup I wanted to do and writing the film around the makeup.
RAZ: What was it about makeup that you liked or that spoke to you?
BROWN: Well, it wasn't even just the makeup. It was everything that goes along with it. So I've always been someone that knew how to use makeup differently than other people did. So - and doing theatrical makeup, making someone look old or like a character, was amazing for me because in order to do makeup for a play, for a film, you have to read the script and you have to talk to the director. You have to create what the person is going to look like. Did they have a hard life? How do you make them look tired? How do you make them look old? I'd have to go figure it out and understand it and then make the girls look like that.
RAZ: So when you finished at Emerson, did you - was your intention to do theater makeup?
BROWN: Yes. So I graduated Emerson in '79. And a month before I graduated, I was in my bedroom reading Mademoiselle magazine. And there was an article about a freelance makeup artist in New York named Bonnie Maller. And I'd never heard of a freelance makeup artist. And she was doing all the fashion shows and doing makeup work for Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis. And I wrote to her. And I said, can I come to New York and assist? She never wrote me back.
RAZ: Yeah. Oh, no.
RAZ: I was...
BROWN: No. No. But...
RAZ: ...Really excited for this yes.
BROWN: No, no, no. She didn't write me back. But I looked her up in the phone book, and I called her. On her answering machine, she said hi, it's Bonnie. If I am not getting back to you, I'm probably on location. Call my agent Bryan Bantry, 2-1-2, blah, blah, blah. So I go to New York for a visit, and I call Bryan Bantry. And he said come on up and talk to me. And he explained to me how the - freelance works. And I started just figuring it out. So you know, I moved to New York, and I didn't know anyone. You know, I had Bryan Bantry. I had a meeting with him. And he started, you know, slowly calling me to be an assistant to some of his people. He didn't represent me, but he let me be an assistant.
RAZ: So you get to New York, and you decide that you want to be a makeup artist. And this was going to be your life. Like - so how did you start to get jobs?
BROWN: Well, I actually thought I would do fashion on the side until I broke into TV. So one of the things I did - there was another makeup artist. Her name was Bobbi (ph), and she was the makeup artist for "Saturday Night Live." I assisted her a few times. So you know, that was cool. And I remember doing a couple times - you know, the makeup artist on the evening news couldn't make it. I would do that. So I - you know, it was a - I started a freelance career. The only way I paid my rent at that time was my dad gave me $500 a month to pay my rent.
RAZ: And was - like, at this time in your life, did you feel like there were expectations that you weren't fulfilling? I don't know. I mean, you know, you came from this sort of middle-class home in Chicago. And your dad was a lawyer. And so were you ever thinking, like, oh, man, you know, like, my parents have these expectations of me, and I need to - I don't know. I mean, were you ever thinking like that or worried about that?
BROWN: Can I tell you why? One - I have this really weird gift. And, you know, you don't know it's a gift until you're, you know, of a certain age and look back. I am so naive. So I never think something's not going to work out. And I never did. So I was not worried. You know, yes, I was always anxious about how I was going to pay the rent or if I had enough money for this. And my - and I remember calling my dad one day. And I said, dad, I just can't stick to this budget. I had a credit card with a limit. I think had $250 a month limit. And I kept, you know, incurring all these fees. And I said, dad, I can't stick to this. And he said all right. Stop for a minute. Put it down. I said OK. He said stop trying to stick to a budget or create a budget. Why don't you figure out how you're going to make more money? I said, hmm, OK.
And I remember telling myself Monday morning, you get up and you fill your date book with appointments. So I - go-sees, as they call it. So I went - I started making appointments. And as long as I - Monday was my day to fill it. And then I had the whole week to go see people. So I started calling magazines. And I'd look on the masthead. And I would see the booking agent. I booked with them. Hi, I'm Bobbi Brown. I'm a freelance makeup artist. I'd love to come in and show you my book. I had a, you know...
RAZ: A book of, like, faces that you'd...
BROWN: Of faces that I've done.
RAZ: ...You'd made. OK.
BROWN: Yes. And, you know, you start to make relationships. You come back and see people. And I did that for a while.
RAZ: So here here's my question. I mean, what does it - like, how were you good - like, a better makeup artist than someone else? What is it that you were able to offer?
BROWN: Well, all right. So let's go back to the '70s and the '80s. The makeup back then was the epitome of unnatural. Foundation was pink. It stopped at the jaw line. It was contour. Eyes were - eye shadow was yellow and purple and blue. It was all of those things. I was always doing more of a - now it's called a Bobbi face. And now it's called nude makeup. But back then, it was just - I always made people look healthier. I wanted people to not look like they were wearing makeup. And I even had one very, very famous makeup artist, you know, who I asked his opinion on stuff said, you will never work because people don't want to look like that.
