Life & Business

Life & Business: Toni Ko of NYX Cosmetics

by Sabrina Smelko


When Toni Ko was just 13, her family emigrated to the US to open up a beauty supply shop. At the time, Toni didn’t speak a word of English, and though she was not allowed to wear a stitch of makeup as an adolescent, she was fascinated by it and worked alongside her mother to run the shop where she gained a lot of experience learning the ropes of the industry. Just over 10 years later at the age of 25, Toni’s childhood fascination with makeup blossomed into a business and NYX Cosmetics was born, offering just one humble product: eyeliner pencils. After years of frustration over the lack of quality in many drug-store makeup products, Toni’s goal with NYX was to create the most high-end product possible at a super-affordable price. Turns out, the rest of the country craved this niche as much as she did, and in its first year of business, NYX generated over 2 million dollars in sales.

Since then, Toni’s success hasn’t slowed down. NYX has seen the addition of more high-quality products from lipstick and blush to nail polish and accessories, and is now available in over 70 countries. After seeing her company grow up before her eyes and by her own hands, Toni sold NYX to L’Oreal just this past summer. Although it was a dream come true, her decision to sell — a choice many business owners face — was far harder than she ever imagined it would be. These days, when Toni isn’t spending her time supporting charities and empowering women to start their own businesses, she’s traveling the world (which she documents on Instagram), and brewing up her next big idea (which we’ll just have to wait to see). Today, she’s joining us to share some gleaned wisdom and insight into her business philosophy! –Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business? 

I really wanted to design my own future, be independent and have the freedom to make my own decisions. I’m also just a wee bit stubborn and would make an absolutely horrible employee, haha!

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

I set out with a big dream, and a big goal: to disrupt the mass market cosmetic industry by sticking to quality while offering a wallet-friendly price tag. I did not have a detailed business plan when I started, but rather, allowed myself to leave many of the pages blank, to be filled in as I went along on this journey. I was very cognizant of the fact that no business in this world goes exactly as planned and I didn’t want to put myself in a well by setting too strict of a plan.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

It’s one word: credit. I pride myself on credit, and being true to my word. If it comes out of my mouth, it’s done. My word is better than any contract, and that’s really important for any business.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Actually for me, starting was the easiest and most enjoyable part. The most difficult part was selling the business. I was practically married to the company and NYX was truly my child. When I sold the company, in a way it felt like I was sending off my teenage daughter to college. Of course, I was beyond happy and elated that I had taken the company to this point, but I also felt empty, and I continued to have this feeling of loss for several months after. With NYX gone, I sort of lost my purpose and my self identity – I had no real reason to get up each morning. So ladies and gents, if you have started a company that you are very attached to, be emotionally and mentally prepared to leave before you exit. I thought I was absolutely prepared but found it shocking how much separation anxiety I had.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Stick to your goals, everything else is just noise.

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

There have been so many moments where I failed, but I chose to look at each of those as blessings in disguise. From these experiences, I learned invaluable lessons and was able to build a company I was proud of.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

My family life. I never got married or had children because I was married to business and NYX was my baby. I am now married (to a wonderful man) and finding balance in my life, enjoying being able to donate a lot of my time to my newly formed charitable foundation, the Toni Ko Foundation. I found that although the cosmetics industry is geared toward women, the majority of top executives are men. My foundation aims to lend support to organizations that help children in need and empower women to start their own businesses, set higher goals for themselves and to become the executives.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Everyone should read Good to Great by Jim Collins and The Story of Business Philosophy by Isadore Sharp. Those two books were hugely influential and full of insight & wisdom.

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Consider whether or not you have the right personality. It takes a unique personality to be a business owner. You have to be able to take risks, and you have to be a bit adventurous.

2. Consider your stamina and endurance. Being a business owner is go, go, go! 24/7.  If you can’t outlast the competition, you’ll fall behind.

3. Consider what you’re offering in conjunction with your price point. Do you have the right idea, service or product that is also at the right price? This is very important. You must have both or you will not have a successful business. After these three things, everything else is up to you!

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  • This is really inspiring and useful information! Thanks for this post. I always love to hear people’s success stories.
    xx Lane

  • I always liked Nyx because of their association with RuPaul’s Drag Race and because they are one of the few affordable make-up lines that doesn’t test on animals!

  • Great interview – get it girl! It’s so frustrating to hear that the majority of executives in the cosmetic industry are men. That really needs to change. Best of luck with the foundation!

  • Wow, thanks for this interview! I am a fan of cosmetics, and didn’t expect to find an article on the NYX founder on DS.

  • Great interview – I also didn’t know anything about the company’s founder and love seeing these success stories.
    I’ve had a few favorite NYX products and loved that they were an inexpensive brand that didn’t test on animals. Because of this, I was really disappointed by the decision to sell to L’Oreal (a parent company which does test on animals, although NYX still retains its own cruelty-free pledge). I completely understand when things like this happen, that it’s ultimately a business decision. But I’m always sad when a great cruelty-free brand like NYX goes to an animal testing parent company, and I still try to buy products without the connection to animal testing.

  • AAAHHHHHH!!! NYX is my jam. Their noir eyeliner is my absolute must and I’ve been converted to all their stuff. I love that the company is the name of the goddess of the night, and now I love the founder! So cool :)

  • Awesome interview. Congratulations to her for starting such an incredibly successful business. And it’s so true about entrepreneurs having to sacrifice relationships in the short term to achieve their dreams. It kind of sucks but its the price you pay for long term success.

  • NYX products have been a favorite in my family for a few years now. And their Lippies collection is just about the best thing ever. It’s hard to find non-traditional colors that wear well and are under $10 (well it’s hard to find them in general). I’ve used OCC lip tar before and much prefer NYX Lippies. Thanks for putting out a stellar product at an affordable price!

  • I would really love to know the thoughts behind working so hard to build up a cruelty free company but always dreaming of selling to L’Oreal, who are renowned for still testing on animals. I am so disappointed to read this, I feel like everything I respected about NYX, despite being owned by L’Oreal, is no longer there.

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