Huda Kattan turned a $6,000 loan into a billion-dollar business: 'Find something that really fuels your passion'
This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.
Huda Kattan was determined to build a successful business doing what she loved. So with a $6,000 loan from her sister Alya, Kattan turned her beauty blog into a billion-dollar cosmetics brand, Huda Beauty.
Kattan, now 37, graduated from the University of Michigan in 2008 with a degree in finance and moved to Dubai to be with family. She got a job in recruiting, but lost it a year later during the recession and found herself without an income.
While it was a setback, Kattan also saw it as an opportunity.
"When people go through situations where it's a little rough, they want to quickly band-aid it and go back to where they're comfortable," Kattan tells CNBC Make It. "It's really important to lean into that discomfort and see what is there and pursue something that you never thought you can pursue."
So Kattan decided to focus on a career she genuinely loved. She went to makeup school in Los Angeles, returned to Dubai and started Huda Beauty blog in 2010. Kattan began to generate a following that loved her makeup tutorials and candid personality.
To capitalize on her growing following, Kattan took a chance and launched false eyelash line in 2013 with her two sisters, Mona, now 36, and Alya, 48, who agreed to loan Kattan that $6,000 to create the product.
"[H]onestly it was a risk," Kattan says, as she didn't have a steady source of income to repay her sister and was unsure her business would take off. But "it was really successful."
Her lashes received praise from the likes of Kim Kardashian West, and the line was picked up by beauty retailer Sephora Dubai in 2013. At the time, Sephora Dubai expected to sell 7,000 units of the lashes in a year, but instead, all 7,000 units sold in a week. Retail sales hit $1.5 million that year and hit $10 million the next, according to Forbes.
From then, Kattan was determined to grow her brand internationally – in 2015, Huda Beauty launched in the U.S. and continued to expand.
In 2017, Kattan sold an undisclosed minority stake in the company to TSG Consumer, which valued the company at $1.25 billion, according to PitchBook.
As of 2020, Kattan has a net worth of $510 million, according to Forbes, which ranked her as one of America's Richest Self-Made Women that year. In 2020, Forbes estimated that Huda Beauty makes at least $250 million in annual sales.
Though Kattan announced she'd step down as CEO of Huda Beauty in September 2020, she has since returned as CEO. (Huda Beauty declined to give any additional details.)
Today, Huda Beauty offers over 140 products, from foundation, to concealer, lipstick, eyeshadow, brushes and more. In June it launches a new makeup collection called GloWish.
In line with its roots, the brand has also kept its social media presence strong – Huda Beauty currently has over 48 million followers on Instagram and over 4 million followers on YouTube.
"It's so important to find something that really, really fuels your passion," Kattan says.
Here, Kattan shares her experience getting fired, following her passion, building her business, being inspired by her family, her routine and more.
On getting fired: It was 'the best thing that happened to me'
Honestly the best thing that happened to me was that I got fired [from my job in recruiting].
I was working on weekends. I was in the office first, out of the office last. I was obsessed, and I got fired.
My boss was like, "Why are you here? You don't belong here. Why are you not doing makeup?" And I was like, "You jerk, don't judge me. I'm going to show you. I'm going to work harder."
I remember thinking to myself, "I know this is for the better, and I know this is for a reason. I know I'm gonna look back and be like, this is the best thing ever happened," but it was hard to see as I was going through it.
I called my friend … and I was like, "The next thing I do, I need to be OK with waking up every single day, working on weekends, and wanting to give my life to it."
Just thinking about what I could do to make people feel more beautiful and try to change the beauty industry – that was my calling. I was having fun doing it. I love playing with makeup, so it was so fulfilling.
If I didn't get fired, I would still be working in that company probably doing the same thing.
On patience: 'Without small goals, I would have lost enthusiasm'
In the beginning, the Huda Beauty blog wasn't taking off. It took off in Dubai, and that was cool, but outside Dubai it didn't really hit for the first 12 months.
After the 12 months, I felt like it started hitting. I was actually just using Facebook ads because it was cheap. You could do $5 ads, and I was using my credit card. I was investing in this thing, hoping it's gonna pay off.
Then I remember seeing people in different parts of the world start to take notice. I was like, "holy crap, this is actually working." It was such a trip.
