The Estee Lauder Lessons

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F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “There are no second acts in American lives.” That only proves he never met Estee Lauder.

She didn’t start as Estee. Her parents named her Josephine Esther Mentzer, and she lived in Corona in Queens. The nearby garbage dump piled the trash so high, that residents called it “The Corona Mountains.” When she died, in 2004, her personal fortune was estimated at $233 million, and her company was worth $5.4 billion.

Estee Lauder Lesson Nr 1: It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish that counts.

She probably never finished at Newtown High School, but she learned a lot in other ways. She worked at her parents’ hardware store and her aunts’ department store, where she also tried on different dresses and identities. Her uncle was a chemist who cooked up batches of embalming fluid, but also taught young Esther how to mix her creams and chemicals. She learned to work hard and she learned to sell and she mastered the basics of cosmetics chemistry.

Estee Lauder Lesson Nr 2: Mine your experience and your network for everything you can, find out what you do well and what you love.

She started selling in the beauty salons, plunging her fingers into her creams and putting them on the faces of women who were captive beneath their hair dryers. She kept making her creams better and trying out several different names.

When she realized that selling her cosmetics to drug stores would be a lot of work for relatively small sales, she made a virtue of necessity and started selling to department stores. In 1948, Saks Fifth Avenue took a consignment. It sold out in two days and Estee Lauder was off and running. By 2000 she had a fifty percent market share.

Not every experiment worked out. Once when she was testing whether her creams would last longer in the refrigerator, the labels came off in the cold and a maid served a dish of face cream at a dinner party, assuming it was a sauce. Estee married Joseph Lauder in 1930, divorced him in 1939, and remarried him in 1942.

Estee Lauder Lesson Nr 3: Not everything will work, but you’ll do OK if you keep moving forward.

Not only did Estee Lauder have a second act, she had several. She told so many versions of her life story that when she died, in 2004, the venerable Economist refused to specify her age. That wasn’t the big story, though.

The story of Estee Lauder is a story of hard work, attention to detail, and, especially, selling. She summed that up perfectly: “I have never worked a day in my life without selling. When I believe in something, I sell it and I sell it hard.”

Estee Lauder Lesson Nr 4: Nothing happens unless somebody sells something. When she was a little girl, Esther Mentzer said she wanted “a life full of beautiful things.” As Estee Lauder she made that happen.

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