Poppy King: Lipstick queen and author

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image-poppyking200In 1992, 18 months after finishing high school, Poppy King set up Poppy Industries. Through her company she sold her own brand of lipstick, and within three years, her business had grown into a multi-million dollar company. She quickly became known as the ‘Lipstick Queen’.

In 2002 Poppy Industries was sold to Estee Lauder and and Poppy moved to New York to work full-time for Estee Lauder. Now she has returned to running her own company, this time called Lipstick Queen. She has also just released her first book, Lessons of a Lipstick Queen: Finding and Developing the Great Idea That Can Change Your Life, a guide to building a business and the lessons that will help you along the way.

Click play to listen. Running time: 29.15

Lessons of a Lipstick Queen


* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

So Poppy thanks for joining us today.

My pleasure.

Now what prompted you to write about being an entrepreneur? I’m so excited about this book.

Well, thank you. Basically during my time in America when I was working for Estee Lauder for the first three years that I was living here I spent a lot of time doing presentations in one of their major retailers called Nordstrom right across America. As I was doing what they called trend presentations where they have somebody talking about the trends for the seasons for customers.

I would mention my start in business being that I had started my own lipstick company at the age of 18. The interest that just everyday women had in that story in America and how did I manage to start my own lipstick company was so great that over those three years I think that was what I ended up talking more about when I was out in the field than anything else. I realized that there was a very simple book there to just show not so much my story but more using my story as an example of how anyone can be entrepreneurial if they just battle a few of the self-doubts along the way.

It is such a great story because I’ve tracked your business career pretty much since you were 18 I think. You have become very successful very quickly. What was that like?

Though I had nothing really to compare it to so I guess for me it was very extremely validating in the sense that I had believed so fully that if I could find a way to offer customers at that stage matte lipsticks and also a different type of marketing. Not a big sort of corporate cosmetic company but more of an individual style of marketing. If I could put those two things together and get them out there I just felt totally sure that it would be successful.

So for it to be so successful so quickly it kind of felt like “Oh, yes, well this is exactly what I thought would happen.” I think it’s now when I look back on that period that I’m sort of able to appreciate more how unusual and how successful it was and really appreciate that isn’t just a given. There were so many variables both some of which were strategic on my behalf and some of which were just the variables in terms of the planets aligning that made that happen.

At the time I guess it was what I’d expected to happen and that’s part of puzzle with entrepreneurs is that you do sort of have to maintain a kind of optimism. It’s only really later on that you sort of look back and go, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

Absolutely, now I am very familiar with your lipsticks and I own countless colours of the matte shade and then the shine version. But for some of the listeners who may not be as familiar can you just briefly tell them your story, the story no doubt that you told Nordstrom’s and all of those companies countless times as well?

Sure, basically by the time that I was 18, which was in the very early 90s, 1991, I was very disappointed with the lipsticks that were out there in terms of the colours and textures. I was trying to do my makeup and my over style in more of a 1940s or sort of old-fashioned Hollywood look and everything that was out there was very pink, very shimmery. It was the end of the 80s and there was still a sort of hangover from that. I couldn’t find lipsticks that gave me the look of old-fashioned Hollywood and the 1940s stars.

I was very proactive in asking all the cosmetic counters in Myers and David Jones about why didn’t they have matte lipsticks and they couldn’t really give me any particular answer. But they said that there are a lot of women who seem to ask for them and so I really noticed that it was something that was missing.

Then beyond that, beyond just the product, I also felt that the way that cosmetics were marketed and offered to me being sort of a new, young adult at that time and with my own economic power. Like I was walking around those counters and I felt totally disgusted and sort of horrified by the really patronising and really bordering on exploitative way that cosmetics seemed to me marketed to women as being these things that were sort of a denial of our intelligence.

