As a child, Jo Malone did not enjoy a lot of advantages. Dyslexic, she grew up in a troubled family, and left school at 14. But Malone, now 50, had her own gifts: ambition and, most of all, an acute and artistic ability to perceive and concoct scents. Starting in her kitchen, Malone created exotic fragrances, and skin and bath products, ranging from Wild Fig & Cassis Cologne to Nutmeg & Ginger Bath Oil. She built her self-named brand into a multimillion-dollar global phenomenon before selling it to beauty conglomerate Estée Laude (EL)r (whose filings don’t break out results for individual brands). After battling breast cancer, Malone is back with a new company called Jo Loves. Her story:
I grew up in Kent, England, in what Americans would call low-income housing. My dad worked as an architect, and my mom worked for Revlon (REV), then for a skin-care specialist. My dad was a big gambler, and I was the one who held things together when he wasn’t around. It was a tough childhood.
I was 14 when my mom had a nervous breakdown. My dad wasn’t there, and my younger sister was 9. I left school to look after my mom and raise my sister. A couple of years later my mom got better, so I moved to London at age 16 and lived with some wonderful family friends. I worked in a little flower shop until my mom got sick again. For a while I’d go back and forth from London to support the family. Sometimes in life you don’t have the luxury of being able to sit and choose the path you want to walk on.
When I met my husband, Gary, I felt it was time to think about myself and my husband. I married at age 21, and my mom was in a stable condition. So with the help of a cosmetology book, I learned how to make face creams, like my mom had done. I started to do facials and discovered I had a real gift.
One of the great ingredients for success in my life has been my dyslexia, which made me think in unconventional ways. I smell in color. I can see something and translate it into a fragrance. I can test 60 to 80 fragrance notes and will know when something is finished and complete. When women came for my facials, I’d give them a small bottle of Nutmeg & Ginger Bath Oil in thanks. Everyone wanted them.
Around 1990 or so I was in the kitchen filling hundreds of Christmas orders for the bath oils. I was so tired. I was doing facials all day long, then would be making the products until midnight, seven days a week. My husband, who was a building surveyor, saw an opportunity. He said, “Next year, we should have a shop.”
A few years later Gary left his job, and we looked at several places for a store. I didn’t like any of them. Then, as I walked past 154 Walton St. in Chelsea, my heart said, “That’s the one.” There was rubble everywhere, but it felt like the right location. For a retailer, gut instinct is so important. When you don’t listen to your inner voice, you make mistakes. We opened in October 1994, and today the area has Stella McCartney, J. Crew, and Carolina Herrera.
So many people said it was the worst time to open a store because we were in a recession, and we were too small. We had challenges, yet I couldn’t say we had huge financial struggles.
A month after opening we had VIPs coming to the shop on my birthday, Nov. 5. I was making bath oils at home, and I told my husband, “Don’t fill the bottles to the top.” [Oil expands when heated, so space must be left to let that occur safely.] But he thought customers would feel like they were getting full value for their purchase if the bottles were full. That evening, as the bath oils sat underneath the shelf lights, we suddenly heard an explosion like the 1812 Overture. All the stoppers went off the bottles, and we had to close the shop for health and safety. Oil was everywhere. I was in the shop with the hair drier trying to dry all the shelves. My husband and I didn’t talk for days.
I found it a challenge to trust other people because I’d been a one-man band for so long. Because the brand holds my name, the product is very personal to me. I won’t ever settle for second best.
From the first day of opening the door, I had amazing press: British Vogue, the Financial Times. The business just climbed and climbed. I did an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show, and after it aired, we had coachloads of people coming through the door. It was like a dream come true.
That first year, Bergdorf Goodman in New York approached us to open our first store inside a department store. It turned over $1 million very quickly. We immediately set up other retail partnerships with Neiman Marcus and Saks. I can’t ever remember having a piece of paper with a strategy on it. We were turning over money faster than we were spending it, which is everyone’s dream. We just opened in places where there was a hunger for the product.
To create that hunger in New York, I went to 50 people I knew there — a couple of models, a couple of pop stars. I gave each 10 gifts and asked them to please give the samples out as hostess gifts. We didn’t have a marketing team. Then, four months before the first store opened in New York, we sent 200 empty Jo Malone shopping bags to friends and asked people to carry them on the streets. It worked powerfully. Our package was seen months before people saw the product. We opened a second store in London and in Harrods. Everything was flying.
We had a lot of offers for the business. People wanted to invest or buy a franchise, but I declined. As the success grew, I started to look for someone I could work with as a lifelong business partner. Leonard Lauder [then CEO of the Estée Lauder Cos.] came into the shop, and we went to lunch. I loved him. He’s a great retailer, and I knew the business would be in safe hands. So we sold Jo Malone to him in 1999.
We continued to open stores, and I thought I was going to stay forever. But one morning in the shower in 2003, I found a lump in my breast. I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. I called Evelyn Lauder, who said, “Never forget, you make lemonade from lemons.” That stuck with me. I flew to New York, did a year of chemotherapy and surgery, and ran the stores from there.
By then I had a 4-year-old son and was terrified the cancer would come back. One day I was standing in our Madison Avenue store and decided I just wanted to be with my family. I felt like I didn’t have anything magical to give anymore. So in 2006, I left.
Every day, I’d get up and think of fragrance, but there was nothing I could do about it. We had signed a lockout agreement for five years. So I decided to make a TV show for BBC One called High Street Dreams, helping other entrepreneurs start their businesses. One day we were filming in a garden, filling bottles of chili sauce, and the feeling came over me that it was time to create my own fragrance again. So in 2011, I’d done my five years, and was cleared by the lawyers to go.
I’m still Jo Malone, the person, so what was I going to call the new company? I don’t think anyone sees fragrance the way I do. For me, it’s about this love I have for the industry. Jo Malone was who I was when I started 30 years ago. Jo Loves, our new name, is who I am today.
This second time around, I’ve actually made more mistakes than the first time. I was rushing to get back into it, and we opened a pop-up shop in the wrong location. I rolled it out before the packages were ready and didn’t have enough advertising. I underestimated the power of people not understanding who Jo Loves was. They didn’t realize I’d left Jo Malone.
In October 2013, I opened Jo Loves on Elizabeth Street in the London shop I worked in years ago when it was a flower shop. I feel like I’m coming back to life and know that this is it. I’m proud of surviving — surviving life, cancer, and retail. I stayed true to the gift I’ve been given, and I don’t want to have regrets in my life. I’m prepared to take risks and dedicate myself to creating new things. I’ll never build another cosmetic company again. This is my offering to the world.
Don’t run toward money. Sometimes we seek a bank loan before we need it. Think about the product you’ve got and what you can accomplish with it. Keep hold of the equity of your brand as long as you can.
Don’t meet with your only managers. Include people who sell your product and have contact with the customers. It’s not about trying to sell a million bottles of something. It’s about getting people to come back for the second, third, and fourth bottle.
Never feel disheartened if a competitor comes onto your street. You may gain a sale one day and not the next, but you must look at the bigger picture. Look at what you can do to help each other, and it’ll end up helping you.
This story is from the February 24, 2014 issue of Fortune.