Nineteen years ago, self-confessed beauty junkie Kate Morris was working the cosmetic counter in a Melbourne department store to pay her way through university when she had a “lightbulb moment”.
“I really came to realise, whenever I told anybody what I did, how much women really disliked that experience of having to front up to a counter – and the hard sell,” Kate tells Future Women. “Most people came away from it feeling like they’d been a bit ripped off. They found the whole thing very disempowering and unpleasant. I thought, to me that doesn’t make any sense because I’ve always loved beauty products and I always found them uplifting and confidence-boosting at their best.
“That the shopping experience was making people feel the opposite didn’t really make a lot of sense to me,” she adds. “I became aware of online shopping because it was in its very early days. I thought someone needs to do that for beauty, because I reckon a lot of people would prefer to shop that way. Of course there wasn’t anything in Australia, nobody was doing it. I’d never thought about starting my own business at that point, so it was a bit of a lightbulb moment. I thought why not?”
Kate approached the banks for financial backing to no avail. So she persuaded her boyfriend’s father, a motel owner, to invest $12,000. “He was the only person I had ever met, or got to know, who had their own business because my parents were both social workers – we didn’t know anybody like that,” she explains. “He told me to put together a business plan and he’d be happy to take a look at it. He read it, wrote the cheque, handed it over and said: ‘Good luck to you, I think this will be a really good experience, you’ll learn a lot.’”
“The first lesson that I learnt was that you should never assume that if you build it they will come, because that just doesn’t happen.”
Fast-forward almost two decades and he was right: Adore Beauty now employs 150 people, stocks 12,000 products and processes one million transactions a year, but Kate’s never forgotten the lessons from those early days when the site launched in 2000, and she was running the business single-handedly from her garage.
“Probably the first lesson that I learnt was that you should never assume that if you build it they will come, because that just doesn’t happen,” she says. “I hadn’t left any money over for marketing, or anything like that. I assumed it would just be great and change beauty shopping in Australia, but of course nobody knew about it. That was a problem, a bit of a rookie mistake. So we had to go the long and slow route of trying to build up the business organically, through word of mouth.”
Her second learning was much more personal.
“I also found that first year of just me by myself in my garage really isolating and very depressing,” she says. “I think I did get properly depressed about a year in, where it didn’t feel like it was really going anywhere. I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it during the day, and really the lesson from that, and something I share with a lot of earlier stage female entrepreneurs, is I think you’ve actually got to put time and effort in to building your support network. You can’t convince yourself you’ll be fine by yourself, [because] you really can’t do it by yourself. You really need to put the effort in to going out and doing the networking and finding other people that are at similar stages to you, just getting involved with communities or start-ups or whatever it is, otherwise you’ll go a bit crackers.”
Kate also remembers the small wins that kept her going on difficult days.
“There was never a moment when it all took off,” she says. “It was a long and slow slog… The reason I knew that we were on the right track, and it was probably just a timing thing, was that we would have so many customers email in and say: ‘Oh this is the first time I’ve ever bought something like this online. This is the best thing ever and can you please get brands X, Y and Z because then I never have to go into David Jones again!’ So I knew we were on to something and customers were responding like I thought they would be. We just didn’t have enough of them yet, or the market wasn’t quite ready.”
As internet shopping slowly gathered pace, Kate was able to start building a much-needed team around her.
“I never really had a lot of money for wages and I was paying everybody else before paying myself,” she says. “I always looked for attitude more than experience or skills. So the people that I’d bring in were the people that were always ready to learn and ready to try new things.”
That approach to recruitment has continued as Adore Beauty has grown into a household name.
“One of the things that’s really been important for us, and the thing that’s enabled us to grow and crack open a space for ourselves in an industry that was very heavily controlled by big incumbent competitors, is that we’re willing to take risks and try new things, and do things that nobody has done yet because we’re not frightened of failing,” Kate says. “That’s a really core thing that I look for: people who are not frightened of change, who are not frightened of saying, ‘I don’t know how to do that but let’s figure it out’.”
