How NaturallyCurly Co-Founder turned a niche community into a multi-million dollar brand

3 years ago by in How She Built A $1M+ Brand, Mentors Unplugged
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Michelle_breyer_naturally_curlyMeet female entrepreneur Michelle Breyer, Co-Founder and President of TextureMedia. Michelle co-founded their flagship brand, NaturallyCurly.com, 14-years ago and here to share the inside scoop on how they grew their niche online community into 6 brands that now empower and inform millions of followers monthly around one unruly topic: textured hair.

Michelle, tell us about the company you’ve built.

TextureMedia, Inc started as NaturallyCurly.com in the late 1990s and was something a friend and I did as a hobby for a couple of years while we were working full-time.  We did not see ourselves as women entrepreneurs, we were just two people working for the same company, myself as a journalist and she as a designer, who shared a common issue:  our unruly, curly hair and knowing what to do with it.  It was during a discussion about the lack of information on how to manage our hair and the difficulty in finding hair products specific to our hair type that got us thinking about the concept for NaturallyCurly.  We launched the site with the intent to provide information to other people with hair like ours.  And to sell t-shirts.  Seriously, we thought we’d sell t-shirts!  (Michelle smiled quite a bit during this part)  More than a decade later, NaturallyCurly is only one of our web assets and we are now TextureMedia, with millions of visitors and email subscribers, an inventory of products that we sell with globally recognized brands who advertise with us. It’s pretty incredible to look back on the journey we’ve had and see where we are today, this multi-million dollar brand!

Bootstrap and/or raise money – how did you get started and would you do anything differently? 

We bootstrapped for years!  We did not know what we were doing with this concept, we were just doing it.  When advertisers started to come in, we reinvested it in the company to fuel growth.  In 2004, CurlMart launched as a store for hair care products and at that point, we knew it was time to quit our jobs altogether and commit completely to this business we had started.  2005 was a pivotal year and very scary with no security from a traditional paycheque and our business no longer a hobby.  With encouragement from our advisor, we went after our first round of financing. We had five years of experiences behind us and no business plan to show! Since pitching to investors requires a business plan, we leveraged the learning we had about our community, what was working and not working, to discuss all the avenues of possibilities and craft a plan that investors could get behind.  This was the start of the second generation for the business.  We moved into a proper office space and hired more people with skills different than our own to help us grow the business.

In total, we have gone through three rounds of funding which has recently included landing John Paul Dejoria, of Paul Mitchell fame, as an investor.  It’s all a little surreal when I think about it.

In retrospect, we did it right.  We developed the community first.  If we’d developed a business plan first, we would have had missteps.  Without the community, there would have been nothing, and the community needed to feel that it was theirs. We were passionate about what we were doing and I would recommend bootstrapping for as long as you can.  It worked for us and everything that happened for us, happened for a reason, and at the exact right time.

naturallycurlyWhat was it like pitching to men about hair?

Our first round of funding, back in 2005, was with a newly founded Angel Network in our state.  Only four companies made the cut to present, we were one of them, and we were the only women in the room presenting.  It was kind of funny when I look back.  And, a very big deal when we were the only company who landed funding!  Investors, men or women, are looking for the same thing which is a high likelihood for a return on their investment.  We had a compelling story that made everyone sit up a little straighter in the room, no matter what they thought initially when they saw two girls coming in to discuss hair.  

What is your revenue model and what big lessons have you learned about it? 

Let’s see, we thought that our revenue was going to be selling t-shirts!  Landing advertisers wasn’t anything that we had even considered so when it happened we wondered why we hadn’t thought of it ourselves, it definitely made sense.  In addition to advertising revenue, we make money from selling hair products.  Overall, our channels for revenue rely heavily on the relationships we have.  As an entrepreneur, you are constantly reinventing yourself.  I had been a journalist but discovered I’m great at sales and managing partnerships.  I had no idea before being thrown into the role that I would be good at it and now I just love it.

How did you land your first customer?

