JULEP: NAILING IT

Jane Park has built the successful beauty brand Julep by inviting customers to do her nails.

I’M SITTING IN THE WAITING AREA of a nail parlor in downtown Seattle. It’s the first Friday in August, yet it’s still cool and rainy outside, and nearly everyone who passes by the window has some kind of coffee beverage in their hand, as if we’re all in an advertisement for Starbucks. But I didn’t come all the way to Seattle for the coffee. I’m here to get my very first manicure and pedicure.

Why Seattle, when this is something I could easily do back in Los Angeles? Seattle is the home of Julep, a startup beauty brand founded by former Starbucks executive Jane Park, who has developed her brand into one of the fastest growing companies in the country’s $60 billion-a-year beauty products industry.

But as I sit here in the waiting area of Julep’s downtown parlor (one of four in the Seattle area), my own personal understanding of women’s beauty products ranks only slightly higher than that of a caveman. In fact, I’ve always thought the phrase mani-pedi sounds like the name of a professional baseball player. But since Oprah Winfrey is now a fan of the company—she included Julep’s 2012 Nail Color Jewelry Box in her annual list of Favorite Things—I figure this might be a pretty safe place to expose my unsightly feet to some unfortunate individual who will have the herculean task of improving their appearance. If nothing else, I might, at the very least, appear a little more knowledgeable on the subject when I sit down to talk to Park at her company’s headquarters in Lower Queen Anne later that afternoon.

Today, most of Julep’s sales are generated through their rapidly growing e-commerce business, so their four parlors now primarily serve as cultural hubs for interacting with customers and gathering feedback that is then incorporated into new product development, an essential component to a brand that has already released 101 new products in 2013. That’s right, a company that started out as a single nail parlor in 2007, and didn’t even launch their e-commerce business until 2011, has, according to Julep, designed, manufactured, and marketed more original products in the last 18 months than any other company in the industry, including Chanel, Estee Lauder, and Shiseido. And Julep’s products are all made right here in the United States, they’re toxin-free, and the company doesn’t test on animals. They try their new products out on loyal, willing customers who understand what they are doing. And since Julep’s growth seems to be attributed to the loyalty of those customers, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves (and pant legs), in hopes of discovering why CEO Jane Park, a mother of two with a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and a law degree from Yale, would leave the stability of Starbucks in her mid-thirties to become an entrepreneur who would bet it all on fragility of beauty.

Chau, a Vietnamese woman in her twenties, leads me past a cozy gas fireplace on the way to my chair, where I am greeted by Maiker, a young, Laotian coworker who will be in charge of my hands. I immediately apologize to Chau for the neglected state of my feet, yet she remains confident. The music on the stereo is soothing and hip, and goes well with the interior design, which is all tastefully lit by soft, naked bulbs that Jane Park rewired herself to accentuate the elegant simplicity of their appearance. None of the chairs are fixed, so customers are free to move them around and congregate with friends. There’s an old, wooden phone booth in the corner that has been converted into a parlor confessional where customers can submit reviews. And there are no rules that force patrons to talk at a whisper. At Julep, it’s all about making people feel like they are heard.

When Park tells me her story on the phone before I fly up to Seattle, she says that Julep is about communication and connection, not competition. She doesn’t believe in traditional ideals of beauty that hold women to impossible standards, standards that are often presented to consumers in ways that are designed to make people feel bad about themselves for not using a company’s products.

“From the beginning, we were never about that…” says Park. “We wanted our products to be a way for women to express themselves and maybe push a little bit beyond their comfort zone.” Park is also quick to address those who might still argue that beauty itself is superficial . “Even though it’s a bottle of nail polish, I think our aspirations for it are much bigger. We love the idea of a girlfriend trying a sparkly blue as a color, when she might never have worn that before… And how that might inspire her to get a little bit more courageous about some other place in her life where she has some discomfort.”

Ten minutes into my first mani-pedi, my discomfort stems from a random toe cramp that quickly escalates into a crippling bout of stuck-toe. Chau is in the middle of telling me about how much she likes working at Julep, having previously worked at a salon that used products that contain toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, phthalates, and toluene. Since coming to the environmentally-friendly Julep, what she originally thought were allergies have all cleared up and her eyes no longer feel irritated. I keep waiting for her to be mortified by my left index toe rising up like some prehistoric monster, before locking into place at an impossible angle high above the other four toes. But when she sees it—and how could she not? It literally looks like it’s about to break free from my foot altogether—she simply pushes the toe back down and massages it until it surrenders and rejoins its teammates. At which point, I finally begin to relax and succumb to the business of clipping, scraping, and buffing, now at ease well outside my own comfort zone.

