In 1999, Kate Morris was working on the cosmetics counter part-time while attending university. She had always loved beauty products, and got a buzz out of working with them. However, looking around the department store environment, Morris noticed that a lot of women didn’t really get that same buzz; instead, she saw they found the shopping experience quite intimidating and unpleasant rather than empowering.
“I thought well that doesn’t make any sense because beauty products are supposed to make you feel confident and fabulous but the shopping experience doesn’t really match that at all,” said Morris.
“That’s how I got the idea for Adore Beauty and for offering it online. I thought then you are in charge of the shopping experience and if you want to shop at 10pm in your pajamas and ugg boots then you totally can and nobody can look at you and make you feel bad about it.”
At the age of 21 Morris had decided that this is what she was going to do. She didn’t have any money and talking to the banks about borrowing money to start an internet business in 1999 was pretty much a no-go zone, so she ended up borrowing $12,000 from her boyfriend’s parents and that was enough to get the website built and buy some products – there was nothing left over to pay herself a wage or conduct any marketing activities.
Morris said the early days were pretty rough, with the beauty industry known for being traditional and selling their products online was a completely foreign concept at the time; pretty much everybody that Morris approached to get their products on the Adore Beauty platform said no.
From a tech perspective, Adore Beauty was started at a time where broadband, smartphones and Facebook didn’t even exist, and there certainly was no platform like Shopify that existed allowing you to buy an ecommerce platform pre-built in – everything had to be built from scratch.
“It was actually really hard to find an agency that had built an ecommerce website before,” said Morris. “Our original one was built off of Pearl Script and didn’t have any kind of backend to it so I had to upload products into a configured tech file via FTP. I just had to teach myself because I couldn’t afford to be paying someone $180 an hour every time I wanted to add a new product to the store.”
To make that process easier for herself, Morris educated herself via guides on the internet and books on HTML from the library, figuring out the processes to do things as she went along. During that period of time Morris taught herself the basics of ASP, HTML, and CSF, giving her a basic grounding of how everything works from a backend perspective.
Although Morris said that the beauty industry is a really good place to be a female business owner, with a rich history of pioneers like Estee Lauder, Helen Rubenstein, and Elizabeth Arden to look up to, from a tech perspective Morris said that there is a lot of work still left to do.
“I’m still quite used to being the only woman on a panel,” said Morris. “I notice it more when I go to conferences; for instance thirty percent of the delegates might be women, or something like a leaders breakfast where they have invited the owners of the largest companies and I’ll frequently be the only woman in those in a room of thirty men.”
Since those early days, technology has obviously come a long way, and though the core business at Adore Beauty has not necessarily changed so much, the tech has certainly made things easier from a customer service perspective.
“For us, being able to constantly run split tests and multivariate tests so we don’t have to just rely on what we think customers might like is great. We can actually formulate hypothesise and say, hey we think people would find the checkout easier if we did this and actually test it and see if they do,” said Morris.
“If they don’t we just say hey, we were wrong about that, people actually prefer the old way of doing it, ok great, we chuck that old idea out and try something else. That’s been the biggest benefit to us, that the technology is evolving to help us actually get where we want to be in terms of the customer experience and continuous improvement in that area.”
In terms of a broader look at women in technology across Australia, Morris said that there is still a pretty unhealthy culture.
“I guess I’m fortunate in that I get to be in my own little bubble where it’s my company and I get to say what happens here and so that sort of stuff doesn’t happen here,” said Morris.
“I think there’s probably not enough acceptance, I think people sort of go, oh yeah we need to have diversity, it’s kind of like a box that you have to tick but I don’t think there’s really that deep acceptance that a company will be better if it has diverse inputs. I don’t think people are still really taking that on board.”
Morris however said she has the opposite problem and needs to employ more men.
“We got to a stage where we had more Rebeccas than men so I thought, ok, that’s not good.”
Morris said that, particularly once you get above 20 employees, too many of one type of person does not promote a healthy culture. She said that culture decisions are really quite important for her business now.
Adore Beauty has come a long way since those early struggles back in 1999: as of December last year the platform gives customers over 10,000 products to choose from and is tracking at around 70 percent growth year on year. This financial year the company should turnover between $15-16 million, and Morris said that they are just getting started.
Featured Image: Adore Beauty Founder, Kate Morris.
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