During graduate school, Keya James went on a hair journey to create natural hair formulas for herself, and later on, her daughter. She documented the entire process on Youtube, gained a following, and eventually monetized her hobby through Tailored Beauty, a haircare brand without harmful ingredients. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Keya shares her self-taught process of scaling beyond six figures and gaining retail partnerships, like Wal-Mart.
For the full transcript of this episode, click here.
From hobby YouTube channel to six-figure hair care business
Felix: The business started from YouTube, so tell us more about that. What was the beginning of the idea for the business?
Keya: When I first got started, I had a YouTube channel. I was in grad school at the time and I wanted a hobby. I started a YouTube channel to document my natural hair journey. I stopped chemically relaxing my hair at that time, so I wanted to show my audience how I was taking care of my hair and the natural ingredients that I was using.
I also had my daughter in 2013, so I started showing my audience how to use products that I was creating on her hair as well, and they saw how both my hair and her hair was growing from the products. My audience started asking for the products, if I could make the products. At that time, YouTube was where people looked for information, not iInstagram, as it is now. A lot of people were doing research by searching on YouTube and they would stumble across my videos.
That’s pretty much how it got started. I was doing it as a hobby and I slowly began to sell the products.
Felix: You started the YouTube channel from scratch. How quickly did it take off and you started noticing you were gathering followers?
Keya: I didn’t have much of an audience and Instagram wasn’t even a thing at that time. I was doing YouTube for two years before I actually started selling the product, and I started selling it slowly. I was making it in my kitchen and I created an Etsy store at that time. I was pretty much doing it for fun. The demand quickly grew and It somehow turned into a business because people were seeing how well the products worked on my YouTube channel, as well as the testimonials from other customers. A year and a half into doing it as a hobby was when we turned it into a business and really branded everything, got our trademark, and got our LLC.
Felix: So all the products were hommade when you first started, and then people were reaching out to buy them. That’s when you first realized there could be an actual business here?
Keya: Yes. They were homemade. I was making them in my kitchen at that time. It was me, my husband, who also encouraged me to start the business, and my mom. We would spend 20 plus hours during the weekend making products in the kitchen just to be able to fulfill the orders for the following week.
At that time, we only had three products. Because of the way we were producing those products, It was so time-consuming to produce them. We would spend a lot of time on the weekends producing the product, and then during the weekday I would fulfill my orders. I was still working at the time, so I would go to the post office to fulfill my orders for that week.
Felix: How long did it take you before you had a product that you were ready to start selling?
Keya: It took about a couple of months. I already knew how to make the product but we didn’t really start purchasing a lot of equipment until the demand grew. Within those couple of months, I still had to set up a site, purchase more ingredients to make the products, as well as create the labels. In the early stages of our business, we were actually creating the labels from the printer at home, so we just had to purchase components. It took two months to really get a look at what the products look like before we could actually begin selling those products.
Getting started through small, low-risk steps
Felix: Now you’ve got a whole product line, but when you first launched what was your minimum viable product?
Keya: I was selling Everything Butter, which is still our number one selling product. It’s a shea butter that you can pretty much use for everything. When I first introduced it to my audience, I was using it on my hair, and I was also using it during my pregnancy so that I didn’t have any stretch marks. Then I started using it on my daughter’s hair. So that was the first product that we launched. Then from there, we started creating hair oils, moisturizing mist, shampoos, and conditioners.
Felix: When you first started with this first product shea butter, how much inventory did you create before launching it to your audience?
Keya: To be completely honest, at the time I just wanted to give it out to my audience, so there was no strategy behind it. Now, everything we do has a strategy, we control our inventory. But at that time we were getting a feel for how many people wanted the products, and we would produce based on that. When we were purchasing raw ingredients, we were purchasing enough to do small batches. Small batches make pretty much anywhere between 50 to 100 products. As that grew, we would have to purchase more on a larger scale.
