Huda Kattan had to borrow $6,000 to start her beauty line. Today, it's worth more than $1bn, but the superstar says that money isn't everything
During the course of our 50-minute conversation, the many shades of Huda Kattan all make an appearance.
There is happy Huda, the boss of a billion dollar self-made empire: “I’m the chairwoman of Huda Beauty. I love saying that. Chairwoman!”
There is tough Huda, the hard-nosed businesswoman who knows what it takes to succeed: “Debt doesn’t feel good.I know debt can be amazing for the company, but it can be dangerous.”
There is serious Huda, the mega-influencer ready to call out fellow social media stars who aren’t playing by the rules: “I have a problem with influencers who buy fake followers. I would feel defrauded.”
And there is sad Huda, a victim of her own success, too famous to have fun: “I have no privacy. You don’t even know little privacy I have.”
Oh, and in the 50 minutes between our first hello and final goodbye, 53,859 fans have liked her latest Instagram post.
Welcome to the world of Huda Kattan, the 34 year old Iraqi-American who quite literally has it all: her ultra-cool office in JLT is adorned with make-up boxes, shoes, handbags, clothes – even a bathroom.
Make no mistake, this is a business she lives and breathes. And it is some business, valued at over $1bn; a stunning line of beauty products, 26.9 million passionate fans watching her every move on Instagram, another 2.45 million subscribers to her Huda Beauty YouTube channel, and over nine million viewers for some episodes of her reality show Huda Boss on Facebook Watch.
It is little wonder that Time magazine last year named her as one of the world’s 25 most influential people on the internet.
But what is probably most incredible about the Huda Kattan story – and there are many incredible parts – is that less than a decade ago, nobody had heard of her, as she scraped a living as a makeup artist for Revlon. That all changed in April 2010 (six months before Instagram even launched) when one of her sisters, Mona, suggested she start a WordPress blog called Huda Beauty on which she would post make up tutorials and tips.
Kattan quickly stood out among makeup artists for sharing best-kept beauty secrets for free, refusing to work with advertisers for fear of losing credibility. “It was almost awkward,” she says of contemplating brand sponsorships, “feeling that you had to say certain things.”
But no sponsorships meant no money, and Kattan was penniless and clueless.
“I didn’t have any money. I was broke… I didn’t exactly have a plan. My husband, at some point, worried about me and whether or not I was going to eventually make money doing this,” she says, giggling nervously. Her eyes are adorned with luscious Huda Beauty false lashes, the products which marked the birth of her company in 2010.
Was my goal to launch these lashes and make them successful and die trying? Yes. And I was willing to sacrifice everything”
“[My sister] Alya lent me $6,000 [to create false lashes for Huda Beauty] and I remember telling her, ‘Look, if I can’t pay you back, I’ll wear them all and pay you back as I wear them.’ I later realised that it would have taken me 32 years to return all the money,” she says, giggling again.
The laughs continue throughout our conversation, mostly at the remembrance of difficult times. Alya’s loan was too little to cover manufacturing, leaving Kattan to package the lashes herself. But it turned out she did a good job as the product became a best-seller in French cosmetics giant Sephora the world over. And by 2018, with the help of husband Christopher Goncalo and sisters Mona and Alya, Huda Beauty was churning out best-selling product after best-selling product. The secret? It happened by accident.
“I didn’t plan on becoming a businesswoman. Was my goal, at the time, to create a makeup brand? No. Was my goal to launch these lashes and make them successful and die trying? Yes. And I was willing to sacrifice everything.”
Kattan’s biggest sacrifice came in 2017 when she sold 15 percent of Huda Beauty to US-based TSG Consumer Partners. She says being bought by the firm was a “dream come true” with its striking portfolio including Revolve and previously, Smashbox Cosmetics and Voss. But the process, she says, was excruciating.
“I remember crying on my bathroom floor and saying to Mona, ‘I’m selling part of the company. I’m a sell-out. I’m going to be like everybody else.’ That sounds bad, but I was afraid I was going to lose our magic, and a part of who we are,” she says, revealing another shade of a vulnerable Huda fearful of losing control.
And how can you not be, when everyone from Unilever to L’Oréal and local private equity firms were looking to take a bite of your treasured creation? Fearful Huda quickly turns sharp, recalling an unnamed investor offering just $1.5m for 60 percent of the firm in 2014. She clasps her hands together and squints her eyes. “There have always been people who have tried to come along and really take advantage of us and our company because we’re young girls who just love makeup. There were so many people who said, ‘Give us your name. We’ll put it on a package and sell it right away,” she says.
“It happened when we really needed the money. We couldn’t fund the growth. We didn’t have money for inventory. But I said very nicely, ‘No’. I felt that the company was worth more than that, even though I couldn’t keep doing make up, hard-core blogging and creating and developing products. I didn’t understand supply chain. We didn’t have a warehouse. It was just Mona, Alya and I,” she says.
“At the time, we were taking a chance, although we knew that they had basically dangled a carrot in front of us and they were trying to take advantage. We also knew we were worth more. But it was almost like we couldn’t afford to take a chance. We were going to die as a brand. We actually thought saying ‘no’ may be the death of Huda Beauty.”
Refusing the wrong investors worked out well in the end, as it led to the ultimate birth of Huda Beauty; an emerging power house capable of taking on the market’s biggest global titans. But the firm was never a one-woman show, as Huda herself reveals.