JANE PARK IS STANDING IN LINE to take the SATs in downtown Toronto. It’s January, 1989, and what happens in the next five minutes will alter the trajectory of her life forever. Her parents, both Korean immigrants, want her to attend the University of Toronto, but her cousin has complicated matters by sending her an application to Princeton. Park, the oldest of three daughters, loves Toronto, where she has lived since moving there from Seoul with her parents when she was four, but she doesn’t want to go to college locally. And since her parents are adamantly opposed to their teenage daughter going to a school that is far away, far away is exactly where she wants to go. So she borrows a typewriter and fills out the application two weeks before the deadline, only to discover that she needs to take the SATs, which isn’t a requirement for students in Canada if they’re applying to universities within their country. Fortunately, she finds one last place where she can take the test prior to the deadline, and ventures off by herself to face the unknown.

“I didn’t realize you had to pay to take the test,” she confesses, looking back on that evening. “So I have no money. I have no checkbook. I have nothing. So I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t take the test.’ And the person in front of me said, ‘Did you really not know?’ And I was sort of like, ‘Yeah, here’s my situation.’”

Park doesn’t tell the woman—the mother of another student—about her upbringing; about how hard her parents had labored to provide a better life for her and her sisters. How they did odd jobs and cleaned bathrooms to save up enough money to open a 7-11, where they worked from sun up to sun down, seven days a week, while raising their children in an apartment above the store, all in an effort to send those children to college someday.

There simply isn’t time to convey this to the stranger. Nor is there time to explain how much she appreciates her parents’ efforts, and how fortunate she feels in comparison to her own father’s childhood. How he, at the age of 10, was on the South side of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone when it went up in 1953, while his parents were on the North side. A cruel twist of fate that would prevent him from ever seeing them again, and essentially force him to raise himself, in a mud hut with no running water or electricity, next to a field where he dug up sweet potatoes just to survive.

But in the end, Jane Park doesn’t have to explain any of this, for the stranger sees something in her and agrees to pay for the test after Park promises to send the woman a check just as soon as she gets home.

Park sends the check. Gets into Princeton. Goes away to school.

In the years that unfold after this brief encounter, Park will remember that she got a perfect score in math, but she won’t be able to recall how she did on the English portion of the exam. Her memory of the kind and trusting stranger, however, will remain indelible. “There are so many times that I think… Is there any way to track that person down? Because if it weren’t for that person… The whole course of my life would have changed.”

At Princeton, Park spends much of her time working for an organization called the Rainforest Conservancy, raising money and fertilizing her appreciation of the environment. Then it’s off to Yale for a law degree before settling into a firm in Washington, D.C., where she quickly realizes that she hates working at a law firm. She had proposed to her husband, a North Carolina native, a year earlier, but even love isn’t enough to silence the regret of a bad career decision.

“One day, I said to myself, I’d rather be hit by a car so I could be in a hospital instead of work. And my husband said, ‘That’s really stupid. You have two degrees from fancy places. You don’t have to be hit by a car.’ So I went to work for the Al Gore Initiative to put technology into public schools.”

Cut to the Washington, D.C,. office of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a global strategy consulting firm where Park takes a job after a certain Monica Lewinsky dress derails the Al Gore Initiative and puts a dent in her own idealism. Most people like to talk about her years at Starbucks, but Park says this is the company where she really started to grow and find her voice as a professional with the help of future mentors like Steve Gunby, who would go on to become the head of BCG for all of North America, and a coworker named John Stephens, who would go on to become John Legend, the Grammy Award-winning recording star.

As Park explains, “When somebody can see your limitations, but still really believe in you, then it’s sort of a breath of fresh air… Now I don’t have to worry about being fired, I can just do a good job and be me.”

Then comes the birth of her first child in 2002.

For months, she flies back and forth to Cleveland every week where she is working on a BCG account, racing home to D.C. whenever possible just to spend a night and a morning with her husband and young son. And while she still loves her job at BCG, the travel is starting to wear on her. That’s when her husband finds a job listing at Starbucks and tells her she should apply.

