How Melissa Butler is Bringing Affordable Makeup to Black Women

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Melissa Butler is doing something hard. The Detroit native has set out to challenge the beauty standard by caring about who she represents and what's in the products she delivers to them. Her beauty company The Lip Bar prides itself on offering organic, cruelty-free products for all makeup lovers. To reach as many people as possible, she cut her product's price to make her line more accessible. But doing what's best for her customers comes with a cost. We caught up with the entrepreneur and Shark Tank alum to discuss the less glamorous parts of growing a company and where she hopes to go next.

Let's start from the beginning. When did you know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I think I've always had a certain fire about me, like my personality. I'm an Aries. If you're into astrology at all the Aries is the risk taker. It's the very aggressive sign. It's a very masculine sign, so I think I've always just been unsatisfied and wanted more.

I've grown up around entrepreneurs, so several of my family members have inspired me to become an entrepreneur. I didn't know that I was going to do makeup. I never would have imagined that I would be doing something within the cosmetic industry just because I never grew up doing makeup or playing in my mom's makeup. In high school I didn't really wear makeup. I wore lipstick and lip gloss, and by lipstick I mean literally sheer light colors. Ten years later to have a beauty brand is crazy to me.

A lot of people ask, "Oh, were you a makeup artist? Did you always know that you wanted to sell lipstick?" Often times the trajectory of someone who owns a beauty brand is one that comes from a makeup artistry background or someone who just really loves cosmetics so much and wanted to improve the product. That wasn't me at all. I'm still not passionate about lipstick or makeup in general. What I'm passionate about is empowering women to feel whole, and to feel as though they are enough, and to appreciate the uniqueness of their identity and of their beauty.

I think what inspires me about The Lip Bar and what made me go after it is just knowing that unfortunately society has a very linear standard of what beauty looks like. Every day women are told what they need to look like in order to be beautiful. It really sucks because the reality is women believe it. That's why you have women contouring their faces every day to look like something else or people thinking that beauty is a certain thing.

I literally launched The Lip Bar to challenge what that ideal was and to make people think of it more broadly about what beauty is and what it means to them. That's why we're here. It's been an incredible journey, but again, I never would have imagined. I think I've always known that I was going to be an entrepreneur, but I would have never thought that I would be within the beauty industry.

Do you feel like because you run a beauty business that people try to box you in or paint the work that you do as superficial or frivolous?

Melissa: It depends on who you talk to. I definitely think that people certainly try to box me in, so when people want to talk to me they only want to talk about beauty things. I get it, but ultimately it's a business, so why can't we have business conversations? It ends up coming down to makeup and foundations, and then a lot of people come to me and say, "Oh, so you're an attractive lady. Why aren't you the face of the brand? Why aren't you taking pictures of yourself more?" Because I'm not that. I don't really care about being at the forefront. I'm not looking to display how I look to say, "Oh, this should be aspirational for someone else," because it goes against what we stand for, and that is appreciating your own beauty and enhancing who you are and what you are through the small things, like a stroke of lip color, or maybe that's working out, or maybe that's wearing your hair in a different style. Whatever that is to you, we want that to be you, and we don't necessarily think that one single face is inclusive.

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A lot of people want to get into business, break into businesses, but they can't because they can't find the money. I'm wondering about the beginnings of your business. When you decided that you wanted to go into the cosmetics business what were the first steps that you took?

I will say this: For entrepreneurs it is a very daunting task, and it never lets up. Period. Even if you have the money going forward to start, it's still a very daunting task. It is something that is going to keep you up at night, and when you don't have the money you're like, "Oh, I have these incredible ideas, but how am I ever going to fund it?"

For me, I come from a Wall Street background, and so I was fortunate enough to be able to fund my business myself. The Lip Bar was basically bootstrapped for the first four years. It wasn't until maybe two months ago that we actually took out a business loan to grow the brand. I would recommend for any entrepreneur that you don't use other people's money initially unless you really have a solid plan of what you're doing.

