Thea Green MBE: Nails Inc.

Startups talks to the beauty industry entrepreneur about creating a nail varnish phenomenon in the UK and turning it into a global brand

It’s almost hard to imagine a time when nail bars and manicures were an oddity in the UK. Today, you’ll see women wearing a vast array of nail colours, glitter, nail wraps, textured patterns and marble effects to name just a few.

Getting your nails done in a nail bar, or painting them at home yourself has become a huge part of British culture but back in the late 1990s when Tatler editor Thea Green had her ‘lightbulb’ idea, there wasn’t a single nail bar in the UK. Inspired by work trips to New York, where there were nail bars on every street corner, Green spotted a gap in the UK beauty industry for affordable, but luxurious, nail polish and treatments.

With a tenacity learnt from her time as a journalist, a young Green set about creating the global phenomenon that is Nails Inc at just 24. 14 years on, the company, which turned over £21.7m for the year to June 2012, employs over 400 people in the UK and Ireland across 59 salons and serves an average of 10,000 customers per week. The business boasts concession bars in Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, Fenwick, House of Fraser and Debenhams, has an extensive range of products, and sells across the world.

In 2011, Green was awarded an MBE for her contribution to the beauty industry and it seems she has created a nail varnish frenzy that shows no sign of slowing down. In an exclusive interview at Sir Richard Branson’s Pitch to Rich event, Green talks to Startups.co.uk about her initial inspiration, her start-up journey and her advice for running a successful business.

How much of what you’ve achieved today was in the plan? How ambitious was it at the beginning?

Actually most of it, we’ve just been going back [over the plan] recently. It was always ambitious and wasn’t set up to be a one nail bar store. It was always set up to be a chain, with product and service working together, rather than just being a service proposition. We did it for a presentation we’re doing internally and went back to the original business plan. It’s definitely refined over time but the original core strengths that we talked about in terms of setting up a business are still very much Nails Inc DNA today. Product is a big part of our business today and continually evolves, as does the management and the team and the reporting and the structure – all of that is vastly different than what it was in ’99 but the core principles are the same.

You obviously had contacts at Tatler and Kylie Minogue was one of your first patrons. How important do you think this was in contributing to your initial success?

I think the contacts helped, but I think the best thing that working in a magazine did for me was giving me certain skills (you probably get it in other industries but I only know it from working in magazines). You have certain tasks that you’re set that you have to go out and find out about, something that you know nothing about and deliver it by the end of the day. So I think when we were setting up the business and were looking for a manufacturer, a warehouse, someone to build our website, or for a designer – I felt confident. I think it’s just the field research you learn in journalism. You’re never allowed to not find the next project – the next ‘big’ thing. I think that was very useful for Nails Inc – It was a great confidence build to know that you can go out and find what you’re looking for – for your business.

What were your first major setbacks?

Not necessarily a setback, but raising money was hard; it was really difficult. Although, I say that and people ask how long it took us to raise money and actually we raised it in just a few months but over those few months I think we saw several people a day so we did it very intensely. Ours was a funny old time because it was the dot com era. If we’d said we were nailsinc.com we’d have been able to raise a fortune because that’s what people were throwing money at. We met lots of private equity companies and they were throwing money at companies that were two women, (there were lots at the time) that were dot com and they were just going crazy for it. Our business always had a dot com angle to it but it was fairly protective because it was a service business as well. Obviously you can’t do that element of it online but it was protective of dot com as well as allowing us to have a website. It was always the plan that we’d have a commercially viable website in the end.

You started at 24. What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

I think what I wish I’d done more of is, not research, because I think we did a vast amount of research in terms of field research but I guess talking with more people that had done it. I think what I know now, and actually you do things like this [pitch2rich] and you realise that people are always delighted to meet you for a coffee and spread the knowledge. Entrepreneurs love sharing their stories and they like telling you the bad bits as much as the good because they love saying: “Oh this awful thing happened and our business nearly went bust and then we did this, that and the other and we’ve solved it.” I think I probably met a couple in my first years of Nails Inc but I don’t think I went and sought them out in the way young people seek me out today – send me an email or ask me a question. I don’t think I did that enough when I first started Nails Inc, probably because I didn’t think they’d share anything with me. Even if they’re competitors, most of the time if they’re in the same industry they’ll still just share it with you. They won’t tell you anything they don’t think you can get yourself from field research.

What did you see that was wrong with nail emporiums that Nails Inc tried to remedy?

