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Maureen Kelly of Tarte Cosmetics

Maureen Kelly

Maureen Kelly

In 1999, Maureen Kelly realized she wanted a line of cosmetics that didn't exist: make-up was formulated with healthy, natural ingredients; was easy to apply, even for a novice; and that came in great-looking packaging she'd be proud to pull out in public. So she invented them herself. Her company, tarte, Inc, has grown exponentially since then by offering women all these things in one line of cosmetics. She's also taken her marketing by storm by appearing on QVC and creating a wholly unique website with blogs, forums and fun that's fostered a community of loyal and involved customers ( Her company sounds like it's great fun to work for, too! Here is her story:

Describe your company and your product line.

tarte cosmetics is for the real woman who wants easy-to-use products that are not only great for her skin, but are also chic. We're all about creating products with healthy, skinvigorating™ ingredients that are packaged in runway-inspired fabrics that can often double as accessories. We like to think of it as "health couture"-it's all about pure style: the marriage between fashion and nature. I mean, let's face it, glamour can be and should be good for you!

Why did you start this company and when?

I started tarte out of my one bedroom apartment in 1999. To be honest, I was a total beauty addict with a catch: I hated going to makeup counters at department stores. I would buy $100 worth of products in boring black pots that practically needed an instruction manual to use. I would get home, try to recreate 'the look' and end up getting frustrated. Also, when I'd flip the products over to see what was in them, I noticed they were full of synthetic and unhealthy ingredients.

So I began dreaming up a cosmetics line that would address all the needs that I felt had been overlooked. I wanted easy-to-use products that would help me recreate beautiful, makeup-artist-inspired looks without all of the unnecessary steps. I wanted products that looked like stylish accessories when I whipped them out of my purse (and to that end, I wanted compact products that would fit in my purse!). Above all, I wanted healthy products that were doing good things for my skin.

Describe yourself and your family. What is your background and how does it relate to your company?

kelly_skinvigI grew up in a New York suburb with my two brothers and two sisters.

I've always had a love for makeup. When I was probably no older than 5 years old, I decided to "make up" my younger sister's Holly Hobby doll. I snuck some of my mom's makeup and gave Holly a brand new look. Years later when I was in junior high, I was still very much into makeup. I'd have makeovers with both of my sisters and my best friend.

In addition to playing with makeup, I also enjoyed all types of sports, especially soccer.

What process did you follow to determine your product's marketability?

From the beginning, I wanted to create makeup that I would use and carry around with me. I'm not a makeup artist and I don't have a lot of time to fuss over things. I thought about my needs: easy-to-use products, healthy ingredients and chic packaging.

I also thought about innovative products that weren't on the market. That led me to develop our first product: cheek stain. I designed it to be a modern alternative to the traditional stains that streaked, were alcohol based, dried very quickly and were generally difficult to use. Our gel-based, push-up blush stick became an instant success and continues to be our best-selling product. It's about filling a gap and then taking it to the next level.

What process did you follow to develop your cosmetics? Did you work with a formulator? How did that process work?

kelly_naturalbeautyWe've definitely refined our process over the years as the brand has grown. We have a series of questions we ask ourselves when considering a new product launch-the main focus is whether the packaging is aspirational /fashion forward AND is it comprised of healthy natural ingredients. Then we make sure it's easy to use.

Are there compliance issues / FDA standards to meet?

Yes-I work with my product development and graphics team to ensure that we stay on top of the recent developments. We're always checking in with our vendors and reading the latest trade magazines to ensure we have the latest information.

How did you find a manufacturer?

I researched companies on the Internet and started cold calling a variety of labs until I found the ones that were the best fit for tarte. It was important that their focus was natural healthy ingredients and that they were flexible.

Through what markets are you selling?

I initially launched tarte at Henri Bendel and Now, we're available at Sephora, Bergdorf Goodman and over 200 stores nationwide. In December 2003, we launched our website,, and in February 2005 I made my first live appearance on QVC. I had a hard time finding stores in the beginning. Just keep knocking on as many doors as possible and never take no for an answer. If I did I'd be out of business today.

What secrets have you learned in terms of publicity and marketing your product?

kelly_lipglossIt's how it's delivered that makes all of the difference. There are two key audiences we take into account: the media and the customer. Both groups are extremely tough, but without them on your side, your products won't sell. Working with my pr & marketing teams, we do everything possible to ensure that our story is told the way we want. While that might not always happen, we do have complete control over our website-the most accurate portrayal of tarte and a great arena for viral marketing. We send newsletters and monthly emails to our customer base and do quarterly contests to keep it exciting. In the beginning you need to act as your own publicist and send your product to editors and magazines to spread the word. If you're creative about the way you send your product you have a much better chance of getting it in the right hands. Editors have so many products cross their desks each day - make sure yours stands out.

How did you begin marketing on QVC?

When QVC initially approached us, we turned them down because we knew we weren't ready for such a large distribution. We've always been very careful about our growth (and still are). We didn't want to launch without being prepared. Since we've launched, our distribution has increased tenfold and I've learned so much. If you can't get your foot in the door, they have "open call" days where you can go and show your products in hopes of getting them on air.

