01 Mar 2016
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How Do I Get Your Job?

Marla Malcolm Beck (MBA/MPA 1998) gets real about retail with Ravneet Uberoi (HBS 2017)
Re: Marla Beck (MBA 1998)
by April White

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Ravneet Uberoi
(courtesy Ravneet Uberoi)

Marla Malcolm Beck (MBA/MPA 1998)
(courtesy Bluemercury)

Marla Malcolm Beck (MBA/MPA 1998) and Ravneet Uberoi (HBS 2017) share a résumé line: a stint at McKinsey before coming to HBS. Beck, cofounder and CEO of beauty retailer Bluemercury, tells Uberoi, a member of the student-run Retail & Luxury Goods Club, how she went from consultant to entrepreneur to retail maven, with 70-plus stores across the country

RU: When you were at HBS did you envision starting your own beauty brand?

MMB: I knew I wanted to run a company, but I didn’t know I wanted to start a company. I caught the entrepreneurial bug at HBS. I think it was the exposure to entrepreneurship intersecting with the advent of e-commerce.

After HBS I took a job in private equity. I met entrepreneurs who had built $10 million to $50 million companies, and I realized, “Oh, they’re not superhuman. I can actually do this.”

So I started thinking, what business can I bring to e-commerce? Luxury beauty. We raised a million dollars in two weeks, and we were off to the races. I’ll always remember the date—May 14, 1999. One year after I graduated from business school, I was responsible for my own salary.

RU: You make it sound so easy. What was the most challenging aspect of starting Bluemercury?

MMB: The hardest thing I ever did was the first year of Bluemercury. The funding—at that time—was easy; finding a business model that was going to be sustainable was the hardest. There was a lot of competition, people weren’t purchasing things online yet, funding started drying up, then the Nasdaq crashed. We had to figure out how to build a real business, for profit.

RU: What’s next in the beauty industry?

MMB: I think everyday beauty services like Drybar are the next phase. With Uber and Airbnb, the younger generation is really used to services on demand. For us that translates into a concept called X Bar, an on-the-floor beauty bar that introduces clients to new products. We’re really close to our clients; that’s how we see the trends. We listen and we implement quickly.

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RU: Your cofounder and business partner is your husband, Barry Beck. Do you have any advice on how to select a cofounder?

MMB: No matter what the sector, you need to select someone with complementary skills. In entrepreneurial businesses, there’s usually the strategist and the hardcore operator. My husband is the hardcore operator—“I can get this done”— and I’m the strategist, thinking about the business, marketing, and the consumer. You cannot pick someone who looks like you; you’ll be missing a skill set.

RU: One key issue for retail startups—specifically in fashion and beauty—is raising capital, because VCs tend to be male and often have little exposure to female-focused industries. How can a fashion or beauty startup raise capital?

MMB: You have to be able to tell your story and feel confident about it. And in e-commerce, you can get a minor proof of concept pretty quickly before you go out for a big raise. I recommend that.

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