Australia’s Online Beauty Queen – Kate Morris
by Stephanie Williams
Kate Morris had an idea to sell cosmetics online at a time when it wasn’t done. She borrowed $12,000 from her boyfriend’s parents and set up an online store, Adore Beauty in the garage. Twenty years later, the business is thriving, enjoying annual revenue around $100m. Kate recently sold a chunk of the business to private equity investors, Quadrant.
You grew up in Launceston. How did your Tassie childhood shape your life?
I didn’t appreciate at the time what a peaceful and happy childhood it was. Even though we were on a small island, we didn’t feel limited in what we could achieve. I don’t know whether that’s a Tassie thing or just my parents, but it was very much, “Well we believe in you and if you see a thing that you feel really passionately about, then you should go for it.”
When you started Adore Beauty, online retailing wasn’t a thing. Were you sure of it from the start?
I was. I hadn’t planned to have a career in business or entrepreneurship. I was going to go to uni and study law, to work hard and get a good job. The whole world of entrepreneurship wasn’t one I’d entertained. This was an idea that got stuck in my brain and I felt so deeply in my guts, that it wasn’t really an option to not do it. As someone who loved the way beauty could make you feel, then seeing that for most people it wasn’t making them feel that way – that stuck in my brain. People weren’t feeling fabulous and confident because of this experience they were having with beauty retail. To me, that was uncool and I wanted to fix it.
And that’s the exact opposite of what those types of products are meant to make you feel.
Absolutely. It’s the whole point of the stuff! None of it’s essential, right. But it’s taking the time out and feeling good about yourself. When you’re not feeling that, then something is very wrong.
Before starting Adore Beauty, were you more interested in cosmetics or in tech?
A little of both. I was always interested in tech. We were one of the first to get a computer as a kid, a very early Macintosh. The school had a gifted and talented program where we could build robots like Lego robots and then write programs for them. And I loved that. I understood the language. With the world of tech and the world of beauty, I saw an opportunity for those things to go together.
What has been your career highlight?
After 20 years in business, it’s a roller coaster. The highs are very high and the lows are very low. I won Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year in 2010. I’d gotten used to living without anybody telling me I was doing a good job. To have my first dose of validation to be something as big and as well reputed as that, that was very overwhelming. Nowadays, highlights are around seeing really cool things happen that I didn’t personally drive. Like our podcast. Everyone’s asking me, “Oh how did you go about building Australia’s number one beauty podcast?” Honestly, I didn’t have anything to do with it! All I did was let them do it. Obviously the investment from Quadrant is a highlight too, that was a lot of effort and 19 years in the making. That was pretty exciting.
It took me 19 years to figure this out, but things have to be hard. You come up against insurmountable challenges where you think, I don’t know how we’re going to get through this. We were in the process of scaling up in 2013, having to re-platform a whole bunch of systems at the same time. We were pushing growth really hard, but we didn’t have any money because we were trying to complete a raise. I’d sit in the car with my co-founder (because we had an open plan office!), thinking I don’t know how we’re going to make payroll next week? We’d sit there and cry and think it was all over and then we’d go, “Righty-o, let’s have one last hurrah then. Can we pull something out?” I’ve come to realize that those moments are necessary in business, because those are the bits where, if everybody else gives up at that point, and you can be the one that pushes through it, that’s where you elevate.
Colours, textures, and skin type are important factors in cosmetics, how have you worked with that?
Everybody told me at the start that beauty products aren’t going to work as an online category because people have to see and feel and touch them. We’ve proven that’s not the case. There are lots of things you can do online you can’t in a store. We have reviews from other customers, you can read real experiences. We have brand agnostic skin experts on our live chat to help you make your decision. With foundations for instance, we built a whole piece of software around that, called Findation – a global database of foundation shades and what matches what across all of the different brands. We have nearly 20 years worth of information about thousands and thousands of products, whereas in a store you’re limited to the knowledge of just that one person serving you.
“There are lots of things you can do online you can’t in a store.”
You work with your husband. What does life outside Adore Beauty look like for your family?
I don’t like to use the B word, busy. Life is full of ‘interesting’. I’ve created this life and I certainly can’t complain. What does it look like? To be honest we have work and that’s a big thing. And family is a big thing for us. We have a small network of close friends. Do we have a busy social life? Probably not. Do we get as many holidays as we should? Probably not. But overall, life’s pretty good. My children are nearly nine and three and a half. We’re still in the thick of it, but it’s all good. This is life. It’s happening right now!
When you get back to Tassie, what do you do first?
I still love going to Salamanca Markets and Farm Gate Market, to get my little dose of Tassie produce. I have a thing for Tassie raspberries, they just don’t taste the same here in Melbourne. I like a wander down around the docks and through the city – I like the cafes on Criterion Street, there are some good ones there. You can get a decent coffee. My Mum lives in Taroona, so the kids love going down to the little river beaches there. It’s brisk and invigorating! And drinking Tassie wine. I like Derwent Estate in New Norfolk and Josef Chromy, near Launceston.
Hot business tip?
If it’s going to be a good business, that can fend off competitors and build a space for itself, it’s going to have a really hard thing about it. You’ve got to be the one willing to do the hard thing because if it was easy everyone would be doing it. If you can be the one to push through and do the hard thing, then success is on the other side. ■