December 1, 2023

Poppy King

Poppy King in 2009. Source: AAP/Simon and Schuster

Poppy King was THE entrepreneur of the 1990s. She launched her iconic lipstick business fresh out of high school, and rode the wave as a media darling all the way to Young Australian of the Year. But then it came crashing down, spectacularly. King moved to New York, far from the gaze of the business press and former business partners.

But now, more than 20 years on, she’s exclusively announced to Curveball she’s returning to Australia with an exclusive new range.

“It’s nothing short of an Australian small business fairytale that’s about to unfurl,” King offers proudly.

King’s journey – from an 18-year-old entrepreneur, to leading a global cosmetics brand, and rebuilding after a very public bust – has taught her a lot about articulating a vision and keeping it together when it all falls apart. Here’s how she’s rebuilt her career.

Story is vital in building a brand

In the 90s if you were looking for a lip colour that told the world you were on top, you reached for a Poppy King lipstick. She was everywhere, having rapidly turned her own desire for vivid lipsticks into products stocked in stores around the world.

Being able to clearly articulate her vision helped get her business off the ground.

“You have successes and you have failures, and the two things are intermingled, but articulation is always involved in a success,” she says.

King has long known that a good story is critical – she was employing an effective narrative well before it became the branding buzzword it is today.

Her storytelling nous made her a media favourite; she went viral long before the social media era of today.

“You can get attention easier than you used to be able to, but the holding of the attention is really hard,” she says of the changing landscape.

Scale and growth aren’t the only measures of success

King experienced an incredible rise in a very short timeframe. In 1995, just three years after she launched Poppy Industries, her company reportedly made a profit of $6.5 million.

She admits to experiencing “a bit of an identity crisis” between her creative and business sensibilities. King prefers to measure success by repeat customers than metrics such as growth and scale.

“I don’t enjoy doing ‘business’ because that is so based on growth. I enjoy something called ‘entrepreneurship’, which is much more twisty and turny.

poppy king

Source: Tim Madden

“Growth is a consequence. It’s not an objective,” she explains. “Scale is the really dangerous metric, because it involves a level of creating a demand that’s not certain, that’s not sustainable. I do think [this idea] is going to come completely crashing down.”

King also believes social media has peaked as an indicator of entrepreneurial potential.

”So many people have been burned, particularly in launching brands, because somebody has a huge following and then [they realise] that followers and customers are two very different things.”

Get back on the horse

In 1998, when King was just 26, the business went into receivership. The media turned on King. There were accusations the company was trading insolvent – which King dismisses as “a salacious idea that got whipped up”. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission also cleared the company of wrongdoing.

“There was a massive dispute and not a meeting of the minds on the board with the investors [who had a] very different idea of what we should do to go forward. We ended up in a stalemate, which I’m not proud of,” she says.

It was a very dark time for King. “I had a horrible time. I don’t want to tell you some of the thoughts I had, some of the choices I thought I might make,” she recalls.

Yet even as people asked her what went wrong, she always felt a whole lot had also gone right. “I was six years in — that’s more than half a decade — before anything went wrong. It felt like that was my first lemonade stand. I could never understand why people were talking to me as if it were the nail in the coffin.”

That mindset, and a whole lot of courage, helped King rebuild herself in New York, as the vice president of creative marketing for Estee Lauder’s Prescriptives brand.

“My office was on the 39th floor of the GM building, opposite the Plaza Hotel – the whole damn thing. I walk past Tiffany’s every morning, all that kind of stuff. I was there for three years and I ultimately found I much preferred being out in the field, out on the sales floor, than being in the head office,” she says.

“It’s always been real women that I’m interested in. Working as a vice-president in a Fortune 500 company … it’s not the hub of real women.”

In 2006 King branched out on her own again with Lipstick Queen, which won fans with its range of ‘Sinners and Saints’ lipsticks. She sold that to beauty giant Manzanita Capital in 2011.

Now the glamorous It-Girl is returning to where it all began, with a new range releasing later this year, made in the original Australian factory.

“It will be under the name Poppy King. It’s going to be exclusive to Australia first, which is kind of an oxymoronic idea because back in the day, everything used to be exclusive to everywhere else first,” she says.

And for King, it will be considered a success if women feel empowered. “I’ve always felt that beauty is not a vanity issue, it’s a human rights issue. I refuse to dumb lipstick down to something that is really simply cosmetic. To me, it’s much more of a psychological, fascinating product. My whole reason for existing in this strange industry called the beauty industry is to continue to make products that really connect you to a sense of your inside, not just your outside, and really that the mind is where you find beauty.”

Curveball is a production of podcast consultancy and production company Deadset StudiosCurveball’s host Kellie Riordan is a leading media executive. 

This article was first published on LinkedIn


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