Episode 2: Nonie Creme, Cofounder of BeautyGarde

Nonie Creme


Nonie Creme discusses the launch of her latest consumer brand and first digitally native DTC ecommerce company, BeautyGarde. TL;DR nails and lashes!

In this episode you will learn from Nonie:

  • How this beauty industry pioneer disrupted the masstige and luxury cosmetics industries
  • How to catch the attention of Karl Lagerfeld
  • Key considerations for search and social media
  • Focusing on customer lifetime value to build a successful DTC brand
  • Differentiating personalized customer experiences from first click to doorstep unboxing
  • Understanding the new online luxury shopper experience

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Eric Best  00:00 SoundCommerce is a real time and predictive data platform for retailers and consumer brands. Our thesis at Sound Commerce is simple. We believe that consumer brands have the power to make the world a better place and direct to consumer is the model to make it happen. This podcast is about the people behind the brands we love and the moves they made to turn those great brands into great customer centric businesses.

I’m your host Eric Best, founder and CEO at SoundCommerce. 

Today, my guest is Nonie Creme — fashionista, celebrity manicurist, prior founding creative director of butter LONDON and Colour Prevails, and now Cofounder along with David Lonczak and Creative Director at BeautyGarde. Nonie and BeautyGarde are based right here in Seattle. In its second year, BeautyGarde is available at Nordstrom, Ulta Beauty and Amazon, and most of their business comes through direct to consumer commerce.

Hey welcome Nonie . It’s great to have you on the podcast and i’d love to start with your backstory and the journey that led you to found BeautyGarde

Nonie Creme   1:07
My journey started when I was a young woman and I fell madly in love with a British boy and decided in all of my 22 year old wisdom to follow him back to London with no visa.   So there wasn’t a lot you could do in London at that time with no paperwork. And I decided it would be a good idea if I used my art education to learn how to paint fingernails because it looked fun and easy.

And my first ever beauty business was standing on the side of the road outside of the tube station in the financial district. And when the sort of fancy business ladies would get off of the tube every morning, I’d hand them my little scrap of paper with my name and number on it.   I would go all around the city doing desk side manicures.

And that was how I got my start.  Many years and many manicures later, I had kind of moved up the ranks and my clientele  became much more high fashion focused. I had an agent, I went out and did nails on high fashion photo shoots for Vogue, for Kate Moss and all the sort of big time fashion people.

All the biggies were kind of my clients whenever they would come through London. And what I became very well known for was the fact that I could hand mix these nail colors and I was able to build some notoriety and some local fame around that. And editors would call me up and asked me if they could get a bottle of this or a bottle of that for an event or for a gala.

And, and everybody would say, you know, you really should sell these. And that was really the kind of brainchild for what would later become Butter London.  A great example of kind of where we were culturally with our beauty at the time is that a very famous editor came to me to have her nails done before going to meet with Karl Lagerfeld, who was at the time the head of Chanel, and she was so nervous.

She was like, Oh my God, it’s Karl Lagerfeld. I’m so intimidated. What am I going to do? What should I wear? And I said, well, you’re going to wear black .  She was absolutely dumbfounded by the idea of wearing  black fingernails and said well I couldn’t possibly wear that. That’s, that’s for Halloween. And I said, well, you know, that’s where you’re wrong.

Chanel is all about shiny, beautiful black patent leather like this is, trust me. You have to trust me. And she relented and let me paint her nails black. And she came back after her meeting and she said that in the middle of the meeting, Karl stopped her and called an assistant into the room and asked his assistant to please take a picture of her fingernails.

And several months later, Chanel launched their noir black nail polish, which I’m still mad about. But it shows how one small person with one big idea can have a very, very far reach. And once again, that philosophy and that ability was what made butter London such a great brand. 

We were able to sell people colors that they wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing in a different life. But because of the way it was branded and because of the way it was packaged in a very elegant, high end, high fashion way, it felt authentic and it felt real and it felt safe. 

Eric Best   4:17
Yeah, I love that story for so many reasons. It’s such a great example of grassroots, consumer product innovation. So what happened next ?

