How Nina Mua Bootstrapped A $1M Makeup School

Nina Mua
from New York
started April 2014
alexa rank
customer service
stock images

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Nina, and I am the founder of Nina Mua, Makeup Academy in New York City. I started the school in 2014 to meet an underserved need for quality and affordable makeup artistry education. Soon after, I also launched Online Makeup Academy to offer my programs to students all around the world. This year I’m working on another venture called Online Women Biz, an online education platform preparing women for entrepreneurship.

Nina Mua Makeup Academy is the cornerstone of all my businesses, and the Master Makeup Artistry program is our flagship course. In five weeks and 100 hours of lessons, aspiring makeup artists learn the fundamentals and techniques of makeup artistry and are able to progress to advanced levels. Our students are mostly women, but we do have men occasionally, who want to pursue makeup artistry as a career.

We pride ourselves on preparing our students for the real world! No matter what course students enroll in they receive photoshoots to build their professional portfolios and a free makeup kit with all the quality products they need. There are tons of career options for artists in film, TV, fashion, and bridal makeup, especially in NYC, and we arm our students with the knowledge to stay competitive in the industry and seize these opportunities.

The school keeps growing every year. In 2018, we had more than 350 students enroll and generated $910,000 in revenue with a net margin of approximately 40%. Online Makeup Academy enrolled more than 900 students from all around the world and generated $750,000 in revenue with a net margin of approximately 30%.

But for me, the greatest measure of success is how well our students do. I’m incredibly proud of them and it brings me great joy to see them succeed in their professions. Our graduates have worked at New York Fashion Week shows and have had their work featured in Vogue Italy.

I receive many personal letters from students saying how our school changed their lives. I’ve witnessed so many people leave corporate jobs to pursue their lifelong dream of a career in makeup. Being able to contribute to someone getting a chance to do what they love and make their dream life come true is a blessing that cannot be measured.

And that’s really my mission with all my businesses, to help people change their lives by providing them the knowledge, skills, tools, and inspiration to pursue their dreams.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I started out as a makeup artist myself. I attended a makeup school in Moscow, Russia and established myself as full-time makeup artist working with celebrities and high-profile clients in Moscow.

I could easily credit my success to luck and good timing, but I believe daily execution of your ideas and investing into your project leads to success sooner or later. Hard work is what will bring you both good luck and perfect timing.

I absolutely loved my career but started feeling the need for new challenges. When I was invited to New York Fashion Week one year, I knew that I had found the next phase of my career. The city blew my mind because of how diverse and unique it was. I took a leap of faith and moved to New York.

I wanted a challenge, and this was it! Cultural, societal, and language barriers were difficult to adapt to, but I told myself that I would stay and succeed in New York City.


I went from being a recognized artist in Moscow to no one knowing who I was. It was back to square one, and I started off by offering my services for free. Having proved myself to clients, I began receiving recommendations and referrals which led me to book my first paid jobs. I kept working tirelessly, and a few years later, I was able to support myself as a full-time makeup artist.

Planning for a baby was the best motivation to transfer my career from being a freelance makeup artist to becoming a business owner. I was working a lot as a bridal makeup specialist and would travel constantly. My schedule was hectic. My days would start at 4:30am without much sleep, I was always running around the city with a heavy bag of makeup/hair tools, and I worked 12-hour days.

It was a lot to keep up with. So, I started thinking about business ideas. It took time, but I always had the idea in my mind that I wanted a bigger mission. Not only did I want to transform people's appearances but also to pass on my knowledge to other dreamers.

As I became more acquainted with the industry, I noticed there was a demand for quality makeup education that wasn’t being met. There weren’t many beauty schools in New York City, and those that did exist were quite expensive.

My idea wasn’t clear. I didn't think of a legitimate makeup school at first, so I started hosting personal classes on makeup application and hairstyling, renting different spaces by the hour. And one day, I realized I had enough enrollment to move into my own space. But I didn't have enough money. Unsurprisingly, it's hard to save money and pay bills living in New York City. I had to borrow $3,000 from a friend of mine, but she could only lend it to me for two months. This was quite risky for me! Even if I had zero enrollment, it was still my responsibility to pay her back on time plus pay rent for the studio.

But those circumstances made me stay focused on my goal – to have a steady flow of customers and pay the money back on time. And, in the end, I made it work. Six months later I upgraded to a bigger space and made another upgrade 18 months later to a space in the heart of Manhattan. I was no longer able to serve all the students on my own, so I hired additional instructors. Nina Mua Makeup Academy was born and licensed as a private career school with the Department of Education.

