Toni Ko is the founder of the multi-million dollar cosmetics brand NYX, which was recently acquired by the largest beauty company in the world, L’Oreal. Discovering a gap in the cosmetics market between prestige brands sold in department stores and mass brands sold in drugstores, Ko created NYX in 1999, with the goal of delivering professional, richly pigmented products at affordable prices. Working as a one-woman show from a 600 square foot show room in California, Ko began selling a single item – makeup pencils. She impressively generated two million dollars in sales during her first year, and quickly grew to become a leader in the color cosmetics industry, gaining the respect of such retail giants as Target, CVS and Ulta.
How did you get into the cosmetics industry?
Out of love for make-up. I was a complete make-up junkie, and saw a huge niche market between the prestige brands and the drug store brands.
Tell us about NYX. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?
The inspiration for NYX came from me being a make-up lover and from my friends. We were young and broke, so we couldn’t afford the department store brands, so we bought drug store brands. We used to complain about the low quality of the drug store brands. And, when I had to burn my Maybeline eye liner to get it to work, I said, “that’s enough” and decided to start a brand that was great quality, yet affordable—that was the exact vision and mission for the brand. Great quality make up with a price that doesn't break your bank.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to NYXs success?
We focused heavily on social media for our marketing. We had almost $0 marketing budget, as matter of fact, we didn’t even have a marketing department until couple of years ago. When we started to see in 2007/2008 the rise in population of Youtubers and what they can do for your brand, we immediately jumped on the bandwagon and ran with it. We had items that were on the discontinued list, that became a hero product over night because of Youtube tutorials.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
Highlight and Contour is huge huge huge now. We've had Highlight and Contour products since 2009, but it wasn't as popular as it is now, so when we saw more and more girls using highlight and contour products, we repackaged and expanded our offering of highlight and contours.
Stick to quality. We don’t exist without our customers, so our customers are number 1. No is not an answer.
Your greatest success as Founder/CEO of NYX? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
The most difficult was to let go of my CEO title at NYX a couple of years ago. My company was growing rapidly, and there came a point where I couldn’t wear as many hats I used to. I had to decide what my strongest suit was, and I decided it was being the creative person behind the brand. So, I hired a professional CEO to takeover the title, so I could focus on creating products, which was THE most important focus at NYX.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
Be prepared to take risks, must be able to make snap decisions, need to be flexible with all aspects of the business and always always treat your team members, vendors and customers with respect.
How do you motivate your employees?
Lead by example and give them respect doesn’t matter what their role or title is. I always believed in working for my employees rather then my employees working for me.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
King Taco and really really good red wine.
What literature is on your bed stand?
I have about 10 books on my bed stand right now, which I read totally randomly. The Prince, 7 habits of highly effective people, Art of War, Wealth of Nations, Principia ( this one I’m dreading reading because the book is so thick but I’ve committed to reading it). Age of Reason, The origin of Species etc…
Role model - business and personal?
Business - I fell in love with the founder of the Four Seasons hotel Isadore Sharp after reading The Story of a Business Philosophy.
Personal - My mom always and forever for her wit, courage and her ability to take a chance.
Current, past, future - Besides make-up, SHOES!!!
Favorite travel destination?
Toni's Instagram: @tonibologni
Ko credits her family as the primary influence on her education in the beauty business, having worked in their family-owned beauty supply store in Los Angeles, which her mother opened shortly after they immigrated from Korea when she was 13 years old. By the time Ko was 25, she had amassed over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, and was ready to find her own niche. At the time of sale, NYX had revenue growth of well over 100 million dollars and is currently available in thousands of retailers in over 70 countries.
Ko has received numerous awards, including most recently, the Entrepreneur of the Year from the Asian Business Association, the Leadership Award from NAWBO LA this year, and the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Beauty Bus Foundation in 2013. Also in 2013, NYX was the WWD Beauty Inc. pick for Brand of the Year, a moment Ko heralds as one of her greatest defining moments within the industry.
This summer, Ko started the Toni Ko Foundation, where she will lend support to organizations that help children in need and those that empower women. Although the cosmetics industry is marketed towards women, Ko found that the majority of top executives are men. Therefore, she wants to empower women to have the courage to start their own businesses, and set higher goals to be the executives. Ko states, “The only way for many women around the globe to be more liberated is to become financially independent. I think it's incredibly important to lead women in the right direction to achieve independence.”
She resides in Los Angeles with her husband.