I'm not talking about a business plan because a business plan isn't permanent. A business plan is something that you need to revise basically every year because nothing stays the same, not your customer, not the market, not your products. Everything is going to move in directions that you can't even imagine, but I will say at the end of the day you need to have money to fund it, and so saving money yourself, borrowing money from family and friends, doing a Kickstarter, that's really cool now. You could totally do a Kickstarter.

If people think that your product is viable and needed, they'll invest in it. You could definitely sell the idea of a prototype or the concept on those sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. I would certainly recommend something like that, but I would seriously advise against people raising money for smaller consumer-based brands. Technology is a different thing, but if you want to be a consumer-based entrepreneur, unless you have this product that is going into stores, like major retail stores immediately, I don't think it's wise to use other people's money to start.

My first step was just a ton of research. The most important thing you can do is a ton of research. I read as many books as I could find on the beauty industry. I read books that I could find on cosmetic entrepreneurs, and then, ultimately I tried to find a mentor who could guide me and help me not to make the mistakes that they made. I think that's the most important thing, to know your customer, know your market, and know why you should exist.

A lot of us became familiar with your brand because of an appearance that you made on Shark Tank. I'm wondering when did it become clear to you that raising outside money was not the way that you wanted to go?

Immediately. I knew that from the day The Lip Bar launched. Even when we went on Shark Tank we didn't go on there expecting to get a deal simply because anyone who actually goes on the show it's likely that they watched hundreds of episodes and by that time you understand the types of companies that they fund.

For someone going on Shark Tank, unless you have something that's going to be a great product for stay-at-home moms, which is often times something for kids or something that actually makes home improvement easier, you're probably not going to get a deal. They fund things for stay-at-home moms, and then they fund tech companies. That's about it.

Everything else is about exposure. We went on there to get exposure, and a lot of people were like, "Were you guys devastated that you didn't get a deal?" Heck no. We actually ultimately won because our website got 30,000 hits that night. Over the next two weeks we got 120,000 hits to the website. We were able to convert about 10% of those into sales, and to this day we built up Lip Bar. Today we were on the New Jersey Turnpike and we're at one of the toll booths and the lady was like, "Wait. I saw you on Shark Tank. I have one of your lipsticks in my purse."

The exposure was invaluable. When we went on there it wasn't with the idea that we're going to necessarily raise the money, but we needed exposure. The most important thing to any consumer product is marketing. Shark Tank is literally free marketing, and it's to millions of people, so it ended up being great. This year we decided to take out a business loan because we wanted to expand the business in a way that doesn't take away from the equity. At this point The Lip Bar is growing. We're growing like wild flower.

Now we're not looking to take on an investor at this very moment because we want to see exactly how big we can grow the brand before giving away too large of a stake of our brand, if that makes sense.

When you say "we," who else are you referring to?

I'm the founder and CEO, and then I have a creative director. She also owns a percentage of the brand. I always talk in terms of "we" even if it's just me just because I think it's the idea of a team that keeps you going. Entrepreneurship is a very lonely thing. It keeps you up at night. You're extremely stressed out. It just becomes one of those things that where it's your freedom but it's also your pain.

I think that when you have a partner and you have someone who's taking on that level of stress with you, often times it's going to be helpful.

You guys have made some big decisions with regards to your business, with regards to pricing and new products and packaging. What is that process like? For example, you just reduced the cost of your products. What goes into making those sorts of decisions?

The Lip Bar is just primarily to challenge the standard of beauty. That is our golden rule. That is our Bible. That's everything that we do. Everything that we produce is out of the idea of our us challenging the beauty standard. When we started, for us that meant we're going to create very inclusive imagery. We're going to say, "Hey, beauty doesn't look like a certain thing." We're going to use vegan and cruelty-free ingredients. We're going to try to use natural and organic ingredients as often as we can to say that beauty shouldn't compromise health, which is rare within the cosmetic industry.