RAZ: (Laughter) People don't...
BROWN: And I - don't want to look like that.
BROWN: People want to look made up. And, you know, I just couldn't do it. So even when I was doing makeup on TV, I had these really simple things I looked for. I wanted to make the foundation to actually be the color of the skin.
BROWN: And, you know, I had to mix and blend because most makeup on the market was bad. And, you know, having a giant kit, I had everything. So I would kind of, you know, smush a lot of it together. And people started taking pictures of it. It looked really good.
RAZ: So you are getting steady work. You're doing more and more magazines. What was the first really big gig that you can remember getting, like, with a major fashion model?
BROWN: Probably two of my hugest a-ha, like, back then was when I had a six- or eight-page spread in American Vogue with one model, Tatjana Patitz. And it was literally full face - full bleed, full face, a makeup story only on, you know, different looks, different makeup. That was, like, put me on the map. And then the next map was a cover of Vogue with Naomi Campbell.
RAZ: Wow. When was that?
BROWN: Now we're into, I think, '88 or '89 when she was just starting to be a huge...
RAZ: Huge deal.
BROWN: ...Huge model. Yeah.
RAZ: So, you know, you are doing makeup. And that's your life. That's your career.
BROWN: Yes. I was at the top of my game. And by the way, you do magazine work and editorial - it's fantastic. You - no matter how big it is, you still get $150 a day.
RAZ: Oh, so you really don't make a whole lot of money.
BROWN: No. But when you do advertising and catalog - like, catalog at the time was paying between $250 and $500 a day. And that's when you do makeup on a bunch of models for a Saks Fifth Avenue or a Macy's.
BROWN: And then if it's a commercial, you got a couple thousand. But everything you do, you meet people. And, you know, you tend to move in packs. If a hairdresser gets booked for something, they book you. And then, you know, then you start doing advertising. And that's - you know, could be up to $5,000 a day. And by the way, while I did those things, I also had a very, very serious relationship. I got engaged. I moved out of the city. I had friends. I had a normal life. I started having kids at the same time. And I chose that. I chose that. I wanted to be - I wanted to go through that tunnel, put my hair in a ponytail, put my sneakers on, be in the park with my dog. You know, I'd rather be home with my husband and my baby than, you know, stay - I couldn't understand why they wanted me to stay at a fashion shoot until 10 o'clock at night just because they took a long time deciding things. I'm like, no; I'm out of here at 6.
RAZ: Yeah. So in 1990, I guess, that was around the time when you started to kind of experiment with your own makeup.
RAZ: What - how did that even begin? How did that even happen?
BROWN: So I was pregnant with my first baby, and I was on a photo shoot for Mademoiselle magazine - no, it was Self magazine. And it was called makeup shopping at alternative places with makeup artist Bobbi Brown. And I - they took me to different places. And one of the places downtown - I guess I took them - that I took the crew to was Kiehl's Pharmacy. And Kiehl's at the time was this independently-owned, cool place. I brought everyone down there. We were shooting there. And while they were shooting, I was talking to the chemist that was there. And he had a little - a couple lipsticks. And I'm like...
RAZ: This is before Kiehl's became what it is, like...
BROWN: Yes, before it was...
RAZ: ...Before it was private equity money or whatever.
BROWN: Yes. Before it was bought by L'Oreal. Yes.
RAZ: It was just one shop.
BROWN: One shop. Family-owned.
RAZ: And did it look like a pharmacy?
RAZ: Like, OK.
RAZ: Everyone was wearing white. And it was...
RAZ: And there was a chemist on site.
BROWN: There was a chemist on site. And he had these lipsticks. And I remember touching them. And I said, wow, these are really nice. He said, oh, yeah. I make those. And I said you make them? And he says, yeah. I said oh, I would love to be able to make a lipstick. He said, I'll make it for you. I said, all right. I said, what I want, you can't buy. I said, I want something that doesn't smell; I want it to be creamy but not greasy; I want it to look like lip color; I can't find a lipstick that looks like lip color. And he's like, what do you mean? I said, well - and I pulled out my taupe eye pencil and my pinky blush, and I said, look at - when you put this together, if you put a little bit of balm on it and blot it on your lips - he's like, all right; give me those things. And he went home, and he sent it to me. And I said, oh, my God; I love this. I said, I bet I could sell this. And he said, all right; why don't you sell it for $15? He said, I'll make it; you sell it; you'll get $7.50; I'll get $7.50. I thought, OK, that's a deal.
