Episode 150: Natasha Cornstein, CEO of Blushington

Like so many beauty leaders in this moment, Natasha Cornstein, CEO of Blushington, has had to rewrite the playbook from scratch, as they’ve closed their brick-and-mortar beauty lounges and have had to pivot overnight from one-on-one, in-your-face makeup applications to an emphasis on ecommerce and their curated selection of independent female-founded beauty brands. No mean feat.

Hear how this smart, resilient exec is trying to keep her company afloat, planning a future that is un-plannable and cherishing and supporting her team every day.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody. It's Jodi Katz, your host of WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® Podcast. We're in a work from home time period and we decided that the show must go on. We recorded this week's episode via Zoom. Our guest is Natasha Cornstein. She is the CEO of Blushington and if you missed last week's episode, it was one of the last episodes that we recorded face to face and it featured Paige Novick. She's the owner and founder of Paige Novick Fine Jewelry and Lifestyle. I hope you enjoy the show.

This is our first ever, ever work from home Zoom podcast recording and I am so pleased and Natasha Cornstein, CEO of Blushington is willing to be on this ride with us. Welcome to our show, Natasha.
Natasha CornsteinThank you Jodi so much for having me and what a great show you've started.
Jodi KatzOh, thank you. I feel like this is the reason why we created it. It's sort of the now and all this insecurity and self doubt and fear and just to be able to have access to real humans, real humans behind our industry. It's so meaningful for me.
Natasha CornsteinWell I really appreciate you saying that and I couldn't agree more. I think that we all thrive on community and now more than ever, despite being apart, this Zoom, our phone calls, the ability to be together and lean on one another is more important than ever.
Jodi KatzWell, I'm so glad you're here. Your episode will launch in about two weeks. My guess is we'll still be working from home in two weeks, but before we dive into how you as a leader are helping your brand and moving the industry forward, let's just go back in time a little bit to pre COVID. I want to hear about how you got started in the beauty industry and you have a really great story of how you met Blushington, so please share that with our fans.
Natasha CornsteinI'd love to share that. That I always talk about serendipity in life and that if you're listening and you're open and aware, anything is possible. And I was in Los Angeles in the summer of 2014, I was opening a new store for a prior brand and my publicist at the time turned to me and said, "Listen," she would probably say the same thing to me today, yeah, I've got a little more makeup on. Although I have my makeup on, I just need my Blushington artist to really pump it up. But at the time she said, "You have to have a head shot. You're in your forties. I can't send iPhone pictures anymore." And off we went for a blowout. And then she said, "You have to get your makeup done." I said, "I don't know where to get my makeup done." And she said, "I've just the place." And she took me to the very first Blushington that Stephi Maron, our founder, opened on Sunset Boulevard and I opened the door to that Blushington and for me it was love at first sight.

I walked into this beautiful lounge, something I'd never seen before. It wasn't a salon, it wasn't a nail place, it wasn't for a blowout. It was this beautiful feminine, very welcoming place that I found myself in and sat down and had my makeup done. And 30 minutes later I joke, I see I'm slouching here. I was standing six feet tall. I felt like myself. But just so that that burst of confidence, which I think is so fascinating about any beauty routine, whether it's taking care of your skin or taking a bath or having your makeup done, it is not about covering yourself up or hiding or camouflaging something that's a defect. It is about, I think, this boost of energy, of competence, of wellbeing. And that's what I took from that Blushington experience.

