One Entrepreneur’s Journey Towards Creating Fashion-forward Protective Hair Accessories

grace eleyae

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of interviews with ecommerce founders who will also be featured on Live From Your Laptop in celebration of Black History Month.

As the adage says, necessity is the mother of invention.

Grace Eleyae, founder and CEO of the namesake protective hair products brand, can tell you, first-hand, that this is true—an idea that sparked from her trip to Kenya is now a multi-million-dollar business, beloved by YouTube influencers and Oprah Winfrey alike.

I recently talked to Grace to learn how she started her business, what marketing channels have been most impactful towards her brand’s growth, and how she’s tripled sales year-over-year.

Read on to learn more about how Grace founded her business, then save your spot for the next episode of Live From Your Laptop to hear Grace and the brand’s Chief Marketing Officer, Angel Eleyae, discuss their direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing strategy.

Grace Eleyae founder and CEO

Alex McPeak: Tell me about your background and what you were doing before starting the Grace Eleyae brand.

Grace Eleyae: I worked for a niche public relations firm out of Newport Beach. Then, I moved to Baton Rouge where I worked as an executive assistant to the CEO of a nationwide company called Maroochy for about a year. From there, I moved back to California where I was doing customer development for a business-to-business (B2B) startup out of Long Beach. 

When I created the Slap (Satin-Lined Cap)®, I got into grad school at Northwestern the same month. So, we started the company while I was in grad school. 

 

Alex: How did you come up with the idea for your business?

Grace: In January 2013, I was visiting my mom’s family in Kenya. Between a combination of my heat-straightened hair, which was also chemically straightened, and the fact that it was summer in Kenya, plus the eight-hour round-trip drive to the coast with my head bobbing up against the headrest, I experienced a two-inch-wide diameter breakage right in the middle of my head. 

My mom had warned me about the dusty, dry heat of these drives. She said, “You might want to wear a scarf,” but I said, “No, I’m on vacation. I want to look cute.” 

Of course, to my dismay, I didn’t take her advice, but it got me thinking, “There has to be something out there that’s cute enough for me to feel like I look good on vacation, but that’s also protective of my hair.”

That’s where the wheels started turning.

"It got me thinking, 'There has to be something out there that's cute enough for me to feel like I look good on vacation, but that’s also protective of my hair.' "

Grace Eleyae, co-founder and CEO, Grace Eleyae

 

Alex: When did the idea take off?

Grace: I was taking sewing classes at night in 2013, but I didn’t make the first Slap prototype for about a year. Then in February 2014, I showed it to friends and family, and they all said, “This is great. I love it.” They became my first focus group. The first version was tiny—it looked like a skullcap—so my family helped me develop it to create the Slap we know now.

I founded the company with my brother, my younger sister, and my mom. So, it’s not just me as the founder of the company. My brother jumped in full-time and he was doing most of the legwork in the beginning and we would help as much as we could—and this was all while I was in Chicago and the rest of my family was in California.

We started selling on Etsy and I was still making all the Slaps myself. My brother and I were talking because we made a pact years earlier—one day we would create something together. He’s said, “If you create a product, I’ll help you scale it.”

I told him, “I think we have something here,” so he gave me a credit card with a $10,000 limit on it and said, “Let’s see how far we can get with this.” 

"I told [my brother], "I think we have something here," so he gave me a credit card with a $10,000 limit on it and said, "Let's see how far we can get with this." "

Grace Eleyae, co-founder and CEO, Grace Eleyae

We used that to fund our first manufacturing run, to create a website, and to create the content for the website. That summer, we had our photo shoot, we got all of the materials to the manufacturer in downtown Los Angeles, and then I left for grad school.

When I came back, the manufacturing was done and the website was completed. In September, we worked on launching Grace Eleyae. 

grace eleyae direct to consumer ecommerce website

 

Alex: How did you get your first customers?

Grace: We sent hundreds of emails to what we called, “YouTubers with a high following.” Now, of course, we know them as “influencers.” 

We got three responses total. One said, “No.” One said, “Not now.” The last one said, “Go ahead and send it to me, and maybe I’ll review it.”

For a while, we were still selling one or two Slaps a day on Etsy—we were rejoicing if we sold five in a day. Then, suddenly, we had 25 sales in one day. The next day, sales doubled. 