So I had a lipstick that I called Brown because I thought it was brown-based, not because of my name. And then I thought, everyone's going to love that. And then I said, you know what? Not everyone has the same color lips. And I started studying people's lip color. And then I sat down, and I thought about all the different lip colors. And then I said, you know, some people don't like lip-color lipstick. They like red, orange. Someone likes a good beige, a pink. But I said, you don't need 15 different pinks in your makeup kit. Let me make the ideal pink. Let me make the ideal orange. So I sat down, and I thought of 10 different colors. I worked with a chemist. He made these colors. And I thought, all right. Let's put a number, one to 10. But let me name them. And I wasn't going to name them the way lipsticks are named - you know, cherries in the snow. And I'm, like, why don't we call them beige, pink, orange, red? So, you know, raisin? I named them what they looked like.
RAZ: So you were doing, like, more understated...
BROWN: Yes, understated.
RAZ: ...Shades. And...
BROWN: Than what was on the market.
RAZ: Than what was on the market.
BROWN: Wearable, by the way. The word wearable - people could put them on and actually look good. How's that for a concept?
RAZ: So you would take, like - I'm just trying to - to get the right color - what was the name of this chemist by the way?
BROWN: Steven (ph).
RAZ: Steven. So to get Steven the right color, you would take, like, I don't know paint or different makeups and just like rub it together in like a petri dish...
RAZ: ...Or something?
BROWN: And yeah. And, you know, I would either mail it to him, or I would say do this - and yeah, you know, back and forth, back and forth. He made them for me, and I did everything else.
RAZ: And you said, yeah, make, like, how many? Like, five - 10 sticks?
BROWN: I think, you know, he probably made 100 of each color.
RAZ: Oh, OK.
BROWN: Yeah. So no, once we agreed that we would be partners - there was nothing in writing. It was just, wow, this could be interesting. It wasn't anything more than that.
RAZ: And he had, like, a fabrication plant or the ability to like make moldings of...
BROWN: He did. I don't - I think he did it in his home. You know, it wasn't - it was his side thing because he was a chemist.
RAZ: And what were you going to sell each stick of lipstick for again?
BROWN: Fifteen dollars.
RAZ: Fifteen bucks.
BROWN: Yes, 15 bucks. And when I first started, my plan was to sell them to models, to editors. And then one day, I was having lunch with a girlfriend who was the beauty editor of Glamour magazine at the time. And she said, so what's going on? You know, we both had young babies, and I - talking about the kids and I said, you know, I'm doing - let me show you this thing. She goes oh, my God. That's so cool. She said, can I write about it?
RAZ: And you had kind of a reputation in the industry because you were a makeup artist.
RAZ: You get this article in Glamour. And what happens?
BROWN: People started calling up and ordering lipsticks.
BROWN: And, you know, it wasn't, like, oh, my God, I'm going to be rich. Oh, my God, I could pay my mortgage this month. It was just, you know, steady things coming in. And we got a bunch of offers. You know, people wanted to purchase lipsticks. So I don't even think, you know, we sold 400 of them. I mean, we sold a bunch of them.
RAZ: This is not called Bobbi Brown at this point, right?
BROWN: Yes, it was.
RAZ: It was. It was called Bobbi Brown.
BROWN: I don't know what else to call it.
RAZ: You just put your name on the side?
BROWN: Yes. And that was really cool. And then I meet the lady at Bergdorf. And that's when things actually needed to change.
RAZ: You meet who at Bergdorf?
BROWN: I ended up going to a party in the city with some friends and - friends that actually, eventually, were going to be our partners in the company. And I met her friend Allison (ph). And I said, thanks for inviting me. I'm Bobbi. She said, nice to meet you. And I said, what do you do? And she said, I'm the cosmetics buyer at Bergdorf Goodman.
RAZ: Wow. Oh, that's nice.
BROWN: Well, I never even shopped at Bergdorf Goodman...
RAZ: Yeah. Yeah.
BROWN: ...Back then. And I said, whoa. I'm doing this line of lipsticks. You know, perhaps you want to look at them. And she said, love to. Let me bring them in.
RAZ: So what happened? You went - you brought your lipsticks to show her a couple days later?
BROWN: She brought them in. I mean, I had no press release. I had nothing. She called me back, and she said they're really interested; we'd love to take them. And that's when I realized I hadn't really changed the way we were doing things. And, you know, I had to find a different way to scale up than the chemist because that was the only way he knew. So I parted ways with the chemist, and I had to find a lab to recreate the lipsticks the way I wanted. And we needed to find someone to do it. I remember making all these calls. But then one day, I was in an elevator, and I said hi to the girl in the elevator. And she said, hi. I think we're on the 11th floor. So we had a few minutes.