And the next day at a meeting where I was meeting a young woman that my boss at the time had asked me to sit down with, I was making small talk and when I love something, as I'm sure you do Jodi, more than anyone, when you love something, you talk about it. And I said, "Have you heard of this Blushington?" She said, "Not only have I heard of it, they're my client." And I said, "I can't believe this and would you please introduce me?" And she introduced me to Stephi that day and we spent three months by phone and email talking about what Stephi's vision was, where we could take the brand and they flew to New York in November of 2014, we met and I joined them in January of 2015 and it's been the most rewarding, incredible, challenging five years of my career.
Jodi KatzWhen you left the store for that first time, did you think to yourself, I want to be the CEO of this brand?
Natasha CornsteinI had no thought of that. I just left with this feeling of love and respect for what was created. Never in my imagination did I think I would be a part of Blushington. I left just so impressed and had so much respect for the idea. It was innovative. It was also luxury without the pretense. And what I mean by that, I grew up in the Midwest. I was very intimidated coming to New York City. And I remember as a young woman in my early twenties, I would be so nervous to walk into what I considered a fancy store or a luxury department store. And Blushington was really the antithesis of that. It was all the luxury, the beautiful finishings, the champagne that gets served to you, but with none of the pretense. Everyone was welcomed.

And I took that from my very first visit. And that's been really integral to building the Blushington experience of having that respite and that incredible experience, but where you feel comfortable and welcome. And I think that that is so important and beauty, that it's about belonging and being seen and heard and not feeling anxious or like it's super fancy and you have to be fancy. You've got to just be yourself. And that's part of what I love about Blushington.
Jodi KatzI'm 44, so I think you and I grew up with the same marketing messages when we were kids and beauty and luxury and fashion is all about exclusivity. It was about showing these markers of wealth. It was the private yacht in Capri. It was a private jet. That's how we were marketed to and I love that over the past few years and I think social media has helped us get there, mental health, physical health, ease, serenity, these are more markers of prestige. These are more of the things that we aspire for even before COVID.
Natasha CornsteinRight. No, I think long before this, and I think COVID has certainly sharpened an emphasis here, but something that I feel very strongly about and our team feels very strongly about is that inclusiveness is luxury and that it's that feeling of belonging that anyone is welcome. That's to me what true luxury is.
Jodi KatzRight. It's the opposite of, remember that scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts walks into the store in her original clothes and they won't talk to her. They weren't being helpful to her.
Natasha CornsteinBig mistake, with all the bag. Big, very big. I love that scene and I understand it. When you come from outside of that world and you just want to experience it or be a part of it, that is so taboo in the Blushington world. And I think in a lot of brands today. Everyone belongs. There's no Pretty Woman moment or certainly not that one.
Jodi KatzLet's shift gears a bit and talk about leadership during this time period. Maybe the universe connected us together at this moment because I needed to hear your messages because you're incredibly thoughtful and optimistic while also prepared to make hard decisions and navigate the unknown. Why don't you take us back a little bit to the thoughts and the thinking around how to prepare for COVID as it was becoming a topic in the US. And then we can see what happens next.
Natasha CornsteinSounds good. I feel we're now, I think in the first week of April, this started, at least in the world of Blushington and really came on our radar the week around March 10th. And it feels, I don't know if you feel this way Jodi, but it feels like a year ago already and the days, each day is so filled with learning and pivoting and new information that it's felt like a long time, but it's actually been a very short time. We made, well let me just say for anyone that's listening to us, if you're not familiar with Blushington, we have five makeup and beauty lounges. We're brick and mortar. We are in the business of touching faces and working very intimately with our customers on makeup applications, lashes, brows, skin care. We are working in very close proximity to one another.

And on March 13th, I made the very difficult decision to proactively close our Blushington stores out of concerns at the time that there was so much unknown and that I couldn't in good conscience, put my team at risk, put our customers at risk. And looking back, I can't believe this was our sentiment, but we sent out a note saying we are temporarily closing for two weeks. And we had preceded that announcement with pulling all of our open sell items, with ordering disposable brushes and then Friday the 13th, sending this two week closure notice. And by Sunday night I realized that this was going to be an indefinite closure and that we weren't looking at two weeks and maybe even two months or the timeline was clearly very unknown. And I woke up Monday morning sitting in this same spot at my desk and turned on my computer and said, "Where do I begin?" I said, "Everything I do today and for the coming days we'll define whether or not my business survives."

