Justin Mast is the Founder and former CEO of Bloomscape, a company that ships a variety of live plants straight from greenhouses to customers’ homes. Melissa Butler is the founder and CEO of The Lip Bar, a beauty brand with a diverse line of vegan, cruelty-free cosmetics sold online and in thousands of stores nationwide, including Target and Walmart.
These two founders have both built brands squarely intertwined in their personal identities, for better or worse. In this interview, Justin and Melissa are giving their best advice on what leaders of high growth companies who’ve worked hard to cultivate their brands can do to stay true to themselves – and their brands – as they scale their businesses.
This episode was recorded in December 2022. Transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Justin Mast: I’m Justin Mast, founder of Bloomscape, and with me is Melissa Butler, Founder and CEO of The Lip Bar. Melissa, welcome and thanks for being here. Let’s start by talking a little bit about what The Lip Bar is for those who don’t know.
Melissa Butler: Hey, Justin! It’s so good to be here, it’s funny because now I’m like adding a comma — founder and CEO of the Lip Bar AND Thread Beauty because I was a lunatic and I decided to launch another brand. But the Lip Bar and Thread are both color cosmetic brands. We are primarily sold in direct to consumer spaces for the Lip Bar and retail. And Thread is a retail first company, which means that we are working with suppliers like Target and Walmart across the country. But you know, what we’re really selling is confidence and freedom. We’re creating community, that is why we exist. That is why people buy the product. Because we offer an ability for people to see themselves and you know, for years people talked about the beauty industry and ridiculous beauty standards. And if you’re not a two or zero or four, you’re fat. Or if your hair isn’t perfect, you know, women have to deal with so much. Growing up I was very frustrated by that and when I became an adult, I decided that I would join in the party for fixing the way women think about beauty for themselves.
Mast: Tell us a little bit about how long the brands have been around and the traction you’ve had.
Butler: The Lip Bar is 10 years old and Thread is only 8 months old. I started The Lip Bar literally making lipstick in my kitchen, not knowing anything about the beauty industry, or owning a business. I was straight out of college working on Wall Street — I used to work at Barclays, and I was like — I don’t like my job, and I don’t like the way I feel as a woman needing to fit in. I’ve always been a really honest person, and that honesty drove me to having these conversations with customers. For the first five years of the business, it was just a passion project. And it just kept catching on, it just kept snowballing little by little. And then in 2018 we raised a small seed round. I think we were at $300k or $400k in revenue and we were able to create massive growth with $2 million –massive expansion to the point we are now in thousands of retail stores across the country. And we just decided to work with Target to launch my second brand Thread so I would say we’ve gotten a quite a bit of success thus far.
Mast: That’s awesome. So, before we dig into the brand side of it, let’s talk about product. What’s your favorite thing about your products?
Butler: I think my favorite thing about The Lip Bar products is that they’re multi-use and we say that we make makeup for women with stuff to do. These women are booked, they are busy, they’re raising their families, they’re climbing the corporate ladder, they’re starting businesses, and they’re running businesses. Our customer is super dynamic and we saw this crazy phenomenon take off a few years ago where women were spending so much time watching YouTube videos, trying to figure out how to get the look, or going into stores and not knowing how to put on the makeup that they have already purchased. So I took that, and I was like, I’m gonna create a fast-face product for the everyday woman so that she doesn’t have to think so much about her makeup. Makeup can help boost your self esteem; it can help you show up for yourself. In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty low on people’s priority list, but people were spending so much time on it. So I love that we create products for real life and real women.
Mast: The multi-tool of the cosmetics world!
Butler: Yeah, and we have fun, because at the end of the day, none of us really know why we’re here. So if you’re gonna work so hard and build businesses, make sure you’re doing something that you love and that can inspire your team because startups are hard. If you’re going to do something that’s really hard – and you’re spending more time with your colleagues than you are your family – it better be good.
Mast: No doubt. Well let’s dig into that a little bit. One thing that a lot of people talk about is how much your personal identity can get tied up with the brand identity of the company that you’re building – do you feel that with The Lip Bar?
