Entrepreneurs Marc Belle, Dominique Lescott and Kadian Pow share a common goal: providing environmentally-friendly hair products designed for afro and curly hair. Here, we talk to each founder and highlight six factors that have supported their success. They all use Starling to manage their finances, saving them time and money that they can then channel into their businesses.

1. Curiosity: Researching, testing, giving

All three founders started their enterprises after their hair or skin was damaged or irritated by harsh products, often designed for people with straight hair. “A few years back, someone gave me some beard oil. It didn’t really work and it made my skin itchy,” says Marc, 39, founder of Mr Blackman’s. “I had a look around and found that no one made products for Black or mixed-race beards in the UK.”

In 2016, he started making his own beard oil. “I tried to make something light, quick to absorb, not greasy but strong enough to penetrate coarse hair. I wanted it to smell like this citrus, woody shower gel I had. In the end, it didn’t smell anything like it but it smelled good - citrusy and oaky like the rum barrels I remembered from Barbados.” Marc was born in the UK, grew up in Barbados and moved back to the UK in 2003.

Kadian’s company Bourn Beautiful Naturals (BBN) has a similar story. “I moved to the UK from Washington DC in 2010. At first, I stocked up on products from the US every time I went home, hoping they’d last me until my next trip. In 2014, I watched a YouTube video on how to make your own conditioner. As a hobby, I started making things and discovered that the process was really therapeutic.”

Kadian says: “It gave me a sense of accomplishment, solving ailments with my hair and skin myself. After a year, I felt confident enough to give some things to family and friends - they were the ones who told me to start selling the products.” BBN launched in 2017.

Kadian Pow, founder of Bourn Beautiful Naturals (BBN)

A year later, the reach of BBN increased when it became part of Hair Popp, an online marketplace of hair products for afro and curly hair, founded by Dominique. “Hair Popp started out of frustration,” she says. “I did a lot of research and social media engagement and came across independent haircare brands that really cared about Black women but didn’t have the budget to compete with American brands. I wanted to put smaller brands together on one platform.”

There are six brands on Hair Popp, offering more than 200 products, available to buy individually or as a selection combined in a gift box.

2. Commitment: Making everything from scratch

Both Marc and Kadian make, bottle and label all their products themselves. Mr Blackman’s products include beard oil, aftershave balm, moustache wax and shampoo bars. BBN products include shampoos, conditioners, soaps and moisturisers.

“I make all 19 products myself and source the majority of ingredients from other suppliers in Britain,” says Kadian, 41. BBN is one of several brands on Hair Popp that create everything in-house, giving the founder complete control over ingredients and development.

3. Activism: Standing for social and environmental change

For each founder, business and activism go hand in hand. “My business is how I practice Black feminism,” says Kadian. “I have seen an improvement in people embracing their natural hair and being unapologetic about their Black identity. But there’s work to be done on a structural and policy level in schools and workplaces. There are long-standing negative policies towards afro hair and internalised colonial ideas of being insufficient or not beautiful - even some Black people think it’s not suitable to have natural hair.”

Marc adds: “I struggle with the idea that people need to look a certain way or behave in a certain way. In adverts, the guys all wear suits, they’re polished, everything is perfect. But there are other guys out there too - guys who have dreadlocks, who aren’t necessarily chiselled. Most people are a little bit rough around the edges - why should people have to live up to something else?”

Marc Belle, founder of Mr Blackman’s

Hair Popp also aims to empower customers and platforms environmentally-conscious products. BBN and Mr Blackman’s use vegan or vegetarian-friendly ingredients and offer refills of bottles at a discounted rate. “We don’t use palm oil or plastic and bubble wrap. We try to stick to glass, tin and paper,” says Marc.

4. Community: Reaching beyond a product

For Dominique, hair is the starting point and community is the end point. “Community is what gets me out of bed every morning. It’s not just about selling things, it’s about bringing people together.” Throughout lockdown, she created free tutorials with Hair Popp partners on managing your hair or beard, looking after your children’s hair or what to do when your hair starts thinning as you age.

Dominique Lescott, founder of Hair Popp

All three businesses are part of Jamii, the discount card for Black-owned businesses. “We’re rooted in community,” says Marc. During lockdown, he arranged for two musicians to play through Mr Blackman’s Instagram to bring British and Barbadian customers together.

5. Digital sales: Providing for everyone

As founders of digital brands, they’re able to provide for customers all over the world. They were also able to keep trading during lockdown. “Initially, not many people were shopping because they were worried about what would happen with their job or family,” says Dominique. “But when things settled a bit, sales really began to increase. The high street shops where Black women usually bought products were shut and supermarkets don’t usually have products for afro and curly hair so they looked online.”

Kadian noticed the same pattern, while Marc had a steady number of orders throughout. Marc decided to add a free cleansing block to each order. “It was the least we could do, even just as something people could wash their hands with,” he says.

6. Digital tools: Cutting admin and fees

Marc, Kadian and Dominique all use Starling for their business banking. When asked about their favourite feature of Starling, they all spoke about Goals, the section of the app where you can set money aside for a certain purpose.

Dominique says: “I really love Goals. I separate money for paying my intern or events or tax. I also love how Starling syncs with other FinTechs. I use Sparqa Legal for setting up contracts with freelancers or interns.”

“There are banking apps and then there’s Starling. It’s just easy. It’s just simple,” says Marc. “I can be on the beach and when someone sends me an invoice, I can pay it then and there. It’s also helpful that the banking is free. When you’re a small business, every penny counts.”

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