For the Founder Project this week, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of Australia’s most successful founders in the e-commerce space, Kate Morris. Kate is the CEO and founder of Adore Beauty, Australia’s leading beauty e-commerce business. Kate has single handedly grown the company from an idea 17 years ago to a company set to turnover $25 million this financial year. Over the past two years, Kate led the company to grow 125% in a business climate which has seen many well funded retail companies fail. She is now looking to test international markets whilst continuing to build up the site’s technology & product range to perpetuate the company’s stella growth trajectory.
How did you develop the idea for Adore Beauty and what drew you to this problem?
I had been a beauty junkie since I was 12 years old and my mum let me wear frosty pink Revlon lipstick to my grade 6 formal. Back when I started Adore Beauty, there was no such thing as buying beauty online in Australia. I had a part time uni job on the cosmetics counters, and talked to a lot of women who complained about the traditional beauty retail experience — they found it very intimidating and not at all empowering. I wanted everyone to feel the same way about beauty as I did, so I decided I was going to create a new way of shopping for beauty that was actually fun and made it accessible.
How did you find your first few hires in the company?
My first employee hired herself! She was a beauty therapist who lived locally, and dropped off her resume one day. I got her in for an interview and she told me all the reasons why I needed her, and then checked her diary and told me she could start next Tuesday. You’ve got to admire that confidence. She was with us for over five years.
What are some of your strengths that really helped you build the company?
My superpower is tenacity. I refuse to accept the status quo and I cannot take no for an answer. This has been of great benefit in convincing a very reticent beauty industry to accept e-commerce — all the brands I approached said no at the start. It took me 14 years to get a contract with Estee Lauder.
I’m also good at figuring out ways to get things done quickly and cheaply. Pretty handy if you’re a bootstrapped startup!
What was the catalyst that made you take the plunge and start Adore Beauty? What would you be doing if you hadn’t started it?
I had never considered starting a business as a career option; I just assumed I’d go to uni and then get a job. After a week of studying Law I knew that wasn’t for me! I floated around in an Arts degree for a little while, but what I really loved was my part time job on the Clarins counter. It was there that I got the idea for an online beauty store. I talked about it incessantly to everyone I knew — my boyfriend in particular — who eventually said, “Look, are you going to just keep talking about this or actually DO it?” I think I’d kind of been waiting for someone else to do it, but realised that if I didn’t give it a try, I’d always kick myself.
How did you get your initial funding to get Adore Beauty off the ground?
I didn’t have any money of my own, and banks pretty much laughed in my face. I worked out I’d need about $12 000 to create my MVP — this was just enough to get a website and buy some stock. I pitched the idea to my boyfriend’s parents and they loaned me the money. Pretty sure they thought they were never going to see any of it again, but I was able to pay them back in 2 years.
That was the only external funding I had, until I sold a 25% stake to Woolworths at the end of 2014.
What resources have been most helpful to you in starting up?
Back in the early days I used to go to the library and borrow those “for dummies” books on any and every topic! There wasn’t really anyone I could ask for advice on ecommerce because it was all so new back then; I just had to figure it out on my own.
Nowadays I find I get most benefit from conversations with other entrepreneurs. Over the years I have built up quite a good network of people I can ask for help in return for buying them a coffee. I find other businesspeople generally are more than willing to help if you have a specific ask.
What has been the most surprising part of running your own company? What were you not expecting?
I think the strangest part for me has been in the last couple of years, where the business grew to a point that I had to stop thinking of it as an extension of myself. It’s a little bit like your baby growing up. It’s a very surreal feeling to realise that after all those years of pouring your blood and sweat and tears into it, you’ve created something that has a life of its own.
I’ll never get tired of meeting new people and them saying, “oh, Adore Beauty! I *love* your site!” That gives me a buzz. every. time.
Who have been your greatest mentors in this journey and what are the key things you’ve learnt from them?
I never really had a formal mentor but have certainly had lots of good advice from many excellent people on the way:
- My boyfriend’s dad owned a motel and taught me all the business basics, which apply no matter what kind of business you’re running
- My mum taught me the emotional resilience to get back up again after every knockdown
- Jane showed me the value of networking: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know!
- Gavin gave me a masterclass in negotiating: if they ask you for something, always ask for something in return