We're going to use this beautiful packaging that no one has ever seen just to say, "Hey, forget the Plain Jane stuff. You deserve to feel glamorous, and we want you to know that we put a lot of love into this very intricate and detailed packaging." That's what we've been doing for the past four years.

The idea of challenging the beauty standard through pricing came from the mindset of how inclusive could a $20 lipstick be if we're saying that you shouldn't compromise your health for your beauty, and that everyone deserves to be able to have their own perfect shade, and we're creating this inclusive imagery? Are we also saying that our product is only for a certain class of person?

The reality is $20 is pretty ... I can do a lot of stuff with $20. I can get half a tank of gas with $20, and that can take me several places. I can feed myself with $20, but the reality is lipstick isn't a necessity, and so I decided that I wanted the product to be available to a wider range of consumer because I didn't think that we were challenging the beauty standard with our price range.

If you look for vegan cosmetics or something that is in beautiful packaging or often time even just a high-performing product, you're going to find a higher price range associated with it. I felt like that was a gap that we definitely needed to fill, and I felt like it was a responsibility. Did it cut into our margins a lot? Yes, because we're still producing the exact same products using the exact same awesome ingredients like Shea butter and avocado oil, but we decided that it is our responsibility to provide this responsibly made product at an affordable price point because it's truly what we believe in.

Ultimately it was a business decision that came from, okay, while we will lose a little bit in margin, we should be gaining a lot in terms of volume. So far it's working out because literally as soon as we made the decision decided to pick us up, so in a few weeks we'll be launching on there.

Awesome. I feel like this is another testament to the importance of staying true to your values and betting on yourself. Is that really how your make these decisions? Is that really what guides you and drives you?

Yeah. Honestly, I didn't come from the beauty industry. I didn't even come fro an entrepreneurial background. I didn't go off to get an MBA and learn about entrepreneurship. It was just something that I  did. I've been following my gut on every decision that we've made in terms of pricing and the packaging and our ingredients. Everything has been a gut feeling, and it's been based largely  on me, what I would want as a consumer. So in thinking about it, it's just like, "Well, Melissa, if you did not own The Lip Bar would you want to pay $20 for a lipstick, or would you want to use animal ingredients, or would you want to knowingly use products that were tested on animals?" No. I don't even eat meat.

Everything that I do with The Lip Bar is reflects who I am as a person, and I try to be responsible, so I think it's just following my gut and knowing what I believe in my heart is right. We coined this phrase, "guilt-free good looks." That's how I feel about The Lip Bar. You don't have to think about all of the disgusting ingredients. You don't have to think about the animals that were harmed in getting this product onto the shelves, and you certainly don't have to feel like you're breaking the bank in order to get this small beauty enhancement.

When you're making these decisions are you ever keeping in mind other companies who might be your competitors?

You always have to watch the competition. It would be crazy not to, but while you should watch the competition and know what they're doing, I don't think that you should make decisions based on the competition because there's only one original.

Often times customers come to me and they say, "What makes this worth $20? MAC isn't even $20." I'm like, "We don't compare ourselves to MAC. MAC uses ingredients that we wouldn't use. MAC has a large Estée Lauder budget, but ultimately MAC isn't vegan, and we are. MAC tests on animals and we don't. Ultimately your comparison has nothing to do with our brand." Again, I think it's important to watch the competitors just because you need to know what's happening. You need to know the market movement, but we never base our decisions on the competitors. It's always based on the customer and their needs.

Do you hope to expand your product range?

Yes. We're actually working on that right now. My first love is skin care. The Lip Bar started after I was making soap for about a year. I made soap in my kitchen. The company was called "The Soap Bar," and through my experimenting with that I realized that I could actually make a lipstick. I just started experimenting and calling my friends over and really just figuring out what companies didn't really exist and figuring out what key sections were being underserved. That's how The Lip Bar started, from my love from cosmetics, and from my love of soap and skin care. Our next product range will actually be skin.

