BEAUTY’S QUEEN

HOW HUDA KATTAN CRE­ATED A BIL­LION DOL­LAR EM­PIRE

CEO Middle East - - CONTENTS - BY LUBNA HAM­DAN

DUR­ING THE COURSE OF OUR 50-MINUTE con­ver­sa­tion, the many shades of Huda Kattan all make an ap­pear­ance. There is happy Huda, the boss of a bil­lion dol­lar self-made em­pire: “I’m the chair­woman of Huda Beauty. I love say­ing that. Chair­woman!” There is tough Huda, the hard-nosed busi­ness­woman who knows what it takes to suc­ceed: “Debt doesn’t feel good. I know debt can be amaz­ing for the com­pany, but it can be dan­ger­ous.” There is se­ri­ous Huda, the mega-in­flu­encer ready to call out fel­low so­cial me­dia stars who aren’t play­ing by the rules: “I have a prob­lem with in­flu­encers who buy fake fol­low­ers. I would feel de­frauded.” And there is sad Huda, a vic­tim of her own suc­cess, too fa­mous to have fun: “I have no pri­vacy. You don’t even know how lit­tle pri­vacy I have.” Oh, and in the 50 min­utes be­tween our first hello and fi­nal good­bye, 53,859 fans have liked her lat­est In­sta­gram post.

THE MAK­ING OF A BOSS

Wel­come to the world of Huda Kattan, the 34 year old Iraqi-Amer­i­can who quite lit­er­ally has it all: her ul­tra-cool of­fice on the 21st floor in JLT is adorned with make-up boxes, shoes, hand­bags, clothes – even a bath­room. Make no mis­take, this is a busi­ness she lives and breathes. And it is some busi­ness, val­ued at over $1bn; a stun­ning line of beauty prod­ucts, 26.9 mil­lion pas­sion­ate fans watch­ing her ev­ery move on In­sta­gram, an­other 2.45 mil­lion sub­scribers to her Huda Beauty YouTube chan­nel, and over nine mil­lion view­ers for some episodes of her re­al­ity show Huda Boss on Face­book Watch. It is lit­tle won­der that Time mag­a­zine last year named her as one of the world’s 25 most in­flu­en­tial peo­ple on the in­ter­net.

But what is prob­a­bly most in­cred­i­ble about the Huda Kattan story – and there are many in­cred­i­ble parts – is that less than a decade ago, no­body had heard of her, as she scraped a liv­ing as a makeup artist for Revlon. That all changed in April 2010 (six months be­fore In­sta­gram even launched) when one of her sis­ters, Mona, sug­gested she start a Word­Press blog called Huda Beauty on which she would post make up tu­to­ri­als and tips.

Kattan quickly stood out among makeup artists for shar­ing best-kept beauty se­crets for free, re­fus­ing to work with ad­ver­tis­ers for fear of los­ing cred­i­bil­ity. “It was al­most awk­ward,” she says of con­tem­plat­ing brand spon­sor­ships, “feel­ing that you had to say cer­tain things.”

But no spon­sor­ships meant no money, and Kattan was pen­ni­less and clue­less. “I didn’t have any money.

I was broke… I didn’t ex­actly have a plan. My hus­band, at some point, wor­ried about me and whether or not I was go­ing to even­tu­ally make money do­ing this,” she says, gig­gling ner­vously. Her eyes are adorned with lus­cious Huda Beauty false lashes, the prod­ucts which marked the birth of her com­pany in 2010.

“[My sis­ter] Alya lent me $6,000 [to create false lashes for Huda Beauty] and I re­mem­ber telling her, ‘Look, if I can’t pay you back, I’ll wear them all and pay you back as I wear them.’ I later re­alised that it would have taken me 32 years to re­turn all the money,” she says, gig­gling again.

The laughs con­tinue through­out our con­ver­sa­tion, mostly at the re­mem­brance of dif­fi­cult times. Alya’s loan was too lit­tle to cover man­u­fac­tur­ing, leav­ing Kattan to pack­age the lashes her­self. But it turned out she did a good job as the prod­uct be­came a best-seller in French cos­met­ics gi­ant Sephora the world over. And by 2018, with the help of hus­band Christo­pher Goncalo and sis­ters Mona and Alya, Huda Beauty was churn­ing out best-sell­ing prod­uct af­ter best-sell­ing prod­uct. The se­cret? It hap­pened by ac­ci­dent.

“I didn’t plan on be­com­ing a busi­ness­woman. Was my goal, at the time, to create a makeup brand? No. Was my goal to launch these lashes and make them suc­cess­ful and die try­ing? Yes. And I was willing to sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing.”

CON­TROL OR CAP­I­TAL?

Kattan’s big­gest sac­ri­fice came in 2017 when she sold 15 per­cent of Huda Beauty to US-based TSG Con­sumer Part­ners. She says be­ing bought by the firm was a “dream come true” with its strik­ing port­fo­lio in­clud­ing Smash­box Cos­met­ics, Re­volve and Voss. But the process, she says, was ex­cru­ci­at­ing.

