Posted on
September 19, 2023

Spotting opportunities in a cultural moment

Nibi Lawson
Founder and Chief Hair Obsessive at Kinky Apothecary
Spotting opportunities in a cultural moment

Nibi’s entrepreneurial journey began amidst a cultural movement celebrating natural hair textures in New York City. However, her path took an unexpected turn when she relocated to Nigeria and discovered a lack of suitable natural hair care products. Determined to make a difference, she founded Kinky Apothecary, a company dedicated to providing natural hair care products and empowering individuals to embrace their natural beauty. In this conversation, Nibi shares her inspiring journey from personal passion to successful entrepreneurship - an inspiring and heartwarming read. 


What is your company doing and how did you validate this idea?


From New York to Nigeria

My entrepreneurial journey began in the heart of a cultural movement in New York City. It was a time when Black women, like me, were celebrating our natural hair textures after decades of chemical straightening. The sense of pride and identity that came with this shift resonated deeply within me.

However, my path took an unexpected turn when I relocated to Nigeria for work. I assumed that, being in Africa, I'd find an abundance of natural hair care products. Unfortunately, reality struck me hard. Natural hair was a rarity, and finding suitable products became a daunting task. The market was saturated with products laden with chemicals or tailored exclusively to chemically straightened hair. I realized there was a pressing need to educate people about the potential harm of these products.


Taking Matters into My Own Hands

So, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I started by writing a blog and launched a Facebook page to share my knowledge and experiences. The response was overwhelming, and soon I was organizing events and supplying natural hair care products across Nigeria. What had initially been a side hustle quickly gained momentum, leading to the formal registration of my company, Kinky Apothecary, in 2020.

Another turning point came when I noticed that despite the plethora of products available, people remained confused by the sheer variety. This later also led to the concept of HairRx, an AI-powered hair care concierge designed to replicate the personalized advice and recommendations I had been offering manually. HairRx (my new startup in development) aims to bridge the gap between customers and the right hair care products.


The Leap of Faith: Going All-In

Transitioning from a stable job to full-time entrepreneurship was a decision I contemplated for a while. It meant leaving behind the security of a regular salary, which was undoubtedly daunting. However, as 2020 began, I felt that I had reached the pinnacle of my corporate career, and my heart was undeniably with my business. Kinky Apothecary needed my undivided attention to unlock its true potential.

In February 2020, I took the leap of faith, signing a lease for a physical space in Lagos, Nigeria. It was an immersive experience for customers seeking expert natural hair care. Little did I know that unforeseen challenges, including a global pandemic, lay ahead. Nevertheless, I remained resolute that this decision was right for my business.


Scaling Across Borders

Today, Kinky Apothecary thrives in Nigeria, with me frequently shuttling between Lagos and London. In the UK, operations expanded under the name HairX, adapting to the unique demands of the local market. While physical spaces aren't part of the UK operations, an AI-powered solution is in development to cater to our customers' specific needs.

As for our customer base, we've seen remarkable growth. Kinky Apothecary boasts approximately 50,000 customers who have made purchases, with around 1,000 of them being recurring monthly customers. In the UK, we are presently in the beta testing phase, with approximately 800 individuals on our waitlist, actively participating in refining our offerings to provide better service.

It has been a super interesting journey for me, going from a blog to retail to now tech. 


How do you identify and prioritize new growth channels?


Organic Growth through Community Building

My initial focus was on building a community through a blog and a Facebook page. The growth of these platforms was organic, driven by a genuine commitment to educating and empowering individuals with natural hair. This community-centric approach allowed us to identify the need for products and knowledge in the market, paving the way for Kinky Apothecary.


Engagement and Adaptation

The success of our growth channels has been closely monitored through engagement metrics and customer feedback. We have consistently engaged with our audience, seeking their input on the content they want to see and the products they need. This responsive approach has enabled us to adapt and refine our growth strategies, emphasizing what works best for our community.


Partnerships and Marketing Initiatives

To further fuel our growth, we've explored strategic partnerships, such as our collaboration with L'Oreal for their textured hair product line launch in Nigeria. This partnership brought in new customers and expanded our reach.

