Detroit’s The Lip Bar flourishes despite ‘Shark Tank’
Lip Bar founder Melissa Butler shows off her line of lipstick which was originally pitched on the TV show "Shark Tank," operates her makeup business out of a truck. Stephanie Steinberg, The Detroit News
A year after pitching her lipstick collection, Detroiter Melissa Butler says the TV show grew her business in ways she never anticipated
When Detroiters Melissa Butler and Rosco Spears appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank” last year, the sharks weren’t biting their bright purple, blue and green lipstick collection.
The only bite was their sharp criticism.
“I can see a massive market share in the clown market,” said investor Kevin O’Leary.
“If anybody thought you could sell purple or green lipstick, they’d do it,” he later commented. “They already have the shelf space. They’d just add another color, and they would crush you like the colorful cockroaches you are. You only have so many minutes on earth. Don’t waste them trying to sell lipstick. I’m out.”
Over a year later, Butler, 30, says the sharks’ five “outs” was the best thing that happened for her Detroit-based company, The Lip Bar.
“Honestly, they were very cruel. But it worked out in the end because we got tons of exposure,” she says. “It ended up growing my business in ways that I didn’t anticipate.”
Before the reality TV segment aired in February 2015, The Lip Bar generated about $100,000 in revenue since launching out of Butler’s kitchen in 2012. Last year, the company made $260,000 in revenue. Now, Butler is gearing up to sell the lipsticks on Target.com starting Aug. 21 and potentially selling them in Detroit, New York and Los Angeles Target stores.
At her distribution space in Ponyride, a Detroit incubator for entrepreneurs she recently joined, Butler admits she’s not that passionate about makeup.
“A lot of people automatically assume, ‘Oh, you’re a makeup artist,’ or, ‘You grew up playing in your mom’s lipstick,’ ” she says, her lips popping in her Purple Rain hue. “That wasn’t me at all.”
Butler was actually a stockbroker on Wall Street for four years and hated her job. Instead of complaining about it, she decided she’d do something about it. While pondering new career options, she thought about how she was disappointed with the beauty industry. As a health-conscious 20-something in New York City, she always wanted to stand out on nights out. She said she mostly found stores only carried standard red and nude lipsticks that didn’t match her skin tone.
“I couldn’t find nudes that looked great on me, and I couldn’t find the bright colors without them being filled with unnecessary toxins and chemicals,” she says. “... It was that frustration that led me to starting The Lip Bar.”
Butler enlisted the help of her Cass Technical High School friend, Rosco Spears, now The Lip Bar’s creative director in New York, who also works with styling teams for Kate Spade and J. Crew.
“I sat in Melissa’s mom’s kitchen for hours, applying different formulas of lipstick that Mel cooked up,” says Spears, 29. “We literally tried on lipstick, after lipstick, after lipstick until our lips could bear no more.”
The result was a vegan, gluten-free, all-natural collection not tested on animals. The first line launched with 12 bright colors, like Purple Rain — a bestseller for two straight years. The lipsticks and glosses also had cocktail-themed names, such as Whiskey Sour and Baby Bellini, inspired by Butler’s post-college experiences in the stifling corporate world.
“Recent college graduates lean on things like happy hour to just have fun and release ... It was that idea that made me call it The Lip Bar because I just want everyone to be their free and natural selves,” she says, adding that alcohol often helps with that.
Though she no longer names the makeup after drinks — the latest line features metallics like Conceited in copper and Milf in soft pink — the signature victorian black casing (reminiscent of a birdcage) hasn’t changed.
“When I decided to start The Lip Bar, everything was about challenging the standard of beauty,” Butler says. “I didn’t want our packaging to be like the standard bullet that you see everywhere.”
Bringing ‘beauty back’
Butler left Detroit at age 18 to study business finance at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, then went straight to Wall Street. While in New York, she kept reading articles about how Detroit was “coming back.”
Motivated, she decided she, too, would “come back.” So she moved The Lip Bar headquarters to the Motor City in November 2014.
“I figured New York didn’t need me,” she says. “Detroit needed me way more, like I could offer way more to my city. And I just really wanted to be a part of the new Detroit.”
