The business proposal Jessica Alba drafted for her startup was more like an art project initially.

"I didn't have any experience putting together a business plan, but I did know how to put together a collage, so I basically collaged the first idea around this company," said the Golden Globe-nominated actress and co-founder of The Honest Co., which produces nontoxic household and beauty products.

Alba, known for her roles in films such as "Fantastic Four" and "Little Fockers," offered a few lessons she learned from growing the business she started five years ago to 400 employees, $250 million in annual revenue and a $1.7 billion valuation, during a recent Success Makers Summit that American Express OPEN hosted in New York. The event was part of a marketing push highlighting new benefits for its Business Platinum card, including quintuple rewards points on flights and prepaid hotels.

What Alba shared was not only interesting for the entrepreneurs (and fans) who attended, it was great insight for bankers into the challenges of starting a small business and the creativity and courage that augur success.

Jessica Alba, of the Honest Co., at right, and Neil Blumenthal, of Warby Parker, talked about what it's like to start a business during the keynote presentation at a recent Amex event. Both the Honest Co., which sells baby and personal care items, and Warby Parker, which sells designer eyewear, are socially conscious businesses.
Jessica Alba, of the Honest Co., at right, and Neil Blumenthal, of Warby Parker, talked about what it's like to start a business during the keynote presentation at a recent Amex event. Both the Honest Co., which sells baby and personal care items, and Warby Parker, which sells designer eyewear, are socially conscious businesses. American Express

From the outset, Alba had a very clear vision of what her company should and shouldn't be. That's where the collage came in. "I had a bunch of pictures of things in the home from cleaning products to personal care products," she said. "And then I put on top of that all of these words, like 'transparency,' 'honesty,' 'responsibility,' 'giving back.' And this was my first mood board, or inspiration board."

What Alba wanted was ethically made products, transparency with the ingredients, consumer education and, more broadly, social justice as core values. She looked around to assess who her competitors would be and none were already doing what she envisioned. "There really wasn't one brand that went across every single vertical that met the standards and ethics that I wanted in a company."

Even for someone with her name recognition, getting funding wasn't easy. But Alba kept at it, and found that through rejection came clarity. "I think the most helpful thing I did, actually, was check my ego and actually pitch this idea of this company to as many people as possible and learn about what they didn't understand or get about it," she said. "It helped me really refine what was sticky, what really mattered, and get to the essence of the idea."

She also was able to draw on her background to refine her approach — figuring out how to create the right message for the right audience. "I actually learned that in entertainment," Alba said. "The ads that I would do for superhero movies for Spike, an all-men's kind of audience, is very different than what I would do for ABC Family. And in that same way you have to think of marketing with your brand."

One tenet of success Alba kept coming back to was staying in touch with customers. She jumps on customer calls and even schedules FaceTime chats sometimes. Her company has used the insight to expand into new business lines and develop new products. "We started with 17," she said. "We didn't know where we were going to go, but when you get thousands of people telling you to go and start a beauty brand, eventually you do, and they are there and they are grateful and they want more from you. And it's been really cool, because when you are that consumer-centric and when you actually deliver on your promise, they're very loyal and you have to do a lot less traditional marketing, in a way, because they become your brand ambassadors and they want to tell their friends about you."

Alba advised being willing to take risks, in business and in life. She cited one of her mentors as her own inspiration in this: James Cameron, who directed blockbusters like "Titanic" and "The Terminator."

She recounted a conversation with Cameron when he was planning to make a documentary and a movie about the Titanic. "He was like, 'I'm going to do this documentary. We're going to go to the deepest part of the ocean where the Titanic is sunk. No one's ever gone down there.'"

But at the time no apparatus existed that could withstand the immense pressure of those depths, so Cameron had to invent the means to do what he wanted to do.

"He's never made a submarine before; he's a filmmaker. And then to make a camera that can survive underwater with that pressure with the lights, I mean, it's just amazing," Alba said. "But he opened my mind to, 'Who cares what's happened or what's out there in the world?' You can create your own reality, and if you want something, go after it."

Bonnie McGeer

Bonnie McGeer is the executive editor of American Banker. She oversees its monthly magazine and chairs the Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance program.

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