Two things led Melissa Butler to become an entrepreneur: She hated her Wall Street job; and as a Black woman, she couldn’t find lipstick that complemented her skin tone. “Growing up, I never saw people who looked like me and were considered beautiful,” she says.
“As I got older, I started understanding how the beauty industry perpetuates this B.S., linear idea of beauty.” So Butler set out to create a better beauty brand, offering vegan, cruelty-free lipsticks in bold shades like purple and green. She had no idea what she was doing — but naivete served her well, forcing her to take risks when she had no other option. Today, thanks to relentless hard work (and a little bit of stalking), The Lip Bar is an eight-year-old brand with $2 million in funding and shelf space at Target.
Here’s how she built it.
1. Ask questions — and get answers.
Butler started by reading books on cosmetic chemistry, and when she needed more details, she went straight to the experts. “I was literally stalking cosmetic chemists on LinkedIn,” she says. “I’d ask them about very specific problems I had, rather than for general advice. When I made it easy for them to give me a direct response, I got specific feedback.”
2. Get cooking.
Butler spent a year (and $6,000) experimenting with lipstick formulas in her kitchen, working all night after her Wall Street day job. Then she designed unique, Victorian-inspired packaging but couldn’t find a manufacturer. “People in the U.S. charged $1.50 per tube, and I couldn’t afford that,” she says. So Butler, who’d studied abroad in China, reached out to old contacts and eventually found a vendor that worked — at the right price.
3. Grow up.
Butler launched The Lip Bar online and grew it for three years via word of mouth. When she struck a retail deal with Urban Outfitters, she had to make big changes — fast. “I was still handcrafting each item in my kitchen,” she says. To find a lab to boost production, she researched industry trade shows. “I couldn’t afford the $1,500 to attend, so I’d just go to the entry hall, get the vendor list, and call them, one by one.”
4. Be persistent.
Poised for growth with a new manufacturer, Butler set her sights on Target and once again turned to LinkedIn to search for buyers at the retailer. The seventh person she emailed responded — but simply said he’d forward her note to the correct contact. Weeks passed. Butler followed up. “He said, ‘Oh, Amanda is on maternity leave,’” Butler recalls. “That was all I needed — her first name! I googled ‘Amanda beauty buyer Target’ and had my direct in. She got back to me, I sent samples, and we had a deal.”
5. Overcome defeat.
Butler’s first meeting with investors happened to take place on Shark Tank — where the Sharks brutally turned her down. “I wasn’t upset that they were mean,” Butler says. “I was frustrated that they didn’t take us seriously — our margins are huge, and they didn’t ask us any of that.” But the exposure was perfectly timed: “A rerun of that episode aired the day we launched in Target,” Butler says. “It couldn’t have been better.”
6. Raise money — with the right investor.
Butler says 200 investors turned her down, but when she spotted Shea Moisture CEO Richelieu Dennis at a trade show, her luck shifted. “I gave him my elevator pitch, but he said he already knew who I was and complimented my business,” she says. Over two years, Dennis became a mentor to Butler, and in 2018, he invested in The Lip Bar; he remains the brand’s sole investor.
By Stephanie Schomer