This is a follow up story for Ugly Duckling. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published about 4 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hello, I’m Ishan Dutta, Founder and CEO of Ugly Duckling. We sell hair color and hair products to hairdressers and colorists.
I started this business around 6 years ago because I was convinced that there was a need for really effective blonding products and fashion specific results which the market wasn’t catering for.
Our flagship products all carry some special innovation which our customers, who are for the most part experienced stylists, really appreciate.
Some examples of our flagship products would be:
- Our intense pearl blonde & silver blonde toners - toners which come with a special boost to get rid of yellowness and lift hair at the same time as toning it.
- Our Brilliant Blondexx hair care & bleaching range, which strengthens the hair thanks to Bond Protect
- Our Purple Shampoo & Mask are really loved for the fact that they tone blonde hair without staining it.
- And last but not least, our Blondify 10 minute Ammonia free liquid toners - just out this month!
We sell mainly online. We’ve accumulated a bunch of really loyal customers that way.
We’ve been through our fair share of ups and downs since we started (I’ll get to that!) but we’ve always managed to come through stronger and brighter!!
This year we will be achieving cumulative sales of around $3 million. Web traffic onto our site this year will be just under one million. Most of this is organic traffic.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Sales have been tougher this year as compared to last year.
Whereas the COVID pandemic in 2020 was obviously excellent for all online based DTC brands such as ours, in 2021 internet traffic has been down and we have suffered as a result.
Downturns as well as upturns are all part of business and one should not get too affected by them.
So what am I doing about it?
Well firstly, I think it’s important to say that downturns as well as upturns are all part of business and one should not get too affected by them. It was always clear that the massive stay-at-home behaviour of 2020 would not last. It was inevitable that the world would return to a more normal way of living. Which is good for everyone, and I am the first person to rejoice at that.
This being said, I have total confidence in the fundamentals of our business strategy - selling high quality products to hairdressers through a direct relationship online. So I really try to maintain a focus on two things essentially.
One is keeping our consumers very happy. At the end of the day, nothing is more important. We’ve always tried to do this by bringing out the best and latest in hair color technology and expertise. This year we started 2 initiatives along these lines, and I must say both of them seem to be working out pretty well.
Firstly, we launched several digital courses online. We have always had a reputation for hair coloring knowledge, and people had been literally asking us for this for a long time. I am glad that we were finally able to deliver on this. It looks like many hairdressers find our coloring courses of great interest and value to them. Some of these courses are free, others (more detailed ones) are paid. Both seem to work.
Secondly, we have launched a totally new category of products. These are liquid, ammonia-free toners. They’re called Blondify. They’re for getting yellow or brassy hair ash blonde or cool blonde in just 10 minutes. We just launched these around 15 days ago.
These products are exactly where the action is right now in the hair color market, so I’m very very excited about them. Obviously, we’ve packed these products with all the right features - it’s a liquid toner, which hairdressers love, it gives greater application ease, it’s ammonia-free, so no unpleasant smells, 10 minutes development time, amazing ash blonde and cold blonde results, fortified with Bond Protect etc.
So far the response has been very good indeed!
In general, customers who experience our products and our customer service are more than happy. We have 4.5 star ratings on FB reviews and on TrustPilot. And around 50% of our orders are repeat orders. Some of our customers have bought 15 to 20 times in all, which hopefully is saying that we’re doing something right! Repeating customers is what our business is all about.
Apart from doing our best to keep our consumers happy, the other side of our work is of course the internet marketing side. Bringing in new customers. As our marketing activities get more elaborate, this takes more and more of our time and efforts, and we work these days on many many fronts: content creation, social media, influencer, content marketing, technical SEO, PR, website development, analytics etc.
A year on the internet is like a dog’s year. It’s equivalent to 7 regular years!
When we started out, for example, Facebook was huge. We would put out a video, or one of the hairdressers we are close to would put out a video on Facebook, and thousands of people would flock to our website and buy in the next 24 hours. Later we started advertising on Facebook and the returns were tremendous. This is what powered our growth from 2016 all the way to 2018.
It doesn’t work like that anymore. Firstly, advertising rates on Facebook have soared. We used to pay around 12 cents for someone to click on our Facebook ad and come to our site. These days, it’s more like a dollar.
We still do loads of social posting, of course, across a wide spectrum of channels - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Pinterest & Twitter etc.
But increasingly our focus has been away from social media and onto two things:
First, organic traffic. Organic now accounts for over 80% of our web traffic and we’ve been working really hard on this, by giving as good quality content as we possibly can in the form of blog tutorials, seminars, tips and advice for stylists etc.
We’ve worked with a couple of SEO specialists and of course we use some of the SEO apps like SEM Rush, MOZ etc.
Here’s my take on the 13 most important things that I’ve learnt about SEO:
- The volume of content that you write is important. Don’t publish one blog per month, publish 5-10 blogs a month at least. Aim to get 200 blogs out there.
- At the same time, quality is also very important. Make sure you are offering clear and simple solutions to the problems your customers are facing. Better content than what anybody else is providing, which answers the problems people face better.
- Check the competition for each of your articles simply by googling and researching other sites. Make sure that the title you choose has the best possible fit with your content, and make sure that the meta-title is very well written. These will affect your click-through rates and hence your overall rankings.
- Don’t overinvest in the fancy SEO apps. The really essential information you need is all there on Google analytics and Google Search Console. These are free. Make sure they are set up properly and that they are capturing all the information from your website.
- In terms of keyword strategy, make a list of all the issues your customers are likely to face in the field that you are in and which you have product solutions for. Then start writing.
