The Lip Bar / Byrdie

Melissa Butler Has Spent a Decade Empowering Black Women Through Beauty

The Lip Bar founder discusses the brand's 10-year anniversary and her entrepreneurial journey.

Ten years ago, life looked a lot different for Melissa Butler. In 2012, the Detroit native worked long hours as a Wall Street financial analyst. After clocking out, she'd go home to concoct lipsticks in her kitchen and lay the foundation for what we know today as TLB (The Lip Bar). Butler's desire to create lipstick wasn't born out of a fiery passion for makeup but for her discontent with the beauty industry.

"I've always been frustrated with beauty because of its lack of diversity," Butler says. "The media and the beauty industry have perpetuated this singular idea of beauty. The older I got, the more I realized how that impacted people's self-esteem."

By creating inclusive, vegan lipsticks, Butler saw an opportunity to dismantle antiquated beauty standards. When she began developing her collection of products, she intentionally went to market with unexpected shades. "When I looked at makeup, in particular, in the lipstick category, I saw the same reds and nudes," she explains. "When I launched the Lip Bar, I created lipsticks in colors like blue, green, purple, and yellow to make the statement beauty doesn't look like one thing."

Melissa Butler

The Lip Bar

In the early days of the business, Butler's friend (also the brand's creative director) Rosco Spears managed photoshoots. Butler handled everything from social media to shipping. As most entrepreneurs admit, wearing multiple hats is daunting, but she says the experience was an invaluable catalyst for her development. "I think there's a gift and a curse of being new and naive in business," she shares. "Because you don't know the rules, you don't know what you should or shouldn't be doing. You do whatever is in your heart. It was such a beautiful growth period, and it helped me believe in myself."

Butler's confidence in herself and the brand led her to quit her high-paying finance job nearly two years into the business. While the company wasn't generating a large volume of sales, Butler knew she had to trust her gut and give The Lip Bar 100% of her time. "After my last day at my job, I remember having an 'aha' moment the very next morning," she says. "I woke up at the same time and worked on my business. At that moment, it felt like alignment and confirmation that I should be doing this."

Her decision to leave her job set forth a chain of events that catapulted The Lip Bar to global notoriety. In 2014, Butler created The Lip Bar Truck, a revamped party bus that she drove across the country to get her product in the hands of her consumers. Her first stop? Afropunk's summer festival in Brooklyn, New York. "We had a line wrapped around the truck," she says. "Everyone there was coming to us to buy our blue and black lipstick. The festival is all about self-expression, and it made me feel so proud I was able to lend those people an opportunity to show up as their truest selves."

In November 2014, Butler decided to move back to her hometown of Detroit to expand the business. At this point, she was seeking investors and decided to pitch The Lip Bar on ABC's Shark Tank. However, she walked away without funding. When Butler's episode aired in 2015, viewers witnessed the show's panel of entrepreneurs hurl hypercritical comments at her. One of the panelists, Kevin O'Leary, went so far as to call Butler and Spears "colorful cockroaches."

When people ask Butler how she kept going after Shark Tank, she always says: "That was one thing that happened. Sure, it was publicly embarrassing. But, if I had held on to that one failure, I wouldn't have the opportunities I have today."

The Lip Bar

The Lip Bar

In the years following her Shark Tank appearance, Butler proved Black women and the beauty industry needed her brand. In 2018, she opened The Lip Bar's first retail store in Detroit, received an investment from the New Voices Fund, and landed a retail partnership with Target. 

For passionate supporters of the brand, it's been exciting to watch the evolution and advancement of The Lip Bar. Last year marked another pivotal year for the brand. After receiving countless customer requests, Butler decided to expand into other categories (like complexion, eyes, and tools). With that, The Lip Bar became TLB. Under this new moniker, the brand has debuted best-selling products like its 3-in-1 Tinted Skin Conditioner and Quick Conceal Caffeine Concealer

On February 21, Butler celebrates the 10th anniversary of launching The Lip Bar. To celebrate the monumental occasion, Butler is unveiling a few projects like The Making of a Bawse YouTube docu-series, which chronicles her life from childhood to launching her business. Additionally, she'll be releasing a limited-edition bundle that pays tribute to the brand's award-winning red liquid matte lipstick Bawse Lady. In addition to the lipstick, the "Bawse Bundle" includes a Bawse Balm, Lip Liner, and Bawse Gloss. She's also rolled out celebratory billboards in Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, and DC.

"I read a stat that said 30% of all businesses fail within the first or second year," she notes. "Only 30% make it to 10 years. Understanding how many odds we've beat, I want to honor that, so that's why we're doing the most."

With a decade behind her and unlimited possibilities ahead of her, Butler is finally stopping to take inventory of her journey. Ten years in business, two million units sold, and hundreds of thousands of supporters (including Michelle Obama)—there's understandably a lot for her to digest. "Over the past two or three months, I've been able to pause and feel proud of myself," she says. "I started making lipstick in my kitchen. Now, my business is sold in multinational retailers, and I have a team of 25 women."

What do the next ten years hold for Butler and her brand? "Honestly, in a decade, I hope I'm raising my babies and no longer CEO," Butler says. "I want there to be someone else leading the company in a way that makes me proud." 

Butler also hopes to see continued advancements in the beauty industry—from the boardrooms to the makeup aisles. "I hope we don't have to continue having conversations around inclusivity or toxic ingredients in makeup," she says. "I want the work The Lip Bar has done over the past ten years to become the norm."

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