By LAURA LOREK
Publisher and Reporter with Silicon Hills
Host of Ideas to Invoices
As a business reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, Michelle Breyer launched a website geared to girls with curls.
At a party with friends and colleagues, Breyer complained about the lack of hairstyles and products for women with curly hair. At the suggestion of a colleague to start her own website, she decided right then and there to get on a computer to search for information about products and services for women with texture in their hair. She couldn’t find much. That led her to launch NaturallyCurly in Austin with Gretchen Heber, a colleague at the paper in 1998.
“There was such a void of information for people with curly hair,” Breyer said. But people with texture in their hair make up 40 percent of the overall population, she said. They were being largely ignored by the hair care marketplace.
NaturallyCurly started as a hobby and a passion project.
But they listened to their community and they added products and services and content tailored directly to that community from audience feedback.
They never thought it would evolve into a big business. Initially they sold t-shirts to support the business. They created their first real business plan when they went out to raise money.
“If we had created a business plan too early, we may have limited ourselves,” Breyer said.
NaturallyCurly created the first eCommerce site targeted at women with curly hair, called CurlMart. They filled packages out of Gretchen’s house. They financed the site out of their own bank accounts.
They also had amazing mentors like Jimmy Treybig, founder of Tandem Computers, who served as the company’s early adviser.
In 2005, NaturallyCurly was making $250,000 a year. Breyer was working 40 hours a week on NaturallyCurly and she was working full time. She quit her newspaper job and plunged full time into entrepreneurship.
But it didn’t go exactly as planned.
The week after she left the newspaper, they lost their biggest advertiser and she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. But in even those bleakest moments, she didn’t give up. A week later, NaturallyCurly landed Paul Mitchell as an advertiser, led by Austin Billionaire John Paul DeJoria.
“Things just worked out because they had to work out,” Breyer said. “You can make things happen if you have to make things happen.”
NaturallyCurly raised $600,000 in seed stage funding and was the first investment from angels in the Central Texas Angel Network. They used the funds to bring on Crista Bailey as the company’s head of marketing. She eventually became Chief Executive Officer. They also used the money to hire a developer and a public relations firm.
“I know what I know and I know what I don’t know,” Breyer said. “I wanted to have people who really were much more knowledgeable in certain areas. As an entrepreneur, you’ve got to be constantly re-engineering yourself and finding your value. Your value is not just that you started the company. At some point, it’s got to be where do you fit in. You’ve got to be best at what you do even more so as the company grows.”
NaturallyCurly ended up raising another $250,000 a couple years later when it launched its stylist site geared to stylist reviews. That venture also allowed it to forge a partnership with Modern Salon.
At first, people didn’t take NaturallyCurly seriously. But then they started getting invited to special shows and industry events. They became the leader in the texture hair industry and they still are, Breyer said.
Content and community are everything for NaturallyCurly, Breyer said.
“You can never lose sight of that community,” she said. “They are the core.”
Walmart does a campaign on NaturallyCurly because they know that community is engaged, Breyer said.
NaturallyCurly raised its third round, $1.2 million, that allowed them to develop a mobile app and those funds took them to a level where it became an acquisition target.
In September of 2015, Ultra/Standard, a multicultural hair care and beauty distribution company based in New York, acquired TextureMedia.
Today, TextureMedia has 40 employees and 100 contributors. It reaches about 26 million a month through all its websites and social media channels, Breyer said. It expects to grow 15 percent this year, she said. Its brands include NaturallyCurly, CurlyNikki, CurlMart and CurlStylists. It also launched TextureTrends in 2010 to provide hair care brands with consumer insights on hair care and style trends and behaviors.
“We created this market and now we have a lot of competitors,” Breyer said.
Startups as they grow must retain their entrepreneurial spirit, their flexibility and nimbleness and their entrepreneurial sense of urgency, Breyer said.
“You cannot be complacent,” Breyer said. “You have to constantly be re-innovating and bringing people in to help you.”
Editor’s note: Michelle Breyer was the first entrepreneur interviewed to kick off Silicon Hills News’ Ideas to Invoices Podcast. She provides a lot more insights into how she built NaturallyCurly in the podcast. Please listen to the interview or go to iTunes to subscribe to our weekly podcast. Please also rate and review the podcast on iTunes. We will soon be launching on Soundcloud, Stitcher and other podcasting platforms.