Nails Inc founder Thea Green turned an idea to launch a nail bar chain into a £22m market leader. Here the Nails Inc founder reveals how the company’s fifteenth anniversary offers a chance to expand the business in the US, Middle East and Asia
Thea Green has carved a career from making women feel fabulous. Before launching Nails Inc aged 23 she was fashion editor of Tatler magazine. That role took her regularly to New York where she noticed that British women would arrive in Manhattan and head straight for the Big Apple’s plentiful nail bars for a 15-minute manicure.
Bringing the concept back to London, she launched Nails Inc polishes and nail bars in 1999 with then business partner MT Carney (who left the company shortly afterwards for a new life in the US) and £250,000 backing from family, friends and private investors. But there was a key difference between what Green saw in America and her vision for Nails Inc.
“In the US no one really does product. There are loads of nail bars and lots of affordable, decent manicures but there’s no brand, no image, no customer experience and, very rarely, any product, which means that you [the customer] don’t get recommended anything, and you don’t learn anything,” she explains.
“Three or four companies started around the same time as Nails Inc but they’ve all gone for one reason or another. Our breakthrough was that we had product. We always saw it as a brand and we didn’t want to be stocking other people’s products.”
In the 15 years that followed, the UK nail-polish market has grown to be worth £229m and, according to market researcher Mintel, sales equalled the might of lip cosmetics for the first time in 2012.
The UK has been growing strongly for Nails Inc and accounts for 65 per cent of the business, excluding online sales. The majority of its 50 nail bars are department store concessions in Selfridges, Harvey Nichols, Fenwick, Debenhams and House of Fraser, with products sold by other upmarket retailers too. An international drive in the last four years has seen the company’s goods stocked in Europe, North America, Australia and the Middle East and distribution tie-ups with cosmetic and retail giants including 600 Sephora stores and 25 Macy’s department stores.
“There’s been amazing growth in the nail industry but there’s been an enormous amount of brands coming in,” says Green. “It has made the market super-exciting in terms of innovation. There has been more money in the industry, which is good for all of us in terms of R&D and exciting developments, but the negative is that there’s a lot of nail polish. I don’t want Nails Inc to be on the shelf as one of a list of brands, I want it to continue to be a fashion product.”
And so Green has invested in ensuring that her product stands out from the crowd. In August, she unveiled a 14ml concave Italian glass bottle designed by Fabien Baron, creative director behind the CK One unisex fragrance bottle for Calvin Klein. She hopes the new bottle, with its weighted, metallised lid and patented brush, will further differentiate the brand. Green admits that she had considered tweaking the brand for a couple of years but never got excited enough to sign off the concepts. It was meeting Baron and hearing his thoughts that inspired her to make a radical change. “The first time I met Fabien he said to me, ‘Your inside is more innovative than your outside… You’re thought of as the cool London nail brand that’s got products first, but your packaging is quite standard’,” Green recalls.
The revamp, she says, is akin to designing a fragrance bottle, and points out that Nails Inc is the first nail polish brand to introduce a metallised cap with [three] additional weights. “It’s the opposite of what you’d normally do. Normally you’d think lighter, so you can ship it cheaply. It wasn’t about paying for itself in six months; it’s much more of a longer-term plan about where we can go and where the industry can go.”
For Nails Inc the direction has been towards the professional end of the market. “When there are lots of brands coming in and copying lots of companies you need to go to the next level up. Where everyone is talking about discounting and pile-it-high, it’s been lovely to say we’re not doing any of that. At a time when people were flooding into the industry, I thought it was a nice thing to say, ‘this isn’t what we should all be doing’.”
Green’s happy to leave discounting to her competitors. “There are brands that are really good at making cheap noise and there are brands that aren’t. I don’t think Nails Inc is good at going on three-for-two special offers… you’ve got to be driving so much traffic when you’re selling at that price. It’s not something that excites me. I don’t think that’s what the customer wants.”
The Nails Inc relaunch coincided with the announcement over the summer of fashion icon Alexa Chung as brand ambassador. Chung wore the company’s leather-effect polish to the 2012 British Fashion Awards. The product sold out and created a waiting list of 3,000 customers. “We like exporting but we really love being a British brand, and she’s a great British style icon,” says Green.
Over 30,000 Nails Inc polishes are reportedly sold each week worldwide – all inspired by the catwalk. Always on the lookout for fresh inspiration, Green will be studying this month’s London Fashion Week in microscopic detail as she continues to expand the company abroad.
