Jo Malone: My Story

At 402 pages, not including acknowledgements and the index, My Story by Jo Malone is not a weekend read. But it has the ability to keep a grip on one’s attention till the end. The book has the support of a ghostwriter, whom she thanks in acknowledgements. Ms Malone is dyslexic and makes the point that her sense of smell, which is almost synaesthetic, may have been a sensory compensation for her dyslexia. As a hyperosmic synaesthete, I found that fascinating and relatable. She talks frequently about her eidetic memory for smells which has played a vital role in her creativity.

One of the first, unmissable attention-grabbers in this book is the scented glossy page. It is scented with Pomelo, the pomelo, grapefruit and vetiver based first fragrance she launched with Jo Loves. It is an overpowering smell, that competes with and easily beats the new book smell. If you are hyperosmic like me, be alert to the the possibility of a headache! The smell is strong and did not fade away during the 3-4 days over which I read the book.

There are two distinctive stories being told in the book — one, the autobiographical detail, the other, the business creation stories which essentially drew me to the book. They are neatly intertwined of course, though often nostalgia wins out over the business building story.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part “Roots” is the story of her childhood which alternates between idyllic and quite disturbing, while it clearly is where her creative and entrepreneurial character was fostered.

The second, and the longest, part “Wings” is both a love story, with her husband and co-founder Gary Willcox, and the story of the creation of Jo Malone. Their partnership — through the growth of her facials business, the creation and building of Jo Malone, the sale to Estee Lauder, the birth of the son Josh, Ms Malone’s breast cancer and treatment in New York, and her making slow steps back into fragrance creation once the non-compete with Estee Lauder ended — is the rare, non-replicable, not-so-secret sauce of her success. She mentions almost no major arguments or disagreements, which is something other co-founding teams rarely experience. They also have complementary skills in the building of the business and complete trust between them. She is the creative power, and he is definitely the more commercially savvy partner in the duo. He is also the man with the retail real-estate savvy, crucial in building both Jo Malone, and now, Jo Loves. But there are useful lessons in here about building a client list before launching a major brand, being very good at one’s craft but also learning constantly instead of lazily hiring help in (in business, you cannot manage what you don’t understand and measure), delivering the best customer experience from the get-go and recognising and drawing upon all the social capital you have built. What is missing is any major discussion of the financial aspects of building Jo Malone, especially since she mentions she learnt early never to take on debt in the business. A business growing gangbusters, especially where one must manufacture and stock the product before it can be sold, needs robust finances and that part is disappointingly sparse in this section of the book. There is also little about the backend of the business such as what was learnt from the mail order business, and how the relationships with the best customers were managed.

The third part “Reinvention” is about how she returned to making fragrances with Jo Loves, which being an ongoing story is the shortest segment in the book. She discusses how hard it may be to come back and compete in the same category not because of legal restrictions but because of the old memories that surface and because it may be hard to let go. Mr Willcox’s wisdom about letting go before you move on is spot on here. The creation of the brand Jo Malone is a BSM — Before Social Media — business creation story. Her new brand, Jo Loves, is smack bang in the social media era as seen right away from the story of the pop-up launch  at Selfridges. She even tweeted from her handle, @JoMaloneMBE, on the very first day the Jo Loves shop opened at 42 Elizabeth Street, the shop where she had worked as a teenager with florist Justin de Blank. This part of her story also has a huge international aspect to it. I found the rebranding challenges quite interesting too but as with any story told after the fact, the struggle seems more compressed than it actually may have been. This is the ‘to be continued” part of Ms Malone’s story, of course, though the book ends with her induction into the Retail Hall of Fame. As she says in the book about her first tweet: “Once a shopkeeper, always a shopkeeper”.

As with all autobiographies, the author has been generous to herself. I can’t find it in me to turn up my nose at what could be seen as “poor me”. I did feel sad for her that her family is not with her celebrating her success, as they all passed away within a short period of one another. There is not inconsiderable name-dropping in the book. Seeing as this is a BSM book, and many of these people were her clients and her champions in the very early days of her business, even before Jo Malone was launched, it is like a roll call of 1990s London. Some of these names are seminal to her story e.g. Sarah Ferguson, who was her client from before she married Prince Andrew and who introduced new clients to her facial business when Malone separated from her mother’s business, Leonard Lauder, who was at the helm of Estee Lauder when they bought Jo Malone, and Jeremy King of Corbin and King. Other names, such as the mention of David Linley queuing up, feel gratuitous.

Star rating: 3.5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: The middle section “Wings” would be useful for people looking to create startups in the lifestyle space. But the usefulness would be limited, because of the BSM nature of the brand Jo Malone and because discussion of money and other seminal details of business building are not discussed enough or at all. The Jo Loves story is WIP.