Joycelyn Mate and Rachael Corson always had a hard time finding safe and effective hair care products for afro, coily, and curly hair. The duo founded Afrocenchix to create the products they’ve always dreamed of that are good for people and the planet. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Rachael on how the business was created and how COVID-19 has challenged the duo to find new ways to grow.
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Tips for transitioning your side hustle into a full-time career
Felix: Your journey started as a consumer looking for a product, almost a decade earlier. Tell us more about where it all began.
Rachael: My business partner Joycelyn and I met at university and we bonded over the haircare problems we both had. She was suffering from traction alopecia, which is hair loss caused by tight styling by things like braids and weaves. I also had some hair loss and I’ve got really bad eczema. I’m allergic to most of the haircare products out there. Joycelyn used to relax my hair for me, which is chemically straightening it by using sodium hydroxide. That’s the same active ingredient that you find in drain unblocker and oven cleaners. It’s caustic soda and is really, really strongly alkaline. Dangerous stuff that you should not apply to your hair. Both of us had had our moms do this for us since we were about three or four.
So my scalp was a mess, my neck was a mess, and one day she said, “I’m not doing this for you anymore.” And very long story short, we got talking. Joycelyn had started looking into natural ingredients for her hair loss and she’d made an oil for her hair. I used it on my skin and got really excited because I wasn’t allergic to it. I tried to get her to start a business. She said, “No.” And here we are 10 years later running Afrocenchix making safe, effective hair care products for people all around the world.
Felix: What made you take that jump from “There’s no suitable product out there” to “Let’s start a business”?
Rachael: It started off with that conversation. After Joycelyn had given me a DIY oil and I wanted her to start a business and she’d said no, I started thinking that there have to be other people like us who struggled to find products that work for them. We would both joke that we are product junkies, and nothing really worked. At this stage, it was all about research. I was studying law at the time. If you’re a law student, you get super into going into journals and doing research.
I did manage to convince Joycelyn to do that with me, so we did a little research and I said to her, “Okay, look, we’ve got at least three years at university. Let’s put in £50 each,” so about $65, “And let’s buy the best possible ingredients.” ”Let’s get some organic oils, let’s research which ingredients work best for all our problems. And let’s make our own cosmetics to last us through university, and we can just sell the excess.” Worst case scenario, we don’t sell anything. We’ve got products to last us through university. Best case scenario, we sell some and it covers the cost and we’ve essentially got all cosmetics for free and find a fun hobby on the side. We agreed on that basis and, I’ve always been a bit of a hacker, I like to mess about with websites. So I built a really basic website. It was rubbish, it was very, very basic but we were getting traffic from all around the world. People asking us questions. We would just like reading these science papers, putting them into basic simple language, and putting it up on the site and people really loved it.
We ended up entering a competition for ethical and sustainable business innovation at our university. We won some money and they encouraged us to properly register the business. It wasn’t a real business yet, but we registered it in order to access this money. It wasn’t until much later, 2017, that we launched our Shopify store and things started to really take off.
Felix: What was the process? What obstacles did you encounter between “Let’s start a business” to winning this award?
Rachael: It was struggle upon struggle. Joycelyn and I used to just have these little hustles. Initially, this started off as one of many little schemes and we had to just survive university. We came from quite poor backgrounds, we didn’t have families that could support us financially. We both had part-time jobs and in a way, it was another one of these little, “Okay, let’s do a little scheme to survive,” kind of thing.
What changed is we had all this traffic to our website. We had this award that we won for the idea. It’s funny because we had this huge vision from the start. It was all about health and wellbeing and helping people who have allergies or who had hair loss. We really cared about people having an option for their beauty needs that didn’t mess with their health. If you look at the research, 78% of products that are aimed towards black women contain toxic ingredients linked to cancer, fibroids, respiratory issues, all really serious conditions. We had this huge vision that every single person around the world who has Afro and curly hair will be able to access safe, effective products. We just didn’t have the confidence to think we could do it and we were students, right?
The timeline is we finished our degrees, we graduated around 2011, Joycelyn 2012. We got full-time jobs. We realized it wasn’t sustainable for us to do this on the side because it was growing too fast. After work, Joycelyn would get on the train, come to my house, we would make six bottles of shampoo, post them out, and then we’d do the same the next day. It was quite exhausting. Every other day we were having to travel to one or the other’s kitchen, and then go to the post office for these really small orders. Around this stage, it got a bit unmanageable. We realized, ‘Okay, this has been a hobby. We like to learn, we like to make things simple and share that information with people.”