And with this unknown and particularly the timeline, which I think when you're a CEO or when you're sitting in the seat of making decisions, we're very used to looking a certain time of period out, whether that's short term or longterm and making our decisions. Some of it is forecasting, but often we have a very clear understanding of the timeline. This was really jarring to understand that there was no timeline here. And when I thought about how I wanted to approach this and where I wanted to begin, the first thing I thought about was the beauty community at large. That if I'm sitting at my desk at 8:00 AM on Monday morning thinking about where to begin, that there would be people across the country and our community in the same spot.

And I decided to put together what I called a beauty and wellness forum and reached out to about 25 other founders and CEOs in the beauty space, particularly in brick and mortar. And really it was peers and other, whether it was nails, fitness, blowouts, and also my competitors. And I think that that's really important. Whatever business you're in, there's room for more than just one. There are room for many brands to be successful. I have always tried to reach out to my competitors, to have a relationship and a dialogue. And I think now more than ever when you're facing similar challenges, put your brainpower together to make decisions.

And that quickly became sort of a lifeline for me. We brought this community together in a Slack forum and our first week together we were on conference calls every day. And since then we've been on two times a week. And the idea was to really focus on what it is we need to do and quickly. And in subject matters that may be as small business owners we haven't dealt with, having to negotiate with our landlords, we're used to making leases, not to having to put them on hold. We're used to hiring and growing. We're not used to thinking of furloughing or all of those difficult decisions. Crisis communications, you can go down the list.

And so that forum has now grown to over a hundred people. Jodi, you're a part of it and it's been a tremendous source of comfort. I would say to anyone that runs their own business, whether it's a small business or you're part of a large organization, build that circle around you of mentors and of peers. Because even in the day to day, we count on one another and it enriches your life. But now being in a crisis, being able to pick up the phone or send an email to a mentor or a friend or someone even you admire and don't know, and ask them to come and help has just been incredible. That's sort of a long answer.

But coming back to the question of how did we begin, the first thing we have to do as a business leader is get your financial house in order. Cash is really, we say at Blushington, cash is queen. Maybe others say cash is king. We're an all female founded and led brand. And so if you don't have cash in the bank, you will not survive. The very first thing that we did was to assess our cash position. And again, not knowing how long this will last, it was a real challenge. But I remain very optimistic, but made the decision to look at the potential of being closed for six months. And that's really how I approached our cash management. Of what is it going to take to get us here? And we immediately, we took out our P and L, we took out and we went line by line. We went vendor by vendor.

And our message was very simple. It was, we want to survive this and in order to survive this we need your partnership and we will meet our obligations in time. But for today, we need your partnership. And communication is always critical. I would say as a leader. That is sort of, you have to communicate to your team, to your customers, to the public, the good news, the bad news. Sometimes my style is very direct and I like to be very candid. I don't like to talk around anything in my organization, but particularly in crisis, whatever your style may be, this is the time to just put it out there and often. And so with all of our vendors and anywhere we had an expense, it was a very clear message. Let's partner and help one another so that when this passes and it will, that we will be able to be in business together.

And I can't tell you how incredible the response was from our partners. Whether it was our graphic designer, whether it was our utility companies, credit cards, insurance, and again, we went line by line and by the end of week one we had cut 81% of our expenses.
Jodi KatzWow, that's incredible. Natasha, what does that kind of conversation sound like when, if you call someone who's, maybe holds real estate for you, and you're paying a lease, how do you even start that conversation? And how do you be direct about it?
Natasha CornsteinLook, I believe in a partnership approach and as certainly the place to start. I think it's a very different message if you call your landlord and say, "There's a crisis, I'm not paying." That is very different than reaching out to your landlord and saying, "We had to close our stores, we have zero revenues coming in. I have applied for my business interruption insurance and been rejected and I want to reopen and I want to make, whether it's your shopping center or your building, I want it to be great. And I need your help." And that's really how we started the conversation with our landlords. We have had some really great early success and we have some conversations that are outstanding, but I really think that working through it and starting that conversation as partners is an approach that I would highly recommend.