Word-of-mouth and my personal network were important in those early days. My first student was actually someone I knew from when I had previously worked in a salon. As we got our website up and SEO established, more and more students found the school through Google searches as our site was on the first or second page of results. It’s much easier to rank on Google as a local business, since people generally search a specific area.

There are usually five to ten major competitors, and it’s not that difficult to rank among them if your website is well-optimized. Also, people glance quickly over search results, so your solution for what they’re looking for needs to be incredibly clear. In my case, most searches were for “makeup artistry classes” and we clearly advertised that.


Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

The curriculum for all the courses offered at the school was written by me and based on my experiences in the industry. I know firsthand what it’s like to work as a makeup artist under various conditions and in a multitude of different specialties, so I made sure the lessons covered all the necessary information and taught the students practical skills.

One of the programs’ major unique selling propositions is the complimentary cosmetics kit students receive upon enrollment. When creating my programs, I wanted them to offer a true “real-world” experience to students. On the last day of class, students create makeup looks on models, and we bring in a professional photographer to capture their work. They graduate with a portfolio of their work, which is crucial for makeup artists to have when searching for jobs.

As the school matured, so did our offering. I extended the range of products in the kit and introduced more high-quality formulas. We now book top models and photographers for our graduation shoots. These additional services have transformed the courses from being just makeup lessons to full-fledged programs that prepare students to work in the industry.

It took time to make the curriculum what it is today, and it’s improved exponentially since I started out with my private lessons. I constantly tested new teaching techniques and methods and adjusted the subject matter accordingly. Open communication and feedback from students throughout the years has guided me in shaping and improving the courses. I always try to stand out from competitors and offer the best possible service to those who choose our school for their education. It’s a never-ending job.

how-nina-mua-bootstrapped-a-1m-makeup-school Work by our student was featured in Vogue

Describe the process of launching the business.

The website was crucial for the business. Our customers weren’t purchasing a product or a one-time 30-minute service of some sorts, they were investing their time, energy, and future with every sign-up. I wanted the website to be attractive with a clean design and without an overload of information, but still have everything that prospective students needed to know.

It’s important to recognize that having a killer Instagram profile is not enough when you’re trying to play in the big leagues. You can be crushing it today on IG and tomorrow an algorithm change hits and puts you out of business.

Website design is not my expertise, so I outsourced to a contractor who built the website using Squarespace. Squarespace’s platform allowed us to achieve the exact look and feel I had envisioned. I utilized Instagram and Facebook ads for marketing as I started out.


The biggest lesson I learned from this launch is that it’s possible to start out small without having a budget in the tens of thousands. Even small investments in Google or Facebook ads can help you validate your idea at an early stage by attracting your initial customers. An appealing and easily understandable website is a must and you don’t have to be an expert in web design to create one. The platforms available today are simple to use and there are always freelancers you can hire to help out.

Most importantly, make sure you are providing a fantastic product or service and that your customers are satisfied. Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool and customer reviews on Yelp or Google help validate your business. And take your customer reviews to heart. As entrepreneurs we’re tasked with a never-ending process of constantly innovating and improving our businesses.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

In the beginning, I tried everything! Every marketing tool out there, social media, Facebook Ads, PR, email marketing and newsletters, networking, SEO, partnerships, and the list goes one. SEO and paid ads ended up working the best, simply because people still use Google when they are searching for something. Perfecting ads is both a science and an art. You need to constantly analyze and adjust your content and messaging to make sure you are reaching the right customers.


It’s important to recognize that having a killer Instagram profile is not enough when you’re trying to play in the big leagues. You can be crushing it today on IG and tomorrow an algorithm change hits and puts you out of business. That’s another reason making your website a central focus is a must.


Yelp has been a huge marketing channel for us and it’s definitely an avenue all service-based businesses must utilize. We encourage our students to leave reviews about their experience and they have definitely made an impact.

Many students enroll because the school has the best rating in the area on Yelp. I’m personally not a fan of Yelp as a company, their customer support and algorithm can be frustrating, but they are the go-to source for online reviews. Everyone has heard of Yelp and many people rely on it, so having a strong presence on the platform is crucial.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Nina Mua Makeup Academy has been profitable since day one. As I mentioned, our net margin is approximately 40%.

Our marketing efforts on Google, Facebook, Yelp, and SEO take up only 5-10% of revenue. That’s due to the fact that the website has very good SEO, and since we invested heavily into it in the beginning, it’s now at a very minimal cost.


