Thursday 22 August 2019

How Suzanne Jackson went from blogger to millionaire businesswoman

Millionaire businesswoman Suzanne Jackson talks to Chloe Brennan about how she started her hugely successful brand from a beauty and lifestyle blog; why she has turned down huge pay cheques; how she's learned the hard way to keep aspects of her life private; and why she won't be starting a family just yet

Suzanne wears: Top, The Kooples; shoes, KG by Kurt Geiger, both Brown Thomas. Trousers, River Island. Photo: Patrick McHugh
Suzanne wears: Top, The Kooples; shoes, KG by Kurt Geiger, both Brown Thomas. Trousers, River Island. Photo: Patrick McHugh
Suzanne wears: Playsuit, Sandro; shoes, KG by Kurt Geiger, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Patrick McHugh
Suzanne Jackson on her wedding day to Dylan O’Connor
Suzanne wears: Playsuit, Sandro; shoes, KG by Kurt Geiger, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Patrick McHugh
Chloe Brennan

Chloe Brennan

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine accredited Kylie Jenner, the youngest of the Kardashian-Jenner clan, as the youngest self-made billionaire ever.

She has made her billions from designing, manufacturing and selling Lip Kits - a matte liquid lipstick and a lip liner - online. Kylie, along with her 'momager' Kris, started their own cosmetics line after Kylie revealed to her online followers that she used a particular shade of Mac lip liner, resulting in a worldwide shortage of the product. Kylie and Kris saw a niche in the market, acted fast and used their online platform to convince Kylie's millions of followers that if you purchased her product, at $29 a pop - and ignored the fact that Kylie gets injected regularly with lip filler - you too will achieve her perfectly shaped lips.

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On this side of the Atlantic, receptionist-turned-businesswoman Suzanne Jackson, AKA fashion, beauty and lifestyle blogger So Sue Me, has simultaneously propelled herself to the top of the Irish beauty market, taking the lead in false eyelashes, fake tan and contour palettes.

Suzanne is the eldest of four, and is originally from the quaint seaside town of Skerries in north Dublin. Her father, Damien, served as both a paramedic and fire fighter, and her mum, Susan, worked as a bank teller in Bank of Ireland.

When we meet, Suzanne has just arrived fresh off a flight from Naples, where she has just spent five days soaking up the rays of the Amalfi coast on a last-minute surprise trip from her husband and business partner, Dylan.

"Any product I would review would sell out in 24 hours," she tells me. "I have turned down huge pay cheques over the years - once, for €15,000, for a hair-care product - because I didn't believe in the product, and I stand by that. I think that's why I have lasted in this industry."

Suzanne wears: Playsuit, Sandro; shoes, KG by Kurt Geiger, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Patrick McHugh
Suzanne wears: Playsuit, Sandro; shoes, KG by Kurt Geiger, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Patrick McHugh

"Even now, working with companies such as Penneys, if I put something on me [and post it on my blog or Instagram], they're ransacked; they're queuing at the doors [of the store] to come in and get it. It gave me the fire in my belly to create something on my own. While it's great working with others, you want to do it for yourself. That's the true mind of an entrepreneur - while they don't mind learning and growing, they will eventually then take those learnings to benefit themselves. It's just business."

And that's exactly what Suzanne did.

It all began nearly a decade ago when Suzanne was working part-time as a receptionist for radio stations Spin1038 and 98FM. "When I think back to it, I did think big," she recalls. "I do remember saying to myself, sitting at that reception desk, 'What if this [the blogging] went big? I need to have a good brand name, a name people will remember'."

She created her online blog, So Sue Me, and began reviewing beauty products and blogging about her life as a young, single 25-year-old living in the city. What had originated as a hobby for Suzanne, quickly turned into a full-time career. She saw the potential in it from the very beginning. Although Suzanne has always been ambitious, at the time she may not have realised that what she had started would soon turn into a multi-million-euro business.

"A PR agency reached out to me to say that they wanted to run a competition on my blog, and asked me how much I charged for this. I chanced it, and told them €150. 'No problem, done,' was their reply. That was my first taste. I came out of work and rang my mam and dad and said, 'Imagine I got, like, four of them a month? That's more than my weekly wage. There is something in this'."

Suzanne was promoted to office manager with full-time hours, but her heart lay with her blog. "I was starting to earn good money, and I knew I could make that my wage, and I wanted to throw myself into that; give it 150pc and try to make something of this business. From January 2013, I decided I was going to go part-time in work, trial it [focusing on the blog], and if it worked, I would go full-time with it. By March, I was gone - I had already doubled my finances."

She spent the next three years blogging and, given the rapid rate at which products would sell out once they had been endorsed by Suzanne, she was regularly cashing pay cheques from international beauty brands. But this was also a crucial time in her career, prior to launching her own beauty products. Through her blog, she was absorbing feedback from her followers, discovering their likes and dislikes about products she endorsed, so that when it came to creating her own, she had accumulated an abundance of knowledge, she says, to guide her through the tortuous trial-and-error process involved in creating the perfect product.

"A follower told me that she had to heat her contour palette on the radiator before using it. So when I developed my own contour palette, I made sure the product was like butter," Suzanne says.

It seems that from day one, Suzanne was destined for success. Her first product, which has since ceased production, was a 25-colour collection of gel nail polishes under her newly created brand name of SOSUbySJ. Penneys had to double the size of the display stand as they couldn't keep the stock replenished for their customers. "People still message me asking to bring back the nail-polish collection, because we had the best colours," she says. "We did year-one [projection] figures in seven weeks."

