This is how you launch a product
How Kim went from pivoting CurlMix in 2018 to making ~$10M in annual revenue
Kimberly Lewis is the CEO and co-founder of CurlMix, a brand of natural hair care products designed for curly and textured hair types. In this episode, Kim takes us behind the scenes of how she went from pivoting the business in 2018 to making ~$10M in annual revenue. She shared a ton of practical advice, including:
How she launched CurlMix, securing PR coverage in seven publications and partnering with three major influencers without spending a penny.
How she managed to pivot the business after realizing that her 30% margin was too low to be sustainable.
All the growth drivers behind the first $1M in revenue.
How she received her first check from Arlan Hamilton, founder of Backstage Capital.
How she secured a $1.2M check from the former CEO of LinkedIn after rejecting an offer on Shark Tank.
This is how you launch a product
The first iteration of CurlMix was a DIY box for making hair care products at home. Kim eventually pivoted away from that business model (we'll get to that later). However, the way she got it off the ground is a masterclass on how small startups with limited funds should launch a product. So let's take a closer look.
Kim got the idea for CurlMix after watching a Shark Tank episode about a business selling DIY boxes for making organic cookies at home. At the time, the natural hair movement was gaining popularity, with many people making their own natural hair products. This sparked an idea for Kim to create a DIY box for curly hair.
In June 2015, Kim launched her first CurlMix box. Unfortunately, the launch went almost unnoticed. However, she didn't let the initial setback discourage her. She got back to the drawing board and came up with a better plan. On the day of the second launch, CurlMix was promoted by three influencers, got coverage from 10 publications, and sold hundreds of boxes. All of that with no budget. Here’s how she did it:
Working with influencers: Working with influencers who have 100k+ followers is easier said than done. As a small and bootstrapped startup, it's even difficult to connect with them, let alone pay $10k+ to work with them. But Kim did it. And without spending a single penny upfront. Her strategy focused on two main elements:
Kim didn't look for any influencer. She looked for YouTubers who were really passionate about the natural hair movement and were already creating content about DIY hair care products. These people were deeply aligned with CurlMix's mission and vision, and Kim connected with them on a deeper level.
Kim made them part of the product. This is the most genius part of the strategy. Instead of paying these influencers to simply sponsor CurlMix, Kim co-created a personalized box/recipe with each of them and agreed to pay them a fee when their box launched. This was no longer just Kim's product; it was their product. Below is a 7-year-old video from one of those influencers. If you go to 0:30, you can see for yourself that she says, "My CurlMix will launch in two weeks." Not Kim's CurlMix, not any CurlMix, she says My CurlMix.
Getting PR coverage: Getting PR coverage as a just-launched startup is not an easy task. You have no connections, no experience, and no brand. Indeed, Kim had no luck in pitching journalists with her first launch. But this time, she adopted a different approach and got coverage from 10 publications. Here's how she did it:
Kim used Buzzsumo to find popular articles on DIY hair care products and identified journalists writing about DIY recipes. She pitched them, referencing their specific articles, and explaining why her product would interest their audience. Kim admits, “When I first pitched journalists, I did not pitch them like this. I pitched them why I was important and why they should want to cover the launch. They all said no.”
When Kim reached out to the journalists, she already had a proposal and a draft for the specific type of content that each of them could write about CurlMix. As Kim points out, "When you pitch a journalist, you want to almost write the article for them." By getting 90% of the work off their shoulders, you are removing a lot of friction and increasing the chances of them saying yes.
While some of the journalists say no, an author from Refinery29 accepted to cover CurlMix’s launch. With that coverage, Kim approached Essence, Ebony, Allure, Hype Hair, and all the other magazines that initially said no, informing them that Refinery29 was covering her product. And that’s how she secured coverage from 7 out of 10 pitched magazines
From DIY to CPG: CurlMix's Pivot
CurlMix DIY boxes were doing well, and the business grew to around $120,000 in revenue within the first year. However, there was a problem. While chatting with other CPG founders, Kim found out that the typical margins in the hair care industry were around 80%, while her DIY boxes were only generating 30% margins.
She knew that the only way to achieve those margins was to pivot to becoming a CPG brand selling ready-made products. However, keeping the product organic involves many processes that manufacturers were unwilling to do. She needed to find a solution.
Determined to find a way, she picked their best-selling box and started producing them on her own, at home, while seven months pregnant. Man, if that isn’t hustling!
But Kim didn't expect to see their revenue significantly drop in the first month of the pivot, generating just $3,000 in sales. However, before she started doubting her decision, their revenue gradually increased, reaching $30,000 in the third month, with no paid advertisements or promotions.
