I remember sitting in front of my television watching Melissa Butler, a former Wall Street financial analyst, pitch a new line of vegan, cruelty-free lipstick on ABC’s Shark Tank. As a budding entrepreneur of color, I immediately felt inspired watching someone that looked like me proudly advocate for not just her brand, but herself — even as the sharks gave her all of the reason The Lip Bar would never be a profitable company. Just three years after her appearance on Shark Tank, The Lip Bar is worth nearly a half-million dollars and can be found in 144 Target stores nationwide (and online). Talk about proving your naysayers wrong.
Here, Melissa talks about the transition from Wall Street to entrepreneurship, crafting the perfect lipstick formula, and how her college years at FAMU, a historically Black university, shaped how she sees herself in the world.
What was your first job and how did you land it?
My very first job in life was working for my cousin. He had a clothing store, and it was my first foray into entrepreneurship. I learned so much just by being exposed to a self-starter.
What was it like transitioning like from Wall Street to entrepreneur?
It wasn’t glamorous! People think beauty and they’re in awe. But there are so many things that go into getting a product on the shelf. So I juggled and struggled, attempting to maintain both my corporate job and The Lip Bar for a year and a half before leaving Wall Street to focus full time on my passion of challenging the beauty standard. There were many, many late nights, and my social life was non-existent. When I made the decision to go all in with The Lip Bar, it was liberating. But I knew my business wouldn’t give me 100% unless I took the leap.
I learned about your brand after watching you and your business partner on Shark Tank. How did you know you were ready to share The Lip Bar with such a large audience?
I wouldn’t say I knew I was ready —I just knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. Shark Tank is a national television show, The Lip Bar was in its early years, and millions of people watch the show. So for me, it wasn’t about getting a deal, it was about exposure. And after they’ve aired my episode 16 times, I’d say we accomplished our goal.
During your pitch, Kevin O’Leary said, “The chances that this is a business are possibly zero. They would crush you like the colorful cockroaches you are.” You handled that moment with class, by the way. How did that impact you as a business owner and as a person?
I grew so much from that experience. I realized who The Lip Bar’s audience was, and it wasn’t sitting in that room. I’ve always been a tough cookie, but the experience on Shark Tank also taught me that not everyone is going to love, need, or want what you are creating — and that’s fine. But I didn’t take what he said personally because I refused to give someone else authority over my dreams. So I appreciate the experience. It made me better.
Building capital, sourcing packaging, and, in your case, perfecting lip color formulas can be challenging for a business owner. How long did it take you to get things “right”?
OMG, this is something we are still perfecting. The Lip Bar started in my kitchen, and it took countless nights testing recipes, adding and subtracting ingredients. I experimented for a full year before deciding on a formula. There was certainly an element of frustration, but it was also FUN! I’m glad we discovered our perfect formula. Now our focus is on new shades and expanding outside of lip. We’re continuously working on creating high-performing cosmetics with awesome ingredients, awesome packaging, and showcasing diverse imagery of women to remind them that they are enough!
You’re an alumna of FAMU. How did attending an HBCU influence the way you’ve presented yourself in corporate America and as an entrepreneur?
FAMU has my whole heart and soul. It has completely impacted my self-worth in the world. It taught me that I had value and simply to not be afraid to be my whole self in the corporate world. And subsequently, having that confidence has allowed me to build confidence in my customers.
The Lip Bar branding has inspired me to try more vibrant colors as a dark-skinned woman that has heard over and over again, “You can’t wear red lipstick.” Was using darker skinned models as the canvas to show off many of your brightest colors intentional?
With all of our campaign images, from day one up to today, we want them to be impactful. It should catch your attention and make the viewer look at beauty in a different way. Just hearing you say that we’ve inspired you to try a lip shade you wouldn’t normally wear means we’re doing our job! Makeup can be fun, and it can be professional. No matter what, we want our customers to feel confident and beautiful.
Let’s talk about Target! Target has made space for women of color on their shelves by offering products from beauty brands run by amazing women of color like Miss Jessie’s and EDEN Body Works. What has it been like partnering with Target and meeting deadlines that come along with working with a big box retailer?
Wow, I never could have anticipated the work that goes into it. You know you’re getting into new territory, but you can’t fully prepare for something you haven’t experienced. Of course, there’s always a learning curve, and you get a system into place that works for everyone and becomes seamless, but that all takes time. Working with Target has been an amazing journey and partnership —and we look forward to growing our relationship.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs just starting out?
Go for it, because your idea will never become reality if you don’t do it. But make sure all your I’s are dotted, and T’s are crossed. Like literally, don’t rush it. I always tell entrepreneurs that No one is sitting around waiting for your product (or service) to launch. Meaning, make sure you put your best foot forward from day one. If you need another day, week, month to perfect something, give yourself the time. That said, once you launch, be open to change.
Why did you decide to move yourself and company back to Detroit?
Well, it’s no doubt that NYC is an expensive city. When I quit Wall Street I was walking away from a large salary, so financially speaking things changed for me. I wanted to invest in my company. It was more important to put money back into The Lip Bar than struggling to pay the crazy NYC rent fees. Detroit is home, and I wanted to take my company home. It was one of the best decision I’ve made for The Lip Bar and myself!
Running a growing business probably takes up most of your time. How are you navigating maintaining a work-life balance?
That’s a question that I think no entrepreneur can fully answer. Your business is your baby, so it can be hard to walk away, especially when there is so much to do. My advice is simply that you have to make time, you just have to. Schedule date nights on your calendar, give yourself a day that you really unplug, and even though I’m no good at it, I know it’s necessary. That being said, there will be plenty of late nights, early mornings, and sacrifice. I used to say that there’s no difference between a Saturday and a Monday. And it won’t last forever – but the hard work is inevitable.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
People don’t buy what you sell —they buy what you believe!!! Simon Sinek didn’t say it to me personally, but when I heard him say it, it changed the way I do business forever.
What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
Don’t stress the small stuff. Everything changes with time.
Melissa Butler is The Everygirl…
Favorite place to grab brunch in Detroit?
Since I left NY, I don’t go to brunch very often. But some of my favorite spots for food are Redd Dunn Kitchen (best cauliflower ever), Takoi (the flavors are out of this world), and Selden Standard (arguably the best restaurant in the city).
Best way to spend a day off?
Spa Day. I am obsessed with massages. But if you wanna be inside, binge-watching Westworld or Game of Thrones will totally suffice.
Name a celebrity you’d love to see rockin’ The Lip Bar?
Yara Shahidi, I am obsessed with her!! She’s smart, beautiful and isn’t afraid to speak up for what is right.
Matte or Glossy?
Matte- I talk a lot and don’t want to reapply. But gloss is wearing me down! It’s just so moisturizing, and ours is organic.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
My grandma. I’ve never really had grandparents. So I think it would be cool to see how her traits have become mine. How I’ve carried her strength. She passed before I was born after raising seven children all the while having breast cancer and working her way up from lunch lady to a teacher with her master’s degree. Talk about willpower. You can learn a lot from a woman like that.