This Founder Started Her Multi-Million-Dollar Business With Just $100 From Her Savings Account

August 11, 2020
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You asked for more content around business finances, so we’re delivering. Welcome to Money Matters where we give you an inside look at the pocketbooks of CEOs and entrepreneurs. In this series, you’ll learn what successful women in business spend on office spaces and employee salaries, how they knew it was time to hire someone to manage their finances, and their best advice for talking about money. In honor of Black Equal Pay Day, we’re shining a spotlight on Black female founders by taking a closer look inside their successful businesses and how they funded them from the ground up.

In 2008, Rochelle Graham-Campbell paved the way as one of the first natural hair vloggers and quickly amassed a huge following on YouTube. Cut to 2020, and she’s turned those followers into dollars with her line of sought-after natural hair care products, Alikay Naturals. Today, the products Graham-Campbell used to make out of her kitchen are sold on the shelves of major retailers by the likes of Target, Walmart, and CVS.

Believe it or not, this successful business started out with just $100, a tried and true hair care remedy, and an unassuming package of paper labels. “My labels were Avery labels that would wash away after a customer used it the first time,” Graham-Campbell, Alikay Naturals co-founder and CEO, tells Create & Cultivate. “While I wanted the prettiest things, I focused more energy on making sure that the quality of the product that I was providing was good enough to keep my customers coming back, and it worked for me.” We’ll say it worked. Alikay Naturals is now sold in 20 countries, including France, Canada, and Bermuda.

Ahead, Graham-Campbell breaks down how she built a multi-million-dollar hair care empire starting with just $100, including hiring her grandparents as her first official employees, and not paying herself a salary for several years.

On bootstrapping the business…

We decided to self-fund because my husband and business partner, Demond, and I wanted to prove our business concepts before we invested more capital into them. With just an initial hundred dollars, would we be able to grow the business organically if we took every dollar earned thereafter and put it into the business?

We were also raised in very financially conservative households (a.k.a. raised in families that didn’t have a lot of money) so we knew how to stretch a dollar and use it wisely. We used this and applied it to our business as well. We have also heard horror stories of businesses taking on investors too early. The investors then came in and caused the brand to be ruined because the initial idea and concept of the founders had been stripped away. Instead of focusing on investors or shareholders, we decided to focus on serving our customers first. 

On self-funding tips for entrepreneurs…

My basic bootstrap tips are to keep your overhead and expenses as low as possible for as long as possible. Some people at the moment, once their business starts to be successful, think they have something to prove by opening a physical location. There are so many companies that have been able to grow into multi-million dollar or even six-figure generating brands that still operate in an apartment or a house.

Also, look into guerrilla marketing; get creative with your marketing dollars in the beginning. We weren’t focused on billboards or magazines, we were focused on how we can get our customers excited by spending as little money as possible. Also, how can we put our time, energy, and effort into creating marketing material that connected to our customers? Which included me doing hair tutorials to spread education and knowledge about our products.

I also taught myself to be in every department in the business, from social media and marketing to customer service and shipping to product development. I did it all, whatever it took because we did not have the capital to hire employees. We waited until the point when hiring was absolutely necessary before we brought employees on and took on a payroll expense. We also kept our beta product as low cost as possible to be able to keep our profit margins healthy so that we can be able to fund cash flow into the business. Eleven years later, we are still a self-funded, bootstrapped, cash-flow operated business. 

On getting back to basics…

I recommend that other entrepreneurs start with what they have and start with where they are. Think about the basic things you need in your business to get to your first sale. Don’t over complicate the process. Think about the basic essentials and use your capital on hand to focus on those things. Once you start to generate revenue in your business, you can scale and you can add the additional resources in areas in departments as needed.

While I think branding is extremely important, I believe that at times people get so heavily focused on the aesthetics portion of their business, which at times, requires a lot of initial capital investment. They forget that the basic foundation of building a company, while all that also does require capital, is usually less expensive. Some examples of the basics that are needed are a website, not a full-functioning website. Maybe starting with a two-page website, enough to, again, convert customers into sales.

Your logo and your brand mood board is another basic investment that I think is worth it creating the beta version of your product or service and getting it launched. Then, I recommend taking customer feedback to pivot and improve. Another area worth investing in upon launching is registering your business and having the proper license is also an initial investment that I think is worth it.

