- When the pandemic hit, Terrinique Pennerman quickly pivoted her haircare business, Kurlee Belle, which normally sells in major retailers like Sally Beauty, to ecommerce.
- A few months later, Kurlee Belle hit the six-figure mark in revenue for 2020 — a milestone in her business’ history.
- The Bahamian native always had a passion for creating her own haircare mixtures using natural ingredients.
- She credits the company’s surging popularity to a need for at-home hair solutions and found creative ways to fill orders online quickly.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Like many entrepreneurs, Terrinique Pennerman didn’t know how the pandemic would impact her natural haircare business, Kurlee Belle.
Before COVID-19, Pennerman relied on her product distribution deals with Sally Beauty and other local hair stores in Caribbean countries for in-person sales. Once she was forced to transition her focus to ecommerce after stores closed amid coronavirus, she was surprised to find that Kurlee Belle reached six figures in revenue for 2020 — the first time in her business’ history — with $20,000 to $50,000 per month in online sales.
Creating her own haircare mixtures was something that was passed down to Pennerman from her mother. The Bahamian natives would take products from the refrigerator to create creams that promoted strength, growth, and shine to their hair.
“[We used] mayo, avocado, banana for strengthening treatments for our hair and then shea butter for shine and coconut oil,” she told Business Insider.
In October 2008, while she was working as a securities analyst within commercial mortgage-backed securities at Wachovia, now Wells Fargo, Pennerman decided to embark on her own hair journey by transitioning her hair to its natural state.
“I started mixing my own stuff,” she said. “One of my friends just said, ‘You know, you should start your own haircare line because your hair looks really good.’ That idea just stuck in my mind.”
Pennerman created her Kurlee Belle products using the same formula she used on her own hair. Once she felt comfortable with the product mixtures, having tested them on herself, she had her coworkers and friends try them out.
Building a digital community of future brand champions
Word-of-mouth marketing helped her cause, which led her to create a blog and document her haircare journey.
“I wanted to establish Kurlee Belle as a trusted brand, so I created the blog [in 2008],” she said. “I would give information on healthy hair tips, healthy ingredients, and then the fan base grew. The people who were following the blog and following us on social media, they began to become very excited about our launch.” She created merchandise before having a hair product to offer to build brand awareness, selling shirts with graphics of women in afros and slogans like, “Kiss My Kurls.”
Getting an MBA degree before starting a business
Before officially launching her company in February 2013, Pennerman decided that she wanted to be equipped with the knowledge to scale her business and applied to Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business to get her MBA.
“All the pieces started to come together because as I was learning more about marketing and entrepreneurship, I was actually working on my new company,” she said. Pennerman was also able to find a manufacturer to mass-produce her products to feed her already established fan base from social media and blogging.
An opportunity for retail distribution
As popularity grew for Kurlee Belle products, a Sally Beauty buyer had a third party reach out to Pennerman to sell her haircare line at the beauty supply retailer. Pennerman shared that entrepreneurs must interview with Sally Beauty at their Denton, Texas-based headquarters to be distributed by the company. The product was tested in 80 stores nationwide and in the beginning of 2020 reached 1,200 stores.
“You have to be ready to go into retail because you have to have your upfront capital when they place that order, you have to have the inventory ready to go,” she said. Pennerman suggested that business owners wanting to host their products on the shelves of major retailers develop a plan before taking a meeting.
“You have to have a plan on how you’re going to get people to walk in those doors and buy those products,” she said.
Bootstrapping the venture on her own
Pennerman bootstrapped her company with the salary she made as an analyst — she reported investing over $100,000 of her own money — and said she hasn’t taken a salary from her business since it launched. Instead, she reinvests the money back into Kurlee Belle.
“I was really putting the company first and then having good relationships with my manufacturers, where if I didn’t have the upfront cost, they would help me because they knew that I pay my bill,” she said. She maintains an affordable lifestyle residing in the Bahamas by using her social media expertise to consult with small businesses.
Pennerman learned about mergers and acquisitions while pursuing her MBA and said she wasn’t fond of the process of acquiring venture capital.
“I just felt like I would rather put that energy into my business instead of going in the front of a group of investors who are going to pick my business apart when I already know in my mind that this is something that is going to be successful,” she said. She attributes the attitude of building her business on her own to her personality. Pennerman lives by the value of working hard until the payoff comes.
“I figure I can just do it on my own,” she said. “Then if I need funding, it will come.”
For years, she said she wore many hats, including handling marketing and accounting, but now she has seven people who work full time on fulfillment and other marketing needs. She now spends more of her time on the operational and business partnership aspects of her business.
“I mainly focus on the operations, such as inventory replenishments, negotiating contracts with vendors, and additional back-office work that I didn’t have a chance to focus on previously,” she said.
At-home haircare needs spark online interest
The pandemic presented an uncertain time for Kurlee Belle, but Pennerman quickly saw the benefits of women staying at home and having to care for their hair themselves.
“I think more people were sitting at home online, and they were able to dig a little deeper into our brand and they decided to give us a shot,” she said. She said website sales have increased 1,000% year over year, while retail sales have even increased 100%.
Before the pandemic, Pennerman focused on pushing consumers to stores to purchase her product.
“We were more reliant on retail sales than ecommerce because that’s where we felt like customers wanted to get the product immediately,” she said. “Like they wanted to drive into a store and pick it up immediately versus ordering online.”
Pennerman’s relationship with her manufacturer helped her fill the increase in demand. Still, she credits strong communication with her consumers about shipping and packaging and finding creative ways to fill orders with helping her business soar.
“One of the things that we experienced was our packaging was sold out,” she said. “I had to get on the phone and research companies, even small companies that sold our packaging, and we would buy the entire inventory.”
Pennerman made improvements to the Kurlee Belle website to make it more user friendly, as well as offered special promotions for her products, like a bundle that allows customers to save while identifying their specific hair needs.