18 Lessons from a Melissa Butler How I Built This Interview
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
In the November 23, 2020 episode of NPR’s How I Built This, host Guy Raz shared his interview with Melissa Butler, the fearless owner of The Lip Bar, an up-and-coming vegan makeup company that features bold hues like green and purple with playful names like “Sour Apple Martini” and “Cosmo.” As with all of the episodes of this highly entertaining show (available as a podcast), I took away a multitude of lessons that any entrepreneur or job changer can put to use.
While earning enviable income as a Wall Street analyst, Butler began experimenting with lipstick concoctions in her kitchen. Before long, she had invested a fair chunk of money (and heart) into her colorful cosmetic creations and decided to launch a company that would break barriers by offering other women of color a more compelling range of cosmetics to complement their skins tones and personal tastes.
Despite a soul-crushing appearance on Shark Tank (with her partner Rosco Spears) in 2015, Butler went on to successfully pitch her lipstick to Target. The Lip Bar has since expanded to 500 Target stores and continued to grow a following, defying the challenges of COVID and finding an amplified voice through the surge in Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
For anyone running a business or flirting with the idea of starting one, How I Built This never fails to offer equal bits of inspiration and wisdom. Below is a list of my takeaways from the episode featuring Melissa Butler episode, a profile in odds-defying determination, entrepreneurial savvy and cleareyed audacity.
1. There is a lower barrier of entry for certain industries. Not every product can be made in a kitchen as Melissa Butler did with her early lipstick iterations, but it is worth considering overall investment when beginning to experiment with product-making. Distilling gin or making tennis shoes would include a considerable investment that would likely be prohibitive for most people. That said, she estimates spending $30,000 to launch her product, which may sound like a lot but seems relatively modest considering the titans of industry like L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble she set out to compete with.
2. There are advantages to being raised by a mom in a single-parent who works in a male-dominated field. Butler shares her belief that growing up with a mother who worked long hours in the steel industry instilled her with the discipline and self-reliance to pave a successful path for herself.
3. Having independence as a kid is great training for an entrepreneur. Because she was raised to rely on her own wits as a child she learned to trust her own instincts and build strong coping skills. She continued to build these skills as she learned strategies from an entrepreneurial cousin at a young age and started to put plans in place to attend college.
4. Being a “fish out of water” can be a good thing, especially for a future business woman. As a Black woman in the white- and male-dominated high finance industry, Butler was forced to find her place by both excelling and staying true to her identity. This experience arguably prepared her for the challenge of harsh rejection on Shark Tank and yet stay resolute in her vision to deliver a product that actually met with outstanding demand.
5. Terrible jobs can be a godsend since the creative outlets you seek out to keep your sanity can be the ticket to something more fulfilling. Witnessing how unhappy her colleagues were in high finance, Butler was spurred to spend time learning to make her own expensive soap. Her creative experimentation led her to start creating lipstick, leading to the launch of The Lip Bar.
6. You can teach yourself almost anything. And you can often Google it. Butler had no training or background in manufacturing and learned everything she needed to through videos on YouTube and other online resources.
7. It’s helpful to have a company and/or entrepreneurial hero to model yourself after. During the interview host Guy Raz mentions his recent interview with Mark Constantine – another incredible interview, by the way – and Butler expresses sincere enthusiasm for the Lush brand and the inspiration she derived from their products when she started melting vegetable oil and glycerin in Pyrex in her tiny kitchen. “In my soap making, I was like, I want to be Lush,” she says with palpable reverence.
Looking towards heroes in times of both adversity and hope can be instructive. Butler likely drew encouragement from the Lush brand, not just in aesthetic presentation but in a similar commitment to respect the environment by creating vegan products.
8. Sometimes the best decisions are made quickly. Out of a desire to get “more funky and fancy with my color,” she reached out to a supplier for her soap-making diversion, who asked her, “Do you want lip gloss pigments or do you want soap pigment?” She tells Raz, “I was, like, lipstick? I knew nothing about lipstick but I couldn't believe that I could buy lipstick pigments and that was it for me.” She confesses to making the decision in a split second.
9. You can build a side hustle into a real business. This is a recurrent lesson in How I Built This episodes. Most of the businesses featured on the show seem to emerge from people’s free time projects, and The Lip Bar is no different. Butler was earning a hard-to-walk-away-from salary at Barclay’s on Wall Street but couldn’t see herself finding long-term fulfillment in investment banking. (S'well is another example of a side hustle venture. There are many others on How I Built This.)