I really wanted to do something that was intelligent as well as something that was really unique so I basically set about designing the lipstick brand that I wanted that wasn’t there. Over the space of a year I managed to put all the pieces of the puzzle in place in terms of finding financing, finding a manufacturer, finding what else that I needed to get done. That’s what the book details. Okay so you realize something is missing but where on earth do you go from there and it sort of details out how I broke that process down with no kind of Harvard degree or not even a family that was in business that could point me in the right direction. I just sort of broke it down in a way that was very simple and that’s what I explained to the reader.

And you did it at such a young age too. Is this book just for business owners? Can you see your advice being applied to other areas of life?

Absolutely, it’s not just kind of advice. It’s kind of really more of sort of the lessons that I learned and the scenarios and kind of what I sort of deduced from that. I’ve designed it to be less advice and more stimulating in the reader their own sort of thought process.

I tell the reader in the book that advice is always sort of someone’s opinion mixed with their experience and it doesn’t have to be the same as theirs. So it’s more to stimulate the reader. I think that absolutely they are judging by the extraordinary reaction that I have been getting from it here in the States. In terms of Australia I don’t get as much correspondence from Australia as I do where I’m living which is in the States.

The extraordinary reaction, even men are taking the step of reading it just in terms of how to sort of really how to trust your instincts. That can be applied not just to business but to your personal sort of endeavours as well.

In 2002 you moved to New York to work for Estee Lauder but now you have struck out on your own again. Tell us about what you are doing now and what made you decide to go back to running your own show.

I guess it’s really that I went back to what made me decide is that I still feel and having been in sort of closer to the process with Estee Lauder in many ways feel and understand further why I feel so frustrated with the lip  products that are put out by all the major corporations.

So I went back to, it wasn’t so much that I was so determined to go back to running my own show as I just still consider and still find that the colours and the whole premise with which the major companies provide lip products is to me totally disappointing. It’s done in a way in which I feel sort of thumbs are down and rather than make it exciting and interesting which lipstick to me is a very, very interesting product.

I decided that there was still this kind of need for the type of brand that I had always wanted to see on the market myself which was one that was coming from a women’s point of view. But not in a way that was a denial of women’s power. I wanted to go back to designing lip products again and to really do it the way that I want to do it which is not always commercially motivated. I kind of tend to have to do it and run my own thing because giving other people involved tends to mean that it’s got to back to the same dynamics which are the reasons why I really dislike all the lip products out there. They get way too commercialized.

Of course now you have the benefit of use of years of experience so is it easier this time around?

No, it’s different. It’s not easier because I’ve always had a very independent spirit. My sort of values are very different to the way that the business is done on a mass level. I am always kind of swimming upstream because my focus is on the customer and the focus of the industry is own profit. It’s a constant battle for me to find the right balance between that.

If it were up to me I would spend every cent that I have on the customer and that’s kind of always been and it was one of the battles that I had in my first business. I ended up having no profit because I was putting way too much back into the business. I’ve never been someone who has bled business dry for personal gain. I’m always over-emphasizing the need for the customer to experience the best experience possible. That’s not always a very good commercial decision.

Apart from that what are some of your other big challenges as an entrepreneur do you think?

Men tend to be the people that are still in charge of finance so it’s one of the big challenges as an entrepreneur. And as a female entrepreneur in a female world is to speak the language that men speak in business and to be able to kind of find a way to operate with men’s idea of business but in way that also speaks to women. I find that very challenging and just the general challenges of being able to have a longer term vision. It’s not always apparent in the early days of something.

The economic indicators in the early days of things that turn into really great brands don’t always look like what people expect it to look like in the beginning. Then it is only for the 20/20 hindsight that of course that turned into a really great brand. It’s just the same challenges which I have always had which is balancing the creativity with the finance and having the right language around that to convince people who don’t have the same creativity and have different skill sets.

When you decided to write the book you are running a business that is extremely time consuming and demanding. How did you fit it in? Did you have a routine or a process or how did it work?

I was lucky enough that when I quit Lauder I took six months to write the book before I started the new business. I was very lucky to have a six-month period where I just focused full-time on writing. I have to tell you it was the most extraordinary. If I look back at my life to date and think what is one of the biggest privileges that I have had even though I have clearly had so many ups and downs and am far from out of the woods yet in terms of into a phase of huge financial security.

