When Annie Malone and Madame CJ Walker started their businesses catering to Black hair, their curiosity about the chemistry of the products and ability to hire and sell in their community made them entrepreneurial legends.
Today we can look on the shelves of big box stores or small online stores on Etsy.com to see other Black entrepreneurs finding success in the beauty industry, which makes $1.1 billion annually from Black women.
Kimberly Lewis and her husband, Tim, co-founded CurlMix, and they’re building their own empire based on curiosity about ingredients and a desire to employ their own community.
Last year we made $1 million in sales and we were just floored because the year before, we were going to close the business up.Kimberly Lewis, co-founder and CEO of CurlMix, a beauty brand for curly hair.
CurlMix started as a do-it-yourself subscription box company. Kimberly and Tim would send the materials to their customers who would then make their own hair products. Today, customers can subscribe or make on-demand product purchases on already-made hair care solutions for natural hair directly from the CurlMix online platform.
Kimberly and Tim are not new to the entrepreneurial lifestyle. Tim once appeared on “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” and won $100,000 which he used to invest in the couple’s first business, a niche social networking platform. The startup failed, but that didn’t stop them from pursuing a new venture, CurlMix.
Fans, aka CurlMixers, also have access to an online community through social media where they can discuss their curly hair journey, products and tips with one another.
After launching CurlMix, the couple initially saw no growth and sales were flat. They considered closing the business but were able to pivot and capture the attention of “Shark Tank” producers and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.
Kimberly spoke to Moguldom about why she almost closed her business, how $25,000 from Arlan Hamilton’s Backstage Capital helped them reach $1 million in sales and where she sees CurlMix in five years.
Moguldom: Why did you start CurlMix?
Kimberly Lewis: I started CurlMix originally because I wanted to know exactly what was in my haircare products. We started a do-it-yourself box for curly hair, something like Blue Apron but for curly hair, and it basically evolved after about two years into one of our best-selling boxes, and then into a line. I wanted to know more about what was in the products for my hair and transparency for transparency’s sake. It landed where it is just based on me creating products my customers really wanted versus what I wanted to see in the market.
Moguldom: Since going to market, what has been the reception from the community?
Kimberly Lewis: We were doing the do-it-yourself boxes at first, and we found that people just didn’t have the time. They thought it was a cool idea and they definitely want to know what was in their products, but they still wanted a more convenient solution.
We had a flaxseed gel which was our best-selling box because people loved the results they got from flaxseed. You actually boil the seeds to make this really gooey gel. And it’s natural and organic, right? Most people loved this because it gave them a really defined wash-and-go. But the problem is you couldn’t get it in stores because big brands wouldn’t manufacture it for you. Flaxseed can be really difficult to work with and so I went to general manufacturing facilities and they all said no.
I was getting ready to close down my business and my advisor was like, “Why don’t you just make it?” And I was like, “There are all these reasons it doesn’t work, and I’ve tried.” And he was just like, “Figure it out.” After that advice, I decided we’ll just figure it out. There was no one making the gel at scale. You could only really find it at Etsy. When I looked at Amazon, there were thousands of people who were searching for it each month but weren’t finding promising results. So we started manufacturing the gel ourselves and the market spoke.
It’s hard to walk away from money. Doing “Shark Tank” really helped me learn. I had to rely on BATNA — my best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It taught me my walkaway number.Kimberly Lewis, co-founder and CEO of CurlMix, a beauty brand for curly hair.
Moguldom: What was it like learning the manufacturing process and purchasing your own equipment and space?
Kimberly Lewis: We basically starting buying our own machines and looking up all the science behind making cosmetic products. We just kind of taught ourselves, and the fact that I have my husband as my partner is what makes it so possible. Just because he’s a bit of a nerd and he’s been helping me research all these things, we figured a lot out on our own.
Moguldom: Besides the learning curve of building your own manufacturing facility and process, are there any other memorable challenges you had in building your business?
Kimberly Lewis: There are so many. For one, when we started growing really fast, we had gone from $3,000 a month in sales last year in January to a few months later, in April, we were at $30,000 a month in sales. We were doing our business out of our house.
