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Bluemercury founder Beck shares brand-building advice

David Ticzon
David Ticzon/Provided
Barry Beck speaks in Ives Hall Sept. 25.

Barry Beck ’90, chief operating officer and founder of Bluemercury, a fast-growing luxury beauty products and retail spa chain, returned to Cornell Sept. 25 to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.

"We’re celebrating our sweet 16, we’ve opened our 72nd location and we’ve hired our 600th team member,” Beck said during “Getting to Startup: How to Start a Company, Build a Brand and Raise Private Equity,” a talk sponsored by the ILR School Alumni Association.

“We are gearing up for rapid growth and will have more than 120 locations by next year and more than 1,000 employees,” he said.

A self-described “serial entrepreneur,” Beck has been founding companies since high school. He and his wife, Marla, founded Bluemercury.

Taking a “safe” way was not Beck’s career plan. Rather than applying to law school, business school or a job, he partnered with his brother to grow a company started in Beck’s dorm room.

“During those years, I learned the language of business, and we ultimately built a large facilities management company,” Beck said. Despite success, “it was boring, boring, boring,” he said.

In the process of selling the company, he met his wife, who was working at a private equity fund. She, too, was ready for a new challenge.

An independent beauty boutique near their home in Washington, D.C., inspired them to consider starting the business that became Bluemercury.

“I would say it was like a light bulb went off in my head, but it was more like fireworks,” Beck said.

Beck knew from his mother and sister that the cosmetic customer experience needed improvement.

“They found the department store staff to be a little snobby, looking you up and down, checking out your shoes and handbag before they would decide to help you,” Beck said.

In 1999, Beck raised millions of dollars in two weeks with the Bluemercury concept.

“We had 40 employees before we even had our first sale,” Beck said. “Sixty days after incorporating the company, we realized there were three other competitors, each with at least 10 million dollars in funding.”

The company was not making money yet and had a high cash burn rate, he said.

“Soon, we were down to our last $150,000 in the bank, the company was in trouble and we needed a plan, fast. I decided we were going to buy that beauty boutique in Georgetown.”

The business began to take off by expanding regionally and forming an exceptional reputation.

“Although we were a small company with only 10 stores, our reputation had grown as something of ‘the new Starbucks of cosmetics,’ and Bluemercury was in the news on a regular basis,” Beck said.

Goldman Sachs was hired to help sell the company, and in March it was sold to Macy’s for $210 million.

Beck offered eight startup tips: get in the game; solve a problem; DROOM (Don’t Run Out of Money); the first year is the hardest; investment “angels” are your friends; do something you love; nothing’s good forever; and you can have it all.

In his final words of advice about making the decision to start a company, Beck quoted “Star Wars” character Yoda: “No try, only do or not do.”

David Ticzon ’18 is an intern in the ILR School Communications and Marketing Department.

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