The Making of Huda Kattan’s Beauty Empire

Images provided by Huda Beauty

It took Huda Kattan 27 takes to film her first YouTube video. It was a simple nose-contouring tutorial – “pre-nose job,” she clarifies – that hard-launched her introduction into the beauty vlogging space. “I didn’t know you could edit a video. I was like, ‘I have to get this right from start to finish.'”

Her equipment was minimal: she had no lighting, no tripod. Kattan’s camera was stacked atop books atop boxes atop more books to reach the proper height for filming. (Afterward, she vowed to use what was left of her student loans to buy a proper camera.) This was back in 2010, before all you needed to go viral was an iPhone.

Up until this point, Kattan had been “reconnecting” with herself. She had just graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in finance and moved to Dubai to be with family, where she was putting her formal makeup training in Los Angeles to good use with her blog, aptly named Huda Beauty. Having been fired from a job in recruiting – a move she suspects was tied to how she presented herself in full glam at work – she was stuck. That was OK; she wanted to be stuck, at least for a little.

Still, Kattan knew the power of transformation. Growing up, she experienced it firsthand the very first time she picked up a pair of tweezers at 9 years old. “I always felt really ugly as a kid, so all of a sudden, me doing my brows made me feel more attractive and unstoppable,” she says. By the time she was 14, she was sculpting the arches of her older sister, Alya, and friends 10 years her senior.

“It was really cool because you could physically see the change that was happening to people when they felt good,” Kattan says. “It’s something I always carried as a child.”

As a freelance makeup artist, first in LA and then in Dubai, she wielded her powder brush like an Iraqi fairy godmother and watched as people transformed, like poof. “When I got older, I could see someone who I was doing literally anything to have a moment of empowerment,” Kattan says. “You just sit there and watch this same person realizing, actualizing another version of themselves. It was like, ‘Wow. Beauty is so powerful.'”

She decided to follow that feeling, professionally speaking.

With her blog, she could connect the dots between makeup artistry and the masses. Her first post was an ode to Dame Pat McGrath, but she often weighed in on runway looks and posted makeup inspiration. That same year, she had the idea to launch a YouTube channel – a window into her world, where she could share product recommendations and application tips in real time, across multiple continents, through tiny pixelated squares on a computer screen.

Hence, the 27 takes.

Flash forward 13-plus years, and Kattan has unequivocally cemented herself as one of the beauty industry’s most influential figures. Since her video debut, she has dropped thousands of tutorials, topped many a “40 under 40” list, and amassed a following of 53 million on Instagram. Most notably, a decade ago, in 2013, she went out on a limb to launch a beauty brand. Its name, an extension of her blog and YouTube channel, is Huda Beauty. The inaugural collection was five sets of false eyelashes, her signature.

If you’re familiar with Kattan’s story, you’ve probably heard that it all started with a $6K loan from her sister Alya, but it actually dates before that. A year or two into blogging, her younger sister, Mona, encouraged her to branch out. Using her own industry contacts as the owner of a hair salon, Mona found an eyelash manufacturer in Indonesia, landed them a meeting with Sephora Dubai, and secured a seat at the beauty trade show Cosmoprof, where they could display the products.

If it weren’t for that push, Huda Beauty might not have happened.

“If she hadn’t taken that first step for me, I wouldn’t have done it,” Kattan says. “I was sitting on my couch creating tutorials, and she took me out of my comfort zone. That just set a light off – like, oh my God, the possibilities are there. It’s not impossible. I remember after that thinking, ‘OK, I’m just going to wing it.'”

The launch was an immediate hit. Sales within that first year reportedly reached $1.5 million, per Forbes. As the years drummed on, the product range doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled, stretching and expanding from eyelashes to lip-contouring kits to eyeshadow palettes and beyond.

Today, there are 286 products to her name – 287 if you include the Easy Bake and Snatch Setting Powder, which launched this week. That number ticks to 357 if you add the SKUs from the brand’s skin-care extension, GloWish. Multiple headlines value the company in the billions (Kattan declined to comment on the exact figure), but that’s just a slice of the proverbial pie: on a global scale, her products sell in 47 countries, across three dozen retailers.

There were advantages, of course, to the brand’s social-driven strategy, and you can imagine how being a content creator first and foremost helped accelerate its success. Even without the analytics tools that are available to influencers today, Kattan always had a hunch about what would work and leaned into her following to guide inspiration.

“Now looking back, I was very much aware of what people were engaging with,” she says. “I was very in tune with the beauty community and used that as a direction of when to launch this or when to launch that.'”

Kattan followed this intuition through seismic shifts in the cosmetics industry, from demands for greater transparency in social media imagery to a boom in indie brands challenging the status quo. As it does, the job over time shifted from ideas and content creation to operations. Meanwhile, Huda Beauty maintained its meteoric rise.

I’m not a trained CEO. I have to constantly study, constantly do coaching, constantly learn from my team, constantly give feedback.

There were periods of pause, here and there, as Kattan worked out how to manage the company’s massive growth. “I’m not a trained CEO,” she says. “Knowing what to prioritize and how fast to move on certain aspects of the business is still one of the most challenging things for me. I have to constantly study, constantly do coaching, constantly learn from my team, constantly give feedback. So that in itself is cumbersome.”

During the pandemic, when all there was to do was reflect, Kattan decided to step down from her role as CEO. In September 2020, she posted a video on YouTube announcing her departure, noting the move would allow her to focus on Huda Beauty’s vision. In her place, industry veteran Nathalie Kristo was appointed to the top spot.

The decision was not an easy one, and she admits it came from “outside pressure.” In the end, though, it “wasn’t the best for our brand.”

By the start of the following year, she found her way back at the helm. This time, as co-CEO with her husband, Christopher Goncalo.

“2021 was actually a really important year for the business,” Kattan says. “Not many people know about this, but that’s when I returned to being CEO. That was a really important point in my life where I started to understand that expertise doesn’t need to come from years of experience. It comes from listening. I started to listen to myself.”

The return marked a point of evolution and newfound focus for the brand, the forever foundation behind Kattan’s rising beauty empire. Looking ahead, another part of that is relaying what she’s learned through the years to future leaders.

Back in 2013, when the idea to create her own company was only a design mock-up printed on a few pieces of 8.5-by-11-inch paper – before the loan, before Cosmoprof, before giving “the pitch of my life,” as she says, to Sephora – Kattan knew she just needed a chance. Now she wants to give it to others.

“I’m supporting some people starting their own brands. We’ve invested in some projects that have been successful, some projects that have not.” She continues, “The hustle is different than it was back in the day. You were totally guessing, and you had no idea if you were going to be successful. There’s still that today, but there’s a blueprint you can follow. I just want to be the cherry on the cake and strategically challenge them. To say, ‘Here’s a blueprint you can follow, but you don’t always have to. I didn’t.'”

If nothing else, Kattan can serve as proof that anything is possible, no matter what it takes – or how many – to get there.

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