If you're not having the response. And I'll switch gears. For example, I'll give a very practical example with our insurance. We filed our claims, they came back rejected and that's where we were. And I went back to our insurance company and said, "This is the time I need you. We can get our policies in order and update them once a year, but I need you to go to bat for us." And to their credit, and I want to call them out. I don't know if I can do this or not on your podcast but they're called the Mogil Organization. And to the credit of their leadership and their team, and I called not in a partnership mode. I was hot and I was very direct and they really stepped up. And the result of that was a massive reduction in our premiums and a holiday and payment.

And again, for anyone out there that's managing cash, this is not the time where you want to rack up debt, but you do want to preserve cash so that if you can stretch out your payments and again, do that in partnership. Don't surprise your vendors. Don't leave emails or calls unanswered. Communicate, and I think that's how we get through it.
Jodi KatzThe way that you speak about this, it sounds like you've been doing this, the sort of cash management crisis advising for a long time.
Natasha CornsteinIt's my first up to the rodeo, Jodi. I really credit having this forum and hearing from experts on the subject every day that really guided me. And having mentors that I could call on during this time. No one does this alone, but you have to make a plan and you have to have some sound boarding for that plan. And that's also just a style thing. My style is I try to surround myself with really smart people that know more than I do in finance, in operating a store, in marketing and mentors that are really iconic in their fields. And I like to listen and then I'll make a decision. I'm very decisive, but I don't like to make decisions in a vacuum. I do like to listen. And that doesn't mean you have to take a lengthy amount of time. I think decisions should be made in a timely matter and you have to know which decisions require more time than others. But I do think that getting feedback from people that you trust and that you think are smarter than you is very important to make decisions.
Jodi KatzLet's talk about the pace at which we're working right now. I want to show you my hands. I have these carpal tunnel gloves on because this is being at my desk for 10 hours a day and getting back to it after the kids go to bed, I've been typing more than ever. The stress, of course goes to these places. But these are old wounds that I haven't had a flare up in such a long time and now it's crazy. I actually had to, last week was so insane. Well, number one I should say, I'm so grateful that we're busy. We have lots of work and we have clients relying on us to help them solve these problems. We already addressed the crisis to the community that was appropriate and now it's about reloading launches, replanning content, advising them on what's to come next.

Grateful for the work, but the pace is like not sustainable for me. This weekend I went through my calendar and I blocked off every 12:00 to 2:00, two hour block for the next two months because I need to make my kids lunch, I need to eat lunch myself, I need to go outside and play. And I put another 30 minute break, around 4:00 or 4:30. I want to survive this emotionally, physically, mental health, not just financial.
Jodi Katz
Natasha CornsteinIt's critical. Yes.
Jodi KatzWhat are you doing in terms of how you're organizing your team, your time? Because work just keeps going on. It's 8:00 o'clock at night, it's 9:00 o'clock at night, it's 10:00 o'clock at night, it keeps going. Give me some advice. I need some of that expert reassurance.
Natasha CornsteinLook, I think that we're in a particular moment in time and that your hands and that armor are going to be tested for a little while longer. And I agree it's been a pace. I think for those of us that are in startup mode and smaller businesses, we are to a degree used to this pace, but this is the pace of a young company on steroids. I think, I couldn't agree with you more about the need to have that mental health break. We all work differently. I always look at my days and weeks in blocks of time. I have, we have an executive management team, we have our store managers, and then we have our all team communications. On March 15th, the Monday after we closed the stores, just reevaluate at the schedule.

