We asked Jamie Kern Lima, CEO and Co-Founder of It Cosmetics how she did it.
by SunHee Grinnell
Jamie Kern Lima, the co-founder and CEO of IT Cosmetics, has been flying high lately. Despite being recognized as one of the most powerful women in the industry (she was recently honored as one of “Night of the Stars” at the Fashion Group International awards, was named one of Forbes 60 Most Successful Self-Made Women this year, above Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, no less, and is extremely active in charity work), she knows how to stay grounded.
Kern-Lima’s story is truly a self-made American dream. While working as a TV anchor, she had a need—to cover up her very stubborn rosacea—for makeup that would stay on during “air-time.” It was only 9 short years ago that she started her company with a life-changing concealer, and it is with this one product, you can honestly say, that she has transformed what we now know as, “before and after”. Despite two years of countless “no’s” from investors and retailers, she was not discouraged because, in her gut, she believed that “the power of the people was greater than the people in power.” She was able to prove herself right when she got her first 10 minutes of “yes” at QVC, bravely baring her rosacea-prone face in order to show just how well her Bye Bye Under Eye Concealer worked. In ten minutes, she sold out 6000 units—and the rest is history.
After countless appearances on QVC, and winning an array of beauty awards along the way, we fast-forward to 2016 when L’Oreal acquired her very young brand for $1.2 billion. It was in this moment that she became the first female CEO at a more than a hundred-year-old company.
We went down memory lane with Kern-Lima. Here’s what she had to say:
After so many rejections in the beginning, what was the driving force to keep going?
I figured out how to keep my faith bigger than my fear. And I figured out how not to let hearing ‘no’ and that constant rejection, equate to doubt in my own head. To me, these are two of the most important reasons IT Cosmetics became the success story it is today! I believe in the power of our mission at IT and I believe we change countless lives every single day. I believe what we’re doing is bigger than ourselves. But none of it ever would have worked if I didn’t keep my faith bigger than my fear!
From watching you on QVC, you have revolutionized what we know as “before and after”. Do you remember that pivotal point when you came up with the breakthrough idea of showing your bare rosacea-prone face?
YES! And Thank you! To me, it was about being brave, and inspiring other women to be brave, and changing the way women look in the mirror! My whole life, all I remember seeing are images of unattainable beauty. Even the most aspirational celebrities and models are still always photoshopped in ads and commercials. So if you’re a real woman how do you know the product is actually going to work, and also how do you relate to an image of beauty that isn’t even real. How is that inspiring or empowering? I remember after years of hearing ‘no’ from QVC, we finally got a ‘yes’ and had one chance to go live on air and either succeed and hit the sales target, or not come back. Literally, everything was on the line for my company at the time because we could barely afford the inventory of over 6000 units of our Bye Bye Under Eye concealer that we had to bring in, to sell in 10 minutes. If it didn’t sell, we would have to take it all back and probably would have gone out of business. In that moment we decided to risk it all and do something that was bigger than ourselves. I asked QVC to allow me to show my bare face on TV, rosacea and all, and to showcase other women with real skin issues, and women who represented all ages, skin types and skin tones. It was really risky because no brand had ever done this before. I cast Helen who is now 73, I cast Alicia who is African-American with Acne prone skin and hyperpigmentation, I cast Desiree who has dark circles no matter how much sleep she gets. We all bare our face – not just to show how amazing our product is and how it works, but also to inspire other women and let them know that we are all in this together and that EVERY woman is beautiful! I’ll never forget when the on-air light went on, my heart was racing, my hands were shaking, I was praying like crazy…and before I knew it at the ten-minute mark exactly, the “sold out” sign went up! I cried! Because it was a moment in time when real women let their voice be heard. Loudly. And the rest is history.
Did you ever dream of your company growing so quickly?
Many brands start out by getting a yes right away from retailers and are embraced right away, and the opposite happened with IT Cosmetics. We grew from real women spreading the word, posting their own before and after online, and truly building this company from the ground up! For the first several years we heard no, non-stop. No from Ulta Beauty, No from Sephora, no from QVC. So during those years, it was hard to imagine eventually growing so quickly! But that makes today, having incredible partnerships with all three of them, such a blessing that I truly appreciate. And I’ve realized, anytime you’re doing something disruptive or you’re a thought leader in your industry or you’re a true creator or innovator, not everyone is going to get IT right away! And that’s ok! It means you’re likely onto something that could be really special and really powerful!
What do you think the key factor was for you on fast-track to growth?
