Photography: Kelli Steel Dailey, Third Line Studios
Strategic. Methodical. Polished. These are just a few words to describe the caliber of entrepreneur that is Opportunista Ada Polla. Throughout her childhood and into her teenage years, Ada watched her father run his dermatology practice from early mornings into the late evenings, seven days a week. Not only did Ada learn the meaning of a strong work ethic, but she also came to understand what else was involved in running a business. And she knew she wouldn't have it any other way.
As the CEO of Alchimie Forever, a skin care line that provides clinical results with clean formulations, Ada shares how she's built her business – from the methods she used to name her company, to the business rules she lives by, to the relationships she's cultivated with trusted partners and loyal customers. And it's no surprise because with 150K+ miles of air travel per year, Ada is always on the go. Yet, ever the epitome of organized, Ada describes how she maximizes every moment of her business trips to do some of her best work and plan ahead for what's to come.
Ada is The Opportunista.
To develop a lasting brand I would say be passionate, be ready to work, and then work some more.
Let’s meet Ada and learn from this Opportunista.
Name: Ada Polla
Location: Georgetown, Washington DC
Title & Company: CEO, Alchimie Forever
Harvard University BA (Magna cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa)
Georgetown University MBA
Why did you want to become an entrepreneur?
I started working with my father, Dr. Luigi L. Polla, Switzerland’s best dermatologist, when I was 10 years old. He had just opened his dermatology practice in Geneva, Switzerland, and was working 7 days a week, 7 am to 10 pm. He could not find anyone to work the front desk during evening and weekend hours, so I helped while in school – all the way until my high school graduation. I saw him work hard to develop his practice. I saw him be responsible for the livelihood of his team. I saw him in take control of his destiny and witnessed how the harder he worked, the better his business became. I never got an appreciation for work hours, or work-life balance, as his work was his life.
I think these early experiences meant that I never thought about any other path. I somehow always knew I was going to own my own business.
What advice do you have for an aspiring entrepreneur who has a business idea and is trying to develop it?
Double your expenses and halve your revenue. Then do it again. I know that sounds painful, but it is more painful to be surprised by it. And know that everything takes a lot longer than you think it will. Also, perhaps most importantly, don’t let anyone else define success or failure for you. Failure might be to not pursue your dream – rather than failing at it.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in launching your business? How did you overcome this challenge?
Undercapitalization is the biggest challenge I faced launching my business, and I have to admit I have not yet overcome it as we continue to be bootstrapped. I would say, however, that this challenge has a silver lining. We have had to be more controlled in our growth and more strategic in our decisions, than if we had lots of money to spend. We also have made less expensive mistakes as a result!
What does the name “Alchimie Forever” signify? How did you develop this name for your business?
This is such a great question. My sister Cyrille and I came up with this name. We wanted a name that included the word "forever" to create a link with our other business, Forever Institut (our spa in Geneva that evolved from my father’s practice, where Alchimie Forever was born). And we liked the word "alchimie," which is the French word for "alchemy."
Alchemy is the science that pre-dated chemistry. Parts of alchemy led to chemistry, which is very relevant to skin care (science, formulations, clinical evidence). However, the more magical pursuits of the alchemists resonated with us as much, if not more. They were searching for the stone of eternal youth (we are an anti-aging skin care line), and they worked to transform lad into gold (making something not so pretty into something beautiful). They were also the first to think about plants as having healing benefits. All of these things matched our goals – a botanically-driven anti-aging skin care line – based on science and with magical results.
How have you determined your target customers? Has the target evolved over time?
When I launched Alchimie, I was in business school. And I figured my first customers would be my business school girlfriends. So the target customer was in her late 20s / early 30s, educated, smart, interested in preventing signs of skin aging, and curious about niche, entrepreneurial brands and shopping out of the box. This stays true today, and we are now more inclusive. Our target customer still includes my business school girlfriends, who are now moms, professionals, in their late 30s / early 40s, interested in correcting signs of aging while continuing prevention. Our target customer also includes men.
Alchimie Forever has garnered several press-worthy opportunities to share your family’s knowledge and passion for the science of anti-aging skincare. What advice do you have for early-stage entrepreneurs who aspire to cultivate such opportunities?