How do you use your website to create customer loyalty?

kelly_eraserI'm very proud of our website-it's completely interactive and really lets our customer know who we are. We've created an online forum that allows us to directly communicate with our customers. We constantly refer to the feedback on the forums when creating makeup, naming new items or reworking old product-making sure that along the way, our consumers' needs and issues are being addressed. Their feedback means the world to us. Whether they love a specific formula or hate one of our shades, it's all very important. Someone is always on the site to answer questions about how to use a certain product or to discuss the skinvigorating™ ingredients in a certain item. The forum is more than just talking about tarte-we talk about our favorite movies, clothes, name it, it's been discussed on our boards!

In addition to our forum, we also have a blog where my team and I talk about our daily lives. We want our customers to know who we are-real women!

And just this year, we added a new section on the tarte trainer and nutritionist. Early this year we started exercising in the office with a trainer (yup, you heard it right - we do it twice a week). We thought it'd be a great addition to the website. We could share our experience and new moves with our customers!

How have you managed to juggle the roles of business owner and mom? What falls by the wayside?

Life is all about balance so I always manage to make time for being a business owner and a mom-it's great that I can also work from home when I need to.

As I mentioned earlier, I've also hired a fitness trainer, Levi James (a.k.a: Mister Abs) that comes to the office twice a week. Hey, if you can't get to the gym, I figure, why not bring the workout to the office? It's really been a blast for my team and me, and we share monthly videos on our website for our customers to see. We also have an on-call nutritionist, who's great, too!

What kind of support system do you have in place personally and professionally?

kelly_cleanslateMy husband and my family are just amazing. I couldn't ask for a better support system.

I also work with people who I trust-we're always there for each other. They are my family, too. They believe in tarte and that's what makes us such a great team.

How did you finance your business (personal contributions, loans from friends & family, loans from bank, credit cards, outside investors?)

I self-financed tarte with my savings and some credit cards-thank you AMEX. I put $20,000 on it and never looked back.

What is your company's current financial picture and what are your projections?

We're estimated to make $20 million in retail sales this year.

What has been your greatest success or "high point" in the process?

I never sit back and say this is it, this is a great success. I'm always trying to raise the bar and push things to the next level. With all of the wonderful new natural offerings and advanced technology, there is always room for improvement. It did help, however, when Oprah Winfrey chose our lip gloss for "the O list"-I'd be lying if I said I didn't do a little dance when that issue came out!

Have you experienced a "low point" and if so, how did you rally yourself to get back on track?

Everyone experiences low points along the way. The key is to only let yourself indulge for an hour or so and then move on. I personally believe that every mistake we make teaches us something in the long run, so basically mistakes are essential.

Did anyone in particular help you along the way?

My friends and family have helped me every step of the way. In the beginning I needed them to help with actual pack-outs and filling orders. Now I rely on them to help me keep things in perspective and pat me on the back when I've had a particularly rough week.

What advice would you offer other moms developing their products/ideas?

Do what you love-life's just too short! Don't be afraid to take risks. Believe in yourself! Don't give up-be persistent. As you build your company, hire people who you trust and who share the same values. Create a fun environment-make it a place that you'd want to work at!

Is there a resource that proved to be invaluable that you would like to share with other moms?

The Internet is your friend...everything from researching trademarks ( to finding a manufacturer in China can be found within minutes.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I also learned the power of giving back. In the beginning, we'd donate products to causes that my team and I felt were important. We've upped the ante every year since we launched, and I'm so proud of our partnership with Habitat for Humanity over the past few years. Last year we donated our holiday budget to help finance a new home for an underprivileged single mother, and my team all participated in the actual build. This year we're donating to Sambazon's Sustainable Acai Project, which helps to protect biodiversity and creates employment for farmers in the Amazon Rainforest.

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11 Responses »

  1. dear Maureen,
    My daughter Marie is 9 and we only use your products. I cannot thank you enough the products are amazing!!!! Marie had followed Talia Castellano the young makeup artist and became her friend. Tailia lost her battle with cancer a week ago. In her memory Marie would like you to name a product to honor Talia. Maries bday is in two weeks and all she wants is that and of course your makeup!!!!! please as shes begging...send her samples a lot!!!! lol thank you for your help!!!!!!

  2. Dear Maureen, I buy your cosmetics & like them, but the last Todays Special Value from QVC had a problem. The eyebrow pencil with the white in it did not have the brush at the end of the stick & when I went to use what was supposed to be there the whole spring popped out & I cannot find it on QVC & I could have sent the whole thing back but unfortunately the light color is no longer available anymore. Please let me know if this eyebrow pencil is available or if you could send me another one

    I would appreciate it
    Thank you
    Marilyn White

  3. Had my makeup done by ed and i really loved the outcome.He made me look so glam without the look of a lot of makeup on.Thank you

  4. Had a makeover done today with Tarte and I look and feel fabulous. Thank you Ed and thank you Tarte. Love Tarte makeup. All of the products are wonderful.

  5. Recently I ordered Tarte GlamourEyes Long Wear 3 piece gift collection. I love, love, love your products. I re-ordered the mascara, but I can not find anywhere the 0.058 oz emphasEYES clay shadow stick in Bronze. Please tell me where to buy this product. It is by far the best shodow stick I have ever used. The only way I found to order it is to buy the three piece set from QVC but I don't need the whole set. Please help me. Jayne Lazorko 973.769.6136

  6. That is a great story of a successful lady, i have been trying to do the same for 10 years, but i am close to getting there.
    Thank you for encouraging me.

    • I'm an entrepreneur looking for a cosmetic investment. Have money to invest and resources to assist in manufacturing and marketing. Please contact me.


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