All big businesses start somewhere.
Carolyn Aronson, founder, CEO and proud 100% owner of It’s a 10 Haircare, started her hugely popular brand from nothing about 15 years ago. She watched every penny, wore every hat in the business, and bootstrapped her way to sales. Sound familiar?
Aronson’s products have a cult-like following, her South Florida-based company is going global, and sales are in the nine-figures now. But regardless of the number of zeroes, the process of building a business is the same. Whatever the size of your business, it is important to provide something unique to the marketplace and keep raising the bar, while staying lean and mean, says Aronson. It’s a 10 Haircare is one of the few big beauty brands that is women-owned and Latina-owned.
Aronson shared the ups and downs of her entrepreneurial journey with small business owners and startup founders at the recent HERImpact Summit in Miami last week, in a discussion moderated by Miami venture capital investor and music industry veteran Monique Idlett-Mosley. The HI-HERImpact initiative, a two-year program that moved to Miami from DC this year, is a joint venture between Ford Motor Company Fund and 1863 Ventures to help power women-led businesses to make an impact in their communities. It also includes a new pitch competition.
Aronson credits her success to really knowing her customer. She was a hairdresser for 20 years and owned salons before launching her first product, which she created with all the qualities that she wished she had when she was behind the chair doing someone’s hair and that was not available in the market. After that, she kept the new products flowing.
It’s a 10 wasn’t her first product company; the first one failed miserably, she said. But, oh, she learned a lot. Don’t start out of the gate with nine(!) products. Assemble the right team around you — don’t try to do everything yourself. Don’t use different vendors for everything and let quality control slip through the cracks. Those were a few of the lessons learned the hard way.
With those learnings under her belt, she and a partner each invested $40K of their own funds to start It’s a 10 Haircare. Several years ago, after receiving an offer to buy the business for nine figures, Aronson decided instead to double-down, buy out her partner, and position the company for global growth.
“I took on debt, restructured the company, expanded and switched out some of my distribution nationally because I knew I was getting ready to go worldwide. I basically cocked my cannon – it was one of the riskiest things. It was a vulnerable time in the company,“ she said.
“I was able to transform a very vulnerable company, put it back on the map in a very real way, and really prep it to go worldwide. We are opening 16 countries in 2020. The world is ready for It’s a 10.”
Here is some of the advice she shared at HERImpact:
- Lean practices don’t end after the startup stage:. “I run a lean and mean ship. Even at a stage of this brand that is 9 figures and is growing fast, I still watch every penny. I still get multiple quotes and negotiate every bit of it.”
- Try to wear every hat within your company at one time or another. “Even if it is stocking shelves, I do that. You can’t expect your employees to do it if you don’t. I have a very lean running company because I have employees like me.” And who was the entire customer service department in year 1 of the company, answering all the questions about the product and dispensing some hair care advice on the side? You guessed it.
- Line up a line of credit for your company. This is to prepare for those inevitable humps you hit along your journey. “I am 15 years into this now and I am here to tell you the humps don’t go away.” She also recommended checking out SBA loan offerings.
- Don’t be so quick to give equity away. “I’m not a huge fan of giving up ownership. I am 100% owner of my company at this point and that is a rarity.”
- Pay yourself first to build up a nest egg. “When you start a business, you can tell the bank I’ve put this much away, match me. Bankers like to see that.”
- Make sure you are properly buttoned up from the get-go. When you are starting a new venture, you can get so caught up in what you are creating that you don’t pay enough attention to solid contracts, proper ownership, trademarking, patenting, etc.
- Grow slow and steady but vision is huge – think big. “All I can say, I always find a way. It takes an open mind and being creative. There are times when you will have to take baby steps and that is OK.”
- Network, ask for what you need – and give back. “I’m going to write a book about went I went through someday, because no one would believe it,” said Aronson, also a philanthropist. “Trust me, we all feed off each other, and networking is everything.”
In addition to going global, Aronson is creating a makeup line, two years in the making, and a hair extension business.
“I created the products that behind the chair I wish I had. Do that in your industry, and raise the bar. It’s been a 15 year learning journey and that is what being an entrepreneur is all about. I’m still learning every day,” Aronson said.
“When you love what you do, that’s how it rolls. Find your passion and just put a different spin on it.”