But one of the biggest privileges was being able to take that time to write that book. I had already sold it so I was able to really just live off savings and the advance at that stage and write it. So I wrote six months straight. And you see I know that you might be asking me about other books and yes I absolutely adore writing and I wrote every word of that book. That wasn’t ghost written. I came up with the structure. I came up with the flow, with the chapter outline and everything that you read there. Of course I had editing help.

I absolutely adore writing. I have lots of false starts. There are three. My agent is in the process of selling my second book at the moment. There are so many false starts with that in terms of the premise, getting the premise of what I’m doing right. I have as it turns out you know I have about three other books that are really pretty far along.

What are they about?

One of them in particular is about lipstick and the history of lipstick and all sorts of lipstick. The other one is very much a kind of broader life book in terms of my life. And then there is one at the moment that I am in the process of looking at which is to do with the differences between men and women in business.

There is also a fiction work that I am looking at updating a modern classic for the current era, like sort of rewriting it as if it was based in this era. So I just adore writing and not all of these books will get sold and not all of these books will work but I’m hoping to write for the rest of my life as well as my other daytime job.

So you may have discovered a parallel career.

I hope so and I guess for me it has sort of worked. I have always loved and I just adore women. I mean I’m heterosexual but in terms of romantic but I just find us a fascinating, fascinating subject. One of the ways that I have talked to women about women and explored the role of being a woman my whole adult life is through lipstick. Then I found an adjunct to that is exploring that through writing. It’s something that I can’t imagine not doing.

I just love it and whether I’m good at it or not good at it one thing I know that I have is an ability to write in a way that is engaging. I’m not going to win a Pulitzer Prize anytime soon or a Booker Prize or I can’t see myself winning any literary prizes but I write in a way that’s engaging. I think very, very frank. I’m not on a lecture podium and I think that’s what makes it a rare voice.

Did you discover this love for writing when you sat down to write the first book or have you always had it?

I always wrote my own speeches and the whole time I was kind of really famous in Australia in sort of the happier times and when I was very involved in the Australian Republican Movement and also I was Young Australian of the Year. I always wrote all my own speeches. I always wrote everything I ever said about my passion for Australia becoming a republic. I wrote it myself.

I always wrote. I also wrote some articles. Unfortunately I happened to be in New York before I was ever living here on September 11, 2001 and I wrote an article for The Age newspaper at the time about that. So I’ve always enjoyed writing and I never, ever imagined that I would have the discipline or the ability to write a whole book.

But I really realized that is exactly what it is. It’s a discipline and it doesn’t really matter. A bit like everything in life it doesn’t really matter on any one particular day what you have done. It’s about doing something every day which ends up adding up to a whole book. It’s not sort of about spurts. It’s more about consistency than spurts of genius.

That’s absolutely right definitely. In that six months did you have some kind of routine or tell us about your writing day.

I very much had a routine because I was writing from home I knew that I had to the first thing in the morning get out and go and have breakfast because it just forced me to go out, to get dressed, to kind of not sort of fall into any bad patterns of sitting in my pyjamas and writing.

So every morning I would make myself, certainly it was a very nice thing to do, but it was to immediately first thing in the morning get up, have a shower, go have breakfast and then come back to my dining table/desk. I would write pretty much straight through from about sort of 9:30 to 1:30 when I would break to watch The Bold and the Beautiful. It’s true.

I relate.

I would get some lunch and I would turn on and I would watch The Bold and the Beautiful for half an hour which was a great way to turn my brain right off. That would be my kind of total break and then I would come back to it. Usually I would find that I could only write for about another two hours and then I was sort of starting to get ready to set up the business so I would have some other stuff to do. Then I would go to yoga and come home.

I really lived pretty much like a monk for that six months. I really didn’t go out much at all. I was just totally I found myself when I was out thinking about the book and the next section and just really it was like one of the most exciting relationships in my entire life. I have to tell you that was kind of the relationship that I had with writing that six months.

