Why isn’t there more makeup for women worried about skin problems? That was the question that prompted Jamie Kern to quit her job as a TV news anchor in Portland, Ore., and launch a cosmetics company with her husband in 2008. By 2010, IT Cosmetics took in just over $1 million in revenue. This year, the Jersey City (N.J.)-based company’s products were a mainstay on QVC (LINTA), helping drive more than $75 million in sales and pushing the company to expand to 41 employees.
For Kern, it’s been a winding road. She won the Miss Washington pageant in 2000 and appeared on the reality TV show Big Brother. She enrolled in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, thinking that an MBA would provide a path to a career in management consulting—then caught the bug for TV news and took a $24,000-a-year job at a local station in Tri-Cities, Wash., in 2004.
I recently spoke with Kern, 36, about her path to entrepreneurship and getting IT Cosmetics off the ground. Edited excerpts follow.
Let’s start from the beginning: How did you wind up going from business school to TV news?
In business school, I realized, “I’m spending so much money on this, and it’s going so fast.” I started thinking, how do you maximize the value [of the program]? I started writing for the newspaper at Columbia and sitting down with professors, or with alumni, and asking them, “What do you wish you knew when you were here? What did you fail at?” I felt like [journalism] is what I want to do for my career. So when everyone else was making a lot of money during their summer internships, I went out to Yakima, Wash., [to work at a local news station] for free and shot video and learned to write.
Why did you make your next move?
In the small market, I found it really fulfilling, because you can do lots of interesting stories. My last job was in Portland, Ore., and I found that in the bigger market, the job was hyper crime-focused. Every day, I’d be at murders. Even if you cared about a family you’d meet, you couldn’t because the next day it was on to the next murder. I knew that wasn’t where I was going to end up. I didn’t think: “I’m going to launch a makeup company.” The white space just presented itself.
What do you mean by ‘white space’?
I remember in the middle of one newscast—it was during a break—and I wiped my forehead and my eyebrow came off. I started searching for problem-solving products, and there really weren’t any. Intuitively, I thought that problem-solutions would be a niche space, but the more I did my research, I found out almost 100 percent of women have some sort of skin issue they’re concerned about, whether it’s acne-prone skin, sensitive skin, hyper-pigmentation. I saw that there was this huge space that no one was really talking to. Right away, that became really interesting to me.
What was it like in the beginning?
We started out running the business out of our apartment in Studio City, Calif. We used to have actresses living in our home in exchange for packing boxes. My middle name is Marie, so Marie had a company e-mail account. She handled our PR, she reached out to all these buyers. You don’t want to be the founder who’s always bothering buyers. If my cat’s name wasn’t Scruffy, Scruffy would have had an e-mail account.
What was your big break?
We launched on QVC in September 2010. I’d been sending my products to them for a long time and always heard “no.” We were at an awards event, and their buyers actually tried the products and freaked out. We had five airings that year. In 2011, we had 151 airings. We started spending a lot of time at [West Chester (Pa.)-based] QVC physically. That’s when we made a decision that to grow, we had to come to the East Coast.
What lessons did you take from those early years?
I probably heard “no” more than any other word during the first few years. We’d send creative gift baskets to the buyers, then we’d send flowers to thank them for looking at the gift baskets. And then we’d hear, “No, we’ll never carry a line like this; it’s not our customer.” To tell you the truth, I don’t even think [buyers] try the products half the time. One of the hardest things was figuring out how to not to let “no” create doubt in your mind.