12 min read
Sometimes, all it takes to turn a bright idea into a breakthrough business is a run-in with the right person.
For Bobbi Brown, in 1991, it was a rendezvous with a man of science. “I met a chemist accidentally and asked him if he could make this dream lipstick,” she says. “He did, and the budding entrepreneur in me thought, ‘Well, people would like to buy this.’” At the time, Brown was a makeup artist disenchanted with stinky, greasy, dry lipsticks, so she came up with ten shades that women could wear to work. The line debuted at Bergdorf Goodman, and it was an instant success: Brown expected to sell 100 lipsticks in the first month, but she ended up selling 100 on the first day. Brown sold her company to Estée Lauder for $74.5 million in 1995.
For Gail Federici, in 1990, the fated meet cute was with British hair stylist John Frieda. “I was talking to John about his products, and I said, ‘Would you be open to me doing a line for frizzy hair?’ At the time there was not one product for my hair type, nor was the word ‘frizz’ on any product at all. So we started with Frizz-Ease, and that was sort of our M.O. — coming up with products that women needed.” Federici and Frieda sold John Frieda for $450 million in 2002. Today, according to Allure, 2.1 units of Frizz-Ease serum are sold per minute in the U.S.
Last month, Federici and Brown were on Instagram Live together, talking about the trajectories of their careers and fielding questions from eager influencers and acolytes of the beauty world. Brown has been an organic fan of Color Wow for years, calling the root cover up a “lifesaver” in Marie Claire, and the two entrepreneurs’ relationship blossomed from there. During their discussion, both Federici, 72, and Brown, 64, realized they’d started their third entrepreneurial acts in their 60s. In 2013, Federici founded Color Wow, a line of salon-quality products for color-treated hair, and last year Brown launched Jones Road, a line of “clean, no-makeup makeup.”
Brown and Federici’s very presence on IG Live is a testament to how much has changed in the beauty game since their first acts. But their engagement with the platform is also emblematic of what it takes to adapt and stay relevant. Social media has transformed beauty into a $532 billion global industry, creating an ongoing conversation — a direct line between brands and their consumers. And yet, there’s still plenty Federici and Brown learned from their less “online” ventures. So we talked to the beauty moguls about just how much running a beauty business has changed, and how much it hasn’t.
Act I: “It was so rewarding to make something that touched so many people”
“Engagement” may have looked a whole lot different in the 1990s, but back then it was still an important way of knowing if your brand was connecting to people.
“It was always our mission to problem-solve at John Frieda, and make a difference,” Federici says. “And that’s what the joy is: It’s fun cracking problems. I had worked for another hair-care company, and they were very good, but we never got letters from people going on and on about how great the products were. With Frizz-Ease, we literally had this massive room full of credenzas with file folders with all of the letters that people sent us. They sent before and after pictures, and one woman made a copper mold of a Frizz-Ease bottle so we could make chocolate Frizz-Ease bottles. A mayor of this little city out in the Midwest wrote us three-page poems. It was so rewarding to make something that touched so many people. And that’s what really motivated us.”
Federici’s marketing strategy was much different back then. “Our options were print, TV, advertising and PR. Those were the ways that we could really move the product and communicate with the consumer. So we would do one big shoot every year and a half or so to create everything we needed for the promo materials, a TV ad and print. Maybe it took us a couple of months, but that was it.”
Brown’s marketing strategy was also quite different than it is today. And yet, having a “platform” was still crucial to her success. “I couldn’t Google anything, so I looked everything up in Yellow Pages,” she says. “Back then, you told people about it. Now, that’s called PR and marketing. And in the beginning, I was really lucky because I became the beauty editor of The Today Show. So I had a platform to tell people about how I see makeup.”
Act II: “We were terrible, and I really turned gray”
After the sale of their companies, Brown and Federici branched out into other ventures.
Though Brown retained creative control of her brand for more than two decades after the sale, she ultimately left the company in 2016. In the interim between then and founding Jones Road, Brown undertook several endeavors, which included launching the supplement collection Evolution_18 for Walmart and opening The George, a boutique hotel, in Montclair, New Jersey.
“When I left [Bobbi Brown], I had literally no idea what I was going to do next,” Brown says. “My husband’s a very talented developer, very creative, and he said, ‘I’ve got this property. I’m not sure what to do with it. Why don’t we open up a small boutique hotel?’”
Similarly, Federici’s post-John Frieda phase had little to do with hair, though it did stem from an ad campaign for Frieda products.
A few years after Federici’s twin daughters modeled for a highly successful Young Magazine shoot, Federici hired the videographer David Meyers, who’d already won numerous MTV Music Video Awards, to film the girls in an ad for John Frieda’s Sheer Blonde line. The song in the ad was called “Are You Ready?” and the sales were off the charts. “The girls would go places, and people would sing the song to them,” Federici says.
