Mary Lennon created a nail salon business to change the nail polish and salon experience from tedious and toxic to elegant and clean. She founded Côte nails with her business partner and friend Leah Yari in Los Angeles to create a nail polish line free of harmful ingredients and allergens and a salon experience that was fresh and enjoyable. We sat down with Mary to learn how they started, funded, and continued to grow in the clean beauty industry. She talks us through finding your niche, developing both BTB and online businesses, including the benefits of influencer marketing. Mary also shares how to thrive with the perfect partner.
- Conversations Start the Change
- Starting From What You Appreciate
- Jumping In Fully With Partner
- Growing the Nail Salon Business
- Juggling Family and Entrepreneurship
Conversations Start the Change
Mimi: Our guest for today is Mary Lennon and she’s the Co-founder of Côte, which is an elegant and non-toxic nail salon and nail polish line. All of Côte’s polishes are created free of the major toxins and allergens associated with nail polishes. They have a chic salon in Brentwood, California.
Mimi: Mary was a school teacher that turned entrepreneur when she saw a need that wasn’t being met for her and her daughters. To get your top 10 tips, every entrepreneur should know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips. So Mary, thank you so much for coming on today. I’m so excited to hear about Côte because it’s one of my favorite places and you’ve done such a great job and I can’t wait to hear about your story. So thank you for coming on.
Mary: Absolutely pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Mimi: Yeah. So can you just tell me, how did you get the idea? I think when you guys launched, it’s been a while now, you were one of the first organic clean nail polish companies.
Mary: Yeah. We were one of the first to really stand on that pillar, I’ll say. There were a few others out there, but we were the ones really placing the marketing behind that and trying to get that word out first about our brand. So yeah, it has been a little while, actually the years fly by. It’s been, gosh, I think almost eight years and-
Mimi: I’m going to say seven, but … Because it was right around when BeautyCounter started.
Mary: Well, you know what, so the difference is we started our research and so in my mind I think it’s been a little bit longer because the research part before we actually opened up the doors, extends it a little bit in my head. But yes, I think you’re right, I think it’s been seven years since our stores have been open. It all started as things do because of our kids. So my partner and I kind of hatched this idea based off of wanting a safe place – in the nail polish business – to take our children.
Mary: My daughter at the time was turning eight. She desperately wanted to have her birthday party at a nail salon. And so I did research and found someplace that was fine. But then we got there and my partner, Leah was there with her daughter as well. And that’s really where the conversation started. And we’re, “Why does this have to be such a gross experience? Why do we moms stand in the corner, cringe, watching our little girls throw their hands out there, and the smell and the cleanliness factor.” And there were just a lot of things that we love about the experience.
Mary: That started the conversation. That said, we each had our own careers going at that time and they were not even remotely close to this. So I am a teacher by training and that’s what I was doing at the time and she’s an interior designer. So this was the furthest thing from our minds was, “Let’s start a nail salon business.” We just kind of continued the conversation. And so it builds a little momentum and I think more than anything, it was maybe annoying for lack of a better word, to those around us, because we started kind of hearing, “Hey guys, either do something about it or stop talking about all these great ideas you have, that’s cool and everything, but it’s one thing to talk about it and then it’s another thing to kind of follow it up with the action.”
Mimi: Of course.
Starting From What You Appreciate
Mary: Totally. And so that’s really where it all started. So I like to call myself an accidental entrepreneur. I am by no means cut from that cloth and that’s what I was gunning for.
Mimi: But the best businesses are the ones that find niches that are missing or something that’s missing in day-to-day life. Right?
Mimi: And then you kind of fill that void. Back, I think when you started or researching, I mean, was there even any other kind of cleaner nail polish out there or how did you even start? Where did you even begin to be “Okay, I have this idea, now, who do I call to even make clean …”
Mary: Right, really when you take a step back and look at our company, we attacked it from a lot of different angles. So the product angle, that’s just one sliver of sort of the bigger pie, if you will, that we were looking to clean up. So when we started, we sat down and said, “Okay, what do you love about the nail care experience? What don’t you love about the nail care experience?”
Mary: We asked ourselves, our friends, our spouses, kind of anybody close to us and sort of took this giant, yes/no tally. And then we looked at the list of things we didn’t like about the experience and that’s what we built our company around. That’s what we wanted to change. So it was everything from the environment in which you get your nails done, how clean is it? How’s the ventilation? What does the space look like? How does it unfold as you walk into the space, then we looked at the client technician interaction. All factors that make up a nail salon business.
