- Sharing your product prototypes with friends and family can help you gauge interest in your invention.
- Social media influencers can help you educate consumers about how to use your product.
- By not seeking a cash infusion from investors, you can allow your business to grow organically.
There might be a global pandemic going on, but for Grace Eleyae, and many of her employees, weekdays are still filled with meetings (though now remote), handling online sales and planning for the future. Eleyae's company, named Grace Eleyae, broke onto the hair care scene in 2014 and became an instant darling on social media. The company grew quickly due to word of mouth and rave reviews from several social media influencers, mostly because Grace Eleyae offered something no one else did: a high-quality, stylish, comfortable, satin-lined cap called "the Slap," which not only looked good enough to wear in public but also protected natural hair while staying put.
While other hair care brands have addressed breakage issues in the past – mostly with bonnets, wraps and skull caps – the results have historically been focused on function and not form or comfort. By contrast, the Slap is as much a chic fashion accessory as it is a piece of protective hair wear, and the demand certainly speaks for itself. Now, six years into the business, we spoke with founder Grace Eleyae to find out what it was like to transition from having a standard 9-to-5 job, to side hustling on Etsy, to running a full-scale hair care and beauty brand offering several product lines.
To fully understand Eleyae's small business success story we start at the beginning, with the invention phase.
The day Grace Eleyae became an inventor
When Grace Eleyae graduated from college with a degree in marketing, becoming a small business owner wasn't even on her radar as a life goal. She followed the path many millennials graduating at the height of a recession followed: She interned for a PR firm for a while, then worked as an executive assistant, and eventually ran customer development for a B2B startup. She was making progress in her career, but Eleyae never could have predicted how her professional trajectory was about to change.
It wasn't until 2013 on a trip to Kenya that Eleyae had her "aha moment" of invention. While on the trip, she experienced what many women experience, hair breakage, and her mind began to whir with possibilities. She told us, "It made me begin searching for something that was functional enough to protect my fine hair, yet stylish enough for me to wear on vacation – where I most want to look cute. I took the next year thinking through different ways to do it. At the time, I was taking sewing classes at night, and I started to look seriously into beanie construction, thinking that all I had to do was put satin on the inside of a beanie."
Of course, as any inventor will tell you, the road from idea to workable prototype to sellable product was a long one. The first obstacle was that the satin lining in the cap, which effectively protected her hair, also caused the cap to slide off. Eleyae explained, "In the last [sewing] class I took, we learned how to sew a hidden elastic band, and that was the final piece I needed to create the Slap. A couple of months later, in a moment of divine inspiration, I went to my sewing machine and sewed the first prototype. It was small, it looked like a skull cap, and the lining was way too big for the size I first sewed, but it worked. I went through about four or so iterations before finally settling on the version you see today."
From selling to friends and family to creating a business
Even after inventing a workable silk-lined cap, aptly named "the Slap," Eleyae wasn't bent on entering the beauty business full time; in fact, she was about to attend graduate school. She was sewing Slaps in her free time and had a small Etsy store, but her plan was to pursue more education, not become an entrepreneur right away. She said of her invention, "I was honestly just solving a very real problem in my own life. I wasn't looking to start a business at the time. My mom was actually the one who first saw the business opportunity."
Her mom wasn't the only one though; the more Slaps Eleyae created and sent to friends and family, the more positive feedback she got, and the more she began to realize the demand that was out there. "The reaction I received from my initial customers was enough for me to see that this had real potential to be something big. I remember talking to my brother on the phone. He asked me, 'Do you think this could be something?' And I replied, 'Yeah. I think we could sell 100 of these a day … at least!' He responded incredulously, 'You think you can sell 100 of these in a day?' and he gave me a $10,000 loan to get it off the ground. Months of toiling later, when our first influencer posted a video raving about the Slap and causing our first spike in sales, we knew this was going to be a full-time business."
Of course, with the realization that a real business based around selling the Slap was possible, other challenges presented themselves, namely, production. It was not feasible for Eleyae to continue to make each Slap in her home by hand while scaling her business, so after six months of doing production herself, she found a company in LA to do a small run of Slaps, and then it was on to the next challenge.