Nonie Creme   4:28
After butter LONDON, I was approached to do a mass market brand, which was very fascinating to me since I’d already worked in the realm of prestige for gosh, years at that point, and had really cut my teeth and earned a very extensive education and product research and development.

So I wanted to play in mass, and I was certainly interested in it. And I took a project in New York and Colour Prevails was born. That was my second company, and that was color. We call it Masstige but really it was prestige, cosmetics sold at mass. I was able to get the costs down and supply actual beautiful prestige cosmetics at Walgreens.  That’s a project that I’m extremely proud of. So after the Colour Prevails project wrapped up and was handed over to the Walgreens group I came up to Seattle and kinda wasn’t sure what to do next.  I knew I wanted to do something else in beauty and I was toying around with the idea of doing a hair color company, so I was messing around with that. And then I had this very serendipitous encounter with my lash artist because I was wearing lash extensions at the time. She was bemoaning the fact that there were no products aimed at lash extensions and lash extension maintenance. There was stuff you could sort of cherry pick, but there was no brand, there was no go-to brand for that kind of thing and I found that very interesting. So I immediately left that appointment thinking I wasn’t so sure anymore about this hair color concept and that maybe this lash extension white space was worth a closer look. And I was just sort of like on the lab as I was driving away from the appointment saying like, I need you guys to get on eyeliner, mascara, cleanser, everything has to be oil free, everything has to be extension safe, and I’m going to overnight you the extension adhesive so we can play around with it.

And that was the birthplace for number three, which is my current company – BeautyGarde which is Seattle based, direct to consumer focused, although we certainly have branches in retail and also wholesale to salons and spas.   The concept was originally around treatments and what we kind of call the hero strategy and the hero strategy for us is make shit that works. You know, that’s kind of the layman’s terms. We are having such incredible traction and unbelievable brand loyalty from people who are buying our treatments. Because you and I both know that when you find something that works, you never leave it. And that’s the backbone of what we’re doing over here at BeautyGarde. 

The person that I partnered with for BeautyGarde is a man named David Lonczak, who was the former CEO of Paula’s Choice, which was a skincare company. Paula’s Choice was  just a real Cinderella story of a company that was doing direct to consumer before people were shopping on the internet. Paula was just a real pioneer with DTC, so David had extensive knowledge. 

Eric Best   7:40
Let’s talk just a little bit about the channel mix and your go to market strategy today. So you sell wholesale to the retail channel. We talked about some of the retailers where consumers can find the product. I imagine physical stores, branded stores, or at least popups could be in the future for the brand. But you had mentioned that the majority of the business happens online through your own branded website today. How do you think about those omnichannel customer experiences in terms of the story, the brand narrative, and the customer experience you’re trying to create?

Nonie Creme   8:10
So we had the luxury when we were ver y, I don’t even know how old, very, very newly formed company of being able to get on the phone with an Ulta and get on the phone with a Nordstrom and say like, “Hey guys, it’s Nonie. Like, what are you doing?” “Oh, hi Nonie, come on in.” So I was able to  jump a few fences , that others might have had to, wait by and within the first year of business we had this really nice group of retailers under our belt already. So we were able to put that to one side and really focus on our direct to consumer experience. And  85% of our current business is through BeautyGarde.com which is really, I mean, if i say so myself I mean, that’s pretty impressive for a young company who said, we’re going to do DTC. Everybody in the world is saying that right now. Oh, we’re going to be direct to consumer we’re going to be – okay, cool prove it. So we’re very proud of the fact that we have been able to prove that model and prove that people want us there and are finding us there. 

Eric Best   9:16
Yeah. You benefit from the dynamics of the model, right? So that you’re selling retail and you own the direct relationship with the end customer.

How are you acquiring customers today from a channel standpoint? I assume social media is a big part of this. And then what are you doing in terms of customer experience once the shopper has decided that they’re ready to buy?

Nonie Creme   9:38 
As a sales tool, social media is important . I will say that we’ve had tremendous success  with videos and this is just symptomatic of our small size, cause BeautyGarde is not a huge company.

