Rose-Marie Swift was a beauty industry icon long before she launched her cult-favorite line, RMS Beauty, in 2009. The now 65-year-old traveled the world as a makeup artist, a favorite of Vogue and a frequent collaborator with noted photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Patrick Demarchelier. Then, she got sick.
In her late 30s, Swift started experiencing a bizarre mix of health problems from insomnia and panic attacks to immune issues. When her doctor couldn’t diagnose her, she had a lab run an advanced blood, hair, and urine analysis. The lab tech found high levels of numerous chemicals, and asked Rose-Marie if she worked in the cosmetic industry, which freaked her out; he said he saw a lot of people come to the lab with similar problems, all of whom did hair and makeup. So Rose-Marie detoxed her life. “I went on this mad purging of my body,” she remembers. “I became a raw foodist. I was only eating organic, and doing every weird thing you can do to clean your body out.” She started researching just how frequently consumers were exposed to chemicals on a daily basis, and how completely unregulated the cosmetic industry really was. At this point “clean makeup” was a novel concept; mineralized formulas were new on the scene. But Rose-Marie, who concocted the idea for RMS Beauty as a cream-based cosmetics line, knew organic creams were the future. There was only one problem: she couldn’t find a lab to make her products.
Eventually, she stumbled upon manufacturing and sales specialist Elaine Sack, now RMS Beauty’s CEO, who fell in love with the concept of organic creams. The two started a partnership that has lasted for more than a decade—not that it was seamless, mind you. They have had plenty of unexpected snags along the way. Here, they open up about the problem with Big Beauty advertising in magazines, the difficulty in finding sustainable packaging, and why they’re better off during a crisis without investors.
Elaine was working at the lab that originally created RMS Beauty products. How did you snap her up?
Call me old school, but I have always saved my money and never really splurged. I had saved up all my life, and because I’m a saver, I wanted to do something with it. The line was really coming along, and I think the universe threw her at me. She started working out of her house in a sort of sales and marketing role; I still remember the first month, we made $3,000 and we were so happy. Eventually, we made her VP of Operations, and then COO, and then CEO. But this is really good, about the beginning. The lab Elaine had been working at was actually money-laundering.
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Rose-Marie: This is the most amazing story. You’re not even going to believe this.
Elaine: He wasn’t really “money-laundering.” What he was doing was taking people’s down payments and just pocketing the money… not producing their goods.
Rose-Marie: Saying they were going to go on QVC, things like that. He would pocket the money and then never make the goods. Nobody knew this was going on. The only reason my products were actually taken on and made was because the chemist was really interested in making my products; they were new and different. No one was really doing this cream-based skincare at the time with color. One day Elaine called me just as my products were coming off the run and they were being piled into boxes. I was in Paris doing [a shoot for] French Vogue, and I’ll never forget she called me and said, “Rose-Marie, you have got to get your stuff out of here ASAP.” I was like, “I’m in Paris! I can’t!” She said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”
Elaine: I was already out of the lab and working for Rose-Marie when they found this out, but the products were still being made there. The company had been falling apart, and the EPA had discovered issues as it was closing.
Rose-Marie: Elaine had the stuff scooped up out of there and put into cold storage for me, and the next day, the EPA came in there and bolted up that lab with everything in it. She saved my life, and I have never, ever forgotten that.
Elaine, I want to ask what you thought of Rose-Marie when she brought in her original concepts?
Elaine: When I was working at the lab, Bare Minerals had just brokered their sale to Shiseido. Everyone who was calling the lab I worked for wanted to be the next Bare Minerals. They were very much like, “I have this great idea; I want to make this powdered mineral line.” It was models, characters on reality shows, former actresses calling, and it just seemed like the same thing over and over again. When Rose-Marie first called she was on the set of a Victoria’s Secret photoshoot, and she kept saying, “Hold on, honey. Hold on—” and then she’d set the phone down for a second to put jojoba oil on someone’s legs. Then she’d come back on the phone, and would be yelling out instructions at the models. “Don’t sit there.” “Stay here!” “Let that dry.” It was so cute. She was moderating her job on the phone and then was like, “Hey, I have this great idea. It’s based on my raw food lifestyle and it’s going to be all cream-based cosmetics. I’m going to call it Green Beauty.” She really was the mother of this concept. Everyone else was doing these terrible powdered lines. I’ve never had phenomenal skin, but I always tried them because it promised so much flawlessness and an airbrushed look. When you put the powders on, it was nice. But within a couple of minutes, it just settled into every pore, every blemish, every wrinkle, every fine line.