We’re getting traction on our YouTube, on our blog, and people are really interested in the product, but all the money we were making we were reinvesting into the business. We weren’t making enough money to sustain us, we realized we had to take a leap of faith. We had to either quit our jobs or go part-time in order to give it a real shot. We always used to joke that if we knew how hard it would be, we would never have started the business. We’re really glad we didn’t know how hard it would be.
When we started making the products, we literally sat there with a pipette and a Petri dish and we would drip out the essential oils until we found our signature scent and got that right when most of our competitors were just using artificial fragrances, which were much easier to blend. Because we were paying so much attention to detail, it was difficult having to move huge, heavy vats of olive oil or coconut oil, having to mix things by hand. It’s not glamorous at all. It’s quite physically strenuous work to do. Doing that in the evening when you’re tired, after a full day of lectures or a full day of work, that’s really hard.
There wasn’t much space to think about strategy, to think about when we wanted this to be a real big focus for us. What pushed us over the edge was in 2016, I was doing my masters at UCL and we won another business competition there. We started talking about raising investment and realized, ‘Okay, this is kind of the tipping point.” I had to quit a full-time job to go back to study, Joycelyn went part-time so that we could sustain the business. We realized, “Okay, we’re either going to raise investment, do this big and become a global brand, or we’re just going to stop.” So clearly we didn’t decide to stop and now we’re building a global brand.
“When we switched to Shopify our sales tripled overnight.”
Felix: Many entrepreneurs come to this tipping point, where they have to decide if they’re all in. Any recommendations or lessons from managing that transition?
Rachael: The main thing we learned is that it’s really important to just do your best work. If you do your best work and if you publicize that, the rest comes along. We started off by saying, “Okay, let’s make a new strategy.” Every year around the time the annual accounts are due, we set the strategy for the company. We set the budget for the next year, and we present it to our investors. We were doing this even back in 2016. We had a couple of angel investors who had put in like a really small amount of money, around £10,000. That had gone on equipment, because it’s really expensive to start off the kind of business that we run, and on a training course.
I studied trichology, which is super specialized dermatology, the science of the scalp and hair. That helped us to lay a strong scientific foundation for Afrocenchix. When we decided, “Okay, we’re going to take this a bit more seriously. Let’s see if it can be a full-time job. Let’s see if we can hire people and grow a team.” It started off with getting in touch with a friend who did a lot of volunteering with us and who I’d worked with. I knew what her work ethic was. I knew she was really smart. She was really clued up, she loved the brand and she cared about what we were doing.
We sold her on the vision and she became employee number one. The first project that she did was to help us migrate our buggy, glitchy, broken WordPress site over to Shopify. That was major for us. For context, when we had our WordPress site, we had a great developer, but they were super busy and we didn’t have much budget. I was doing a lot of the work on that, and I’m not a developer. I learned how to code from Myspace and the Neo Pets. We’re talking really basic stuff here.
Every time someone would try to buy something and check out, their basket would end up abandoned. Not because they abandoned the basket, but because the site was so buggy that I would have to call the customers to recover the baskets over the phone. That was time-consuming and it was the worst kind of website you could have for what was attempting to be an e-commerce brand. When we switched to Shopify, our sales, I kid you not, tripled overnight. We were still doing really low amounts. We went from doing say 10 orders a week to 30 orders a week, which for us was a big deal because we were still making batches of six bottles of hair product at a time.
From there, we were able to grow really rapidly. Every month we had massive growth because of the fact that with Shopify, you can add plugins, you can change the code really easily. Everything works pretty smoothly. That helped us a huge amount and then also, we had an employee now. I was still working as a contractor, so I had a lot more flexibility to my time. It was starting to all come together. Then we were able to focus on, “Okay, what would a marketing funnel look like for us? What kind of campaigns can we set up? What extra value can we give our customers? What kind of content should be created?” That’s helped us to get to the stage where now we’re doing a thousand orders a month, which two or three years ago was a bit of a pipe dream.
Balancing things was about having the humility to ask outside help, to look for opportunities, and take advantage of them, but also to make sure that we were constantly re-aligning ourselves to our vision and to our strategy and making sure that every single move we made was something that would take us to the next significant milestone.
