With her dazzling hair, flawless makeup, and hot-pink aesthetic, Mary Kay Ash is one of the most recognizable and successful entrepreneurs in the world. A somewhat controversial figure, she was a heady blend of contradictions—radical yet conservative, old-school yet revolutionary, a quintessential grandmother in a pink Cadillac.
Demoted twice by oldfangled executive teams for the crime of outshining her male colleagues, Ash quit her day job at the age of 45 and founded Mary Kay Cosmetics—a global phenomenon which, at her death in 2001, boasted annual sales of over $2 billion and employed 800,000 representatives from 37 countries.
In the process, Ash provided career opportunities for many women and changed perceptions of women entrepreneurs forever. Let’s look at seven things that set her apart that you can apply to your business, too.
1. Remember Your Purpose
Ash’s marketing skills and people savvy were second to none, but it still wasn’t enough to break through the glass ceiling. The middle-aged widow and grandmother finally went rogue when, in her words, she was “asked to take a man out on the road to train him, and after six months of training, he [was] … made my superior, and given twice my salary.” Enough was enough.
As a small business owner, you probably have your own “enough is enough” story. The details may differ from Ash’s, but the theme—a desire for independence—is the same. When the going gets tough, remind yourself of why you struck out on your own. Was life any better when you worked for someone else, with little room for advancement and self-expression? Small business is challenging, but even its challenges might be fulfilling compared to walking the 9-to-5 treadmill.
2. Remember Your Plan
Once off the treadmill, Ash intended to write a book that would teach other entrepreneurially minded women to conquer the business world on their own terms “and achieve self-respect.” Her cosmetics empire was born when she realized that her work in progress outlined a business plan for the exact sort of company she would build herself if given the power. With a $5,000 investment from one of her sons, Ash opened a storefront in Texas and history was made.
When you need a shot in the arm, or just feel like your small business is struggling to stay on course, revisit your business plan. If you don’t have a business plan, write one. Imagine a construction crew attacking a new building without a blueprint. They might still get the job done, but the extra cost in time, money, and equipment would be immense. Chart a simple but definite course for yourself. Think about basic small business questions like:
- How will I secure financing when I need it?
- How will I make my business credible in the eyes of vendors, lenders or even potential customers? (Hint: building your business credit is a good place to start.)
- What’s my marketing plan?
Unlike a construction blueprint, your business plan will evolve and expand over time, but don’t put off starting one.
3. Remember Your Values
For Ash, Mary Kay Cosmetics’ company values were epitomized by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Simple, memorable, and wise, the Golden Rule provided a sturdy and inspiring guide for Ash and her team.
Your company values will shape everything you do as an entrepreneur. They’ll help you create a winning company culture. They’re the philosophical and emotional core of your business plan. And while it’s true that values can seem fundamentally more related to the heart than the head, it would benefit you to write them down clearly and concisely and revisit them often.
4. Remember Your Customers
Ash believed that entrepreneurs should think of every potential customer as having a sign around their neck that read “Make me feel important!” Her logic is inescapable: If you like to be recognized and appreciated, chances are that the next person does as well. To ensure that this happened on a practical level, Ash implemented a strict policy of keeping every Mary Kay sales party limited to six individuals, so that each attendee could receive their own loving care and attention.
As active as you are, it can be difficult to remember that your customers are busy people, too. Recognizing their importance as human beings, and not just wallets, will lay a foundation for genuine relationships and help you be patient and attentive even when it’s difficult. This attitude will enhance every phase of growing your small business, from creating a customer-friendly website to hiring your first employee.
5. Remember Your Balance
Ash was famous for encouraging her people to prioritize God first, family second, and work last. Her point was simply that work isn’t everything. If her team didn’t make room in their lives for things besides their careers, both they and their careers would suffer as a result.
You can disagree with Ash’s hierarchy and still see the value of a balanced approach to life. As a small business owner, you wear all the hats. Treat yourself like you’d hope to be treated by a humane, rational, caring boss. Allow yourself downtime and a chance to connect to things and people that matter to you outside of work. Doing so will inspire mental and physical rejuvenation, improve your emotional health, and provide insights into growing your business.
6. Remember Your Network
Ash didn’t create the direct sales party-style meetings which catered to groups of friends gathered in their homes versus going door to door, but she made it her own by limiting the number of participants and focusing on teaching versus making a sales pitch.
“If you go into a department store and let the person behind the counter make you up, you can no more recreate what that person does than you can fly to the moon,” she said. “At our shows, you are taught why and shown how.” The parties also allowed Mary Kay consultants to build networks with other women, perfect for locating new customers and future Mary Kay consultants.
By taking advantage of social media, you can essentially enter the living rooms of countless homes in the U.S., bringing your small business directly to the people you created it for and building a larger network in the process. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook—learning to use these technological tools effectively will help you skip the middleman and interact directly with your customers and their friends.
7. Remember to Be Yourself
Ash’s accountants once criticized her habit of sending personalized birthday cards to every single one of her thousands of employees. Ash responded to the criticism with these unforgettable words: “That’s men’s thinking. What they don’t realize is that my birthday card may be the only birthday card she receives.”
Aside from what this tells us about Ash’s feelings for the women who worked under her, it’s also a sign of her fearless individualism and willingness to stick with her convictions no matter what the cost. It worked because she believed in herself. Take courage from her example. The story of your small business is the story of you, and the only one worth telling.
More answers to pressing questions
This article was originally written on October 19, 2016 and updated on February 1, 2021.