Nearly seven years ago, Funlayo Alabi’s business, Shea Radiance, was thriving. And when her Baltimore company got its all-natural skin and hair care products onto the shelves of Target’s stores, she thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Shea Radiance first appeared in over 300 Target locations in August of 2012. But rather than heralding a new chapter of growth for the business, things quickly began to go wrong. The company didn’t have investors at the time, so they were not financially equipped to handle increased demand. Several Target stores also made pricing errors, and would-be customers had difficulty finding the products on shelves, all of which resulted in a less-than impressive debut. Within months, her products were pulled.
“By the time we were through with the ordeal, we were financially overwhelmed and emotionally spent. And our brand had depreciated,” she told us. “I knew I had failed.”
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In that moment, Alabi was faced with a choice — cut her losses and close down Shea Radiance for good, or rebuild. Ultimately, it was the commitment she’d made to the women in Africa who provide her ingredients that tipped the scales in favor of pressing onward.
Alabi enrolled in a business accelerator for six months, where she received a cash infusion and re-strategized. And she brought the business back to basics in a bid to get Shea Radiance back on track, reducing the number of products it offered and giving the packaging a makeover. Slowly, but surely, she regrew the venture.
Alabi’s fortitude — and her commitment to those farmers — saw the business through the storm. Now, she happily reports that “we have been growing.” Here are two crucial lessons she learned along the way.
1. Be thoughtful about what you sell and where you sell it.
In 2016, Alabi tested the waters of another big-box relationship, this time with Whole Foods. She says she was more strategic than last time about what she sold in their stores. For example, last fall, she did a soft launch of her new “p.u.r.e.” line on their shelves — and customers grabbed them up, she says. That lean, limited test “really accelerated growth” for the business, rather than overwhelming it.
She credits this latest bit of success to hitting upon a “perfect product-market match,” appealing to Whole Foods’ ingredient- and eco-conscious customers with her new whipped shea butter products and authentic African black soaps.
Knowing how your product fits into the market you’re trying to break into makes a difference — and finding a gap in that marketplace is a great way to start. Fashionista Rebecca Smith launched Recliner, a stylish, millennial-focused sleepwear brand, to fill a void she saw for affordable, quality clothing that’s made for rest and relaxation. Now, singer Katy Perry is one of her biggest fans.
Anticipating or meeting needs is also a good strategy. Miriam Brafman, the founder of Packlane, saw a huge potential market for customized shipping boxes when she couldn’t find them for herself. Now, her company provides them to 11,000 brands big and small, and pulls in annual sales exceeding $5 million.
Armed with knowledge of how customers will respond, Alabi’s new line of all-natural items will be released in more Whole Foods stores throughout the Northeast later this month.
[Related: A Food Entrepreneur Gets Her Small Business Into Big Box Stores]
2. Don’t go it alone.
Part of the success of that “p.u.r.e.” line came from the unique African black soaps it features — which are provided to her by another woman business owner, Francesca Opoku. Opoku, based in Accra, Ghana, runs Solution Oasis, which works with local women to make soaps and more.
Since her business’ low point, Alabi says she has worked tirelessly “to find the right partners to work with — and we have found those partners.” In addition to those who provide her with key ingredients and hit products, she also turns to partners for packaging needs.
The Target debacle taught Alabi the importance of opening oneself up to collaboration. Partnerships have benefited other women business owners we’ve spoken with, too. Take, for example, Cordelia Smith of soap and candle company Formulary 55. To keep up with orders at her growing venture, she teamed up with like-minded makers who help keep up, even as orders pour in. Doing so allows her to offer a range of products that’s entirely handmade, which she sells to both online shoppers and the 800-plus retailers she has wholesale relationships with.
Collaboration can be a win for everyone involved — something Alabi now understands. She says she has designed her business so that “everything about the products and the supply chain is integrated — everything affects everything.” She adds, “I’m really excited about growth this year, and the opportunity to see our partners grow with us.”
[Related: How Do I Add a Partner to My Business?]