By Sakita Holley (@MissSuccess)
Michelle Breyer was born with “curly [hair] in a straight world.”
Frustrated by the lack of resources and product information she found for her multi-textured hair, Breyer created NaturallyCurly.com with friend and business partner Gretchen Heber in 1998. Almost 15 years later, the website she launched to fill a void that addressed her immediate hair care needs has blossomed into a full blown social media and e-commerce platform known as Texture Media.
Texture Media, which is home to the original NaturallyCurly.com, also supports CurlyNikki, CurlStylist, the mobile app Curls on the Go, syndicated market intelligence service TextureTrends and CurlMart, an online boutique that aids in the discovery of up-and-coming hair care brands.
Breyer, who now manages a staff of “just under 20 employees,” chats with the curlBOXBLOG about her humble beginnings, being a natural hair pioneer, plans for growing her curl community and how she handled recent allegations by a prominent journalist that only “an idiot would invest in a social network for people with curly or kinky hair.”
curlBOXBLOG: Over the last few years, the natural hair market/community has grown at an exponential rate. You launched NaturallyCurly, your first website, in 1998. Would you consider yourself a pioneer in the natural hair movement?
Michelle Breyer: Yes, we were pioneers. From the beginning, we talked about texture and hair type – not ethnicity– and we attracted a wide diversity of people. Many of the top natural hair bloggers got their start on CurlTalk, which was one of the first forums for people to talk about their natural hair journeys.
Being born curly in a straight world, I [remember being] frustrated from a young age that nobody knew what to do with my hair. No stylists knew how to work with curls, and no products existed specifically for this market. If you read magazines like Seventeen and Glamour back in the 70s and 80s, it was as if people with curly hair didn’t exist. I straightened my hair most of my life trying to look like everyone else. When I moved to Austin from California, my hair refused to be tamed in the Texas heat and I finally had to accept my curls. It was a daily challenge, and during one of my regular complaint sessions with a co-worker at my newspaper, someone overheard us and suggested we start a web site or magazine for people like us. So we got on the Internet to see if there were any other sites dedicated to curls, and couldn’t find any, other than one for a hair product line. We created the site to provide a place for people like us to connect.
cBB: Were you looking to fill a void for yourself or did you immediately know that other people might benefit from the information you were providing?
MB: I want to stress that we didn’t get into this with any thought of it becoming a big business. It was completely altruistic. We thought we might create Curl Pride t-shirts and sell a few of those, but we didn’t have any grand ambitions other than offering a place for people like us to share their stories and get advice.
cBB: Before launching NaturallyCurly did you have any experience in the beauty industry? If yes, where?
MB: No. But, I had experience with my own curly hair struggling to manage and make it look good everyday. I also have a background in journalism and worked as a business reporter at newspapers for 13 years before launching NaturallyCurly.
cBB: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t picture NaturallyCurly becoming a big business. But, did you at least have a long-term vision for the site when you first started?
MB: I seriously never thought beyond creating the type of site that I wished I had available to me growing up. NaturallyCurly’s success was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Curlies were increasingly seeking out info about how to work with their texture – rather than fighting it. Stylists were realizing that curly/coily textures were a valuable niche. And brands were seeing the huge market opportunities created by hair products for curly and coily hair – a market largely proven out by smaller, grass-roots companies like Miss Jessie’s, Ouidad and Carol’s Daughter that started in salons or mixtresses kitchens. At the same time, they were watching sales of relaxers plummet.
A lot of our growth was driven by community requests. People began asking for products that they were reading about on CurlTalk – products like Jessicurl and Oyin Handmade– which weren’t readily available to the greater market. So, we listened and launched CurlMart. Stylists, who were getting a lot of new clients from the reviews on NaturallyCurly, began asking for a site specifically for them. So, we created CurlStylist. Our partnership with CurlyNikki, who started on CurlTalk, was a natural progression.
We are able to provide CurlyNikki.com founder, Alicia Nicole Walton, access to TextureMedia’s technology, sales and marketing support. The Curls on the Go app gives our readers a way to access info easily on their phones. Brands, realizing our connection with our community and the importance of its feedback, were increasingly coming to us to get market insights – whether it be testing products before they launched or conducting surveys. TextureTrends provides syndicated market intelligence to the growing number of brands and retailers in this segment.
cBB: When did NaturallyCurly ‘the site’ turn into TextureMedia ‘the movement’ and how did you know it was the right time to expand and make that transition?
