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Natural beauty

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  • | 10:00 a.m. February 13, 2015
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Executive Summary
Company. Alikay Naturals Industry. Beauty supplies Key. Steady growth and reinvesting in the business are two keys to success.

How do you turn $100 investment into $1 million in annual sales?

Meet Rochelle Graham, a 28-year-old entrepreneur whose beauty products now line the shelves at 500 Target stores and Sally's Beauty Supply. She's the CEO of Alikay Naturals, a company she started while attending the University of South Florida in Tampa with her husband, Demond Campbell.

“My plan was to go to law school after graduating,” she laughs. Graham has an outgoing personality that would hold a jury's undivided attention in any courtroom, but her destiny shifted to another direction as she struggled with her hair.

Upset that chemical relaxers were damaging her hair, she created her own products by shaving off her hair — twice — in 2009 and testing various herbal concoctions on herself at home. “I was looking for natural ingredients, and there was nothing,” she says.

Out of her kitchen-turned-laboratory came natural beauty products that are now widely available nationwide and online. “Five-and-a-half years later, we have no investors, no loans,” Graham says proudly. “We've stuck to bootstrap funding.”

Alikay Naturals operates out of a 6,500-square-foot warehouse near Luckett Road in an industrial area of Fort Myers. The company manufactures 60 different products. “Our company grossed $1 million last year,” Graham says. “We started our company with $100.”

Graham's story offers plenty of entrepreneurial lessons, but perhaps most important is that she's followed her own path. “Who says you have to follow people's rules?” she smiles. “I never wrote a business plan,” she confesses.

Out of the garden
Graham was busy earning a business degree while her husband was studying aviation mechanics at USF when she started mixing her products at home. “I was waiting tables at Olive Garden and he was working at Papa John's,” she recalls.

Together, Graham and Campbell went to class during the day, worked at night and came home to mix their products. She consulted with her grandmother, an herbal expert from Jamaica, where Rochelle was born and raised until she came to the U.S. at age 9.

Out of frustration with current chemical products on the market, Graham shaved her hair and started experimenting with natural products. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she says.

She added various ingredients in a bottle almost willy-nilly, including aloe and coconut oil. “I wanted everything that worked,” she says. Aloe helps hair retain moisture and coconut oil has fatty acids that help lock in moisture, she says.

Once, she put 17 ingredients inside a single bottle, which has since become a top seller: Essential 17 Hair Growth Oil. Her kitchen became a laboratory: “I became a mixtress,” Graham laughs. “My friends and family became my focus group.”

Not every experiment turned out well, she acknowledges. The shelf life of some products lasted just a few days before the mixture turned rancid, so Graham learned to mix in herbs such as rosemary that act as preservatives. Even today, her products have a shelf life ranging from one year to 18 months, half that of her chemical-laden competitors.

Graham posted videos of experiments on her own hair on YouTube, gaining a huge following on social media (see related story). She purchased supplies such as bottles on the Etsy website and Campbell would mail the products from the post office between class and work. “We ordered everything online,” Graham recalls.

Moving out
Graham and Campbell reinvested all the profits back into the company, which they named Alikay Naturals. Alikay is Graham's middle name. “Eventually it took over our kitchen, our living room and our spare bedroom,” Graham says.

After graduating from USF in 2011, Graham decided to forego law school, and the couple moved to Fort Myers to be closer to family. In 2012, they moved the company into commercial space, where Campbell runs the production and warehouse behind office space.

Graham ramped up production gradually from several hundred bottles a day to more than 2,000 today. “We were just online sales for years,” she says.

A chance meeting with a business broker at a retail conference in Chicago led to a meeting with Target executives who were launching an effort to stock multicultural textured hair products (Target executives were not available to discuss Alikay's products).

Graham says Target started carrying Alikay's products in 100 stores in March 2014. By last August, it had expanded to 350 stores and today Alikay's products are in 500 stores. Graham says Alikay's products aren't stocked on the premium eye-level shelves, but she says customers who try the products return to buy more, a key metric for retailers.

Graham says she isn't worried about growth because she controls the manufacturing process. “We hold the key to how much product we manufacture,” she says. The only major capital equipment purchase she's had to make is a labeling machine. “We wanted to have control over the ingredients and the quality,” she explains.

Now that the warehouse and production facility are firmly established, Alikay can handle additional new business. Recently, Alikay announced that Sally Beauty Supply, which has 2,800 stores nationwide, is stocking three of her products starting with 500 stores.

This summer, Alikay plans to launch a children's line. She's had a similar struggle trying to find natural skin and hair products for her own 2-year-old son, Landon, especially for those with sensitive skin and conditions such as eczema.

Over the years, Graham says she's learned a valuable lesson: “Don't take on more than you can handle,” Graham says.

Beauty in Fort Myers
Graham says Fort Myers has been a good place to establish her business because overhead is lower and she's hired recent talented graduates from Florida Gulf Coast University. Similar office-warehouse space within sight of Interstate 75 would have been prohibitively expensive in Tampa.

“We're committed to keeping our headquarters here,” says Graham, who has opened a hair salon to showcase her products called Be Fabulous on Fowler Street in Fort Myers.

On Feb. 28, Graham is hosting a Sally Beauty Supply launch party at Harborside Event Center in downtown Fort Myers, featuring Grammy Award-winning artist Chrisette Michele. Graham says she could easily have hosted the party in New York City or Los Angeles, but she picked Fort Myers instead.

Graham says she and Campbell have been able to grow the company without outside investors, reinvesting the proceeds into the business. “You don't see us splurging and taking fancy vacations,” she says. “I'm doing this my way.”

The beauty of YouTube
Alikay Naturals started in Rochelle Graham's bathroom for the whole world to see.

While she was a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa, she shaved her hair off in 2009 and began experimenting with natural products.

Graham recorded her experiences on video, setting a camera on a shoebox in her bathroom as she documented what happened and posted the film clips on YouTube. She never intended for it to be the foundation of a future business. “It was a creative outlet,” she explains.

Chemical relaxers were damaging her hair and she developed natural products she hoped would help her and other women. “It worked so well I had hundreds of thousands of women messaging me,” she says.

Today, Graham's YouTube channel, BlackOnyx77, has 97,323 subscribers and her videos have registered more than 14 million views.

Graham credits her huge following on social media with getting the attention from executives at Target and Sally Beauty Supply. “I love marketing and social media,” she says. “It's important to remain the face of the brand.”

Still, Graham says a challenge now is to expand the brand's image to a broader audience of women of all races with kinky, curly or wavy hair. Alikay will feature more women of different races on its videos. “We're a beauty brand,” she says. “Women want to feel beautiful.”


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