Felix: A lot of new entrepreneurs can relate to not wanting to take a huge risk and produce a large quantity of product without consumer validation. How did you go about measuring the demand for the product?
Keya: We measured demand by looking at our sales month-over-month and then year-over-year. My husband is also the co-founder of the company and he’s the COO–he has a background in finance. He has a finance degree and I have a business degree, so being able to utilize our strengths helped us to figure out how to strategize and come up with a plan to make sure that we’re not running out of inventory or over purchasing inventory. Being able to forecast what was going to come next was essential. Looking at our data for the last six months, looking at our data for the last year and really analyzing that, and when we were purchasing components and raw materials, we purchased based on what the forecast would look like.
Felix: You took the slow approach to building the business, really analyzed product demand and your own growth. At what point did you decide to go all in full time with the business?
Keya: I want to say about a year and a half into the business. That’s when we made our first six figures. This was based solely on just being able to have an audience on YouTube. We were both working full-time jobs, so at that time we weren’t paying ourselves. We were continuously reinvesting into the business. After about the second year, we had the money to really turn things around.
That meant not printing out labels at home, but working with someone who could print the labels for us. That meant not producing products at home, but finding a good manufacturer who could manufacture the products and using my formula on a larger scale. We took our time within the first two years of the business to understand how to run a business. How to do everything, understand our customers, and then slowly move onto different phases of the business.
After the second year of business was when we started doing a lot of trade shows, so really investing in our brand awareness. That helped our brand because it took it from being on YouTube and word of mouth to really being able to be in front of our target customer. Then we started working with influencers and meeting with different buyers who wanted to put our products into the store.
“It was a slow process in the beginning, but I’m glad that we took those steps because each year we learned a lot about how to effectively run a business.”
It was a slow process in the beginning, but I’m glad that we took those steps because each year we learned a lot about how to effectively run a business, so that when we got to those other steps within our business, we were prepared for that.
Felix: In those early days, what were the biggest lessons that you learned and really applied moving forward with the business strategy?
Keya: The biggest thing was manufacturing, especially when you create a product at home and you want to scale and mass produce that product. That was a huge challenge for us because with our products we use premium ingredients. With a lot of these ingredients, it’s very difficult to find a manufacturer who wants to use your exact same formula. It took us a while to find a manufacturer who would do that for us. This took me actually going to manufacturers, sitting down with them, bringing my equipment, showing them exactly how I was able to make this product so that there were no changes to the original formulas I had.
The power of 20,000 YouTube subscribers
Felix: You mentioned the six-figure mark being a milestone for the business, and you credit a lot of that to your YouTube audience. How did the growth of the channel coincide with the growth of the business? How big was your audience at that time?
Keya: It wasn’t that big. Someone may not think that an audience of about less than 20,000 subscribers on YouTube is a big audience. Now you have people who have millions and millions of subscribers on YouTube. The thing about it is although I had a small audience, I had a really good connection with my audience. I had a good connection with my audience and I wanted to educate people. That is what came first. When I would do my videos, and still to this day, I do YouTube videos. When I get in front of a camera, I really just want to educate people. That’s because I have a background in mental health, and I’m always trying to figure out how I can find a solution to a problem and really be able to explain that step-by-step to help someone.
“The thing is that although I had a small audience, I had a really good connection with my audience. I had a good connection with my audience and I wanted to educate people.”
When I would get on camera, it was just to have an authentic conversation with my audience. I was able to have those conversations and really explain things. That’s what helped because not only is she showing me this product, she’s explaining how this product is used, and she’s also showing the results behind this product. Being able to do videos, respond to comments, respond to emails, really interact with my audience and my customers, that’s what helped us get to that six-figure mark.
Felix: You mentioned the key thing here is to build that kind of connection through education. You’re really trying to solve problems for your audience. Tell us more about that. How do you identify what problems there are that you can create video content about?
