With just a coffee grinder and the space in her kitchen, Melissa Butler created The Lip Bar and set out to challenge traditional beauty standards in the cosmetics industry. Now, nine years later, her products can be found nationwide in retailers including Walmart and Target, as well as a flagship store in Detroit.
Butler had grown frustrated with the lack of beauty products made with her skin tone in mind, and, in 2012, started her brand from the kitchen of her Brooklyn apartment. She quit her job on Wall Street shortly after in order to keep up with the demand for her colorful and creative products.
The Lip Bar generated about $100,000 in revenue during its first few years, but when Butler took her business on Shark Tank in 2015, she was laughed out of the room and told she would “never create anything new.” She said that though the judges were cruel, she was still thankful for the experience because it gave her company a lot of exposure. Now, The Lip Bar is valued at over $7 million and has grown from lip products to an entire collection of easy-to-use, time-saving makeup for all complexions.
Her Agenda: You created The Lip Bar nearly a decade ago and you describe yourself as a scrappy entrepreneur. What is something you wish you knew when you first started?
Melissa Butler: I wish I knew what it took to start a successful business — a business that would be memorable and a business that would be sustainable. I started the company because I was solving a problem and because of that, I wasn’t thinking about it from a true business perspective. I started [The Lip Bar] to stick it to the traditional beauty standard that you had to be thin or fair-skinned or straight-haired or whatever it was that people were pushing at the moment. There’s beauty in everyone.
And so, when you’re hell-bent on solving a problem, you don’t really think about the business component of launching a startup. So, I wish that I knew more about what it took to start and scale a business. I wish I knew that it was okay to not know. If I would have known that it was okay to not know, I would have allowed myself to be a little bit more vulnerable to ask the questions that would have allowed me to scale faster.
Her Agenda: What lessons have you learned as an entrepreneur that has surprised you?
Melissa Butler: The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that it’s okay to get it wrong. Oftentimes, you think failing or doing something wrong is the worst thing that could happen to you. But honestly, oftentimes, it’s the best thing that can happen because it allows you to learn so much, and it allows you to pivot. You just have to be willing to sit in the pivot. And I think that most business owners who are just starting are chasing this idea of perfection, and the biggest lesson that I learned is that perfection doesn’t exist. Optimization is your guiding light and it’s how you continue to grow and scale.
Even if something is working perfectly today, as time goes on, it will need tweaking. Everything is changing. The sun comes up and goes down every single day. We are evolving as humans. The earth is evolving. Your business also has to evolve. Change is omnipresent and change is good.
Her Agenda: The past year and a half was difficult for everyone. We experienced things that we didn’t think we’d experience in our lifetimes, the pandemic being one of them. What was your experience like this past year and a half?
Melissa Butler: Last March, we were so nervous, like, we were scared shitless. We were like, ‘What? People are gonna be wearing masks?’ If you’re wearing masks, you’re probably not wearing makeup. Everyone was just loading supplies and hand sanitizer and food and there was just no need for makeup at that moment. So, we paused everything to take a step back and to see the viability of the business. We just started telling our story and telling our truth in a way where we still connected with our customers. The Lip Bar has always been about authenticity. It’s all about easy makeup. Our Easy Beauty Bundle [is about] reducing the amount of time and the amount of friction that people have with their makeup routine by offering personalized solutions. We’ve always been about being honest with our customers and being real with our customers. The way we’re able to do that is because we are our customers. So, it’s easy for us to relate to them and say [maybe] we’re not wearing makeup to go out anymore but this is how you [can] wear your makeup for your Zoom call.
Last year was just us being incredibly transparent with our customers and very authentic. And, even though March was a terrible month for us, we bounced right back in April. We were still able to grow 80%. [We were able] to connect with our customers and tell a story of relatability.
Her Agenda: How does it feel to have created this sense of community through representation in your products?
Melissa Butler: I am a Black woman. I grew up in Detroit, where the bulk of the population is Black. So, I was always the default in my surroundings and it wasn’t until I left my surroundings that I realized I’m not the default. When I started my company, I really wanted to create another environment where people of color could be the default and not the afterthought. It’s funny because everybody is talking about diversity and inclusion right now, and for us, it’s like we don’t have to talk about diversity because it is our standard. I think it’s incredibly important to have companies that are advocating for someone other than who’s in the mainstream because everyone deserves to see themselves in beauty.
Her Agenda: You decided to move your business from New York to Detroit. How has it been for you in this new environment?
Melissa Butler: Everyone thought I was crazy, moving the business from New York to Detroit. They were like, ‘Beauty doesn’t live in Detroit.’ I was just like, ‘Beauty can live wherever we want it to live.’ I moved my company to Detroit [and opened up a store] because I wanted to be a part of the growth that was happening in my city, and I’m so happy that I did it. It allowed me the opportunity to show little boys and girls who grew up just like me that they can go after their dreams. It just warmed my heart and my spirit.
I moved my company to Detroit [and opened up a store] because I wanted to be a part of the growth that was happening in my city, and I’m so happy that I did it. It allowed me the opportunity to show little boys and girls who grew up just like me that they can go after their dreams. It just warmed my heart and my spirit.
Her Agenda: Can you share a specific moment when you realized that this was the best decision for your brand?
Melissa Butler: I think just meeting and engaging with the customers, and that happens very regularly. It’s super cool. Whenever I’m around customers, and they tell me that they’re proud of me, or they [show up] with their little sister or their niece, those are the moments in which I am most proud. Social media allows you to get a glimpse into people’s lives that you may never encounter. I love that I can kind of be this figurehead, but this figurehead who’s also accessible, and they know my story. When I tell them the streets that I grew up on, which is not a nice neighborhood, they can understand what that looks like, and assume what I could have gone through living in those neighborhoods.
One of the most important things that an entrepreneur or any human can have in their back pocket is this fearlessness that says, ‘Okay, if this goes wrong, I’ve learned from it. I’ve experienced it. Now I’m changed from it.’
Her Agenda: In the past, you’ve talked about how sometimes there’s no seat for you at the table and you have to make room yourself. Something like that takes a lot of confidence, which is not easy to come by. Can you tell me about a time in your career where you doubted yourself but decided to take the risk anyway? What did you learn from that experience?
Melissa Butler: Oh girl, I doubt myself every day! That’s the thing. There are so many opportunities [to optimize your journey]. There’s a lot of doubt that creeps in when you’re doing something new, and I doubt things all the time. The difference is that I just keep going and I work through the doubt. More recently, I’ve taken the approach of like, well, what’s the worst that can happen? If it goes wrong, then what?
One of the most important things that an entrepreneur or any human can have in their back pocket is this fearlessness that says, ‘Okay, if this goes wrong, I’ve learned from it. I’ve experienced it. Now I’m changed from it.’ As opposed to putting everything on the outcome, you start focusing on the journey, and when you focus on the journey, surely there will be moments of doubt, but also you’ll know that there will be new experiences that will shape you for generations.
Her Agenda: What is your motto?
Melissa Butler: Do what feels good. Do what’s in your spirit, what’s in your heart. You know when you’re doing something and it feels right, and you know when you’re doing something and it feels wrong. So if you follow your true feelings, you’ll never go wrong.