In hindsight, that decision was, of course, a no-brainer, as CurlMix is now doing ~$10M in revenue. But at the time, it was a challenging decision. Pivoting a startup is always a challenging decision, as it’s difficult not to focus on the sunk costs that have already been invested in the business.
However, when you have enough customer feedback, you should ignore those sunk costs and make that difficult decision. As Kim puts it, “My best customers were unsubscribing because they had boxes at home that they hadn't gotten to, so I learned that my product was a vitamin and not a painkiller. It was fun to do, but it wasn't really solving their problem because they were still buying ready-made products.”
Growth drivers behind the first $1M in revenue
CurlMix is now generating millions in revenue and has multiple drivers fueling its growth, including paid channels. However, at the time, it was just a bootstrapped business with a limited budget, so they had to get creative about their growth.
Kim had already partnered with large influencers to promote the DIY boxes, but her strategy of making them a part of the journey couldn't work for their newly-created products. This time, she needed a different strategy. Their growth from $30k a month to $1M annual revenue was mainly fueled by three channels:
Micro-influencers: Kim sought out micro-influencers who were former users of DevaCurl but wanted a more natural alternative. She had a specific strategy to find them: "I searched for the hashtag #devacurl to find micro-influencers who no longer used it because they wanted a more natural alternative," she explains. As in sales, so in influencer marketing, the key is real personalization. Kim didn’t just spam hundreds of influencers. She manually searched for influencers with a specific problem and explained why CurlMix would matter to them.
Stylists: Kim launched an affiliate marketing program for professional stylists, offering them a revenue share of 20% for each sale made using their code. Kim still remembers, "One stylist brought me $5,000 in one month. This worked because we partnered with professionals that people trust, not just like.” At the time, though, there were no platforms to automate this affiliate program. So Kim handled everything manually. As she puts it, “I used to manually create a code in Shopify for each of them, send them a screenshot of their sales, and process the payments. It was incredibly manual and it wasn’t sexy. But it worked.” We've seen this many times at Founder Secrets; it’s the same playbook of doing things that don’t scale. As Kim said, it’s not sexy, but it works. It always does.
Facebook ads: As with many CPG brands, another key driver behind CurlMix's growth to $1M in revenue was Facebook ads. Personal tip: doing Facebook ads is scalable, effective, and measurable. But it's also true that they could stop working overnight. So I would advise any brand to also work on other channels and never put all their eggs in the Facebook ads basket. I've seen so many companies get crushed when their Facebook ads stopped working!
The first check
In addition to sharing the incredible growth playbook behind the first $1M in revenue, Kim also shared many insights behind their fundraising journey, including receiving a $1.2M check from the former CEO of LinkedIn. But to get there, we have to take a step back and dive into how she got her very first check from Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital.
Kim remembers meeting Arlan at her first speaking event in 2017. It was an event for black and brown founders in the basement of a co-working space in Silicon Valley. Kim flew there from Chicago just to attend that event, and it was worth it!
Right after the speech, there was a speed dating session with VCs. Unfortunately, Kim had to fly back to Chicago, but her husband Tim stayed and pitched to Arlan, who ended up investing. As Kim puts it, they were "in the right room with the right people." No cold outreach, no complicated sequences, just old-school human connection.
$1.2M from LinkedIn's CEO
In 2019, CurlMix received a $400,000 offer from Robert Herjavec on Shark Tank for a 20% equity stake at a $2M valuation. However, the company was already making $1M in revenue at the time. Therefore, Kim decided to turn down the offer because she felt it undervalued their business. The Sharks' reaction in the video below says it all—they knew that offer was ridiculous.
Right after recording the episode, Arlan introduced Kim to one of the early employees at LinkedIn, who invested $200,000 alongside Jeff Weiner, the former CEO of LinkedIn.
Interestingly, Jeff happened to watch Kim's episode on Shark Tank when it aired and realized that he had already invested in the company. Impressed by Kim's pitch, he personally reached out to invest at a post-money valuation of $12M, which was a significant increase compared to the $2M valuation offered by Robert Herjavec. Of course, Kim accepted the offer.
In 2021, CurlMix launched a community round on Wefunder and raised $1M in the first four hours. The round eventually closed a few months later, raising a whopping $4.5M from 6,948 investors. You can read more about this in their case study.
In 2011, long before CurlMix, Kim and her husband launched a niche social network for natural hair. Ultimately, they decided to shut down the business after two years, but the mistakes and lessons learned from that experience were the foundation for their future success.
CurlMix has been a team effort since day one, and it wouldn't be where it is today without the support of Kim's husband, Tim.
Before launching their first startup, Kim signed Tim up for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and he ended up winning $100,000. Part of that money was used to start their entrepreneurial journey.