She says, “Nobody finds these jobs online, this is not real.”

He says, “You’re on a plane to Cleveland. Just write the application.”

Her husband has only been to Seattle once, but the city meets their criteria. It’s the home of big retailers like Nordstrom and Costco, as well as tech giants Microsoft and Amazon. It has a good startup scene, and it fits Park’s requirement that they have to live within 20 minutes of an authentic Korean restaurant.

She gets the job at Starbucks, moves to Seattle, and eventually becomes the Director of New Ventures, a position that will provide her first real taste of entrepreneurialism, one that will soon percolate into a risk she simply has to take.

Park gives birth to her second child in 2005, and with the arrival of her daughter comes an unusual feeling. She says that she thought the happiness in her personal life would ease the entrepreneurial itch, but as the months pass, the itch just gets worse. Because even though she has a great job, the time away from her family makes her realize that she doesn’t want to spend those hours playing it safe. She wants them to mean something, otherwise that time away is just too painful.

“I had such joy and happiness in my home life,” explains Park, “the bar for my work life went up. It was no longer okay for it to be great, it had to be inspiring, and something that was all-encompassing, that was as joyful as my home life.”

For the next nine months, after she and her husband (now a lawyer at Microsoft) put their kids to bed, Park begins to work on a business plan.

JANE PARK WALKS TOWARD ME in the lobby of her company’s headquarters, dressed in a stylish black jacket accentuated by a chartreuse yellow blouse.

Her nails are done. My nails are done.

She’s wearing a combination of three different polishes all named after women her company admires, which they do with all of their nail colors. Some of Park’s nails are painted teal with a gold shimmer called Lena, named after the daughter of a creative executive. Others are done in Bea, a lemonade crème in honor of Bea Arthur, and those are topped with Vivien, a gold glitter reminiscent of champagne bubbles, named after Vivien Leigh, the actress from Gone with the Wind.

My nails, on the other hand—both literally and figuratively—are free of polishes and top coats, for I have chosen to go with the sheen of a good buffing. Still, these nails of mine have never looked better. I briefly consider showing her the improvements to my feet, then decide against it for fear that it might appear like I have developed some kind of fetish during my maiden voyage.

Park greets me warmly and gives me a tour of the offices, as I provide a brief rundown of my man-mani-pedi, which she’s eager to hear about. She genuinely wants to know my opinion of the various products that were used and my impressions of the service that I received. Only then do I really begin to understand her company’s motto, how beauty is about connection, not competition. I have no intention of getting another mani-pedi in the foreseeable future, despite my new appreciation of the experience. It’s just not my thing. But as Park listens to my caveman review, I cannot deny that it feels good to be heard. To feel like my consumer input matters.

No wonder Julep has done so well using social media and word of mouth to market their products, as opposed to using traditional print campaigns. Something Park views as an advantage over some of her more established competitors who continue to pour money into the long lead time and approval process of print.

“By the time it [the ad] filters through to the consumer,” says Park, “it’s lost its warmth and its genuine conversation connection points. I always say, ‘Look, social media is not mysterious. It’s a conversation. If you know how to have a conversation, you know how to do social media. If you want to have a conversation with lots of rules… Then you’re having a different conversation that’s probably not going to be as much fun in person.’”

In Julep’s Research & Development wing, Park shows me a work station that looks like the lab of an extremely fashionable mad scientist who, if this were a kid’s book and not an office, would ride a unicorn to work. Dozens of jars are filled with various colors, glosses, and glitters, stacked on shelves all the way to the ceiling. Plastic organizer bins are packed with sample vials competing to become the latest Julep creation, a list that already includes the 150 different colors of nail polish they currently sell. Julep also produces and sells makeup, skincare products, body crèmes, and haircare products ranging from a dry shampoo to a sea salt “texture spray” that makes one look like they have been at the beach all day. But nail polish is Julep’s signature product and this is where the magic begins.

On our way to one of the conference rooms to resume our conversation that started on the phone, Park informs me that she’s starving and wastes no time locating a delivery menu from one of her favorite places in the area. She politely asks if I have any food issues before ordering some things she wants me to try. And when Jane Park wants someone to try something new, it’s not easy to say no. Just look at her track record in persuading venture capitalists to invest in Julep.