“Balancing things was about having the humility to ask outside help, to look for opportunities, and take advantage of them, but also to make sure that we were constantly re-aligning ourselves.”
Why asking for help can be the best thing you do for your business
Felix: A lot of entrepreneurs think they can do it all themselves. How do you diagnose when it’s time to seek help, either for yourself or your business?
Rachael: That’s a really good question. You can always do it with help. Which is a separate question, to whether or not you need help. But even if you are the world’s top expert on something, there’s always something you can learn, or you can get together with another expert and get real leverage to multiply your efforts. The African proverb applies: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Joycelyn and I both have what you would call a hurry up the driver. We had some Exec coaching together, which I jokingly call founder therapy. We identified the different drivers that lead you to action. Some people will have a “be perfect” driver. Some people have a “hurry up” driver.
There are all sorts of things that drive people and both of us have this thing where we’re obsessed with speed and doing things quickly, unlike many founders that means that we are forced to react to opportunities and we’re constantly innovating, coming up with new things. The detrimental side of that is the quality isn’t always where you want it to be, if you’re constantly going fast. We put in breaks by creating processes. If we’re going to write a blog post, rather than just throw anything together and put it out there, we have a process.It starts off with research. What are the questions people are asking? What are the Google keywords that are important to hit for SEO? What are the questions our customers have come up with recently?
Then you go into: these are the sources we’ll use for our research, this is the length of the article, this is how many pictures this is where the alt tags will go, this is going to be the H1 heading, this will be the H2 heading. There’s a whole process in place where you’re thinking about snippets and Google, and you’re thinking about how the different algorithms work, and you’ve got a clear purpose in mind. Then you’re going to also need to plan out when to release the article. It can’t be a standalone article. What other articles do you need?” You go from, “I’m just going to quickly write this article to, Oh, it has to fit within this process, within this wider system, and it needs other things to hold it up so that it works.” When you do that, even though you introduce breaks and you slow yourself down a little bit, it ensures that the work you do will actually achieve the purpose that you want it to achieve, instead of putting in a bunch of effort and nothing comes out of it.
That’s the key. Making sure that you plan things out, and you force yourself to slow down and think, “Okay, what’s the aim in this?” When you start to do that, you realize, “Oh, okay. So in this area, perhaps I don’t know much about the latest algorithm, or I need a little bit more help in how to do research into customers, or maybe I’m not the best person to look into keyword analysis.” At that stage, you’ll either be thinking, “Okay, let me speak to a freelancer, let me speak to a friend, or let me put together a job description and get ready to hire someone who could be an intern, work experienced person, or it could be an employee.” The easiest way to identify where you need help is to do a bit of research, do a bit of planning, and it will become very evident.
Felix: You mentioned a benefit of the “hurry up” driver is that you’re able to quickly identify opportunities and seize them. What are some ways that you have been able to find opportunities and seize them?
Rachael: Before we hired a team we were raising investment in 2008, and we are both black women; we’re relatively young. There’s been loads of research recently about the investment gap for black founders and a really interesting piece that came out last week, that showed that for black women, the gap is a bit ridiculous. Only eight women have had VC funding in the last 10 years in the UK. We’re talking not even one a year. It’s really, really low. Obviously, that piece of information came out recently, but we did know that less than 1% of VC money went to black founders and even less to female founders. We knew it was going to be really hard, but we thought this is a venture-backed proposition. We’re building this huge global brand; we’re planning to be available to every person with Afro and curly hair around the globe. We need to do this big, otherwise, there’s no point. When we started to speak to people about pitching, we found that we just didn’t know that much information. We’d go to events like Startup Grind, we went to any kind of fireside chat that was happening, that we heard about. We joined Product Hunt. We started looking at AngelList.
We Googled a lot and thought, “Okay, that’s a place to go. Let’s do that.” Eventually, we started to make friends with people who were in the VC space and that was really helpful. One of the things we did is we started to engineer opportunities. If we saw that a VC that we wanted to invest in us was speaking somewhere, we would get tickets; we’d go to the talks, we’d take notes, we’d make sure we’ve watched their talks beforehand. Then we would always ask a question where we’d start off by introducing ourselves and doing a little elevator pitch, and then go into our question. Not those annoyance statement questions that everybody hates, because those are awful. But a question that shows that we were actually listening to them. A question that if it was answered would be useful to us, also to the audience and that got attention.
