Do I feel like quitting? Yes, every single day,” says India Martin, founder of luxury nail polish firm Only Fingers and Toes. But she won’t. Not only does she know the value of her business, but when you talk to her, you know this is one of the most tenacious people you’ve ever met.
Martin’s former title was global chief operations officer of investment banking for technology and operations at JP Morgan. She was one of the most important women in banking in Europe, and her boss was two levels below Jamie Dimon.
In her two decades in finance, she didn’t just win awards for her prowess, but spearheaded work on diversity, women on boards and mentoring – all things of which she is “immensely proud”.
A WILLING VICTIM
In late 2009 – mid-crisis – JP Morgan was examining the sectors which were in recession. One jumped out at Martin: beauty.
“Nail polish was one of the smallest subsectors in the UK. I thought, ‘that’s going to change’”.
This is someone who was, for want of a better expression, ahead of the curve. Martin knew that the economic downturn wouldn’t last forever, and that afterwards the beauty industry would pick up.
After realising that there was no luxury provision within the M25, she decided to start site-surveying 25 locations, looking for places that would give her a steady queue of customers, not just evening traffic.
Working full time, it took just over three years for Martin to open her first store, in Purley, near Croydon. Her job meant she travelled 65 per cent of the time, so she initially “looked for all sorts of products all over the place.”
Her aim was to find ones she could sell on – luxury, rather than mass market, but with high retail appeal. And she ended up with 209.
But focusing on nail polish alone became an imperative when the two big incumbents of the industry, OPI and Essie, looked to go mass market. Martin’s husband, a successful businessman himself, advised her to develop her own line. So she did.
The initial range included 60 different colours, and Martin ran research groups with beauticians to develop ergonomic bottle handles. OF&T products all come in beautiful boxes, inspired by her time working in Japan: “it makes no sense to me why you would put such a small product in an enormous bag”.
A clean product has also been persistently important to Martin. She suffered a serious blow when her early polishes tested positive for some chemicals associated with toxicity. She went back to the drawing board and re-developed the whole lot.
“The brand had to reflect my personal life. I’m hugely philanthropic, and always have been. We chose the ventures we were going to support very early on. It also meant non-toxic products, and using recyclable materials wherever possible.”
In two years, OF&T has spread across the UK, has four stores in Dubai and is working on a US launch, where 60 per cent of its social media following comes from.
RACE TO THE TOP
What makes Martin’s story so interesting is that OF&T was “only ever meant to be an investment project. I’d crossed the 40 mark, and I started thinking about what should be next. I never thought this would be something I’d do full-time.”
The trouble was that her expertise, and meticulous planning (she is a self-professed data junkie who won’t do anything without the numbers to back it), meant OF&T started doing a lot better than she expected.
A few months in, she was approached by Harvey Nichols. By September 2013 (she launched in February), 48 of OF&T’s colours were in every Harvey Nicks in the country, and the firm took on the Manchester store’s nail bar. By the beginning of 2014, Martin had left JP Morgan to run the company full-time.
Then, it was about making the brand absolutely consistent – and she didn’t hold back.
“I spent a year winding down our store. We couldn’t explain why it was there, so it had to go. It was a painful decision, because it was my baby. But it just didn’t fit in with the long-term strategy.”
HEAD AND HEART
But far from being all head, Martin knows what it means to put your heart into things.
“It has to be 50 per cent passion, because the setbacks are so great that without it you cannot commit. And I am really passionate. My dad took me for my first mani-pedi when I was seven, and I’ve gone every two weeks since.”
And it’s Martin’s funding story which really demonstrates how much OF&T means to her – it is an entirely bootstrapped company.
“People setting up businesses can think it’s probably going to cost twice what they’ve estimated. It costs ten times.”
Martin’s family downsized incredibly to get the company off the ground.
“My daughters now share a room, and I’ve still got two storage units filled with belongings that I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to. I will never forget this journey and what it means for my personal life. It’s by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.”
But there’s a magic word for Martin, and her kids: “humility”. “We haven’t had a holiday in two years, but the holidays they used to go on, the lives they used to lead, were not real life.
When your mother is one of the most senior women at JP Morgan, you don’t know real life. Now they do, and it’s painful. It’s also the best thing that’s ever happened to them.” I make some worthy remark about how they’ll thank her when they’re older.
The response is instant: “Yes, but not now! ‘Mummy, I miss my room! When are we moving to a bigger house?’”
And Martin’s personal journey “from the top to the bottom” has been tough.
“I was at the top of my game; I wasn’t winding down. People would ring me back in seconds. When I left to do this, people didn’t care; they didn’t return my calls. I cried all the time. It is more than a humbling experience. You learn about power – and the perception of power. It’s not you, it’s the role you fill.”
While many colleagues went very quiet, and only got back in touch when OF&Ts took off, real friends have been “amazing”, says Martin.
“Really, I’m sitting here now because of the things they’ve done to help me. That ranges from introductions to helping me pack boxes at 2am.”
IN IT TO WIN IT
Now, OF&T is at the point where it’s outpacing its capabilities, and Martin is working on seeking external funding.
“The challenge I have is that the investors in my network don’t think of beauty as an area to invest in. People associate the product with not being complicated – it is. You’ve got regulation, consumer-facing stuff, and it only takes one thing to ruin your brand.”
Looking to the future, Martin has, as with everything else, a very clear plan.
First, she’s going to grow OF&T into a multinational company. Second, she’s going to exit. “I love this business, and I’m having a great time doing it, but I am doing it to sell it. I’m nearly 46, and I need time to think about the slowdown.”
Finally, I ask her what it feels like coming back into the City? “Oh, I walk round wearing a face of envy the whole time!” she laughs. “I think, ‘you’ve got a nice office, and you, and you’.”
But then, she adds, “I remember all the awards this business has won, and how well it’s doing. And then I pass one of Space NK’s 62 stores and see this huge OF&T poster and I think, ‘that’s mine!’”
CV INDIA MARTIN
Company name: Only Fingers and Toes
Founded: 2012 (launched 2013)
Turnover: Enough to know it was a good bet
Number of staff: 12
Job title: Founder and chief executive
Born: Kansas City, USA
Studied: Spelman College; London Business School
Drinking: Skinny latte with chocolate powder
Eating: Potato. Cooked any way... any time
Currently reading: Larger print Count and Read (my daughter is six)
Favourite Business Book: The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge
Talents: I’m often asked to sing at friends’ weddings and I am a wicked cook
Heroes: My parents and grandparents. I’m really blessed to have my heroes close
First ambition: To be an actress. I’m sure I was meant to be on stage
Motto: Charity is the price we pay for living
Awards: Me: Women in Banking Outstanding Contribution to Diversity, European Technology Magazine – Best Female Technologist, Powerlist 100, International Alliance of Women World of Difference 100, Brummels Top 30 Inspirational Women in the City, WIE Top 50 Businesswomen in Europe.
The business: Professional Beauty (National Finalists), Beauty Shortlist (Finalists 2 years), Positive Luxury, Walpole Brands of Tomorrow, Pure Beauty (current shortlist)