Aroma Therapy - Jo Malone MBE
It was, says Jo Malone, never the plan to return. Having successfully fought a battle against breast cancer, she'd finally left behind the business she had built up from the tender age of 19, having initially stayed on after selling it to Estée Lauder Companies a few years previously. "I remember standing in Madison Avenue opening a shop and I just felt that I didn't belong there any more," she recalls. "It wasn't anything anyone had done; it was me. Cancer had changed me and I remember thinking that night that it was time to leave."
Yet with a five-year non-compete clause included in the sale contract, Malone found herself unable to indulge her passion for creating fragrances and selling them in a competitive environment. "I don't think I expected the emotional reaction that I had," she admits. "I made the right decision for the business but I made absolutely the wrong decision for me creatively, because I would get up every day and think about fragrance. I'd fought so hard for my life and the one thing that made me happy and smile more than anything in the world is creating cosmetics, fragrances and textures. Every day I'd get up and I couldn't do anything with it and it was just hideous. I had more regrets in those five years than I had ever had in my life.
"I tried to push it out of my mind and think I'd achieved more than most people would in their lifetime, but I can't do so many things in my life," she adds. "I can't drive a car, I can't swim and I'm not the most intelligent person in the world, but what I can do probably better than anyone in the world is to create fragrances. The thought of not being able to do that for the rest of my life was agony and torment. I became very miserable and disillusioned in myself."
She tried other avenues to get the entrepreneurial buzz on which she had previously thrived, including charitable work and presenting the BBC show High Street Dreams, in which would try to help other entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. But if this was supposed to fill the gap, it failed miserably. "I was standing in this garden shed filling jars with chilli sauce and I suddenly felt it was time to go back," she recalls. "I felt I still had an unwritten chapter in me, and we were coming to the end of that five-year non-compete agreement. But I knew the world would be watching me and I hadn't even launched a bottle. Could they tell it was me? If they couldn't, did I really have a place back in that world? Could I do it as a hobby, and just create three fragrances a year? But it's the creating and retailing that fulfils me."
The result was Jo Loves - the Jo Malone brand remains with Estée Lauder - which initially launched as a mail order and online business in November 2011. "I don't think I had a strategy," she admits. "I created six fragrances and went out just as I had done all those years ago and from day one there was a really strong pick-up."
The online operation was complemented by pop-up shops in Selfridges and on South Audley Street; although Malone feels this was a step too far at that point in time. "It hadn't evolved," she says. "Any business continues to evolve but in those early stages most are under the radar screen so no one is really looking at the packaging tweaks or design of the store. It was just too soon; we hadn't gathered our momentum as we have now."
In October 2013, the business opened its first bricks-and-mortar store, in London's Elizabeth Street; finally taking Malone back to her retail roots. "I always wanted a shop but I could never find the right place," she says. "It's the same site where I had a job when I was 16, so I'm really going back to where I started. But having a shop means people can really experience it; it's like they have walked into my home and that's what I wanted; this real sense that you can touch the creator of this whole brand."
Malone's entrepreneurial roots can be traced back to her childhood. Her mother was ill, while her father was a gambler, and it was a constant battle to make ends meet. Malone herself wrestled with severe dyslexia, and left school at a very young age "way before I was supposed to, with no qualifications".
"One of the common threads of being an entrepreneur is hunger and survival, and they will find a way of accomplishing what they want," she says. "Having dyslexia probably caused me to not be frightened to walk a different path to everyone else. I sold paintings on the market with my father from the age of seven or eight and that's probably where my love of retail came from."
The entrepreneurial instinct, though, was also there. She recalls her father coming home one night on her 14th birthday, and giving her £100 after a successful evening playing poker. "I remember thinking how could I make that into £200," she says. "I bought a whole load of plain white T-shirts from a trading estate and did all the designs on them and sold them, and I did turn that £100 into £200. I bought them for £1.25 each and sold them for £2 or £3."
Alongside this, lay a love for cosmetics and an incredibly powerful sense of smell; something she puts down to her senses over-compensating for her dyslexia. "I can smell something and recall the exact picture of where I first smelt it," she explains. "So if I smelt pickled lime skin somewhere and we'd had it at dinner 10 years ago I can remember what I was wearing, the wine in the glass; it's a trigger for me. It causes me to look at life in a very different perspective and it's really the way I create fragrance."
Having left school, Malone landed a few jobs in her teens, initially working for a florist and later a delicatessen, but when her mother's health again took a turn for the worse she decided to indulge her passion for cosmetics into a business. "I didn't set out to become an entrepreneur; I set out to survive and put food on the table," she says. "Although I couldn't tell my left from my right and I couldn't tell the time, I could very naturally put together a cosmetic. I started a skin care business and from that I would create skin care products, bath oils and fragrances, and I would give everybody a little bottle of bath oil and that was really how the business was born."
