There are so many stories about how CurlMix came to be. There are even more stories about how I became an entrepreneur, but I didn’t do any of it alone.
My husband and company co-founder, Tim, and I have had a lot of help from our families and the mentors who continue to guide and support us. While we’ve made mistakes and lost our way, a few times, we’ve also learned so much about ourselves, about business, and how to best be of service to our CurlMixers. We launched CurlMix on September 1, 2015. Actually, it was a relaunch after our first pivot. I’ll come back to that part.
We’re now a full-fledged, natural haircare company with 30+ employees and a $30+ million valuation.
In 2020 alone, our products were featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things list, we were named among Forbes’ 30 under 30 and I was featured on Crain’s Chicago Business’ 20 In Their 20s list. To date, we’ve also raised $5.7 million by way of our customers who believe in us and want to invest in our company.
Getting to this place – and being able to pay ourselves a steady salary – took many years and so much work.
Along the way, we caught the attention of our first angel investor and my forever shero, Arlan Hamilton, turned down $400,000 on Shark Tank (I’ll come back to that, too!), moved from our hometown of Chicago to Atlanta, then came back, and welcomed our two sons, Zuri and ZiZi.
Let me start from the beginning…
I’d always envisioned myself working in business, but I just didn’t know how I’d do it. Aside from watching my favorite characters on Girlfriends, I didn’t know any businesswomen and I wasn’t sure what they actually did. From what I could tell, businesswomen had style, wore suits, and made money. As a kid, my only goal in life was to get out of the hood, so I definitely wanted to make money. I’m the middle child and the third of my mother’s five children.
Growing up, we lived on the south side of Chicago and close to my grandparents. My father, who came into my life when I was a teenager, wasn’t around then, but my mother was, and is, always there. She’s a real “get out of the mud and take care of yourself” type of person, too, which is a trait I get from her. She provided for us by taking on tough jobs – from serving in the military and working at a prison, to laying tile, the latter of which she did for a long time. It was a struggle and on top of not having much, we weren’t exposed to very much either.
As a student, I was a bit of an over-achiever – from being class valedictorian in elementary school to my acceptance into an international baccalaureate program for high school. Along with being in an honors program, I played soccer and basketball and even launched my first, short-lived business, Kimmy Clips, which were earrings made from paper clips.
It was also in high school where I met Tim, when I was 15. He was and still is, a learner and thinker, while I’ve always been the go-getter and the risk-taker. From the start and even throughout our days at the University of Illinois – where he held my hand, and the scissors, as I did the “big chop” during sophomore year – we’ve encouraged each other. Around the time that I cut off my hair, the natural hair movement was really booming.
Carol’s Daughter was the bee’s knees, Shea Moisture was on the rise and I became addicted to YouTube tutorials, especially those led by my favorite haircare influencer, Nikki Mae.
Tim and I were still in college when I had the idea to launch an app named Natural Hair Academy. I’d taken Entrepreneurship 101 during my senior year, which I found interesting. That class also provided me with a real example of what could be achieved by being an entrepreneur. My interest was piqued, but little did I know how long a road I’d just embarked on.
Tim and I both worked several different jobs during college and after getting married, we tried to find our way, professionally.
It wasn’t easy. He was unhappy at his day job and I’d accepted a $70,000 job as a district manager in training at a national grocery chain. Long story short, I hated every minute of it. What kept us motivated was trying to get the app off the ground, even as we lacked the time, money or energy to properly invest in it. All the while, I was still learning about my natural hair, trying new styles and making my own products. One night, we were watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire and I noticed that Tim had the correct answer to every question. When I said, “You need to be answering these questions on TV,” he laughed it off, but I was serious and immediately went to the show’s website and signed him up to audition.
Within weeks, he’d won a spot on the show and ended up bringing home $100,000, which was about $80,000 after taxes.
That was a turning point for us.