My boyfriend now, he also actually lives in London. I go back and forth from London all the time because I work there too. But he does writing. Granted he writes on very highfaluting subjects not like me. He is amazed. He sees me when I’m really engaged in writing I can get out. I’ve been working on one of the books now for just two and half weeks and I’ve done 30,000 words already and that’s in between running a full-time business. I’m not saying that it is 30,000 good words. That’s what I mean by so many false starts.

But it’s just that I know that I’m on to something when I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m not trying to prove anything but I’m just bursting to chat about something. It’s kind of as simple as that and I think that it’s something you can probably hear it in my voice. I just adore it. I’ve actually found that a lot of the advice that I’m giving at the moment is people that have read my book as I have said mainly in the stacks because I’m easier to find.

They have asked me actually about the writing process. They have read the book and they have thought that it seemed to come very naturally and how did I develop my voice, that kind of stuff which has really been wonderful. To have a chance to talk about the process and even though I tend to sort to say to myself which I think that many non-fiction writers do, “I only write non-fiction.” And not consider it as relevant but it is in a different way.

Oh, absolutely. It seems to have come very naturally to you but did you find any particular challenges with the writing process? What was the hardest part about it?

I have to tell you that the hardest part I guess was sometimes mistaking that if it was coming too easy it meant that it wasn’t valid. We sort of have this kind of idea, I think this is probably more of a fiction idea of sort of a tortured kind of writer. I kept thinking, excuse my language, this must be crap that I’m writing because it is just coming out so easily.

It was about getting comfortable with the idea that really I think when you are writing really well it shouldn’t be tortured like that means that you really have something that you want to say. It’s the times I guess that I only ever had one chapter that I got to a point in the book where I started feeling like I wasn’t being genuine. I started to feel like I was trying to show off in front of the reader. Starting to think like, “Oh, my God I’m really going somewhere I don’t want to go.” I’ve lost my ability to just be sort of open here. I’m sort of starting to show off a little bit.

What turned it around for me is that I ended up throwing out that chapter and restarted it and what turned it around for me was that I kind of wrote a note to myself and stuck it right near my computer. But it said, “I’m not here to show you how smart I am. I’m here to show you how smart you can be.” It just kind of it was sort of my pact with the reader that I was going to stop trying to show the reader I’m smart. My whole reason that I have written this book was to show them how smart they already are. It’s just getting it out of them. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, absolutely.

I think that the hardest thing is just staying true to the premise. It’s just kind of understanding that also every day is a little bit different. There are some days where I could be really productive and there are other days where it was really all I could get was maybe one good hour. And it’s about sort of understanding all right I’m just going to have to walk away from it now and just trust that it will come back to me tomorrow.

I love the fact that The Bold and the Beautiful is an integral part of the writing process.

Totally. You know what the funniest thing was? The funniest thing was that I turned it on and I hadn’t seen it for years because this was 2006 when I started my business and obviously that has kind of taken over. I turned it back on last Friday. I actually spent the first weekday that I have spent in a long, long time writing.

Out of nostalgia I thought, “Oh I’ll watch The Bold and the Beautiful again at lunchtime.” I’m telling you I think that it was still the same dilemma with Brooke and Ridge and Taylor were still deciding who was going to be with who. It was very funny.

Apart from it sounds like several books that you’ve got in the offing and what you are currently doing with your business what is next for Poppy King? What’s the grand master plan?

Just being open to different sort of facets of what parts of the world that I’m interested in and how to kind of find a way to make a living and make a difference. It tends to be something that I’ve found predominately around lipstick. But to also start to particularly as a writer be open to some of the other struggles and triumphs and obstacles and observations that in a life so far when I haven’t shied away from any of the hard stuff.

How can I use that In so many ways and I think that there are so many books that particularly for the Australian readers that are interested that are yet to come out of me that I think will be really surprising in terms of the struggles that I have also faced internally in my life. How I can really use some of this stuff to make people laugh and to make people also feel inspired.

I have no doubt that we will feel inspired. On that note thank you very much for your time today Poppy.

My pleasure, thank you.

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