Scaling a business with social media
One of the most notable things about the Grace Eleyae brand's rapid success is the role social media played in catapulting it from a small Etsy store to a full-scale business. After a few months of selling on Etsy, word started to get around about the Slap. Sheer demand for the innovative product, which solved an extremely frustrating and very common problem, drove influencers to not only purchase the Slap but also rave about it on their social media accounts. The impact was nearly immediate, causing a spike in sales, which Eleyae then parlayed into long-term growth through targeted social media campaigns.
Since the Slap was a new invention and not a familiar product, Eleyae knew there would be great value in demonstrating its use and explaining its purpose, which was a great fit for social media. Eleyae told business.com, "I love the time we're in right now because business owners can speak directly to consumers en masse. Before, the only way to effectively reach consumers on a large scale was to get into a national chain. But we had a product that needed explaining. So we were able to partner with multiple influencers who helped explain the product to their audiences. Then we moved to social media advertising to further get the word out."
Eleyae's direct social media marketing efforts have been savvy, too, with metrics underpinning creative and marketing decisions. As each campaign is rolled out, the company assesses its efficacy. Eleyae said some key numbers she always looks at include the cost per acquisition, return on ad spend and, of course, advertising ROI.
Continued business growth without cash infusions
Aside from her brother's initial investment, Grace Eleyae has taken on no investors, participated in no incubators, and applied for no small business programs. In an era when many high-profile businesses are running on fumes and investment capital alone, and where plenty of sources say it is practically impossible to scale a business without expensive outside help, you might be wondering how that's even possible. While social media success is part of the equation it is not the full story.
According to Eleyae, seeking out investors wasn't a goal early on primarily, because there were so many other things to think about. She said, "We needed to figure where to host our website and how to design it. We had to research how to keep track of orders and inventory. We dealt with product quality issues with manufacturers as we moved from small scale to mass manufacturing." As each new challenge presented itself, Eleyae's focus shifted to the problem at hand.
Once production was under control and social media marketing was humming along, the need for additional cash was no longer imminent. Of course, now that the business has gained serious traction, offers of investment have been made, but Eleaye said none of have been a good fit yet. Instead, the company is focused on expanding its product line and visibility both online (where 90% of sales still occur) and in brick-and-mortar stores.
Taking on challenges and thriving through COVID-19
Today, Grace Eleyae is a growing protective hair and beauty brand with eight different specialty collections and dozens of products, including the original Slap, glamorous silk turbans, satin-lined baseball caps, satin scrunchies and silk headbands, warm wool hats and fedoras lined with satin, silk pillowcases, and even Slaps for kids. The classic Slap is gaining popularity among men, who like the Slap for its efficiency at protecting their hair against breakage, especially at night, as well as for its comfort and style.
Looking forward, Eleyae says she hopes to expand the brand further and launch new items like single-ingredient hair care products, more protective hair accessories, and even a loungewear line. Of course, recent events related to COVID-19 have affected daily operations and changed things a bit, but Eleyae is poised to take them on with flexibility and grace. Speaking of obstacles the company has already overcome, Eleyae said, "I think every major roadblock we had felt like the final roadblock. And each time we surpassed a challenge, we built strength for the next one! The challenges of 2015 pale in comparison to the challenges we face now. And I'm sure the ones that will come up in five years will look a lot bigger than the ones we're up against today."
Thus far, the company has adapted in many of the ways other companies have, by moving to a remote workplace model, and in Eleyae's words, having "lots of Zoom meetings!" She also noted the upside of these meetings, saying, "It's forced us to get more organized data and reporting on different metrics that drive the business forward." While the company is lucky in that online sales are still fully operational, Eleyae noted that other things have required more thought, like finalizing plans for Q2 with a remote team. The company has also continued to pay workers in full, both hourly and salary, who are unable to do their work remotely, which, while admirable, is also a challenge.
Like all small businesses operating right now, the path forward is subject to change depending on what happens with COVID-19, but Eleyae is optimistic about her company's future. After all, even without the coronavirus to contend with, the beauty and hair care industry is notoriously hard to break into; it's dominated by giant corporations who have ample resources for research and development, the ability to produce goods very cheaply, and existing relationships with retailers. Despite all that, Eleyae has managed to break through the online noise and reach customers.
With its online model thriving and its product line continuing to grow, Grace Eleyae is as well suited to weather the current crisis as any small business can be. Eleyae's advice to other small business owners out there is upbeat and about as entrepreneurially spirited as you can get; she says, "Just keep going. You can do this."