"For a while, we were still selling one or two Slaps a day on Etsy—we were rejoicing if we sold five in a day. Then, suddenly, we had 25 sales in one day. The next day, sales doubled. "

Grace Eleyae, co-founder and CEO, Grace Eleyae

My brother did some digging and discovered that all the sales were coming from the website of that one person who said, “Send it to me and we’ll see.” She wore it in one video and did a review of it in another. 

We continued partnering with influencers throughout 2015 to help us teach consumers about the product and how to use it. We knew we couldn’t go directly into retail stores because the product needed an explanation, so we focused on educating people through our DTC website, our content, and our influencer relationships.

Today, we’re in Ulta, JCPenney, and Anthropologie, and we’re partnering with Sephora this year, but our ecommerce website is still our primary source of revenue.

Grace Eleyae welcome series email

 

Alex: How has Grace Eleyae grown since you first started your brand?

Grace: For the first three years, we grew 10x year-over-year, so we increased our revenue by about 1,000 percent each year. We went from around $80,000 our first year to $600,000 the next year and five million dollars the year after. Now, we’re making around seven and a half million dollars a year in revenue.

"For the first three years, we grew 10x year-over-year, so we increased our revenue by about 1,000 percent each year. We went from around $80,000 our first year to $600,000 the next year and five million dollars the year after. Now, we're making around seven and a half million dollars a year in revenue. "

Grace Eleyae, co-founder and CEO, Grace Eleyae

We still sell our original product, the Slap, but now we also offer other protective hair products such as headbands, scrunchies, pillowcases, and hats. We’ve also been featured on Fast Company, Good Morning America, and Oprah’s Favorite Things 2020

 

Alex: How would you say email marketing has contributed to the growth of your business?

Grace: We get most of our repeat purchases through it. Email is one of the most efficient forms of marketing. It helps you better understand how you can meet your customers’ needs and communicate in a way that resonates with them. 

"Email is one of the most efficient forms of marketing. It helps you better understand how you can meet your customers’ needs and communicate in a way that resonates with them. "

Grace Eleyae, co-founder and CEO, Grace Eleyae

We’ve used email both to create loyalty in our current customers, as well as to inspire those who may have just signed up for the email list to actually make a purchase. 

Interested in learning more about Grace Eleyae’s email marketing strategy?

Register for Live From Your Laptop

 

Alex: What’s been the biggest challenge in starting and growing your own business?

Grace: There’s a different challenge every day. 

I look at starting your own businesses as a faith journey where the stakes get higher and higher as you increase your revenue. When it’s just you, there’s no real risk. But as soon as you start adding in family members who are leaving their jobs, and then you’re adding employees, the risk gets higher and higher, and the problems also get more complex. It’s a different challenge every season. 

"The stakes get higher and higher as you increase your revenue. When it's just you, there's no real risk. But as soon as you start adding in family members who are leaving their jobs, and then you're adding employees, the risk gets higher and higher, and the problems also get more complex."

Grace Eleyae, co-founder and CEO, Grace Eleyae

Now that we’re all working from home, we’re learning how to maintain a high level of communication and making sure everyone is still moving in the same direction.

 

Alex: What’s been the biggest reward?

Grace: Our core purpose here is to help make confidence look effortless, so hearing reviews and customer testimonials of how people are doing exactly that with Grace Eleyae in their own lives is incredibly rewarding. Being able to bring joy to people, even through something as simple as a product, is really cool.

"Being able to bring joy to people, even through something as simple as a product, is really cool. "

Grace Eleyae, co-founder and CEO, Grace Eleyae

 

Alex: What is your advice to others who are thinking about starting their own business, or who are in the beginning stages of building a business?

Grace: My advice is always, “Start somewhere.”

It’s really easy to get into analysis paralysis and get bogged down in the details when all we see is the wall of problems and barriers to entry. But I always say, “Solve the problem in front of you.” 

But start with the first step—if it’s a product-based business, create a prototype that you can start showing to friends and family to get their opinion. If it’s a service-based business, see who needs that service by getting focus groups together to provide feedback. 

Just get started wherever you can with whatever resources you have available to you.

"It's really easy to get into analysis paralysis and get bogged down in the details when all we see is the wall of problems and barriers to entry. But I always say, 'Solve the problem in front of you.' "

Grace Eleyae, co-founder and CEO, Grace Eleyae

Interested in learning more about Grace Eleyae? Register for the next episode of Live From Your Laptop to hear Grace share more about the digital marketing tactics her brand swears by.

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