I’m not really sure how it happened.  Here we were, working full-time, running this site on the side, selling some t-shirts and watching our community grow.  We had no clue where it was going, it was just growing.  More and more women were coming forward, sharing their stories, sharing product recommendations and traffic was growing organically.  One day, Proctor & Gamble called and discussed an advertising package.  It just happened out of the blue, a few years after we had launched.  We weren’t trying to get advertising, we were very focused on the community itself.  And our jobs of course.  Oh, and right around that time, getting married and having babies.  Boy, things were hectic!

Spurred by this new avenue for growth, we decided it was time to seek counsel and met with someone known in the startup community as being an excellent advisor to young businesses.  We met at an IHOP and discussed our work so far.  Surprisingly, there was interest in what we were doing.  You have to remember that back then blogs, community-building and social forums were not popular but he saw we had something special happening.  He’s been an advisor and active Board Member since.  It made all the difference to our long-term growth because he asked big questions like “how are you going to get to one million uniques?” and encouraged us to think on a larger scale.

Were there scary moments, when you didn’t think you’d survive?

Oh goodness, yes.  I was going into a board meeting once and found out right before going in that our largest advertiser had pulled their advertising.  My stomach dropped.  That is not the type of message you want heading into a board meeting.  We were completely dependent on that advertiser, they were our biggest one and it was not a positive message to deliver.  We learned from it and realized that we needed a sales pipeline.  We’ve never found ourselves in that position again.

Was there a moment when you knew that you’d “made it”?

There have been a few along the way.  Landing our first, unexpected advertiser was one of them.  Another, was in the early 2000s, when a hair care products company out of Canada told us they had developed a new product based on discussions from our site.  Our immediate thought was “wow, that’s cool, let’s write about that” not even realizing that our site was being leveraged for free research. We were pretty naïve still about what was happening. What it did spawn was the initial experiment of CurlMart, to sell products online, which is now a critical pillar for the business.  Most recently, we have partnered with L’Oreal Paris in their global advertising campaign and are being cited as experts, which is pretty incredible.

Share your secret weapons – what business apps, products and tools help you run your business efficiently? 

Social media tools like Linkedin and Facebook didn’t exist when I started.  They are invaluable to me now.  People who have found me through other people and connections within our industry have been crucial. Initially, I was a cynic about Linkedin because I didn’t want another thing to manage but it has opened a lot of doors. I can see where people are going, whether they have changed jobs, and identify new possibilities for relationships.

Low cost marketing strategies – what has been the most successful for helping you reach millions of members? 

What comes to mind wasn’t a marketing strategy so much as providence.  My husband had seen a trailer for the movie “The Princess Diaries” and a big piece of the story was how this awkward girl with curly hair is transformed into a beautiful princess with the ideal “straight” hair.  Boy, was I fired up about that!  All of us in our curly-haired community had grown up with this hard-to-manage hair type and the core message in their movie stood against everything we were trying to accomplish! I started calling media contacts, telling them that we would be boycotting the film.  It was a whacky story I guess and got picked up immediately.  It gave us a good dose of free press!

What do you love most about running your own business?

TextureMedia was founded on a community of women and is still about those women. I met Sally Ride, the astronaut, in the airport once and when she found out I was associated with NaturallyCurly, she knew exactly who we were and what we were doing. That was an incredible moment.  In New York City, someone approached me and told me how much our work had impacted her life. She shared the photo from her employee badge where she had this crazy hair and told me how the tips and products she had found on our site impacted her ability to work with her hair and ultimately, increase her confidence.  I get teary-eyed thinking about those moments and that has absolutely been the best part of this entire experience.

What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?

I was invited recently to speak to a class at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern about the topic of passion in business.  You can have a lot of smarts, but without passion, how far will you be able to take it?  We had the passion and none of the other stuff like business training.  If you don’t have an idea worth pursuing, it’s not going to work.  I remember being on my way into surgery once and they had to take my phone away from me. I was working right until the last moment!  Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  But if you’re not willing to do what it takes, work your ass off for it, then it’s probably not worth pursuing.  I lived our idea – I didn’t come up with it, it was just common sense to us.

naturallycurly

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