The Council talks to Jo Horgan, British born founder of Mecca

by | Jun 22, 2019

Jo Horgan is in the top tier of our plucky Brit list of beauty entrepreneurs: the British-born founder of Melbourne-based Mecca Brands has transformed the Australian beauty landscape, championing retail innovation and delivering the ultimate beauty experience, since she opened her first Mecca Cosmetica store in 1997. Today, the Mecca footprint encompasses some 98 stores throughout Australia and New Zealand in the form of four different retail destinations – Mecca Cosmetica, Mecca Maxima, Mecca and, and company has ranked in the BRW Best Places To Work Top 5 for the past four years. Last year, she won The EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2018 Australia Award. And this year she made it to the EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year Class.

First of all, congratulations on being included in the EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year Class 2019.  How does that feel?!

Being with 50 giants of the entrepreneurial world in Monaco was a truly eye-opening opportunity, and I felt so privileged to be a part of it.  It’s been a wonderful recognition for the whole team of the business we have collectively built, brick by brick, over the last 22 years.

What inspired you to found Mecca Brands in 1997?

I wanted to blow up the cosy beauty retailing status quo of department stores and global brands and give control back to customers – exciting new brands in a beautiful boutique environment with the ability to touch, feel, test and take all products supported by brand agnostic Mecca hosts who would share their knowledge and passion for beauty and who would customise the offer just for you, the customer.  It was about making beauty retailing fun, and you the customer feeling in control every step of the way, and you leaving feeling fabulous.

I wanted to blow up the cosy beauty retailing status quo of department stores and global brands and give control back to customers

How have you set out to do things differently in retail with your retail outlets?

We have a platform of ‘edutainment’…which is all about simultaneously educating and entertaining the customer.  It starts with spending over 2% of our turnover on team education so each Mecca host is a walking beauty encyclopedia dying to share, and then it is about creating instore experiences to share the knowledge – from the traditional makeup applications, lessons, skin treatments and fragrance consultations to master classes, international artist and aesthetician instore experiences, the Mecca beauty lab (beauty’s version of the apple genius bar) and ‘Mecca Pops’ brand pop up zones within our stores.

Our next challenge is how to take this experience into the online space, and how to seamlessly bring digital into store.

Was it always your vision to have a network of some 100 stores around Australia and New Zealand – and then look to expand internationally?  Or was it simply a case of being a rather brilliant concept that took off and kept growing?

Our original vision was to have 10 stores in 5 years.  Our customers were the driving force of our growth – they kept on demanding we open in their locales!

What were the early challenges you faced?  And how did you get around them?

So many early challenges!

Our cost of goods nearly doubled two to three years in due to the exchange rate – clearly you can’t double the price you charge customers.  So, we just cut all expenses back to the bone and asked the brands to give us short term margin relief…the brands backed us, and I’ve felt indebted to them ever since.

Our second store was a concession in a new specialty store, Georges, which suddenly closed after a year – so having 50% of our turnover disappear overnight was a massive challenge.  We opened a temporary store in the local department store within a month and simultaneously started building out a dedicated concession – it was a wild time.

I could go on and on with the early challenges, but I’ll stop there….

What are the main gear changes you’ve noticed in consumer spending habits in the last five to ten years?

Customers are so much more educated about colour cosmetics thanks to digital, and all the how-to videos that now dominate the airwaves.  As a result customers come in with a greater appetite to experiment with different products, different colours, different finishes.  Another flow on effect of digital is the interest and knowledge around skincare and the ingredients used, and the efficacy of the different formulas.  So again, customers are buying into skincare in a much more proactive way.  Finally, hair care is now following suit…customers want hair care with active ingredients and clear benefits.

What do you see as being the key purchase drivers going forward – an element of feelgood/wellbeing in the beauty offering, sustainability, etc?

Wellness is an explosive trend in beauty and I think it is here to stay.  The concept of ‘what is beautiful’ is more and more about attitude rather than looks and this is coming through very clearly.  It’s an exciting shift for the industry.

Who inspires you in business?

Brand founders are so creative and have such clarity on their brand’s purpose – I find that very inspiring and I get such energy from them.  Fellow entrepreneurs across all sectors inspire me – their stories, how they find the path forward, how they deal with challenges and so the list goes on.  Those that I meet, and those that I read about or hear talking on podcasts. When people join Mecca I give them some of my favourite books on people as diverse as Katherine Graham (autobiography), Steve Jobs (biography), Ernest Shackleton etc.  And then there is Clayton Christianson’s article ‘How will you measure your life’ – it helps keep everything in perspective.

Is the ‘founder brand’ niche bubble likely to burst or will it continue to develop?

Founder led brands have been at the forefront for over 20 years for a reason – founders have a clarity of vision that is difficult to replace with market research or straight product development.  As the barrier to entry comes down and more founders enter the fray, the key to success will be differentiation, product performance, and an ability to inspire and engage customers.  I think the founder brand platform is here to stay, but succeeding in this space will become more difficult.

You started your beauty career in the UK.  If you had not moved to Australia and started Mecca Brands what would you be doing now – still working in beauty in some capacity?

My sliding doors question!  Honestly, I don’t know what I’d be doing if I’d stayed in the UK.  I do love the beauty space – it’s forever evolving and changing; it’s a great platform to connect with women; it has such interesting people within it…so yes, I’d love to think I would be in this space, wherever I was in the world.

The British Beauty Council was founded to represent the interests of our business, enhance its profile and reputation, and give it a voice among key stakeholders and govt leaders here.  Is there a similar representative in Australia?  If not, do you think there should/could be?

There are a number of associations targeting focused aspects of the industry including hairdressers, salon owners and cosmetic chemists, but there isn’t an independent, not-for-profit body that represents the beauty industry as a whole that I am aware of. We do have the Australian Fashion Council though which started in 2014, so surely given the growing rise of beauty in Australasia, a beauty one isn’t far off! Perhaps MECCA should consider starting one…

Business is naturally all-consuming for an entrepreneur, but when you are on down time what do you do?  Similarly, how do you counteract the highs and lows of an entrepreneurial life?  Do you relish the rollercoaster or do you actively work on balancing it?

I love the business –  truly love it, the team, the brands, the stores, the customers, and so the list goes on, so I’m happy for it to be all consuming. Still on the family theme, we do a lot of hiking, and nature has a wonderful way of putting everything into perspective. Finally, I meditate and do yoga, both of which are invaluable in helping manage the highs and lows of entrepreneurial life.

In terms of down time…having a kids is a great counterbalance to the business…they have a brilliant ability to make it all about them and you have to be completely present otherwise they sense your distraction and make you pay for it!

What excites you about the beauty industry generally now?

The lightning speed changes in the industry, courtesy of digital.  It’s SUCH an exciting time.

Of the 150 brands Mecca carry do you have any particular favourites or do any concepts stand out as being especially pioneering and/or timeless to you?

Yikes…that’s like asking me who is my favourite child.  Honestly, such a lot of navel gazing goes into each brand we add to Mecca’s portfolio, so I just don’t think I could choose one.

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