RAZ: Elevator in your apartment building?
BROWN: In my apartment building in New York City. And I said hi, and she said hi. And I said, what do you do? She said oh, I work at a cosmetics lab in Queens.
BROWN: And I said, oh, do you have a card? And I had my lipsticks recreated there. And they made my lipsticks. I met her in the elevator.
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RAZ: Coming up, more chance meetings for Bobbi Brown and how they helped her grow the company and then eventually the company got away from her. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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RAZ: Hey. Welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. So it's the early 1990s, and Bobbi Brown has come up with 10 new shades of lipstick. She's got a new cosmetics lab to make them and a department store that wants to sell them, Bergdorf Goodman. But in order to get things going, she needs an infusion of cash.
BROWN: We pretty much emptied our bank account, which was - I remember $5,000. My husband remembers $10,000. I trust him more than I remember my memory. And we actually partnered with these friends of ours who - one girl was in PR, and the husband was in the cosmetics industry. You know, so the four of us partner together.
RAZ: They were - who - what were their names?
BROWN: Their names were Roz and Ken Landis.
RAZ: And why did you decide that you wanted to partner with other people?
BROWN: Because my husband and I did not have the expertise. You know, we had no idea. We were, you know, 31-year-old kids, you know, with a new baby. He was in law school. He was a real estate developer. I was a makeup artist. I knew how to make these - make the lipsticks. I knew what it should be. And we were - this couple that we were friends with - he had been in the cosmetics industry. And she was in PR. So it was, you know, a magical pairing. That's how we started the brand.
RAZ: And Bobbi Brown was born as a product at Bergdorf Goodman.
RAZ: And how does it do when it debuts there?
BROWN: Well, we thought we would sell a hundred lipsticks the first month, which - you know, that was the thought. And we did a hundred the first day.
RAZ: And were you in the store?
BROWN: We were. We had a...
RAZ: On Fifth Avenue, right?
BROWN: On Fifth Avenue.
BROWN: And there was no room in the cosmetics department. So they put us on a table outside of the cosmetics department where I think they had, you know, handbags. And so, you know, it wasn't for any other reason. But people thought it was a brilliant, genius idea that we marketed ourself apart from the noise of the cosmetics floor.
RAZ: So you could finance it with whatever cash you had...
RAZ: ...Between the four of you.
RAZ: And then you would sell product. And then you would get paid by Bergdorf Goodman.
RAZ: When did it go to the next store?
BROWN: Well, we were at Bergdorf. Well, we added pencils. And then we added eye shadow. Like, we did everything not, like, strategic but as they came up.
BROWN: And we added them. And we were pretty much with the same lab for most of the time. And then Bergdorf - you know, one day, we were doing so well at Bergdorf Goodman, they said, you know, we're a sister company of Neiman Marcus. They would love to try you in four stores. So we opened up four stores in Neiman's.
RAZ: And a store is like a counter, right?
BROWN: A counter. Yes.
BROWN: They call them doors, actually.
BROWN: So we opened four doors - four stores - started adding, you know, products. And I would visit the stores and do personal appearances, usually with my husband and my baby or babies, you know, in tow because we always - you know, I never liked to be apart from them.
BROWN: And they always came. And I would travel to these markets. And I would be on their local TV. I'd be on - in their newspapers. So it was a full-on, you know, press thing.
RAZ: Were there - did you ever get a vibe from people, like, well, who are you?
BROWN: Certainly. You know, and especially in Dallas, you know, where they would look at me like, she's the plain Jane type.
BROWN: You know, because in Dallas, the makeup, the hair, the jewelry.
RAZ: Yeah. Right.
BROWN: You know, it took a while to, you know, be...
RAZ: And that's Neiman Marcus territory.
BROWN: Yeah, and that's Neiman's.
BROWN: That's the fancy stuff.
BROWN: You know, it took a while to be beloved by those women. But also, at the same time, I was becoming a known beauty expert on the "Today" show, which was really a major launch in the brand and the business. So the story behind the "Today" show was that I wrote my first book...
RAZ: About cosmetics? About makeup?
BROWN: Yeah. And then I was - happened to be in Florida doing a personal appearance for one of my makeup products and also for my first book. And I'll never forget, it was in, you know, the inner circle, which were the fancy ladies at Neiman Marcus. I finished my speech. And I said, any questions. And this little red-headed lady, you know, grandma type raised her hand. And I went back, you know, I remember I put my hand on her shoulder. She was so cute. And she said, yes, I have trouble keeping my lipstick on. How do I do it? And I said, well, and I gave her the answer. And she looked at me. And she says thank you. She said, are you Jewish? And I said yes, I am. And she said, I've seen you on the "Today" show. I'd been on once. I said thank you. And she said as a Jewish - this was off microphone. She said, you've done so much. Is there anything else you want to do? I said, I don't know. I said, I don't know. Maybe I'd love to be a regular on the "Today" show. She said, honey, Jeff Zucker is my grandson.
