This autumn, Veronique Gabai launched her own fine fragrance brand into Liberty’s and it is literally flying off the shelves. She isn’t an influencer. She doesn’t have a bulldozer social media marketing plan.
She hasn’t #spon’d a single person to post about her products. In fact there was zero advertising anywhere. The magic formula comes from Veronique’s years and years of business acumen gathered at powerhouse companies such as L’Oreal, Estee Lauder and Guerlain, where she created hundreds of best-selling products including the iconic DNKY Be Delicious, Guerlain Terracotta bronzer and Armani Acqua di Gio.
You’re the ambitious office assistant but no one’s hearing you. Or you manage a team but someone’s undermining you. Maybe you have a bright idea bouncing inside your head but you’re too scared to push it into a real-life brand. Before you quit, run to HR or cancel that URL subscription, you 100% need to read these words of advice from a genuine, fully-fledged entrepreneur who has been there and done it in spades.
She hit the top, but an idea deep inside was radiating. After years of daydreaming but doubting herself, she finally set up her own brand. And it’s worth the wait. Her eponymous collection is inspired by the Cote d’Azure and its pleasure-seeking vibe: think glistening golden bottles filled with skin-hugging perfume, scented jewellery, velvety body balms and glowing highlighters that make skin look so beyond extra it needs its own yacht in Cannes. Her Noir de Mai perfume is constantly selling out for its dark, rebellious rose scent that has strangers stopping wearers in the street.
The products are officially incredible, but to cut it in this industry and be a success take a serious amount of balls, brains and boardroom hindsight. So we asked Veronique to fast-track us into being a sharper business mind with most important lessons she learnt along the way, from bottom-of-the-ladder advice and managerial skills to self-confidence crisis solutions and how to really succeed in launching your own brand.
You’re not supposed to find your purpose right away
When you’re starting out in your career you need to explore. But the moment that you find the ‘thing’ that you’re passionate about doing then suddenly it doesn’t feel like work anymore. That’s when you know it’s the right path, because you truly love it.
Be eager in the climb up
It’s the only way you will get noticed by the people who have the power to allow change to happen for you. When I started out I was eager to learn, eager to grow and eager to do more. But it was not just out of pure ambition; it was the desire to do well and to serve my brands and my company well. Eagerness will become your driving force.
And be precise. Don’t leave anything to chance
I would double and triple and quadruple check everything. As a junior marketer I would put in the hard work and I did it with passion and creativity, and that’s when I got noticed. I was given a lot of responsibility because people started to trust me as a good worker and a good strategic mind.
Being bullied will empower you one day
I was bullied once by a line manager and unfortunately that will happen when someone isn’t comfortable with your success. It was merely out of jealousy and they felt the need to control me. It was a good lesson in becoming a manager myself, and how not to treat people! I was glad it happened because in my corporate years I was able to build wonderful teams of people who had great skill sets but I would make sure they shared a common values system so that their freedom stayed cemented in the organisation.
If you want creative freedom, you need be accountable
That’s what I learnt through managing a team. As I became responsible for other people I felt my role was not to micromanage or define precisely the day-to-day pace of other individuals but to share with them a common vision, explain the vision and give them a sense of how to achieve it. I gave my teams freedom in executing their part of my vision, but they also had to be accountable for that part. If you explain that everybody contributes to this creative whole you instil in them a feeling that they are part of a team and that nothing can happen on its own. So the part they play is super important, but the part their colleagues play is equally important too; that’s how you create a true team spirit.
Flexible working will empower you and your team
I would give my teams, the independence of doing their part in any way they wanted. If someone wanted to work from 6am to 9am then take a break I didn’t care! If a woman wanted to work from home half of the week because she had a baby that was fine! It’s not about the format of work, it was about the work itself. I wanted my team to really be able to do their work in the way they wanted to do it. This idea that everybody can bring to the whole in their own way, as long as they share a common value system, I think that’s very powerful.