So how are you treated by a technician? How do you want to be treated by a technician. At the time protective gear wasn’t as big of a deal as it is right now. But that was also something that came into play. What was the process that went into getting a manicure or pedicure, the various steps? And did they make sense? Did they not make sense? And then finally we landed on … Really, the product makes the most difference because that’s what you’re opening, that’s what you’re using, that’s what you’re putting on your body.
So we tried to attack it from every single angle and again, ignorance is bliss. We basically rolled out four or five companies in one and it was a little gnarly and quite an uphill learning curve. But now that we’re kind of over that first hump, I think all really important angles of the nail care experience and nail salon business. Back to your original question, were we one of the first ones in this space? Yes, and definitely to attack it from so many angles. So to have the storefront that sort of acted as the … Not only marketing tool, but really the theater in which we showed people how to take care of your nails and get a clean manicure and pedicure like that. So it was a lot to bite off at once.
Aspects of the business
Mimi: Now, do you guys still consider yourself … Are you equal parts, storefront – nail salon business – and product? Or are you now kind of combo? Or where do you consider your primary business?
Mary: Sure. Product manufacturing for sure. Well, for sure now, because we haven’t really had our salon space open at all during this whole shutdown. Definitely we’ve had to … I know pivot is the big word in small business these days and we’ve certainly done our fair share of that. And I would say e-commerce for sure. E-commerce, we’ve got to thrive in wholesale business so we sell to stores across the country, small mom and pops, bigger chains, spas, hotels, boutiques, but not just nail salons that are taking us in, but-
Mimi: So it’s wholesale or do you do business to consumer directly online as well?
Mimi: Which is a bigger part of your business?
Mary: Probably our own e-commerce platform by a little bit, but the wholesale side is something that we’ve really been focused on for the last 12 months. And it’s sort of been an easy way to keep the business alive and build that while we’ve had the storefront closed. And I think also this business in the world of COVID thankfully our product is pretty well suited to the world that we’re all living in right now. Of course, I read all different kinds of articles in the beauty world now, but nail is a category that’s actually stayed the same and done better during this lockdown than say lip gloss for obvious reasons. It’s something you can do yourself, it’s relatively inexpensive. It’s a way to express yourself to try something new and different that you maybe wouldn’t … If you were going into your law office or business office or something like that, you can have a little bit of fun with it and it’s not permanent. So it’s not like dying your hair pink.
Mimi: Right. It’s fine.
Mary: It’s a really easy, comfortable way for people to have fun still with beauty and express themselves yet still be safe at home.
Jumping In Fully With Partner
Mimi: Now, did both of you stay working and then do this on the side or both of you kind of stopped your other jobs?
Mary: We both stayed working in the beginning while we were still doing the research and development side of things. And then I think that was kind of one of the big, “Take a deep breath moments.” And we were both, “Okay, I think we should just jump in with two feet now.” We’ve kind of got this little idea incubated and bolstered up with the research that we needed and the ideas that we needed. Yeah. Then we eventually both left what we were working on the side.
Mimi: And how has it been having a partner? Where you both okay. 50 50, we’re both co-presidents, co-founders or how did you divide that out? I think people really like to kind of have those who are starting businesses, friends, or people that they know, how do you do that?
Mary: Yes. 50 50, for sure. We both bring something completely different to the table. I will preface this entire question by saying she is the best part of the business for me. And I think that having a partner has been so instrumental in our success for each one of us. I wouldn’t venture to say she would say the same thing because it’s always somebody that you can bounce ideas off of. I think picking the right partner is critical, and it might not always be your best friend. But just having that person who’s there every step of the way, where all you need to do is look over the eye roll and she’s, “I know.”
She just gets it in a second, understands when you’re frustrated, understands when maybe you need a little boost or lift. She has been my saving grace a thousand times and vice versa. So Leah and I could not be more different as far as our personalities or our approach or what we feel the priority is in a situation. But I will also say this knock on wood, we’ve never really come to blows over anything. We kind of each just always know when to give, when to listen to the other person. In our nail salon business, she’s the creative. So she’s … Chooses the colors, finds the trends. She’s responsible obviously for the entire static of our brand-
Balancing fashion and function
Mimi: That your store is gorgeous.
