Blake Lively Knows Being a Perfectionist Is 'Weaponized' Against Women, But She's Micromanaged Her Way to Millions, So She's Not Stopping Now
The "Gossip Girl" actress is done apologizing for being a control freak. After all, obsessing over every little detail is what's made her mixer brand Betty Buzz a raging success.
Set aside, for a moment, that Blake Lively is very famous.
Let's tell a story that so many entrepreneurs have lived:
It started with the dinner parties. Lively and her husband, Ryan Reynolds (yes, fine, also very famous), hosted them for their friends. Lively oversaw everything: the appetizers, entrées, desserts. Lively loves to cook and loves the meal's procession, too, with its beginning, middle, and end. Like a great movie, a great dinner party abides by a narrative arc.
In 2018, the couple's parties took on a new narrative. Reynolds had purchased an ownership stake in Aviation Gin, so when friends came to dinner, they wanted to try some. Lively oversaw that, too. Lively doesn't drink but wanted to make cocktails — and yet, when she bought mixers from grocery stores, she was disgusted by their taste. She thought she could do better, so she started mixing fruit. Friends raved, but Lively wasn't satisfied. "It's easy to make a delicious drink if you muddle a bunch of blackberries or raspberries and put some mint in there," she says. "But it's harder when you want it to be more subtle and crisp and clean."
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It became a project. She and Reynolds experimented on the nights and weekend afternoons they weren't hosting — Lively tasting the mix on its own, Reynolds blending it with some Aviation — and then she brought her best results to their next party.
The raves changed. Lively's mixers weren't just amazing, her friends said. They had become professional grade.
You should sell these, they said.
Now you see the familiar story. It's one that's launched countless entrepreneurs: Someone solves their own problem, and creates something that others want, too. But Lively thought selling her mix was ridiculous. She was a full-time actor and fuller-time mom, who loved her family and career and nights hosting friends. She mixed cocktails because she loved to. It'd be weird if she had to.
And yet, "I like weird moves," she says. They fulfill what has become a driving force in her life. It isn't simply doing something well. It's creating the terms of the task at hand. Or, as she says:
Nietzsche wrote, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." It asks you, the entrepreneur reading this, to look beneath what you do and question its purpose. When you answer that why, well, it provides you the jet fuel to power through the hardship of any how and reach the upper atmosphere.
Blake Lively's why is "authorship" because, in part, she hasn't always had it. Lively spent far too long as a young actor in some rom-com or on the set of, say, Gossip Girl, hitting her mark, looking pretty, and just agreeing to "show up and shoot and not really have an opinion," she says. But she has many opinions. She has a sense for how to order her life. As she got older — and she's 35 now — she realized her acting improved "if I can be involved in the costumes, if I can be involved in the writing, if I can be involved in the space of creating the character. Then I can disappear into that character." She can fully inhabit that character because she's helped author it. Authorship has landed her a lead role in 2020's The Rhythm Section, opposite two-time Academy Award nominee Jude Law, and a starring role in the box office hit A Simple Favor.
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"Authorship is everything," she says. It extends to her cooking, too. No detail of any dinner party is too small, because each adds to the message she wants to relay about the evening — about love and friendship and creativity and the savoring of this moment before us, which is really all we're guaranteed.
So when her friends recommended she sell her cocktail mixers, she thought, Why not? Why not author a new chapter of my life?
Of course, this question was immediately followed by another far more troubling one, and it didn't matter what any mustachioed dead German might say about it.
How would I possibly do this?
After all, she didn't drink. "I felt like I can't possibly step into this space," she says. How could she pair mixers with alcohol if she only ever drank the mixers? Compounding matters — and stating the obvious — she was an actor, which meant, among other things, "I don't have a business degree." She didn't even know what she didn't know. The learning curve would be so steep.
Or would it?
Wasn't it true that her friends loved her homemade mixers? Wasn't it true she'd concocted those mixers because she'd brought home the ones from grocery and liquor stores and found them wanting? Put another way: Wasn't it true that because the present mixers tasted like crap — too fruity or syrupy or just way too heavy on flavor — an opportunity lay in front of her, someone who consumed these things on her own? Weren't her flaws — the naive, sober actor — actually her strengths in a position like this?
It was her "aha!" moment. "I'm good at this because I've experienced it," she says. "Everybody is so much more experienced than they realize, just by being a consumer."
This is an important point: The consumer knows. Sara Blakely started Spanx because she was, she once said, a "frustrated consumer [who] simply wanted to wear white pants to a party and have nothing show underneath." Whitney Wolfe Herd launched Bumble because she wanted a dating app where women weren't harassed, which meant one where women made the first move. These are now billion-dollar companies. You see this over and over. Some consumer asks, Why doesn't this product exist? Then that consumer asks the all-important second question: Why don't I bring it into existence?