To date, Park has already raised over $25 million from high-profile VC firms like Andreessen Horowitz in Silicon Valley, and Maveron, the Seattle-based firm co-founded by Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks. Six of the seven partners she worked with at BCG, including mentor Steve Gunby, became early investors, as did Seattle’s own Alliance of Angels.

Park and her associates won’t provide specifics on the annual revenue of their privately held company, now home to 188 employees, but they do say that revenue growth increased 400% in the first half of 2013 from those same months in 2012. In their filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2011, the company stated that their business was between $1 million and $5 million. In Julep’s 2012 filing with the SEC, they declined to disclose their annual revenue.

The company also won’t divulge the size of its Maven subscription program, which allows customers to sign up for the delivery of a monthly beauty box ($19.99) filled with products specific to the style profile of each customer. There are currently five different styles on the company’s website, ranging from Classic With a Twist (“You’re a timeless beauty with a classic aesthetic”) to Boho Glam (“You’re a dynamic free spirit with a creative eye”). Customers can sign up by simply taking a short, multiple-choice quiz to determine the style that best defines them. Then, on the 20th of each month, Julep emails that person with a preview of their style’s upcoming beauty box. If people like what they see, they don’t have to do anything and the box will ship on the 27th. If they want to experiment with a different style, or decline a box altogether, all they have to do is submit a request by the 24th. There is no cost to sign up and customers can discontinue the subscription whenever they want.

Even though Julep won’t reveal their latest number of Mavens—the program itself actually started back in the nail parlors and helped Julep first launch their e-commerce business—their current revenue growth seems to suggest that it continues to be very successful. According to a Seattle Times business article from June, 2012, Park stated that they had more than 150,000 subscribers at the time. Run that through a calculator, and it’s easy to see why her investors believe in her.

But what strikes me most unique about the company’s CEO is her humility. For all of Park’s warmth, confidence and wit, I am most compelled by the ease in which she unveils her blemishes, as well as her successes, when recalling her own career path to offer some advice to aspiring entrepreneurs. She makes no attempt to censor herself, or mask her own professional bumps with the type of verbal make-up that subjects often use in interviews.

“It takes a village. It takes a lot of help,” she admits without restraint. “There has been no other job than Julep, where I know so little about everything I’m doing. I mean, I’ve never opened a parlor before. I’ve never designed a tool before. I’ve never gotten a patent… I’ve never presented to venture capital firms before.” And that, Park says, is why she always encourages entrepreneurs to talk about what they are working on so they can ask for help. “I think that’s a huge part of starting a company. Whether you’re convincing employees to join you when you have nothing, or whether you’re convincing people to give you millions of dollars to make your ideas into more, there has to be a part of the whole thing that’s just about human connection, and people looking to help.”

Later, when asked if she has any advice specific to female entrepreneurs, Park has this to say, “One thing I’ve observed is that many women share an unhealthy pursuit of perfection.  As an entrepreneur, every day I make more mistakes than I made in an entire year when I worked at a large company.  I used to beat myself up over all of these—spending the end of my day replaying over and over again what I’d wished I’d done differently… What I’ve learned over time is that the most important thing to me about starting and leading Julep is that I’m constantly learning. Failing is inherently part of the equation when you are learning and operating outside of your comfort zone 24/7.”

Park feels that collaboration requires this same level of accessibility, a belief that she incorporates into the raising of her two children with her husband. “My idea of collaboration is when you let somebody in to the point where you enable them to change the trajectory of the outcome. If you let someone in, and you’re just like, well, we’re going to change diapers together, but I want to do it my way, that’s not really collaboration… So that’s what I challenge everyone at Julep to be, with each other, and with our consumers. How deeply can we enable people to collaborate with us? How open can we be?”

For an immediate answer to this question look no further than Park’s own hiring process. She says that most people think that they know how to collaborate, and can usually offer a few examples of collaboration in a job interview, so, instead, she prefers to give candidates real problems that she is struggling with just to see how they would work through it. “I genuinely believe it drives better results when more smart people are having input into an answer… So I like for people to know the biggest, deepest, darkest secrets on day one, so they walk in and there’s complete consistency and transparency.”

Park’s philosophies might also explain why she feels so at home in Seattle’s diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem. She thinks it’s a great place for startups, partly due to the large number of investors in the area. Based on data from 2012, The Atlantic currently ranks Seattle as the seventh best city in the country for venture capital investments, which reached $886 million dollars raised over 112 different deals last year. “We’re close enough to Sand Hill Road [in Silicon Valley] to get the support and investment we need,” says Park, “but far enough away that we don’t have to participate in the madness. In Seattle, we focus on building powerful, enduring businesses that delight consumers. Then we go out for fabulous locally grown cuisine and talk about something else altogether.”