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When do you hope to get that off the ground?

We're working on it now. We're hoping that we can have it launched by late fall, but I'm not sure yet. Don't quote me.

Sure. Absolutely. With small businesses there's always the question of resource allocation and are you extending yourself too far, and if you venture into this are you still going to be able to dedicate the resources that you need to what already exists? How are you managing as you're looking to expand, and try new things, and market to new people? How are you managing allocating resources and making sure that the processes that you have in place are still run smoothly?

It's been four years since the The Lip Bar launched, and it took us so long to actually introduce a new product. We literally didn't introduce lip gloss until Year 3 of The Lip Bar being in existence, and it's simply because we're planning. Cosmetics takes a long time to manufacture and to get those formulas right. We never jump into anything too soon, so allocating those resources, these are things that have been planned years in.

We started working on the skin care line about a year ago. A year before we launched the lip gloss we were working on that for about a year. I think it's really important to remember as a small business owner that you can't do everything at one time because you will kill yourself, because often times you really just don't have the budget. It doesn't exist, and so I think it's really important to put yourself in a position where you can launch a new product without taking away from your core business. Our core is lip. It will probably always be lip. We would never actually jump into skin without making sure that we had enough inventory for skin, without making sure that we had the marketing to even launch a new product.

That's just something that you have to go with your gut. You know exactly when you're ready, and the second you have doubt that means you basically need to go back to the drawing board and say, "Okay, what's wrong? What can we tweak? What should we tweak?" For us it's just been a matter of properly planning.

Is planning the most important part of running your business? 

Planning and marketing, they're like two sides of the same coin.

How do you get good at those two things? Do you read books? Do you go to classes? Is it just this innate knowledge that you have?

No. I'm not a marketer at all. I'm not good at it. I know that that is actually one of my weak points. I know what looks good. I know through reading books, and reading is a big part of entrepreneurship, especially when you have a startup with a small team, you want to gain as much knowledge as possible. But through reading tons of marketing books, I know that it is not my thing. I know that business planning, that business development and product development, those are my strong suits, so I think it's a matter of getting key people who are good at that and allowing them to run that show.

As an entrepreneur, it's very difficult to let go of things, but the reality is you can't wear too many hats. You cannot effectively do multiple jobs. It's like that old saying, "If you chase two rabbits both of them will get away." For us, for the first two years were basically me, my creative director, and our three interns. We were doing the marketing and the product development. We were doing everything. The Lip Bar was growing, but I was internally conflicted because in my mind I thought that we were failing because I knew we weren't effectively marketing. We weren't really invoking that emotion that's needed for someone to actually spend their disposable income with you.

About last year we started working with a few different marketing freelancers. While I have the vision, I don't necessarily have the tools needed to execute successfully on that marketing.

I think you've given us so much to think about

I'm going to give out a couple books just really quick. I think that everyone should read Start With Why by Simon Sinek, and I also think that everyone should read The One Thing. The One Thing is a book that I think changed my life in terms of how I operated the business. Start With Why is great. I think a lot of times people just start a business because they want to, not really figuring out the reasons why their product needs to exist, or not really doing it right the first time. But I think that I was pretty good at that from the start.

The One Thing is a book that's completely about learning how to focus. I think this is where small business owners fail the most, focusing, because you always have so many ideas. That's the essence of being an entrepreneur. You have ideas, and then you decide to execute. So it's like the gift and the curse because you try to execute on so many things at one time, but then you fail at all of them or you do all of them in a very mediocre way. I just read an Instagram post that said, "Never do anything half-assed. Use your whole ass." It was so funny to me, but it's so true. The one thing, it just helps you focus and prioritize and just say, "Okay, yeah, I want to do this, but I can't because it's not that important right now."

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