Mary: Thanks to Leah. Thank you for saying that. And then I’m the business side. So I am more of the less sexy side of the business, I suppose some might argue. But the part that I really find fascinating is the formula from the chemical standpoint and the packaging and the marketing and all of that side. So that tends to be more my domain. And we balance each other really well. Yin and yang, I like to call her she’s the fashion to my function.
Mimi: That’s a cute way of saying that. Have you guys personally financed this the whole time or if you had to go to outside financing?
Mary: No, we’ve personally financed this the whole time, which is a little scary, but it certainly keeps you accountable. So it makes you work just that much harder because you’ve got your own skin in the game.
Mimi: That’s great. No, it is true. And what would you say has been the hardest part or the hardest lesson you’ve learned so far?
Mimi: We’re always learning every day.
Mary: Trusting yourself and then I think also trusting your partner. It’s all a big trust situation here that what you’re doing is going to be received as well as you think it’s going to be received. You never quite know. You can ask as many friends as you want to along the way, but until it really hits market and gets out there and we’ve had products and colors that we cannot keep on the shelf, [inaudible 00:13:16] surprised us. And then there are others we’re, “Oh, we’re going to knock this out of the park and just sits”
Mimi: How, you wish you could figure it out and you can’t.
Mary: That’s the beauty of trends, I guess. And in the beauty world, especially in this vertical [inaudible 00:13:29] a little can help [inaudible 00:13:31]
Mimi: So when you decided to formulate your own product, was it hard to find a manufacturer to create cleaner product?
Mary: I mean, it took us awhile.it took us the better part of a year. We talked to as many people as we knew, even remotely related to industry and the nail salon business. Even friends of ours that are in fashion or maybe have their own fashion label or something. We just ask questions because again, we really had no background in any of this. And so we’re learning along the way and there are manufacturers out there, but of course we were trying to do something a little bit different and not what’s already out there. So there was a good deal of looking into independent chemists and labs. And we went down a big rabbit hole with that because as soon as you start changing the formulas that are kind of readily available on the shelf-
Mimi: You’re starting from scratch.
Mary: You’ve got to test along the way and everything and make sure that it’s all compatible and the ingredients work together. And that you get the end result that you want because obviously people have an expectation when they put nail polish on that it’s going to act a certain way.
Growing the Nail Salon Business
Mimi: Once we get out of COVID and life goes back to normal, are you planning on rolling out more stores?
Mary: Probably not. So we have our store in Brentwood and we had a store in New York. We actually don’t have the nail salon business store in New York anymore, that was more of a pop-up that we did for marketing reasons. We found pretty quickly that when you’re dealing with publicity and marketing, it really bases out of New York, right? That’s where all the publishers are, that’s all the publishing houses are. LA has its fair share of that as well but New York was really the heartbeat of that, especially five years ago. And so we were, “We’ve got to get the word out there, and the best way to explain our brand and the importance of what we put into it is to have that physical space.” So that’s really the reasoning behind opening our New York location and it was adorable little Juul box right off of Union Square.
We were able to obviously service the customers there and the public there, but we would bring publishers in or influencers or host events there and such. So we were really able to kind of get the East Coast buzz going because we felt like we’d built this nice West Coast following, but we were lacking a little bit on the East Coast. So that got all those editors in there. It also got our brand name out, up and down the Eastern seaboard. So it served its purpose, we ended up closing that down after two years, which was a little bit longer than we had actually anticipated. And then COVID hits so I think thankfully timing worked okay on that one for us, yeah. But I think as we’ve seen, especially over the last 12 months, e-commerce is where it’s at.
Mimi: So what advice would you give to anybody who’s starting out to get their name out? I always tell people when they come to me for … With ideas and, “We have the best idea.” And I said, “Okay, well, once you make your website, you produce your product, it’s not as easy as you think to get your name out there and to get clients and eyeballs and people buying.” So do you have any advice for that?
Mary: I would say gifting is a big part of it and that surprised me a little bit. That wasn’t something that I really anticipated and I had a hard time swallowing it in the beginning from a product manufacturing standpoint. You look at these products like they’re your kids and you know what goes into each one of them, the value, what it should sell on the shelf. And then there’s a section of the business where they’re, “Okay, well you have to donate, give out 200 units this month, let’s mail them across the country to …” You pick influencers, editors, whatever it is, it’s valuable.