MB: As we grew beyond the NaturallyCurly brand and added new properties to our community offering, the NaturallyCurly name did not really explain who we are. TextureMedia is our parent company name encompassing our mission and offering across all our brands – to provide an interactive platform for the greater community to engage, learn, share and empower each other.
cBB: You’ve been able to attract some really high profile investors. Did they come to you or did you proactively pitch people on the value of your brand?
MB: We’ve proactively pitched to our investors, and they have gotten involved for various reasons. Some are impressed by the passion and engagement of our community – the social media aspect; for others, the idea of an underserved market and its potential, combined with our potential to better serve and grow this market, spoke to them. We had one investor – a straight-haired man – who liked the idea but was sold when he asked three curly friends if they’d heard of NaturallyCurly. Their enthusiastic response convinced him we were on to something.
cBB: In what ways have these investment(s) helped you grow your company?
MB: Investments have provided capital needed to enhance our community offering, from launching our mobile application, to introducing new site features and functionality, to hiring passionate and experienced talent to continue to help grow and evolve in our mission.
Investment has also helped us mature as a company. We’re accountable to our investors and also thankful for the experience, passion and support they bring to our business.
cBB: Would you recommend other natural hair bloggers to seek investment if they had a solid brand/platform? Why or why not?
MB: It depends on what their goals are and where they want to take their brand. I have seen a number of bloggers who have done an incredible job growing their brand without any investment.
cBB: After the news broke about your investment a New York magazine writer mentioned that he didn’t understand why anyone would invest money in a ‘social network for people with curly hair.’ What was your initial reaction to this story? Were you upset or did you feel misunderstood?
MB: I would love to call that writer and thank him for his article because it ended up being amazing PR for us! He, like others, tended to marginalize this business because he did not understand it, nor did he take the time to do so. Though no one wants to see somebody make fun of their business, we seized an opportunity to help educate that particular writer and others about the importance of this market and community.
We made lemonade out of lemons, and were also touched by the huge number of people who came to our defense. There was a flood of positive comments and publicity (Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, numerous blogs) that chastised the writer and praised NaturallyCurly and what we’ve created. It brought exposure to the company and why natural hair is such an important, valuable market. So in the end, the writer did us a big favor.
cBB: A lot of people in the natural hair community and even some prominent business executives came to your defense. How did you leverage that moment?
MB: We reached out to a number of the people who supported us to thank them for believing in us, and have used the article – and the response – to our advantage.
cBB: Did you learn anything from that experience?
MB: I’ve learned that there are always going to be people out there who don’t understand what we do, and it’s our job to help them understand why it matters. You’re always going to have naysayers. You’ve got to have the conviction and passion that what you do matters. I can’t count the number of people who have laughed when I’ve told them what my company does. But I truly believe in what we do and the potential we have to positively affect lives.
cBB: When most people talk or think about the natural hair industry, they think about multicultural women, but you’re not multicultural. Has your race ever been a factor? If yes, has it had a positive or negative impact on your business?
MB: I’d love to say it hasn’t been a factor, but it has. I think there are some people who don’t know the NaturallyCurly story. They don’t understand the challenges I went through with my own hair – and still go through today. We weren’t a large corporation that set out to take over the natural hair industry. We were a grass-roots company – our initial site was designed by my friend’s 13-year-old son and Gretchen Heber’s young sons helped her pack up boxes for CurlMart – that evolved out of our own hair struggles, and served as a forum for a lot of the voices and brands that have become major players in the industry. I think we are unique in that we never talked about race, and our community attracts a wide range of people of all ages, ethnicities and hair textures.
cBB: Well said. Besides the topic of race, what has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned since launching the company?
MB: I’m still surprised at how many people assume wavy, curly and coily hair is a trend and a small niche. While we’ve made huge strides, there’s still so much work left to do.
cBB: What advice would you have for someone who wanted to start a natural hair/body care product or media company?
MB: You need to have passion for what you do. You can’t start a business just because you think you’ll make a lot of money. Start small. A lot of entrepreneurs launch their companies while working at another job. I worked at the newspaper for 7 years before leaving to do NaturallyCurly full time. This enables you to build your business and make mistakes – and you will make mistakes – without risking financial ruin. If you can bootstrap it yourself, that’s the best way to do it in the beginning.
