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QZ&A

Bobbi Brown left Estée Lauder to launch a startup where no one shuts her down

Bobbi Brown sits in a chair with beauty photos printed behind her
Jones Road
Bobbi Brown sits in a chair with beauty photos printed behind her
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published Last updated

When Bobbi Brown sold her namesake cosmetics brand to Estée Lauder in 1995, she didn’t worry too much about signing a 25-year non-compete. She was in her early 30s at the time, and figured that by the time the agreement expired, she’d be in her 60s and would be about ready to retire, anyway.

But in 2016, when she finally left Estée Lauder and Bobbi Brown, she found that she was, in fact, very eager to jump back into entrepreneurial life. There was just one problem: She still had four and a half years left on her non-compete.

“I was frustrated,” says Brown. “I wanted to do things right away and I knew I couldn’t.” To get through those last few years, she had a charm necklace engraved with the expiration date her non-compete. The charm, shaped like an ampersand, symbolized “me and my next gig.”

In 2020, on the day her non-compete expired, Brown launched a direct-to-consumer beauty brand, Jones Road, based in Montclair, New Jersey. Funded by Brown and her husband, Steven Plofker, the brand has since developed a fan base devoted to its minimalist makeup aesthetic and cruelty-free products made without ingredients like parabens, sulfates, phthalates. The company doesn’t generally share sales figures, but it did report a milestone in August: breaking $2 million in sales for the month. With 15 full-time employees and one retail store, also in Montclair, it’s a far leaner organization than the behemoth Bobbi Brown cosmetics line, and that’s the way she likes it.

“Everything now is really organic, and I’m not talking about the products,” Brown said of Jones Road. “The process is organic and it’s collaborative and it’s interesting. And no one thinks my ideas are dumb, and no one tells me I can’t do something. I just do it, and it’s working.”

A little more than a year after launch, Brown spoke with Quartz about her management philosophy, how the pandemic is changing beauty standards, and why she prefers an entrepreneurial life to a corporate one.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. 


Quartz: What are some of the things that are different about working for yourself now, versus running Bobbi Brown?

Bobbi Brown: Well, first of all, layers, consultants—to me, wasted time, wasted resources. I never really understood why so many corporate processes needed to be there.

This year, we didn’t make plans for Cyber Monday. But we had the best, most ridiculous Black Friday ever. And so guess what we did on Saturday? We picked our Cyber Monday deal on Slack and everyone just created what we needed. We created a Cyber Monday in two days.

Now we’re not in retail, we’re just direct-to-consumer and one freestanding store. And there’s just not the rules to hold you back.

That must be so liberating. Is there anything that you miss about the resources at Estée Lauder?

I love spending other people’s money, sure. You certainly miss being able to hire anyone. I mean, we don’t have a brand marketing team right now. So we just kind of all do things that are not necessarily in your job description. Right now, our head of social is our copywriter. There’s no HR person. But, you know, in due time.

How has your management style changed?

The most interesting thing to me is how I’ve had to learn patience. Being an entrepreneur, it’s not easy, but I’ve had to learn it because I had to teach. I’m also learning from my young staff, because they have different experiences and different spending habits and shopping habits.

I’ve sometimes had to stop myself from being frustrated and just say, ‘Okay, next time we do this, let’s try to do this a month before, not the day before’—things like that.

Is there anything you did starting out as a boss, that you wouldn’t do today?

When I first started, I didn’t even know what being a boss was. I was a freelance makeup artist and a brand-new mom. We had a very small team and we worked together, and I wasn’t really leading a team or being a boss.

Now I am leading a young team, and I’m the one that insists that we have a Monday meeting and individual meetings with each person, even if it’s just on the phone.

Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Would you ever consider selling again if you got an offer?

Nothing is off the table, but would I ever sell and be part of a big corporation? That’s a no. Because I did that, and I learned that when I am not the best when someone tells me something can’t be done. It doesn’t work for me.

I think about this a lot with my work too. I like being in places where they see possibilities: If something doesn’t work, then why not change it so that it could work?

Right. And you know, in the big company, if someone isn’t doing a great job in what they’re doing, they’d be fired. In this company, if you’re showing an aptitude towards something else, then you just start doing it, and you’ll find someone else to do the other things. To me, that’s how you manage people. You see what people are good at, and what they’re not good at, and you try to help them with it.

Any traditions that you’ve introduced at Jones Road?

Our manicurist, Rosa, who used to come into Bobbi now comes to Jones Road every other week, and everyone on the staff gets a manicure. You can get a pedicure, too, but you have to pay for your own pedicure.