We did that with Arlan Hamilton, and that was the first time she heard about Afrocenchix. She ended up being part of the round where we were selected from thousands of entrepreneurs for the Backstage Capital Accelerator program via the inaugural one in London. We raised some investment there. Similarly, we would just go into different events and just talk about the fact that we were raising investment, which some people said that’s not the way you do it and you’re meant to be undercover. People even said, “It’s embarrassing for people to know you’re raising investment.” But it worked for us. We were trying to raise £350,000. We actually raised well over £500,000. We had to turn down money from investors who weren’t aligned with us.
We raised a little bit of money from SoftBank via WeWork. We ended up winning the WeWork London Creator Awards, and then they flew us out to LA and we won some money in the Global Creator Awards as well. The judges were people like Gary Vee, Ashton Kutcher, Vanessa Kingori, who is a Vogue editor. People like Kirsten Green, who is from Forerunner Ventures and one of the first investors in Glossier. The way we got that opportunity is kind of crazy. I was asking for advice in this WhatsApp group someone had added me to when they saw I was raising investment and a few people in there ended up investing in us.
One of the angels who were soft committed at the time worked in tech and he was like, “My company is based in WeWork. WeWork have this competition you should enter.” That was this huge opportunity, but I didn’t take it seriously because I knew the stat about black women not doing very well when it came to investment. I thought this is a big PR exercise, but it’s a VC investment. That hasn’t gone too well for people who look like us. Also, Joycean was on holiday. So it was just me and Nadia, whose employee number one in the office and we had other stuff to do. But I was like, “Okay, I respect this guy. He’s saying he’s going to invest. Let me just do it just so that Gary will know that I take him seriously.”
I threw together an application and we were prepared for the opportunity because we did a crowdfunding campaign. We already had a video ready. We were raising investments and we already had a pitch deck. That meant the application process was pretty quick, I just got Nadia to chop up the video and change it to meet the parameters of the We Work one. When we got shortlisted, we went to the semifinals, and we did our pitch, we didn’t actually expect to get to the finals. We were shocked that we did. When we got there, I did not expect us to win at all. I did the pitch because I thought, “Hey, I’m like two days off of giving birth.”
It was my due date to give birth to my son, but it was my second pregnancy. I’d had my daughter. I felt like I know when my body’s going to give up and that wasn’t the day. Joycelyn was ready to jump in if she needed to but I thought, “No, no. I’m going to do the pitch because I think it would be great PR and I want to send the message that being pregnant isn’t some kind of barrier to doing things. You can still do a pitch when you’re pregnant.” I did the pitch and then afterward I thought, “Okay, it went fine. It was okay. I think I like fluff.” It was like a 60-second pitch then Q&A. I thought Q&A went great. Kind of fluffed the pitch.
Then they were calling the winners out and I didn’t think that I needed to be on stage when they were announcing the winners, because I didn’t think we would win. But I wanted the opportunity just for PR and I thought it would be great practice to do a pitch. I thought, “Hey, the photos will be great.” And it’s something that people talk about, right? Turns out I was completely wrong and we did win. We won this investment, which was pretty crazy. That was a massive lesson to me that when any opportunity arises, you should always take it because you don’t know what can come from it.
We got loads of press. We also got flown out to LA, we got to meet Diddy, Gary Vee. We got to hang out with Ashton Kutcher. We didn’t have long conversations with them backstage, but the things they did say were so helpful that we still bring those things up today. I’d say when it comes to seizing opportunities, luck is like 50% preparation at least. If you want something, make sure that you’ve done all the foundational work so that when your lucky break comes, you’re prepared to take it.
“That was a massive lesson to me that when any opportunity arises, you should always take it because you don’t know what can come from it.”
Felix: Now that there’s more at stake, how do you maintain this kind of attitude?
Rachael: We’re now a team of seven and we’re hiring for a growth hacker. We’re just about to start a new cosmetic chemist on Monday. We’ve got growth happening at a team level. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that your people are your company. Your customers are your company, your employees are your company. It’s more important as you scale for you to be visible and actually do the training, talk to your team. The way that we ensure that we keep these values, that we keep our power authenticity, our collaboration or excellence, is we literally write our values out on the wall.