We didn’t have a warehouse. We just did not have the knowhow or the capability”
The youngest of the Kattan clan, Mona, joins our conversation. Unlike Huda, she is softer and more discreet, but both share the same sense of alertness. Mona played a key part in keeping Huda Beauty’s finances in check in its earlier days, but is now the company’s global president. She explains how ‘wearing a million hats’ allowed them to flourish despite having little to no staff.
“Normally, to have run an organisation the size of our business at the time, we probably would have needed five times the people we had. But we didn’t go out and hire a bunch of people. Whatever needed to be done, we learned how to do it ourselves or our team did,” she says.
The Kattans continue to fill various roles, but now have enough capital to hire more people. Their most recent appointment is a European president for their global offices which includes one in the UK. Plans are also afoot to open a second headquarters in the US soon.
And while Huda Beauty’s expansion comes as no surprise given its impressive performance, it strikes us that its next product line is the masterpiece of somebody other than Huda: Mona.
“We’re launching a fragrance line [in November] that we’ve been talking about before we even start Huda Beauty. It’s honestly Mona’s passion,” she confesses.
It’s not the first idea Mona shares with Huda, though it is the first she agrees to. Mona, the founder of Dubai beauty salon The Dollhouse, first approached her elder sister for investment.
“Huda is a huge perfectionist, it’s very difficult for her to put her name to something. Having a salon together would have been a challenge, because if anyone made a mistake, she would have taken it to heart. But people are human. They make mistakes. And you just have to manage that the best way you can,” she says.
Despite the success of The Dollhouse, Kattan maintains her stance, stating that she “never believed in services.”
I’m not good at managing my finances. But when it comes to the company, we’re very meticulous”
“It’s not that I don’t believe in Mona. I believe in her so much, but I don’t believe in services. You can’t maintain quality. I could have never done it, because even with the products we deal with, there’s a standard deviation. It drives me mad. That’s a machine that has a standard deviation of .00001 but those are the moments that I dwell on. So how can I rely on a human being to always be in the flow and getting the most potential? It was never an option for me,” she says.
But the beauty magnate may not even have the time to take on another concept. With the company growing and rapidly, she rarely has a moment to take a glimpse of what she’s built.
“It’s funny, because a lot of times you think about the internal aspects but don’t really understand what’s happening externally. You just focus on where you want the company to go. It’s just always full force forward. I’m trying to learn how to be in the moment a little bit more.”
So how does it really feel to be Huda Kattan? She pauses for a while before saying, “I never get that moment of aloneness. I could not go to the mall with my daughter and husband and expect to have a bond with them. I thought about getting a security guard but I [don’t want to lose] that connectedness [with my followers]. It is what it is. It’s part of my job and it’s a part that I enjoy, but I also want the privacy which, unfortunately, I just can’t have. Do I love it at all times? Honestly, no, but I also appreciate it and love it at many times. When it comes to my daughter especially, it becomes a little bit challenging, because I feel that I wish I could just take her out.”
It’s not just in Dubai where Kattan lacks the privacy that many enjoy as a given. With fans in places from Capri to the Maldives, she is rarely spared an afternoon free of photos. And while she’s definitely a well-known figure, the influencer says she doesn’t quite feel like a celebrity.
“I asked my husband this two days ago. I said, ‘Chris, am I a celebrity?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. People know you.’ It’s a funny thing to say about yourself, if I’m honest. I still don’t consider myself a celebrity. I feel more like an influencer than a celebrity, because I feel connected with people.”
Whether or not Kattan considers herself a celebrity might not matter given the rise of high-profile influencers. She argues that both have “meshed into one”. Celebrities who haven’t become influencers are no longer relevant, while influencers are trying to become celebrities.
Every now and then, however, she wants to be neither celebrity nor influencer – at least on social media. “I have a fake Instagram account. I follow whoever I want and nobody can say anything. I’m a little sensitive to that so sometimes I just want to observe and not have anybody judge me or know what I’m working on,” she admits. “Is that weird?”
It’s part of that yearning for confidentiality that turned Kattan off the idea of putting Huda Beauty on the stock exchange. “I don’t think I’d be interested in going public. It’s unwarranted. What is the purpose of doing that? Is it just to make money? I don’t care about making money. I don’t think it’s necessarily the right way for our business. Our goal is to create impact. We also understand how public opinion can change, and I don’t think it fairly depicts the nature of what we do.”
I don’t think I’d be interested in going public. It’s unwarranted. What is the purpose? Is it just to make money?”
She shares the example of Tesla. “Elon Musk is realising he can’t go private, but when he wanted to go private, he tweeted something and all of a sudden people started selling their shares. I get that there are other things going on with Tesla right now, but he’s still brilliant,” she says.
Millions would vouch that Kattan is, herself, brilliant. Unlike the thousands of influencers who feed on the volatile trends of social media to milk advertisers for free stays, trips and goods, Kattan is in another league of her own. In essence, she is a tough businesswoman who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals.
And she is also simply Huda, who like many of us, has also collapsed in tears on her bathroom floor, and isn’t afraid to say it to 26.9 million followers. It is unquestionable that Huda Kattan is a success in the world of beauty. What is more admirable is that she’s maintained the same relatability with $1bn to her name as she did with nothing but a few free makeup tips. Which is a valuable lesson for other influencers about what it takes to truly succeed in the industry.
Instagram 26.9 million followers
Twitter 137,000 followers
Facebook 5 million followers
YouTube 2.47 million subscribers
Most watched YouTube video: 11.9 million views in June 2015 for “Toothbrush Blackhead Remover-BEST EVER?!”