Urban Decay’s Founder on How to Slay in the Business World
All month long, Galore is celebrating what it means to be independent. Click here for more.
You know that really cheesy old saying your grandma probably has framed in her house: when you can combine your passion with your work, you’ll never work a day in your life. Well, that is exactly what Wende Zomnir has done.
Wende was practically born with lipstick on, and she took her passion for makeup and her entrepreneurial skills and created Urban Decay, an edgy makeup brand that has blown up into a household name for makeup lovers in the last few years.
We talked to the founder of Urban Decay about getting into business for yourself, and some tips about how to make it successfully.
What made you want to start a makeup line?
Well, I am from Texas and I feel like I was just born loving it. I didn’t know I wanted to be in it, but I always loved it. You know that picture in your yearbook, there’s always the baby picture, and in my case that was a photo of me at 18 months putting on my mom’s mascara. Some of my earliest memories are so make-up centered, like digging through her makeup drawer, you know the smell of the vintage lipstick, I’ve always have a feel for it and I’ve always worn it.
What was your career path like?
It wasn’t a conventional beauty path. In college, and people always laugh at this, I worked behind an Elizabeth Arden counter. It’s so funny because Urban Decay is like the antithesis of Elizabeth Arden. But I was always excited to get the counter bags, and one of them included this dark purple eyeshadow, and I lived for it! I was so obsessed. After college, I went into advertising and I learned a ton about brands, and marketing, how to be resourceful, how things get on the market, and how brands talk about themselves. I learned things that I thought were right and wrong and it was good training, and then I moved to California and I did more things like that, and then I met Cindy, and Urban Decay came of that!
Did you always know you wanted to go into business for yourself?
For me, I always knew from being a little kid I wanted to make something. I always wanted to make things and I always wanted to to be a entrepreneur. I would make things and show my mom and be like “can I make more of this and sell it?” And I didn’t want to just do the marketing side of it — I wanted to do the whole thing. So when I found marketing as a career, there was always something missing, even if it was interesting. There was always that one piece that was missing. So when Urban Decay came about, I was able to combine that with makeup and it’s such a dream! And it’s fun. I have always been passionate about makeup! I was sent home from school at 13 for wearing too much, and I even got into an argument with a priest! He told me that I was hiding behind mask, and I was like trying to explain to him that it was who I am. So a lot of big moments in my life were kind of centered around makeup.
How did you specifically craft Urban Decay? Where did you come up with the name and its aesthetic and the names such as Roach, Smog, and Oil Slick?
I have to tell you, the world is a different place today than it was in 1996. Like, we were crazy! So I have to say the original inception was all [cofounder Sandy Lerner]. You couldn’t go to a store and get high-quality, very pigmented and fun colors at a makeup counter. You had to go to the drug stores, and you’d get very loosely pigmented colors. We wanted rich pigments, and the drug stores have changed a lot, like now you can get some pretty high quality stuff at drug stores, but back then, there was this hole in the market and we decided to fill it.
When Urban Decay started getting more successful, were you expecting that or did it come as a total shock?
It wasn’t such an “Aha!” moment, and I was just kind of going away at it and making it into what I wanted to see, and if people were coming to the vision, I was doing something right. It was really fun to get bigger, and what I appreciated the most is that we got to be more creative. We had more freedom because we had more cash to throw at projects. I had more tools and it was always about the vision. So getting successful and becoming big wasn’t the end-all-be-all for me. You know being big is fun, but it’s always been more about the makeup.
Were there ever any moments while you were still developing Urban Decay that you felt doubtful of success, and who did you deal with that?
Oh, all the time! There were always moments where I felt doubtful! I was concerned, like do we have the resources, are we going to be able to pull this off. You know, whenever I’m asked about advice, I always say find someone who is awesome in finance because most of the people who want to do it are artists and creative, but and I don’t think you can’t be both. You don’t want a take all of that bandwidth, but you need a partner who knows these things! Eventually you become a team and it’s enabling!
What products are you most proud of?
Well I think the eyeshadow primer potion, because it changed the primer industry. I personally road tested it to make it great, and I love when I make something I can use, like the Moondust eye shadow, it’s really beautiful. I love coming up with those colors and one of our most recent projects, the Vice lipstick collection, had a total of 100 shades was an unbelievable undertaking. It was a huge effort from a lot of people.
And also obviously the Naked palette. The story behind that is incredible. It started with me making a palette of nudes in my bathroom, and so I asked some of the girls I was working with to bring in their favorite four nude colors, and that combined was the basis for the first Naked palette. It came together so organically, and when things like that hit, it’s just awesome. I always say that people want to buy from other people, and it’s so important that we maintain that indie brand despite how big we get.
We love all the collaborations you have done, from Alice Through the Looking Glass to Gwen Stefani. How do those ideas come about?
So Alice, we did the first Alice palette in 2011, and I remember my PR person coming in and saying, “Tim Burton called us,” and I was like, “We have to be a part of that.” It was my gut reaction, and I remember the passion, and it sounded perfect.
Now Gwen Stefani, my story with Gwen goes back 20 years. I was in my Laguna Beach bungalow, just mixing nail polish. You know there was no Sephora at the time, and Gwen’s [No Doubt] single “I’m Just a Girl” came out and she was edgy and I remember thinking, “I have to work with her.”
I’m a patient person. I’ll wait. That to me was really organic and again, I thought, “I have to make this happen.” So when it finally did, it came together beautifully. Same thing with Ruby Rose.
Describe the ideal girl who would wear Urban Decay.
Well I think Gwen might be someone I think of who could be the Urban Decay girl. But really, you know, it’s for the girl who maybe wants to be part of the makeup world, and I always say that Urban Decay is for the coolest girl in the room who’s also really nice. As a brand, we should be there for you and we have to be there. I want to demystify it and make it acceptable to everyone in anyway.
You know, like in high school there was the table of girls you never really talked to, they were popular, but cold. And there was that other table of girls who were really cool, and they wanted to talk to you. So that kind of thing is the same with Urban Decay.
Did it take a lot to gain people’s resect? You know, oftentimes, and I think for women this is especially true, it’s hard to gain traction and credibility. How did you do that?
Well I have do say, I worked at ad agencies, and those kinds of experiences teach you how to be in business and really show you what it takes to be in business and how to do pitches and things like that. I used a lot of those skills to launch the business, and that made me more credible, and I had all these things and I knew what to back it up with. I had done enough presentations in front of high powered people that I knew what was required, so for me to get on the phone and talk to people, it was part of my training.
If you had to give advice to someone trying to get into business for themselves, what would you tell them?
1. My first thing I tell people is that the people you surround yourself with are the most important people, and the job description you have in mind might not be the greatest person to hire, but you might find someone who is great and doesn’t have all of the qualifications. Hire the great person over the more qualified.
2. If you have a big decision to make, and you feel like that big decision may feel like a fire drill, you really should find a way to marinate. In the last 20 years, I have made so many decisions I wish I had more time to really think about. I have taught myself to take a step back and come at it wth fresh eyes
3. I would tell you to pick up the phone. Sometimes when you’re dealing with someone, and you just hit this roadblock with them through whatever electronic messaging service you chose to use, just pick up the phone. You just need to talk to people.
4. Good ideas come from everywhere, one important thing is to always check your ego. You should really feed them into the ideas. Obviously, don’t steal other people’s ideas, but just think about their ideas because that could help your business.