We’ve got company values on our office wall. We do quite intensive training for everyone who joins the company. We personally deliver that. There are a few bits and pieces that we get external people to do for training, but I’m a really firm believer in founders training their teams, training their people, being super involved in the hiring, definitely for the first 100 hires. It’s so important. We’ve got an employee handbook, we have the training, and we regularly revisit the training. Quarterly we’ll do some new form of training or some new refresher. But we do it in a way that’s really fun and engaging. We make sure that we keep up-to-date with the latest research, that we add references to our training, that the team knows what they’re going to get from it. We focus on ensuring that our team can achieve mastery in the area for which they were hired.
There’s a book called Drive by Daniel Pink. It talks about the three main components of motivation being autonomy, purpose, and mastery. When we’re training people, we’re making clear to them, “Okay, if you learn these things, if you manage to do these things, well, if you have this attitude, you will be able to have mastery, and having mastery means we can give you more and more autonomy.” Which is what we want everyone to have anyway.
We hire people who are entrepreneurial, who have a growth mindset, who really care about our community. That means we can hand over more and more things to them so we can grow the company. The purpose part is all about reminding people, “Hey, this is about health and wellbeing. This is about giving every single person in the world, access to safe, effective natural products.” People will want to work for us for all sorts of reasons. It might be because we’re like the only vegan certified brand for Afro hair products in the UK. It might be because we win all these awards. It might be that they just love our products, whatever it is, we still have to make sure that we sell them on the dream, we sell them on the narrative and we let them take ownership of that and be part of the process. If you do those things, if you focus on motivating your team and training them, it will help you to maintain the things that helped you to get to the stage you’re in and it will help you to grow even further.
Invest in training: an often overlooked key to start-up success
Felix: How do you develop the training, is it specific to each role?
Rachael: We have general and specific training. We have an introduction to Afrocenchix that everybody gets, we have product training so that everyone knows everything about the entire range. We have hair science training. I know way too much about hair. It’s a little bit weird and embarrassing, but it’s important that way more than you need to know so that you can pass that information on and so that you can answer customer questions well. We could just train people on a script or like FAQ’s. But rather than saying to people, “Okay, if a mom comes to you and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got straight hair. My child has Afro hair and I don’t know what to do with it because it gets really dry and then it tangles and it breaks. What do I do?”
We could just tell them, “Okay, you sell them the Moisture Surge Set and you explain that it’s got coconut concentrate and it’s got shea butter from an organic fair trade cooperative in Ghana, and it’s got aloe vera, which is a humectant which seals in the moisture. And that if you use these products together, these are the results you’ll get.” We could do that but the danger you have there is people, they learn a script. Things are not personalized. They end up selling features rather than benefits. And if someone presents a question in a way they’re not used to, it falls apart and it’s a hot mess. What we prefer to do, is train people on the basics so that they can construct their own answers. Then we go through case studies to kind of test that knowledge before we get them to speak directly to customers and we’re speaking to customers or prospective customers every day.
Rather than doing all that we say, “Okay, well, the head is made up of bundles that have Keratin fibers, it’s held together by water bonds. You’ve got the structure that’s made up of the cortex and the cuticle.” We show them the diagrams and we explain all of these things so that people understand, “Oh, okay. So you have to strengthen the water bonds with water-based products.” And that means they know to direct customers who complain about dryness towards a base product. They know, “Oh, you have to smooth down the cuticle with oil.” Then they know to tell customers to use oils after the moisturizers and not the other way round. Those things are really important. People always go on and on about how knowledgeable our team is, and how helpful our customer service people are. They enjoy being able to flex on the community and be like, “Hey, I know all this stuff. I can help you with your problems.”
We hire people that really care. We do stuff like hair science training. We do stuff like SEO training. Not everyone on the team will get R&D training, but we will do training on how you develop a product and that’s very intensive. We do it in our mini-lab that we’ve built in London, and we literally show people how to go from research of the product to prototype, and then all the way through to testing product trials and release. We also have communication training, we have GDPR training, which is really important. Everyone has to do that. We have customer care training. We’ve got this customer care manifesto, and every single member of the team has to understand what our promise to the customer is and how we intend to keep it.
