It was 1 a.m. and Vivian Xue Rahey was just settling into a new work project. Over the next 4.5 hours, in her capable hands, a set of clear, press-on nails — a blank canvas — would be transformed into a striking homage to Billie Eilish, complete with a tiny portrait of the pop star and a crystal-encrusted version of her Blohsh logo.
Equally impressive perhaps was Rahey herself, wearing 1.5-inch nails while painting, dipping the brush into colorful pools of polish as she referenced a photo of Eilish.
A former habitual nail-biter, Rahey is quick to point out the irony of her chosen occupation. “When I was 4, I bit my nails down so much, my parents had to take me to the emergency room,” says the 29-year-old, chuckling.
Today, Rahey is the founder and CEO of Pamper Nail Gallery, which specializes in hand-painted nails and bills itself as the premier internet nail art salon. When Rahey opened Pamper as a brick-and-mortar operation in 2017, clients flocked to the Fremont salon for intricate creations hand-painted by its artists, such as miniature Mona Lisas and Baby Yodas or, spread across an entire hand, snippets of van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and a brigade of Avengers superheroes.
But in March, as the coronavirus pandemic forced Rahey to shutter the storefront, she went from mulling ways to grow to figuring out how to stay afloat. “The first month after we shut down, I was really confused,” she says. “Should I prepare for this? Should I prepare for that? We already had pretty tight margins at the salon. I didn’t think we were going to be able to afford rent with reduced capacity.”
It turns out, there was a way to get Pamper’s nail art to more people — a lot more people — without worrying as much about overhead.
In 2019, Rahey had begun experimenting with press-ons after the entertainment industry came calling, asking for nails rendered with characters from movies and TV shows. With the pandemic derailing business indefinitely into the future, Rahey started imagining a line of press-on nails far superior to the cheesy drugstore products of the past. “What if we put our art on it,” she wondered, “and made it really dope?”
By June, she had reinvented her business model. Pamper still specializes in elaborate nail art, but now it adorns press-ons that are shipped to clients.
Rahey terminated her Fremont salon lease early, furloughed and then brought back some staff members, rented warehouse space for supplies and launched a robust online store. Before placing an order, new clients get a free sizing kit; information from it is used to make their nails. The reusable sets, applied with adhesive tabs or nail glue and available in multiple lengths and shapes, can be worn more than 10 times.
There are ombré effects and solid hues that shine with hand-poured glitter. There are airbrushed snowflakes and delicate cherry blossoms and dagger-like nails dripping with Swarovski crystals that look straight out of a Lady Gaga music video. Sets in the Basics line are priced from $49, while custom work, which makes up roughly 40% of orders, starts at $139.
The bespoke designs range from the wry — a Lysol-theme nail caught the attention of Snoop Dogg, who reposted an image to his 55 million Instagram followers — to the weighty. One client requested a motif inspired by artwork from “Middle Passage,” Charles Johnson’s novel about the slave trade. The priciest order to date is a $1,900 tribute to the buyer’s late father, with family photos painted on each nail.
In the spring, as Rahey was going all-in on e-commerce, venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz announced the launch of its Talent x Opportunity Initiative, an accelerator program to fund and train underrepresented founders. More than 1,200 entrepreneurs applied, and Pamper was one of seven businesses chosen to receive a $100,000 investment in exchange for a 7% ownership stake. The program, which kicked off in October and runs through June, will conclude with presentations to potential investors during a virtual demo day.
“We have our eyes on the prize, which is raising our Series A (funding) towards the end of the program,” says Rahey, adding that building infrastructure to handle larger scale is a priority.
Naithan Jones, the Andreessen Horowitz partner leading the initiative, describes those selected as “emerging cultural geniuses.” Rahey, he says, “exemplifies the kind of founders we’re looking for at TxO: “entrepreneurs who don’t have the traditional background and resources that you’d usually find in Silicon Valley.”
Rahey was born in Shanghai and raised in Glendale (Los Angeles County). At age 19, while studying computer science and actuarial science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she co-founded the now-defunct Balloonduck, which she describes as a “crowd-sourced, quick-fire, question-and-answer app.” The rush she experienced from building the business spurred her to drop out a year shy of graduating.
She returned to Southern California, where she worked for an on-demand massage startup that relocated her to the Bay Area about seven years ago. By the time she left the company in 2014, the seed for Pamper was planted.
