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Tarte’s Maureen Kelly on Succeeding at the Speed of Today

Staying on top means keeping your finger on the pulse of consumers — and responding quickly.

Maureen Kelly, founder and chief executive officer of Tarte, doesn’t just want to ride the waves.

She wants to make them.

Whether staging the first trip specifically for TikTok creators (see January’s no-expense spared excursion to Dubai) or eschewing the use of models in favor of real people long before this became a cultural norm, for Kelly, success comes from being bold and staying one step ahead of the pack.

It’s a lesson Kelly learned from her mother, who grew up in Ireland and wasn’t afforded the same opportunities that boys and men were.

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“When she came to this country, she was adamant my sisters and I could do anything we wanted to do,” said Kelly, who took the lesson to heart when she launched Tarte 23 years ago with a cheek stain. Since then, there have been many more firsts and some very big wins — such as in 2014, when the Tokyo-based Kosé acquired a 93.5 percent stake in the brand for $135 million, to the launch of Shape Tape Concealer in 2016.

Today, Tarte is a key player in the specialty channel, and has weathered the storms that have roiled so many brands founded in the late ’90s. Kelly is proud of the brand’s performance, but more so of its purpose — Tarte has an all-female CEO suite and champions women inside and outside of the industry, with initiatives like Shape Your Future, which provides grants to female-founded businesses, and Big Ego, a leadership summit for teenage girls named after one of the brand’s bestselling mascaras. “I always say a big ego doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” said Kelly. “Girls are taught at a young age to quiet down, but I want them to speak up and speak out, to be loud, proud and confident.”

Tarte is almost 25 years old — what have you learned about longevity in business? What’s the key to thriving — not just surviving?

Maureen Kelly: Pivoting is really important. Never standing still is really important. You have to always be open to change, whether that be with trends in makeup or trends socially, making sure that you’re staying on the pulse. A lot of times, we get comfortable with things, but our customers’ moods change, and customers grow and grow up. So, for me, the key to success is to be nimble and act quickly.

The other important thing is to always be authentic. In the beginning, I couldn’t afford models and that is something that really paid off.  It resonated with our customers to show someone who looked like them on our socials and websites, men and women of all shapes and skin tones. That resonated for me, too. I remember looking at magazines when I was younger and my mom saying, “Maureen, always be yourself. You can strive to be a better version of yourself, but you should never strive to be someone else.”

How would you describe your leadership style and how has it evolved?

MK: It’s so important to lead by example, so I always lead with kindness and gratitude and look for those values in the people I hire. I always say that we can’t be the best at everything and that’s why it’s important to have trust in the amazing men and women who lead and support departments to make Tarte a rounded business. 

Even after 23 years, I’m still as involved in the day-to-day as I was at the beginning, driving product development innovations and creating disruptive marketing initiatives. I’m so proud to have built an all-female C-suite, all who have been with me for over 10 years! Most beauty brands are run by men, but we’re all about women’s empowerment. 

You rode the makeup boom as well as the slump during the pandemic. What’s your assessment of the business today?

MK: I’m thrilled to see the makeup category showing amazing growth again. What’s even more impressive is we’re in a healthy growth phase again, not just a race to the bottom with constant promotions or discounting. Of course, we love this for the financials, but also for the health of brand awareness and long-term success.

We’re seeing the most success with products that are super simple, practically goof-proof, but deliver instant impact. That’s what comes across most easily in short-form content, so those authentic reviews make consumers feel confident about their purchases.

We’re seeing makeup surge again post-pandemic. What’s different this time around?

MK: The biggest thing is people aren’t locked in their homes anymore so they’re excited to go out with a fresh face of new makeup, try a new tutorial they saw by their favorite influencer and express their creativity. There’s now room for both “no makeup makeup” and the return to “full glam.” For years, we saw the industry go back and forth between these looks, but I’m happy to see they’re both growing in popularity at the same time.

With short-form content platforms like TikTok, users can see product performance instantly — and not just from their favorite influencers but from everyday creators they can relate to. This makes consumers savvier than ever. They know what products they want, and also what they can skip. It’s not about buying everything that launches, but really going for the products they believe in. 

