You may have heard of a popular yet under-the-radar beauty brand called NYX Cosmetics. High tech ingredients, the trendiest colors, affordable prices (think less than $5 for a liquid eyeliner) — what’s not to love? Well, let’s just say a mega giant beauty company called L’Oréal also fell head over heels for the line, purchasing NYX last summer for an undisclosed amount. (Women’s Wear Daily reported that it could have been up to $500 million.)
And the beneficiary of that major payday? NYX’s founder, Toni Ko.
For our interview, Ko invites me to her penthouse condo in downtown Los Angeles. Spacious with lots of natural light, her home has arguably the best views in the city. Ko has eclectic taste when it comes to home décor, the space filled with traditional Asian furnishings with a modern twist. Of course, there’s the requisite walk-in closet dedicated to just shoes, but what takes this place to another level is the in-house pastry café, where fresh pastries are baked just for her. Ko, along with her bichon frise, Bruce (he has his own Instagram, @SirBruceBarkalot), has lived in the penthouse for about seven years now and isn’t planning on going anywhere unless a) she becomes a billionaire (a goal of hers) or b) kids come into the picture (she just recently got married).
Makeup, it seems, has always been in Ko’s DNA. When Ko was 13, her family emigrated from South Korea to the U.S. and opened a beauty supply store. Though she wasn’t allowed to wear makeup in junior high, Ko says she would save all her lunch money to buy it and then hide it in her backpack so she could put it on at school and remove it before she got home. Even back then, Ko had keen business instincts. “I remember buying eyeliner at a local drugstore and it being very difficult to apply,” she says. “The red lipstick didn’t appear red, the blue eyeshadow wasn’t exactly blue. That’s when I realized there was a niche for an affordable yet high performing product.” It wasn’t until years later, however, when Ko was 25, that she would found NYX. In a humble 600-square-foot space, NYX sold only one product back then: eyeliner pencils. But within the first year of business, NYX generated over $2 million in sales.
Initially, Ko was inspired by brands like M.A.C and Urban Decay, which offered “professional makeup to the everyday consumer.” But as NYX grew, Ko found herself looking to her homeland for inspiration. “I would go trend shopping in Korea all the time,” she says, ticking off the trendiest neighborhoods of Seoul. “Technology is amazing there, and their products are so advanced.” She had discovered BB cream about 10 years ago, but as a smaller company, held off on introducing NYX’s own version until there was a demand for the product by American consumers.
As NYX grew, so did its social footprint. With 1.7 million followers on Instagram and an active channel on YouTube, NYX’s democratization of quality makeup was right in step with the mass outreach social media afforded it. “It really works for the beauty industry,” says Ko. “Before, if you didn’t run traditional advertising, you couldn’t reach your audience. But YouTube and Instagram has changed the game in terms of viewing tutorials in real time, seeing actual color on a real person and much more. People who didn’t know how to apply makeup now have the tools and accessibility to find makeup artists online and learn how to do every trick of the trade.”
While selling NYX — a company Ko nurtured into a worldwide best-seller, available in over 70 countries and sold at retail giants like Target and Ulta — to L’Oréal may be every entrepreneur’s dream come true, for Ko, it was like losing a best friend. “It hit me the next day,” she says. “Most people would celebrate and pop champagne after selling a company, but I felt deflated like a balloon. Up until I sold the company, I was so excited. I never considered working at NYX actual work — that’s how much I loved what I was doing. But I truly struggled [after the sale], getting used to the fact that NYX no longer belonged to me.”
On the upside, if she did get a nine-figure payoff, she’ll be set for life. And after years of always being conscious of her spending, Ko’s first splurge after the sale was not one, but five Hermès Birkin bags. (Yes, the ones with the rumored multiyear waiting lists that can go for $10,000+ a pop.)
Ko is now channeling her energy into building a real estate portfolio, as well as three local charities that focus on schools and underprivileged children. In fact, she started her own nonprofit, the Toni Ko Foundation, which not only supports organizations that help children in need but also those that empower women to start their own businesses. “The only way for many women around the globe to be more liberated is to become financially independent,” says Ko, whose own mother immigrated to the U.S. with three young children. “I think it’s incredibly important to lead women in the right direction to achieve independence.”
Ko also plans on returning to beauty as soon as her 5-year non-compete clause with L’Oréal is up. “Trust me, I’m counting down the days, and time is flying by!”
In the meantime, Ko keeps a smile on her face (“The act alone makes you happy,” she says), striving to work hard and stay honest. “I wish to learn something new every day and surround myself with people that I can learn from,” she says. “I want to set my timetable every 10 years and look back at myself and say, ‘Hey, I really became a better person, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.’”
STORY BY ESTHER CHO
Photo courtesy of Toni Co
This story was originally published in our Spring 2015 issue. Get your copy here.