Keya: Just talking to our customers. We talk to our customers in so many different ways. Keep in mind, I’m a consumer as well. I am a person who uses these products. I’m a person who struggles with being able to grow my hair, so I listen to what people have to say. The good thing is we have such good customers that they’ll actually go on YouTube as well and do reviews of our products. We watch the reviews, we read the comments, we attend trade shows. This was before COVID as well. We were able to attend a lot of trade shows and talk to our customers and really figure out what’s going on. By being able to do that, you figure out what type of problems your consumer has.
Felix: With this product specifically, testimonials and reviews speak volumes. Do you do anything to highlight these reviews to new potential customers?
Keya: We do that in a lot of different ways. One of our best ways is through Judge.me, which is an app on Shopify that we use. We use Judge.me, and customers are able to post pictures and write reviews. These are really important because we also run a lot of Facebook ads.
Sometimes we might have customers who come from our Facebook ads and they have no idea about the business. We still try to keep that organic approach to our marketing where you might even see a Facebook ad of myself talking about a problem that I have with my hair, showing the product and having a solution. From there people usually go straight to our website product page, and on the product page you see reviews from customers, before and after pictures, written testimonials. You even see those in a lot of comments under the ads on Facebook.
The biggest mistake to avoid when scaling
Felix: Today you understand how to run Facebook ads, but you mentioned earlier one setback that you had early on was hiring for these skills before you knew how to do it yourself. Tell us more about your experience with hiring out.
Keya: Early on in our business, one of the biggest mistakes was that we hired people but we didn’t understand their roles. After we rebranded our company, we started hiring social media management agencies, and they were not producing results. This was very frustrating because we saved up all this money from all the profits that we were making, and we were paying these agencies to get a return on investment, and there was no return on investment. I had to take full accountability for that because how can I manage someone if I don’t understand the job that they’re doing? How can this person present data to me if I don’t understand how to read the data?
I started investing in myself. I learned how to do Facebook ads and it was a challenge in the beginning, but once I learned how to do it, that’s when our business really took off. That’s when our ecommerce store took off because I was able to learn how to create ads and how to read data in order for the ads to work. Klaviyo is an app that I love that integrates really well with my Shopify store. I attended Klayvio events. Just being able to invest my time and really learn is what helped me to understand how to market better and how to have a higher return on our investment as far as marketing goes.
Felix: Tell us about the process of learning. What did you learn about creating these ads that really brought you to the next level?
Keya: I learned how to understand who my target customer is and how to speak to my target customer. This was really important because at the time I thought I knew who my target customer was, but once you really start learning and digging deep, you can narrow down your target customer to what type of stores they shop in, their education level, things like that. Once I was able to understand that, we started being very specific in how we spoke to our audience. I was speaking on YouTube, now we had to transition over to Facebook Marketing. Speaking to a YouTube audience versus Facebook marketing is kind of the same, but it’s not really the same. Learning that really helped me to understand the tone, the voice of the brand, and how to be strategic when we started producing these ads.
Felix: What were the differences between what you thought who your customers were and who they ended up actually being?
Keya: At that time, we thought our customers were people like myself. I was using the products and because I love the products, I thought my customer was just like me. That’s a little bit different because my customers do have textured hair, and they do love ingredients, but they may not necessarily have my hair type or the same exact struggles that I have.
I don’t want to just speak to myself, I want to speak to my customers. I had to really look through the data and create a quiz on my website. We put a quiz on the site to learn as much as possible about our customer. We started asking questions about their age, what problems they were having, do you have kids, do you have dry hair? Asking a whole bunch of questions to narrow down who our customer is, so that we weren’t just targeting just myself, but really targeting people who wanted to purchase our products.
Optimizing and retargeting with unique, engaging ads
Felix: You mentioned the quiz, but also evaluating the data. What indicators were you looking for in the data, that a business who doesn’t necessarily want to develop a quiz could also search for?
