Natural Hair is Big Business For Black Entrepreneurs

A lucrative industry for a new generation of hair care product suppliers

A Company’s Growing Pains

The increasing popularity of natural hair styles has also created growing pains for the pioneers in the space. Shelley Davis started her company, Kinky-Curly, in 2003 as a side business while she worked full time as a television electronic graphics operator. Her business grew slowly as she sold products online until she left her full-time job in 2005. First she advertised online via Google AdSense and Web banners. Then she pounded the pavement, persuading natural hair salons and health food stores to carry her products. She also started producing natural haircare tutorials on YouTube. Her strategy paid off.

“Business went from one or two orders a week to several hundred a month,” the 40-year-old says. Overwhelmed and eager to stem complaints from customers who were waiting for their haircare products to arrive, Davis hired a fulfillment house to get orders out faster.

Managing the distribution demand presented Davis with her next hurdle. In early 2009, Kinky-Curly could be found in about 150 beauty supply and health food stores across the country. Later that year, Whole Foods Market agreed to carry the brand, adding another 300 stores to the mix. By the end of 2010, Target had agreed to carry the products in approximately 1,000 more stores. For the first time Davis had to take into consideration her retail partners’ accounting practices, production schedules, and promotional calendars.

“For years, I’d picked up the phone and simply ordered 200 jars,” she says. “Now I have to take advantage of volume discounts when I order my supplies.” Through trial and error and studying the business practices of successful companies in other industries, Davis has managed to become more comfortable with forecasting product needs and keeping retail partners happy, but “it was a huge adjustment,” she says.

But perhaps the greatest challenge facing natural haircare pioneers who are enjoying a growing customer base is the increased competition. While a little competition can be healthy, there’s also the real danger that companies will be bullied by large rivals that use their deep pockets to unfairly muscle their way into the market. While the natural haircare pioneers once had the market to themselves, mainstream brands such as Pantene and L’Oréal are now targeting products to women with natural hair. Larger, more established black haircare brands such as Atlanta-based Bronner Bros. are also looking past relaxers to develop natural haircare lines. Of the newfound competition, Dellinger says, companies “saw an opportunity to make products and slap a label on them to market to the black consumer.” As a result, the entrepreneurs that revolutionized the haircare industry must protect their stake in the bourgeoning business they’ve built.

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