On Starting An All-Natural Haircare Product Line
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I am Leslie Wheeler, Founder of Bristle Products and Owner of Bristle Hair Shop. I have had a passion for hair and skin care products from an early age. I am the youngest of a family of 4 girls, on a tight budget growing up in Detroit, my mom allowed us to each pick our own shampoo out so we wouldn’t fight over sharing a bottle. I remember taking a long time to decide which bottle I wanted and could stand there for a long time strolling and staring at the different packaging and of course, smelling each one, doesn’t everyone do that?
I am weirdly fascinated by product labels, packaging, and products, basically beyond a product junkie, I may be in a new category. I am such a fan of so many hair care lines and many inspire me!
Being in the salon industry, as a hairstylist for 25 years, allowed many opportunities, From working in some of Metro Detroit’s most popular salons to being a brand rep for a multi-million dollar haircare brand.
My brand Bristle is designed for today’s generation, those who care about not only their hair but the world around them. We offer 3 different shampoos, a conditioner, and an herbal styling gel. Moss Shampoo is a Hemp based shampoo, the other, Lakewood, is a Charcoal Detox Shampoo and the other is a violet toning shampoo- Parker Avenue, which is really popular right now!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2016 I formed L. Archie Brands, named for my grandfather Lloyd Archie who was a barber in Ohio. He was an amazing man and incredibly talented. I wanted to pay tribute to him because he was such a hard worker and I loved him dearly, people should know him too because he is a big part of the brand in spirit.
While working for a haircare company as a brand rep, I enjoyed learning the ins and outs of what makes a brand, who was behind it, their mission and goals. I was proud to represent them and by doing that, I was successful in selling their products and helping to educate customers on their brand. While doing that, I couldn’t help but notice people were continually asking me if there was something I could recommend for their kids, their hair was changing and they wanted something that they could use on their teens. Experiencing the same dilemma, I had two tweens heading into their teens who needed their own brand too. Lightbulb moment!
I started experimenting with homemade potions, leave-in sprays, shampoo bars, it was fun to attempt but I realized that was not going to be the route to any success I had in my head. That was when I started researching manufacturers and learned all about costs, minimums, shopping...etc it isn’t a fun part of being an entrepreneur, and I spent hours and hours researching who had products that would work, customizing, and more. All part of the process and I learned so so much!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing
After much research, Bristle is manufactured in two different facilities at the moment. We have 5 SKUS and there were some products I really wanted to start the brand with and I wouldn’t settle on just anything. I wanted a safe product for this demographic, sulfate-free, paraben free was at the top of my list. I emailed facilities, looked up different names even on Linkedin to get a gauge for who I would be working with to help me create this vision I had. I have been through three different local manufacturers and sadly those did not work out. Being a Detroiter, I tried to keep the brand as locally made and processed as possible, but the first manufacturer I worked with was simply not a good fit for the brand.
Another was a female-owned facility and naturally as female-owned biz, I was excited to meet the lady behind that plant in Metro Detroit. After meeting with her and talking about the brand concept we agreed on samples to try out, I went to pick them up and I guess you could say I was pretty disappointed with what I saw in my sample bag. One sample had products spilling out all around the bottle and two of the others were missing. I learned then and there that I was going to always be sure my samples and packaging were top notch. It is the way it makes you feel when you pick up a new product! I want my customers to feel like that, not the way I felt on that day! Life lessons…
If you have an idea for anything that can make the world a little brighter and more exciting on any level, just dive in!
Describe the process of launching the business.
Bristle was launched online and in-store almost simultaneously. I have customers who get their hair done who were immediately supportive, the challenge was/is spreading the word about my brand and getting this audience to see how this brand is designed for them.
My website was originally done by a great guy I met through LinkedIn. He agreed to create a simple landing page. I have upgraded the site to a Shopify store, only in the last year.
I am self-funded at this stage, I started small, my team and I create our own labels and we support a local plastics manufacturer here in Detroit for all my packaging.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Having a brick and mortar has been successful since I am a hairstylist and already have a customer base. Other stylists who work at my shop are incredible at helping me decide which products will work and which we should be thinking of adding to the brand in the future.
Since I am self-funded, it works as a dual blessing to have a small salon where I work, but also get to promote my brand daily by using it on customers and advertising on our website when people are shopping for new salons. It has been a great combination, maybe people trust me more because I am a hairstylist and I do know what is good for all hair types through my years of experience!
