Melissa Butler once aspired to live life like her version of the Wolf of Wall Street—money, fun, the big city. She moved from her hometown Detroit to study finance at Florida A&M University, and in 2009 she achieved her goal. But a career on Wall Street, it turned out, wasn’t her American dream. “I was literally just doing what I was told to do,” she says, “and what I thought was necessary.”
While working a lucrative yet unfulfilling day job, Melissa began making lipsticks in her kitchen. She had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of diversity in beauty at the time and decided to do something about it. It started as a side gig, and Melissa hit some lows—running out of money and living with strangers to cover rent. But seven years later, The Lip Bar is a thriving business that believes beauty should be diverse and accessible to anyone. Melissa has worked with the likes of Bloomingdale’s, Urban Outfitters, Target, and Forever 21. And, in February 2019, she cut the ribbon on The Lip Bar’s flagship retail store in Detroit.
I caught up with Melissa to get her takes on beauty, business, and going broke.
Dayna: How did you get started?
Melissa Butler: I had no idea how to make lipstick, but I read a bunch of articles and books on cosmetic chemistry and really just learned about what the beauty industry was doing and not doing. I started reaching out to cosmetic chemists. Essentially I was doing a ton of research on this thing that I was now very passionate about.
I thought if I don’t do it now, then I’m going to regret it.
Dayna: As you scaled, how did you transition out of your kitchen?
Melissa: I realized there’s no way that I should keep doing something that I wasn’t an expert at. Manufacturing was definitely something that I could outsource. I’m not a cosmetic chemist. Also, with small batches, there’s human error. In order for us to effectively sell, then I needed to be able to produce en masse. But also I needed to channel my efforts and my energy into that storytelling component that really drove me to this point.
Dayna: How did your friends and family react when you quit your job and decided to make a real go of this?
Melissa: Everyone thought that I was crazy at first. My family was like, “You went to college for this, and you’re going to make lipstick in your kitchen? You don’t even know how to make lipstick.” When I decided to quit, it wasn’t because The Lip Bar was making so much money, but it was just a risk that I decided to take because I knew that I had the option. I thought, if I don’t do it now, then I’m going to regret it.
I realized there’s no way that I should keep doing something that I wasn’t an expert at.
Dayna: And how do they feel now?
Melissa: My mom very quickly became my biggest supporter. I ended up building out The Lip Bar truck, which is basically a mobile, glamorous, beauty truck. I went on this 12-city tour with it, and my mom went with me for part of the way. Neither one of us knows how to drive a 26-foot bus, so we figured it out. She used to pack orders for me, too. My family—they’re huge supporters now.
Dayna: Was there a low point in this journey?
Melissa: I certainly ran out of money when we first started. I had saved what I thought was a year’s worth of expenses. It lasted six and half months. It was probably 2013, and I absolutely had no money to pay my rent. My roommate, who’s my creative director, and I started Airbnb-ing her room, so she moved into my room. We had complete strangers living with us for three months in order for us to pay our bills.
Dayna: What keeps you motivated through the harder times?
Melissa: I always tell people that I’m not passionate about makeup. I am passionate about challenging the way we think about beauty for ourselves and then how we extend that to our neighbor. People come to us and say, “Oh, I’ve never thought that I could wear a red lipstick until I saw you put a model who looked like me with it on.” Or, “I’ve never seen a plus size woman in a beauty campaign.” That’s a huge high.
Dayna: Did any part of your past life prepare you for running this business?
Melissa: The biggest thing that prepared me for entrepreneurship was college. I went to a historically black university. What they really taught there was confidence. Confidence is the key to being a small business owner simply because you’re going to be told, “No,” all the time. You’re going to fail a million times. If you’re confident, you’ll be able to keep going in those trials.
Dayna: How does The Lip Bar approach diversity?
Melissa: Everyone is saying, like, “Oh, I have 40 shades of foundation.” But it’s not just about having a wider color range. It’s a matter of really understanding what it means to be inclusive. It’s not about saying, “In order to sell to black and brown women, we’re going to put this in a brown bottle,” because that’s what happened for many, many years. You just have to really listen to the customer and value that customer as an individual.
Dayna: As a busy entrepreneur, what’s your beauty routine?
Melissa: Lipstick is the one thing that I don’t leave without. Also, I need at least six hours of sleep.
There is gold hidden beneath your struggle.
Dayna: So, getting good sleep is better than eye cream?
Melissa: Yeah, that’s my number one. Also, drinking a lot of water, especially in summer, is key.
Dayna: What’s your best advice for other young women of color looking to start a business?
Melissa: Do your research. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people get into business without really understanding their value proposition in comparison to the competitive landscape.
Another thing people should do is understand their strengths and weaknesses so they can focus on what they’re best at and outsource the rest. And lastly, take everything you have as a “minority”—all of your disadvantages—and turn them into opportunities for yourself and your community. There is gold hidden beneath your struggle.Photography courtesy of The Lip Bar