It’s probably more than a lot of startups have and perhaps it’s a bit overboard, but we’re gearing ourselves up and we’re preparing for the fact that every single person who we hire now on our journey to get to our first 12 employees, each of them should be able to lead a whole department and train up other people. The only way to ensure that is to pass on the information that we have to people who are competent and help them to be confident, to be their best so they can develop that mastery. They can have that autonomy. They can work towards the purpose of getting our products out there, making them accessible to improve people’s health and wellbeing. By doing that, by really investing hard in training, even though it’s not this urgent thing to do, it’s really important.
We find that things that are important and not urgent often get squeezed out because of noisier things that grab our attention, or emails that appear in your inbox, or press opportunities, conversations with investors. All of these things are a lot more noisy and can grab your attention. Things like training, your team, creating company processes, investing, and things like the SEO of your website or setting up sales funnels and training your team to do all of those things. Those are not activities that are celebrated or talked about a lot in the startup community.
Felix: This focus on the long term is often overlooked, was there something you learned along the way to make you take this approach?
Rachael: The fact me and my business partner worked for a bit before we went full-time on the company really helped. I worked at Kraft’s head office in the UK, and I worked as a data analyst. I saw that the way I was trained sucked. I didn’t enjoy the training, and it wasn’t like my manager wasn’t cool. It wasn’t their fault. It was just that there were parts that had clearly been planned way in advance. My first day my orientation was fantastic. They indoctrinated me into Cadbury’s World and I had so much love for the brand after that. Then they sent me to Cadbury World, which is basically a theme park and gave me loads of free chocolate. So that was great. That was a good initiation, but the training to actually do my job, it was really boring. I was a data analyst and I was dealing a lot with Excel spreadsheets and VLOOKUPs, that kind of thing. No one at any point explained why I was doing what I was doing. I’m a curious person. I need to understand how things work in order for me to care otherwise they just feel like it’s wasted time. So what happened is they were kind of treating me and everyone in my department that like a cog in a machine, who was just taking data from one place, running some analysis, and putting it in another.
I would ask questions to figure out what exactly I was doing. I was in the supply and demand management department. It was about making sure that the factories produced enough chocolate to meet demand from all of the different retailers, but not too much that it ended up in a landfill, getting thrown away, or destroyed. Balancing that was the super complex thing. That’s actually really interesting, but no one told me that. Big organizations often have this thing where you can just go into folders you’re not meant to be in and just read about the company. So I did that because I wanted to be good at my job. And I just thought it was interesting.
I took those lessons and I thought, “Okay, I never want anyone in Afrocenchix to feel like a cog in a machine who’s just doing something and do not understand what they’re doing.” So every single member of the team, whether they’re customer-facing or not, they’re going to hear customer reviews. They’re going to hear these transformative stories. They’re going to understand how happy they make our customers and the huge impact that they are making. Similarly, my business partner Joycelyn worked in recruitment. She worked with underprivileged kids, getting them into the corporate world, meaning she worked with a lot of people on improving CVs, cover letters, that kind of thing. Her training was okay, but she didn’t love it. It didn’t really help her to feel a sense of purpose and to feel engaged. She saw that “Okay, there’s high turnover in a lot of these places.” We had a lot of conversations and one of the things we explored was the fact that high turnover is often due to companies becoming too big, too fast, not having clear processes, not taking their people on the journey. That showed us that, “Okay, we want to build a company that we enjoy working at and that anyone who joins us will like working with us.” The way to do that is to make sure that you bring your people on the journey. You help them to understand why you do what you do. For us, the most obvious way to do that was training. I did work in education for a bit. I worked in schools. So training people was an offshoot of that. Before we had our first hires, we used to have work experience students or interns from local universities come and work for us over the summer.
We decided, Okay, we’re going to train them up. We’re going to give them a leg up so that they can get a job when they graduate and we’re going to give them some real-life work experience, because we know it’s quite hard, especially for women, to get experience in stem. As we were doing that, an unintended consequence, we ended up getting training on how to manage people, how to lead the team. We thought that training was so important that before anyone has to think of anything, you almost have to download your brain and pass it on to them. Those were the main things.
