The Lip Bar Melissa Butler

When Melissa Butler left her job on Wall Street to start making vegan lipsticks in her kitchen, she had no preconceived notions of how to build a beauty business. “Everyone thought I was crazy for leaving my job, but I was so determined,” she said. “I didn’t know what my path in beauty was going to be, but I knew that [Wall Street] wasn’t it.”

Fast-forward nine years later, and her brand, The Lip Bar, is a mainstay at Target and launching in Walmart. Butler has expanded into complexion products, and even with pandemic-induced challenges in the lip category, the brand’s vibrantly hued lip products remain bestsellers and business grew 80 percent in 2020. Here, Butler talks about her detour into beauty, taking a digital-first brand into the likes of Target and Walmart, and why lips are poised for a comeback.

WWD Beauty Inc: What was your first job and what did you learn?

Melissa Butler: I worked on Wall Street at Barclays as a licensed stockbroker. If it wasn’t for that job, I wouldn’t have started my company, because that job taught me that I was a fish out of water. I was like, “Oh, this is a male-dominated world.” In order to really make your mark, you have to be unafraid, and very clear on who you are. You never know who’s watching. A big part of who we are is showing up in an authentic way for our customers, because we are our customers. So, I started the company, making lipsticks in my kitchen while working on Wall Street.

WWD Beauty Inc: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

M.B.: It’s OK to not know everything. When you’re starting, you’re supposed to be the chief executive officer, you’re supposed to have the answers. You’re supposed to know how to do everything, because you’re a CEO. For the first several years, even though I knew that I was learning, I was ashamed that I didn’t have all the answers. That lack of vulnerability prevented me from putting myself out there and asking questions.

WWD Beauty Inc: What has been the impact of the pandemic and the social justice movement on you personally and on the brand? 

M.B.: The last year was a rollercoaster. Especially as a company that’s Black-owned, we try to operate with humanity. We were dealing with a pandemic, the injustices against Black people in this country while also running a business. Some of the lifts were really political, we raised money for When We All Vote with Michelle Obama.

WWD Beauty Inc: How are you counteracting challenges to makeup, and lips specifically? What needs to be done to restore momentum to the category?

M.B.: We were pretty early in thinking about skin care-adjacent products. In 2019, we launched our very first collection product, it’s a Skin Serum Foundation. We call it that because it’s infused with hyaluronic acid, so it’s going to have that super moisturizing effect and keep your skin looking like skin. When 2020 came, we were already in the midst of developing additional skin care adjacent products. We had already developed our lip care and our Shimmer lip balms, which have just a tint of color, but a lot of moisture. They’re comfortable worn with a mask. 

People have been moving from lip gloss to our Liquid Matte Lipstick, which has been our bestseller for five or six years. People are gravitating towards long-wear products that won’t smudge under your mask. Life without lipstick is a little boring, and the minute people are outside and interacting again, lipstick sales are going to skyrocket. Even though the lip category was hit pretty hard, we were able to grow our business 80 percent in 2020.

WWD Beauty Inc: The Lip Bar is sold in Target and launching into Walmart. What does this signify for the business? Why now?

M.B: Our goals were to be vegan, to offer these easy-to-use products, work on every complexion, and more than anything, to offer them to the masses. Why wouldn’t we go there? Going into Walmart was a no-brainer.

When we thought about expansion, or even going into Walmart, we thought about being able to get a really high-quality product right down the street from your house. Seeing The Lip Bar evolve to take on these gigantic retail partners, it means a lot to say to women entrepreneurs everywhere that you don’t have to follow the rules that they tell you to. For us, it’s just about remaining authentic, and sometimes it means that you’re going to grow slowly. The company is nine years old. At nine years old, you would have thought that we would be so much bigger, but we really built the company in a very intentional way, and I think it was the right way.

WWD Beauty Inc: The Lip Bar has a store in Detroit, what insights have you gained from having your own brick and mortar door?

M.B.: Our brick-and-mortar is our testing zone. Before we launch a product, we put the product in there, and we get immediate feedback. One of the most interesting things is that our marketing team will drum up everything that they think about the product, but we’re all so close to it, that there’s so many blind spots.

It also allows us to have a feeder for Target and Walmart, because we’re a digital-first company, and what people are attracted to online is very different from when they see the product in person. For example, we just launched a tinted moisturizer that’s going to be one of our hero products, and it’s so much harder to shop online for a complexion product. Even though digital is huge and we’re a digital-first company, it will never replace the full experience.

WWD Beauty Inc: What are your top three priorities for the year ahead?

M.B.: First, I am focusing on giving myself space to grow. The one thing that 2020 taught all of us is that we were doing too much. The second thing is to make sure that we are really operating within our purpose as a company. Lastly, to make sure that we are continuing to grow, and that we have a true company culture that supports our mission from the inside and outside as we hire people.

WWD Beauty Inc: What advice do you give to those who hope to follow in your footsteps?

M.B.: I would tell them to not be afraid to be exactly who they are. A lot of people think that they have to follow a very specific blueprint, “this is what I’m supposed to do in order to be successful.” I couldn’t disagree more. You should absolutely understand what’s going on in the market, but you shouldn’t just copy another model. The whole point of you starting a business is you think you can do things a little bit differently. Don’t follow the competition too closely, because you are the person who’s going to make the impact. If you don’t have that confidence in yourself, then it will be very difficult to run a team, or convince the retailers and customers that your product is worth it.

For more from WWD.com, see:

Master Class: Délphine Viguier-Hovasse

Master Class: Tevya Finger

Advancing Black-Owned Brands on a B-to-B Marketplace