I usually have a block of time that's finance, that's marketing. I've always blocked off time on Thursdays on my calendar for what I call thinking time. That where I can just sort of digest, think of what we've accomplished, what's in the weeks and month, that sort of time to just regroup. We just doubled down on those meetings. Our store manager calls went from one day a week to Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That was key for communication. Our executive team went from one time a week to three times a week and everyone had to be really flexible. I'm a working mom also, so I can relate to doing double duty and what it is to now have our children's studying from home, adds a whole other element. I have breakfast with my son in the morning. I do block off either 12:00 to 12:30 or 12:30 to 1:00 to have lunch with my son. And my team knows that I always have dinner with my family.

I will come back online after 8:30 and work as long as I need to into the evening until it's time to tuck my son in, and then have a few hours with my husband. But I really agree with you that that's critical. I also celebrate Shabbat on Friday night, so I do put my phone away at a certain point on Friday and we are not overly observant but I really put that phone away and then try to take the morning on Saturday, phone free. Read every single news, have every newspaper delivered to my house, do it old school. But it's really important. There's also something I learned in this time period. It's called a seven minute workout. There's an app, it's a seven minute workout and my husband and I are doing two a day, so 15 minutes, 14, 15 minutes. They're not exactly seven, but it's been great. And we do that in the morning and we do that in the evening before getting ready for dinner. And so that's been a great addition to the routine that we would have never made time for before.
Jodi KatzMaybe you can help me through this challenge I'm having now, which is my time. There's only whatever number of hours in the day. And then like I said, I'm going to eat lunch and I'm going to breathe and do other things. I'm challenged by all the places that I need to be and I really, I can't be in two places at once. What kind of guidance can you give me and our listeners about how to prioritize? I have my podcast, I have my clients, I have my new business. Oh, by the way, we plan on growing during this time period. I have a lot of initiatives that were underway, sort of in planning for COVID, to help us come out of this full steam ahead. I need some guidance here because there's just not enough hours.
Natasha CornsteinLook, I think time management and your seat and my seat has always been critical. But it's again, it's on steroids. It's even more critical because the decisions we're making right now are about, is your business going to be solvent? And will you be standing when the crisis passes? The way I approach it is really, I looked at this process as saying, "I have to get our financial house in order. And I need to keep my team and customers informed." That was my focus. Yes, do you have to triage things? But you have to be very disciplined about understanding what really needs to happen and what's noise that can be dealt with. And so, I'm making those decisions all the time, but once the financial house is in order, then it's about, I think really I looked within my organization and said, tried to say, "What are the strengths of the team I have here?"

My stores are now closed. We have to pivot our entire business and take what is an in person brick and mortar business and make it a virtual business and stay true to who we are and communicate the way we communicate at Blushington. And drive eCommerce, which has never been a big part. We've built it. We have eCommerce, we have 52 plus emerging brands founded by women, but it was about setting up eCommerce and the distribution and improving the website. I looked at the talent on my team and really looked at captains. Who is going to be the captain of eCommerce? Who was going to be the captain of taking this business from a brick and mortar business to a virtual business? Who is going to be overseeing financial and legal? And really designating for us at Blushington, what were the key areas, a captain and really putting a lot of faith.

We're a tight knit team. I like to have my hands in everything. I like to listen and be a part of it. But this is a time where delegating is critical. And that's not just delegating an off and run. That's about, we check in with one another, but we have a very clear set of what it is we're trying to accomplish. That's something that's worked very well. And I think probably something that will make us a healthy organization, to have a little bit more independence across this very talented management team to move us forward and make decisions versus us always checking in on every single thing we're doing. I think we'll actually be better for that. Because I understand, I love to be, hear everything be a part of everything. But that's, it's not sustainable and it's probably not as healthy for the business.
Jodi KatzYeah. I actually watched as my team grew over the past year and we moved into this really pretty office that everyone likes being in because it feels like just a few living rooms. It doesn't feel like an office. I watched the team love being together and my roots are actually as a virtual business. This was a new phenomenon. And I actually saw okay, it's nice that they're kind of talking as a committee but it's so inefficient and as a working mom, I would never work that way. It's not my style. This whole work from home and in preparation for work from home, that was one of the conversations. It's nice that you all have each other, but it's not the most effective and efficient way to do the work. Come together when you really have a problem to solve, solve your own problems on your own time and move the work forward. I do believe that this is getting that out of our system. It's save that for, who should we order lunch from today? Decide that as a committee but get the work done more effectively and efficiently.