I kept setting goals. My first goal was to become the biggest beauty blogger in the Middle East. I think without those small goals, I would have really lost a lot of enthusiasm because it wasn't taking off in the beginning.
On taking risks: 'Let's just see what happens'
I would say it was not until the lashes hit, which was about three years later, did I really see that this is something big. This is something really big.
When we were starting with the lashes, honestly it was a risk. At the time, I had spent $10,000 on my makeup school, so I was not in a position to really try anything new.
I was like, "Let's just try it with $6,000. Let's just do a couple thousand lashes and let's see what happens." It was a little bit like an experiment, but I also didn't have a plan B if it didn't work.
And it was really successful because I had already been blogging for a few years at the time. Here we are trying it out and succeeding. How much farther can we go?
On being inspired by her parents: 'We grew up super, super poor'
Truthfully, me and my family grew up super, super poor [in Oklahoma, then Tennessee]. My family was on welfare. My parents immigrated [from Iraq]. My dad was struggling just to make ends meet. It was harsh, sometimes really bad.
There's no reason why I should be where I am. But that perspective of thinking – that I shouldn't be here – is what was keeping me back years ago. I remember being about 26 years old and thinking that, and I was putting these limits on myself. That was probably the biggest lesson I learned, that I should never put limits on myself.
My parents taught me work ethic. My parents, my dad especially, has amazing work ethic. All they have is work and family. He was forced into retirement [as a professor] because of his age, even though he's so incredibly intelligent, and he can't stop working.
But with work and family, I'm trying to now understand that taking care of myself is also really important. For the first few years, I didn't take enough care of myself. It was work, work, work, give yourself to work, give yourself to your team, give yourself to your company, then give yourself to your family. I agree with parts of that, but not all of it.
On being a leader
There's definitely a lot of pressure, especially as a woman.
I think, whenever you're running a business and you're leading a team, there needs to be an element of humility for sure, and it's not something I had right away.
I think in the beginning, I didn't have a lot of humility. I probably had a chip on my shoulder, where I was trying to prove something to people. I was a little bit scared that people also wouldn't take what I was saying seriously. I had to be a little bit aggressive.
One of our team members was always like, "You're crazy." Then, things started to work, and she was like, "I think this might actually be genius." So, I think at the beginning you go through your journey as a leader, and I definitely was not as humble. I was definitely more aggressive. My self worth issues were probably manifesting itself and not the best way. And now, I think I've come to a place where I'm actually OK not necessarily being the head. Sometimes, I'm like, "Guys, tell me my blind spots I don't see" because only I can see what I can see.
I have the most amazing team. They inspire me all the time. I think leadership is a funny journey. There needs to be an element of humility and self awareness.
On her pre-meeting ritual: 'I like to talk to myself'
I love to walk around my room and talk myself through something. I like to talk to myself – I actually love it.
I find it to be so great to let yourself flow and let yourself try and think things through. So, I will walk around my room. I pace around my room. I just find it to be sometimes therapeutic. My life coach tells me it's brain dumps – you just dump out everything that comes to your mind. It's given me so much clarity. Sometimes I'll just be talking to myself about stupid stuff.
On her daily routine
My routine is everything.
I honestly think I have the most insane routine. It did change during Covid, and it was so hard for me to get back on track. Honestly, it took me like the longest time. But I am militant with my routine.
I have a checklist of things I try to do every single day in the morning. I meditate for 10 to 15 minutes. I manifest. I try to invest in growing [or self improvement], so I listen to YouTube videos [on business] or read a really good book. I try to stretch and do a small workout.
I do sleep a lot. I wake up at 5, 6 a.m. and go to bed at like 9 p.m. I'm really big on my sleep.
I was always a night owl. The night time was when I would get most creative, and somehow I switched to a morning person, which is shocking to me. I love waking up early. If I have to roll out of bed to go straight to work, I'm moody.
I wear an Oura Ring [a wearable that tracks sleep patterns] that I love and wear every day. I monitor how much water I drink per day, how many steps I'm doing per day, how I'm sleeping. I'm really into biohacking.
I do think the routine is actually super motivating. I think when you know what you're going to do first thing in the morning, it feels so good. I can't talk enough about how important routines are.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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