How Lip Bar Founder Melissa Butler Went From 'Shark Tank' Rejection To The Shelves Of Major Retailers


Being an entrepreneur is often associated with finding something that you're passionate about and turning it into a business.

If you love fashion, start a boutique.

Got a love for social media? Start a digital marketing company.

Hair always on fleek? Don't sleep on the extensions business.

But for Melissa Butler, founder and CEO of The Lip Bar—a lipstick line made from natural ingredients, her now nearly half-a-million dollar business wasn't birthed from passion, it was born from a flame that ignited inside of her to challenge the standard of beauty, one pretty pout at a time. “I started growing frustrated with the beauty industry altogether because first of all, why can't I find a nude lipstick that looks good on me? Furthermore, why do the lipsticks only come in nudes, reds, and pinks?" says Melissa. “It became this quest of 'I want to find products that are natural, but also look good on people who look like me.' And it was literally impossible to find."

It's hard to imagine that the brainchild behind the bar-themed brand doesn't have an affinity for a beat face, especially one with a bold lip color, as you would expect her to. Though the Detroit native has shamelessly rocked a fire orange “Boy Trouble" lippie, she admits to makeup not being the motivating factor behind her vibrant creations. “I've actually never been really that into makeup," she admits. “I'm still not really that into makeup, which is very interesting. I'm passionate about the purpose of the brand more so than the product of the brand. The product is kind of the afterthought."

It may seem contradictory for an entrepreneur to start a business around a product that they have little sentiment towards, but in actuality it's the reason that, despite the opposition, she's been able to steer her company into its fifth year of business in an industry where anybody with a brand name and a few thousand dollars in their pockets can jump on the beauty bandwagon. Melissa's more about the mission than the money, which is ironic for someone who spent their first four years out of college working on Wall Street as a financial analyst. But like many millennials, she was less interested in a corporate career, and more focused on a fulfilling one.

“The first year when you are straight out of college, you get a good job, and you are just happy to be making money. So, for the first year I wasn't affected by it, I was just happy to be there," she says of her foray into finance.

But two years in, she had a change of heart.

“I'm just looking around me like, this can't be me. I didn't take out several thousands of dollars in student loans to be unhappy or to work to pay off these student loans. I think once you get a taste of money, you realize that money isn't everything, and so I started looking at life from a different perspective. "

Self-reflection led her back to the thing that she loved most as a kid growing up in the gritty hoods of Motor City—being her own boss. She didn't come from a family of entrepreneurs, but seeing the work ethic of her single mom and the success of her favorite cousin, whom she describes as a serial entrepreneur, gave her the foundation needed to one day run her own business.

With a high-level of confidence that radiates even as we chat on our call, shouldering responsibility was the least of Melissa's concerns. She struggled more with figuring out what she was passionate enough about to do full-time than she did in committing to the idea of leaving her beloved nine to five. “Often times when you're thinking you want to start a business but you don't necessarily know what [business], you're kind of just going through the motions of okay, well what am I good at?" says Melissa.

The answer came to her while sipping a few cocktails with some girlfriends during an after-work happy hour in New York. For Melissa and her friends, the bar was a place where they could kick back and be their true selves. "Corporate America is built so that you're no longer creative. You're no longer expressive, and you're no longer who you were before you started that job because you're always trying to find some way fit in. Happy hour in New York is like the biggest thing, and so I found that was the place where you kind of get to be yourself. I'm here, I'm having fun, I feel comfortable. I'm surrounded by people who get it. So it became like a safe haven."

With cocktails as inspiration, The Lip Bar was born as a way of challenging tradition and giving women the courage to be who they are.

"We live in this really sick world where we're always trying to validate our existence and prove why we're worth something. Unfortunately with women, that happens with our looks, and I felt as though lip color, especially with bold and bright lip color, would give women the opportunity to express themselves just a little bit more."

With that in mind, the go-getter set out to create the very thing she felt was missing in the beauty industry—a product whose mission was just as bold as its pigments. Her first two years on the market, she made $107,000. It was enough to quit her job in 2013 and pursue her business full-time. “We had already gotten several features in magazines, and it became a thing where I had to say to myself, 'Well, if you want your business to give you 100%, you have to give your business 100%,'" Melissa says. “I knew that The Lip Bar would never have grown the way I wanted it to if I wasn't actually focusing on it."

Though she wasn't doing too shabby on the sales front, her desire to take her business to the next level encouraged her to seek further funding from the infamous investors of hit business reality show Shark Tank. Unsurprising to Melissa, the “sharks" were less than supportive of her already profitable business, with one investor even going as far as to say, "I can see a massive market share in the clown market," before referring to Melissa and her business partner as "colorful cockroaches." Despite the controversial statement and walking away without a deal, the founder ultimately had the last laugh.

Shark Tank

“We went to Shark Tank basically knowing that we wouldn't get an investment, because if you watch their show they basically only invest in stay-at-home moms or tech companies, but you have to remember that Shark Tank is like reality TV right now, so it's literally the most exposure that you can get as a brand. And so we went on there for marketing."

The strategy worked, sending over 30,000 hits to their website when the show aired last year in February, and another 120,000 within the first two weeks of the premiere. The increase in their brand presence also lead fashion sites such as Nasty Gal and Forever 21 knocking on their door. “A lot of our opportunities have come organically. We've never paid for marketing. It's just been an awesome experience and so because I think The Lip Bar keeps growing and the appreciation for our very cool packaging, for our story, for our product, has gained us interest."

Still, Melissa hoped to get her products in stores with alongside fellow trailblazers serving the natural and multi-cultural market such as Miss Jessie's and Shea Moisture, and took the initiative to blind email Target's corporate team pitching her products. "I'm a firm believer in going after and getting exactly what the hell you want. I had been working on this idea of a price drop, and I'm like you know what's going to be perfect for this? Target, because my customer shops for their hair care two aisles away, and now my products are more affordable and so I'm a stalker. I blind call all the time. What can they do? They can answer or they cannot. And if they don't' answer I'll email them again."

It worked! The Lip Bar is available for purchase on target.com and is available in more than 450 stores across America.

Although the team is staffing up to accommodate the increase in sales, Melissa isn't allowing looming deadlines to stress her out or, “As an entrepreneur, you'll find times where you're so devoted to your business, that you forget to take care of yourself," she speaks from personal experience. “For me, it was very difficult to understand that I deserve all time off, and I had to learn to stop beating myself up from it. Now, I literally take vacations."

Taking time to kick back doesn't mean that the beauty queen is relaxing on the mission. With the brand on the cusp of making nearly a million dollars this year, Melissa hopes to not only grow in sales, but in awareness of the issues that plague the beauty industry.

“We decided to start using really dark women because I notice there are tons of self-esteem issues directly related to complexion."

"It's so troublesome, and so we decided to start using very dark models in very bright lipstick colors. And to really put them at the forefront, not as the object, but as a beautiful woman."

In a society where little brown girls aren't often shown their beauty through mainstream media, Melissa and her team strive to turn the anomaly into the norm—one bold and beautiful campaign at a time.

If you missed Melissa's appearance on Shark Tank, you can watch a clip here.

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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