Tarte was an early player and winner on Instagram and successful with splashy influencer activations. You’re coming off of the Dubai trip which generated a lot of reaction on TikTok and across social — pro and con. Did that surprise you?

MK: We’ve hosted 20+ trips since 2015 — in 23 years we’ve never invested in traditional advertising — and it was exciting to see so many people interested. For us, these trips are all about building authentic relationships — I love getting the opportunity to know the creators one-on-one, and it’s also a chance for them to get to know me and the brand in an intimate and personal setting. Building these connections and supporting other women and giving back is where we find value for the brand.

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Alix Earle and Monet McMichael in Dubai with Tarte.
Alix Earle and Monet McMichael in Dubai with Tarte. @alixearle on TikTok

In terms of the reaction, we certainly provided lots of content for the social media news cycles! Our Dubai trip was all about female empowerment and lifting each other up. I was so proud to be surrounded by so many women who use their voice and platform to lift up other women daily. At the end of the day, everyone will have an opinion on the choices we make, but I’m proud to have hosted our most successful and diverse trip to date. A big part of these trips are the relationships and what happens off camera. We love to let creators explore the brand and destination at their own pace without required activities. So maybe you didn’t see any kind of giant group photo of everyone, but it was inspiring to be around all of these powerful women and let them share a little of our world with their followers and friends. 

How is the social media landscape changing and what kinds of pivots do you have to make to be relevant across platforms?

MK: You can’t get too comfortable. You always have to be learning and trying new things. If you wait too long, you’re too late. We’re always going out of our comfort zone. We’re also constantly pivoting. If you follow Tarte, you know we’ve been doing our #trippinwithtartes since 2015. However, the Dubai trip represented  a big pivot, because we invited top TikTokers. As a social first brand, TikTok is a strategic priority and I wanted to make sure we activate with them in unique ways, knowing they get so many brand offers. 

With today’s short-form content platforms, anyone or anything can go viral at any moment. We have to be ready to jump on a trend or engage in the community within hours. Whether that’s creating a viral video, dropping clever comments or seeding product to an up-and-coming creator, I’m proud of how nimble we can be. 

Shape Tape has been a massive success for Tarte. What have you learned from that?

MK: I learned less is more. Before, we were launching more products within a season and this taught me to be a little more curated. The consumer doesn’t want so many things. It’s OK to be more focused and also, the consumer knows what she wants. In the case of Shape Tape, she wants a full coverage product that is also going to hide beauty boundaries and be formulated without all of the bad stuff.

Courtesy of Tarte

You also have to strike while the iron is hot and keep innovating and activating. We expanded the family with Face Tape, Sculpt Tape, Blush Tape. As we do this, it’s important for us to support our OGs, but keep innovating to stay relevant with trends and consumer needs. For example, as the concealer took off, we quickly learned we needed a more moisturizing version for people with drier or more mature skin. 

Almost 10 years ago, Kosé acquired a majority stake in Tarte to expand its presence in the U.S. Many founders exit the business after a few years — what has compelled you to stay?

MK: I wasn’t ready to hang up my heels and go lay on the beach forever. I like working and I like doing this and I found a partner that would allow me to do that. It’s why we’re able to compete and operate like a start-up and that gives us an edge.

Part of what’s kept me here and going after 23 years is the team around me. It’s overwhelming when there is so much you have to learn, so as a founder it’s super important to recognize that you will not be an expert at everything. You can’t be afraid or intimidated to hire people who are smarter than you and surround yourself with experts in all the areas where you’re not.

What’s your vision for the brand going forward? As you think about the year ahead, what are your top three priorities?

MK: I’ve grown up with the brand — I started it in my 20s with youthful skin, went through pregnancy in my 30s, was a busy working mom in my 40s and now, in my 50s, as I approach the menopausal stage, generational makeup and constantly modifying my own makeup routine [are top of mind].  This is my vision for Tarte, to always make sure all Tartelettes at any age of life feel included and beautiful.