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How to Build a Billion Dollar Business


There are people who do things by the book and go far; there are far fewer who truly go their own way and make it big. Leslie Blodgett, creator of bareMinerals, is kind of the poster child for going with your gut. She created a beauty empire around a single product: A makeup powder made of ground-up, good-for-your-skin minerals. It didn’t catch on at first, so she went on QVC to sell the stuff—when no one in the fancy-beauty-product space had even heard of QVC—declined to do any media training, and yet connected so powerfully with women watching that her line, bareMinerals, skyrocketed into a multi-million dollar phenomenon, with the #1 selling foundation in America. Twenty-one years later, that foundation is still #1 and Blodgett remains highly involved after selling the company to the Japanese beauty conglomerate Shiseido for $1.7 billion in 2010. In the meantime, she also managed to raise a son, stay happily married, and last year even mended a 20-year-rift with her sister Colaine on a Tedx Talk. How she did it—and continues to do it—her way is wildly inspiring, not to mention incredibly instructive:

1. Never Fake It

“I was petrified when I first went on QVC: I was literally sick for the first seven years of going on air—like I would actually throw up before going on. But somehow, in the last 30 seconds, I’d calm myself down, focus on why I was there, and what I was offering—and it worked.”

“I never did media training, and honestly I think that was the key to my success. For me, it’s about settling into what is it you’re going to offer people, and how do you feel about what you’re offering? The minute you’re faking it—being the person you think the audience wants you to be—it’s not real anymore. Your audience will feel it. But even more importantly, you will feel it. Truly. I don’t buy the whole Ted-talk, fake-it-til-you-make-it thing. You have to live with yourself—don’t fake it. If you’re out there long-term, pretending to be someone else in order to get where you’re going, I promise there’s a whole lot of therapy you’re going to have to go through later.”

“I’m lucky I was able to be myself, and have people understand me. Whether you’re doing TV, or an interview, or a big meeting, find your inner strength, find your natural voice—not your professional voice—and people will automatically connect with you. Unless you’re an asshole—I mean, then they might not connect with you!”

2. If You’re Not Valued, Move On

“In the early ’90s, I moved to Baltimore with Proctor and Gamble, working on Max Factor. I’d been there seven years when I found out I was being paid the same as the (male) new hires out of business school; it didn’t feel good. I didn’t last there.”

“Across the country, in all businesses, only 32% of the director-level positions are women; at bareMinerals, 84% of the director-level positions are women.”

3. Be a Force

“I grew up in the ’70s on Long Island. My mom got divorced and was making her way in the world, we were reading Ms. Magazine and all the books about feminism… Women on TV were finding their power, I loved the Enjoli commercial, the Charlie commercials… Really all these women were forces: They said what they meant, they were making things happen—that was the message I got. They had something to say—but they looked flawless, too, and resonated with me. I wanted that.”

“I got to talk with Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and Caitlyn Jenner, all over a relatively short period of time recently. And I asked how important makeup is, to each of them. I mean, I’m a feminist, I wanted to know. Gloria had this great smoky eye she was wearing—she just looked amazing. Hillary had great liner, and she does a flawless lipstick. Caitlyn, as you might expect, is new to it, so she’s really into it: She has makeup parties, invites all her girlfriends over… It just makes me happy, to continue to see that women can love makeup and be powerful at the same time.”

“I always loved makeup. The minute I found out there was a beauty industry, that’s what I wanted to do. I went to work behind a cosmetics counter—I had applied to FIT for their degree in cosmetic marketing, and you had to get a job at a counter before you could get into the school. And it was very hard to get a job: Basically, I annoyed Bloomingdales until I finally got it and I was on my way.”

4. Enthusiasm is Leadership

“I don’t know if I would ever call myself a leader. I like to win, I like to compete, and I like to get people together, aligned around a mission. If that’s leading, then I guess that’s what I’ve done. I’m definitely an introvert, which is weird, for a leader. It’s always been very complicated for me—it’s hard when you’re a shy person. I never considered myself a salesperson, but all great leaders are selling something—a lifestyle, a belief, an idea, a product… If you believe in something, it’s just not that hard to sell it.”

“So I’m trying to make this not sound corny—and it’s impossible—but I lead when I’m passionate about something. If I can get behind it, that’s when I can make sense. If I have conviction, then people get into it and they want to follow. I listen to myself, then try to lay out compelling ways to win. It’s about creating a common goal, then getting everyone on board.”

“Growing up, I wasn’t the leader of the pack, but I knew how to win: I wasn’t the most popular girl in school, but I lent my dress to the girl who won prom queen, so my dress won. You know?”