“International is now 30 per cent of the business but we think we can comfortably get that to 50 per cent over the next year,” predicts Green. “We’ve a big focus on the US market. I just came back from a trip to the Middle East and Hong Kong, where we had meetings with many of the retailers. We’ve signed a deal with a Taiwanese distributor who is opening 20 Nails Inc department store concessions in the next five years. The Middle East and Asia are the two big ones for us over the next two years. We’re looking at more of the same, too – more UK, more US.”
She compares the excitement from learning about and driving international markets to the early days of the business. Nails Inc has expanded its manufacturing operations into other countries but she is heartened that the company’s top 10 products are the same in all its markets. “It’s a nice testament in terms of consumer trust that the products you’re hero-ing, the customer is also excited about,” she says. “Everything we said we were going to do with Nails Inc on day one – set up nail bars with product, sell product outside of the nail bars and take that internationally – we did. Although international didn’t happen in one year, it happened in 10 years.”
Does she regret waiting? “No, I’m glad we waited. Lots of beauty brands launch internationally within one or two years and then come back with their tails between their legs, and start again 10 years later. I’m glad we waited to find the right partners.”
Five per cent of sales come from the Nails Inc website. The business asks customers for opinions on new products online and via social media but Nails Inc has the advantage of conversations in-store with consumers. “Compared to a lot of manufacturers we have been very lucky that we have always had communication with our customers from our nail bars. The technicians work with us on product development and every Monday morning our managers, who have been on the shop floor all week, are with us [at the company’s London head office] so we get a huge amount of information,” says Green.
She still visits all her stores. “You have to go into all your stores, not just your favourite one, and act like a customer to work out if that retail unit could be better. In an office everything looks perfect but a store gives you essential feedback in terms of why your communication plan wasn’t realistic. You can’t be in retail and sit in an office, you have to like being in stores.”
The majority of Nails Inc’s 400-plus staff – mostly women – have a background in retail not beauty. Retention is key. “It’s hard to find great people but once you’ve got a great person there is plenty of opportunity for Nails Inc to grow and for them to grow with us,” she admits. “Nails Inc is [made up of] a mix of entrepreneurial, learnt-on-the-job people and some more corporate-savvy people. Pretty much all of my senior team, if they weren’t working at Nails Inc, would be setting up their own businesses. They’re all entrepreneurial, self-managing and very creative.”
So what keeps them at the company? “I think we have great innovation and brand excitement – whether it’s product development or international growth. Everyone is making an impact. It moves at a hell of a pace so you can see [the results of] your work quickly,” she says. “Anyone who has ever had an ego seems to have left within five minutes.”
At head office, hours can be flexible. As a mother of three children under 12, Green and her husband, Printed.com founder Nicholas Green, know a thing or two about work-life balance. “My office works incredibly hard and barely ever closes; it’s open until crazy-o-clock every night,” she says. “There are people – me included – who will go home, see our kids, put them to bed, have dinner and work again at night. Others will come in early and leave early, or work flexible hours. A company of our size is always angling to get the best person, and if the best person wants to work four days a week or wants to work from seven in the morning until lunchtime so be it.”
In 2011, Green was awarded the MBE for services to the beauty industry. The honour is particularly rewarding for Green because Nails Inc is her first business. “Everything in the company, from the easy to the complicated, from managing people to managing product, to opening globally, has been learnt on the job. A lot of it sounds more complicated than it is. We spend our time trying to make the product perfect for the consumer but we don’t try to over-complicate. We make sure we are communicating well but don’t have meetings for the sake of having meetings.”
She is grateful to those backers who shared her vision and remained confident in her ideas. “When Nails Inc was a tiny business and we were trying to figure out how to be profitable it never seemed to worry anybody. I always had good finance people around me but if I have ever had a moment where I’ve gone, ‘Ooh, I’m worried about this, I need to make this better’ (and I haven’t had that feeling for a long time), it didn’t faze them. We’ve had a good group of people who all believe it’s going one way: bigger and better,” she says.
Hearing a customer in store ask for a product by name still excites her. “I love that about retail. It’s lots of little wins. There are probably much bigger, easier businesses to run, more self-managing in lots of ways, whereas retail is about all those elements coming together.” And if she hadn’t started Nails Inc? “I’d really wanted to be a fashion designer until I realised I couldn’t draw. Nails Inc is my fashion outlet. I went into fashion journalism but I think I always had a business in me.”
Her customers too will be glad she chose the nailbrush over the paintbrush.