Believe it or not, there was a time when the only way to get your hands on a jar of La Mer was by braving the crowds at your local department store. But armed with the firm belief that beauty could hold its own as the sole category in freestanding stores, Marla Beck set out to change all that. Fast-forward to today, and Bluemercury—of which Beck is CEO and co-founder—is America’s fastest-growing luxury beauty retailer. As the brand to prepares to open 40 more outposts this year, we caught up with Beck to talk career highs, lows, and everything in-between.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Oakland, C.A. I got into business at a very young age, because my father was a real estate developer and entrepreneur. When I was 13, I started working in his office in the Accounting department, so I learned numbers and finance. We did everything by hand, so when you were missing a penny, you would literally have to search through the book for a penny. It was the ultimate exposure to the financial guts of a business, but I loved it. I knew from then on that I wanted to run a company.
Were you interested in beauty at that point?
I've always been a beauty junkie. I shopped at a little store called The Body Shop—not the one it is today. The U.K. brand actually purchased the name from this store. It happened to be right in Berkeley, near my house. So I shopped there when I was a kid, and they had a bunch of great bath and body products. They had a fragrance called China Rain, they still sell it today. That was my first exposure to beauty. And I used Dermalogica when I was in high school. It was a California brand, only three years old. But they were sold at a salon near my house and I had my first facial [with their products] when I was in high school. When I moved to grad school in Boston, I couldn't find anything I used. I would drive 45 minutes to Bendel's [outside of Boston] to get my favorite MAC lipstick.
When did you realize you could combine your passion for beauty with entrepreneurship?
It first occured to me when I was in business school. Jeff Bezos came to Harvard when Amazon was only three years old, and no one knew who he was; the company wasn't public. And he explained the Internet and e-Commerce to us—it was totally new. To put it in perspective, when I was in grad school we had just gotten our first email addresses. There was no Google or any of that. So I was completely mesmerized by him, and he was explaining how someday, everyone would buy books online. I always remembered that, and after my first job [in private equity], I decided to leave and start a company that brought beauty to the Internet. But we were a little too early—everyone was still on dial-up. So instead, I thought about the fact that there were no free-standing beauty stores and said, why not create the friendly neighborhood store where you could buy beauty in the real world?
What were the early days of the first store [in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown] like?
It was a great time. The response was amazing, because all of these brands were indie. We had Francois Nars on board, Laura of Laura Mercier, Lev and Alina from Fresh. So it was really a cottage business with all of these amazing brand entrepreneurs and creators. It was so much fun to work with all of the founders and see what they were bringing out. And I hustled to make it happen—I cold-called all these brands.
We opened the second store in DuPont Circle [in D.C.], and the third in Philadelphia. I knew Philly was an untapped market, and the first day we opened, the business was crazy. It was our best location and it was really that first day when we knew that we had something that was bigger than just one city. I think as an entrepreneur you have these strategic turning points, these sort of decisions that you look back on and you're like that was it. That was one of them. Philadelphia.
How do you keep the business relevant even as the landscape of retail has evolved?
Our mission has always been to be the best at giving beauty advice. And so if I look at what sets us apart, it's our beauty experts. They're so knowledgeable about products. Our stores are right where people live, so we become part of the community because our beauty experts are so good, they're so warm. We're not cookie cutter, and I think that intimacy really sets us apart. We have spas at almost every store—I'd say 90% of our locations. So, our clients are coming to us for all things beauty—facials, brow styling, bikini wax, peels. So I think we're just integrating ourselves and our clients integrate us into their lives.
What’s been your proudest moment so far?
How long people have worked for us and been promoted through our organization. We're a company that's 93% women, and I think that is so important. And we've had beauty experts who have started as sales associates who now run [sales in] like half the country. And so I think that providing mobility and creating a company that's women-driven is really my proudest achievement. Historically in the beauty industry you didn't get that sort of movement. You had people who were makeup artists that got 20 hours a week, and then that was it. We're a place where people find a home and a career.