What’s the inspiration behind PuffCuff?
When I decided to change my lifestyle and make the transition from relaxed to natural hair, I discovered that it was impossible to find accessories to accommodate the thickness and texture of my hair. I searched in stores and online, and realized that most accessories on the market are designed for straight, thin hair. Existing products cinched my hair to its smallest point of resistance, creating “bunny tail hair” (not a good look for a grown woman), hair breakage, damage to the accessory and pure frustration for me!
I became determined to find a solution, but it just didn’t exist. As I became more aware of other African American women making the same transition (all with similar hair texture and hairstyles), it became clear we all had the same need for an easy-to-use styling tool that would help us achieve quick looks without stressing our hair. We also needed it to be sanitary, durable and affordable. A little more research revealed that there were others—men and women with curly hair, locs and braids—who were experiencing the same styling woes. It was then that the concept of the PuffCuff was born.
How did you know it was the right time to launch your company?
In the fall of 2011, I was blessed to have my 99-year-old grandmother come to live with me and my family. She had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and was close to death. My grandmother was my heart, and I loved her dearly. In our quiet moments together I often wondered, “Did she do everything she wanted to in her long life? Did she pursue all her dreams?”
The answer was a resounding and confident YES. She was at total peace in knowing her time was at hand. So I thought, “Would I be at peace with how my life turned out if the Lord blessed me to live to her age?” Knowing I might not get to 99 years, I put this idea on the shelf and left it there. I realized I might not have the same kind of peace my grandmother had when death was imminent, so I decided I had to at least try. If I failed, it wouldn’t be for a lack of trying. So here I am! PuffCuff LLC was launched in August of 2013. The first PuffCuff was available for purchase in February of 2014.
You are the first black woman to hold three patents for natural hair accessories. What do you envision for this field?
I entered the beauty industry because there was still little to no representation of people who look like me making the products and decisions in the boardroom. This resulted in a lack of available products that worked for people like me on the shelves. The effort put forth by the general market to accommodate natural, textured and curly hair has no doubt increased. However, there are still strides to be made to catch up with the years of bias towards what’s considered good hair, and products that only accommodate that mentality.
I envision for the field to grow through the rise of more Black women who diversify the market with solutions that arise from the genuine needs of a considerable portion of the underserved and underrepresented markets.
How do you handle risk and competition?
Everyone says imitation is the best form of flattery. NOT!!!! There were no competitors before PuffCuff, hence how I recognized the opportunity.
However, about two years ago, our fans spotted and notified us of knock-offs of the PuffCuff being sold in neighborhood beauty supply stores and one big-box retailer. Instead of coming to us to license the PuffCuff, foreign manufactures and foreign-owned and based companies produced similar but inferiorly designed products made of low-quality materials into the market. Infuriating!
We spent over $100K on legal representation to stop these products from being imported and sold in the United States. On a positive note, one of those copycats has been stopped. Even though I hold three patents on the PuffCuff, it did not stop the copycats. Unfortunately, there is no patent police. We thank God for our excellent IP attorney, and fans for their loyalty. They are always advocating for the PuffCuff.
What’s been the #1 (or two) top challenges you’ve faced while launching your company?
Other than having consistent working capital, it's scaling. When growing a small company, you do many things yourself even if you're not good at it. It's pretty much impossible to maintain that. I seek the help and expertise of people who have different skill sets than me. I have worked with excellent teams. Women and minorities own many of them, and they have supported the PuffCuff through its many years of growth.
I recently moved to bring on an in-house creative team to support development, which has been invaluable. I would have to say to business owners- it's not okay to do everything, even though your business is your baby. I recommend learning when to let go.
Finding the right people who carry a specialized skill set- whether that's graphic design, marketing, or operations- and trusting that you'll mutually grow the business together is invaluable.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
It was surprising I would want to continue learning. After I finished college, I felt like I had escaped. I swore I would never go back to school or sign up for anything that felt like being in school again. The pressure and anxiety were too great. Plus, I hate to read because I'm dyslexic. After starting the business, I found myself registering for every FREE business or entrepreneurial class I could find. I enjoy them. I went on to earn two online certificates from Cornell.
