Q&A: Bluemercury Inc. co-founder and CEO Marla Beck

Marla Beck didn’t see herself as an entrepreneur. Nor did this self-described beauty junkie with a public policy degree envision starting a beauty business. Still, Beck held fast to a family credo: If it feels terrifying, pursue it.

Inspired in part by a Harvard University lecture given by Jeff Bezos during the early days of Amazon, in 1999 Beck jumped into the nascent, dial-up world of internet retail to launch her vision of an online cosmetics brand.

Acquired by Macy’s in 2015, Bluemercury operates 182 stores and will reach the 20-year business milestone in September. Beck has championed the development of hundreds of new products including the M-61 Powerful Skincare and Lune+Aster collections, exclusive to Bluemercury. As a member of the National Retail Federation’s board of directors, Beck brings boundless energy, risk-embracing leadership skills and a passion for retail to champion industry issues.

Looking back over nearly 20 years, can you share two key learnings?

One of the first challenges was in our first year. Bluemercury was started during the first dotcom boom in the late ‘90s; AOL was hot, and Amazon was just a few years old. We started as one of the first beauty companies online and realized quickly that we were too early. It was all dial-up, so it wasn’t a great consumer experience. We quickly had to change our strategy if we were going to survive. I think we were one of the first to go click-to-bricks. We had to pivot and acknowledge that it would take some time for beauty ecommerce adoption to catch on.

Our first store was phenomenal. It was open-sell, and all our beauty experts were trained on every brand. We had a spa in that first store and it really resonated with the customer. What started as a failed idea of beauty ecommerce turned into a great opportunity because we were able to spot the white space once we were in the business.

The second one: Once we had our stores, we came up with a human resources model that was revolutionary at the time. We choose to hire only full-time associates and provide benefits and a career path. A lot of experienced retailers said we’d never be able to make the economics work, but I’m so proud that we did because it allowed us to develop and grow leaders. So many associates that started as beauty experts way back then have moved through the organization building long careers.

Bluemercury was a pioneer in specialty beauty. Today, new concepts seem to open weekly. How do you remain differentiated?

Our mission has been the same for 19 years: to be the best at giving beauty advice. To keep that DNA, we’re really focused on how we train at all levels. We’ve built an apprenticeship model where all store managers participate in a two-week training session and then apprentice with other store managers. Our beauty experts are incredibly knowledgeable, and that sets us apart.

Other pillars that are core to what we do include our neighborhood store real estate strategy. We locate near to where our clients live and work. Our clients see us as a substitute drug store — if they run out of mascara, they stop in on their lunch or on their way home. In New York City, 80 percent of our clients come from a five-block radius. Bluemercury is the neighborhood store that knows your name and offers personalized service.

We also have a unique merchandising mix. We’re constantly launching new products: Every year about 50 percent of what we sell are brand new products that haven’t been on the market before. We look for what’s new and next, and work to stay nimble. When you bring all those pieces together and wrap them around our DNA, you end up with something that is harder to replicate than you think.

In some categories, the industry is seeing generational shifts; in others, moms and their daughters are quite happy wearing the same brand. What generational shifts are you seeing in beauty?

A couple things, starting with the sources of information. Beauty shopping has always been about how you get your information and how you make the decision. When I was growing up, it was very linear — you heard about something from a friend or you read about it in a magazine and you went into a store, tried it and maybe bought it. The fundamentals of the purchase process are still there, but the sources of information are different.

A shopper today may still get information from a friend, but there are so many additional influencers including Instagram, Facebook — even just a photo. The vehicles for transmitting information are different and that has prompted changes.

Think of the mask business. I’m not sure it would have become such a highly visible and successful product if it weren’t for Instagram. The same might be said for lip color, which has seen a lift because of social media. I can take a photo, then 30 minutes later take another with a different lip color and look completely different. The cinematic piece of Instagram has an impact on categories and category growth.

You’re the CEO, but you’re also working on product development and training and being a good mom and spouse. How do you balance it all?

