In 2012, The Lip Bar founder Melissa Butler was working as a financial analyst in New York City when, frustrated by the lack of inclusive, high-quality cosmetics at reasonable prices, she started making vegan lipsticks in her kitchen. Today, nine years since crafting that first homemade tube, Butler’s passion project-turned-immensely popular (and Michelle Obama-approved) brand is set to drop at Walmart stores and online at Walmart.com — with a range of brand-new product offerings, to boot. The news coincides with another big announcement from Butler and her team: The Lip Bar is rebranding as TLB Beauty, with a fresh new look to match.
The brand’s trajectory is a success story by any standards, but as Butler explains ahead, the path from Shark Tank rejection to lining shelves at the country’s biggest retailers hasn’t always been smooth. The following interview was told to Rachel Krause and has been edited for length and clarity.
When I started The Lip Bar, I knew nothing about business. I was working on Wall Street, which people think is really fancy, but it didn’t teach me about running a small business. People know my Shark Tank story: They were mean, they called us horrible names, we didn’t get investment, and we kept going. Now we’re in Walmart and Target — triumphant, right?
That’s the story so many people tell, and while it’s true, it misses the journey. There are parts of the story that are far more rewarding than “proving the sharks wrong,” which we never cared to do; or the parts that were far more painful, like when I did salary reductions at the start of COVID-19 because we were so uncertain about what the future held. I sat on my couch and cried like a baby as I typed the email, letting my all-women team know that we would be able to keep everyone employed, but with a 20% salary decrease. Running a business has never been easy, but it’s always been fulfilling.
From the start, it was important for me that The Lip Bar be easy to find and easy to purchase for our customers, from a price and quality perspective. When people create companies, they rarely say, “I want to create products that are going to be cheap in cost but high in quality.” There hasn’t been a model that associates quality with affordability, so most small-business owners create products that are prestige in nature. I went the road less traveled, and for a while I suffered for it. Even today, I think about how many products we need to sell to hit our goals. Most products that are vegan, cruelty-free, highly pigmented, and in cool packaging cost 30-40% more than what I charge for my products. I’m really proud of that, but it’s also something that we have to navigate every day.
“Authenticity” is one of those words that has become wildly popular in marketing, like “diversity.” It’s buzzy, but it doesn’t make the customer feel good. They don’t hear that and immediately think, “Yeah, that’s the company I should support.” They’re more sophisticated than that. They see when you don’t respond to the questions in the comments, they see the models you choose to represent your business. We’re choosing models who we think represent beauty — even if we’re challenging people to think more broadly about what beauty is. As a kid, I grew up thinking you had to be light-skinned with long hair for boys to like you. It was ridiculous, but it was the experience of so many girls I knew. When I started The Lip Bar, I made sure to give visibility to all shapes, sizes, and complexions of women to say, “Hey, there is no beauty standard. Fuck everything you learned as a kid that made you dislike yourself a little. You are the standard. You are enough.”
This wasn’t a marketing tactic: It was a feeling. It was something I believed so deeply and wanted other little girls to believe, so they could grow up loving themselves a little more. So sure, TLB Beauty is certainly authentic, but more than anything, we’re just honest. We’re honest about the fact that it’s rare to see women past a certain age represented in beauty, or the fact that you honestly don’t need that many beauty products. Some would say it’s counterproductive to business to remind my would-be makeup customers that you should buy fewer products, but it’s the truth! We don’t need 25 lipsticks and we certainly don’t need to spend more than 15 minutes on our faces. Now, if you do it because you love it, great! But so many people do it because they think they have to so they can more easily fit in with societal standards.
I tell all of my mentees: Everyone can be a CEO, but you have to work at being a leader. It requires emotional intelligence and the willingness to optimize to be your best self and make your organization as strong as possible. You have to be ready to have a solution-based approach for any and every challenge that you face. Shipment two months late? Breathe and focus on the pivot. Best employee tries to quit? Pause and ask yourself why they aren’t seeing value in the organization. Brand name doesn’t quite fit your vision for the company’s future? Change it.
This one was painful — but you can either watch things deteriorate that you know need attention or you can work towards a thoughtful solution. When I named the company The Lip Bar, my vision was that we would be a lip-only emporium. Now, nine years later, we have evolved in a major way, and The Lip Bar as a name simply doesn’t work. I’ve fought with this name change for maybe four or five years, and it would have been easier to do it then than it is now. But there’s never a wrong time to do what’s right. TLB Beauty is a nod to timeless beauty, which we all are, and a belief that beauty shouldn’t be time-consuming.
Click HERE to read more from Refinery29