Keya: Some of the data that we were looking at was from Typeform. Typeform is an app through the Shopify store. You can create any type of quiz that you want and either put open-ended questions in the quiz, or yes or no questions in the quiz. We have a series of questions that we ask, but the biggest data that we get from that quiz is what is your biggest hair struggle? We are an education-based brand. We want to provide that education piece first. We want to know how we can help you solve this problem and how we can speak to our audience. Typeform gives us all of that data. Not only does it help us to understand the customer, how old they are, what problems they’re having, but it also helps us to be able to speak specifically to them because they’ve already told us what’s going on.
Felix: Asking your customer what their biggest struggle is regarding your niche is so valuable. How diverse are the answers when you ask that question?
Keya: We get a lot of diverse questions, but usually we find that there’s about four questions that everyone usually struggles with in our industry. They’re all related to the desire for healthy hair. We really try to figure out what questions are uncommon outside of those four questions? The good thing is we can not only address those concerns, but it gives us new ideas and it helps us become more innovative in the way we talk to our customers and when we think about product development for future products.
Felix: How do you use this knowledge to inform your ad spend strategy or your content marketing?
Keya: When we do paid ads, we actually have a funnel that we use. At the top of the funnel we have that education piece first, because we realize that when looking at that data sometimes people have products, but they really don’t understand how to use them. So, education comes first.
When we’re doing the ads, we try to produce nothing overly commercial. I’ll even be in my bathroom showing the product, showing how the product is used, explaining it and showing the results that we get. When we look at the data we want to convert, that’s the number one thing we want to do when we have an ad. We want to make sure that there’s a return and that the customer converts.
Having that social proof and not only showing myself using the products, but the next part of the funnel might include having influencers on ads. Influencers really help a customer see someone that might look like them. My customer may not look like me, but they may look like an influencer who’s used this product.
We want to show a variation of people who’ve used the product and the results that they have. When we’re bringing them from Facebook, we bring them directly to the product page that has the product reviews so that they can see other customers. They can see that education piece straight away because now the customers are educating them on how the product works, as well as visually being able to see it as well.
Felix: So you’re taking the data from this quiz, creating content around it, and then retargeting those people with social proof from familiar influencers. From there you drive them to the product page, which has even more education and social proof, and then a call to action.
Keya: Yes. Correct.
Felix: What do these top of funnel educational ads typically look like? How long form are the ads?
Keya: We don’t do anything more than a minute. We want to be straight to the point, and we want to do it in a minute or less. The goal within the first 10 seconds is to show the results. We don’t want people to feel like they’re being sold anything. We love the product so much, and we know that it works. We want people to see the results first. Once they see the results, we tell them how we got these results, but we never make it over a minute. With Facebook ads, anything over a minute can’t be repurposed on Instagram, and people are on Instagram just as much as they’re on Facebook. We want to make sure we can get that on both platforms.
Making the most of trade shows
Felix: You mentioned trade shows earlier. What were you doing at these trade shows? How did it lead to growing the business?
Keya: Our industry–which is the textured hair care industry, natural hair industry–does a lot of trade shows. They do trade shows for consumers. There’s a big trade show that’s based out of Atlanta that we do every year, and everyone in our industry is at these hair shows. During those hair shows, we have a booth. That’s a big investment as well, because when you’re at these hair shows, you’re competing for customers’ attention. We have a booth with models, stylists, and then we also have enticing offers for people to try the products.
The other good thing about trade shows is that there’s a lot of buyers and there’s a lot of people within the industry that are looking to make business with brands like myself. To either help grow their brand, or put their product in stores. We met the person who does our labels there. We met so many people that have been able to help our brand grow, but we’ve also been able to engage with our customers at these trade shows to bring awareness to our brand and the natural hair space.
Felix: You mentioned everyone in the industry attends these shows. How do you make sure your products stand out from competitors?