I was told by an early mentor, “Do not get a brick and mortar, it is a waste of money”. While I agree on some levels if you have a great brand and a passion you truly can sell online, on the flip side there are customers that like to smell and try products before they buy. I love that I meet new customers who heard our shampoo is great for their neighbor’s son or that my daughter’s friends love Bristle, word spreads fast and it is cool that they can stop in and check it out themselves at the shop before buying online. I have to admit the products smell amazing, unique. I wanted a unisex scent and that took over a year to find the one I landed on. I pass out samples to people who pop in out of curiosity and want to see for themselves what we are up to. They end up leaving with samples and become great customers, who doesn’t love a free sample?
Since I have a small boutique salon, I advertise through Facebook mainly for the hair services and Instagram for the pics to promote the brand both through @bristleproducts and @bristlehairshop.
We are also known for offering free hair services to anyone in foster care. My husband and I became licensed foster parents about 4 years ago and it is important to help these kids. Free services and haircutting events at my shop has been a great way to meet new friends and help our local community by giving back to foster youth. It is one extra thing the foster parents don’t have to worry about financially for their placements.
By purchasing Bristle products, we are able to hold these events and afford to service this group no charge, they are allowed to come in every other month for services.
Here is a pic from an event we did with a group of 8 girls in foster care that were the coolest and bravest teens you’ve ever met. We did haircuts, braiding, waxing services, and nail services that day.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Since we are still in an early phase, I am hopeful for our brand's future. We took a loss our first year because of the extra expense of a brick and mortar and now we are experiencing an unprecedented event in Covid-19.
I am optimistic, right now I'm not focusing on my numbers as much as I am trying to see what I can do to help my community or anyone in need. The numbers will come, that is how I look at it because I really believe in the crowd I was inspired by to begin with to start this brand.
It may not be what some want to read, but I have to be truthful.
The female manufacturer I talked about earlier who gave me product samples that were dirty told me “ you can’t give anything, you don’t have anything”
Those words were so motivating to me, I believe we can give to a capacity that may not look like success in one person’s mind, but to another, success means integrity. Integrity is free and always there, you just have to use it.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It is true when they say a person shows you who they are the first time. Remember that when you are hiring, looking for a mentor, and above all, a partner. It is so important to stay true to who you are and don’t be a copycat. I have learned a lot in that regard, and I learned I was looking for the wrong types of people to be on my team.
Sometimes we learn by going through a situation, we learn about ourselves and what really inspires us about our customers by walking through the motions of early stages of entrepreneurship. It can be ugly, but when you believe in your original idea and why you just had to create or design or whatever it is that you are doing and passionate about, it brings you back to that grounded stage where you can bring that idea to life with a new set of eyes.
Listening to my two kids, now teens, I am so inspired by them and what they are excited about. It is such a fun age group that I am reaching, they don’t even know the world has so many opportunities waiting for them. My advice is to listen to your audience you are trying to reach, you can’t go wrong.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Right now we are selling through Shopify, Instagram and soon to be TikTok. You have to go where the crowd is and that, of course, is where it is at.
I am looking for micro-influencers and possible brand ambassadors for Bristle. Keeping in mind we want to stay true to an urban unisex vibe, so the people who represent us have to reflect that. I’m not looking for a Kardashian, we really want to reflect everyone with Bristle products, not a stereotype. That’s very important to me.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
An unusual source has been Linkedin, I follow other female entrepreneurs and enjoy reading articles they share. I honestly don’t have the patience for podcasts, I am such a visual learner I would rather watch hours of hair tutorials by my favorite rockstar hairdressers on IG or read stories about both successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If you have an idea for anything that can make the world a little brighter and more exciting on any level, just dive in!
A lady I met at a Michigan Women’s Entrepreneur conference I attended, an accountant, wanted to start her own accounting firm. As a creative, I didn’t even attempt to understand what she does for a living, but what I did understand was her passion for starting her own firm! I am an obnoxious optimist, try it, you won’t regret trying, ever.
No matter the outcome, you will always know you tried and hopefully succeed in your dream.
Be excited about others' success and passions, ask questions, and care about their answers.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Not at this time, I’m focused on initial launch and feedback for now. It will be great to need a marketing manager one day soon. Someone who will understand my brand and connection with social good.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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