Rose-Marie’s concept was so brilliant because it really mimicked the texture of your skin. After connecting with her, I felt like every call I took I was comparing to what Rose-Marie wanted to do; it really was, out of the gate, the most innovative line I was working on—and I was working with doctors, chemists, dermatologists, all these people who really wanted to bring interesting things to the marketplace. But she was the only proven makeup artist who knew both cosmetics and skin. I just knew there was something there and she would be a great success, but she also had this really wonderful position in that she could actually try the products on the models. From a business standpoint, I was such a believer in the line. From a personal standpoint, I was such a believer in Rose-Marie, because her passion was right up there with what I aligned with, as well.
Rose-Marie, did you self-fund to get your line off the ground?
Rose-Marie: Honey, I’m still self-funding. We have no investors. I’m not allowed to say I hate investors, but I don’t really like them because they wreck your brand. They trick you into taking a lot of money, and then water down the whole concept of what you were originating and doing. When I talk to other founders who have gotten investors, they say, “Whatever you do, try to hold on for as long as you can without investors, because it’s a nightmare.” They own you.
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Do you remember how much money you put in to start?
Elaine: In the beginning, I believe the initial purchase order to produce the first run was $60,000 to $70,000 for 18 SKUs.
Rose-Marie: I financed the brand entirely myself right from the beginning and still do. I have never taken a loan for my brand, ever. The first thing I bought was jars. I fought with every single packaging company because they kept pushing plastic, plastic, plastic. I said, “Do not send me plastic, I will send it right back.” They’d send plastic. They would not take no for an answer. Finally, I found an old, old, old jar—a mold from the 50s or 60s—and then I found a bunch of them on McKernan’s. I found 120,000 for just cents each, so I bought them all. It was expensive, like $20,000 or something, and then McKernan calls me and says, “Rose-Marie, where would you like us to send the jars?” And I say, “Well, what do you mean?” They’re like, “Where should we send them?” And I go, “Well, I don’t know.” And they said to me, “You’re new to this, aren’t you?” I said to them, “Yeah, I thought you’d keep these in a warehouse for me until I need them or know where to go with them.”
They were nice; McKernan’s kept them for a few weeks and then they said, “You have to move this. It’s 12,000 pounds.” And I was like, god, I can’t have these sent to my apartment in New York. So, I phoned Elaine, and she said, “Just have them sent here.” And so she rescued me again.
What has helped you stay together over the years? What are the best parts of your partnership?
Rose-Marie: We always saw things eye-to-eye. Elaine’s really good at the business aspect; you can’t get anyone better than her, and I’m really good at the creative. We never fought over territory there. I respect her; if she ever had a suggestion—like let’s do a color like this or a product like this—I would listen to her, whereas a lot of times I would write people off if they weren’t makeup artists. I’ve been working with the best people in the world, so if someone’s got an opinion, it usually doesn’t mean that much to me unless they’ve been in the industry for a long, long time. But with Elaine, it was different. She respected my part, what I did for the company, and I respected what she does for the company.
"Investors trick you into taking a lot of money, and then water down the whole concept of what you were doing."
Elaine: I think it’s really nice, too, that I don’t want to get involved in the creative. Rose-Marie even yesterday was talking to me about some photography and editing. I said, “Rose-Marie, you do whatever you think is the best. I trust your judgment.” And the same is the case if I’m on the call with Sephora or talking to somebody about what’s the best way to ship display units, I would never say, “Hey Rose-Marie, what do you think about this?” She would say, “No, that is your area.” It’s the ultimate divide-and-conquer.
In the C-suite level, there’s a lot of hashing out, reviewing, exploration, and permission, but Rose-Marie and I just go for it. We trust that each has gotten this far using these methods, and it really works for us and shaves off a lot of time in our day so we can be productive and focus on what we do best. There’s a lot of trust here. A lot of creatives hammer in a lot of the business side, but that’s not always their strength and specialty. We have those two lanes so well-defined. We get a lot done.