I left my job to focus on growing Natural Hair Academy and we used Tim’s salary and the prize money to live on for a year. Along with briefly relocating to Atlanta to make connections in the hair care industry, we invested $15,000 into the app, but after a year-and-a-half, we’d only made $200. Shutting it down was as necessary as it was disappointing. Thinking back, I remember feeling like I’d failed. What I didn’t realize then was that not only would I fail a few more times, but with each failure, I’d learn a valuable lesson to carry us forward. The experience with Natural Hair Academy taught me that I needed to learn more about business and how to be strategic. I promised myself, too, that with the next venture, we’d have to focus on making money on day one.
Over the years, I’d built up my skill set, so I started taking on freelance gigs like building websites and photography. All the while, I was still enjoying my natural hair journey – thanks to my life-changing wash n’ go haircut, courtesy of Aeleise Jana of Black Girl Curls – and trying different ingredients to make my hair products.
Whenever I considered looking for another full-time job, Tim, who’d gotten a tech job at an airline, would say, “One of us needs to figure out how to make entrepreneurship work.”
So, I continued freelancing and thinking about what we could do next. I also started experimenting with my hair by cutting it all off and getting my first taper. I fell in love with my hair and this was my first wash and go in 2014.
Later that year, I dyed my hair and 6 months later, I had ruined my gorgeous afro and had to start all over.
So I did another BIG CHOP in 2015.
It was while watching an episode of Shark Tank that I got the idea for CurlMix – the first incarnation, anyway. One of the contestants was pitching an organic cookie company and what made her product unique was that she supplied customers with the raw ingredients to mix themselves.
I immediately thought about how much I’d been spending to make my own hair care products and how much easier it might be to receive pre-measured ingredients, with instructions.
At the time, subscription boxes were popular and the natural hair care market was saturated, but I thought I might be on to something…then I changed my mind.
Tim wanted me to give it a shot, though.
He even came up with the name, CurlMix.
But after only selling one D-I-Y box – to my cousin! – I was back to being disappointed and discouraged.
That was July 2015.
What I quickly came to understand was that although I’d created a product, I didn’t know how to launch a product.
Ever the learner, Tim knew about resources like Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris, Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Influence at Work and even BuzzSumo, a website that allows you to research journalists who cover various industries. So, I got to work, but this time around, I started by pitching 15 journalists in the beauty space to promote our relaunch of the CurlMix D-I-Y box.
I heard “No,” a lot, but there was one writer from Refinery29 who said, “Yes.” From there, Essence and Ebony came onboard and by the time we launched, we had write-ups in seven outlets, plus we’d partnered with Naturally Curly.
And as I’d promised myself, we made money on day one, September 1. In fact, we sold 100 boxes on that day and continued to do so for the next two years, without running a single ad. I still remember when we earned $17,000 in revenue, which was our best month. We were definitely on a roll, but we were hustling, too – and hard.
We attended expos and after moving back to Chicago in 2016, we hosted parties for up to 100 customers and mixed ingredients from our D-I-Y boxes.
While that had been fun, I felt it was time to take the business to the next level, but I needed some direction.
It was during a consultation with Naturalicious CEO, Gwen Gimmere, when I realized that our profit margin was below the standard 70%.
In short, once we added up the costs of products, packaging, shipping, and all of the special touches, we were only keeping 30% of profits. I’d also attended a business incubator where I learned that CurlMix was more of a vitamin than a painkiller. What we were offering was something fun for people to do, but they would still buy ready-made haircare products anyway.
Basically, I was focused on something that I wanted to see in the market, not something that people would pay for. So, I thought about focusing on our most popular D-I-Y box, which was the flaxseed gel.
And so began the unsuccessful search for a manufacturer.
I must have heard every reason why flaxseed gel couldn’t be manufactured.
It’s too variable. It’s too volatile. It goes bad quickly.
There was always a reason, but because I was so hungry to figure things out and be successful, I decided to try making it myself.
During September 2017, while seven months pregnant, I spent 30 days in the kitchen making nearly 70 different batches of flaxseed gel until I got it right. We priced the bottles at $30, the same price as our D-I-Y box, and decided to sell them via pre-order. To our surprise, we sold out of the first batch of 50 within minutes.
When the second batch of 50 sold out just as quickly, we knew we were onto something. So, we decided to sell off our D-I-Y boxes and change our focus to pre-made products, including our moisturizer.