Kate has also had to adapt as a leader. “That’s been a rapid learning curve,” she says. “It’s pretty different when you’re all in the same office with three or four other people, now we’ve got 150, so it’s certainly had to evolve. Part of the challenge – and I think this is a challenge for every entrepreneur – is to work out how, and when, and what to delegate. And being able to actually let go and empower people is the biggest thing I’ve had to learn.”
She says creating a culture where failure is as important as success has been key to building a business she’s incredibly proud of.
“I’m the first one to say, ‘Hey I’m really sorry about how I handled that, I didn’t do that well at all so I’ll try better next time’,” Kate explains. “It’s having an experimental approach to everything, where you say we’re going to set our strategy and the things we think. We’re going to set out what our assumptions are and then we’re going to spend the first period of time testing and challenging those and see what’s worth rolling out.
“If you approach everything as an experiment, even a failure is a learning. It’s not a disaster. I’ve never yelled at anybody for making a mistake. It’s like, ‘How are we going to fix it and not do it next time? And what can we learn?’ Something good always comes out of it I think.”
“I think a lot of people wait to feel confident, when you can start now. You’re not ever going to feel confident, you have to get confidence from showing yourself that you can do it.”
As has staying true to those early values, especially in a crowded market where it can be difficult to cut through the noise.
“At the start, our USP [Unique Selling Proposition] was that we sold on the internet – now of course everybody does,” Kate says. “It’s really funny because the reason and purpose behind Adore Beauty really hasn’t changed in the past 19 years, so even though the way that we do it has had to evolve, our purpose has stayed the same. I really want women to feel empowered and confident and fabulous when they walk out the door every morning. I want them to feel 100 percent in control and that they know what they’re doing when they’re shopping for this stuff. Because I think it can be intimidating. And I think the way it always used to be was ‘Hey, let’s sell women beauty products by making them feel bad about themselves’. What Adore is, and has always been, is really quite the opposite. To make you feel so confident in your own skin, that you can wear make-up or not, and we’ll help you either way. That’s the most disruptive thing about our brand nowadays: whether it’s our Instagram or the super-qualified people we employee on our live chat to give honest product advice, commission-free. We’re actually really real.”
So, what would Kate say to female entrepreneurs trying to get their business off the ground?
“The key thing is actually starting,” she says. “I see a lot of people get stuck at that bit where they’ve got the idea and then now what? Well now you have to pick a thing and start on it. They’re like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’. Well no, of course you don’t. Who does? Just pick a thing and start. I think a lot of people wait to feel confident, when you can start now. You’re not ever going to feel confident, you have to get confidence from showing yourself that you can do it. That you can at least start.
“Also, every good business decision comes from thinking about how you’re going to serve your customer better. Every bad business decision comes when you forget about that. When you forget about the customer, disaster always ensues. I see a lot of businesses making decisions based on, ‘Oh well these are the resources we have, what can we do with that?’ If it’s not something the customer wants, you waste your money. Or making a decision based on what a competitor is doing – the worst decision in the world. Don’t do that.”
“There are things I don’t do now. I don’t bake my kids birthday cakes. I’ve just gone, ‘You know what, they actually don’t care’.”
Kate is also learning to stop sweating the small stuff.
“It’s about prioritising what’s actually important in your life and delegating everything else,” she says. “There are things I don’t do now. I don’t bake my kids birthday cakes. I’ve just gone, ‘You know what, they actually don’t care’. It sucks up an entire day that I could be spending with them, actually being engaged, rather than stressing out in the kitchen trying to be someone’s idea of a perfect mother. Some stuff, it doesn’t matter.”
Kate might have come a long way from Melbourne’s make-up counters and packing up orders from her garage, but every day remains a reminder of her boyfriend’s father’s generosity.
“That boyfriend and I are still together and have two kids,” she says. “Unfortunately his dad passed away before he saw the business get really successful, but I do always feel like he’s still watching. He’d be so stoked.”
Kate Morris is set to share more of her business smarts at our Future Women x Veuve Clicquot: Business Woman Talks in Melbourne on August 27th, alongside fintech startup entrepreneur, Grace Wong and Jacqui Bull, co-founder of Sidekicker, a technology platform backed by SEEK. Buy your ticket here.
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