"The biggest revelation for me," Lively says, "is that the best product developers are consumers. And we all have our 10,000 hours of consuming."
So she set out to make a mixer that actually tastes good. She worked with Reynolds' partners at Aviation, who immediately saw Lively's perfectionism. She wanted to author this product. She wanted every detail right. Real fruit, she said. Natural flavors. What followed were literally thousands of taste tests with Lively providing notes on everything. Crisper here, more aromatic there.
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She had always been detail-oriented, which has its place, but details also meant how something got done, and the hows of this product that she was starting to call Betty Buzz were endless and exhausting and invited the voice inside her head — the one that had always been there — to speak louder: You're gonna mess this up. You're an imposter. You're a failure. Lively wished, at times, that she had her mother's free spirit, the woman who had thrown her own dinner parties, too, but "with no budget," Lively says. Elain Lively had turned pots and pans upside down to layer tables and used Blake and her four siblings' bedsheets as tablecloths, saying, "Make the centerpiece of the table. Just stack it. You can't mess it up." That has been Elain's life motto: You can't mess it up. It's why she allowed a young Blake to cut Elain's hair with kitchen scissors. These dinner parties and haircuts held a lesson for Elain's focused-but-anxious daughter. Go try things. Improvise. Blake would, but "it didn't ever totally sink in," she says. "I'd try things, but I was nervous about them." The perfectionism resurfaced, which meant a certain rigidity did, too.
Now, with Betty Buzz in development, she was all too aware of her past, and not just the trembling scissors she once held as she cut her mother's hair, but the far more recent past, too.
This was not the first time Blake Lively had tried to be an entrepreneur.
In 2014, she'd launched a lifestyle website, Preserve. It was meant to be a place where artisans could sell their wares while Lively and her editorial team told stories about the products. It was not received that way. The asymmetrical aprons, the guide to bow ties, the $132 "Twombley Crew" T-shirts: The site was "a minor miracle," The Washington Post wrote, "somehow more ridiculous and tone-deaf than Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop." Part of the sniping carried a jealous undertone. The beautiful actress thinks she can do this, too? But part of it, Lively realized, was valid. She had big goals for the site: to highlight the artisans "in every pocket of the country…creating magic with their bare hands," she wrote in her editor's letter. She wanted to put these artisans on a platform that was, she wrote, "part magazine, part e-commerce hub, part philanthropic endeavor, and — above all — a place that honors the future while having a love affair with the past."
Her ambition didn't align with the site's reality, though: inconsistencies of editorial tone, some "behind-the-scenes stuff that we just couldn't figure out," she says. A year later, she shuttered it. As she told Vogue in 2015, "We launched the site before we were ready, and it never caught up to its original mission: It's not making a difference in people's lives."
The press was almost giddy. "BLAKE LIVELY DIDN'T LIKE PRESERVE EITHER," ran the headline in The Washington Post.
It was "awful," she says now. "I poured everything I had into that company," and to leave it behind "felt like a death."
In this way, Lively had it worse than you and me, the unknown entrepreneurs. If and when we fail, we do so privately. The shame is ours alone. She has an entire entertainment-media complex following along. To be sure, celebrityhood calluses people. But to fail publicly, as Lively did with Preserve, and then to be ridiculed for it: "It just hurt," Lively says. She thought, Why did I even try this? She thought, I suppose I should just stick to acting. For many years she did. Until, of course, this idea of authorship took hold again and she convinced herself she could launch a mixer company.
So now here she was, in the deepest and most troubling hows of actually launching that new company, and her inner whispers of fraud and failure had become louder. "It was scary," she says.
It always is. Entrepreneurship is a test of self-rule. It isn't so much about creating a product as seeing if you can overcome yourself to create it. That midnight-of-the-soul feeling is what Lively felt now. It helped that she had Reynolds beside her. He was an entrepreneur, too — not just for buying into Aviation, or the cell phone carrier Mint Mobile, but also cofounding a wildly successful marketing agency, Maximum Effort. Reynolds and Lively are close, inseparable even. "Best friends," she says. So as she confided in him, it helped that "the person whose opinion I trust more than anything in the world is also the person who's saying to me, 'You got this. Go.' And that's a great feeling."
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It also helped that "there were so many lessons I learned from [Preserve]," she says. "So many mistakes that I made." Perhaps the largest was that she launched Preserve before it was ready. Her detail-oriented brain wanted six more months before Preserve went live, but she listened to those around her who said they could make up for their mistakes on the fly. She would not make that error with Betty Buzz. She would listen to her own voice. She would debut the product when she was prepared to do so. One year of product development became two, and then three. Not only did the product have to be perfect, but it had to be beautifully packaged. Lively wanted the Betty Buzz bottles to be used as vases when people finished drinking them. "And I remember my team saying, 'What are you talking about? Nobody's gonna use these bottles as vases,'" Lively says. But she was insistent. So the packaging became as crisp as the drinks' bubbly notes of flavor.