Listen to what more senior people have to say
Sometimes they won’t say what you want to hear, but they will teach you something. Maybe their work style is a little more old-fashioned, but it will teach you about relationships and what’s truly important in business. The world has changed dramatically today and technology has changed every facet of how we do business and how we’re building relationships, not just at work but in life. But sometimes when we use this fast-paced technological life and try to build business on a virtual level those crucial relationship lessons built on ethics and respect and integrity and human connection can get lost.
Seek out mentors
I had two very important mentors at L’Oreal. One taught me about the enormous amount of attention you have to put into the details, because it’s the details that create a sensation the consumer will get out of your product. Those sensations are something you can’t explain, you can’t express, but the consumer will feel.
The other really showed me my forte. He said to me one day “you have a super creative soul but you like to call the shots. And if you want to call the shots you’re going to have to drive business and put aside your creativity.” At the time I was like “what are you talking about?!” But I realised what he was saying to me is that if you want the power of driving a business then sometimes you have to prioritise drive over creativity. And as I grew as a business person I had to learn to let go of some of the things I love to do, and surround myself with people who can do it as well as I used to, or even better!
Open yourself up to being inspired by other people
It’s the only way you can unlock your own ideas. Monsieur Guerlain taught me about the beauty of fragrance making. I owe it to him to understand the quality that you need to put into a fragrance. Then Leonard Lauder really instilled in me the capacity to create relationships, to see the potential a business can have and the steps you need to take in order to get there. He did it in a very human way and it had an enormous impact on me.
Have a clear concept before you think about launching a brand
The core of Veronique Gabai was very clear from the beginning and there for a long, long time. It was twofold: the aesthetic approach with the spirit and feeling of the Cote d’Azure, the colours and textures and light, and the sensorial emotion. And the other part of it was the ‘psyche’ of the Mediterranean culture, which is rooted in humanism, nature, hedonism and filling your life with pleasure.
You need to put business before ego
It took me a long time to launch my brand because I was absolutely not sure of myself. I was very frightened of the judgement that people could have upon what I was doing. I was afraid of rejection. And it took me a while to overcome the fear and to accept that when you make that decision to launch a brand it cannot be an ego trip. Naturally you want people like it and for it to be successful, but at the same time you have to create distance and not take it personally. The brand will take on a life of its own, so you have to accept that you’re creating something that should and could live with or without you. And the minute you start thinking this way, your own personal feelings don’t matter so much.
Try not to ‘be’ your own brand
As a brand founder the biggest challenge is when you transition from doing it all on your own to then needing financial partners to help you develop the vision the way you want it to be. So even if the publicity around the brand is positive, the logical path is that people want a proof of concept before they give you their support. And so at the beginning I had a lot people holding me accountable and naturally I felt that churning of self-confidence inside me. Then I said to myself ‘wait, this is business and if I wanted to invest in a company I need to know if this will have legs and do well’. So I started to see my brand as a brand and not an extension of myself. That’s when investors began truly trusting me.
Accept rejection, then use it well
If something goes wrong, fix it and don’t dwell on it. Take the little victories every day and use them to give you energy to continue. And you have to be attentive to the signals that people give you. I tend to be a very driven person but sometimes when you’re so driven and pushing your own agenda you forget to listen – and those signals could help you evolve the business in the right way.
You have to be in love with the process of making your brand
Because the process is difficult. It’s not fun all the time! You have to tolerate not just the development part, but the contingency fixing and the financial constraints. If you have to be the CEO, the messenger, the assistant – you have to do it all. So if you can’t be in love with the process you’re going to be resentful and frustrated. It’s like being a rockstar: we all love the idea of being centre stage but are you in love with the early days of gigs where you have to wake up at 5am and climb into a rotten truck to stinking dive bars? Are you in love with that process as well? Many dreams are washed away by the difficulties of making it happen. You have to like building.
And you have to like people
Because you will never be progress in your career or start a company alone. You have to like interaction, listening to people and hearing what they have to say. When you launch a brand you launch a point of view, and you have to respect that the consumer might have a different opinion and that you can’t be everything to everyone.