“Now I work with a lot of start-ups, both as an advisor and an angel investor. I invest in the ones with enthusiasm: I know they’re going to make it. I meet people who aren’t sure—and I don’t want to invest in those people, I want to invest in someone who can win. If they can get other people as enthusiastic as they are, that’s how you grow a team—that’s how the movement begins.”

5. Love Can Make an Entire Business Possible

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and for those 30 years, my husband has been through everything with me. He’s been the total behind-the-scenes guy. A career outside the home wasn’t important to him anymore once this whole thing started. So I’ve had it really, really good—the whole time. When I was traveling for work, he was driving our son back and forth to school, going to the parent/teacher conferences, filling up the gas tank, making the food. The bareMinerals story is as much about him as it is about me. When my son Trent was really young, Keith wouldn’t take trips with me, so there’d be a parent there for every major thing. You don’t always know if it’s going to work out: My kid’s 23 now, he’s an adult, and he’s a good person. I couldn’t have done any of it without my husband.”

6. Forgive and Transform Your Life

“The interesting layer has been my relationship with my sister: We were so close growing up, and as adults we lived 45 minutes apart from each other—and we didn’t really speak for 20 years. It was tragic, but we managed to find the humor in it in our TED X Talk.”

7. Don’t Stop

“Most of the beauty industry works by launching new things and then moving on to the next thing—launching and leaving it alone. But we’ve been launching the ORIGINAL foundation for 21 years! We launched it and then lived with it like a family member. I mean, that foundation is why you’re here, talking to me. So much of the journey was honing in on the epic-ness of it. Corralling and crowd-sourcing women’s opinions, creating a starter kit—that had never been done, going on TV—that was a new thing for prestige beauty products. When you create a product with your customer, it’s not something in a room with a flow chart and a power point: You’re there, in the field, it evolves and expands, and you tweak it based on what’s happening. What remains, consistently my favorite thing, is connecting with people—it’s so motivating for me, to meet women out there and hear their stories.”

“I always wrote a lot of letters, and I still write them—by hand, I think it’s important—to customers. And co-workers. Part of what drives me is the need to know who these people are, how they feel, what they think about the brand…it’s truly the only way. I couldn’t be my best if I didn’t know what the sentiment about our company and our products was. I never delegated the heartbeat of the company to anyone.”

“I guess I am a businessperson, but not that looking-at-a-spreadsheet, cut-costs-over-here kind of businessperson. Of course, we had people who did that other stuff, but it’s never been exciting for me. The way I look at business, it’s about developing big ideas that people can get behind—then you don’t have to do all that other stuff. It’s about knowing where you’re going.”

8. Skincare is (Almost) Everything

“I feel the beauty conversation is always the same—it’s about skin. It’s been that same conversation since I started out, talking to women I didn’t know—now I feel like I’ve known those women for 20 years. Even in my real life, it’s the same: When I’m hanging out with my girlfriends, we’re all talking about skin, what we can do to look fresher, younger, better. We all want to know the answer, we all want the secret!”

“In my experience, once women hit 30, that’s when it becomes more about skincare than makeup. It’s happening now even earlier I think, because women are reading and they know that how they take care of their skin now makes a difference later—staying out of the sun, for instance.”

“I swear I’ve been using anti-aging products since the 3rd grade. I love the whole idea of skincare, the sensory experience, the ritual of using products you love to take care of the way you look. I like that our approach of overall well-being at BareMinerals is the same for skincare as it is makeup: It’s not that you have to look a different age than you really are, just that your skin looks great. I mean, you still want to look better than everybody else, right? But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to be the age you are, the person you are.”

“We’ve done skincare a number of times at bareMinerals, but this time, we’re partnered up with our parent company Shiseido! When you have experts like that, you want to tap into them. Being able to work with the best in world—it’s a totally different realm. Their R & D facilities alone are bigger than a whole office building. You go into their labs and it’s like floors and floors of men and women in lab coats doing experiments. They’ve been working with the ingredient that powers our new hero product, Skinlongevity, the long-life herb from Okinawa, literally for years. They found this herb, which the Okinawans use in food and in drinks, and figured out how to make it work to treat skin—it blows my mind.”

“My work life is totally different than when I was the CEO. I mean, I ran and grew a global company from nothing to…a very large size. For 16 years, every two years we were growing by millions and millions of dollars. In that role, I was with the customers, always traveling, listening to them all over the world, and I’d come back and share the stories.”

“All I do now is the fun stuff. I’m listening again, but it’s more internal, with the new generation of leaders inside the company. It’s so interesting to hear how they think about the company, how they’re cracking the code, finding new ways to engage the customer, sharpen the customer’s experience worldwide, and shaping the vision of the entire company. I love it—it’s something I couldn’t ever spend enough time doing. It’s inspiring to actually shut up once in awhile.”

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