You started developing products for your brand in 2008, the year of the Great Recession. Did you think about the economic upheaval that was going on at the time, or make any strategic decisions about your launch as a result?
Rose-Marie:What’s interesting is that I didn’t know it was uncertain, economically. I had my job; I was working, doing makeup every day for Victoria’s Secret and all these other huge campaigns. I don’t really go by the economy; I’d think investors would be more interested in that. But we were very lucky when I think about it, the way doors opened for us back then, because I could name-drop. I hate to say this, but name-dropping opens doors like a house on fire. I remember I was in Paris, when I first had my brand, I took a few products into a store and said I was there doing French Vogue and I named the photographer, and so on and so forth. The next day, they got on the phone and ordered the brand. If I was some little hippie chick from Vancouver, where I’m from originally, I don’t think anyone would have paid attention. I think having Gisele and Miranda Kerr and the models promoting me to editors of magazines really helped open the doors.
Elaine: I would also say that while the recession affected a lot of people’s pocketbooks, there was such an interest in this category because it was so niche. There were also a lot of people out there craving clean cosmetics. We really were one of the loudest and the first on the scene, so we had this built-in audience of people who were waiting for it. And when you talk about the recession, it wasn’t $400 or $500 face creams or certain luxuries. We had an acceptable price point, so it didn’t affect us negatively. We were very fortunate.
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You both knew this idea could be a huge game-changer. But when did you really see and feel RMS was resonating with women out in the world?
Rose-Marie: This is actually kind of sad. It was great with the models and some of the stores taking it, but we had a big problem with magazine editors at the beginning. I remember going home crying. They’d all work with me [on photoshoots], so I got to see the editors very easily for an appointment. But the problem was this line was stepping on advertisers’ toes. How do you have a magazine with paid advertising from Estee Lauder, Chanel, and Lancome feature this little clean line? Where do you put it? I didn’t get press for quite a long time, and then all of a sudden something just happened. Things started changing. I think it had a lot to do with the celebrities going very clean with their diets, and the conversation started to expand to skin. That got the momentum going with editors because celebrities started mentioning my name. But there were down points of that; a celebrity would say, “Oh, I’m using RMS Beauty Smile at the Cheek.” But the magazine wouldn’t put that in the magazine. They’d put bigger brands in. Me, being an artist, I noticed that. I used to be very upset that they’d mention my name when a celebrity was attached, but other than that they paid no attention to me.
Elaine: And at the time we launched, there wasn’t Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. It was a completely different personal perspective at the time. Brands now have this easier platform, which, oh my god, I wish we had that 11 years ago. I believe we had a lot of success because the products are very well-crafted, and they sell themselves; our “Un” Cover-Up is a top 15 concealer on Sephora, depending on when you ask. And we hardly leaned into the brand with marketing or promotion until a couple years ago. I mean, we still use some of the same copy and images from five, six, even seven years ago. The products have outlasted new brands coming into the space, because they are so well-made.
Also, I hate this concept, but we were always kind of the “cool girl” brand. Rose-Marie would be with models and editors, different celebrities, and they’d open up their purse and show us, “Look! I’ve got your Luminzer,” or, “This is my favorite eye polish.” It was a lot of word-of-mouth from people with whom RMS really resonated. We didn’t pay for advertising. We weren’t putting ads in magazines or paying for radio spots or television spots.
Rose-Marie: Then it got to the point where the magazines had to put RMS in, because everyone was talking about the brand. They had no choice.
Not only is clean beauty such a huge space now, but the dewy, glowy look is very “on-trend”. To think someone wasn’t paying attention to that.
Elaine: Rose-Marie and I went to one makeup trade show, I think it was Makeup in New York in 2009. Do you remember this, Rose-Marie? All these makeup artists came up to the table where we were stationed, one after the other, excited to meet Rose-Marie because they knew her name, her reputation. But at the end of the day, every one of these artists had the mattest makeup on. Flat, matte, just really dry. It was so bizarre to me.
Rose-Marie just said, “You watch. This Luminzer, the dewiness, the glow. This is coming.” She was such a trend forecaster early on, and she held onto the belief that this is what makes skin look amazing. And all those makeup artists really were captivated by her and believed in the products. I felt a really big shift around that time.
Rose-Marie: Makeup artists to this day still wear my products; they have it on their tables. Just a little while ago, Bobbi Brown just sent me a picture with all my stuff laid out on her makeup table.
