Ko learned about sales early as a teen working in her parents’ small business. Now she’s rolling out her second startup because she couldn’t take the boredom of not running a business.
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles entrepreneur Toni Ko, 43, was just 25 when she founded NYX Cosmetics. She started out small, with makeup pencils, but still had sales of $2 million in her first year, and sold the brand to L’Oreal in 2014, reportedly for almost $500 million.
Ko’s latest venture is called Perverse Sunglasses, a line of more than 400 shades that she unveiled at last month’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. She’s also the company’s chief creative officer.
After the sale of NYX, Ko was bored. “I love work, but it’s more than that. It’s the race that is fun,” not the finish, she said.
Career: Founded NYX Cosmetics at age 25. Now launching Perverse Sunglasses.
Before starting NYX: “I’m working in the family business, and my parents had never paid me. I was a 25-year-old on an allowance.”
Role models: Her grandfather and mother
Source: Los Angeles Times
With Perverse, she’s riffing on the formula that made NYX a success — make it stylish but keep the extraneous costs to a minimum.
That helps her keep Perverse sunglasses in the $30-to-$60 price range, between cheap throwaway sunglasses and name brands at $100 and up. Perverse is currently an e-commerce business with a team of 18, but Ko plans to open retail stores.
Knowing that many businesses fail in their first few years, Ko has always kept a tight rein on finances.
“For three straight years I took zero money from the company,” Ko said of NYX. “I had no salary. I reinvested all of that revenue to help create a very strong financial foundation.”
She hired one full-time employee in her second year and four more in the third. That frugality extended to her personal life too. “Don’t live like a rock star unless you are one,” Ko said.
Ko named her cosmetics company after Nyx, a lesser known but potent Greek goddess with such swagger that even Zeus was careful not to anger her. She picked Perverse for her next company because it indicated a stubborn desire to behave in a way that others might find unreasonable, despite the consequences, she said.
“Entrepreneurs are a little bit more of the rebellious type, a little more adventurous, always trying to bend the rules and pushing boundaries,” Ko said. “Do not follow the norm. You have to have one helluva stubborn personality to do this.”
Ko was 13 when her family emigrated from South Korea. “As soon as we got here my mom started a small retail business. That was selling perfume and cosmetics. I worked at my parents after school, weekends, some holidays. That’s just what we did. I went to school and then I went to work at the store.”
Grandfather Ko Young Kyung was sometimes charged with looking after his granddaughter. “He was stuck with me, so he decided to impart a few wise concepts, like the power of word-of-mouth,” Ko said. “The best marketing strategy is the oldest marketing strategy. If your product is good and your price is good, people are going to naturally talk about it, and it spreads like wildfire.”
Ko wasn’t thrilled to see her friends having all of the fun. “As a teenager, I hated it,” Ko said. “My friends are out playing, at the beach. I’m working at the store all of the time.”
But she said that in hindsight, “I realized that it was the best education I could ever have had for running a business. I was like a sponge soaking up every kind of information.”
Another role model was Ko’s mother, Elaine — “a fantastic businesswoman,” she said.
The one location grew into multiple stores. “When I was 20, the family decided to go into the wholesale-distribution business. So now I was managing accounts, and I got to experience another side of business. Now, we were selling to the retailers, not to consumers. I learned how to introduce new merchandise. I learned how to convince a retailer to tweak up the display of your products, to make them more attractive to customers.”
Inspiration for her own business came from primping with friends. “It was embarrassing. My friends are taking out the expensive department-store cosmetics and I had the drugstore brands,” Ko said. Eventually she realized “there was no price point in the midrange between drugstore cosmetics and the really pricey celebrity-driven brands.” She decided she would fill that gap.
“Surprisingly, the seed money came from my mother,” Ko said. “I walked her through the kind of business that I wanted to have. She wrote me a check for $250,000. She believed in me, I guess.”