Iconic Tour

How self-made millionaire Bobbi Brown built a cosmetics empire by talking to everyone she met in elevators, at the park, at parties

Bobbi Brown built her makeup empire by talking to everyone she met
Bobbi Brown built her makeup empire by talking to everyone she met

About a year after graduating college, Bobbi Brown moved to New York City to start her career as a makeup artist. She didn't know anyone in the industry, so she reached for the phone book. "I opened up the Yellow Pages, I looked up 'makeup,' I looked up 'models,' and I just started making calls and asking a lot of questions."

Being inquisitive is a habit she's kept and it's served her well — talking to anyone who crosses her path literally helped Brown build her eponymous makeup company, which she sold to Estée Lauder in 1995, making her a millionaire. She continued to run the business as Chief Creative Officer and turned it into an empire.

At so many pivotal moments, Brown was helped along to the next step in growing her business because she was friendly and struck up a conversation with the right stranger at the right time.

"I talk to everyone. I find people really interesting," says Brown speaking to CNBC at the iCONIC conference in New York City Wednesday.

"Just be nice to people. It's like common sense. Don't do it because you want something, it actually makes you feel good," she says.

Bobbi Brown
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

A chat at Kiehl's landed her a business partner

In the late 80s, while Brown was still working as a makeup artist, she started talking to a man in a Kiehl's pharmacy. He was a chemist.

"I said, 'I have an idea. I want to make a lipstick that isn't greasy, isn't dry, doesn't smell like my mother's lipstick, actually looks like the color of my lips,'" she says. The natural look was a novel idea at the time; 80s makeup was bold.

"He said, 'I'll make it for you.' And he made it for me. And then he called me and he said, 'How about we're partners? We will sell it for $15, you get $7.50, I get $7.50.' I thought, 'That's great.'

"That's how it started."

A talk with a friend gave her P.R.

What began as one lipstick color grew into a line of 10 shades. Brown told a friend about her new endeavor — that friend also happened to be an editor at Glamour magazine. She asked if Brown if she could write about the lipstick collection.

"I'm like, 'Why would you want to do that?' Now, I know it's called P.R.," recalls Bobbi.

Brown put her home phone number in the Glamour article, and after it ran, she was flooded with orders. Still a working make-up artist, Brown and her husband, who was then in law school, stuffed lipsticks in manila envelopes and sent them off. The lipsticks didn't even have a box.

A walk in the park was her market research

"I actually ask a lot of people their opinion," says Brown.

Early on, she would walk up to strangers in the park and ask them to test her products. "And everyone loved it. I guess now they call that focus groups, but I just asked people's opinion," says Brown. "I would go to the park, and I would see all these different nationality women and I would ask them to try certain things and that's how I knew what worked on different skin colors."

An aversion to awkward elevator silences led to a production facility

"It's weird to be in an elevator and people don't say anything," says Brown. "I always say, 'Hi.'"

One time was particularly serendipitous: "I was in the elevator of my New York apartment and I said to the girl in the elevator, 'Hi, what do you do?' She said, 'I work at a lab in Long Island City.' I'm like, 'Can I have your card?' And that's [the lab] where I made the lipstick."

Even after selling the company, Brown insisted Lauder have the the lipsticks made at the same Queens facility.

A cocktail conversation got her high end distribution

"I was at a party and I introduced myself to the woman that was throwing the party and I said, 'What do you do?' She said, 'I'm a cosmetics buyer at Bergdorfs.' So I said, 'Oh, I've got this line of lipsticks.'

"And that's how I got into Bergdorfs," Brown recalls about landing her line in the upscale department store, Bergdorf Goodman.

A schmooze led to a TV gig

Brown has written nine books, most recently "Bobbi Brown Beauty from the Inside Out." At one of her book signings, an older woman wanted to ask asked Brown a question, and Brown took the time to answer. As they were chatting, Brown revealed her next dream was to be a regular on NBC's "TODAY" show.

The older woman said, "Honey, Jeff Zucker's my grandson." Zucker was the executive producer of "TODAY" at the time.

"And that's how I got on the show," says Brown.

When Zucker came to visit Brown onset, she told him she wanted to be a regular and appear every month. He agreed. The next time he came, she told him she wanted to be the "TODAY" show beauty editor. She got that too.

"Fourteen years on the 'TODAY' show really helped grow the business," she says.

Who will she meet next?

Now, Brown, 60, is returning to her entrepreneurial roots, renovating a boutique hotel in New Jersey and curating a shop-within-a-shop at Lord and Taylor, justBOBBI.

"I started out as an indie beauty [brand], then somehow became corporate," says Brown. "I never wanted to be corporate. I never thought I was, but I know I never want to be again," she says of her decades years at Lauder.

"I like to be in charge ... and honestly I'm not even worried about being successful, I just want to do things I want to do how I want to do them."

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How 3 guys went from call center cubicles to 'Shark Tank' and $7 million in sales in just 3 years
How 3 guys went from call center cubicles to 'Shark Tank' and $7 million in sales in just 3 years