On DIY-ing as much as possible…

When I started my brand Alikay Naturals, I started with simple deli containers that literally were being wholesaled at a restaurant supply store down the street from my apartment. I started with labels that I DIY myself, which is also another recommendation for start-up businesses that are bootstrapping and are starting with limited or lack of funding.

Teach yourself as much as you can, DIY as much as you can in the beginning until you have the capital to be able to hire professionals to make it better. My labels were Avery labels that would wash away after a customer used it the first time. While I wanted the prettiest things, I focused more energy on making sure that the quality of the product that I was providing was good enough to keep my customers coming back and it worked for me. 

On seeking venture capital to scale and grow…

My husband and I have successfully been able to grow our brand for eleven years. We are the sole owners and started with only $100 that we grew into a multi-million dollar global beauty brand. We are looking at the future and scaling our brand rapidly. I believe we are now at the point where we are considering venture capital and the right-fit investor for our business. We’ve previously been approached by investors but declined because it was not the right fit. I think when the right VC comes around we will know it. We want someone that understands our vision for the brand so we do not lose who we are. If you’re reading this and you think that you’re the right investor for us, definitely make sure you reach out. 

On (eventually) putting herself on the payroll…

I actually could not afford to pay myself or my husband for many years. It took probably the first four years before we were officially able to pay ourselves formally on the payroll. Now, I want to be clear, my business has always been profitable, so it wasn’t necessarily that we couldn’t “afford” to pay ourselves, but being a cash-flow operated business, we had to make sure that every dollar that the business made was recycled back into the company. It was hard because it meant that our personal finances took a hit because we could not pull from the business.

However, the way that we looked at it was that our business was a baby, and we could not expect that a baby, although it was working, would be able to sustain us. In the early stages, it was more important for us to make the business stable and financially successful. When we finally put ourselves on payroll, we were the lowest-paid employees in our business for many many years. We paid ourselves just the minimal amount that it took to be able to cover our household expenses. This changed when we had our second child, and we finally gave ourselves the salary that we deserved. To be honest, it was uncomfortable giving ourselves a raise after so many years of barely paying ourselves anything, but it was time.

I would say to the other female founders, please make sure if you can structure some sort of payment for yourself and your business in the early stages, even if it might not be a lot. The sooner that you can pay yourself as the founder, the sooner you will be able to see what you’re working for in real life. It also will give you the motivation to push through the harder days. But remember that your business revenue is not your personal bank account; this is a mistake I see a lot of people make. I talk more about payroll and hiring our first employees in more detail in my book, “90 Days to C.E.O.” 

On prioritizing your marketing budget…

I think the most important area for a business owner to focus their financial energy is into marketing. In order for your business to make money, people have to know about you, they have to want what you’re selling or providing as a service. They have to believe in your brand or your story, and you have to get their attention by being creative.

I think that branding is also important because branding is a part of marketing. You can still brand while your dollars may be limited. It is imperative that you understand how to track your ROI ( return on your investment) by having proper KPIs (key performance indicators) and measures of success in place for every single marketing activity that you do. I discuss this more in my book as well.

On hiring her first “official” employees…

My first big expense in our business was hiring our first employees after my grandparents. My grandparents, Yaya and Mr. Ralstan, were our first employees because they are family and they wanted to see us be successful, and we didn’t have to pay them very much. So our first major expense was hiring official employees that we had on the payroll, that we were now financially responsible for every two weeks, talk about pressure as a start-up business! 

On investing in what’s really important…

The top three largest expenses in the beginning (and now!) are payroll, overhead expenses, and marketing. In the beginning, we were able to keep our marketing costs very low because we gorilla marketed and focused more on social media and free opportunities, but still, we had to have a budget allocated to get the word out about the products.

On saving specifically for tax season…

Save a minimum of 20% to put towards business taxes. I think that’s a mistake that a lot of early entrepreneurs make. They get excited when they start to make money and generate revenue and forget that at the end of the year you’re going to have to call Uncle Sam. Some advice that I can definitely offer is to pay your business taxes quarterly. It makes the blow at the end of the year a lot softer. 

On hiring an accountant (after much trial and error)…

We did not have an accountant when we first started our business. In fact, to be honest, we neglected doing proper accounting for the first couple of years. We were just focused on making products, getting them to our customers on time, keeping them happy, and keeping our business going and growing.

