As little girls, Abby and Ivie Omoruyi never thought they’d be business owners. Born in Nigeria but raised in the United States, the two got their first taste of the entrepreneurial life when they started blogging under the now defunct site 4 Aces Date and creating natural hair videos for YouTube in 2009. At the time, Abby had graduated from Northwestern University and was pursuing a career in finance before she slowly began to get bored of crunching numbers all day. Her little sister Ivie left Temple University with a biology degree and became fascinated with the emerging hair movement while experimenting with tons of products that would nourish and grow her curls. It wasn’t until both sisters decided to do a big chop and go natural that their hair company, Catherine Marion, was born.
The company offers organic products for kinky-hair girls, hair growth books and handmade protective styled wigs that feature a natural-looking texture. With smart and kitschy branding, Catherine Marion has slowly become a financial success, however, transitioning from blogging to running a full-time business wasn’t easy. In this interview with BAUCE, Abby and Ivie share how they got started, the business challenges they faced in a competitive market and their top tips for marketing a consumer-facing lifestyle brand.
Abby, years ago you had a personal blog and were creating YouTube videos before you and your sister launched Catherine Marion. What initially sparked your interest in sharing your life on the internet?
Abby: I started blogging around the end of college and the idea actually came from my friends. They wanted to do a style blog. This was before Instagram so at that time there weren’t a lot of bloggers. We were already following a few and I thought it was a good idea. When we were vlogging, we had a good DSLR camera so we knew we could use it to capture good images and that used to be the really big deal with blogging back then. Now anybody can just use their iPhone. So I started doing it and it was fun; people give you feedback and you start interacting with people. By interacting with my viewers and site visitors I was able to create the content people wanted to see and build a following. [Laughs] And then Ivie sort of got pulled into it.
Ivie: I would say going natural is what started my blogging journey. Because after I went natural, I decided I wanted to start making videos. People weren’t that open at that time about embracing natural hair and I wanted to create videos on how to take care of it. At that time, there wasn’t a lot of “4c” representation out there. I watched Abby create an online platform successfully with her personal blog and with her friends in New York. So I created a “hair journey” video and it got a lot of views — I was like, wow…people love to see this whole natural movement I’ve got going on and that’s what got me into sharing myself to the world.
You ladies were definitely buzzing on the interwebs back then. However, after the blogging stint it seemed that you took a quiet shift away from content creation to selling naturally-textured wigs. What prompted you to launch this arm of your business?
Ivie: It was a very organic and natural movement towards that. At the time I decided to go natural, Abby wanted to too, but…
Abby: …but I waited to see what would happen with the market. Natural hair didn’t really become the norm again until about two to three years ago. Five to seven years ago, when I wanted to go natural, people looked at me crazy and were like, why?! I remember family members would talk about my edges being nappy and I had to reaffirm them that there was nothing wrong with that.
Ivie: Yeah and right before we started selling wigs, Abby created this YouTube video that got tons of views!
Abby: [Laughs] Ahhh, yes! I was always into hair and makeup and clothes. When I wore extensions back then I was kind of obsessed with my extensions looking natural. Why did we always have to wear silky extensions that didn’t blend with our natural hair? Why can’t we wear textured hair versus the wavy “Brazilian” extensions? So I started rocking this “permed” hair texture that got a lot of positive feedback from people. A lot of people thouht it looked real and I believe if you’re wearing extensions it should look neat and natural. So I started creating videos of how to wear wigs or wefts that seamlessly blend in with your natural hair.
Ivie: So, basically Abby goes natural, gets tons of growth on social media and then we decided to start making handmade wigs for 4c girls.
Abby: And there were lots of companies at that time that started doing that – selling “natural looking” weaves and wigs. To be honest that is actually what deterred us from going into the wigs and hair extensions business — it has become a heavily saturated market. But we now have a big business and our customers are very loyal wig customers. Our wigs are pre-customized and that’s what helps us stand out. We’ve gotten to the point that we don’t have to advertise our wigs; it’s a part of our business that functions on its own. Women are obsessed with hair. It’s a lifestyle. We know that and we know that if we give them a quality product, that they will keep coming back.
You both used to have full-time jobs while you built Catherine Marion. When did you know you were ready to quit your day jobs and pursue your dreams full-time?
