Many people dream of being so successful that they can sell their business and never have to work again. Toni Ko, founder of NYX Cosmetics, was one of those people, selling NYX Cosmetics to L’Oréal in 2014 for a reported $500 million. But it turned out she was wrong about one thing: She didn’t really want to stop working.
The disciplined entrepreneur came to FIT on Monday, April 3, as part of the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology’s Dean’s Forum to discuss her background, how she started her business, and what she’s doing now.
Ko, who moved with her family from South Korea to Los Angeles when she was 13, attributes her success to being brought up by strict parents—particularly her father—who didn’t allow her to be out of school for any reason, including illness, and taught her that only the strongest survive.
“He always said, ‘If you know how to walk, someone knows how to run. If you know how to run someone knows how to fly,’ basically telling us we would never be good enough,” she recalled.
As difficult as this environment was for her, she looks back on that time in her life as a young person with gratitude for having been raised with such a strong work ethic. “When everyone is working smarter,” she said, “the only way to outdo the competition is to work smarter and harder.”
Her exposure to the beauty business came from working in her parents’ perfume and cosmetics business. One day she realized that her friends actually made money by working, which was a revelation but also led her to the idea of creating NYX, which she did in 1999. (The company is named after the Greek goddess of the night.)
“Because I never had money, I couldn’t afford the high-end brands like Chanel,” she said. “I could only afford drugstore brands. I wanted to create good quality cosmetics at a drugstore price.”
She started out with a small selection of products (mostly pencils) and in the first year had sales of nearly $2 million. In 2014, Ko sold the company to L’Oréal, looking forward, as she says, “to lying on a beach with a margarita.” Within six weeks, however, she was bored and miserable. So she started a new business, Perverse Sunglasses, which, though a completely different product, is based on the same principles that made NYX a success—high quality produced without extraneous costs.
Her philosophy for this iteration of her career is also the same: “If you have a really good product at a really good price, your customer will do your marketing for you.”