Butler: Yes. And Justin, I used to get sad about this, because I realized that I had become my business. And I think that’s dangerous, because nothing is forever. I don’t plan on being the CEO of The Lip Bar forever. And we’ve gotten a lot of press over the years and people approached me on the street, like, hey, you’re the Lip Bar girl!
Mast: You’ve lost your name, you’re not Melissa anymore.
Butler: I’m not Melissa, but to that point I always take that moment of pause to say, I’m Melissa, what’s your name? Because I don’t want to believe the fact that I am my business or that frankly, I am my business’s accomplishments. Because one year we could be up, one year we could be down, one quarter we could, you know, be rock stars. I want to try really hard to create that delineation so that I can separate my feelings and my human beingness from wins and opportunities — I try to stay pretty even keeled. It’s sort a bad thing though. Because that means that when things are going really, really well I don’t really take that moment to revel in it. But also, if sh*t is going down, it’s not that bad for me because I’m not caught up in the hype.
Mast: So you found a way to not internalize the brand too much for you as a person?
Butler: Yeah, I try. What about you? How do you take this?
Mast: Well, that’s a good question. As you know, Bloomscape is interesting, because not only does it wrap a lot around my identity, but I come from five generations of people in the greenhouse world and the plant and the flower world. So I think the nice thing for me was that it’s very much an authentic story. It was never about just me though and I think there was this sort of longer story. But I definitely feel you and it’s tricky, because we say that the brand isn’t us, but we both build brands, where our stories are a pretty big part of the brand, right?
Butler: I know, sometimes I regret that, actually.
Mast: I’ve seen your face on a billboard driving around Detroit a number of times!
Butler: I know but you know what, if you guys know anything about The Lip Bar, a lot of people talk about the fact that we went on Shark Tank, and we didn’t get a deal, blah, blah, blah, it doesn’t matter. But the one thing that Mark Cuban said to me, he was just like — because at that point, I was not the face of the business — and he was like, What are you doing? It’s you, you are the secret sauce, basically. And they didn’t air that part. But that was something that was super memorable. And I tested it out maybe a year later. That’s when the brand really started to grow. And I’m happy that people are interested in me, but it was never my intention.
Mast: You were able to get the sort of lift off as a brand by kind of weaving it together with your story. But there’s this tension we’re talking about — how do you start to extend the brand beyond yourself and invite the rest of the company, customers, or other people into what the brand does?
Butler: At first I was the brand and you know, hiring people and onboarding, and establishing a true company culture. I had to sit down and say, okay, what are we? And beyond oh, Melissa, people like Melissa. It’s like, well, what do they like about Melissa? What is the essence? So we had to figure out what are we tapping into. That’s like pulling on the heartstrings of our consumers. So that was some initial brand work that we did. And from there, we created a persona — we didn’t name it, we didn’t give it a face. But we started to understand the language that our customers really responded to, we started to understand the aspirations that the customers had. And so for me, when people saw me, I represented sort of hope, like, if she can do it, I can do it, which was really cool. I’m really flattered by the amount of people who have started businesses because I started a business. We were tapping into the idea of aspiration and also tapping into resilience. Because it’s like, okay, well, we saw her getting knocked down, and she got back up. Now, I really think that I can do it. And so we took that, and then we started approaching the business from the perspective of confidence. What we realized is that the same attitude that resonates with people was exactly what we were selling in terms of our products, because at the end of the day, makeup is just increasing self esteem. It’s like you put on that lipstick, and you feel a little bit better about yourself. And we were pairing that with the energy that says, you can do it, or you’re a bad chick, or you’re a hot chick, or you know, just telling them the things that they wanted to hear that they know, but maybe they forgot. And so our goal is to make sure that when our customers look in the mirror, they know that they are enough.
Mast: That’s so powerful. I mean that confidence and attitude definitely comes through in your branding and everything you’re doing, whether it’s the billboards or the names of the colors. Are there examples of times where customers or people on your team have sort of run with the brand in ways you didn’t expect?
