11/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Interview: Entrepreneur and Author Poppy King, Founder of Lipstick Queen

When you enter Poppy King's world, you're privileged to capture a glimpse of one woman's life-long affair with lip color. From playing dress-up with her mother's lipsticks, to her search for the perfect matte lipstick, to launching a successful brand at eighteen, to penning a book documenting her auspicious, rollicking journey, King's passion for beauty is infectious. And not only is King a successful, savvy entrepreneur with a multi-million dollar business, she's also giving back - a percentage of proceeds from her recently-published book will be donated to K.I.D.S Kids in Distressed Situations, which provides goods to children who are ill, living in poverty or victims of natural disaster.

From the personalized, vibrant packaging to the luscious bold lip colors, King delivers. I had the opportunity to sample a few reds from her line, and Red Sinner is my new obsession du jour. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Poppy King about lipsticks, glamour, and thinking like a consumer.

Although we're in the midst of a precarious economy, many are finding, ironically enough, that now is the best time to start a business. At eighteen years old you were determined to find the ideal matte lipstick. That search led you to create your own brand, Poppy Industries, and recently, Lipstick Queen Can you speak to the process of how and why you were in high school to launching your own cosmetics company?


It is true that recessions can be an ideal time to start a business because everyone is so negotiable in a way they just aren't in a boom. You can negotiate better prices and better expertise at a time when no one can afford to be complacent. It certainly helped me at just 18 years of age when I started my first lipstick brand straight out of high school having never spent even a second in the cosmetics industry other than as a customer -- which to this day I believe is the most important qualification. I didn't get into Architecture (which was the college course I wanted) so I decided to start my own lipstick brand selling matte lipsticks. The hardest part was dealing with anyone in the cosmetic industry at the time and trying to get advice, they were all so patronizing (and still are, I am not enamored in the slightest with the cosmetic industry, never have been). The rest was pretty easy because I followed common sense and didn't over complicate it. I wrote a shopping list if what I needed to find like a factory to produce and formulate the lipstick I wanted. I ended up finding them in the Yellow Pages. See what I mean by not overcomplicating it. My whole process is outlined in my book Lessons of a Lipstick Queen: Finding and Developing the Great Idea that can Change your Life!

What are some of the personal and professional challenges you've faced while launching Lipstick Queen?

The biggest challenge is how terrified of wearing lipstick so many women are these days, but it is changing. Both personally and professionally it gave me a shock this time round. The homogenization that has come out of modern Hollywood with huge, surgically enhanced shimmery nude lips has really swamped American women's idea of what female allure is about. This kind of sex doll plaything look has dominated over the idea of allure being in sophistication and dignity both of which lipstick represents. Many women associate lipstick with overdone make up of the past and I can understand why they don't want to go back to that full face, mask like idea and I would never advocate that. What I am hoping to show is that women are allowed to look like adults in control of their own destinies instead of sex toys for men or super made up bulletproof mannequins. Between those extremes are so many choices.

The failure with most companies is rapid diversification and massive product line extensions, which have a tendency to subsume the core product. What intrigues me most about Lipstick Queen is its simplicity. Your line started with the perfect matte red lipstick, with a recent gloss line launch. What is the process of developing a collection? What is the typical timeline from concept to production to retail?

In general it is 8-10 months from the time I decide I want to launch something to when it arrives on counter. Many of my ideas though have been percolating in my mind for much longer than that. The process usually goes something like this for me....a customer will mention something that they have been looking for or don't like about their experiences with their lips and lip products. That will trigger something in me and I start thinking yes that is true. I will then scroll through in my mind all these concepts, words and sayings that I write down all the time to find the one that I think fits the product that fills a need or answers a desire that I believe in. I find what I think is the right match and voila...a Lipstick Queen product is born. Next step is briefing the lab and my own internal people on the idea and then going from there. I am always collecting words and notions that I love, for example. I heard on NPR the other someone say about Obama that "he campaigned in poetry but had to govern in prose"...I loved that notion and one day the right lip concept will hit me and you will see it on the counter.

What I love about your story is that you think like a customer rather than a corporation. Having the pleasure of visiting your office, it's feels as if there's a sense of play, fun and family in the workplace? How do you stand apart from your competitors?


You said the key word as to how I stand apart from my competitors. The word is customers. Corporations have it all upside down as far as I am concerned and although they are still managing to make billions, I fully believe that their model is fundamentally flawed and will unravel in the 21st Century...some slowly, some quickly. Their model is crazy, the further along you get in a corporate career the less you have to do with the end user of your product, service or system. This means that the people who make the most important decisions have nothing to do with the people who make the decision whether or not to purchase. Crazy and stupid and short sighted as far as I am concerned. They are just lucky that the 20th century was pretty supportive of this kind of capitalism; the 21st Century won't be as forgiving. The higher I get in my career the more I need to stay close to the customer not the other way around. They are so arrogant to think any other way.

Your packaging is fresh, glamorous with a touch of '50s red-lipped nostalgia. What inspires the Lipstick Queen look?

Dignity and glamour. Dignity in that it presents no notion of any standardized female beauty in the form of a model but instead invites the beholder into the beauty of graphic design. Glamour because it is exuberant and has a sense of humor about itself which is the height of glamour to me.

Looking back at the evolution of your company and brand -- is there anything you might have done differently in the nearly twenty years you've been in business? Any critical lessons learned?

Absolutely! But only one because all my other mistakes I learned so much from (read my book!) but the critical lessons that has wasted the most time and effort for me has been believing the lie that a woman in business still somehow needs the approval of men to be legit. That is bull and I have wasted time buying into that notion more than often proliferated by men trying to get involved in my business.

Talk to me about your new fall product launches, Fifteen Minutes of Fame and Fired Up.

I have always been intrigued with the usage of Andy Warhol's infamous (and somewhat ominous) prediction that "In the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes. I was discussing how much rubbishy looking glitter most cosmetic companies put in lip products these days (and how they must think women want to go around frosted like a cup cake!) with a customer and we were laughing. I came home and though I need to do some glosses that have no shimmer for a change, then I thought of how clean and bright the colors of Pop Art are and then I thought of Andy Warhol and then his saying and idea. Gloss shades in Pop Art colors named after every minute of fame up until 15.

Fired Up came from staring at the red fire hose writing in my office hallway and loving the font and the concept of Fire Engine Red. The night before I effectively got fired from something recently, I was looking at that writing, laughing ironically to myself that instead of Fire Hose-d I was just getting plain Fired. I decided instead to get Fired Up and produce a fire engine red gloss where it helped women to feel confident and strong no matter what others said or did. Red lips have always helped me to face things I don't necessarily want to. Somehow it gets me out the door and I wanted to share this small action in a big way.

Can you speak of your involvement with the organization, Count Me In, a national non-profit organization, which provides resources to women entrepreneurs?

After deciding I wanted to do something to actually help beyond the purely cosmetic, put my money where my mouth is if you will excuse the pun, I looked for an organization that was truly helping women reach independence financially and socially from old-fashioned constraints that still exist in varying forms and disguises. I found Count Me In and I thought they would be perfect as the partner and recipient of the profits from sales of Fired Up.

Any advice you'd like to impart for burgeoning entrepreneurs?

In the words of Charles Bukowski - "nothing is worse than too late". Give things a try. Failure is nowhere near as bad as inertia.