Abby: We had Catherine Marion for years but felt like we weren’t ready to go full-time until we launched “Flower Child Curls” [our natural hair products line] at the end of last year. That was an interesting turn for the whole brand because it took us in a new direction. Prior to that launch we still had full-time jobs because we were still lab-testing products and weren’t sure how they would be received. We weren’t sure if our customers would like it. But people started purchasing our products and our sales started growing. We held onto our jobs before quitting because we knew it would take some time to invest properly into our business.
Ivie: We realized you can have a business and continue to do your full-time job — it works for some people. But when you are not heavily invested in your side business and you are getting good traction then your full-time job can be a detriment to your business because you’re not dedicating enough time to it. When I wasn’t focusing on my full-time job, I was constantly working on more recipes and coming up with additional product ideas. We dedicated our time outside of our full-time jobs heavily to our practice and it’s shown in our results. Now, we have this “trinity” of protective styling, natural hair products and styling guides.
So, you basically waited until your sales were up and you knew your customers were falling in love with your brand?
Abby: It took two years to lab test and switch to being full-time but we are glad we waited. It was worth it. My motto of business has always been that you have to get to the point where your customers only want to use your products and that’s when you know you have something good.
Ivie: Yeah, you don’t want to release your products when they’re not ready. You’ll start getting negative reviews.
Abby: Oh my, gosh! Customer service is sooooo important. Every know and then you will get a bad customer or bad review and there’s nothing you can really do. But sometimes we have to break our back to make our customers happy. I believe it’s better to cater to the customer and take a loss to make them happy because negative reviews will drag you company down – especially in the hair market.
What is the biggest challenge of running a natural hair company?
Ivie: I would say in general one of the biggest challenges is reaching people. In order to get our business out there, we decided to really focus on our niche which is black women like us who have tight curls or kinky hair and want to take care of natural-looking styles. We have to do constant social media, constant Instagram posts, constant YouTube videos to connect our message with our customers. Organizing our time to do these things is where it really gets hard.
Abby: The challenge Ivie described was even harder with a full-time job! I would also say staying consistent is a challenge. That’s how you keep the business going and find the right audience. It requires more energy. And when you are able to step away from your full-time job you really have to push yourself. You have to step up and keep re-motivating yourself. No one else is going to push you — you work for yourself. If you want to make $10 million as a company you have to do $10 million worth of work.
Ivie: We are lucky because some of the challenges we could possibly face has been reduced because we know how to use our skill sets. For example, Abby is good with graphics and business and blogging. I’m good in biology and can create formulas and recipes. We were able to find the perfect people to relieve other stresses and add to our team. It’s a perfect synergy.
Teamwork is definitely a valuable asset when it comes to growing a business. What gave you the idea to create a book as another extension of your company?
Ivie: One of the biggest points that directed us to creating the book was that we knew in the start we wanted to help people learn how to use the products we were creating. We wanted to create an outlet where we could teach people what regimens to use with our products to get really great results. Some of the natural hair books that currently exist are too overwhelming – so we made a coffee table styled book that is fun and easy to read. The type of girl that would want to buy this book is the girl that is a beginner or newbie to natural hair. We have everything in it from inspirational photos to deep dives on porosity.
Take us to business school Abby and Ivie! What are your top tips for marketing a lifestyle brand?
Abby: I had a friend who wanted to publish a book right after we published ours. My first question for her was, “Do you currently have a following?” It’s really hard to sell a book without a following because at the end of the day we live in a dying book market to some degree and self-publishing can only be successful if you have a lean way of getting the word out. An audience from YouTube or Instagram can help you do that. Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool that costs you almost nothing. That’s how people found us – through these social channels.
Ivie: Social media and events are the the best resources for marketing today. Doing pop-ups and speaking at events or networking at a show that you’re a part of. Those things are very important. depending on the industry that you’re in as an entrepreneur.
[Tweet “‘Don’t let yourself get to comfortable in whatever position your at. Be your own competition.'”]
Abby: Just to piggy back off of what Ivie is saying — make sure you know your industry and who your target group is! You can’t target everyone. Focus on being successful with your niche and the others will find you. We decided very early on that we want to focus on 4c hair and kinky textures because we knew the struggles of taking care of that type of hair. We ride and die for our 4c girls and we cater to them and try to get them everything they need to be satisfied because happy customers will rave about you to everyone.
For entrepreneurship, consistency is so important. If you are full blown all about your business for 3 months in the summer and then your quiet for a couple of months, I promise you it’s going to be bad for business. Don’t let yourself get to comfortable in whatever position your at. No matter how much success you start getting don’t get too comfortable. It’s easy to gain a little success and (if you don’t push yourself to go further) get stuck there. Always be your own competition.