You had such steady growth. When did you start scaling, beyond the two-person dream team you had going on?
Elaine: Because there weren’t investors involved, our philosophy was always to grow strong, not big. We made every choice in a very calculated way. When we were trying to court a magazine, a store, or a celebrity, we didn’t send them 16 pieces; we would send one or two beautifully curated choices. We couldn’t be wasteful and we didn’t have excess; we didn’t believe in that. So we didn’t have to financially make up for trying to explode onto the scene and build the brand, and we were always profitable. That was the model from day one—we scrutinized every expense. We didn’t say yes to everyone; Rose-Marie and I would review every single store down to what time they turned on the lights. Then, when we got into these bigger stores like Sephora or Bluemercury [in 2016], we had this really strong sense of ourselves and who we were as a brand. Everything was so carefully monitored by Rose-Marie and me that nothing was ever out of control. We kept a tight rein on how we reviewed things, and I think that is why we have been so strong with our growth within a volatile industry.
"We were always profitable. That was the model from day one—we scrutinized every expense."
Rose-Marie: We did something different than a lot of brands nowadays, too. We’re not private-label, where labs create a base formula for different clean brands. We are coming out with our products a lot slower because we are starting from the bottom-up with formulations that are unique; they’re not a carbon-copy of every other brand out there. Sometimes, we’ll launch a couple of extra colors in the pots because it’s easier for us at the moment, and it still keeps us relevant to have something new. But we are always creating from scratch, and that makes us a different model from a lot of brands with investors—investors want it all fast, they want more products out there. They want to make money, and sell within a few years. We don’t fit into that mold. We just go about it in a different way. We don’t want to have watered-down formulas. A lot of these labs just want to get on the green bandwagon, because clean is coming to the forefront.
There are so many beauty brands entering the market today. Are there any parts of this industry that were difficult to learn, or that you were surprised about?
Rose-Marie: Packaging is difficult. Everyone is screaming for sustainability and non-plastic, but we’re not a packaging manufacturer. We can only go as fast as these sustainable products as long as the manufacturers are on the ball and keeping up with demand. But you know what happens? The big guys—the Estee Lauders, the L’Oreals, the P&Gs—if sustainable new packaging does come out that’s good, they’ll snag it. We’re a little brand; we’re not ordering enough, and can’t compete with orders of tens of millions. Other brands that are small, too, we have to scramble to put packaging together that is sustainable. I always wanted the glass jars. We had the metal lids, too, which was great environmentally. But because of the tariffs and taxes put on for metal, the manufacturers won’t do metal anymore, so we had to turn to plastic lids. And that shocked us. Like, why are you taxing these companies trying to put out sustainable goods? The plastic industry is getting away with murder; plastic is getting produced more now than it ever was.
Elaine:I would also say, in terms of difficulties, that people will see we were on theTODAY Show, or a celebrity mentions our products, or we’re included in an Allure’s “Best of Beauty” list, and while that’s really wonderful recognition for the brand, it does not move the needle overnight. Getting a magazine or TV feature does not bring hundreds of thousands of sales through the door. It is a constant, day-after-day, post-after-post, email-after-email thing. You really have to build momentum. There are the overnight successes, there are the celebrity brands out there. But the majority of the brands in Bluemercury, Detox Market, Credo, Sephora; you really have to build a strong brand. You won’t just have one lucky post that will bring you millions of dollars. I think it’s a misinterpretation of how much really goes into getting the brand out there and resonating with consumers, especially with so much competition. We focus on making the best products, having an awesome team behind us, filtering through PR requests to see what is the best fit for our brand. It is not just throwing it out there and seeing what sticks. You really have to calculate every decision, and not expect you will become an overnight success just by posting on Instagram a few times.
You a cohesive vision with great distribution and brand recognition. For new founders, do you have any suggestions for building that infrastructure for success?
Elaine: Expect momentum, not perfection. Constantly find ways to grow your team, grow your infrastructure—whether it’s your warehouse operations, the vendors you bring on, your Amazon partners, your SEO partners—you have to always keep moving, moving, moving. You will never find the perfect fulfillment team leader. You will never find the perfect social media. You will never find the perfect warehouse, or software. You just have to constantly keep growing and trying, and then recognize when you outgrow certain systems and be aware that you’ll need to start subbing something in that’s more suitable for the next scale of your business. You have to scale, not fail. It’s a corny expression and I’ve heard it a million times, but it’s really true.
