CurlMix, founder

‘Be Your Own Marketing Engine,’ Says CurlMix Founder On The Keys To Business Success

CEO Kim Lewis speaks to BLACK ENTERPRISE about the community she's built within her haircare businesses and her journey to success.

Kim Lewis of CurlMix isn’t afraid to pivot. Whether it’s turning down investment sharks or switching up her business model, Lewis has learned that the way to succeed is through trial and error. And with a new product launch in Ulta stores nationwide, her risks have turned into rewards.

The CEO of Listener Brands, which includes CurlMix and her specialty 4C ONLY haircare company, has made many shifts to elevate her businesses, including over $32 million in lifetime revenue, and is still finding new ways to involve customers and innovate the hair industry.

Her values in entrepreneurship are to share the wealth, opening her community equity crowdfund in hopes that her customers will be part of the profit share. Lewis’ inclusive mindset also led to the creation of 4C ONLY, where women with this kinkier hair texture are not only the focus but the heroes of this hair story. The entrepreneur’s goals are lofty, but her commitment to engaging with customers as partners will aid in this venture to build a Curl boss empire.

Amid her steady rise to the top of the haircare industry, Lewis shared her story and insights with BLACK ENTERPRISE.

What was most crucial to getting your business off the ground?

Early on, I started as a DIY box for curly hair. I was putting something in the market that I wanted to see in the world, that I wanted people to have in their kitchens. But the market spoke back, and they wanted ready-to-make products. I was doing something that was a novelty and not a necessity. When I started making things that my customers wanted…I stopped doing the thing I wanted to do and started doing what people would pay me for, and I think that was the biggest change in my business for CurlMix. 

In your story on your personal website, you mention a lot of pivots to get your business where it is today. What encouraged you to not only have the wisdom and willingness to make these pivots, such as walking away from a Shark Tank deal, but to keep going after that?

I knew that this [flaxseed] gel was something special, so we started pivoting our business. I found out people were using it to do wash-and-gos, and I was ready to pivot when I found out what my customers were actually doing with the product. And with Shark Tank, first and foremost it’s a television show for entertainment. Although I wanted to invest with the sharks, I knew I was going to have to go home with this business.

So I interviewed 50 people who have been on before I was featured who gave me insight on their deal and if the shark was helpful. So whatever deal I took on the show I had to be comfortable with actually taking. I realized I can get a better valuation if I just talked to the angel investors in my neighborhood, versus [the sharks] who may know nothing about the industry. It was just a no-brainer.

Were there any Black entrepreneurs whose journeys inspired you? Is there a community within this “For Us By Us” sector that shares advice when facing similar obstacles? 

I have what I call peers, people that I’m running with that are dealing with the same issues and can give me advice along the way. Tracey [Pickett] from Hairbrella, she’s so focused and in the weeds of her business, and that’s something I’ve gotten away from in the past and want to get back to. The most meaningful check I got was for $25,000 from Arlan Hamilton at Backstage Capital; it was when we were doing the DIY box and had to pivot. If she hadn’t given us that check when she did in 2018, we wouldn’t have had the funds to move into the manufacturing facility to scale up production on the flaxseed gel. We were one of her first 50 investments, and now she’s invested over $30 million in capital to Black, brown, and LGBT+ founders. It was the money we used to get to our first $1 million in revenue, and it showed that somebody believes in me.

I love Can you explain more about its missions and intentions and the story behind it? Why is it to crucial to have this space for Black women, especially those with the real-deal coils and kinks?

One of the top comments on all our ads was “But does this work on 4c hair?” And of course 4c hair owners can wear a wash-and-go, but they don’t always want to. The 4c woman may want braids, to rock her Afro, to do some twists, etc. I didn’t want to switch up the branding for CurlMix, and the 4c woman wanted to be in the front. When she goes to the website, she wants to see herself. So I thought she needs to be the hero, and how do we do that? Put her in the brand name, on the bottle, and in all the advertisements. We knew we couldn’t serve the 4c customer under CurlMix’s brand name, she had to have her own, and it’s been doing really well. 

And what about the community equity crowdfund? What lead to the decision to create it? Why was that important to you?

I’ve always wanted my customers to own a piece of the brand. It was more about the right time and the right amount. It’s a lot of work to crowdfund, so you don’t want to do it for a little amount of money. So I’ve gone through a lot of vetting to ensure my validity and that I have a good offer to the public, because if you don’t then the [U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission] will be like “uh uh.” I wanted to bring my customers along with me and I’m all about sharing the wealth. It is my goal to get a 2-3 times return for my customers. 

Is there anything you do differently to work smarter and not harder? What are the long-term goals for Listener Brands?

You should be your own marketing engine. Put your money toward sales and getting the inventory to fulfill those sales, keeping your money product-focused. The one ace-in-the-hole for our business is our customer Facebook group on the CurlMix side, as Black women over 40 are often ignored. This demographic has the higher household income, so she has the money to spend, and she is going natural. Now, we have a group of over 20,000 women who have purchased from us before, so we will use it to vote on launches, during tutorials on live video, and now they are doing meetups. 

My long-term goal for Listener brands is really to get my crowdfund investors a return, that’s what I primarily care most about. I want both brands to get in the surplus of $10 million in annual revenue. It’s serving my CurlMix and 4C ONLY customers, creating products they love and innovating in the space. If CurlMix closed down today as well as the Facebook group, they would find each other, and that’s how you know you’ve built community. 

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