We had a lot of luck with employee number one, and then employee number two, not so much. It was a big headache and it was a real shame because we invested a lot into her. That’s the downside with a startup, you can train someone up, put a load of resources into them, and then they either leave, or you have to fire them. In this case, it was an issue with her not doing her best work, being a bit dishonest. We went our separate ways, but we’d invested so much time in her and it was really frustrating. I’d actually had advice from a friend in HR and some different advisors who were investors, who basically said, “When you’re a small business, you cannot afford to invest loads in people. You’ve got a whole team, you have to support all of your team. So you need to make sure you hire slow and fire fast.”
I definitely agree with that, but that doesn’t take away from the need for training. It’s better that you learn someone isn’t up for the role during the recruitment process. If they still slip through the net and you hire someone who maybe has the gift of the gab, is really good at talking, but not so great at doing the job, it will come out during the training process. It’s better that it comes out in training than that it comes out on the job, in front of a customer or managing your website, or on a big marketing campaign. I still think training is really important. I also think you need to be selective with who comes into your startup and who gets to benefit from that training.
“I still think training is really important. I also think you need to be selective with who comes into your startup and who gets to benefit from that training.”
Developing and achieving a 10x marketing strategy
Felix: Tell us about your 10x marketing strategy.
Rachael: It started off with data. We had to go into our Google Analytics, open up our Shopify reports, look at the logs from our customer calls that we do at Afrocenchix. We had to look at, “Okay, where do we want to go and where are we now?” Then map out the journey. We currently get about 50,000 visitors to our website every month, but we have a lot to do in this. When we started off our 10x plan, we had like 3,000 or 4,000 people visiting the site a month. At that point, we had a conversion rate of around 3%. We thought, Okay, if we want to 10x ourselves, here are the different routes we can take.
We can increase our traffic but keep our conversion rate the same, or we can improve our conversion rate and keep the traffic the same and we could achieve the goal either way. To improve the conversion rate, what do you need to do? Okay, here is the list of resources. We’ll take this many people. You’ll need a developer, you’ll need a designer, you’ll need someone to be managing that project. They could be outsourced people. It could be hiring more people. Even if we take on those roles within the team, that’s going to be quite a large time commitment. You’ll need serious deep work sessions. That’s going to be l three, four months of work. It will take a certain amount of money and we looked at it that way. Then we also thought, “Okay, so if we keep conversion rates the same, but we increase our traffic, how do we do that?” You can do it through SEO, which people say is free, but it’s not really for you because you have to create content, which takes time and time is money. You have to do research which you can pay someone to do, or you can do the research yourself.
It takes some kind of resource. We looked at that and we mapped it all out and we thought, “Okay, what we’re going to do is we’re going to do a marketing campaign. We’re going to rebrand. We’re going to go to this trade show and we kind of listed out all the different activities. Then we looked at our data and we looked at where our traffic was coming from and made this huge table. We looked at organic, social media, pay-per-click referrals, and events. Then we broke down the activities that feed into each of those channels, which got people onto our website.
Then we just broke it down into, “These are going to be the steps. These are the milestones in order to 10x sales.” Which we did manage to do. It took us about a year and a half, but we’re quite proud that we’ve reached the milestone of 10 times the cells. We’re working on a similar project now and what we learned from that is that if you get the whole team aligned in something, so we wrote the timeline out on the walls so that whenever we were in the office, we could circle it and be like, “Hey, this is where we are. We’re going to do a five-hour sprint now.” Everyone is hard working on adding tags and adding alt tags to all of our blog posts. Then going forward, we’ll make sure that will never have to happen again because we’ll have it within a process if that makes sense. It was about identifying the low-hanging fruit, the areas where you can quickly iterate in the improvement, and then scheduling in the time and lead in the team to do that together.
Felix: When you looked at all the analytics, did you focus on optimizing the areas where more traffic was coming from, or increasing the areas that were more low traffic?
Rachael: We went the strength route. We tried to be optimistic. We thought that if people on Instagram are loving us, let’s do more on Instagram and see if we get more love. It worked out quite well for us. Our biggest sources of traffic, most of it is actually direct and organic, which is really good. We know that that comes from things like podcasts, speaking engagements, being on panels. We do a lot of pro bono stuff and volunteering. We’ll mentor young people speaking at schools. We don’t do that because it’s good marketing, but an unintended positive consequence of that is if the teacher has Afro hair, or one of the parents hears about it, they take that as a signal that “Wow, you guys must really care.” No one really has time to go and do some fake volunteer work that they don’t publicize in order for people to think that they care about the community.