And most important, listen! Listen to your customers and community. Their feedback is like gold. They will tell you want they want. They will tell you what’s working and what’s not working. Our community has been the core of our company since the beginning.
cBB: What is the best business advice you’ve ever been given?
MB: Think bigger than you are.
cBB: Do you have any mentors in the beauty/natural hair industry?
MB: It’s hard to separate the mentors from the people who have become role models. It’s a long and growing list that includes people like Lorraine Massey from Devaconcepts, Lisa Price from Carol’s Daughter, Anthony Dickey from Hair Rules, Ouidad, Titi and Miko from Miss Jessie’s, Jonathan Torch from Curly Hair Solutions, Nikki from CurlyNikki, actress Kim Coles, John Paul DeJoria from Paul Mitchell, Myleik Teele from CurlBox, Ken Burkeen from Huetiful. All of them have incredible passion for what they do and have contributed to a better understanding of curly and coily hair. It’s really hard to narrow it down.
cBB: What effect do you think natural hair bloggers and enthusiasts have on the market? Your company?
MB: Natural hair bloggers and enthusiasts have transformed the industry, changing the way companies look at research, development and marketing. Rather than creating products and then hoping people will like them, bloggers and enthusiasts have told companies what they want and like. Brands are listening! They are enlisting the help of our community, vlogs and blogs to develop products as well as to position and promote them. It’s a whole different world than it was a decade ago. That’s why smaller companies can compete so effectively with large brands. Vlogs and enthusiasts have made it a much more democratic process. If a product works, people hear about it – whether it’s something a mixtress has made in her kitchen or something produced by a billion-dollar brand.
cBB: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to get to where you are today?
MB: I think we’ve had to change perceptions that our market should be taken seriously. As the recent New York magazine article reminded us, there are still a lot of people who just don’t get it. But thankfully, more and more people do. We recently gave a presentation for a major brand that wanted their marketing team to understand the importance of the curly market. For some of the people in the room, it was the first time they had gotten a peek into the curly world – a surprising thought considering the size of this brand.
cBB: Have you ever had a moment when you wanted to give up? If yes, what did you do or tell yourself that made you keep going?
MB: When we started NaturallyCurly, we had full-time jobs and were starting families. There were times when we were trying to juggle babies and our day jobs around this growing business and it seemed like too much. But we’d get an email from a curly out there who would tell us how the site had changed her life and made her feel good about herself. Right after I left the newspaper to do NaturallyCurly full time in 2005, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and we lost our biggest advertiser – all within a week. But these challenges gave us the push we needed to take the company to the next level.
cBB: Who or what inspires you?
MB: Our community inspires me – looking at their photos and posts is a daily reminder of how amazing the curly/coily world is and the progress that has been made. It’s a much different world than it was when we started – from the thousands of new products for the curly/coily market (including entire endcaps at Target), to the hundreds of stylists who specialize in curly/natural styles to the dozens of monthly meetups where women gather to celebrate their natural texture.
cBB: What was your first impression of curlBOX?
MB: I LOVED it. I thought it was brilliant. Curlies are huge product junkies, and they want to try products before they buy. I thought it was an ideal way for them to get a taste of all the amazing new products out there.
cBB: Does curlBOX have any impact, positive or negative, on your brand even though you don’t create products? Explain.
MB: I think products like CurlBOX provide further proof to brands of how important this market has become, and I think that’s positive for anyone in this space. And it actually has a positive impact on CurlMart, because many of the products included in recent CurlBOXes are available for sale at CurlMart, so people have a place to buy it after they try it.
cBB: You work with a lot of natural hair/body care companies. Would you recommend curlBOX to these executives? Why?
MB: I already have recommended it to several of the brands I work with who are looking for interesting ways to get their products into the hands of consumers. I think it’s a unique offering that can really benefit brands trying to reach influencers.
cBB: What’s next for NaturallyCurly.com? TextureMedia?
MB: We continue to grow through new offerings and partnerships. Our community now tops 2 million unique visitors a month, and we have a lot of exciting things in store in 2013.
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Sakita Holley is a lifestyle writer and the founder of House of Success, a New York-based lifestyle PR firm. You can tweet your thoughts about this story directly to the writer, @MissSuccess.