Federici’s daughters loved to sing, dance and write songs, so after selling John Freida, she decided to give the music industry a go. John Frieda’s brother, who was in real estate, owned a large building in London that housed music lawyers and producers. “We set up a small office there and started a mini music business, where we signed some artists,” Federici says. “We were terrible, and I really turned gray, practically. I was making mistake after mistake.” They signed Taio Cruz, but let him go right before he released his mega-hits “Break Your Heart” and “Dynamite.”
Act III: “The entrepreneur inside me woke up again”
Today, Brown and Federici have, in a sense, circled back to their entrepreneurial beginnings, now armed with more knowledge and new social-media marketing strategies.
In 2020, Brown founded the makeup brand Jones Road. The line, made with clean, high-grade formulations suitable for all skin types, tones and ages, includes versatile favorites like the Miracle Balm, a shimmery skin tint available in four shades, and the Hippie Stick, a butter-soft moisturizer for the face, body and hair. Brown’s trademarked attention to detail comes into play again — simplicity and quality are key.
When she started working on Jones Road, Brown had the significant advantage of experience. “The entrepreneur inside me woke up again,” she says, “‘Oh, it’s a new world. I could do things differently.’ Everything I learned is there. I know it, but how we do things is so different now: how we sell, how we market, even how we make. Launching Jones Road has been so invigorating for me because it’s been in my head for so long.”
Now, social media promotes an open dialogue between brands and consumers, allowing concerns to be raised and questions to be addressed in real time. Brown says this direct communication was particularly helpful when the Miracle Balm came out — many people weren’t getting the results they wanted because they weren’t using the product correctly.
“It was an overnight hit, but some people were having trouble with it because they weren’t getting enough color,” Brown says. “As a makeup artist, I know that you have to break the seal. So when I realized that people were just kind of rubbing their hand on top, I was like ‘No, no, no, we have to break the seal.’ And now it’s become a thing. All of the influencers that post are like ‘Look, I’m breaking the seal.’”
In 2013, after her time in the music industry, Federici also made her way back to beauty, returning to hair-care even though she hadn’t planned on it. Just as before, Federici’s venture began with a problem to solve. This time, it was the gray roots that she noticed people didn’t cover. When she asked them why, they said the products on the market were terrible: crayons that looked fake and markers that looked like shoe polish.
“I thought, ‘It’s just crazy that there’s nothing people like,’” Federici says. “And I remembered doing a shoot with a hairstylist, years before, who put a blonde wig on a model. It looked really fake, so he put some brown eyeshadow at the root to make it look a little more natural, but the problem was number one, it didn’t reflect like natural hair. And two, when we hit it with the wind, the powder, you could see the dust in the air. So I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s a way to make powder reflective, and it wouldn’t look dull. You could have so many pigments in it that it would be really forgiving.’”
That’s how Color Wow’s Root Cover Up was born, the first in what would become a line of salon-quality products for color-treated hair. The root cover up took three years to develop, longer than any product had taken before, but Federici wanted to get the pigments just right — and to make sure the powder stayed on the hair. A breakthrough came when Federici’s sister wore the product during a trip to Florida: After her sister went swimming, the gray hair was still covered. She needed shampoo to remove it.
While Federici has the benefit of substantial experience in the hair-care industry, her company’s approach to marketing, like Brown’s, has had to change with the times. “The world of John Frieda is night and day from the world right now of Color Wow,” Federici says. “You’ve got Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Pinterest. You have to create content literally every day. You have to create stories, feed posts, reels. And then Facebook with the iOS 14. So not only do you create content for the actual feed, but you also create content when you create ads for them, which also inform the consumer and create awareness.
“And you have the influencers,” Federici continues. “All of these platforms and influencers and affiliates. Before, it was a much simpler time. And then of course you have to have your own website. We made our website a real priority about five years ago. Thank the Lord, because it literally saved us this past year. If we hadn’t made it a very serious focus, I don’t know what would have happened to the business. A third of our business was in the trade, so it was our digital side — all the ways that we advertise on our website, Amazon, via influencers, all of that — that pulled us through and actually allowed us to meet the same goal that we had set before the pandemic.”
So much has changed in the last 30 years — much less the past year — when it comes to the world of business and how it intersects with technology and marketing strategies. It’s clearer than ever before that the willingness to adapt to changing circumstances, to reinvent oneself and one’s brand as necessary, is a must-have attribute for entrepreneurs who aspire to achieve the extraordinary levels of success that Brown and Federici have had over the course of their careers. But perhaps more important than anything else is the sheer passion these two women share, their enthusiasm for problem-solving, and for connecting with the people who love and support their products. Ultimately, there’s a certain degree of determination — a belief in their brands that translates into a refusal to give up.
“If you don’t try, you’ll never know,” Brown says. “I don’t believe in failure because it’s just a message that if something didn’t work out, do it differently.”
Today, social media makes it easier to try than ever before. Those chance meetings that helped launch Brown’s and Federici’s careers can also take place online, where a mine of real-time communication and engagement is just a few swipes away. But as much as the beauty industry has transformed, one thing has always remained true: Its heart and soul are the people who take part in it. It’s the problem-solvers who see a gap and decide to fill it, and it’s the beauty lovers who want to share their passion for their favorite brands or products with the world.