On the startup scene in Chicago: The same popular startups all get funded. If you show promise early on and you’re making money, you’re not going to have that hard of a time getting funding but it’s not like in (Silicon Valley) where there are tons of people throwing money at you.Kimberly Lewis, co-founder and CEO of CurlMix, a beauty brand for curly hair.
Doing $3,000 a month in our house is easy, right? Doing $30,000 a month out of our house is not easy. We were like, “OK, we need a facility to move into,” but we couldn’t find anything that was affordable, and we needed manufacturing hookups. There are certain roles that you need when you move into a facility, and a lot of the spaces we were looking at didn’t have them. Someone recommended ICNC (Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago) to me. It’s basically a manufacturing incubator here in Chicago, and its government funded, so the rent isn’t super expensive, and it literally has all the room to expand that you would need. It was such an amazing opportunity, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for us.
Moguldom: What have been some of the notable wins since starting the company?
Kimberly Lewis: Last year we made $1 million in sales.
Kimberly Lewis: And we were just floored because the year before, we were going to close the business up. We had only done $140,000 in sales and that was a wakeup call for us because we weren’t growing with the boxes, which means we hadn’t figured it out yet. I think we were scheduled to be on “Shark Tank” in September of last year, and at that point, we had made about $400,000 dollars. By then it was like,”We are on track to hit $1 million,” and when I said it at the time, I don’t think I really believed it. So, when we did it, I was like, “Oh my goodness, we did it!” It was literally Dec. 31, the last day of the year.
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Moguldom: You were on “Shark Tank”, you pitched your idea and you didn’t like what they offered. I’ve spoken with other founders who have been on “Shark Tank”. They’ve either gotten a deal or they turned it down. What did turning down the deal do for your company?
Kimberly Lewis: You know, it’s hard to walk away from money, right? Rich, poor, it doesn’t matter, it’s usually hard to walk away from money. But I think doing the “Shark Tank” experience really helped me learn. I had to rely on something I learned before, called your BATNA — best alternative to a negotiated agreement. So basically, if you can’t negotiate for what you want, what’s your BATNA? What’s the minimum you’re willing to accept and what is it that you won’t accept? “Shark Tank” taught me that, if nothing else. They gave me hard numbers, and I was like, “I know we’re worth more. I know we can get a better deal, and also a little bit more help from the people we’ll get a deal from in the future.” It taught me my walkaway number or deal breakers.
Moguldom: What is it like for you trying to build a startup in a city that tends to get negative press? What does the startup scene look like in Chicago?
Kimberly Lewis: The startup scene here in Chicago is really scattered if you’re not a popular startup. But if you’re a popular startup, there’s only a few of you in that circle, and everyone knows the same popular startups. The same popular startups all get funded. In a way, I feel like it’s a good thing because it’s easier to get funding. Well, I don’t want to say it’s easier to get funding, but if you show promise early on and you’re making money, you’re not going to have that hard of a time getting funding because there aren’t a lot of companies even doing that. So, it’s a little less competition, but it’s not like in the valley where there are tons of people throwing money at you. You’re not going to get as high of a valuation as if you were in Silicon Valley, for example. But, the Chicago scene, I feel like it’s OK, but it could be better. You really have to dig for the resources, so I think part of our success is that we’ve been in a lot of programs and most of them free. They didn’t require equity or anything like that, but it is hard to find them.
Moguldom: Did you receive any additional funding from other sources?
Kimberly Lewis: Yes. Backstage Capital gave us $25,000 dollars in February of last year, and that helped us really pivot the business. The money came right on time for us to change our packaging and our imagery and that kind of thing. Then we went to our manufacturing space and we needed a couple of months of rent which we didn’t have to spend. Getting that check from Backstage was huge, and that helped us get to $1 million. When we knew “Shark Tank” was going to air, we started looking for an investment so that we could afford inventory. We got a $200,000 investment from Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn. I got connected with him through Arlan. A connection she has here in Chicago from Backstage Capital connected me with Jeff, and then Jeff invested. Since then we are looking to close another big seven-figure deal with him in the coming weeks. They followed up with us after the show saying, “You guys are really, really killing it. We want to invest more.” We haven’t gotten the next infusion of capital yet, but it’s on its way through a round led by him with some other investors in it.
Moguldom: What do the next 5 years look like?
Kimberly Lewis: We’re going to grow CurlMix to a billion-dollar company.