Rahey initially conceived Pamper as an app for on-demand, at-home beauty services, from blowouts to makeup to personal training, with nails among the categories offered. But over the next year or two it evolved. On social media she stumbled upon the world of Instagram nails and was blown away by what she saw. “They were doing real artwork on nails.”
Despite lacking any art skills, Rahey decided to try her hand at nail art. “I would spend hours in the bathroom with all this nail polish,” she says. She had just started dating the man who would become her husband, “and he would be like, ‘Are you OK in there?’”
“Yes,” Rahey would answer. “I’m trying to create a masterpiece on my nails!”
For the next couple of years, Rahey was “secretly developing my obsession … messing around really poorly on myself,” she says. “I wouldn’t share any of those pictures.” It wasn’t until 2016 that she started posting her work on Instagram.
“At the time, I wanted to contribute to the salon that I was thinking of opening. I didn’t want to be an owner who just handles the finances,” she explains of her desire for nail-art proficiency. “There’s no way I could have learned as much about the industry without being a part of it. Being ingrained in the community gives me a huge competitive edge.”
Rahey’s digital following has grown, too. She has more than 250,000 followers on Instagram and 400,000 followers on TikTok — her handle for both is @vivxue — and she relies on social media to promote Pamper. The videos she posts provide a glimpse of her process, wowing with the intricacies of the designs and confirming that they’re done by hand without decals.
Nail artist Jasmine Sap discovered Pamper on Instagram and was hired at the salon in 2018. Pre-shutdown, on a typical day she could accommodate four clients. An appointment for a full set might last up to 2.5 hours; a regular gel manicure, by comparison, takes about 45 minutes. Now, Sap can paint six sets of press-on nails per day.
Since the artists can work from practically anywhere these days, Pamper has expanded from a maximum of 15 painters at the salon to a network of around 250 freelancers across the United States. The company recruits for specific pieces and pays per commission accepted by the artist. The most active freelancers are considered advanced level, deft at drawing characters.
Rahey pivoted to online sales and press-on nails as a “survival thing,” but the shift has been a boon. Pamper racked up more than $1 million in revenue in 2019 and will surpass that this year. Its bestseller is a simple set in glossy piano black with the underside painted red, reminiscent of Christian Louboutin shoes, that start at $49.
Talent x Opportunity’s inaugural 7
In an effort to support underserved and underrepresented entrepreneurs, Andreessen Horowitz — which has invested in Airbnb, Lyft, Pinterest and Twitter — launched the Talent x Opportunity Initiative earlier this year. Marking a departure from traditional venture funds, TxO is donation-based.
The companies in the TxO accelerator program receive $100,000 as well as mentoring from Andreessen Horowitz’s network, in exchange for an equity stake. At the program’s conclusion, a virtual demo day will provide an opportunity to raise additional capital.
Along with Vivian Xue Rahey’s Pamper online nail salon, TxO’s initial cohort of seven includes women’s skin care company Oui the People founded by beauty professional Karen Young; music marketplace Breakr, which helps artists take their music viral; Nigerian American fashion designer Autumn Adeigbo’s eponymous brand; serial entrepreneur Javier Laval’s FutureStream, a streaming platform for live music performances; eyewear brand Coco and Breezy, launched by twin sisters Corianna and Brianna Dotson; and Elite Sweets, whose mission is to deliver healthier, protein-packed doughnuts.
Shannon Marano, who followed Rahey on Instagram long before she could buy her nails online, was ecstatic about Pamper’s digital transition. “Finally,” the Chicago resident says, “I could have something of hers.”
Marano has bought 20 sets of nails, mostly custom jobs with Disney characters. She views them as not only a form of self-care — rewatching Disney movies and then collaborating with Rahey on concepts has been a tonic this year — but as art worthy of display.
“They’re too beautiful to be shoved in a drawer after I’m done wearing them,” Marano says. She has them in a shadowbox that hangs in her apartment. Marano plans to continue purchasing from Pamper even once her local nail salon reopens.
Just as Marano is partial to Disney themes, Rahey has her proclivities, too. While her left hand is reserved for testing out art, her right hand alternates between bejeweled press-ons and designs from Pamper’s Nature series that resemble jade crystals or succulent terrariums.
“I may look like a bum,” she jokes about her pandemic wardrobe, “but my nails always look like I’m going to the Grammys.”
Anh-Minh Le is a Bay Area freelance writer. Email: [email protected]