In 2018, you were awarded the President's Innovation Award from Sally Beauty. What was that experience like?
My only thought was that I must be dreaming! The President’s Innovation Award from Sally Beauty completely blindsided us. I’ll be honest, we were used to receiving rejection emails. So, when we got the news via email, I initially thought it was just that. I am so glad I kept reading. My jaw dropped to the floor. As the winner of the President’s Innovation Award, we were granted fast-track nationwide distribution on sallybeauty.com and in Sally Beauty stores around the globe. We expanded rapidly and continue to do so. Through that growth, we have had many peaks and valleys that have taught us how to handle and approach our business on a different scale that only experience can teach you.
What’s your team culture like?
As a creative myself, I know the benefits of having a comfortable environment that allows you to do your best work. Until very recently, the PuffCuff team consisted of only me, my family, and one employee. We worked with outside agencies to fill in the gaps, but we operated very slimly for the most part. Now, I have a team that backs me and helps me guide the PuffCuff brand and future endeavors.
Having a low-stress environment is critical. The last thing I want is for my team to have anxiety every time they open their laptop or come into the office. It’s terrible for their health; and at the same time, it impacts their ability to work. I work closely with my team to ensure they have everything they need and do my best not to suffocate them with micromanaging every task. I do all of this with a little tough Chicago love.
What is your superpower?
Laser focus! Maybe it's my inner Taurus. The focus and determination I get once my mind is set on something is unshakable. Whether it's getting the PuffCuff created or booking a vacation, I will not finish until the task is done and everything is in order. If it’s not in order, I'll be the first one to let you know so that it can be fixed.
What’s your kryptonite?
I spread myself too thin, and I don't take time for self-care. I can be very hands-on and sometimes get obsessed with all the little details. Next thing I know, I'm spread between multiple projects and my OCD is getting the best of me. Lists and the use of project management tools help keep the pieces together even when this gets a bit chaotic.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
My hot pink thermal cup that I will only drink water from has to be with me at all times.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
I wish I did. I don't have much spare time with the business and a family of 5. I do love a good made from scratch margarita. My recipe is top-shelf tequila, fresh lime and citrus basil. No mix for me!
Are there any apps or gadgets that you can’t live without?
The Bestie app makes my selfies look great. Not overly filtering but removes just the right amount of the dark circles from under my eye that comes from staring at a computer screen every day for at least 6 hours over the last 25 years. Also, I love Audible. I’m not particularly eager to read, but I love to listen (and occasionally fall asleep) during a chapter or two.
What’s your experience been like as a female founder?
Being a Black-female founder has been an exciting journey, especially at the beginning of my trip when the PuffCuff was emerging. I immediately noticed how many people didn’t take me seriously- from subtle brush offs and not replying to my emails, to ignoring my presence. I think those attitudes are slowly changing. After all, 40% of US businesses are women-owned, and in 2019 64% of new women-owned companies were started by women of color. Despite that, women receive only 7% of venture capital to fuel their startups and Black women only receive 1%. This is all while asking for roughly $35,000 less in business financing than our male counterparts on average.
For women business owners and founders who are looking to start their own company, go into it knowing exactly what you want to do and have a clear vision on how you are going to get there.
Any advice for female founders?
Don’t let your idea pass by you just because you think you can’t. When I was taking care of my 99-year-old grandmother, she revealed to me how satisfied she was with her life because she never held back.
During that time, I played with the idea of the PuffCuff, concepting ideas and designs. However, I never thought I could be the person to invent, manufacture, and sell a product. The dream almost fizzled out there, but my grandmother’s satisfaction at her old age ignited a flame to make my dream a reality. I already had the solution, the PuffCuff (the first wooden prototype still sits in my office to this day!). So I figured, why wait for someone else to create it? If I had given up, not only would I have done a disservice to myself, but also all of the people who were waiting for the solution that the PuffCuff provided.