Keya: It really has to do with the ingredients in our products. Because we use premium ingredients. You don’t find these ingredients in our competitors’ products. I’m really conscious about my health. Early on when I started the business, I became conscious about what I was eating and I started a plant-based diet. We put ingredients that people haven’t heard of before, like fenugreek, black seed oil, gotu kola extract. These ingredients are not common in our industry, but they’re common in different cultures where you see people with long, shiny, beautiful hair.
By learning the benefits of those ingredients and putting them in our products, we noticed that people are using these ingredients, but they’re really expensive, and it’s DIY. Being able to use these exotic ingredients that have been proven to have results in our products is really what differentiates us from our competitors.
Felix: Is it something that you have to stay on top of to differentiate yourself? Do you find that you’ve carved out this lane that no one’s really encroaching on, or do you have to constantly do things to remain different?
Keya: We constantly have to do that. It’s easy for me because I’m a person who will shop at a farmer’s market as opposed to shopping at a grocery store. I’m just a regular person who loves Facebook groups about health or fitness. This is my lifestyle. I’ve become familiar with this space of using 100% natural products. I really live that lifestyle. It’s easy for me, and I’m learning more and more. I’m like, “Well, this would be really good for hair, this would be really good for skin, or this would be really good for that. Let’s try to create a product.” I’m always testing these products out. I’m always testing the ingredients behind the scenes before I’m bringing them to our manufacturers to mass produce.
Keya’s product development process
Felix: Tell us more about the product development process. Walk us through what happens once you have an idea for a new product.
Keya: Once I have an idea for a new product, I’m definitely testing out the ingredients. For example, our deep conditioner has fenugreek in it and fenugreek is a seed. In order to put it into our products, it has to become a powder. The process is mostly figuring out how I can take this ingredient, transform it into something else and put it into a hair product. That means experimenting, going back to my kitchen. Experimenting with these products, using them in my hair, using them in my daughter’s hair, giving them to family and friends and testing them out for a while before I bring them over to my manufacturer. One thing I never want to do is compromise any of my formulas. That’s something that I’ve always done since the beginning of the business, creating products and testing them on myself.
As the business scaled, I’ve been fortunate enough to find a manufacturer that specializes in textured hair and work closely with the chemist so that not only am I producing this great product, but when you have these natural ingredients, the last thing you want them to do is to go bad. A chemist is helping me to make sure that my products remain stable and don’t get any mold or bacteria in them.
Testing those products can sometimes take a year or two. My last line, I tested for two years before I brought them to the market. That meant I had to work with the chemist and the chemist had to make sure these ingredients would remain stable because my chemist wasn’t even familiar with these ingredients. It takes a lot of time to do product development before we even bring them to the market.
Felix: It can take a long time. What do you look for when you’re making that decision to move forward to market?
Keya: I look for results. That’s the number one thing, Results. I want the product to do exactly what it says it does. I’m looking for results to indicate that an ingredient is good to help strengthen the hair. I’m looking to test people who have this same exact problem and asking them, “Hey, do you want to try this product out? I know you have this struggle. Can you give me some feedback?” I want all the feedback. I want the good, the bad, and the ugly before I even bring it to market. The results are the number one thing that I’m looking for.
Felix: How long does it take before any finished product is ready to go on a shelf for someone to buy?
Keya: That can take up to a year as well, because once you have a product, you have to think about what this product is going to look like in packaging? What message am I going to send to the customer about this product? Do we like the consistency of the product? What can we do to change the consistency of the product?
One thing that I learned from attending trade shows and face-to-face interacting with customers, is that the most challenging part of having a product is the smell. The smell is the biggest thing that people are concerned about. Before they even use the product they want to smell it. We spent a lot of time figuring out what we wanted the product to smell like.