Now I'm ready to move to another part of our podcast, which is actually fan questions for you.
Natasha CornsteinOkay.
Jodi KatzWe asked our fans on social what they wanted to hear from you and Natasha.
Natasha CornsteinThat's a nice surprise. Okay.
Jodi KatzYeah. These are a little lighter in topic.
Natasha CornsteinOkay.
Jodi KatzWhy don't you tell us, where did the name of the brand come from?
Natasha CornsteinOkay, so Blushington was created by Stephi Maron our founder, when she was 21 years old. She wanted the name to be evocative of makeup and to have the consumer immediately understand that this was about beauty, but she also wanted it to be a destination. And as she was thinking through names, it's not easy to find a name that hasn't been taken. And so she really was going through various names. She had lived in London and studied there and loved London. She was thinking of beauty and places she loved. Lexington, Kensington. And that's really where the name come from. She married makeup and some of her favorite destinations. And that's really what the brand is all about. It's a destination for beauty.
Jodi KatzIt's such a great name and it really is so evocative.
Natasha CornsteinThank you. Yeah Stephi, that's Stephi's brainchild and she did an amazing job creating a name that we still love to this day.
Jodi KatzThis next question is very forward thinking.
Natasha CornsteinOkay.
Jodi KatzHow do you pick the brands that you feature at Blushington?
Natasha CornsteinIt's a great question. I think we really have a very clear philosophy on brands. We don't bring on the full line of any brand we carry. We want the Blushington experience to be about personalized beauty and our expert makeup artists led by Stephi, go through and test every brand that we bring on. And we only bring in the SKUs from a brand that our artists can really stand behind, that we feel are best of the best. We try to avoid duplication. There are some categories where that's not as easy like lipstick. Can never have enough shades of lipstick, but we really work very hard to find best of the best.

The other criteria for us is 98, 99% of our brands are founded by women. We're very passionate about finding brands that are female founded. And that is all, that's a big criteria for us. And we're often the first a retailer to bring a brand on to brick and mortar. That's something that we look for also, to champion a young brand that maybe you can find in many other places. And we take, that's something that we're passionate about and it's very exciting to help be a part of nurturing and growing someone else's brand.
Jodi KatzWell on that note, I'm going to add my own question here.
Natasha CornsteinOkay.
Jodi KatzIt's the last question. With this idea of the captains leading the charge in different segments of your business, do you have a captain on the what's next? The July and beyond.
Natasha CornsteinThat's me.
Jodi KatzThat's you. Okay.
Natasha CornsteinThat's me. And I think that that's probably not uncommon, but that's really, I consider one of my main responsibilities, which is where will we take the business and how will we have to potentially consider adjusting our business or the delivery of services or even the footprint of our stores? Those are conversations I'm having and that have started and consider that really sort of a key. I consider myself captain of planning for the future, along with my team where the discussion becomes very collaborative.
Jodi KatzWell, Natasha, we did it. We did our first Zoom podcast.
Natasha CornsteinI hope I recorded it and that you can see me.
Jodi KatzI know. Fingers crossed.
Natasha CornsteinAnd I hope that we can do this again when I have a Blushington makeup artist with me.
Jodi KatzFor our listeners, I hope you enjoy this interview with Natasha. Natasha, I want to thank you for your wisdom and your really generous thoughts on how to evolve through COVID. And for our fans, please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show. Follow us on Instagram @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to WHERE BRAINS MEET BEAUTY® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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