Karen Murrell is the founder and creative director of premium New Zealand lipstick brand - Karen Murrell Natural Lipsticks. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Karen started the business in 2008 during the Global Financial Crisis. Today it is one of New Zealand’s top beauty brands selling natural, clean lipsticks around the world.
The Start of Karen Murrell Natural Lipsticks
One of Karen’s very first jobs was working on the Clinique counter in the beauty department of a prestigious store in Auckland. “I loved that job,” recalls Karen. “I have always loved makeup, I was just one of those girls.”
But she also wanted to be in control of her own destiny and seeing both her parents being self-employed – her mother a hairdresser, her father a builder – the idea of forging her own way in the business world wasn’t daunting for her. After several years working for others in the beauty industry, she felt ready to go it alone and having identified a real gap in the market for a natural beauty product she started her first business, Skin Foods, in her early 20s.
Creating Natural Lipsticks
Embracing the trend for natural ingredients Karen then turned her attention to lipstick – that most basic of items in any makeup bag. As someone who loves makeup and believes in the power of lipstick to make people smile and feel confident - she was surprised by the chemicals found in many regular lipsticks. Some toxic ingredients can contribute to allergies and endocrine disruption as well as drying the delicate skin of the lips.
“When you’re putting something on your skin, particularly your lips, - you really want to know there’s nothing nasty in it,” says Karen. “The lips are such a delicate part of the body – it’s important to be really careful with what you use on them.”
So she got to work researching alternative ingredients to make clean, natural lipsticks. She spent endless hours at her computer, immersing herself in her research. One of the biggest challenges was finding a manufacturer – there simply was nobody doing it in New Zealand. So she researched manufacturers in Australia and found the perfect one. She used her friends to trial her first lipsticks, they loved them and so in 2008 the Karen Murrell Natural Lipstick brand was launched with a range of four colours.
An early tag line for the lipsticks was ‘nothing nasty touches my lips’ and that is still both true and widely recognised by customers today.
The Creative Side
As the creative director Karen comes up with the colours and lipstick ideas herself and draws her inspiration from all elements of life, but particularly from nature she says.
A popular seller, the Camellia Morning lipstick came about when Karen had been out for a beachside walk on a ‘grey, wintry day in Auckland’ and she had spotted a dash of colour from a camellia flower. One of the very first colours she created was inspired by a brilliant red display of pohutukawas at Auckland’s Takapuna Beach.
More recently, the Empowered Collection, which comprises five bold shades of red lipstick took inspiration from Karen’s childhood. Remembering a picture of Wonder Woman her mother had put on her bedroom wall as a child when she had wanted to show Karen the beauty in strength.
It was an idea that stuck because when Karen started work on the Empowered Collection that image came back to her. “That was my starting point,” she says. “This big, glamourous and totally strong woman.”
Stick To The Plan
Whilst Karen loves creating, she also has to tap into a more practical side of herself to keep a successful business running. It is a juggle she says and admits to not being a very ‘structured’ person but her great, supportive team help as do the rigours of business. “When you’re in an office you have to attend meetings on time,” she says. “And we plan out up to two years ahead for our production. So I do my best to stay focused. It’s definitely a learned skill.”
And despite this less structured, creative side Karen has always realised the importance of planning. In fact, much of the success of Karen Murrell Natural Lipsticks is down to having a plan she says. She started with a business plan put together in her front room. And whilst that plan has evolved over the years – she has never allowed herself to become distracted from the fact that the business is about making really good lipsticks.
“I have always been intentional about the business,” says Karen. “Every aspect of our brand is carefully considered.”
This applies to everything from the natural, clean ingredients to the captivating colours; the evocative lipstick names to the recyclable cannisters. She gives the example of the lipstick boxes where one of the key design points was that each box have its own beautiful artwork. The idea being that it felt like a gorgeous, individual gift, that the customer might be buying for themselves or another – this was even a detail that was in Karen’s business plan.
As for materials the boxes are also made of FSC approved cardboard and printed with soya inks which make recycling much easier. That’s a lot of thought that has gone into one little box – and it’s paid off says Karen, because now the boxes get ‘huge amounts of feedback’ from customers.
As with so many businesses around the world Covid-19 created some unexpected challenges for the company, but as an experienced and pragmatic business person, Karen realised that, again, it was a case of remaining focused.
“Initially we were all just unsure of what would happen to the market, to our direct customers, the pharmacies, the department stores,” she says. Travelling to visit overseas clients and suppliers was off the cards and even shipping to overseas customers was difficult because of the limited number of cargo flights.
And, of course, a business that focuses on lipstick when masks were being widely used – faces an obvious, additional challenge.
But rather than hand-wringing about the business future Karen used the time productively. “I spent a lot of time focused on research and development. I had a lot of clear head time and developed two new collections.”
These collection, Confidence and Empowered, have both been launched in the last 12 months and are proving very popular.
More recently there have been issues around supply chains and shipping as well as the cost of ingredients. It’s important to remember says Karen, that this is something that many businesses are experiencing.
In response Karen Murrell Natural Lipsticks have increased the frequency of their board meetings in order to discuss opportunities and issues. And their strong relationships with customers and suppliers has helped them to rise to these challenges.
“We’ve always been very focused on our relationships with our retail customers and maintaining those strong relationships has helped us,” says Karen.
And whilst opportunities for sales channels increase, those relationships always remain key. “Consumer sales are growing, but I always think it can not take away from your core retailers. You have to be careful with your retailers and there has to be consistency and transparency through all those sales channels,” says Karen.
In more recent months the business has seen an upturn as people start to head back to the office and out to events.
Karen Murrell Natural Lipsticks are expanding their focus on basic lip care. New lip scrub products are coming online that build on the back of their very popular Sugar Scrub which acts as an exfoliator for dry lips.
Karen has also been working on a new range of tinted moisture sticks that combine very subtle colour and hydration – they’re ideal for the gym or heading to the shops says Karen.
“The lip category is growing more and more,” says Karen. “And I am feeling a lot more optimistic than I was perhaps one year ago.”
With a growing marketplace – surely comes more competition? Probably agrees Karen but ultimately the more people there are in a category, the better that category will be – competition is good as long as you don’t get distracted by it.
“I don’t spend my time looking over my shoulder,” says Karen. Instead she comes back to that idea of always being intentional – focusing on her own creativity when it comes to lipsticks and colours, creating products that are original, inspired and make the wearer feel good.
As a creative she is passionate about original work “accusing me of imitation is the biggest insult anyone could give me,” she says.
Advice to Entrepreneurs
When it comes to starting a new business, Karen is clear that these maybe challenging times – but budding entrepreneurs shouldn’t be discouraged. “I started this business during the Global Financial Crisis. There is never a perfect time to start a business. But it’s always about planning and being intentional.”
Tough times, mistakes, things going wrong – most business people will face these challenges at some time. But look at the flip side. “Every time something goes wrong,” says Karen. “You learn three times as much from that.”
And always remember that what you’re making is what counts. “You’re only really as good as your product,” she says.