10. You can make products at home if you have to. While it can wreak havoc on your grout, Butler proved that it is possible to manufacture lipstick at home. She’s not the first entrepreneur to start manufacturing her products in her kitchen, and she is certainly not the last.
11. Your friends can be great guinea pigs to experiment and sample your products or services. In the early days of her venture, Butler invited her friends to her apartment for small gatherings to sample her product. She would elicit helpful feedback and further refine her product for a larger audience.
12. You can build a founding team/board among your friends. Realizing she had gaps in her knowledge, Butler assembled what she dubs a “founding team” to help her launch her product. Most notably her high school friend (and current creative director) Roscoe Spears relocated to New York to play a critical role (and join her for her appearance on Shark Tank), and other friends collaborated to help her with aspects of her launch like package design and branding and the execution of a successful launch party that attracted the attention of several beauty editors.
13. It’s worth asking yourself, “Am I more comfortable with failure or regret?” This was the question Butler asked herself when her family questioned the wisdom of quitting her high-paying finance job on Wall Street to launch her lipstick company. “My mother, she was, like, ‘Whaaaat? Who’s going to pay your bills?’”
14. Priced out? Your venture could be part of the renaissance of another place! In 2014 Butler moved her company from New York to her home town of Detroit, deciding that she wanted to be part of the resurgence of the city that was beginning to simmer. “Shinola had just come to Detroit, and people were investing in Detroit and downtown was becoming cool again.” She adds, “I knew that New York didn't need me and that I could do a lot more in my hometown.”
15. Innovation can set you apart. The most entertaining part of this interview is Butler’s story of convincing an ex-boyfriend who built party buses to construct a Lip Bar Truck that “we deemed the most glamourous beauty experience on wheels.” Equipped with seats, a wraparound counter, a cash register, and hundred of lipsticks, she and her team drove to major cities and parked in front of partner brick-and-mortar businesses to promote her product. Urban Outfitters in Washington, D.C. was the highlight of these two tours as was her promotional tour of Historically Black Universities (HBUs).
So many people thought that it was like drinks naturally. “Guys would come up and say, what do you got in there? You got beer?” she says with a laugh in her voice. “No, we have lipstick. Come on up – bring your wife!” The tours were a rousing success, increasing her brand's visibility, helping her reach students at HBUs and acquiring the opportunity to be on Shark Tank.
16. If you know you have a good idea, don’t let naysayers talk you out of it (even if they’re panelists on Shark Tank). While Butler’s appearance on Shark Tank resulted in massive exposure, causing a dramatic surge in website traffic, their reaction to her product was brutally discouraging. Even though panelist Kevin O’Leary tells her on the broadcast that large competitors will “crush you like the colorful cockroaches you are!” Butler remains undeterred, fully convinced that other women of color are in need of a product tailored to their complexions and sensibilities. When Raz asked her about their harsh reaction to her presentation, Butler says, “I actually didn't even care about that statement at the time. I think that it was more offensive that they did not even consider us business women.”
17. Tell your story well, and don’t be afraid to think big. She actually gives Mark Cuban credit for “being really adamant around me being at the forefront of the brand.” She adds, “He was like, look, your story is really cool. You need to step into your brand. You need to be your storyteller.” She considers this advice game-changing and she shortly thereafter approached Target with shark-like tenacity and a clear message about her brand story. She was relentless in her pursuit of Target buyers, describing it as “eight months of stocking people” and knew she had to stand out as a seller. While she was smaller than vendors Target typically considered, a buyer took a chance on her, and Butler launched a new color exclusive to Target customers.
18. Once you are in a major retailer, you still have to keep marketing. Getting her lipsticks into Target stores was just the beginning. Butler quickly realized that she still needed to work hard to promote her product, hiring a publicist soon after to garner her mentions in beauty publications like Ebony and Allure.
Kristin Schuchman, MSW is a career counselor based in Portland, Oregon who works with creative and mission-driven professionals. She writes resumes and coaches individuals seeking support for career indecision, starting a business, work re-entry, advancement, and work-life-balance. She offers a free 30-minute Zoom or phone session and presently works with clients remotely. Find out more at www.sparkacareer.com.