Being an entrepreneur is often associated with finding something that you’re passionate about and turning it into a business.
If you love fashion, start a boutique.
Got a love for social media? Start a digital marketing company.
Hair always on fleek? Don’t sleep on the extensions business.
But for Melissa Butler, founder and CEO of The Lip Bar—a lipstick line made from natural ingredients, her now nearly half-a-million dollar business wasn’t birthed from passion, it was born from a flame that ignited inside of her to challenge the standard of beauty, one pretty pout at a time. “I started growing frustrated with the beauty industry altogether because first of all, why can’t I find a nude lipstick that looks good on me? Furthermore, why do the lipsticks only come in nudes, reds, and pinks?” says Melissa. “It became this quest of I want to find products that are natural but also look good on people who look like me. And it was literally impossible to find.”
It’s hard to imagine that the brainchild behind the bar-themed brand doesn’t have an affinity for a beat face, especially one with a bold lip color, as you would expect her to. Though the Detroit native has shamelessly rocked a fire orange “Boy Trouble” lippie, she admits to makeup not being the motivating factor behind her vibrant creations. “I’ve actually never been really that into makeup,” she admits. “I’m still not that really into makeup, which is very interesting. I’m passionate about the purpose of the brand more so than the product of the brand. The product is kind of the afterthought.”
It may seem contradictory for an entrepreneur to start a business around a product that they have little sentiment towards, but in actuality it’s the reason that despite the opposition she’s been able to steer her company into it’s fifth year of business in an industry where anybody with a brand name and a few thousand dollars in their pockets can jump on the beauty bandwagon. Melissa’s more about the mission than the money, which is ironic for someone who spent their first four years out of college working on Wall Street as a financial analyst. But like many millennials she was less interested in a corporate career, and more focused on a fulfilling one.
“The first year when you are straight out of college, you get a good job, and you are just happy to be making money. So for the first year I wasn’t affected by it, I was just happy to be there,” she says of her foray into finance. But two years in, she had a change of heart.
“I’m just looking around me like this can’t be me. I didn’t take out several thousands of dollars in student loans to be unhappy or to work to pay off these student loans. I think once you get a taste of money you realize that money isn’t everything, and so I started looking at life from a different perspective. ”
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Self-reflection led her back to the thing that she loved most as a kid growing up in the gritty hoods of Motor City—being her own boss. She didn’t come from a family of entrepreneurs, but seeing the work ethic of her single mom and the success of her favorite cousin, whom she describes as a serial entrepreneur, gave her the foundation needed to one day run her own business.
With a high-level of confidence that radiates even as we chat on our call, shouldering responsibility was the least of Melissa’s concerns. She struggled more with figuring out what she was passionate enough about to do full-time than she did in committing to the idea of leaving her beloved nine to five. “Often times when you’re thinking you want to start a business but you don’t necessarily know what [business], you’re kind of just going through the motions of okay, well what am I good at?” says Melissa.
The answer came to her while sipping a few cocktails with some girlfriends during an after-work happy hour in New York. For Melissa and her friends, the bar was a place where they could kick back and be their true selves. “Corporate America is built so that you’re no longer creative. You’re no longer expressive, and you’re no longer who you were before you started that job because you’re always trying to in some way fit in. Happy hour in New York is like the biggest thing, and so I found that was the place where you kind of be yourself. I’m here, I’m having fun, I feel comfortable. I’m surrounded by people who get it. So it became like a safe haven.”
With cocktails as inspiration, The Lip Bar was born as a way of challenging tradition and giving women the courage to be who they are.
“We live in this really sick world where we’re always trying to validate our existence and prove why we’re worth something.
Unfortunately with women that happens with our looks, and I felt as though lip color, especially with bold and bright lip color, would give women the opportunity to express themselves just a little bit more.”
With that in mind, the go-getter set out to create the very thing she felt was missing in the beauty industry—a product whose mission was just as bold as its pigments. Her first two years on the market, she made $107,000; it was enough to quit her job in 2013 and pursue her business full-time. “We had already gotten several features in magazines, and it became a thing where I had to say to myself well if you want your business to give you 100%, you have to give your business 100%,” Melissa says. “I knew that the lip bar would never have grown the way I wanted it to if I wasn’t actually focusing on it.”
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Though she wasn’t doing too shabby on the sales front, her desire to take her business to the next level encouraged her to seek further funding from the infamous investors of hit business reality show Shark Tank. Unsurprising to Melissa, the “sharks” were less than supportive of her already profitable business, with one investor even going as far as to say, “I can see a massive market share in the clown market,” before referring to Melissa and her business partner as “colorful cockroaches.” Despite the controversial statement and walking away without a deal, the founder ultimately had the last laugh.
“We went to Shark Tank basically knowing that we wouldn’t get an investment, because if you watch their show they basically only invest in stay-at-home moms or tech companies, but you have to remember that Shark Tank is like reality TV right now, so it’s literally the most exposure that you can get as a brand. And so we went on there for marketing.”
The strategy worked, sending over 30,000 hits to their website when the show aired last year in February, and another 120,000 within the first two weeks of the premiere. The increase in their brand presence also lead fashion sites such as Nasty Gal and Forever 21 knocking on their door. “A lot of our opportunities have come organically. We’ve never paid for marketing. It’s just been an awesome experience and so because I think The Lip Bar keeps growing and the appreciation for our very cool packaging, for our story, for our product, has gained us interest.”
Still, Melissa hoped to get her products in stores with alongside fellow trailblazers serving the natural and multi-cultural market such as Miss Jessie’s and Shea Moisture, and took the initiative to blind email Target’s corporate team pitching her products. “I’m a firm believe in going after and getting exactly what the hell you want. I had been working on this idea of a price drop, and I’m like you know what’s going to be prefect for this? Target, because my customer shops for their hair care two aisles away, and now my products are more affordable and so I’m a stalker. I blind call all the time. What can they do? They can answer or they cannot. And if they don’t’ answer I’ll email them again.” It worked! Later this month The Lip Bar will be available for purchase on Target.com.
Although the team is staffing up to accommodate the increase in sales, Melissa isn’t allowing looming deadlines to stress her out or “As an entrepreneur you’ll find times where you’re so devoted to your business, that you forget to take care of yourself,” she speaks from personal experience. “For me it was very difficult to understand that I deserve all time off, and I had to learn to stop beating myself up from it. Now I literally take vacations.”
Taking time to kick back doesn’t mean that the beauty queen is relaxing on the mission. With the brand on the cusp of making $400,000 this year, Melissa hopes to not only grow in sales, but in awareness of the issues that plague the beauty industry.
“We decided to start using really dark women because I notice there are tons of self-esteem issues directly related to complexion.
It’s so troublesome and so we decided to start using very dark models in very bright lipstick colors. And to really put them at the forefront not as the object, but as a beautiful woman.”
In a society where little brown girls aren’t often shown their beauty through mainstream media, Melissa and her team strive to turn the anomaly into the norm—one bold and beautiful campaign at a time.
If you missed Melissa’s appearance on Shark Tank, you can watch a clip here.