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Essie Weingarten: Be a Bumper Car

The founder of Essie Cosmetics says problem solving is simple: When you hit a wall, bounce off in another direction. Then hit the gas.

Essie Weingarten, founder of Essie Cosmetics.

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As Essie Weingarten tells it, she was a feisty, naughty child. She says she only made the effort to calm down and put on an angel face before her mother would go to the salon on Saturdays.

“I loved to get my nails done as a little girl,” she told the Inc. Women's Summit Wednesday. “I was a little devil all the other days of the week, but I had to be good on Saturday if I wanted to go along.”

It was this memory she channeled in 1981 when she decided to start a business. Weingarten been working at Henri Bendel during days and taking courses at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City when she realized two brands dominated the nail polish market--Revlon and L'Oreal--and their color palettes seemed to her to have gathered dust over the decades.

While identifying and creating fresh colors was intuitive for the  style-aware and fashion-educated Weingarten, she was no scientist.

“I thought if I could find a chemist that would create a formula totally different from everything else on the market I'd have a business. I thought it would be easy,” she says. “But back then, there were no computers, no laptops, no iPads. There were just Yellow Pages and rainbows.”

So Weingarten, who says one of her business mantras is don't ask ask anyone to do something you wouldn't do yourself, started testing polishes. She found a formula and created a slate of 12 shades. (She eventually did partner with a chemist.)

Then she packed up 60 pounds of polish and flew to Las Vegas. Luckily for her, what happened in Vegas did not stay there. As she tells it:

In Vegas, I had women with disposable income. I had my dancers, my showgirls... I had women who were traveling, and traveling with their husbands. When those women went back to Texas and Florida,  I started getting phone calls, asking, “I tried this thing; where do I get it?”

By the late 1980s, Essie had fairly wide distribution in the United States, and the real personality of the brand Weingarten began--Essie Cosmetics--began to take shape. And it looked consistently counterintuitive. One of Essie's bold moves might seem super slight to those who are not nail polish wearers. But if the name Wicked means anything to you, let it be known that the iconic Essie shade of deep mahogany polish is more than two decades old, and was created in a backlash.

“When Wicked was born, we had done a lot of pastels. I had to do something totally different,” Weingarten says. “Wicked was the darkest color imaginable. Everyone looked at the color and said, “Oh my God, I'll never wear it. You can't sell that.”

Wicked became the No. 1 selling color for the rest of the century.

How'd she trust her gut on that decision to distribute and market a color no one said they'd buy? Simply accepting that she could bounce back from any singular decision.

“I'm a bumper car. You hit the wall, you just turn around and take a different road,” she says. “You just have to press the gas when you believe in something and go.”

Last updated: Sep 18, 2013

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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