“I re­mem­ber cry­ing on my bath­room floor and say­ing to Mona, ‘I’m sell­ing part of the com­pany. I’m a sell-out. I’m go­ing to be like ev­ery­body else.’ That sounds bad, but

I was afraid I was go­ing to lose our magic, and a part of who we are,” she says, re­veal­ing an­other shade of a vul­ner­a­ble Huda fear­ful of los­ing con­trol.

And how can you not be, when ev­ery­one from Unilever to L’Oréal and lo­cal pri­vate eq­uity firms were look­ing to take a bite of your trea­sured cre­ation? Fear­ful Huda quickly turns sharp, re­call­ing an un­named in­vestor of­fer­ing just $1.5m for 60 per­cent of the firm in 2014. She clasps her hands to­gether and squints her eyes. “There have al­ways been peo­ple who have tried to come along and really take ad­van­tage of us and our com­pany be­cause we’re young girls who just love makeup. There were so many peo­ple who said, ‘Give us your name. We’ll put it on a pack­age and sell it right away,” she says.

“It hap­pened when we really needed the money. We couldn’t fund the growth. We didn’t have money for in­ven­tory.

But I said very nicely, ‘No’. I felt that the com­pany was worth more than that,

even though I couldn’t keep do­ing make up, hard-core blog­ging and cre­at­ing and de­vel­op­ing prod­ucts. I didn’t un­der­stand sup­ply chain.

We didn’t have a ware­house. It was just Mona, Alya and I,” she says.

“At the time, we were tak­ing a chance, al­though we knew that they had ba­si­cally dan­gled a car­rot in front of us and they were try­ing to take ad­van­tage. We also knew we were worth more. But it was al­most like we couldn’t af­ford to take a chance. We were go­ing to die as a brand. We ac­tu­ally thought say­ing ‘no’ may be the death of Huda Beauty.”

A FAM­ILY AF­FAIR

Re­fus­ing the wrong in­vestors worked out well in the end, as it led to the ul­ti­mate birth of Huda Beauty; an emerg­ing power house ca­pa­ble of tak­ing on the mar­ket’s big­gest global ti­tans. But the firm was never a one-woman show, as Huda her­self re­veals.

The youngest of the Kattan clan, Mona, joins our con­ver­sa­tion. Un­like Huda, she is softer and more dis­creet, but both share the same sense of alert­ness. Mona played a key part in keep­ing Huda Beauty’s fi­nances in check in its ear­lier days, but is now the com­pany’s global pres­i­dent. She ex­plains how ‘wear­ing a mil­lion hats’ al­lowed them to flour­ish de­spite hav­ing lit­tle to no staff.

“Nor­mally, to have run an or­gan­i­sa­tion the size of our busi­ness at the time, we prob­a­bly would have needed five times the peo­ple we had. But we didn’t go out and hire a bunch of peo­ple. What­ever needed to be done, we learned how to do it our­selves or our team did,” she says.

The Kat­tans con­tinue to fill var­i­ous roles, but now have enough cap­i­tal to hire more peo­ple. Their most re­cent ap­point­ment is a Euro­pean pres­i­dent for their global of­fices which in­cludes one in the UK. Plans are also afoot to open a sec­ond head­quar­ters in the US soon.

And while Huda Beauty’s ex­pan­sion comes as no sur­prise given its im­pres­sive per­for­mance, it strikes us that its next prod­uct line is the mas­ter­piece of some- body other than Huda: Mona.

“We’re launch­ing a fra­grance line [in Novem­ber] that we’ve been talk­ing about be­fore we even start Huda Beauty. It’s hon­estly Mona’s pas­sion,” she con­fesses.

It’s not the first idea Mona shares with Huda, though it is the first she agrees to. Mona, the founder of Dubai beauty sa­lon The Doll­house, first ap­proached her el­der sis­ter for in­vest­ment.

“Huda is a huge per­fec­tion­ist, it’s very dif­fi­cult for her to put her name to some­thing. Hav­ing a sa­lon to­gether would have been a chal­lenge, be­cause if any­one made a mis­take, she would have taken it to heart. But peo­ple are hu­man. They make mis­takes. And you just have to man­age that the best way you can,” she says.

De­spite the suc­cess of The Doll­house, Kattan main­tains her stance, stat­ing that she “never be­lieved in ser­vices.”

“It’s not that I don’t be­lieve in Mona. I be­lieve in her so much, but I don’t be­lieve in ser­vices. You can’t main­tain qual­ity. I could have never done it, be­cause even with the prod­ucts we deal with, there’s a stan­dard de­vi­a­tion. It drives me mad. That’s a ma­chine that has a stan­dard de­vi­a­tion of .00001 but those are the mo­ments that I dwell on. So how can I rely on a hu­man be­ing to al­ways be in the flow and get­ting the most po­ten­tial? It was never an op­tion for me,” she says.

