Business 23 January 2017
Their's was a fairytale story. Coming from humble beginnings in Queens, New York, Miko and Titi Branch never once took a loan nor investment from anyone, and now their brand, Miss Jessie's is firmly indented as one of the world leaders on the natural haircare map.
We spoke to Miko, Co-Founder and CEO of Miss Jessie's about the beginnings of the brand and how her and sister Titi were bestowed the entrepreneurial urge from within the very home they grew up in.
Miko remembers her grandmother Miss Jessie fondly - a steadfast in the kitchen, a comforting but stern presence in her and her twin sisters' lives, and a monumental piece of their entrepreneurial journey. A one-armed lady who taught the girls all they needed to know about life, business, and how to survive in the world once you've failed. She prepared them for their struggles, but also their rise to fame as the sisters who re-invented haircare for the African-American woman. “She was the first CEO we ever had contact with." she muses, “My grandmother rared our family from the kitchen table."
"All we had was an idea, all we had was each other" - Miko
Miko and her late sister Titis' father also trained the twins to be entrepreneurs. Between their father and their grandmother, the girls were quick to start their own business. Their first foray into entrepreneurship however did not go so well, and the business failed in 1999. Miko recalls her and sister "made some decisions that resulted in us losing our business." It was to be the first major setback that would ultimately pave the way for the multi-million dollar Miss Jessie's brand we know today.
It was while bathing her son one evening when Miko developed the idea for the haircare brand. Her then-straightened hair frizzed up upon contact with moisture and got Miko thinking about why she was muting her big natural curls. Why not embrace her unique hairstyle? With a likeminded and extremely capable sister, and their salon at the ready, Miss Jessie's begun.
When the conversation shifted to allowing your natural hairstyle, and embracing your roots, Miko wondered whether people would be hesitant to move away from straighteners and curlers. The fashionable thing was not to be au naturale, rather, was to be styled or pulled in one way or another, so your hair did not resemble its natural state. People actually wanted to wear their hair in its naturally curly, kinky or wavey state, but just didn't know how. “To my surprise" she says, “it created a conversation that was favourable. It took me no time to understand that this was our opportunity to get our business back."
“We learned how to mix things from scratch" - Miko
The sisters took to the kitchen and began working to find the best recipes, dedicating themselves to coming out with products that “perform and work." They were to become specialists in everything curly, kinky and wavey as their was nothing in this range at the time lining the shelves of CVS or Walgreens.
"It was Titi who cracked the nut" - Miko
"Titi stayed up later than me" Miko recalls. "And it was Titi that cracked the nut." Miko's sister was the one to come up with recipe for what is now called 'curly pudding,' and there they had it. Miss Jessie's, Miko believes, came "out of necessity," but it was the twins' drive to meet this necessity that produced this whirlwind journey they would embark on from the first 'curly pudding.'
From there, they began to put a premium on their services in their salon to come up with the capital needed to expand the brand. Not once did they receive an angel investment or a familial or friendly loan, building their business as they went.
Their ability to captivate - unrivalled; their marketability - seamless; and their devotion to the home-grown brand - personal.
By 2001, Miss Jessie's was launched and by 2004 they had become product innovators with the 'winning formulation' for Miss Jessie's, with the first of its products circulated on to supermarket shelves. The business has only gone from strength to strength since then. Titi tragically died in 2014, but Miko has continued to push the legacy and popularity of the brand, having penned a harper-collins bestseller Miss Jessie's: Creating a Successful Business from Scratch - Naturally, with her sister before she passed, and now has another book on the way.
The Miss Jessie's sisters grew their brand from the ground up, and on the back of hard work, grit, determination, and failure. Miko chimes that if there was anything she could tell aspiring female entrepreneurs, it would be "have no fear, and embrace your failures. They will become the stepping stones to your success."
3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.