Toni Ko sold $US2 million of makeup in her first year of business, before hiring a single employee. She grew her company NYX Cosmetics into a half-billion-dollar business before selling it to L’Oréal. We talked to the multimillionaire entrepreneur about her early start, her biggest mistake, and her venture fund for woman-owned businesses.
Current computer: Mac
Current mobile device: iPhone XS
One word that best describes how you work: Multitask
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I started working at my family’s beauty business when I was 15 years old. The year I turned 25, I left the family business to start my first company, NYX Cosmetics, which I launched at 26 years old. I was basically married to the company for 15 years until I sold it to L’Oréal in 2014.
Selling my company allowed me to be a serious real estate investor, so I now own over half a million square feet of rentable space in Los Angeles. I also started a fund, Butter Ventures, that invests in female-owned businesses.
I was born a serial entrepreneur and am a very creative person at heart, so shortly after selling NYX I launched a sunglass company called Thomas James LA that offers amazing quality, on-trend sunglasses at an affordable price of only $US19.00 ($28) a pair.
What were the crucial steps in growing your business from a one-woman operation to a large brand?
Financial security is incredibly important. Obviously, if you don’t have the finances, you can’t make the payroll. When I started my first company at 26, I moved into my parents’ house so I didn’t have to take any money away from my business to supplement my living cost. I lived without a salary for the first three years and I invested every single dollar I made back into my business. This helped me build a very strong financial foundation.
The biggest headache you face when running a company is not having enough money to purchase inventory, pay the rent, pay the employees, etc. Once you have the financial worries out of your life, you can use that time and energy to focus on growing the business. If you sacrifice a little on the front end, you can grow exponentially in a few years down the road.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made and how did you deal with it?
When I launched my sunglass business, I went too big. I hired too many people, bought software programs that were too big, spent too much on the launch event, etc. The keyword is “too much.” It took me about six months to realise we were on the wrong track and I quickly took action and started scaling down my staff and started switching over to smaller and more manageable software programs. I had to make quick decisions and take swift action.
What’s changed in the beauty industry since you started?
The real question is, what has NOT changed? The beauty industry has changed so much that I am honestly having a difficult time catching up. The sales channel, marketing, social media, consumer behaviour—everything has changed! The traditional ways of thinking are no longer relevant, and one must adapt or fall behind.
What do you consider when deciding to invest in a company?
First and foremost, I must like the product they sell, and I have to know the entrepreneur is willing to put 110% into building a successful company. I need entrepreneurs who are ALL IN. I have to see the combination of a great product and a great entrepreneur.
Take us through a recent workday.
I was recently on a business trip in Asia where I went to seven different cities across four countries in 14 days. When I returned back to Los Angeles, I started to put in 12-14-hour workdays.
My workday starts as soon as I open my eyes in the morning, because I buy merchandise from Asia. I have emails from the vendors that need to be followed up with early in the morning because I like to reply within 12 hours, so I don’t lose a whole day going back and forth on emails.
After that, I get ready and head into the office. Once I arrive at the office, I check in with my staff on their open projects for the day, and then I usually take some time sitting at my desk to go through more emails, planning, scheduling, etc.
I will typically schedule meetings during lunchtime so I can best utilise the lunch hour. My afternoon is spent working on creative concepts, product development, and sending out necessary emails to the vendors in Asia towards the end of the day because that’s when they start their work day.
After I leave the office, I either have dinner meetings or head home to spend some time with my dog, Bruce. Then you’ll find me back on the computer emailing with vendors or getting some reading done.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
I can’t live without a notebook and a pen. A real paper notebook and a superfine pen is a MUST! I still like to write things down.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I still work at my L-shaped desk that I’ve owned since I started my first company in 1999. I don’t think I can ever part with this desk. I always have piles of papers and samples on my desks. I clean it all the time, but things get piled on pretty quick.
What’s your favourite shortcut or hack?
Simplified thinking! Don’t overthink.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
We don’t have a lot of meetings at my company because I think too many meetings are counterproductive. Also, I have an open-door policy for everyone, including myself.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
For meetings and itineraries, I use the calendar on my iPhone. I check my schedule for the next day before I go to sleep each night, and I check it again first thing in the morning. For projects, I always write a to-do list.
How do you recharge or take a break?
Travelling! I love to travel. Anywhere in the world.
What’s your favourite side project?
I absolutely love tending to my backyard chickens and vegetable garden. I love to gift the eggs and veggies from my garden to my friends! You can call me #FarmerKo.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I just finished reading Educated by Tara Westover, and it was amazing. I’m now currently reading Billion Dollar Whale by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, which is super interesting. However, if there is one book I would recommend all entrepreneurs read, it would be Good to Great, by James C. Collins.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Kerrigan Behrens, the co-founder and CMO of Sagely Naturals.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Focus only on the goal. Everything else is just noise.”
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
Trying to use less screen time on my iPhone. UGH!!