Press (in print, online, and social media) is key when building a consumer brand. And as everything, it takes time, and is all about relationships.
Early on in my business I decided to invest in PR by hiring a full time, in-house, director of PR and Marketing. My colleague (and business partner as she owns part of Alchimie) Catherine has been working with me for 10+ years, and knows Alchimie Forever even better than I do. She has been able to create relationships with editors, which is how we have been able to garner such great press (including Marie-Claire, Vogue, Elle, Into the Gloss, and more). Also always remember that the editorial assistants of today are the editors-in-chief of tomorrow!
Alchimie Forever has also secured a number of strategic partnerships with exclusive spas, specialty boutiques, and a global collective of pharmacies. What have you learned in building these partnerships – from initially identifying potential partners to implementing the partnership?
I would say that everything I mentioned about press successes applies to sales successes. Indeed, in some way, press is sales!
Partnerships with spas, boutiques, and pharmacies are all about relationships. I approach selling based on the rules my father-in-law (Edwin Neil II, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting unfortunately) created for his business, a haircare distribution company (Neill Corporation). His rules are:
1. Relationship is the cornerstone of sales.
2. Trust and passion are the cornerstone for relationship.
3. Build trust by making and keeping promises.
4. The key to controlling any situation is to control your breath.
5. Be interested versus interesting.
6. Never tell anyone anything that you can ask them.
7. God gave you two wears, two eyes, and one mouth; use them accordingly.
8. Once you ask a question, be silent!
9. Be consistent in your presence and in your performance.
I love these rules, and have them on a small card in my wallet. I look at the card a few minutes before the start of all of my sales meetings.
What is the Forever Commitment? Why is it important to your brand? What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are working toward developing a lasting brand?
The Forever Commitment is ultimately about quality. Quality in my work, in our word to our customers, and the products we make. I consider it an oath of truth, and I take my responsibility to my partners and customers extremely seriously.
To develop a lasting brand I would say be passionate, be ready to work, and then work some more. Finally, be able to evolve, to grow and to gracefully accept feedback, even if it is not the feedback you had hoped for.
As the CEO, you’re constantly on the road. How do you make the most out of each business trip?
I should start by saying that I love being on the road. I travel 150K+ miles per year, and am a million miler on American Airlines. I do great work in airline lounges and on the plane.
I make the most of each business trip by:
- Always working on the plane.
- Putting work into planning the trip by scheduling meetings ahead of time, organizing my itinerary logically, making both existing business and new business appointments.
- I always stay at Marriott Courtyards because I love the consistency. They have all of the amenities I look for (including a bar!) and are affordable on a bootstrapped business.
- My bathroom at home is not the most conducive to baths, so I take baths when I'm on the road. It gives me something relaxing to look forward to and incorporates wellness into my travel.
How are you creating your own opportunities to live your best life?
The key to creating my best life is to make the right decisions.
The quality of your life is based on the quality of your decisions. And the quality of your decisions is based on the quality of your thinking.
So I spend time thinking, and I translate this thinking into decisions. Sometimes these decisions are hard, but I still know they are the right ones. So I make them, and stick to them.
Ada is The Opportunista.
How would you describe yourself ? Driven. Loyal. Hardworking. Kind. Fun underneath it all.
What is your favorite way to unwind? Silence is the most important requirement for me to unwind. So I love time at home, alone, in silence. I also find respite in the outdoors – from walking, early in the morning (on my way to a 6 am SoulCycle class), listening to nature and not people (silence again), to wakeboarding on the Natalbany River and looking at the sky, the trees, the water (and sometimes the alligators!).
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? My husband reminds me regularly that I have to spend more on my time on business development and sales. It sounds simple and easy, yet it is so hard. I believe this advice applies to all entrepreneurs, no matter the industry.
What is your favorite quote? There are too many to pick one. I live by quotes and one-liners, from many difference sources – to the point where I have even come up with some of my own! Here are my top picks:
“Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
“Always be overdressed.”
Let me know in the comments: How has Ada’s story inspired you to build your own business
and create your own opportunities to live your best life?
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