Culture April 14, 2017
How Toni Ko became a business superstar - exclusive interview.
Retirement didn’t last long for Toni Ko. After selling her cosmetics company for $500 million she looked forward to a more relaxing life.
“I was bored by day two and immediately started to dream up a new company,” the 43-year-old entrepreneur tells ENTITY.
The result was Perverse Sunglasses, which a year after being founded is on the path to similar success as her previous firm, NYX Cosmetics, the one snapped up by L’Oreal in that mega-deal.
“I started company two to be happy and I’m happiest when I’m beating creative,” explains the South Korea born businesswoman. She says her childhood made her the driven person she is today.
“The requirements of an entrepreneur are to be tough, to adapt to changes quickly and to be resilient. Looking back, my entire childhood shaped me to be that way.”
She got toughness from “never being coddled” by her parents, adaptability from attending six different elementary schools as the family moved around a lot and resilience from moving at 13 to the United States, where she had to learn a whole new language.
“All of these blended to make me a chameleon, never afraid of new environments,” adds Ko, who found business to be her natural habitat after settling in Los Angeles and working after school, on weekends and school vacations for her parents’ beauty products business.
Taking the lessons she’d learned there, along with $250,000 in seed money from her parents, Toni eventually launched her own budget priced cosmetics company, which she named after the self assured Greek goddess Nyx. NYX Cosmetics proved an instant hit by clearing $2 million in sales during its first 12 months and continuing to grow revenue year on year.
“I used the value proposition business model – sell great product at a wallet friendly price. I also worked really hard. With sweat equity, a positive result always prevails.”
In 2014, the NYX majority owner found cosmetics giant L’Oreal’s acquisition offer too good to turn down and after so many years of hard work thought relaxing and “drinking margaritas on the beach” would be the life for her.
“I sold the company to retire and to find my work/life balance but it wasn’t until I actually retired, that I realized what makes my life balanced is working on projects.”
L’Oreal had made her sign a noncompete clause preventing her from launching a new cosmetics firm for five years so, having a passion for sunglasses, she formed an eyewear company and set about conquering that industry with stylish shades at affordable prices between $30 and $60.
“I chose the name Perverse because it means deliberately doing things against the norm and I love that. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. The pricing was based on both my cost of goods and what I felt was the aspirational price point.”
The only similarity with her old company was the business model. Everything else was brand new.
“I basically had to roll up my sleeves, get down to the ground level and learn from scratch. I made many many mistakes in the first six months but there is no better lesson than the experience of making mistakes.”
Her biggest mistake was not realizing early on the fashion cycles of the sunglasses industry. “In the make up business, I didn’t have to constantly launch fresh in-fashion styles but in sunnies it’s a constant flow of new styles and, not being used to that flow. I made the mistake of over purchasing.”
But Toni, who with a reported net worth of $260 million is financing the venture entirely herself, recovered quickly from her errors.
“It’s been a really tough year once since we launched on April 15, 2016 but the great news is that we have already built an amazing brand recognition, have four Perverse Sunglasses retail stores, have presence in all Nordstrom stores, multiple fashion online retailers, countless boutiques and we are close to our 7000th order on our e-com alone.”
The company now has a line of 400 shades and also a celebrity endorser in the form of actress and singer Olivia Holt, whose song “History” became a huge pop hit. “She’s a rising star, is right for our brand and we’re elated.”
Ko, who is married but prefers to talk about her business life rather than her domestic life, also has a real estate portfolio and a small investment portfolio. But Perverse Sunglasses is her chief business interest and her ambition now is to build it into a household name.
As a leading female entrepreneur she also has another ambition: “To take the word ‘female’ from female entrepreneur. She urges women pursuing similar dreams, “Constantly remind yourself you are not a female entrepreneur when it comes to business. You are just an entrepreneur. My mom was a business owner and a lot of people she associated with were also business owners who were women so the idea of female entrepreneur was very natural to me. So when I was sitting at a business meeting, I never thought of my self as a woman but a person.”
Looking to the future, this accomplished businessperson is proud of what she’s achieved already with her sunglasses firm. “Even if this new company doesn’t work out in the end, I know I actually tried. And to me, that’s valuable and commendable. I can walk away knowing that I gave my 1000 percent.”
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