Page last updated at 08:37 GMT, Sunday, 9 August 2009 09:37 UK

Lessons from a lipstick queen

By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News

Poppy King
Ms King says she's the "antithesis to most cosmetics"

"The industry is pretty stomach-churning for thinking women" is not the kind of quote you'd expect a lipstick entrepreneur to come out with, but then Poppy King is full of contradictions and surprises.

Petite, glamorous and flawlessly made up, she seems the epitome of a cosmetics guru. Yet the girlie facade hides a determined businesswoman keen to take on the industry.

During her career she's been named Young Australian of the Year, as well as a Global Leader of the New Millennium by Time Magazine.

But she's also seen her business - which was turning over 6.5m Australian dollars ($5.4m; £3.3m) a year at its height - forced into administration.

Despite the setbacks, she has remained focused on lips, even during a stint at Estee Lauder, and three years ago set out on her own once again.

"Lipstick is the only cosmetic that interests me. It has historical relevance and there's something so empowering about it," she explains.

"I don't get make-up, shoes, handbags, they're all correcting and cosmetic. Lips are more complex."

As her pedigree demonstrates, Ms King's route through the cosmetics world has been less than straightforward - a rise-fall-and-rise again story.


At the age of 18, fresh out of school and unsure of what career path to take, she did know one thing: no-one was catering for the kind of 1940s "look" she was after.

"I wanted to find a gang, a brand. I had my own buying power, but handing money over for lipstick then was not empowering I was just joining in, it wasn't what I wanted. I wanted an experience to own," she says.

So she borrowed A$40,000 to create her own line and set up a company with Melbourne headquarters in 1992.

Poppy King
It's not just simply about being pretty, there are complexities
Poppy King

"I realised I was much more passionate about the alternative views of being a female," she says, adding she preferred old-school femininity with a twist of feminism.

While the brand initially went from strength to strength - making A$2m in its first year and A$5m by its second - Ms King was forced to call it a day in 2002.

Very public slanging matches with her investors, overexpansion and investing cash into the wrong areas left the firm overstretched and underfunded. Ms King had no option but to put the business into administration.

"The problem was I poured back the profit but overspent on research and development, so I was set up for the next stage but didn't realise you needed a war chest to actually continue," she adds.

"Finance is not my number one skill, but now I look at it in terms of load-bearing walls - what fixed costs are needed and how much you can shift around without the roof falling in. I didn't understand that the first time round."

Changing places

But despite her failure, she couldn't turn her back on the business.

Instead, she moved to the US and became vice-president for creative marketing at Estee Lauder.

"It was my first experience of the corporate world. Coming from a very entrepreneurial background into a big structure was a steep learning experience," she says.

"It's not where I thrive. I find a big structure very difficult to navigate as it's counter-intuitive.

"Corporations are cut-throat. They have a kind of incendiary atmosphere - the workforce is dominated by women, but men are at the top and the males are decision-makers.

"I found the difference absolutely at Estee Lauder. I learned and rounded out my skills base, but found the corporate world is really difficult for women on the whole, as they're invisible."

New start

So she revisited her old business plan, but with a lot more experience behind her. So much experience in fact, that she also managed to write a book to inspire would-be millionaires.

"It was hard cherry-picking from the first experience what to keep and let go. This time I've been following the traditional start-up route," she explains.

1991 - Starts own cosmetics business Poppy Industries
1995 - Named Young Australian of the year, firm turns over A$6.5m
1998 - Overexpansion in US forces firm into receivership, sold to highest bidder, Ms King remains as CEO,
2002 - Poppy Industries dissolved. Ms King joins Estee Lauder
2006 - Ms King founds Lipstick Queen

"It's taken a while to break even, and it's harder to be doing something that does not look the same as the old business. I've also been also building the business at a healthy pace, the first time was too fast."

Launched with just 10 colours, Lipstick Queen began life in 2006 and is now stocked by various retailers in the US and UK, including Barney's and Space.nk.

And while she believes in keeping her business model simple, her focus certainly isn't.

"My focus is much more conceptual, not trends or what's in and out. Things that work are fun and have a bit of dignity. It's not just simply about being pretty, there are complexities," she adds.

"Women and their face have been horrifically simplified - I can't bear it."

Despite her industry, Ms King stays away from the catwalk and fashion trends, instead delving into art and history for her inspiration.

Model looks

For a recent line, Medieval, she even had to endure the old adage that beauty is pain.

Betty Grable
Ms King found her original inspiration from 40s stars like Betty Grable

To develop the product, she spent weeks in a Canadian laboratory squeezing lemon juice on her lips to get the exact colour she wanted. (Apparently in medieval times women were not allowed to paint their lips for fear of being seen as harlots, so they used lemon to turn them red and pouty.)

Looking to the future, the Lipstick Queen aims to give the cosmetics business model a makeover.

"I'm in total control of the business, I have had some financing, but now I'm looking at how people actually remodel," she says.

Her inspiration - Richard Branson's Virgin model rather than Maybelline: "I want smaller pieces of bigger pies."

Maybe that move would be one change that would give the industry a whole new look.

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