We’re doing well, but we’re only, gosh, three years old, barely. We make these videos then we go and then we do a lot of paid search and it’ll just be me talking in very real terms about something that happened to me. Like, look at my fingernails, look how terrible they look, or here’s, here’s what happened. When I use this product and people respond so well to just a real normal person. Telling them a story about their experience with a product and being able to be truthful and have it feel truthful and look truthful. 

Eric Best   10:27 
Yeah. Relatable. 

Nonie Creme   10:28 
Relatable. If I were a supermodel and I were trying to tell the same story, nobody would believe me because they would be like, well, yeah, but you’re already a supermodel. Like, why would anybody believe that you have anything wrong with you? One of our videos has got upwards of like 700,000 views, which I find very fascinating, that 700,000 people would want to watch me talk about my eyebrows. But, but they do. And so there’s authenticity there. And there’s also authenticity in, in hearing from your founders that being able to speak eloquently, hopefully and well and honestly to your brand and to your customers will always work.

That will never go away. Influencers can come and go, and there will be other ways to speak to your customers, but as a Founder you have a responsibility to get in front and lead and speak and be visible, even if it’s not your comfort zone. So that’s part of the authenticity. Now, once we have the customer in a place where she’s ready to purchase you can call me old fashioned, but I’m a huge stickler for good old fashioned customer service.

I was in the warehouse today because of our pandemic situation, we have not been able to use any of our warehouse workers. So I was in there with my sleeves rolled up, picking and packing orders, and I was looking at a few orders that weren’t going through. And I thought, gosh, what’s up with these orders?

And we collect the phone numbers and certain data from the customer and I was able to get on the phone and call them up. Well, you’ve never heard such surprise in your life from a customer receiving a phone call from the Founder saying, “Hey, I’m trying to ship you your eyeliner. I think you typed your address wrong.”

And these women were just like, are you serious? Fabulous, and they will be customers for life. They will remember that time that that lady actually called me up to make sure I got my stuff. You know? So can’t do that for 10 million customers, but you should try and there are ways to achieve that through speed of service, shipping speed, beautifully boxed products that arrive looking special, feeling special, the unboxing moment. You know, all of those things, that is the new shopper experience. It used to matter to walk into a beautiful store and say like, oh wow, this store is so elegant. I feel special here.

Well, people aren’t going to stores anymore. I mean, not even just during COVID, just in general. Everybody’s online, so your site needs to feel, you know, very user friendly, very easy to use, very elegant, has to look nice. But once she’s clicked purchase  your job is just beginning. You need to ship fast, you need to ship well. You need to not make mistakes with your QC and in your warehouse. And you know, all of those things are critical to DTC for me.  

Eric Best   13:14 
Yeah, riffing on that theme of customer experience for a minute. And in particular post-transaction post-conversion customer experience. In many ways this is the reason that we founded SoundCommerce in the first place. Is there such a focus on, data driven decision making and ensuring that you’re tweaking the last penny of, marketing campaigns, digital marketing campaigns, but that same level of sophistication isn’t necessarily being applied to the entire customer journey including the experience that they have from conversion in the cart to that final doorstep delivery so we are spending a lot of time thinking about that problem and how to solve it with data. 

Nonie Creme   13:56 

Eric Best   13:57 
We haven’t talked specifically about sustainability as a brand value, but I’m sure that in your industry it’s top of mind for your customers. Is that part of the story as well?

Nonie Creme   14:07 
When I was dealing with the lab trying to create the Butter London product range, the nail lacquers specifically, the chemist said to me, which formula do you want? Do you want the one that has formaldehyde or the one that doesn’t? And I was like, I’m sorry, there’s a formula that doesn’t have formaldehyde.

Why would anyone buy the one that has it? And she’s, Oh yeah, we have this one that doesn’t have this, doesn’t have that. And I said, well, let’s, let’s work on that. Let’s see what else we can take out of that. I was very fascinated by the fact that there was the ability to make a safer formulation, and nobody had ever bothered to try because regular old nail polish worked so well.

And we were just on the cusp of really clean beauty, which came frankly later. So I was fascinated that our lacquer didn’t have these three chemicals in it that everybody else’s did have. I coined the term three free. We decided that we would put it on the front of every bottle – Butter London three free, and that we were going to talk about something that no one else wanted to talk about, which is what is in your nail Polish and how toxic it is.