We are now in our fourth office. We didn’t get a 30,000-square foot office right off the rip. We had to grow into our space for the size of the brand, while looking four steps down the road to when we were going to need more, and how to calculate that and prepare ourselves. “Okay, we need to make sure we are getting leases in December when we know it’s a smarter time to move; we don’t want to be moving in the middle of October, which is our busiest time.” It’s about staying four steps ahead, constantly, and then looking a little bit in the background and asking yourself what things are still working. What can we turn into data to grow from? Looking for perfection blinds you to the momentum that is always needed on a day-to-day basis.
What can leaders do to be more successful today?
Elaine: Rose-Marie and I, as leaders, are not micromanagers. If I have to micromanage you, you probably are not the best fit for our team. And I feel fine with that. I think being a leader in a time like now, going through a pandemic, we have not laid anyone off. We are keeping our 35 staff the best that we can, we’re really looking out for their well-being and we know they appreciate how much care and thoughtfulness has gone into trying to stay successful and viable. I know our staff is constantly saying, “Is there something you can drop off at my house that I can work on?” or, “How do I help prepare?”
Our team really cares, almost as if this is their brand and company, too; they don’t just clock in and clock out. And I really think this stems from the leadership of Rose-Marie and I. We have made them own their own departments, with their own workloads. We have given them a lot of autonomy and say, “I know you can do this job; go out and do it.” Being a leader in a time like this, where it’s all uncharted territory and it feels very scary, and nothing is perfect right now for any industry, it’s reassuring to our staff that we are a team. We are in this together. We are trying to find the positives, the wins. And it is about letting everyone be involved in the wins.
Each year, we have the staff write down what their professional goal is and put it in this box we have. It doesn’t have to be a dollar amount. Maybe it’s someone in the warehouse saying, “I’m going to have 16 extra shelves and we’re going to rotate stock better”—whatever your personal goal is in this business. Then, at the end of the year, we open this box and we read these goals together and everyone can talk about whose goal was made, or how we can help each person reach their goal if it wasn’t. It’s really about mingling all the departments, as well, and getting everybody involved in everyone else’s successes. It’s a fun exercise, and the team is very friendly and close; we don’t have a lot of turnover. It’s a whole office of women; there’s no conflict and cattiness, and I’m really proud of that. We have built that team-building sense into our day-to-day operations.
Rose-Marie: I want to add that my part of the business is not dealing with salespeople, or the packers. I deal with the artistic people. I am very good at pushing, and I tend to be strong with the girls. If they do something and I know there’s more that can come out of them, I will give them that push to be more creative. I don’t baby people and say, “Oh, that’s really pretty,” even though I’m not really liking it. I will say, “No, it’s got to be stronger.” I will teach them to crop into photographs, things they are not used to doing having not worked the jobs I’ve done. I’ll teach them how to light when we set up our own little lighting studio we have. It’s really nice that they embrace my knowledge, and don’t shun me and say, “Oh, she’s a know-it-all.” They are actually learning for me, and I’m glad they’re embracing that.
How can young female founders or business leaders, who are trying to work through such an uncertain time, find success?
Rose-Marie: I always tell people, “Know what you want to do.” Don’t just do it for the sake of doing it, because others are doing it or it’s on Instagram. Do what’s coming from your heart. Know why you want to do it, how you want to do it, and don’t take no for an answer. The best advice I ever got was, “Make sure you don’t take investment until the last minute.” A brand is stronger when it hasn’t been watered down five percent here, five percent there. Put your heart and soul into your product and your idea, so you don’t lose control of what you want to do if you really care about it. Some people don’t care. They’ll get an investor, call it a day, and buy themselves a car. But if you really care, stick to your guns. Do not take no for an answer. Oh, and one more thing. Save your money. Forget the fancy bag. Save your money; you’ll be so much happier.
And then you can start a company with it.
Rose-Marie: Exactly! Well, I will say that I’m a Baby Boomer; I’m 65. Back in my day, we could work hard and actually save money. In these days and this economy, it’s so hard to save, and there may have to be a little bit of your investment coming from somewhere else. But keep it in the family if you can.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity