Bethenny Frankel on Making Mistakes, Her Trademark Candor and the Value of Real Housewives

Frankel opened up about developing her multimillion-dollar business at Brandweek: Challenger Brands

Frankel said she's had an entrepreneurial spirit for almost as long as she can remember. Sean T. Smith for Adweek
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Bethenny Frankel has come a long way since her first season of The Real Housewives of New York in 2008—specifically, from reality star to full-blown business mogul with a multimillion-dollar food and beverage empire, Skinnygirl, to her name. On Wednesday at Brandweek: Challenger Brands in New York, Frankel opened up about how she grew her business, the mistakes she’s learned from and her feelings about RHONY’s role in her fame.

She was always a ‘serial entrepreneur’

Frankel said she’s had an entrepreneurial spirit for almost as long as she can remember, taking on odd jobs (including a stint selling Christmas trees) and pursuing opportunities that would help propel her to the next step in her career (such as attending culinary school). But still, she admits she didn’t always have the business knowledge she’s since gained through developing Skinnygirl. “I don’t think I knew what the word entrepreneur meant, or the word brand,” she said. “I didn’t know what intellectual property or trademark meant.”

Early mistakes helped inform her later business decisions

When it comes to making mistakes, it’s better to get those blunders out of the way early, said Frankel. “A lot of the mistakes I made then would be so much bigger if I made them now,” she said. “Sometimes the growing pains are the best thing, because later, it would be such a more massive screwup. If you screw up in Little League, it’s a lot different than the World Series.”

This hard-won perspective came in handy after Frankel initially sold her company to Jim Beam in 2011. The team at Beam was enthusiastic about creating new Skinnygirl products, from wine to sangria to vodka. But now Frankel was savvy enough to know that such rapid expansion risked the business cannibalizing itself and confusing customers.

She’s not a planner; she relies on instinct

Being an entrepreneurs is practically synonymous with meticulous planning, research and testing when it comes to launching a new business or even a new product. That’s not Frankel’s method. “I’m not a grand-plan person,” she said. “I’m a person that gets to the car, some idea of where I’m going or where I want to go, but I’m prepared for a flat tire if I run out of gas, brush myself off, fill up the car and end up on some different road.” This flexibility and willingness to go down an unexpected path has arguably been a major ingredient in her success: Skinnygirl evolved primarily out of her own craving for a tasty beverage that wasn’t loaded with sugar.

“It was just me making a cocktail for myself to solve that problem, something sweet, but strong enough that you realized it was a margarita,” she said. What started as a personal preference snowballed into something bigger. She was drinking the Skinnygirl margaritas on the show, and when Bravo’s Andy Cohen asked her during the reunion show what its ingredients were, she realized the fans wanted to know too. She said she remembers thinking to herself, “How could I not monetize this?'”

She believes being ‘first’ was a major boon for her business 

Frankel knows her own entrepreneurial success serves as an inspiration for others, but warns that being a copycat won’t get you very far. “People have looked at what I’ve done and that’s great to inspire them, but you need to have your own gut and your own vision,” she said. “What I did hadn’t been done before, being the first ever low-calorie cocktail.”

Her future with the platform that made her famous—The Real Housewives of New York—is uncertain, but it was undoubtedly a boost for her business

Though Frankel said that you “can’t diss the show that made you,” she admits that she’s unsure if she’ll return for another season of the Real Housewives—she doesn’t want to be the last one at the party.

Regardless, the show proved to be essential in providing her business with a launching pad. It gave people an avenue to connect with her, and the authenticity she exhibited helped to create a built-in fanbase that was open and receptive to her products.

“I was honest about my life on the show, about my flaws, my fears, about being broken up with,” she said. “But I was so honest that people invested in me. They’re investing in me, and they’re believing what I’m selling because they believe I’m being honest with them.”

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.