Well in the UK at the time there weren’t really any nail bars in the UK. We opened at the same time as a number of our competitors (that have since gone away) but we opened at the same time as them. That was all 1999 – there was nothing before then. What existed in the UK was a kind of spa model; women would occasionally go to a spa or a salon or potentially the hairdressers and get their nails done but not regularly. It was very niche, a very upmarket, niche customer that could afford or would even think about getting their nails done. And actually at the time women in the UK didn’t really wear nail varnish – there’d been a couple of successes like rouge noir and nail candy but nail polish certainly wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. Now – everybody wears it! Now, you have to find the person not wearing nail polish – I was on the tube when I started and there wasn’t a single woman with nail varnish and I thought: “My God, what am I doing? – there’s not a single soul.” But now everyone wears nail polish. I think what works is just having a clean identity and a brand, rather than a general beauty spa, giving it a specialism, only focusing on nails and having an identity where product and service work together – we do an express manicure with an express range of products. You’re not being controlled by either someone else’s service or someone else’s products.

Was the Inc part of the name a deliberate nod to your American inspiration?

Yes, you’re the first person that’s ever asked me that – but yes it was! It definitely was.

Do you think that helped – perhaps people thought it was something that already existed in the States?

They did, they did. No-one has ever asked the way you did but certainly in terms of getting into department stores there were two things: everyone thought I was related to Phillip Green, so I think I got doors opened fast for me. And I never said I wasn’t – I never said I was either but I think it’s hysterical that it opened huge amounts of doors (I should probably thank him!) and the other one was the Inc angle.

How did international growth come about?

Well we took a little bit of time because actually we’re 14 years’ old and we really started international growth two-three years ago. We did a lot in the UK, really refined our proposition there, and then started working internationally. We’d done a few small things but our main international partner was Sephora. We started working with Sephora in the US and Canada and then very quickly went into all of their European countries and have continued to expand with them globally.

Where do you get inspiration now?

Inspiration for product I get from all sorts of places, we’ve got 405 girls that work in our nail bars so we’ve got great brand ambassadors who sometimes bring forward ideas that have come directly from customers or from professionals, as in our nail technicians.   And then I love developing products, so I’m inspired by all sorts of things, whether it’s a colour somewhere or a texture or an effect that I think we can transform into nails. I’m always thinking about nail polish so I hate to think I could be in a room and there could be something that might work for nails and me not to have realised it. Whether it’s colour or texture or packaging I’ll constantly be saying we should try this or do that. Product will always be at the back of my head as it is the part of the job that I still find the most fun. It’s just the loveliest creative output. And then other ideas come from market, things that are innovative, new trends that we can create – not buy in to. We’ll be inspired by it [the market] and do something new – we never take things as is. I sometimes take an idea and I’ll say “we love this but don’t want it to be the same as everyone else, so how about we do this, this and this?” to see if we can mould it into something that is more Nails Inc. I think that’s what our customers expect. They don’t expect to see what we sell anywhere else. They would always trust us that you wouldn’t find anything anywhere else.

What golden rules do you have for running a business?

I think, never stop learning – never stop evolving – the joy of Nails Inc is we never stand still. We never pat ourselves on the back and say “brilliant job”. We keep saying, how can we make it better? We focus on the negatives; we don’t go on about what we’re good at. We focus on the few things we need to fix. I think that leads to good productivity internally, we fix problems very fast because we’re focused on them, rather than praising ourselves on how great we are. And do something you love. Be really passionate about the product or the business that you’re in. it’s so important to ensure you can give it the time, stay late, travel, do all the things that take up time – it’s so much easier if you’re really excited and you want to be here and you want to do it.

How do you prioritise your time running the business – how much on idea creation, admin, management, branding? What are you good at, do you enjoy, and what is ok to get someone else to do?

I am ridiculously hands-on. I’m very much still working on all elements. I probably work more efficiently but I definitely work as hard as I did in the beginning, if not harder. What do I love? I love lots. I’m most flattered by hearing customers ask for our products. I still love it if I’m standing in one of our stores and I hear a customer say, “Can I have a Porchester Square or a Tate polish?” I still love that. I love all of our products, because they’re like my small children. When someone is asking for them it’s great, we’re still very much a customer facing business so seeing satisfied customers is what really excites me the most. And having a happy team, I like knowing that my team are happy.

What has been your biggest failure – and what did you learn from it?

I think whenever we overcomplicate things. If we’re having to have a very long meeting explaining something we’re doing and we’re going over and over things I think we’ve often worked out that it wasn’t actually a great idea. I think when we see a product or create a product and within one second we say “Let’s order it, let’s buy into it” you know you’ve got a hit and whenever you’re trying to make something work and you’re spending hours with your team trying to make it work it’s probably not good enough. It’s like if you go for dinner with someone and at the end of the evening you still don’t know what they do, I meet people like that all the time and I think I’ve now asked you six different ways and I still don’t get it.

And finally, what’s next for Nails Inc?

Lots of growth here, still doing more and more here [in the UK]. We just recently opened the paint shop in Selfridges which is a very exciting concept and then we’re doing a lot more globally. We’ve just opened in Mexico (products) and we’re about to open in Brazil. We have just started in South Africa with Edgars and we are about to open in the Middle East. We’ve just literally sent our stock to the Middle East and it will go on the shelves any day – so truly global now.

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