finance

Aussie Kate Morris was 21 with a bold makeup idea. Now she makes $25 million a year.

Kate Morris is talking to me over the phone from her office in Melbourne, waxing lyrical about a fire drill that happened on site last week.

She didn’t organise the drill, she wasn’t fully across when it was happening, and it certainly didn’t make her day any more productive.

But for her, however “odd” it may seem, it was a considerably humbling moment.

75 of her staff filed out of the business slowly but surely, one by one congregating at a meeting place. She watched as they filed out. This was a big business. This was her business. And this was a business that was both big enough, and legitimate enough, to do things like fire drills.

“As they were filing out of the evacuation area, all I could think was, this is a big thing. Things are happening here that I had nothing to do with. It’s actually such a buzz to see this a real business now. I have team members who have taken things into their own, and organised things I’m not a part of.”

Morris, the owner and CEO of Adore Beauty – Australia’s longest-running online beauty store – laughs as she tries to justify why a fire drill is her answer when I ask for her highlight of the last 17 or 18 years.

But in context, after hearing the story of how Morris built, from scratch, a business with a turnover of about $25 million, her highlight is a reminder that many big, booming businesses have remarkably humble beginnings.

After all, Adore Beauty was the brainchild of Morris back in 1999 when she was just 21 years old and studying at university.

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"To me it seemed really logical. I had been a beauty junkie since I was 12, when I would raid my mum's cabinet.

"At the time, I was working part-time in the Clarins counter, and I would come across a lot of women who would pull a face when I explained to them what I did. They hated going in there and found it was an awful high-pressure sales environment where they were made to buy things they didn't necessarily want. Basically, people felt very intimated and disempowered by the whole thing," she told Mamamia.

This, to her, was baffling. Afterall, beauty was meant to do the opposite. It was meant to make you feel confident, fantastic, beautiful, but the shopping experience was trumping its core purpose.

And so, Adore Beauty was born. Morris would curate products and brands online, making the experience far less intimidating for the consumer and in turn giving them the power back to do and buy as they please.

"I quit my job at Clarins to start Adore, switched to studying part time, and started worked out of my garage.

"My parents both trained as social workers, so they had no real business background or any sense that this was a valid career path. I think they were a little bit skeptical at the start, but they were always really supportive of anything I did."

It wasn't a smooth, vertical trajectory. At just 21, and at a time when the internet was still on dial-up, banks weren't interested in helping her with the funds to launch her business. She ended up borrowing $12,000 from her boyfriend's dad.

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In the beginning, Adore attracted smaller brands desperate for their products to be seen on anything Morris had to offer. Six years in, Clarins joined the party. In 2014, Estee Lauder finally agreed to be a part of it all.

"Having no money for a really long time was really tough, I don't think I bought any clothes for the first two years.

"Being told no all the time is also really hard, and you really start to question yourself. You have these big beauty businesses, who know what they're doing, saying no and you begin to think, maybe my idea is stupid. What kept me going was the few customers I did have, who would all write in to me saying it was amazing. From the customers, the encouragement was there. Plus, I am really, really stubborn."

She may have been stubborn, but she was versatile too. Very early on, Morris realised the website would need consistent tweaks, and these tweaks weren't cheap. So, she opened a book and began to teach herself how to code.

"Once I had the website up and running, I realised you need to make changes all the time. I couldn't afford to pay someone $140 or so every time I needed something changed, I just had to figure out how to do it myself.

"It was really out of necessity. At the time, it was actually a really valuable understanding to know how everything worked."

It wasn't, she says, until 2012 or 2013 that she could sit back and look at the viable, successful business she had created with nothing more than a small loan, total grit and her self-aware stubborn nature. It was this recognition that came the decision to raise some capital for the business for the first time.

Woolworths eventually bought a 25 per cent stake in the business for an undisclosed amount, which was "really exciting" at the time, Morris said. Finally, she had "some money put in the business". Earlier this year, the two parted ways, with Morris buying back their stake in the business. It was an experience she doesn't regret, with the business growing significantly with the help of some who, she admits, knew a little more about business than she did.

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What's obvious when you talk to Morris now, is that her blinkers certainly aren't on. She knows, after all her hard work, the enviable position she's in. And so, on top of owning and running a business that's going from strength-to-strength, she has a distinct desire to make sure she's bringing up women behind her as she herself rises. She's standing at the top of the ladder, looking down, grabbing the women beneath her.

"It's good now to be in a position where my profile and the profile of the business enables us to do some positive work in empowering women and pushing for women to be included in positions of power and leadership. It bothered me for many years, working in e-commerce and technology, that women have not been included as much as they should be."

As such, she created the Women in Tech scholarship so a female student with every intention of moving into the tech field has a chance of succeeding in what is largely a male-dominated industry.

It's the kind of thing she never needed, but perhaps always wanted.

"A lot of people were very dismissive of [Adore] in the early days. There was an attitude that if you were e-commerce you were like a second-class citizen. We are now enabling and empowering a new generation of customers. We are changing the power relationship in the beauty industry.

"It used to be women getting bossed around like patients, needing permission as to what they could buy and when. Now it's the women who are in charge. The beauty industry should be for women, not against them."

After all, making someone feel good is perhaps the most underrated business strategy of all. And one that's underpinned Morris' model all along.

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