But the beauty mag­nate may not even have the time to take on an­other con­cept. With the com­pany grow­ing and rapidly, she rarely has a mo­ment to take a glimpse of what she’s built.

“It’s funny, be­cause a lot of times you think about the in­ter­nal as­pects but don’t really un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing ex­ter­nally. You just fo­cus on where you want the com­pany to go. It’s just al­ways full force for­ward. I’m try­ing to learn how to be in the mo­ment a lit­tle bit more.”

CELEBRITY STA­TUS

So how does it really feel to be Huda Kattan? She pauses for a while be­fore say­ing, “I never get that mo­ment of alone­ness. I could not go to the mall with my daugh­ter and hus­band and ex­pect to have a bond with them. I thought about get­ting a

97 MIL­LION Num­ber of views gar­nered by Huda Beauty on its YouTube chan­nel

se­cu­rity guard but I [don’t want to lose] that con­nect­ed­ness [with my fol­low­ers]. It is what it is. It’s part of my job and it’s a part that I en­joy, but I also want the pri­vacy which, un­for­tu­nately,

I just can’t have. Do I love it at all times? Hon­estly, no, but I also ap­pre­ci­ate it and love it at many times. When it comes to my daugh­ter es­pe­cially, it be­comes a lit­tle bit chal­leng­ing, be­cause I feel that I wish I could just take her out.”

It’s not just in Dubai where Kattan lacks the pri­vacy that many en­joy as a given. With fans in places from Capri to the Mal­dives, she is rarely spared an af­ter­noon free of pho­tos. And while she’s def­i­nitely a well-known fig­ure, the in­flu­encer says she doesn’t quite feel like a celebrity. “I asked my hus­band this two days ago. I said, ‘Chris, am I a celebrity?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. Peo­ple know you.’ It’s a funny thing to say about your­self, if I’m hon­est. I still don’t con­sider my­self a celebrity.

I feel more like an in­flu­encer than a celebrity, be­cause I feel con­nected with peo­ple.”

Whether or not Kattan con­sid­ers her­self a celebrity might not mat­ter given the rise of high-pro­file in­flu­encers. She ar­gues that both have “meshed into one”.

Celebri­ties who haven’t be­come in­flu­encers are no longer rel­e­vant, while in­flu­encers are try­ing to be­come celebri­ties.

Ev­ery now and then, how­ever, she wants to be nei­ther celebrity nor in­flu­encer – at least on so­cial me­dia. “I have a fake In­sta­gram ac­count. I fol­low who­ever I want and no­body can say any­thing. I’m a lit­tle sen­si­tive to that so some­times I just want to ob­serve and not have any­body judge me or know what I’m work­ing on,” she ad­mits. “Is that weird?”

It’s part of that yearn­ing for con­fi­den­tial­ity that turned Kattan off the idea of putting Huda Beauty on the stock ex­change. “I don’t think I’d be in­ter­ested in go­ing pub­lic. It’s un­war­ranted. What is the pur­pose of do­ing that? Is it just to make money? I don’t care about mak­ing money. I don’t think it’s nec­es­sar­ily the right way for our busi­ness. Our goal is to create im­pact. We also un­der­stand

402,762 Num­ber Se­ries has on of Face­book fol­low­ers Watch the Huda Boss

how pub­lic opin­ion can change, and I don’t think it fairly de­picts the na­ture of what we do.”

She shares the ex­am­ple of Tesla. “Elon Musk is re­al­is­ing he can’t go pri­vate, but when he wanted to go pri­vate, he tweeted some­thing and all of a sud­den peo­ple started sell­ing their shares. I get that there are other things go­ing on with Tesla right now, but he’s still bril­liant,” she says.

The power of au­then­tic­ity

Mil­lions would vouch that Kattan is, her­self, bril­liant. Un­like the thou­sands of in­flu­encers who feed on the volatile trends of so­cial me­dia to milk ad­ver­tis­ers for free stays, trips and goods, Kattan is in an­other league of her own. In essence, she is a tough busi­ness­woman who will stop at noth­ing to achieve her goals.

And she is also sim­ply Huda, who like many of us, has also col­lapsed in tears on her bath­room floor, and isn’t afraid to say it to 26.9 mil­lion fol­low­ers. It is un­ques­tion­able that Huda Kattan is a suc­cess in the world of beauty. What is more ad­mirable is that she’s main­tained the same re­lata­bil­ity with $1bn to her name as she did with noth­ing but a few free makeup tips. Which is a valu­able les­son for other in­flu­encers about what it takes to truly suc­ceed in the world of busi­ness.

Huda Beauty ranks among the most pop­u­lar sold in Sephora in the re­gion

Huda Kattan is in the list of Forbes Amer­ica’s Rich­est Self-Made Women

Kattan shares her suc­cess story dur­ing the Fash­ion For­ward event in Dubai in 2015 Kattan stud­ied make-up at the Joe Blasco Makeup Artistry School in Los An­ge­les

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