We also have an open dog rule. So there are days where there’s four or five dogs.

And I just started bringing in speakers just for the team to meet people that are interesting. Like Mickey Drexler [previously the CEO of J.Crew and Gap, and a former member of Apple’s board of directors] came in a couple of weeks ago and talked to the team about everything from retail to working with Steve Jobs.

You’ve spoken about the importance of making other people feel comfortable. Why is that important?

When I was a young makeup artist, I got hired to do a very big job with the fashion photographer Bruce Weber, and I was a nervous wreck. I mean, I can’t tell you how many outfits I tried on. So when I walked in the studio, here’s this man who I’ve admired for years. I said, ‘I’m Bobbi. And he said, Oh my God, I’ve been waiting a long time to work with you. Come on in, let me help you with your bag.’ It just made me feel so welcome, and I was able to do a better job.

Let’s talk about the idea of bringing your whole self to work. It sounds like you’re very on board with that…

I’ve always been like that. Even when I was at the big brand where we weren’t necessarily at liberty to make individual decisions, if someone said to me, ‘You know, it’s my kid’s first day of school, can I come in later?’ I’d say, ‘Of course.’

I do think the pandemic is probably the best thing that happened to people in a very strange way. Being on Zoom or not being able to get on, or you’re having trouble with the sound, or your husband walks across the background, or there’s someone’s laundry basket—life happens. And yeah, you want to be professional, but it’s also really important to think about life and your lifestyle.

It sounds like you’re doing some combination of in-person work and remote work with your team?

Yeah, definitely. I’m in the office more than I’m not, because it’s four minutes from my house. [The Jones Road office, as well as its flagship store, is in Montclair.] But during the pandemic, we launched this brand without being in the same room. We picked up a lot of great tips that we will probably never lose, like we’ll never go back to having launch parties and, you know, tying little ribbons on bags.

Why not?

I think it’s a waste of resources, a waste of time. And I just think that it’s not necessary, with the internet and social media, and emails and texts. There’s so many ways to reach the consumer. And there’s ways to reach people of influence. It doesn’t have to be a big, fancy, expensive party, the way things used to be.

Speaking of the pandemic, I wonder if you can talk about what its long-term impacts will be on the way that we think about beauty.

I love that everything has become a lot more relaxed. I think it’s more modern. One of the reasons I was so excited to launch a new makeup company is that my aesthetic of beauty and makeup changed so drastically. I don’t like heavy makeup. When I used to have makeup artists do my makeup and I look back now in pictures, I just don’t look like myself. And I just like my authentic self better. It’s OK to not be so perfect and so buttoned up.

I want to teach women out there that there is a modern, natural way that you could do your makeup without having to not look like yourself.

It seems to me, in terms of trends, contouring was really big for a while. Then the sort of dewy skin aesthetic was really big. And now it seems to be moving toward this very pared-down, minimalist approach, where you don’t have to have perfect skin anymore.

Well, I think I think all of those things still exist. What I think is the most modern way to look at it is, whatever is right for you, and whatever is right for you at that time. I’m fine with people going out without makeup. I’m fine with people throwing on a blush or a balm and going out. I’m fine with people’s hair in a ponytail. And I’m fine with dressing up and throwing on sparkles and liner and lashes; I think it’s all OK.

One of the things that made Bobbi Brown makeup unusual in its time was its many different shades of skin color options. That was a rarity. Now that’s much more common. What are your thoughts on how the beauty industry broadly has evolved on racial bias, and the ways that it does or doesn’t still show up today?

It’s only a positive that it’s become a must-have for companies. You have to have a range of skin tones, or you will get called out.

For me, I don’t do things because I don’t want to be called out. I’ve always done things because they make sense. I had to think about every single skin color—it’s not just American Black women, it’s African Black women. I always made sure I had colors for all. On the light spectrum, Chinese women and Korean women have completely different coloring. As a makeup artist, I just knew that you needed certain tones; I don’t care if it’s a lipstick range or a foundation range.

I used to have arguments with my marketing team because they would want to discontinue the lowest sellers in any category and I would say, ‘No, just go get me more Black customers.’ I just saw the opportunity.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to somebody who’s starting their own business for the first time?

Breathe, and stop being in such a rush, and just know that you’re learning and you’re going to make mistakes. And don’t raise more money than you have to spend.

I believe building a brand takes time. It’s like raising a baby: Nurturing and time.

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