Monthly website traffic average between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors with an average time on site between two and three minutes. We have almost 3,000 email subscribers, 18,700 followers on Instagram, and 21,000 followers on Facebook.

Year-over-year growth is trending between 10-20%. Approximately 30% of sales are through the website and 70% are in-person. Nowadays many customers learn about us through recommendations and word-of-mouth or they find us in a directory and come visit the school. We also host free monthly events where we have makeup demonstrations, networking, refreshments, and a party-like, fun atmosphere.

Many attendees come to just enjoy the event, but some decide to sign-up for our classes after learning more about them. Of course, that 70% also includes students who find us online but come see the school in-person and complete their transaction physically versus the 30% who complete their transaction online.

I have very minimal to almost no involvement in the operational management of the business. My main focus is on strategy, setting goals, and finding new opportunities to grow and innovate. I believe that as an entrepreneur you must rise above the day-to-day operations of the business and focus more on strategic tasks.

Motherhood and my other projects keep me busy enough! As I mentioned earlier, I am launching my new project, Online Women Biz, in 2019, which is a kind of continuation of my work with the makeup academy. This business idea was born out of the gap that I saw with my own makeup school graduates. Many wish to start their own businesses but lack the skills and knowledge needed to become entrepreneurs. Online Women Biz provides business and personal development courses for aspiring female business owners to fill that gap.


Some of my short-term goals are to launch Online Women Biz, write a book, and start a YouTube channel. Balance is extremely important to me, so I want to be able to spend time with my family and truly enjoy my days alongside all the projects I’m involved in.

Again, my long-term life mission is to help women change their lives by providing them the knowledge, skills, tools, and inspiration to pursue their dreams.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Hindsight is always 20/20, and I wish I knew what I know now when I was starting out. But at the same time, everything had its purpose and I wouldn’t be the person I am today had I not gone through the struggles I did. I am grateful for my mistakes and for having to learn the hard way.

As an entrepreneur, you must know a little bit of everything, because the more you know, the easier life will be. And that goes for things like accounting and marketing as well. You can definitely outsource or delegate those tasks, but you should still know the basics and be able to recognize quality work from others.

I made countless mistakes in hiring, managing, and organizing processes. So, I encourage others to take courses in every business subject area and to try to learn something useful every day. Educating yourself is the absolute best business investment you can make.

One of the best decisions I made early on was spending the time and effort on SEO and designing a quality website. It has paid off immensely, and I would advise everyone to invest in their website with superior design and quality photography.

I could easily credit my success to luck and good timing, but I believe daily execution of your ideas and investing into your project leads to success sooner or later. Hard work is what will bring you both good luck and perfect timing.

Combine hard work with the right mentality and it’s a winning formula. A positive mind set and the drive to continue on no matter how many times you fall and how many people doubt you is indispensable. Set detailed goals and visualize where you want to go with your business. Once the end is clear to you, charting a path forward becomes much simpler.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Many books, podcasts, and courses I have taken have been incredibly influential. The ones I’ve listed below have helped form my approach to business and led me to work smarter.

Best Books:

Best Podcasts:

I’ve also started using Blinkist, a service that gives you quick 15-minute insights, summarizing the main ideas from books. It’s a huge asset when I don’t have time to sit down and read an entire book.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Don’t think that everything will go smoothly the first time. It most certainly won’t. I had to go through some failures to see my own goals finally realized. The sooner you experience some chaos and fight back, the sooner you will develop the peace of mind and confidence needed to move forward. In fact, sometimes it takes time to understand what the right path is to achieve your desired goals, and it is easy to let fears and self-doubt stop us.

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You will have to leave your comfort zone far behind you if you want to be an entrepreneur. Many times, you will find yourself in situations where you haven’t the slightest idea of how you’ll make something work, but you have to push through anyway until you find a solution.

Make sure you’re pursuing your goals because it’s something you truly want. I see people living in the captivity of other's ambitions and objectives all the time. They either pursue businesses they’re not passionate about or run their businesses according to other’s standards. This will only lead to unsatisfaction and burnout. Whatever you do make certain that it’s because of YOU!

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

I am always open to hiring talented people. If a person seems like a great addition to the team but there isn’t anything open, I create a position for him or her. If someone were to reach out to me and say, “Your website sucks. I can do it better. Here’s what I’ve done for others,” and if they prove their expertise, I would hire them even if I wasn’t looking for a web designer at the moment.

A strong team leads to a strong business and ten times the growth. I look at hiring as more of forming a partnership and that’s how I treat every employee, as a partner.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

Nina Mua,   Founder of Nina Mua

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