Content creator and cosmetics entrepreneur Marlena Stell of Makeup Geek built an empire that earned the title of Inc Magazine’s 500 Fastest Growing Private Companies. Bootstrapping her company, it expanded exponentially and currently employs over 40 people and grosses over $21 million each year. Makeup Geek’s social media immense following consists of 1.4 million Youtube subscribers and 2 million Instagram followers. Marlena Stell talks to us abou her path to being a beauty tycoon.
Hi, Marlena tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Vacaville California, a small town in between Sacramento and San Francisco (yes, I’ve always been a California girl!). I had amazing, hard working parents who were supportive even since I was a child. Although I was raised as an only child, I did not get the spoiled only child syndrome- my parents made sure I worked hard to earn my keep. I actually earned my degree in Music Education and spent many years as a music teacher leading choir, band, and group piano for middle and high school students. My first workers were actually former students, and one student still today works for Makeup Geek (hi Mike!).
Marlena, you were creating YouTube tutorials in 2008, how much has technology changed since then?
Wow, the dynamic has changed tons! Back then there was no Snapchat or Instagram, and the only users on Facebook were the hipster crowd. When I started on Youtube the number of influencers was much smaller and we all filmed in our spare bedrooms with subpar equipment. My first camera was an old school handheld video camera and my lighting was a cheap 3 way lights from Target. My backdrop was these old school damask curtains! Good times back in the day. Now I feel like youtube videos are so highly produced with amazing camera and lighting quality- very different from 2008!
You decided to start your own cosmetics line in 2011. How did you accomplish that?
After doing makeup tutorials for a couple years, I knew that I wanted a business that was substantial and fulfilled my passion of creating makeup and helping women to feel beautiful and confident. I spent two solid years driving with my mom all over the US and even Canada begging labs to work with me to formulate my first product: eyeshadows. None of them took me seriously despite me telling them I saved up $20,000 from my youtube earnings to start my new business. After contacting one lab in Toronto with no returns to my emails or phone calls, my mom and I hopped in the car and drove 6 hours from Michigan to Toronto to pay them a visit. We were told that they could not help me, so we sat in the lobby and I said “that’s ok, I can wait until you can help me”. After those 3 hours and very rude responses from the staff, we left and I kept researching other labs. Finally by the end of 2010, I found a lab that would finally work with me and I started with my favorite product- highly pigmented eyeshadows for a fair price!
When you first started, did you ever imagine your company would grow into a multi-million dollar company?
Not at all! I never went into this business to become rich or famous. I honestly just had a passion for the art of makeup, and the idea of helping others to feel beautiful and confident. I grew up as the “fat girl with the pretty face” (yes, I was actually called that many times). I had low self esteem throughout my teens years, but always had a love for makeup. There was something special about wearing a beautiful eye look or fun lip color to bring attention to my best features and prove to others that I wasn’t just the fat girl, but the girl who felt beautiful on the inside and out despite what I was told. I wanted to transform others in the same way and help them feel amazing when they walk out the door.
Being an entrepreneur, you face unexpected challenges. How do you handle them?
I wish I could say I have all the perfect answers to each situation, but sometimes I have to just run with the decisions I feel best. It seems cliche, but I truly feel my gut tells me what is right for my company or not. Every time I ignored my gut and either listened to others or chose an easier option, things failed. But when I follow my gut and heart, things work out much better! When I do have challenges or if customers aren’t happy, I own up to my mistakes, learn from them, and move forward the best I can.
Name a some qualities that make a great leader.
Not being afraid to get in the trenches! A great leader cannot expect his/her staff to do work that he/she is unwilling to do. When Makeup Geek was still a baby, I would take photos of products, edit them, then package some orders, write articles, film and edit my youtube videos, etc. I must have worked 60-80 hours a week doing any aspect of the company that I could. My skills in some areas may be a bit rusty now, but I’m never afraid to get my hands dirty if I need to. I still pull orders pretty quickly! Other great qualities: compassion. Not only for your staff but your customers. Not being afraid to own up to your mistakes. We are all human and make mistakes, and without them, we will never grow and become better leaders or even people in general. Also, strong work ethic. Owning a business has been the most rewarding thing in my life but also the most draining. There have been many times I wanted to give up because I was so tired, but I put my big girl panties on and kept going! I love what I do, so that helps.
What advice would you give an aspiring beauty entrepreneur?
Don’t be afraid to be uniquely you. What makes your heart happy and what do you feel you are best at? For me, it was education. I love teaching so I used that as my niche for the cosmetic industry. Each person brings something new to the table, so you need to do serious soul searching to see what yours is.
What is next for Makeup Geek?
We are doing a complete rebrand next summer that will be incredible! New shadows, new website design, and of course adding in new products such as foundations, concealers, face powders, and so much more. And then there’s the 2nd business I’ve started that will launch next May. Top secret for now, so stay tuned!