A few years ago, Melissa Butler was a Detroit native that had moved to New York City to work in finance. She started The Lip Bar, a vegan and cruelty-free lipstick line, in 2012 as a side hustle, but has steadily scaled it into a top boutique cosmetics brand for women of color. In 2015, Melissa appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank” to pitch her business, but received harsh criticism and a crippling rejection on the show. However, Melissa didn’t let that public “no” hold her back; she pushed through and overcame the setback by launching her lipstick line in 140 Target stores in 2018. In this interview with BAUCE, Melissa explains why she doesn’t take no for an answer and how grit and perseverance are the key assets that help entrepreneurs succeed.
You have been able to accomplish a lot for your business within the past five years on your own. How has partnering with other black women entrepreneurs helped you grow as a businesswoman?
Melissa: Well, I think generally there’s no better time than now to be a woman and to be a black woman specifically. We’re killing it right now like literally, we’re starting businesses in every single industry imaginable, we are starting businesses faster than anyone else. But yet, you hear that alarming statistic that we get less than 1% or around 1% of venture funds and you know the average black-owned business doesn’t have more than like two employees. And so what does that really look like for that business owner and their ability to actually scale? Keeping those things in mind and keeping in mind the current tide of our economy is more important than ever so that we kind of learn how to support ourselves. It’s also important so we know how to support one another to stay afloat.
So my relationship with other black women founders has been really dynamic in everything from actually having Lip Bar collaborations or just supporting them in general. It’s everything down to the wire of asking people, “Hey, can you recommend an accountant or lawyer” or leveraging my network to find potential pop-up partners. Working with other black women entrepreneurs has been so instrumental in our growth and it feels good to support someone else’s goals. Like I allow people to ask me questions all the time because that’s how we continue to support one another so we all can grow.
The beauty industry is lucrative but is very saturated. Does that ever worry you? How do you make sure that The Lip Bar continues to stand out?
Melissa: Yeah, beauty is really saturated and it’s always been. I don’t think they’re ever going to change. But the really cool thing about beauty, and I think every industry, is that you can always find someone who is on your same wavelength and who is willing to be your customer. So, and I’ll just take black-owned beauty brands for example. There are several black-owned beauty brands that are really high quality and that are really excellent, but they aren’t always talking to the exact same consumer.
That’s a great way to frame it. How did things feel for you when you first started The Lip Bar? I’m sure the early days were challenging, right?
Melissa: [Laughs] Let’s be clear — it’s still challenging now. I still kind of look at it from the same lens. I think it’s just a different sort of problem because you know, there’s always going to be a challenge. So, at the beginning [the issue] was having the expertise. Today, it’s still having the expertise because at
So, I think the problem persists and the challenges persist. They just come in different packages, you know? And for me I just kind of look at everything at face value. Like, okay, this happened, now what can we do about it? So, in the beginning, I think there were probably fewer problems than there are today because I had nothing to lose! I didn’t have this reputation. I didn’t have this fan base. I didn’t have, you know, this idea that I am a beauty expert now on my back and so the pressure is a little bit different from this angle, but yet, and still, you know, it’s kind
That’s real. Tell me something, Melissa. You left New York City, a hub for beauty and fashion and moved your company to Detroit, Michigan. Why did you make the decision to leave and how has the change benefited you?
Melissa: So, I left New York for three reasons. Number one, I was bleeding money and I just didn’t necessarily need to bleed money. I had been there for six years. I had made a ton of connections and felt like, you know, I can always fly here. I can always get on a phone call if I need to — I didn’t necessarily feel like I need to spend that money to be there. Because at that point when I left New York, I had left my job maybe a year and a half before then. When I first started The Lip Bar I was working a full-time job and then at some point I quit and stayed in New York for a year and a half. It was a better deal for me to move home.
The second reason was that Detroit had really started getting this horrible reputation [a few years ago]. Like, literally every other day there was news that “Detroit had filed for bankruptcy” or “something in Detroit was on fire” or “Detroit lost half of its population”. Every other day there was something negative in the news about my hometown, and I’ve never looked at it in that light. To have the media cover something that is so near and dear to your heart in such a callous way hurt me. Especially because Detroit is 80% black.
Then, a few years ago I saw that narrative start to shift from “Detroit is ruined” to “Detroit is the comeback city”. All these entrepreneurs and companies were moving there. So it’s like a lot of that news was coming out, but I also knew that meant that things were happening. Gentrification is seen as a really ugly word, but in some in some instances it’s necessary. For me, the true question was how do you bring this city up while preserving the history of the city. And I felt like it was my duty to make sure people who look like me but we’re privy to the outside world just came back and contributed in a positive way. So I [moved back because] I wanted to be a part of Detroit’s renaissance and its rebirth.
Wow, that’s perfect timing!
Melissa: It was perfect timing — like, I knew in my spirit I didn’t need to be in New York City anymore. Lastly, I’ve always wanted to manufacture my product here. I started the company making lipstick in my kitchen. I think because I’m from Detroit, I have always valued manufacturing because of the automotive industries. I was so close to the products when I was making them in my kitchen and when I started outsourcing the products I kind of missed the “homemade” feeling of my business. I wanted to get back to that.
Obviously, it’s also cheaper in Detroit. I was able to get an amazing retail space that I would’ve never been able to get
Today a lot of beauty brands are trying new things online and offline to attract new customers. Would you credit the digital space or the traditional retail space for your company’s success thus far?
Melissa: Oh, well we wouldn’t be here without digital. The fact that we were able to use social media to connect with our audience for feedback and to connect with other people has been invaluable. Like Taraji Henson wore my product to the AMAs and to the Oscars and that relationship came about because I emailed her makeup artist years ago and she put me on! But I wouldn’t even have had the ability to get her email address had it not been for Instagram. So it’s like having that ability to instantly connect with people — whether it’s your customer, whether it’s an influencer, whether it’s just another brand — has truly impacted The Lip Bar and so many other businesses in such a positive way. And as we know the traditional retail model as we used to know it is dead. So yeah, we would have to credit digital for sure.
I love your hustler’s spirit! You really aren’t afraid to reach out to people to get what you want. You’ve also noted in other interviews that your connection to Target also started through a cold email!
Is grit and perserverance still your number one strategies for growth?
Melissa: I don’t take no for an answer. So what that means for me is that I’m a risk taker just by nature. It’s just like in my blood. If I need to, I am always 100% willing to go that super gorilla route. So that means looking up people on Linkedin and finding out their email address or cold calling or cold emailing. Like if I have to write a letter, I would. It all depends on the goal and how does it benefits my brand in the long run. The bigger the goal, the harder you have to work to get to it or the more creative you have to be in order to get to it if you don’t have those resources. So, I just try to be a resourceful person.
It’s also about that idea of putting yourself out there. It’s always kind of been really foreign to me, but this year I’ve really taken the reigns on putting myself out there. That’s where a lot of people don’t take the leap because I think it’s naturally scary just to say “I’m putting myself out there.” It’s like “I’m extending my hand, but what if no one else has been there? What if no one else reaches back out?”
What is your key piece of advice for someone who looks up to you and wants to start their own beauty brand?
Melissa: My one key piece of advice is to not try to be me. Learn what others have gone through and figure out how to do it better in a way that actually can work because everyone has a different super power, everyone has a different skill set. What might work for someone else might not actually work for you. Like I am a very aggressive person [when it comes to business]. I know that not everybody can do the things that I do or feel comfortable approaching people in some of the spaces that I’ve been in. So, figure out the value you bring to your business and go after it with all your might. Don’t follow anyone else’s blueprint.