BROWN: Jeff Zucker was the executive producer of the "Today" show at the time.
RAZ: Oh, my God.
BROWN: And it was a Friday. Monday, I was on the "Today" show. I was in my dressing room. You know, my PR team at the time was beyond excited, doing how to put your makeup on something. Probably, Katie was interviewing me. Jeff came up, and he said, Grammy, you know, wanted me to have you on. I said, that's awesome. And he said, I hear you want to be a regular. I said, I'd love to be a regular. He says, OK, you're a regular. I said, when can I come back? He said, how about next month? I said, OK, once a month? He said, OK, fine. I was on the "Today" show for about 12 years - 15 years. And honestly, being a beauty expert on the "Today" show probably put me on the map.
RAZ: Wow. And you did this, at least for the beginning, for free?
BROWN: I know - they never paid me a nickel. And I never, ever pushed my brand. They would say Bobbi Brown from Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. And so it was an amazing thing because it established me as a beauty expert, not just someone who makes makeup. It was really my expertise. So it separated me, the person from the brand, which was good. But it also really helped the brand.
RAZ: You - in 1995, five years after you first make those 10 lipsticks, you get an offer. I guess you - pretty early on, you guys are approached by big - the big cosmetic companies who wanted to buy your brand. And you - I guess you rejected a couple of offers at the beginning...
RAZ: Who - by the - who were they? Who offered you?
BROWN: Let's see. There was a lot of talks with Shiseido.
RAZ: Oh, yeah. The Japanese company?
BROWN: A lot of meetings, a lot of talks. No official offer, but a lot of meetings.
BROWN: And then there was a Dallas-based company that tried to buy us, a finance company that basically finally said, if you won't sell to us, we're just going to knock you off with another makeup artist, which they did, which is fine. I - never afraid of that.
RAZ: Oh, they created a knockoff brand?
BROWN: Well, it was a different brand. But yes. A makeup artist, you know, a well-known makeup artist that created products.
RAZ: Is it still out there in the market?
BROWN: Yeah, Laura Mercier.
BROWN: You know, was a competitor. I mean, we're very - we were always very different. And that was fine. And...
RAZ: They wanted to kind of buy you out and have you as...
BROWN: They did. They wanted to buy us. We weren't for sale. We didn't think they were the right people to buy us. And we weren't for sale when, you know, we got the call from Estee Lauder either.
RAZ: This is five years after you launch it. Estee Lauder calls you, and you take the call.
BROWN: Yeah, I kind of think it was four years, but yeah.
RAZ: Four years.
BROWN: It was four years. So I got a call from Frederic Fekkai, who, you know, had a salon and was a well-known hairdresser. And he said, you know, Leonard Lauder would like an introduction to you. Can I do that? And I said, sure. Sure. So we were invited to have dinner at Leonard Lauder's home. My partner Roz and I were invited one night to his home. And him and his wife at the time, Evelyn - we had a beautiful dinner and, you know, fell madly in love, you know, with him, with her. And he basically said, you know, I'm really interested in buying your company. You've done - he said - what he said to me - he says, you've done such an incredible job. You are beating us in the stores. And we were beating Estee Lauder and Neiman Marcus at the time. You are beating us. We can't beat you, so we thought we would buy you.
RAZ: And you were open to hearing offers.
BROWN: Well, when Leonard said to me, you know, that we can help you grow your business and you could do what you really love, which is be creative and work on shoots, work, you know, on the brand but not have to worry about the details and we could help expand your business and you can have complete autonomy - you know, which means I could do what I wanted with the company and still be in charge.
RAZ: And they were offering a hundred percent. They were going to buy a hundred percent.
BROWN: A hundred percent, a hundred percent.
RAZ: And I guess we'll just burst the bubble here. You did sell to them, which we'll get to.
BROWN: We did.
BROWN: We did. And no one's ever gotten the number right. And I'm not good at numbers, and I can't even tell you what it is. But it was, like, more than I could ever have imagined.
RAZ: It was a lot of cash.
RAZ: Now, you had to, of course, split it with your partners and then pay your taxes, but you were left with a - more cash than you'd ever had in your life.
RAZ: All right. Just pause for a sec.