As we began to formalize the business, I taught myself how to do QuickBooks and I was doing our bookkeeping by myself, but I wasn’t very good at it because I really did not have the time as CEO. I was already wearing 50 million hats, which included being the product developer, marketer, shipper, customer service representative, HR, and then bookkeeping?

It was too much so we did hire a small independent accountant who was not the best fit for us. It took us going through three independent accountants before we found our perfect fit, which is a woman-founded and operated firm that we use now. 

On wishing that she’d invested in herself sooner…

I wish that I had paid myself earlier on because my personal finances and credit took a huge hit during this time. I wasn’t paying my student loans for the first couple of years as an entrepreneur because I wasn’t paying myself anything. I was only doing what it took to pay our basic expenses such as rent, food, etc. That was it just the basics. My personal finances took a hit that, honestly, was extremely embarrassing and took some years to rebuild.

On talking about money…

I think that it’s extremely important to talk about money. I must be honest, before I became a successful businesswoman, I thought talking money was kind of weird, awkward, and strange. I also thought that the people who talked about money were actually bragging. I realized that as you become more successful and more financially stable yourself, money talk is extremely important. It honestly gives you more insight and transparency into what others are doing. You are able to share advice and tips to be able to help each other as female founders. Business becomes better. 

On finding a business mentor…

If you’re seeking a mentor, make sure that you are prepared. Don’t seek mentorship when you are not serious about what you are doing because the person you’re seeking out to become your mentor is probably extremely successful with an extremely busy schedule, so you have to already have something established or have a plan. You have to be dedicated and not waste their time.

Also, when doing outreach, find out what you can offer them as well. Don’t be fooled, just because someone is a successful business owner doesn’t mean that they can’t use support in some form. Figure out how you can offer some sort of support to them as well. Even if they decline, at least it looks like you’re not just going with your hands out with nothing to contribute.

If you are able to get an opportunity to work with a mentor make sure you are really listening when they are talking. I think the worst thing is when someone asks you for advice and they just end up talking over you. I just stop talking at that point. I wish I had business mentors when I was starting my journey but I did not. I think that it possibly could’ve helped me to get further in a faster time. But I have no regrets, it made me extremely self-reliant.

On hiring the wrong employees and paying them too much…

The biggest money mistake I made was paying an employee that I hired based on what they thought they deserved and not necessarily based on the credentials and experience that they had. I allowed them to do a smoke and mirrors on me. The résumé and after being hired their work ethic and performance and results did not match the salary that they had demanded. They no longer work for my company. They only lasted a few weeks but it was a necessary lesson that I needed to learn 

On giving financial advice to entrepreneurs…

Always know your numbers and your margins. You are in business to be profitable, not just to be popular, so understand your profit margins. Also, keep your expenses and overhead as low as possible for as long as you possibly can. Even if you have an accountant or CFO, it’s your responsibility to check and monitor your bank account often. 

On her #1 piece of financial advice for founders…

Build a relationship with a business banker. As a small business owner, we open a business bank account, and then we think that is it! We don’t realize that there are so many additional resources that are free and available to us but we will never know if we don’t ask. Now, don’t allow people to talk down to you and bully you into getting additional things that you may not need, but it’s really nice to know you can pick up the phone and call a business banker direct instead of having to always call a one 800 line. 

On setting high financial goals…

Don’t be afraid to set your financial goals for your business. I remember having a meeting with my sales team last year and they were celebrating that we had met a sales goal, but I wasn’t smiling. I had to explain that my goal was a lot higher and that we needed to raise the bar, which we did and this year we have already exceeded that goal after Q2, which is amazing. Had I kept the goal lower, I don’t know if we would’ve pushed as hard as a team to exceed or to meet that goal.

As a founder, don’t be afraid to set your revenue and sales goals high. You are either going to work and meet it, or if do you fall short, at least you weren’t aiming low. One major goal that I have for my business is a high percentage of growth in revenue year after year. This is what makes me feel like my business is being successful I wrote a book that’s 422 pages that discusses my past 11 years as a CEO in “90 Days To C.E.O.” I hope that everyone is able to pick up a copy because the things that I discuss are extremely transparent. 

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