Both kept improving from there. "Quality gives me confidence," Lively says. In September of 2021, Lively and the Betty Buzz team had five flavors ready to launch: Tonic Water, Sparkling Grapefruit, Meyer Lemon Club Soda, Sparkling Lemon Lime, and Ginger Beer. They decided on the simplest of marketing campaigns: Debut it on Instagram. It was another way in which this company would be different than Lively's last. Preserve had a publicity machine more in line with a film debut, right down to Lively on the cover of Vogue promoting it. She'd learned a lot in the intervening six years. Mostly that her fame only extended so far into business. "I can only sell one bottle," she says. "The product has to sell itself after that."
So that day, as she pressed "share" on Instagram, she thought to herself, and not without a little bit of trepidation, How many bottles will people buy after their first?
In the first seven months, Betty Buzz sold 2.5 million bottles and appeared on the shelves of 5,500 nationwide stores. Fans soon showed on social media how they'd turned their old Betty Buzz bottles into vases. That thrilled Lively as much as the sales figures. People recognized quality in all forms, quality that she'd authored. Lively and the Betty Buzz team accomplished all this with no advertising and no marketing outside of, like, five Instagram Story posts.
When the team finally moved into real advertising in the spring of 2022, it did so with Lively's idea of authorship in mind. It wasn't just that she appeared in the ads. No, in one campaign from the fall, by far the funniest spot yet, a shirtless stud drinks Betty Buzz while saying that the drink was created by Blake Lively, an obsessive perfectionist. "Did this industrious earth scientist spend three years perfecting the exact bubble size and quantity for that perfect, lightly explosive pop? One hundred percent." Then, in a slightly more exhausted tone, the hulk continues. "Did she give extensive and quite lengthy notes on how to balance the ratio of real fruit juice in every flavor? She's such a Virgo." The camera pulls back to reveal Lively holding the boom mic above the hulk's head. The hulk, now barely cloaking his disdain, says that Lively is "extremely involved" in all things Betty Buzz. In the ad's closing frames, Lively moves into the shot itself to critique how the hulk holds the bottle and then moves closer, puts her hands on the bottle, and shows him how to hold it: "Yeah, there you go, uncover but — don't move, don't move."
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The ad makes her proud. "It's an interesting thing to claim as a woman: being detailed and being precise," she says. "Because that can be weaponized against you as being difficult. And if someone makes you feel something often enough, you start to believe it's true, and you start to squash those things in yourself, and you start to see them as something that you don't want to bring to the surface. And it's taken me 35 years to see that, like, that's actually a huge asset: how detailed I am and how precise I am and how much I care about quality. And it's not something that I should apologize for."
To date, she has sold over 6 million bottles. That means Betty Buzz has accounted for 24% of the entire mixer category through the fall of 2022. "So for one company to be responsible for a quarter of the growth of the entire category in the United States is" — and here Lively pauses for a couple seconds while a smile spreads across her face — "pretty cool."
This vision-without-apology now extends to other parts of her career. In 2021, she wrote and directed Taylor Swift's music video, "I Bet You Think About Me," which racked up 47 million views on YouTube and earned a Country Music Association Music Video of the Year nomination. The success there led the prestige studio Searchlight to tap Lively in late April of last year to direct Seconds, a feature adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name, which will be Lively's film directorial debut. "For me, it's about spending my time with people who I value and who value me," she says. "People who encourage me to be the best, most detailed, most quality-policing version of myself."
These days, she wants to extend that sense of authorship to other women. Lively, being Lively, spent a year and a half researching which nonprofit to direct some of Betty Buzz's revenue toward, before settling on one called Grameen America. Lively gets so enamored talking about Grameen that she ignores the publicist who wants her to wrap up our interview and even ignores me, when I say I can look up Grameen later. "I want to get — I want you to get right what they do," Lively says. "Not that you wouldn't get it right, but, you know" — and here her voice breaks into a singsong-style lilt — "I'm micromanaging."
It makes me laugh. She goes to Grameen's website and starts scrolling. "Hold on," she says, "there's just this one blurb that I think is great…
"Here we go. 'Grameen America provides microloans starting at no more than $2,000, financial training, and support to members.'" She reads on, stressing that the target population is female entrepreneurs below the poverty line, that 99.8% of them repay their loans, and so on.
Lively loves this. She is helping to provide not just access to capital, but paper and pen, so that other women can author their own lives, too. She wants these women to feel what she now feels every day.
To take your obsessions — whatever they are, and however they have been shouted down or dismissed in the past — and to harness them, rely on them, wear them proudly, "in a way that is really impactful and concrete," she says, "To me, that's everything."
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