Butler: Yes, absolutely. So I don’t know if you know, but there’s this this trend that’s been happening for the past year where women are sort of working too hard now want to get back to our soft roots. Our creative director and the campaign that we launched was probably too soft, that it completely flopped. And so it was just a reminder that, you have to be so clear about what your brand represents, and make sure that you don’t go too far from that without a sort of warning. We were like, okay, let’s everybody turn your boss off, you don’t have to be boss, ladies, you can be a trophy wife today. And they were like, what? No. So I mean, it’s happened a ton of times, but I think that’s okay. I think that’s the beauty of entrepreneurship — our jobs are to optimize. And I know that one thing won’t work forever. So I have to make sure that I’m pushing my team and encouraging them to try new things, because at the end of the day, all your competition is watching you — you know, your tactics can get lazy. The customer is always looking for new and exciting, particularly in CPG. So you can’t think that your tactics that worked last year are going to be the exact ones that are going to skyrocket you this year. We try to take that approach, and sometimes it flops. And that’s okay, because now we tried it, and we’re gonna move on to our next test.
Mast: I mean, it’s interesting, because you launched this brand and didn’t want it to be too much about you, then you leaned into that and it takes off. But then it becomes this dialogue, where your customers and your audience or your community has as much to say about where it goes as you do. So how do you know when to trust your gut and stick to something you want to drive through? And when do you back off and listen, especially when it comes to building the brand?
Butler: I face this when I think about new product innovation. I think about it is sort of like is this product, or is this ingredient story, is it pre-peak, meaning only the super beauty enthusiasts know about it? Is it at-peak — meaning a lot of people know about it, but it’s not a household thing yet? Or is it post-peak, meaning everyone is talking about it, but also, there’s probably a lot of saturation there. So when we’re thinking about product innovation, I’m always sort of balancing like: okay, if I ask customers in a focus group, or in a survey, what they think about this product, and it’s pre-peak, they’re not going to react the way I need them to react, in a way that’s going to validate us. investing in this product, for instance, because like they don’t know yet. They would only vouch for if it’s at-peak or even post-peak. So that’s one of those instances where I’m like, I have to tap into my gut, I have to be so clear on who my customer is that I’m anticipating that customer’s needs. And this is where I think we win because we are creating products for women — my team is all women. I really try to make sure that we are the customer so that we can anticipate the needs of the customer. And frankly, oftentimes the customer is waiting for you to tell them what they need. They’re not making up the trends. They’re waiting on the big brands or the influencers or the celebrities to tell them what’s new and what’s hot. And some of it is having the confidence as a leader to say I have the ability to move the needle in my industry.
Mast: I love that. So do you try to hit peak? Or do you try to be a little bit pre-peak?
Butler: I try to be a little pre-peak. So obviously there’s like these crazy large cosmetic houses like the Estee Lauders and the L’Oreals of the world. They’re spending billions of dollars in innovation. I’m a small business, I’m spending very few dollars and I know that I’m not always going to be the first to market on something. But we also think about it from the perspective of, if this really works for our core demographic, maybe we can be a fast follower. Maybe we can see something that might get a little hot and decide if it’s going to work for our customer and say okay, we’re going to do that, but we’re going to do it better, we’re going to do it more authentic, we’re going to do it faster, we’re going to create colors that the big guys won’t create, or we’re going to talk to people who they don’t talk to. So there’s marketing innovation, and there’s product innovation.
Mast: Well, let’s shift gears a little bit. So, there’s growing the brand and the evolution of that. But along with that or intertwined with that is this business that you’re building that has to function like a business. And so I’m curious, Melissa, is there any tension between the way you want to grow the brand or the way the brand wants to grow itself? And hard decisions you have to make, to make sure that you’re building the right business too?