Within three months, we’d made $30,000, in one month’s time.That’s when I told Tim it was time to quit his job so we could work together, full-time.
Everything changed when Tim met Arlan Hamilton, founder, and manager of Backstage Capital.
He told her all about CurlMix and she liked what she heard, so much so that she said she wanted to invest $25,000.
I couldn’t believe it. She encouraged us to participate in Backstage’s events and advisory programs, too. With the money we received from Arlan, we paid the first and last months’ rent for a 1,000 square foot space at a local manufacturing incubator. We bought a machine on eBay that helped us up our scale from 60 to 700 units and also, invested in new labels. We were left with $10,000, which felt like so much money, and we used it wisely.
It was the spring of 2018 when my aunt suggested that we audition for Shark Tank. So, we signed up, pitched the producers, and two weeks later, got the call that we’d been chosen.
For the next three-and-a-half months, we worked with the producers to improve our pitch and of course, we binged-watched episodes of the show to prepare ourselves for any questions that might come up.Honestly, it felt like a part-time job because we were trying to keep the momentum going with the company at the same time. There was also the issue of needing money for inventory to meet the increase in demand once we appeared on the show. Thanks to Arlan, we found another investor who offered us $200,000 investment, which was perfect, and plenty, for inventory. His name was Jeff Weiner, the former CEO of LinkedIn.
By August 2018, we had our first six-figure month, which put us on track to make a $1 million in revenue for the year. I thought for sure we could command a $7 million valuation from investors, at the very least, so when we taped our segment in September, we asked for 10% equity stake in CurlMix for $400,000.
In my mind, that was a great deal, but Robert Herjavec offered us $400,000 for 20% of our company, which would only give us a $2 million valuation. While I understood that the producers were focused on making good television, CurlMix is our real business. It’s our livelihood and how we take care of our family, so I knew we couldn’t go home with that offer. Many people have asked if we were disappointed about leaving the show without a deal, but I didn’t feel that way.
Along with the fact that their offer didn’t work for us, I felt that we were worth so much more…and I was right. The same investor who came through to assist us with our inventory saw us on Shark Tank and called to say he wanted to invest. He also gave us the high valuation of $12 million for a seed round.
The first thing we did was pay our people by making them full time offers with benefits, and then we did the same for ourselves.
Along with building out our team, we made all of our employees full-time, with benefits. That was a great feeling. Oh, and my cousin, who was once the only person to buy our first D-I-Y box, is now Director of Operations.
No nepotism here folks, she's killer in the office and the reason for your amazing products.
After Shark Tank, my first seed investment, and reaching $5M in revenue, I decided to launch a community equity crowdfund that allowed nearly 7,000 customers to invest and own shares of Listener Brands, which owns both CurlMix and 4C ONLY.
The offer was ~$26M Pre-Money Valuation plus a round of investment of ~$4.5M to total a $30.5M Post Money valuation.
It never sat right with me that in a liquidity event for the company, the customers don't see anything financially, even though they've supported the brand for years.
I deeply felt that my customers should get a piece of the pie. We closed that round in December 2021 and used the capital to fund our rebrand and manufacturing facility on the South Side of Chicago.
That's right, we moved from our 5 units of avg. 3,000 sqft to one 30,000 square foot building near our own neighborhood. Walking through this space really helped me understand the magnitude of what we had done...the jobs we created, the customers we impact, the lives we are shaping.
This space brought me closer to our impact and I love visiting our factory.
So, yes, there are so many stories about how CurlMix came to be and seven years later, here we are, still learning, growing, and building the company into an empire. This journey has been pretty incredible and I’m so grateful, for all of it. Back when I was so focused on being a businesswoman and getting out of the hood, I never dreamed about being married and having a family.
But here I am, with a husband and partner, whose constant belief in me has boosted my confidence to levels I couldn’t have imagined, and our sweet boys. While I’m happy that business is good, I’m even more thrilled because life is good as well.
After launching 4conly.com and raising nearly $5M from our community, we built Listenerbrands.com where we make brands that listen. We plan to make Listener Brands the first Black-Owned Procter & Gamble and we are elated to bring our community with us.