RAZ: Looking back on that decision in 1995 to sell to Estee Lauder for whatever price they offered you - some people say 74 million. Let's say 50 million. Whatever it was...
BROWN: More, OK?
RAZ: More - a hundred million.
BROWN: Something, yeah.
RAZ: Was it the right decision to make?
BROWN: A hundred percent.
RAZ: It was the right decision to make.
BROWN: A hundred percent.
RAZ: You couldn't have scaled Bobbi Brown to what it is today without that investment.
BROWN: I don't know, but I didn't want to (laughter).
BROWN: Because I just wanted to have a fulfilling life with my family, my friends and my kids.
BROWN: I - there's no question. I have no regrets.
RAZ: Becoming a billionaire wasn't - that wasn't, like, a - yeah.
BROWN: No, millionaire is fine.
RAZ: Millionaire is great.
BROWN: You don't need to be a...
RAZ: Million's great.
BROWN: You don't need to be a billionaire.
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RAZ: All right. So Leonard Lauder writes you a big check, and Estee Lauder now owns Bobbi Brown. What does that mean? Does that mean that you then become an employee of Estee Lauder?
BROWN: Oh, yes, an employee, yep.
RAZ: They paid you a salary. You were an employee...
BROWN: Yes, yes.
RAZ: ...With a 401(k) and all that stuff.
BROWN: Yes, yes.
RAZ: And at the beginning, was it - did you like it?
BROWN: I loved it. It was fantastic. I loved it for - you know, out of the 22 years, I probably loved it for 15.
RAZ: And so the idea was once Estee Lauder was running the business side, you didn't have to worry about going to banks for financing. You didn't have to worry about supply chain. You didn't have to worry about payroll or accounting or not filing a letter with the Office of Tax and Revenue. And you didn't want to do any of that stuff.
BROWN: Oh, I had no interest. I didn't like the big corporate meetings. And I would sit there in some meetings, and I know I used to drive people crazy because I didn't do things the corporate way. And I'm sure people either looked at me as brilliant or really difficult or, you know, whatever, you know? The thing is, unfortunately, men could be brilliant when women are considered difficult.
RAZ: I can't imagine that would've been an easy transition.
BROWN: It wasn't easy. And I'm sure it was harder for, you know, our partners at the time. They didn't stay very long, you know? We had a little bit of a tough relationship, you know, for a while because, you know, you start a company with friends. And, you know, things happen, and things get tough. And it was a tough time. There was a bunch of years where there was a struggle between, you know, Roz and I and then the four of us. And, you know, after, you know, we sold the company, they moved Roz off the brand. And she ended up working for the company for a while, and then she left. And...
RAZ: It strained your friendship.
BROWN: Oh, it really strained it.
RAZ: Do you think that it's a good idea in general to avoid going to business with friends?
BROWN: Yes. It's not a good idea.
RAZ: OK, all right.
BROWN: A hundred percent.
RAZ: All right.
BROWN: And, you know, we were not friends for many years after we sold the company. And we just recently got back together the past couple years. So, you know, life is interesting.
RAZ: You walked away from Estee Lauder in 2016. Walked away...
RAZ: ...Maybe is not the right term. I don't know, but...
BROWN: Right. I don't even know what the right term is. It was a joint decision.
RAZ: And was that hard? I mean, your name...
RAZ: ...Your company - you built it.
RAZ: And that's it. You're out.
BROWN: Well, like, probably two to five - five years was a struggle.
RAZ: The last five years.
BROWN: The last five years was a struggle.
RAZ: Just because...
BROWN: Just because, you know, the - it got so big. The company got so big. The corporation got so big. They bought so many other companies. It was growing. It was huge. I am not a follow-the-leader kind of person. I am the leader, OK? I can't help it. And if I see things not working where it makes sense to me and wasting energy and time, I don't like it. And I like to...
BROWN: ...Do it differently. So, you know - and I like to try new things and invent new things. So yeah, it was always a struggle, always a struggle. And so then the last couple years were really tough.
RAZ: Like, what happened?
BROWN: Oh, my God, there was just - you know, they started - I used to hire - approve and hire and interview every person that walked in that brand.
BROWN: And then I didn't anymore. And all of a sudden there were people working on my brand that I'd never met before and that I might not have hired. And, you know, it was a struggle. And I tried to let go of the details. But then I realized the details are what makes the company so special. And so I kept thinking I could fix it. So I would walk in every day with an imaginary, you know, tape around my arm, saying OK, let me fix this; let me fix this; let me fix this. I couldn't. And, you know, the last year was really tough. I'm sure they were not happy with me. I was not happy with them. And it just was time for both of us to move on.