Butler: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, we started with lip as our heritage. So we have done a very aggressive product expansion, I mean, we’re called the Lip Bar, which is a whole other mistake that I made in the beginning, because I didn’t know anything about business. I didn’t know we would expand so widely. But you know, since that is our heritage, we always will have strength in lip. And we have also built out other categories, which are phenomenal., but sometimes, I’m just like, I don’t want to innovate this new thing for retail this year, or I don’t want to have to keep doing lip because we’re the Lip Bar, I want to venture out into something that’s completely different. And you know, sometimes that doesn’t make sense for the brand. So Melissa and the brand don’t always align. But this is where you have to lean on your team members. This is when you have to lean on your data. This is when you have to lean on your customers. So we are talking to our customers often understanding what they want from us, what their pain points are in the market. I think things can get tense, but I have become really good at not needing to always be right, which is important for founders and CEOs especially, if you started it and it’s closely related to your story, it’s easy to think that you know everything or you always know what’s best for the business. It only takes one time to fail for you to realize like hey, you may not know all the answers, or you may not have all the data. So yeah, it happens all the time. But I welcome these opportunities for growth. That’s how I think about them.
Mast: Is it mostly product expansion where there’s that tension? Or is it also in category expansion or product quality?
Butler: It’s primarily innovation. So I know that I am never going to fully let go of innovation and marketing — I can let go of operations, I can let go of finance, I can definitely let go of HR — I would love to let go of that one!
Mast: We won’t dive into that one.
Butler: Yeah we won’t get into that one. But, you know, I think the product is sort of where the creativity is. And most people when you start a business, especially if you start it from your own personal frustrations, you’re not starting it because you want to read contracts all day, you’re starting it to solve that pain point, which is oftentimes a product that is stemmed from a creative space. So I’m never going to let those pieces go and those are the places that I have the most tension.
Mast: We’ve talked a bit about mentors and advisors in the past, and how important they can be, but also how not everyone’s a great advisor or a great mentor. Tell us a bit about how you find the right people to listen to?
Butler: Yeah, starting out you may not have any connections. And that’s certainly where I was. And I would literally cold email people on LinkedIn. I would just reach out, I would tell them who I was, and why they should read the email, I would try to offer any value that I could add. Oftentimes, people think that because they’re starting out, that they can’t add value to someone who’s seemingly high up. I would always try to tell them, I have a different view down here. Like the view from the top is probably nice, but also I get to see other things. So that’s how I started networking up within my industry. But also, I spent a lot of time just networking around. And I love talking to founders – to this day founders have been my therapy, they remind me that I’m not crazy, they will give you super honest advice, they will tell you if a potential investor is crazy! So, I have taken that approach of going after people who are a couple steps ahead of me. And you know, either that’s asking for introductions, or it’s just a straight up blind email. And if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, then okay, cool. But I’ve probably gotten the most value out of talking to my peers.
Mast: What advice would you give to young Melissa or CPG entrepreneurs in earlier stages of growth, who are trying to figure out if it’s worth launching a consumer brand right now?
Butler: I think it’s always gonna be worth it if you have a unique value proposition. Don’t start a business just because you like it. Solve an actual problem. And be clear that that problem that you’re solving is big enough. There’s something called lifetime value. So how long do you think that customer will stay in your funnel? Be clear that you have a product or service that people will actually need. I always joke around like man, I should have started a toilet paper business!
But beyond that, I would just recommend that you, you really make sure that you’re building a community. So a few years ago, you know, a lot of really big companies were completely dependent on and growing because of like Facebook ads, well, Facebook ads aren’t the same. You know, and Google ads are about to not be the same — they’re changing the game on everything. It’s requiring entrepreneurs to think in a bit more of a creative way about business. And finally, focus on building your first party database — how do you get email addresses? How do you get phone numbers? But you’re not just selling to them at some lifestyle — do something that people actually care about. They don’t always care about spending money with you, it’s just not the truth. Your job right now is to build community and make sure that as you’re building that community, that you have a group of people who want to hear from you.
Mast: Melissa, as always, its great to chat with you! Whether it’s recorded or not recorded these are some of my favorite conversations, so thanks for spending some time talking shop with me.
Butler: Thank you for having me!