How Michelle Lin Went From NYU Dropout To Millionaire CEO
Posted on March 7, 2017 by Natasha Clark
Michelle Lin was a New York University student with big ideas, an affinity for entrepreneurism and a head for leadership. She had a variety of interests she felt she couldn’t pursue under one degree and changed her major six times before deciding to give up college altogether.
Two years later, at 24, Lin is the cofounder and CEO of multi-million dollar startup Live Love Polish, based in New York. I caught up with Lin in February, fresh off her Forbes 30 Under 30 recognition for her outstanding work in retail and ecommerce.
She and her brother Wayne, 28, decided to launch Live Love Polish because they saw a lucrative opportunity to sell artisanal quality, non-toxic nail polish online where selections are often limited. They also offer nail art and treatments, along with other beauty products. When Lin dropped out of NYU to pursue her dream and her brother Wayne took the leap from his promising job at Amazon, the siblings faced a new hurdle on their startup journey – immigration. While the average entrepreneur preps to pitch to investors, the Lins were prepping to pitch for far greater odds.
As immigrants to the United States, Lin said, “Because we’re not Americans, we were not allowed to work here. We had to put together hundreds of pages of paperwork. We had to explain it to an immigration officer. The state of our business was based upon us being able to pitch this product to an immigration officer.”
The duo completed their application process with success and together they headed off to answer the next question: How do you build a startup from scratch?
Live Love Polish is an online beauty retailer that curates luxury and artisan cosmetics. Their products do not contain the chemicals formaldehyde, toluene or dibutyl phthalate – three toxic, popular ingredients often found in most nail polishes. These substances have been linked to liver and kidney failure, cancer and increased risks to the central nervous system and respiratory tract.
“A lot of cosmetics companies use these in their products because their cheap to mass produce,” Lin said. “The USDA doesn’t regulate these ingredients. [The year] 1938 was last time the U.S. regulated cosmetics. Generally, any nail polish brand and any beauty brand goes to mass manufacturers so the products that you’re getting are the same thing packaged under a different brand name. Same colors like red, nude, they just recycle these for different brands.”
Live Love Polish works with a network of artisans across the United States who specialize in making nail polish with non-toxic ingredients, and Lin and Wayne are heavily involved in the design process.
How They Launched
“When we first started, we were running on a tight and limited budget. We were living in a studio apartment and we stored all of the inventory in the apartment on these shelves we built out of boxes,” Lin explained. We got a couple of orders and they kept increasing and we had to store it on Wayne’s bed.”
It was important for them to grow steadily and not rush to build out before they were ready. Lin said a lot of startups don’t need venture capital but they go after it for validation, and that was a route she was not interested in taking. They didn’t want to give up equity nor have “all of this excess cash just sitting there,” so they invested their own savings into the business. Still, she admitted that not being a venture capital funded startup is very difficult, especially when you need to buy inventory.
When their East Village apartment was packed from floor to ceiling with nail polish, they moved into a 500 square foot office in Koreatown. They outgrew that in a couple of months and re-settled in Long Island City in a 3,000 square-foot space.
When it comes to scaling and becoming a sustainable retail and ecommerce business, Lin said there are a number of factors in play and that often the easiest avenue founders take is to just throw a lot of money into paid marketing.
“If you put money into marketing, you’re going to get results. If you just blow money on advertising, it becomes a drug and it becomes more expensive. We’ve always tried to avoid wasting money on advertising,” Lin shared. “We watch our financials very carefully. When there’s a cost that we feel is unnecessary, [we axe it]. Our office is very modest. We’re not blowing money on office equipment or tradeshows. We don’t think the ROI is high. Watch your spending.”
Learning How To Lead
Since those early days in that cramped studio apartment, Live Love Polish has grown to 15 employees, their website generate 50 million new visitors in 2016 and nearly 1 million social media followers. Lin said the beauty market is so saturated right now that unless entrepreneurs are, “ready to come in with something exceptional, it’s not worth it. There’s so much junk. The only way to stand out is to create something truly great.”
Lin is headstrong when it comes to what she wants, and she believes her personality coupled with her passions made being an entrepreneur the right choice for her. “I’ve always been someone who I have a personality that is very difficult to work with if I am working under someone. I am very blunt and straight forward. I get very irritated by incompetence. That’s when I learned I really don’t like working for someone else. I also have so many different interests. That’s why I dropped out of college. Academia was telling me I had to work in one thing. I had to have a major. As an entrepreneur, I get to work in sales and designs, etcetera. It allowed me to exercise all of my passions and my talents. I think traditionally CEOs are seen as leaders that specialize in one thing. In this new generation of startups, people value generalization.”
She finds motivation through achieving growth and reaching milestones and takes pride in creating a team that really loves to come to work. When it comes to leading a team, Lin said being able to empower your employees is important.
“One of our employees handles social and graphics. She was a student at FIT. I noticed she had a lot of attention to esthetic details. I said, ‘I’m going to put you in this area and grow you in this area’ and there’s nothing that makes me happier than that. You can be a parent to many people and help them excel and grow. I get really excited when I see someone on our team being able to do something that they thought they couldn’t,” Lin said.
She also believes that working mothers are an untapped resource and hopes more workplaces will start investing in and catering to them. “Mothers are extremely responsible. We’ve employed mothers in our company and lots of students and artists. I hope more companies start doing that,” Lin said.
Lin and Wayne were surprised to be recognized by Forbes for their 30 Under 30 awards. She said the feature was a big and unexpected achievement. “I woke up and got a text from my friends and family like, ‘You’re on Forbes!’”
For now, she is focusing on growing Live Love Polish. “There’s a laughing joke across everyone I know that work is kind of my life. I know a lot of people try to find work-life balance but I found if I have too much ‘life,’ I get bored. I do like to see friends once in a while and I exercise a lot and I like to see my family. I think I get away with it because I don’t mind work-life balance. I do know the way that I live some people would find it intolerable,” Lin added.
I agree with Lin, most people would find that kind of imbalance unbearable, but getting through the intolerable is often what separates the good from the great.
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