RAZ: Was it tough in the sense, like, you dreaded going into the office in the morning?
BROWN: Not only dreaded going in in the morning. I was depleted and spent when I came home. So for two years, my Aunt Alice, who, you know, was 80 at the time, would say to me, it's time. My husband would say, are you ready? Like, my friends would say, come on; enough is enough already. And I kept saying no because I think if we could just do this, if I could get this, you know, it could be better. And it didn't get better.
RAZ: Like, I'm imagining I'm walking down some street in New York. I pass you, and I know it's Bobbi Brown. I'm like, oh, my God, Bobbi Brown. I love your makeup. And you're on your way to work. And you would say, oh, yeah, thank you so much. And I wouldn't know that you were miserable...
RAZ: ...Walking to your powerful job at Bobbi Brown.
BROWN: No. Honestly, if you really asked me why I left, I needed to be the boss again.
BROWN: Like, when you're the boss and, OK, something doesn't work, we could fix it. So, yes, when I left Bobbi, it wasn't easy. The second it happened where I went down the elevator and I knew that was - that second it was done, I had a relief come over me. Like, I can't tell you. This first relief was, oh, my God, all these problems are lifted.
RAZ: All right. So here's the thing. We've had lots of founders in the company who sold. And then, you know, some were angry with the way it was run. And some have mixed feelings, some indifferent. It depends. But, you know, Ben and Jerry, for example. Those guys - they'll knock Ben & Jerry's now and again in a good-natured way, but they will still - they're still the face of the brand. And they're happy to kind of be the - not happy, but they are the brand ambassadors.
RAZ: So did you ever think of doing that?
BROWN: I had no interest.
RAZ: You wouldn't...
BROWN: It was offered to me.
RAZ: Like, the Bobbi Brown - I mean, the face of the...
RAZ: You didn't - had no interest in that?
BROWN: No interest. I don't care how much money they offered me.
RAZ: Why? Why not?
BROWN: Because what I love - I'm an entrepreneur. I like to mold and shape and be in control of how things are.
BROWN: And so no, I have - no, I have no interest. You know, honestly, it's been a while. It took - I'm not going to say I walked out the door and it was fine. There was a lot of emotion the first month or two. There was a lot of emotion, you know, the first year. Now, it's, you know, a year and a half. I literally could look at what's happening there - and I unfollowed everything, so I don't see anything. But when I do see it, it's like there's nothing there because it's not the company I founded. And it's not the company that - it's not my company. It's their company. And, yes, I'm really proud of the products. I'm proud of everything I did. But, you know, the world is changed. And what their - the direction they're going is fine, is what they want to do.
RAZ: So, I mean, you're still a young woman.
BROWN: Well, if you consider 61 young...
RAZ: It's pretty young.
BROWN: I feel young, yeah.
RAZ: People start businesses at 61.
RAZ: Right? And, by the way, were you prevented - are you prevented from your contract with Bobbi Brown of starting a makeup line?
BROWN: Oh, yes.
RAZ: You can't never do that for the rest of your life?
BROWN: No, that's not accurate, you know? But I - my name - I sold my name.
RAZ: So you can't use the name Bobbi Brown anymore?
BROWN: No. But I would never, you know...
BROWN: I would never put - even if I could, I would not put my name on a product anymore because I have to be the face of that product. I don't want to be responsible for everything.
BROWN: I did that already.
RAZ: So, Bobbi, with all this - the success that you've had in your career, how much of it do you think is because of your intelligence, your hard work, and how much of it because of luck?
BROWN: I think that my intelligence is mostly emotional intelligence, which is, you know, dealing with what's around me. I am incredibly lucky and, you know, fortuitous and grateful and all those things. I'm not the only one that works hard. I am not the only one that seizes opportunities. I don't know why, you know, things I do are successful. Not everything I've done is successful. But I keep going.
And I'm really good - what I'm really good at - and I hope there's other entrepreneurs out there that understand this. I am really good at hiring people that are good at things that I'm not. That's really important because I'm not good at everything. And I'm not - I told my Aunt Alice, I'm not really good at anything. I'm just good at telling people what to do. I'm really good at telling people what to do (laughter).
RAZ: Bobbi Brown, founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. Since leaving the company, she started a health and wellness brand called EVOLUTION 18. She's also running a boutique hotel called The George in Montclair, N.J. And even though she sold the name Bobbi Brown, she was able to start a new brand called justBOBBI which sells things like clothing and bags. And by the way, how lucky were you to have such a cool name, Bobbi?
BROWN: I never liked my name growing up.
RAZ: You hated it.