That sends trust signals, and that teacher is going to tell their friends and family, “Hey, one of the founders of Afrocenchix came and I used their products and I really like it. They did this talk for the kids and the kids loved it. Those kinds of things contribute to organic traffic. It’s a bit harder to trace, but we know what contributes to organic traffic because we call the customers who come through as organic. We go through this survey with them and then we write it down and we know word of mouth is one of the most effective channels. Events are really effective and obviously, with coronavirus, It’s harder to do events, but there are online events we’re doing. And then stuff like flyers are still effective or people reading about us in a magazine, that kind of thing is also beneficial.
Press often feeds into that. People might read about us in a newspaper and then they Google our name and that comes through as an organic search, or it could just be our blog. SEO is huge. It’s one of the biggest drivers of organic traffic along with word of mouth. Then after the organic, it’s split quite evenly between social media and that’s mainly Instagram and Facebook, then search, so Google and YouTube are the main ones. Google has definitely overtaken Instagram for us in terms of the volume of traffic. That’s probably because we’re on this Google for startups program at the moment and we’ve had loads of support in how to improve our Google ads and in doing so, we’ve also managed to improve SEO a bit.
Our biggest sources of traffic are organic, and I think even though you can get false growth through paid traffic, it’s really important to focus on organic because that’s the real litmus test for whether or not you’re offering value to people. If people are coming to your website spontaneously, then returning and telling friends, that’s a good sign that your content is good, and content in a website that works really well organically is going to do better when you then put money behind that and get paid traffic as well.
Felix: How has the pandemic influenced the business for you?
Rachael: We sell in general, about 80% of our sales online through our Shopify store, then about 20% was retail. We managed to secure two large retailers. The first mainstream retailer we went into was Whole Foods in the UK. Then we got to a point where two large retailers were going to place an order that was worth about $120,000. That would have come through in April, for us to be stocked in the summer and that was like our biggest order. It was really going to revolutionize the business. Then, of course, the zombie apocalypse began, and that wall fell apart. With all the changes with COVID, we lost out quite a bit. There was an intern we were going to start. We had to stop that. There was a new hire we were going to make, and we did go ahead with that, but we had to completely change the way we onboarded and trained her. She’s great. She’s passed probation from home, which is a first for us Afrocenchix.
We were going to release a new product, and we didn’t get to do that. What we did to get to do was double down in supporting our community. Coronavirus is awful. It’s hit lots of people and we have members of the team who’ve lost loved ones because of the virus. We have so many people in our community who’ve lost loved ones. We have many people in our community who are key workers that are on the front line. They’re doctors, they’re nurses, they’re teachers that are at risk, and what we wanted to do was support them. We started to put out content that was using all of this knowledge that we have, content like how to look after your hair and keep it clean and safe if you’re a doctor because obviously, you have to wash it a lot more.
If you’ve got Afro and curly hair, you typically wash your hair like once or twice a week, but you can’t do that if you’re going to have a high viral load. Then equally when the virus was announced and the lockdown was announced in London around March, our sales dipped massively. No one was thinking about hair care, which was fine and made sense to us. We felt like it was a bit distasteful to keep running ads the way we were, so we turned them off. We stopped our campaigns and we just had a big discussion as a company. We came up with this covid risk management plan and we said, “Okay if we are struggling as a business, and we’ve recently raised investment like our cashflow is great. We’ve got a lot of runways. We have a lot of customers.” We could survive really low sales for a year. But we know that our community’s super entrepreneurial, that we’ve got lots of sole traders, lots of small businesses who are part of our customer base.
If we’ve had a sales dip, they probably had a sales dip too. We decided to use our platform to support our community instead of worrying about sales. We did a community spotlight where we would talk about different service providers or different products being sold by members of our community. We started to do brand partnerships and promote other black-owned businesses. We found that when we did this, it got loads of traffic to our website, which is what we wanted for these other brands. And it got people buying products from these other brands, buying services from these brands and medical providers. We also had trichologists, therapists, all that kind of stuff. They got in touch to thank us and say that they’d gotten more customers, which was great. That’s what we wanted. Another wonderful unintended consequence of us just trying to do what we thought was the right thing to do was every time we’d send out an email with the community spotlight, people would buy our products and our products weren’t even in the email. The lesson there was, if you look after your community, they’re going to look off to you.