Walk into any nail salon and the first thing you’ll probably see is the wall of Essie nail polish. Essie is now a household name and brand. However, do you know there is a woman behind the name? I myself learned that the iconic and genre-changing nail polish line was named for Essie Weingarten Sortino when I was introduced to her about ten years ago.
Essie not only has an amazing story – but she is a smart, funny, beautiful and highly accomplished woman who built a very successful company from an idea. I was lucky enough to chat with her and to learn how she came to redefine the nail polish industry – she’s a true inspiration. Read on…
FO40: Essie, your namesake nail polish is in every nail salon and is a household name. How did you come up with the idea for nail polish?
Essie: As a child my mom would take me on Saturdays to the beauty salon where she would have her hair & nails manicured. It was a completely different experience from today- you would have your hair washed, then you get rollers and sit under a big helmet to dry your hair. This was WAY before salons used hand blow dryers. While you were under the dryer, the manicurist would come and do your nails. If I was a good girl during the week my big treat was getting a manicure. I would try very hard to be a good girl all week- it worked! And I was hooked.
FO40: As a female entrepreneur, did you find it hard for people to take you seriously when you started out?
Essie: In 1981, it was a completely different world. All vendors looked at me and said “cash in advance!” After meeting lots of vendors and hearing this repeatedly the shock wore off. Banks had no intentions of giving me credit. I kept at it and grew however I could. My how the world has changed today- there are scores of investors for anyone with a half decent business plan, an iPhone, and a Gmail address.
FO40: What did you do to promote and grow the Essie brand?
Essie: Our proprietary formula for the nail color and treatments were longer-wearing, shinier, and more protective for natural nails then any other product available. Once we could convince a nail tech/manicurist to try the Essie formula, they almost always became convinced we had the award-winning formula and became believers and users. Convinced I had a product completely different- and better- then everything else available, I went to Las Vegas. I believed that Las Vegas had the perfect target audience: women all out in public and wanting to look their best. These women would have their hands and toes exposed at the shows, clubs, and casinos- dress to kill- and I knew I could get women talking about what they were wearing when they went home. What happened in Vegas thankfully did NOT stay in Vegas! Many of these women- tourists, dancers, and show girls alike- became my “Essie Ambassadors” and we got calls from all over the country for my products.
FO40: When did you realize that you were upending the world of nail polish?
Essie: We did trade shows in California and people would come with a list of Essie colors and nail treatments and knew exactly what they wanted! We met with people from Asia; the Middle East; South America; Latin America; Europe; and Canada. It became obvious we were doing something right.
One night I was watching The Johnny Carson Show and heard Joan Rivers say she was wearing Essie Jelly Apple! At that moment I thought “Wow! On national television Joan Rivers spoke about my baby!” I always say I was very fortunate that once women tried Essie nail polish, they were hooked for ever.
Mademoiselle magazine ran an article about the “label-less bottle that every salon was using.” We became an American classic and magazines from all over the world had editorials on Essie. It was all happening fast and was super exciting and gratifying.
We became a fashion leader and came out with new collections 4 times a year. Fashion designers used Essie on their models, and more exposure from fashion shows from NY, Paris, London, Milano added to our momentum and cache.
We decided to do things a bit more “out of the box”- push the envelope a bit so to speak. We came out with a navy blue polish with diamond dust called Starry Starry Nights when no one would even consider wearing something so different. A cult classic was born.
We also loved sheer colors and gave them fun, memorable names such as Ballet Slippers, Precious Pink, Marshmallow, Waltz, Birthday Suit, and Pachinko Pale. At one point we had over 50 sheer shades because the different skin tones would allow you to find the perfect shade for your complexion.
FO40: You have the best color names- what is the inspiration behind them?
Essie: Picking names for the Essie nail colors was very important as the colors became an extension of my personality! It could be playful and a bit naughty girl to make women laugh, or living vicariously through the names of places I’ve wanted to visit, or places that I HAVE experienced and wanted to share. Lots of winks to women around the world as I am one of the girls knowing what I would want and they would also understand…..Wink wink.
FO40: 5 favorite colors?
Essie: I love them all as they are my babies. However, there are a few that helped make the Essie brand world famous (like when HRH Queen Elizabeth’s hairdresser wrote to us that Queen Elizabeth wanted Essie Ballet Slippers!!!)
But, here goes:
2-Mint Candy Apple
5-Bikini so Teeny
FO40: You sold your company to L’Oreal in 2010- was that a hard decision?
Essie: When you are approached by the biggest cosmetics company in the world you feel you have really arrived. That being said, once you sell your company you become “the founder.” No doubt bittersweet but it also validated all the hard work and success we had with the brand.
FO40: What advice do you have for aspiring female entrepreneurs?
Essie: Follow your dream. Entrepreneurs need to have a total commitment to their brand and use gut as their head to make decisions. It’s usually your own money on the line as well as their blood, sweat, & tears. When I was building and running Essie, I never looked at a clock to see if it was time to go home- it was a way of life. It was my passion.
FO40: You have achieved such success in your life- how are you spending your time now that you don’t have to give yourself 24/7 to the Essie brand?
Essie: Life took a 180 degree turn. My creative juices ended up in the kitchen! I love cooking and really have become pretty good at it. I’m very particular about everything I buy- I probably visit 6 different places to buy my ingredients. Special place for fish, meat, cheese, veggies, cheese. It’s important to me to have fresh, authentic ingredients. No short cuts.
Otherwise, we’re doing lots of things we didn’t have time for before. Museums, theatre, movies, walking- it’s a new me and I’m loving it.
Thank you Essie for sharing your amazing story! For more on Essie the brand, visit: essie.com and follow along on social media at @EssiePolish.