Because we use natural ingredients, we use essential oils for scents. One person may love lemongrass and another person may like lavender. Smell plays a big role because it can make a person feel a certain way. If they feel good about the smell, they feel confident about the product. If they don’t like the smell, they don’t like the product. Believe it or not during that year of working with the manufacturer the biggest thing is scent. How is the product going to smell for the customer?
Felix: How many products do you have now? How many products are in the product line?
Keya: Right now we have 14 products. We have our original product line, which we started at the beginning of the business. Then we have our Golden Herbal Collection. We also have plant-based hair vitamins. One of our newest products that we launched recently was a clay detox shampoo bar.
Felix: When you do have these new products that you’re creating, how do you launch it to your audience and your customers?
Keya: We have a full rollout. When we first started the business, it was a hobby so there was no real strategy behind what we were doing. Now it’s all strategy. We figure out how we’re going to let our existing audience know. When you’re coming out with a new product, your existing audience is the one who already wants the product. We’re figuring out how we’re going to give it to our customers first, and what that roll out looks like. What does the marketing plan for that rollout look like? What does the digital marketing plan look like? What does the press plan look like? What does email marketing look like?
Taking the road less traveled: from ecommerce to brick and mortar
Felix: What are some lessons that you’ve learned along the way to improve the packaging of your products?
Keya: Packaging was really important to us when we started going to trade shows and meeting with buyers. Ultimately, our goal was to do retail. Right now we’re in Walmart stores, so one of the things that we wanted to focus on is how the packaging will look in a retail space. Will the customer be able to clearly understand what this product does? Will this person be able to identify our brand?
When we started developing packaging, we wanted to one, make sure it was good for retail because that was our overall goal, and two, make sure all of our call-outs were on the packaging. They need to be able to identify what it does, who it’s for and to easily identify our brand if we were to do another line. Our Ultimate Collection has pink colors, our Golden Arbor Collection has orange colors. How do we have those two lines but make the packaging look the same so that the customer can still identify our brand?
Felix: You mentioned that a primary goal was to get into retail. What was the experience like to get into a big retailer like Walmart?
Keya: It was a good experience, but when you enter into retail, it’s like running a completely different business. For a long time we were running an ecommerce business and a lot of things had to change. To prepare for Walmart we had to figure out how to scale even more so that we could fulfill large purchase orders.
Felix: What changes did you make along the way to support this new buyer?
Keya: We didn’t change anything about the products. We wanted to make sure that our packaging really stood apart. We didn’t change our labels, but we increased the font on them so that people could easily read them. With ecommerce everything is done behind the scenes. You don’t really have to have a lot of staff. You can outsource staff to fulfill your orders. When we grew to supply to Walmart, we had to hire more staff. We had to bring more awareness to our brand. Our messaging has to look a little bit different because now we’re not pushing people to go to the website–well, we’re still pushing people to go to the website, but we also want to push people to go to the store. Having different marketing goals is something that we had to consider when moving to retail.
Felix: What apps or tools that you use to help run the website or the business?
Keya: I love Typeform. I love Klayvio, Judge.me. We also use the Store Locator website because we are in select Walmart’s now. We want to make sure the customer goes to the right Walmart and independent retailers to find our products. Having that on our website is one of the most beneficial apps because we can send customers who may not want to purchase online directly to the store.
Felix: What do you think has been the biggest lesson that you’ve learned over the past year that you want to put into action moving forward?
Keya: The biggest lesson that I’ve learned in the past year. I spend so much time running my business and doing a lot with my business. When we started to grow, I hired out and that wasn’t successful for me, because I had to learn. During the past couple of years, I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned about marketing. I’ve learned about Facebook ads, how to run a Shopify store, how to do all of these things. The biggest lesson I want to apply moving forward is delegating. In order for my business to continue to scale and grow, in order for me to continue to be creative and focus on product development, understanding my customers, building this team is really important for me. Learning how to manage people is something that I’ve had to learn to do in the past year. Learning to manage a team, manage other parts of my business and really figure out how to scale, even more as the business grows.