After the operation outgrew her kitchen, she employed manufacturers in California, Vermont and New York. Her goal is to build a manufacturing facility in Detroit by 2018, so The Lip Bar can be produced in the city.
“I want to literally bring the beauty back to Detroit,” she says.
A “made in Detroit” label would also create jobs for Detroiters and reduce the company’s carbon footprint, Butler says, adding that she’s planning a fundraising campaign to cover equipment and hiring costs.
Averaging over 900 unit sales a month at TheLipBar.com, Butler already has several employees and interns to keep up with the demand.
Makeup artist Moriah Mierre Martin, who works at En’fusion Beaute’ Salon in Farmington, says she uses the products on herself and clients, including VH1 reality TV star Nicole “Hoopz” Alexander, also known as Shaquille O’Neal’s ex-girlfriend.
Martin’s favorite color? Bawse Lady, hands down.
“It’s so beautiful on every skin tone,” she says. “I’ve tried a lot of lip lines and other big makeup brands, and I honestly think that is the best red I’ve ever tried.”
While some reds can be too orange, or too pink, Butler says Bawse Lady is a “true blue-based red,” which is why it to looks good on light and dark complexions.
Cosmetologist Shakira Kali, based at D’bugatti Salon in Detroit, also uses The Lip Bar on clients and touts the affordable $10.90-$11.90 price.
“Its cost-efficient, and I love the shades,” she says. “I really like that it’s long-lasting and doesn’t dry your lips out.”
So what’s the secret? Butler says her liquid matte products last up to seven hours because they have a sweet almond oil that retains moisture.
“You’re not going to feel like you need to exfoliate at the end of the night,” she says.
Sales across the U.S.
When Butler and Spears pitched the idea of a mobile truck to distribute their products on “Shark Tank,” Mark Cuban covered his eyes. Robert Herjavec laughed and called it “a bad idea.”
The ladies ignored the sharks.
“They told us that our Lip Bar mobile was a horrible idea, and it’s literally our best branding tool yet,” Spears says.
To create the truck, Butler contacted Exquisite Customs in Southfield, which builds party buses. She wanted to mix the concept of a food truck with a party bus atmosphere of music, TVs and lights. She envisioned customers buying products from the window and also trying them on inside.
The owner told her he didn’t build “beauty buses.” Butler pointed out, “No one builds beauty buses.” He accepted the challenge.
The truck has since traveled to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Toronto.
“We weren’t ready for a Sephora, but we knew beauty is very intimate, and people want to try on the product. I was like, ‘How do we provide that beauty counter without actually having a beauty counter?’ This is our answer to that,” says Butler, standing outside the black truck emblazoned with red lips.
It’s helped spread brand awareness, she adds, recalling a moment driving on the New Jersey Turnpike.
“The lady at the toll booth was like, ‘Wait, I know this name on this truck. Wait, I have this lipstick in my purse!’ She literally pulled out Purple Rain, and was like, ‘I went on your website, and I ordered this after seeing it on ‘Shark Tank.’ ”
Butler admits she didn’t watch the episode when it aired. It was only until her boyfriend forced her to see it a month later that she found out Mr. Wonderful’s “clown” and “colorful cockroaches” remarks made the cuts.
“In that very moment, it was harsh and it was hurtful,” she says, “but also I think I just stood there because I was like, ‘He doesn’t know. These people are rich, but they don’t know everything.’ ... While they’re making fun of blue lipstick and green lipstick, I know that literally millions of dollars are being made off of blue and green lipstick.”
In fact, in June, Mac Cosmetics released a Bangin’ Brilliant collection with bright blue, purple and neon shades.
“The bigger guys are going to move a lot slower than the small indie brands,” Butler says, “so we’re on trend.”
At the end of the day, The Lip Bar ladies thank the show with over 7 million viewers for the exposure, but mostly, they thank their fans, which include over 53,000 Instagram followers.
“I’m so grateful that everyone was receptive of our pitch, and they, too, saw our vision,” Spears says, “even when the sharks didn’t.”