To put into context the magnitude of Suzanne's businesses, she sold over two million pairs of eyelashes last year. She is coy about revealing her net worth, or the profit from her products, but on average, a pack of her lashes retails for about €6. She's sold two million: do the maths. Profits at the company - SanFran Cosmetics Ltd, of which Suzanne is a co-director, along with businessman Fran O'Gorman - were recorded at an eye-watering €902,760 in 2018, up from €749,469 the previous year. She regularly collaborates with other influencers, such as Love Island stars Dani Dyer ( a lash collection) and Olivia Attwood (an instant tan) who have millions of Instagram followers, to draw in a different audience. She says, "Some girls may not like me, but they may find someone like Dani Dyer more relatable."

Suzanne has launched countless products over the last few years - contour palettes, make-up brushes, eyeliners and lipsticks, to name a few. But her biggest achievement of all, her "baby" as she refers to it, is her Dripping Gold tan, which, according to Suzanne, was the most frustrating product to sign off on, taking two years to develop.

"I had no plans to develop a tan range, because I was so focused on cosmetics at the time," she says. "My followers kept asking me to bring out a tan. I teamed up with a tanning brand about three years ago to help launch their tan, and the sales were insane. I thought, 'Maybe I am crazy not bringing out my own tan'."

Suzanne has a slim figure with long legs, and is never without her signature sun-kissed glow. She is a walking advertisement for her own tan, regularly sharing videos online with tips on how to remove old, scaly tan and instructions on how to effortlessly apply Dripping Gold. If that's not enough to sell it, a before and after picture of her perfectly fake-tanned pins will seal the deal.

Suzanne wears: Playsuit, Sandro; shoes, KG by Kurt Geiger, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Patrick McHugh
Suzanne wears: Playsuit, Sandro; shoes, KG by Kurt Geiger, both Brown Thomas. Photo: Patrick McHugh

"Our first order was about 120,000 units, and it sold out," she says. "Our biggest challenge is trying to keep our tan in stock. We are stocked in over 1,000 pharmacies nationwide."

One of Suzanne's largest customers is Penneys, or Primark as it's known outside of Ireland. She is currently stocked in their stores in the UK, Spain and a few in the USA.

"It's great for an Irish company to get behind an Irish girl, they really did [help me] excel [in] my career. They got behind me and ordered large quantities of my products. It's very empowering. And it gives you a great deal of confidence when a company like Primark get behind you," says Suzanne.

This year, as a reward to her staff for trying to keep up with the copious quantities of SOSUbySJ orders, Suzanne flew her team over to LA and supplied them with VIP tickets to the music festival Coachella, where they spent four days celebrating, dancing and partying. "On the last night, I brought them to one of the biggest nightclubs in LA, with a big bar tab. I think it's important to look after your staff. Don't get me wrong, I am hard on them as well. I try to get the most out of my staff - I have high expectations."

Suzanne and Dylan O'Connor got married in a lavish ceremony in the five-star Powerscourt Hotel in Enniskerry two years ago, on August 6, 2017, and are currently decorating their brand-new millionaire mansion in Malahide, which upon completion, will be fitted with a cinema, a cigar room and a bar. The entrance hall has dark-mahogany wooden floors and sparkling crystal chandeliers suspended from the high ceilings. Their nearby neighbours include Irish football hero Robbie Keane; Nicky Byrne from Westlife; and Boyzone frontman Ronan Keating.

"We bought our house last May and kept it under wraps, as we wanted it to be our little secret. There is such a huge expectation to share everything online. And I don't share as much any more, I've cut back," Suzanne says. "I got burnt for oversharing, and then they expect you to share more and more, so I just said at one stage, 'Feck this, I'm not sharing as much any more'. When I started So Sue Me, I was 25, young and single - I wanted to share my life. But now that the brand's established and I'm married to my husband, who's very private, I just don't want to. I am very protective."

How many flights has she been on this year? "About 30 flights so far this year. I travel for work and pleasure. When I flew to Dubai to meet with distributors, we stayed an extra three days for pleasure," she says. "I go abroad to shoot outfit posts for brands, like Pretty Little Thing, who I work with. And sometimes my mam and dad will come, and we will make a little holiday out of it."

When you share your life online, it is inevitable that you'll be subjected to keyboard warriors, but Suzanne has learned to rise above them. "I'm not gonna say it [trolling] doesn't hurt, but at this point in my life, I'm strong-minded. The positive always outweighs the negative."

She adds: "I got a message from a woman who said, 'Oh my god you're such a selfish bitch, would you not just go and have children and then your body won't look like that'."

Suzanne Jackson on her wedding day to Dylan O’Connor
Suzanne Jackson on her wedding day to Dylan O’Connor

Does it get frustrating when people constantly ask when are you going to have a family? "I understand why people ask me - I'm 35 this year, I've been married two years and I own my house with my husband," she explains. "But not everybody has the same goals in life. For me, I'm such a career girl - and that's not to say you can't be a mum and have a career, but I'm at a point in my life where I am so work-driven, that right now is not the time for us. Of course I want children down the line, but right now I'm enjoying work, spending time with my husband and travelling, but who knows what the future holds."

Suzanne is aiming to break into the beauty markets in both the Middle East and the USA. They are big markets to crack, and she will be up against luxurious, world-class international beauty brands who have been around for years, but Suzanne seems unphased by the competition that lies ahead, and rather determined to find a distributor willing to meet her standards.

We may roll our eyes at the saturated online market of 'influencers', and wonder if they will last, but it's the smart and savvy ones like Suzanne, who have ventured out on their own and made something of themselves, who will continue to succeed and lead these lucrative lives.

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