But Park says that venture capital isn’t the only strength in Seattle’s ecosystem. She credits the University of Washington for the strong pool of engineering talent that is fueling fast-growing tech companies like Zillow, Zulily and Tableau. She points to the city’s large Scandinavian community for making clean design a core principal, and she attributes the quality of the hiring population to the overall success of the business sector. “Whether they’re customer service trained at Nordstrom, or analytics at Amazon, or project management trained at Microsoft, or brand trained at Starbucks, and opps trained at Costco—there’s just so much great talent… It’s actually a pretty great, dynamic community, especially for one of its size.”

Another element worth noting about Seattle’s ecosystem is the rise in female entrepreneurship. The personal finance website, NerdWallet, recently named Seattle the second best city in the country for female entrepreneurs right behind San Francisco. The cities were rated on employment rates, median incomes, the number of businesses per 100 residents (12.5 in Seattle), the number of those business that are owned by women (about a third in Seattle), and the percentage of residents over the age of 25 who have a bachelor’s degree (in Seattle, 55.8% according to the last U.S. Census). NerdWallet ranked Seattle as one of most highly educated cities in the nation, an important distinction considering the correlation between education levels and entrepreneurship, which they underscored by referencing a separate study by the Kauffman Foundation (INSERT LINK?). In the tech field alone, the Kauffman study found that 92% of U.S.-born tech founders have a bachelor’s degree.

All very interesting numbers, but for an entrepreneur, male or female, still debating whether or not to take that giant leap into the unknown—that someone somewhere, sitting at a desk dreaming about their idea—what’s in between the facts and figures? What about the intangibles that define cities and make them feel different from other places? Those ingredients that, from a local’s perspective, might give an entrepreneur in Seattle’s ecosystem an edge over the competition elsewhere?

“Seattle is a great place for women to start a business,” says Park, “because we’re accessibly quirky, which creates room and space for many different types of voices and approaches. Not off the charts Portlandia quirky, but a more livable, real-life quirky that makes unexpected connection possible every day. I have to confess that one of my favorite places in the entire world is the Pro Sports Club near Microsoft’s campus, where you might jump in the pool beside a 50-year-old Italian man in an over-tight Speedo, free-styling next to a woman outfitted in a full swimming burka.  You can’t make this stuff up—it really happens here in Seattle and it’s this kind of everyday diversity of experience that gives entrepreneurs the freedom to imagine new frontiers.”

ON MY WAY BACK TO LOS ANGELES, I find myself thinking about the future of the cosmetics industry, and how Jane Park believes that the next major beauty brand is going to be built online, not over the counter. And not just because consumers can now see virtually every product without ever leaving their home. The real allure, says Park, is much more personal, one that is driven by the connectivity that allows people to see themselves in the reviews of others just like them. People with similar lives, challenges, and schedules, who look and feel the way they do.

This leaves me feeling conflicted, like my Julep experience is incomplete to some degree. Sure, I can say that I’m no longer a mani-pedi virgin, and that I removed the top of some Julep nail polish and was relieved to discover that it didn’t smell like the breath of someone who huffs gasoline (like some of my wife’s other nail polishes). But other than that, my view of most of their products is narrowed by the fact that I have nothing to compare them to. Julep’s online reviews mostly range from favorable to very favorable (with a few exceptions), but I want to see how they stack up against people I know. So I decide to enlist the help of my wife and a couple of friends.

I ask all three women to take Julep’s style quiz, which reveals that one is Classic With a Twist and two are Boho Glam. Then I give them each a different color of Julep nail polish—independently, of course, so they won’t influence each other—and ask them to be brutally honest.

The results trickle in separately, but in the end the verdict is the same. All three women say the polish goes on easily and doesn’t streak. They agree that it doesn’t smell bad, and it dries fast, hard, and true to the color. Yet, what impresses them the most is how well it stands up to the daily test of time. How it lasts much longer than their other brands before the edges begin to chip. Although two of the women say it’s more expensive per ounce compared to some of their other polishes, all three agree that the beauty at their fingertips is well worth it.

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