The identification and prioritization of new growth channels have been a blend of organic community building, strategic decision-making, adaptation, and collaborative partnerships. These elements have worked together to drive the success and growth of Kinky Apothecary. 


What are your top skills as a founder? How do you work on it?


Creative Instincts and Content Creation

I've always considered myself a creative person, although my creativity doesn't necessarily fit the traditional artistic mold. Writing and content creation are skills that I've honed over the years and have been instrumental in my journey as a founder. When I reflect on how I started my business, it all began with content – blogs, and social media. These outlets allowed me to connect with my audience, and my ability to craft compelling content played a pivotal role.

It's worth noting that I don't have a formal background in writing, but I've always had a natural talent for it. Alongside writing, I also excel in marketing, particularly the guerrilla marketing approach. This skill helps me think outside the box and find innovative ways to capture the attention of our audience, which is crucial for the growth of any business.


Continuous Improvement

To continually enhance my skills, I draw inspiration from a wide range of sources. I find ideas in unexpected places. For instance, I'm inspired by imagery all around me, and not just within my industry. I often explore different sectors, like food or fashion, to see how they engage with their customers. 

Nature is another source of inspiration for me. There's something about being in the great outdoors that sparks new ideas and perspectives. And sometimes, it's as simple as walking through shops or visiting unique retail spaces. When I spend time in London after being in Nigeria for a while, I'm struck by how exciting everything is. I love exploring different shops, like Selfridges or independent boutiques, as they offer fresh insights into how brands approach their audience. 

I take a diverse approach to improving my skills as a founder. Rather than relying on a single method, I explore various avenues for inspiration. This dynamic approach keeps me adaptable as I continue to grow my business.


What is that one opportunity that had a significant impact on your company's growth or direction?


Customer-Centric Approach: Fueling Growth

It's been a combination of things that have driven Kinky Apothecary’s growth. I wouldn't say I've always done everything the right way, and I haven't dwelled on mistakes for too long. However, the main driver behind any notable spike in our growth has been our dedication to listening to what our customers want and then adapting accordingly. I know it's a common piece of advice, but it truly works.

Especially in the early days of Kinky Apothecary, I used to focus a lot on aesthetics and getting things to look just right. I remember our first website; I delayed its launch for way longer than necessary because I was overly concerned about minor details like colors and the shape of icons. I wasted a lot of time on those aspects.


Shifting Focus

Since our restructuring, we've shifted our focus to pushing things out there, even if they're not necessarily perfect. Instead, we prioritize taking in customer feedback and observing how they interact with our site.

We closely watch where visitors go on our site, concentrating on improving those areas to enhance conversion rates. This approach has been the key – iterating based on customer preferences and not wasting time on things that don't align with their interests.


Simplicity Succeeds

It might sound basic, but it's surprising how many businesses still miss the mark on this fundamental principle.


What part of your business are you most proud of? Why?


Fostering Self-Confidence and Natural Hair Love 

I'm incredibly proud of the fact that, despite how it may sound a bit cheesy, Kinky Apothecary has played a role in empowering individuals to embrace their natural hair. When I come across customers who've been part of the Kinky Apothecary community since its inception in 2010 – that's nearly 13 years – it fills me with immense pride. I remember reading their comments and messages from 13 years ago, when they believed that going natural was an unattainable dream. Witnessing their transformation and self-acceptance because of something I wrote or a piece of advice I offered during their tough times is the most rewarding aspect of my journey.


Making a Positive Impact

For me, it's not about the quantity but the quality of impact. Even if it's just a handful of people, knowing that I've had a role in someone's journey towards embracing their natural hair, especially in a world where many black women have faced moments of self-doubt, pain, or societal pressure to conform to certain beauty standards, means everything.


Nurturing the Next Generation's Confidence

What warms my heart even more is seeing the younger generation enthusiastically embracing their natural hair from the very beginning. My niece once wrote a heartfelt poem expressing her love for her hair. Coming from a background where many black women have experienced moments of self-doubt about their hair, whether due to pain, societal expectations, or self-esteem issues, witnessing the new generation's self-confidence and self-love is truly heartening. Knowing that I might have played a part in encouraging and inspiring this newfound confidence is a source of immense pride.


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