That’s a great way to get the word out. And it’s a great way to make people aware of your brand for the first time. It also stung a little bit to make some, “Oh my gosh! We’re just giving this away? Wait a second [crosstalk 00:17:24]. We could stop this.” And I now understand the process a little bit better and I think I appreciate what that does for spreading the word of a brand. So if you know that going in and it won’t be quite as a shock, but I would say get it into as many hands as you can, as quickly as you can. And people love free stuff. So if you can get your polish or product, whatever it is out there into people’s hands, especially for free, they’re going to talk about it.
The importance of digital marketing
Mimi: Now, are you using digital marketing?
Mary: Totally yeah. So we do a lot with Facebook and Google. Not as much, we’re getting into TikTok and Snapchat. My partner and I both have teenage daughters now, so honestly we’re, “How do you do this TikTok thing again?” So we’re getting their input and help and really trying to embrace this influencer landscape that’s really come about in the last few years.
Mimi: Now you had mentioned children so I want to segue into that because how do both of you run a business and also be moms? Any tips, how you keep it all together and any advice, or is there any kind of morning routine that you do to kind of jumpstart your day?
Juggling Family and Entrepreneurship
Mary: It’s not sexy. I wish I could tell you I got up and meditated for an hour and drink hot tea and all of a sudden it’s … I’m not that person. First, being a mom is probably the best training that I’ve had for being an entrepreneur, because it teaches you to kind of keep all the balls in the air. You’re juggling 20 things, four schedules, but you’re still getting stuff done and being productive and being happy. All those lessons translated really easily for me over into this world of starting your own business and running your own business. I will say owning your own business certainly allows for a lot of flexibility with your schedule, which I really value, especially at the ages that my kids are right now. At the same time, I don’t want to say this in a negative way, but you’re working all the time.
Mary: I’m constantly driving kids to practices and places and things like that. And I’ve gotten really good at doing that Siri talk text, or talking through emails. I take conference calls in the car. I mean, a lot of this is slowed down with COVID, but boy, I used to take calls all the time in my car, driving kids to practice. And they would know, I just put my hand up. And “Hold on, mom’s got to take a call.” And then we’d get that done. So I think it’s all about multitasking and it’s not being tied down, which I think really allows for that balance.
Mimi: No it’s true. In this day and age, because of the phone we’re able to do so much more. It’s not like on and off you can …
Mary: It’s amazing.exactly. And there’s the good and the bad, right? It’s always there, it’s always with you. So morning routine, I’ll get up and get on my phone and scroll through news type stuff. So I’m not completely out of touch with the world. And then I’ll jump right into emails and it’s usually pretty early and I’ll try and knock out as many of the emails that I can just sitting there without even opening my computer. So I can take a chunk off of that.
Mimi: And just feel better and just get that over with.
Mary: I get the low hanging fruit out of the inbox first and then make sure the kids are up. They’re pretty independent these days, but make sure they’re up and got something for breakfast and logged into their zoom things. And then I’ll jump on my computer and I’ll do … Most of my work is probably done earlier part of the day. And then I work out of my car from about three o’clock on. Leah and I like to jog through, some of our best ideas and our best emailing usually happens between midnight and 3:00 AM, because that’s when the house is quiet. Then that’s when the creativity starts flowing and stuff. So it’s not unusual for us to text each other at all hours of the day with the next great thing.
Mimi: I totally can relate. Okay. So last question. What would you give, if you could give any advice or advice that you knew going into this to an entrepreneur or someone thinking of either starting their own company or they’re just starting out?
Mary: Make sure you are passionate about your idea. I think that’s probably the number one piece of advice because it’s all consuming in a good way. There are ups and downs in starting a business, there are frustrating moments, things don’t turn out the way you think they should or would, and maybe it costs more. But if you’re passionate about it and you believe in what you’re doing, that’s the energy that you need to kind of pick yourself back up and continue on the path. Because even if people say “No, that can’t be done or it’s going to cost X, Y, Z.” That can’t be the roadblock. You need to be able to say, “Well, then we need to find a way around that and we’re going to still get to the end goal that we’re looking to get to even though you told me no.” So it’s that passion to see it through to the end, I think that is essential in starting a business.
Mimi: That’s great advice. Thank you so much, Mary for your time, I really appreciate it.
Mary: Of course
Mimi: Thank you for joining us on The Badass CEO. To get your copy of the top 10 tips every entrepreneurs should know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips. Also, please leave a review as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them. So email me at Mimi@thebadassceo.com. See you next week and thank you for listening.