- Don’t stop at one article per keyword. You need to attack the same keywords with different headlines and different approaches. To give you an example: “How to feed a dog”, “7 things you should NEVER do when feeding your dog”, “A new and easy way to feed your dog”, “9 secrets about dog food...the 8th will surprise you!” Now, all these articles are about the same thing (dog food), but each will end up ranking for different searches as far as Google is concerned. Put them together and you as a website will rank higher for “dog food”.
- Keep tracking the articles you write once they are published. Probably for every 5 written you will get one that gets traction. And you will never be able to guess at the outset which one that will turn out to be. At that stage double down on it, checking through Google Search Console for what keywords that article is ranking for. Then reinforce the article accordingly.
- Format all your content nicely, with plenty of spaces and section headings, frequently asked questions, images, embedded videos, infographics etc. People skim and scan these days, they don’t necessarily read. So help them do that.
- In addition to content, think about creating apps or widgets to capture traffic. The reason it’s a good idea is that most people don’t bother to do that. Oftentimes, they can’t for technical reasons. So, for example, we have built an app on our website which does automatic color consultation, and another app which chooses your developer strength for you. We’re building a couple more apps right now which I hope will also do well. If you’re selling dog food, for example, why not build an app which people can use to tell whether their dog is overweight or not?
- In terms of web functionality, pay great attention to your page loading speed & usability on mobile. Google Core Web Vitals gives you all the information on what’s not optimal on your site, you just need to make sure you act on it. You will get penalized if your site does not load fast and well.
- Backlinks are necessary, especially good quality backlinks, but I personally have not yet found a scalable way of getting these. What I have noticed is that the more content we write, the more stuff that is happening on our site, the more backlinks we get. Doing some press releases and PR helps also.
- Whatever you do, never, ever buy backlinks on fiverr or from some SEO guy you found on the net!
- Lastly, and not least, you do need to be patient with all things SEO. Some of the content we wrote more than a year and a half ago is beginning to bring in sizable traffic only now. You have to be in it for the long run.
Apart from content strategy and SEO, the other thing which works for us really well is email. I talked about it the last time I was on Starter Story and it still holds true.
Around 25% of our revenues comes directly from people who have opened our emails, clicked to go to our website and then purchased. So email is really huge. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s dead, because it’s not.
We send off an amazing volume of emails - over 3 million a year, I believe. And we still get open rates approaching 20%. The ROI on this activity is simply tremendous.
Incidentally, when sending emails, we never talk price, we never talk deals, we never talk promotions. And we never send off fancy, branded email with our company logo and pictures of our products. We never sent a Black Friday email either. Those just end up in the trash.
Just send plain text emails, written as a friend would write them. Address their problems, arouse their curiosity and interest and show them that you have the solution for your needs. It works!
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
It always amazes me how much of life is totally unpredictable & I do think a businessman needs to build in that sheer unpredictability into his or her plans. The best way to plan for the future is to have actions planned which will work pretty much anticipating that trading conditions are not going to be good.
Be ultra optimistic in your dreams, but be ultra realistic/pessimistic in your planning.
I think I should have done many of the items I am doing now much much faster: building new apps, launching products etc. That would have helped.
If I had spent more time and energy working on financing and I had secured more money to pump into the business, I could have taken the bets that I am taking faster. And that would have made me go faster.
However, to look on the bright side. We do have excellent financials, great profit margins, and we're cash positive (I never had a choice - being self-funded these were all non negotiable targets!!). Hopefully the financial solidity of our business will become evident with every year.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
We are just in the process of launching in the UK and Europe so I’m pretty excited about that.
We have always known that 10-15% of our web traffic has come from Europe even though we ignored Europe completely: the worlds are actually culturally connected and what works in the US should I believe work in Europe also.
The launch is happening this month, and I will definitely keep you guys posted on how it goes!
In product terms, I do think the trend towards liquid toners and colors is a big one and we will keep bringing out new products in that field.
The demand for good quality hair care and treatment products is never ending, and I have a couple of good ideas there also.
In 2022 you’ll see many many more new products come out from us, that I can guarantee: the hairdressing market is at a pivotal moment right now, with many of the legacy brands and distribution channels starting to fade, and it’s very receptive to new products and ideas... it’s a huge market and it’s just waiting for us to act!
Have you read any good books in the last year?
Honestly this last year has not been a book reading year for me. But I’ve been helping my son with his Latin, a language which I know and like and was reasonably good at when I was at school.
And I have been dipping into some of the great classics again, with great enjoyment. They have been in my mind a lot.
Sometimes in the original, sometimes in English. Histories, and poetry mainly: Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, Tacitus and also some Virgil and some Horace.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
I personally could not have embarked on this entrepreneurial journey (which involved me selling 2 houses that I owned and liquidating pretty much all my assets) if I had not been convinced that this was something I absolutely needed to do.
It’s obviously been a great sacrifice, but I would say it has been absolutely worth it. I cannot imagine not having done it.
Just be prepared for the financials, that’s my only advice!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always looking for people from the hair coloring world, with good hairdressing skills but who are also interested in marketing & customer support.
Please email us on [email protected] and we’ll get back right to you.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/uglyducklingcolor
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/uglyducklingLA
- Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/uglyducklingcolor/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/uglyducklingcolor/
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqd34FUtTT3mE4Fz9Kd0Jwg
- Or just email us: [email protected]
We reply to all our emails very fast!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.
- 4,818 founder case studies
- Access to our founder directory
- Live events, courses and recordings
- 8,628 business ideas
- $1M in software savings