We have a great team and we’ve worked hard to build our processes, collaboration and teamwork, making sure that we put the customer at the center of everything we do. The first key to balance is great people. The second: I have a clear sense of how I can add value and what priorities are most important. Part of that is finding time and space to be creative every day.

I’ve also learned over time to be present and listen to the needs of the person across the table from me. Whether it’s in the office and someone’s asking for help with a decision, or at home where one of my daughter’s is asking about homework, I try to really listen and be present.

It’s a crazy balance and it requires a lot of discipline, but I’ve learned to cut out the noise and focus on prioritization and being present.

Product development is obviously a passion. What inspires you?

I spend a lot of time in stores and observing and listening. Around 2010, I was hearing more and more clients asking for natural and vegan products. There was nothing on the shelves that really met their needs. It became my mission to crack the code on natural, vegan products.

We launched M-61 Powerful Skincare in 2012 with eight vegan SKUs. The chemists I partnered with thought I was crazy; they thought it was too niche a business. Developing these products was not easy; most clean products back then were irritating — which was ironic.

It turns out we did see where the market was going. When we launched in 2012, clients came in and purchased every item in the collection. We followed that up with the launch of a vegan cosmetics line in in 2015. When we see a need our clients have, we use our knowledge of the industry and get to work. Between our two lines (M-61 and Lune+Aster), we have over 200 items.

My most recent pet project was four years in the making and launched last year. I travel a lot, and when you’re traveling with a lot of jars and bottles it’s inconvenient. I had a vision of launching various products in a sealable pad. First, we tackled putting a pure dose of stabilized vitamin C into a pad.

We’re breaking new ground now with these products in terms of efficacy and how products are delivered, and it’s because we listened to clients.

What are some new products you’re keeping an eye on for 2019?

People are obsessed with glow right now, which explains why our Power Glow Peel is so popular; we sell one every eight seconds!

We also consider supplements to be an important category. People are beginning to care as much about what they put inside their bodies as what they apply on the surface.

There’s also a new trend in antipollution products. People want to detox from environmental pollutions and prolonged effects of blue light. There’s a belief that the blue light from your phone and other devices is negatively affecting your skin, so innovators are developing products to combat that.

Husband and wife teams are a rare breed in retail. What’s your secret to successfully navigating business and personal with your husband and business partner, Barry?

We’ve been on this amazing journey together for 19 years; when you share so much it’s hard to imagine anything different.

Part of how we navigate comes down to having completely different skillsets. I tend to do everything that touches the customer — merchandising, marketing, brand management, product development and the stores. Barry focuses on investments, real estate development, construction, store design — all the operations-related functions that are so crucial.

One thing we do every day: We walk four miles. Either we get up very early and walk or we walk later in the evening. (Sometimes we do a bit of both.) It’s something we’ve done since the beginning and it’s very grounding for us. The first mile we tend to talk about the company. The second mile is talking about ourselves. By the third mile we shift to the kids and we always seem to end the walk talking about our dreams. We calculated that we’ve walked at least halfway around the world together in terms of mileage covered.

I know you have worked closely with numerous female entrepreneurs. What advice do you give them?

First, I tell them to find a champion; there’s a difference between a mentor and a champion. It’s important that everyone has both. A mentor gives you advice and can help you think through something. A champion gives you a revolutionary new opportunity.

Leonard Lauder was an amazing champion for us. I met him a year after we started Bluemercury and I pitched him hard on carrying his brands. He said, “Get a bigger business and we’ll talk later.” I kept in touch and when the time came, he helped us not only with his brands, but with thinking about how to navigate and grow.

The second piece of advice: Seize micro opportunities. Every day you’re given a micro opportunity to have an impact. When Lauder visited the store, that was a micro opportunity; entrepreneurs get those every day.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

I’d say that life is not a straight line. It’s very hard to predict where you’re going to end up. When I was 20, I never would have imagined I would have started a beauty company. You have to go with the flow and see what happens.

I’d also remind myself to have grit and push through tough times. Bluemercury nearly went bankrupt year one. We had to pivot our strategy. That’s not a failure, that’s just a roadblock to overcome.