From an early stage it was obvious the business would take off; something that was confirmed when a mystery man entered her new store at 154 Walton Street on its first day of trading and offered her £1 million for the company. There was, she says, a fleeting moment when she was tempted to accept but, having put so much in to get to the point of opening the store, she was not about to give it all up just when it was about to flourish. "At that point we were still sleeping on a piece of foam mattress on the floor which we folded up every night so we had poured everything into this business," she says. "Now I look back on it I think it was someone trying to take us out as a competitor at a very early stage. I never saw the man again, and people don't buy and sell companies like that."
Before long the Jo Malone brand had spread around the globe, with shops in the US, Europe and Canada, as well as two within department stores in the UK. But there were concerns that it was becoming an uncontrollable beast. "We were a small entrepreneurial business which grew very fast very quickly and you need pretty big cash flow behind you," says Malone. "You need to build shops, create products, employ people and protect yourself legally. Often businesses can be destroyed because they can't keep up with their own growth and they lose traction. We were going to drop the ball somewhere because it was growing so fast."
Estée Lauder made a number of approaches over a two-year period, recalls Malone, and there came a point where it felt like the right time to sell. It was something she did with the firm intention of remaining an integral part of the business for the long term, and she stayed in complete creative control until the day she left. "I was selling the business to go into a marriage and partnership for the rest of our lives," she explains. "I never intended to walk away. I loved being part of this world we'd created, so when we sold it was one of the happiest times of my life. Then, bang, I was diagnosed with cancer and my life stopped. I remember that night thinking I had everything in one hand and nothing in the other. It puts life in perspective."
The diagnosis - and her year-long battle against the illness - changed everything once she eventually returned to work. "I don't think I was quite the entrepreneur I had been," she concedes. "In hindsight, I was still very young and had a lot to learn, and I was plucked from a tiny shop on Walton St and became part of the most powerful company in the world. But I don't regret it, and if I hadn't had cancer I would have probably stayed on."
Starting all over again with Jo Loves has been a similar journey to her initial path all those years ago, although this time at least she does have the benefit of experience. "People often see the point at which you open your door as when you started your business; they don't see all the foundation and groundwork; the years of blood, sweat and tears to actually create something," she says.
"With Jo Loves, we didn't just create a product and open a door; we created a whole world that this product lived in and created its voice. Twenty-five years ago I don't think I realised what I was doing; all I knew was that people would flock to buy whatever I created in those little plastic jugs. In hindsight, that just doesn't happen in people's businesses, and it's happening to me twice which is a very privileged position."
This difference is this time around is that she has been there before. "Business to me is like a big chess game," she says. "You have to think in every direction. I'm always three or four steps ahead of myself. In those beginning years I didn't have that experience; I was full of vulnerability and innocence. I would jump in, whereas now I know the landscape. I know when I jump how far I'm going to fall and what I'm going to break. I know I'm an entrepreneur now."
It has been a steep learning curve, though, and the world of retail has moved on too since she was last involved. One important lesson was the power of internet search engines; the words "Jo Loves" initially brought up an online sex shop selling dildos rather than the luxury fragrances, cosmetics and candles Malone was offering. "We all make mistakes and it was part of the learning process," she says. "We didn't check it thoroughly enough. I felt utterly humiliated but then, like everything in my life, I found the humour in it and realised that I could either work hard and get up that Google list or cry into my soup, and I choose to fight. Mistakes teach you so much, and if you want to build a global brand you've got to start taking risks. But that will never happen again for me."
Share the love
Having the hunger to succeed is a prerequisite for any entrepreneur, says Malone, but it's also important to pass this on to potential customers. "You have to create a hunger for the market," she says. "Don't presume that because you think it's a great product everyone else will. You've already evolved and lived with that product for a long time, and everyone else is playing catch-up. You have to create this world that the product lives in." Part of this extends to broader values; how to treat people and embracing creativity from others involved in the business. "Don't just take their ideas, mould it into one and present it as your own; allow people their moment as well as you having yours," she says.
Malone firmly believes that people are both the greatest asset and biggest liability for a business owner. "Always employ people who are better than you," she suggests. "I'm not intimidated by somebody who can do something better than me, although creatively I'm very possessive. But I have an amazing team in place, who know the answers to most things far better than me.
"But leadership has to come from the top and it's the genetic make-up that your company will mimic," she says. "If they see you doing something, they will do it too." This also extends to building relationships with other stakeholders, she adds, including customers, suppliers and the bank manager. "I work hard at relationships with people, and I would say those relationships pay off 99% of the time," she suggests.
As someone who is now all too familiar with life's uncertainties, Malone is reluctant to look too far into the future. "I want to get through my first Christmas and I want a global brand," she says. "My head is already in 2014 and 2015, and if we can get the foundations in place then we could be looking at something very successful again."
But you get the feeling that more important than all that is that Malone is, finally, back where she belongs; in a retail store, creating fragrances and cosmetics, doing what she loves best. "I sat down the other day with a cup of tea on the same step I used to as a little girl," she says. "I feel I've come home. My life is complete again."
Post Date: December 10th, 2013