BROWN: Oh, yes. When they decided what to name me, I was named after my great-grandmother Berta (ph). Thank God they didn't name me Berta. Not sure anyone would use lipstick called Berta Brown.
RAZ: Bertha Brown. You could just - that could be your new line.
RAZ: You could be Berta Brown. Maybe it's time.
BROWN: No. You know what?
RAZ: Maybe - Bobbi, maybe it's time.
BROWN: Yeah, Berta - I'm not sure that would work.
RAZ: And please do stick around because in just a moment we're going to hear from you about the things you're building.
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RAZ: Hey, thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And today's story starts about three years ago in Los Angeles with a guy named Miles Pepper.
MILES PEPPER: I went to my local coffee shop to grab an iced latte before heading off to work. And as I was leaving the shop, I put a plastic straw in my drink as normal habit.
RAZ: But as it happens, just the night before, Miles had seen a program about plastics that are polluting the ocean.
PEPPER: I had just seen the video of the sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose. And I was thinking to myself that I already have a reusable water bottle. I already have a reusable coffee cup. Why don't I have a reusable straw?
RAZ: Yeah, a reusable straw not made out of plastic but maybe metal, a straw that could fold and collapse like a tent pole.
PEPPER: And a way to guarantee that it would always be on me would be if it was the size of a car key. So I wanted a collapsible straw that was small enough to fit in the case the size of a car key.
RAZ: But unfortunately, Miles didn't know the first thing about how to make a collapsible straw.
PEPPER: So I started talking with friends. I started talking with these designers that I had been working with. And this mutual friend said, hey, you should call Emma. Do you remember Emma?
RAZ: And in fact, Miles did remember Emma. She was an acquaintance who also hated plastic straws. She even done a TEDx talk about it.
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EMMA COHEN: Straws suck. We've become accustomed to living disposable lifestyles based on convenience. And the numbers...
PEPPER: And so Emma and I then jumped on the phone.
COHEN: The phone rings October 2017. And he says, hey, I've got this idea for a collapsible straw. And I just remember he first sounded really excited on the phone. And it got me really excited.
RAZ: So anyway, Miles found an industrial designer in LA to help him develop a collapsible stainless steel straw.
COHEN: And while they were working on the design, I was working on creating a social media presence. I have a love of memes. And one of my favorite ones was filling a pack of cigarettes with straws. And at the bottom it says, break the habit.
RAZ: After about a month and a half, Emma and Miles had a prototype of a straw that folds into fourths and fits into a little plastic case that you could carry on a key chain. And next, a Kickstarter campaign.
COHEN: And the big goal was 5,000 straws, which would have been about $70,000. But we sold about 60,000 straws and closed a month later with $1.89 million in the bank.
RAZ: Which sounds amazing, right? Except Emma and Miles discovered a really big problem.
COHEN: There's companies out there that are patrolling Kickstarter and looking to see when people throw a successful campaign. And as soon as they see that overnight success, then they jump on it, and they use the measurements that are provided on the Kickstarter to create an exact replica of that item.
RAZ: And that is exactly what happened to Emma and Miles. These random sharks basically hijacked their idea, made some quick, cheap knockoffs and started fulfilling orders before Emma and Miles could even get their straws out into the world.
COHEN: I mean, it's shocking.
RAZ: And Emma says the hardest part for her...
COHEN: Is the fact that most of these knockoffs are complete junk, and so they're just ending up in the trash can. And the entire purpose of our company was to reduce waste, and so I feel weirdly responsible. And, you know, no matter how many people tell me that it's not my fault, like, it still feels like it is.
RAZ: But Emma and Miles are still moving ahead. They've applied for a patent. And they call their product FinalStraw. And they say it'll be a lot better than the knockoffs.
COHEN: People can tell quality. And that's something that people are going to love.
RAZ: Emma's expecting to fulfill the Kickstarter orders sometime this November. And she says this past year, it's been a little like business school except on speed.
COHEN: I don't know. It's like going down a river in a tube. Like, you just don't know what to expect. And every moment is either, like, very serene and calm, or you're maybe going to die. And I love it.
RAZ: That's Emma Cohen, who lives in Whistler, British Columbia. She's the co-founder of FinalStraw along with Miles Pepper. And if you want to find out more about FinalStraw or hear previous episodes, head to our podcast page, howibuiltthis.npr.org. And of course if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing what you're building. And thanks so much for listening to the show this week. You can subscribe whenever you get your podcasts. And while you're there, please do give us a review. You can also write to us at email@example.com. And if you want to send a tweet, it's @howibuiltthis.
Our show was produced this week by Rachel Faulkner with music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to J.C. Howard, Nour Coudsi, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Mia Venkat (ph). I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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