First and foremost having a product that works! One that’s life-changing. That’s when people spread the word, and repeat purchase! And that’s how to have not only fast-track growth but sustainable growth! It’s easy for a company to have really great marketing that sells a product once and makes it a big hit. But selling a product once isn’t how you grow a true brand that lasts. It’s very difficult to create products that are life-changing and that customers buy more than once. But being obsessed with quality and earning customers trust, and repeat purchase is how you create a lasting brand.
Where are you getting all your genius product ideas from? People must be coming at you all day long, when do you have the time to “think and dream” about your next new product?
First, thank you! We stick so tightly to our brand DNA at IT Cosmetics when we launch any new product. For us, it has to be game-changing in its innovation, and unlike anything that’s been done before. And most importantly we have to believe it will be problem-solving and also life-changing when it gets into the hands of real women everywhere. So we won’t launch a product unless it truly meets those criteria. And for us, so many of our product ideas come from our customers! Our IT Girls and IT Guys that share their beauty issues with us, and ask us to create a problem-solving product for them. That’s how we created Bye Bye Redness for example, as well as Bye Bye Breakout, our Your Skin But Better™ CC+ Cream, our Bye Bye Lines Serum, and so many more.
After only 8 years of launching your brand, you were acquired by L’OREAL for $1.2 billion dollars! What was your vision for the brand when you began and how has that changed now?
My vision has always been to change the conversation about beauty, to inspire everyone to look in the mirror and see what’s RIGHT, not things we think are wrong. My vision is still for every single person to truly believe they are beautiful! So that hasn’t changed at all. What’s different now, is I realized how much more quickly this message could spread if we are not doing it all alone. Prior to our partnership with L’Oreal, we launched IT Cosmetics into Sephora in Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore and I realized how much work it is to do everything from regulatory compliance, HR, etc. in order to launch in other countries, but we were doing all of the work from our main office. I realized if we do it alone, we are going to grow at a much slower pace than if we have a partner like L’Oreal with an amazing infrastructure already in place on the ground in countries all around the world. That has been the best part of our partnership is leveraging their existing infrastructure to take our products and our message globally! We continue to be committed to staying 100% cruelty-free at IT Cosmetics and never testing on animals, and we’re so excited that this year alone we’ve launched into Selfridges in the UK and Sephora Canada. Next year we’re excited to expand to even more countries.
Your new foundation (that doesn’t feel like foundation), Bye Bye Foundation SPF50, which is launching this Spring, might actually be your best product to date. How is it so brilliantly formulated without the typical sunscreen formula that is bad for the skin?
Thank you! Bye Bye Foundation is truly life changing and I can’t wait for women to be able to test it and try it in-store for the first time ever, and with our largest shade range ever too! It took us over 3 years to create a formula that starts its life as a skin-loving moisturizer with clinical results, then we infused SPF 50+ physical-only sunscreen into it, which is so amazing for sensitive skin. Then our final step after perfecting that formula was to infuse full-coverage pigments designed to float on top of your skin after the moisturizer is absorbed. It is such an amazing product because you literally don’t ever have to wear foundation again to get full coverage.
Because I believe having balance is very important, what do you do to completely “turn off?” Have you had a chance to do that in the last 9 years?
I want to give you a really exciting answer, but instead, I am going to give you a truly honest one! No! I haven’t had a chance to turn off in the past 9 years, and I am really trying to figure out how to do that now. I think I realized recently that after doing 100 hr weeks for so many years, I’ve become addicted to working. So, I am really focused on changing that! I recently took some of my closest girlfriends on a trip to Bali and Bora Bora and I tried to put my phone away a bit. And I’ve started meditating and praying more which has been great. I’ve also been so grateful to get words of advice from other amazing women who have great careers but also take care of themselves and protect their personal lives and have fun! That’s a huge goal of mine, to have more fun! So I am working on it!
From where you sit as multiple award-winning C.E.O., what advice would you give to a young beauty entrepreneur?
Be ready to work harder than you ever thought you possibly could, and be ready to have unremitting pressure, most of it will likely be self-imposed! And no matter what, stick to your authentic mission and your authentic brand DNA! That is YOUR secret sauce, and no one can copy it. You can’t fake authenticity and customers are smart, and they know when a brand is getting distracted or veering away from its authentic DNA. What I mean by this, is it’s very easy to see what’s happening in the beauty landscape, whether it’s a trend, or a product that gets hot, or anything else and it’s tempting to switch up what you do and react to what’s hot in the moment, but unless it's on brand for you - if you react to what’s hot in the moment, which is a mistake so many brands make, you lose sight of your power and your authenticity to your brand DNA. I believe If you can stick to your authentic mission, you have the best chance of success!