'It Was The Chalk Tablet Of Websites': How This Entrepreneur Built A Flourishing Online Beauty Business

07/01/2016 5:39 AM AEDT | Updated January 7, 2016 05:39
Adore Beauty

Kate Morris is an Australian pioneer. True, she may not have eked out a living from the harsh Australian lands in colonial times, but she has done something pretty remarkable.

In 1999 at the tender age of 21 she began Adore Beauty, one of Australia’s first online beauty businesses from her home in Tasmania using $12,000 borrowed from her boyfriend’s dad and painfully slow dial-up internet.

Selling stuff online is so easy these days that it’s also easy to forget how tough it used to be and how quickly technology has evolved.

“It was really hard to find someone who could build you an ecommerce website back in 1999,” she told The Huffington Post Australia.

“I ended up using a small company based out of South Melbourne and I think it was the first ecommerce site they’d ever built. And you couldn’t just buy the software off the shelf -- it was fully bespoke and coded by hand and didn’t have any admin backend.

“It was a shopping cart and that was it. It was the chalk tablet of websites.”

But even more tricky than getting the site built was convincing beauty brands -- a very traditional industry renowned for resisting change -- to come on board with Morris’s vision. She wanted to give women an alternate place to buy cosmetics than big department stores like the one she worked at part-time through university.

When she told others about her job they’d say ‘you’re one of those women’ and tell her how they found salespeople pushy and the experience awkward.

“I thought that was silly and doesn’t make sense because the products are supposed to make you feel fantastic and more confident and more empowered, but the shopping experience is making them feel the opposite,” she said. “I thought 'I’m going to do something about that'.”

But the clincher was convincing brands they needed to get on board too.

“Everybody said no straight off the bat which really shocked me,” she said.

“Partly it was the internet thing but partly it was ‘who the hell are you?’, this 21-year-old girl from the wilds of Tasmania coming to us with this business idea.”

Morris finally found two small brands to be involved and Adore Beauty was born. All she needed to do -- and keep doing -- was keep building.

adore beauty

Morris says her website was initially awful, but has rebuilt it every three years.

“Slowly one by one the companies began to realise the internet is a thing and that’s where customers are whether you like it or not,” she said.

“So then I went back to everyone again and said look here’s the website, it’s not awful -- actually it really was awful when I look back on it now although all websites were awful back then -- and then five more said yes. And it was pretty much that process over and over for the next 15 years.”

Now the site offers more than 140 brands and hundreds of products for skincare, make-up, fragrance and hair for both men and women and the company turns over more than $10 million annually. Morris also just sold a 25 percent stake to supermarket giant Woolworths and is planning to expand even further.

Brushing up on the tech stuff

Technology was her achilles heel in the late 1990s but web development and ecommerce software is now advancing so rapidly that more features are possible than ever before.

Morris and her brother, now a web developer, designed and implemented a foundation database where customers can input their current foundation and be matched with similar shades in other brands. Adore Beauty’s site also now has live chats so customers can browse the products with their hand held by a beauty expert.

But tech comes at a price, and Morris refutes any arguments that her business is “cheap” to run because she doesn’t have a storefront.

“Anyone who thinks online businesses don’t have overheads has never run one,” she said.

“We have to completely rebuild our online store every three years, providing customer service costs just as much as having someone standing behind the counter -- they’re just sitting behind live chat. There are still plenty of overheads involved online, they are just different.”

Winning over the customers

Morris said people were slow to pick up on the idea of buying online because it was so different. But that has changed rapidly.

“When I first started people were ‘you can’t buy cosmetics online because you have to try it out first’ but they are ready to consider more purchasing online than they have before,” she said.

“It’s been in the last three years that everybody gets why you would shop online.”

Adore Beauty may have been one of the frontrunners, but there has been an explosion of online beauty stores in the last 15 years.

Morris says she has weathered the competition by focusing on selling premium brands and avoiding discounts.

“I think for a long time it was the thing that you did to try and save money -- the early adoption of online shopping in Australia was all about price and daily deals, which of course in prestige cosmetics it’s not about that,” she said.

“We’ve always been much more about delivering service and delivering opportunities to trial rather than discounting.

“In the end what customers really value is the total experience so if you buy a product for half price but it ends up being old or it takes four weeks to get to you or is beaten up when you get it or there’s no online chat to help you buy the right thing then yes, technically you might have saved money but in the end the value isn’t there.”

Being a kickass entrepreneur

Morris says to survive as an entrepreneur and build a successful business you need a lot of chutzpah, and patience to work through the challenges.

“That resilience and tenacity is the biggest characteristic,” she said.

“To be able to bounce back or find your way around all the barriers that will inevitably be in your way is the biggest thing for me.

“You just can’t get disheartened when things seem impossible. Everything is possible -- you just have to figure out how. Learning to be so focused on creating value for your customers. You know, you have to make it work. Customers have to love you otherwise your business can’t stay alive.”

But just because she has a booming business doesn’t mean she’s kicking back every day counting her cash.

“I think the fear thing is something that will always be there with any kind of entrepreneurial journey,” she said. “I think it’s still there for me. You just learn to push on through it.”

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