Now, most other companies at the time certainly didn’t want to draw a line under ugly, icky things like that. We decided that that would become our flag, our banner, the thing that we were going to talk about the most, and it was fairly unpopular at first but we were adamant. That three free was going to be our source of our power.

And we were right. But for the first few years of business, I will tell you we spent all day every day, first of all, explaining to people that Butter London did not make food. And second of all, explaining to people that three free did not mean that if you buy three, you get one for free. So it was a long journey to educate people.

Of course, we didn’t have any money at the time. We were just two girls at the kitchen table, so we didn’t trademark the term three free. Which of course is now a global nail industry term used all over the world by every major nail Polish manufacturer in the world. And now as we’re further along in formulation, we’re up to sort of seven free.

But, I still laugh thinking about the fact that I invented the term three free and, and had to educate the world about what that was and yet didn’t own the trademark on it. So that was a good lesson. 

Eric Best   16:28 
Well, let’s switch gears for a minute. So I am married to a physician and proud of the fact that I’m supporting her in her career path and vice versa. I know that we’ve talked about your background in the beauty industry. If you were to give advice to women who want to start a business in this, in this vertical, what would you tell them today? 

Nonie Creme   16:49 
Beauty specifically or any sort of startup. 

Eric Best   16:52 
Let’s talk about any startup.

Nonie Creme   16:54 
I think it’s really important to be well prepared with a plan. have a plan and then be really ready to not follow it. You know? That is the life of a startup. You have to be nimble. And you have to be very brave. 

Eric Best   17:15 
Is there a particular skill you’ve picked up along the way that you think is critical? If you had it to do over again, if you could know what you know?

Nonie Creme   17:24 
I have lost so much of that stubbornness that I had in my youth and so much of that ego that I carried around in my youth. Where there were periods in my career, early in my career where I was just sure that there was nothing anyone could tell me about what I was doing and that really cost me some great advice and some great opportunities. So know what you don’t know and don’t be afraid to admit those.  surround yourself with people and colleagues and thoughtful advice from people that know things that you don’t know and always be ready to  listen.

Eric Best   18:09 
Well, I really appreciate the comments. I think let’s say this, let’s sort of close for the moment on the more serious on point portion of the discussion. And I’m just going to hit you up with a couple of fun questions that I’d like you to answer. 

Nonie Creme   18:23 

Eric Best   18:24 
So let’s start with, of all the celebrities that you’ve met throughout your career, who made you the most starstruck?

Nonie Creme   18:31 
Um, Madonna. 

Eric Best   18:36 
That’s a great one. 

Nonie Creme   18:37 

Eric Best   18:37 
Okay,  in terms of the brands that you might be wearing today, or that you respect a lot or  think are  up and comers in the market, who comes to mind?

Nonie Creme   18:45 
I love skincare and my very dear friend is the founder of Tatcha, which is Japanese skincare.  so that is a brand. If you don’t know it ,uh, you can cover yourself head to toe in it.

And for clothes you know, I’m an aging punk goth lady, so I got to try wearing a little bit of Rick Owens on any given day. Although I am a big fan, as are most people of high, low shopping. So I might be wearing, you know, $1,500 Rick Owens trousers with a tee shirt I found at like Goodwill. That’s the way people like to buy their beauty. I think it’s the way people like to buy their jewelry. I think it’s when people like to buy everything these days. And I love that. 

Eric Best   19:31
And I suspect I know the answer to this question, but if you had to choose nails or eyebrows.

Nonie Creme   19:36 
Oh, nails, nails. 

Eric Best   19:40 
That’s great. Well Nonie, thanks so much for your commentary today, your insights, sharing your story with us.  There’s a lot to unpack here and hopefully a lot for people to learn from your story, so I really appreciate you being a guest.

Nonie Creme   19:53 
Thank you so much for having me. It was absolutely a pleasure.

Thanks for listening to SoundCommerce with Eric Best. If you like our show and want to know more, check out www.soundcommerce.com or call 1-888-41-SOUND