In April of last year, I popped a bottle of Nicolas Feuillate (a €15 champagne that I can’t find for less than $45 in the US 😅) in celebration of the fact that I had earned a whole $200 that month! Models and bottles y’all, I’d made it!!!!! I kid, no models and just one bottle. But I had made it. After six years of hustling, I’d finally been able to take money out of my startup instead of having to put money into it.
It’s crazy. When I quit my well-paying job and moved to Paris in 2013—which was really “code” for me finally becoming an entrepreneur in the way I wanted to be one—there was no way I could’ve expected to work for that long only to earn this much. I had intended to hit at least seven figures by year five, but things hadn’t worked out that way. To this day, I still wonder if it’s a result of hesitating to raise money early on.
In a world of billion-dollar valuations and unicorn startups, raising money has become standard. It’s the path you typically hear about. I always get irritated (more than irritated 😤) by the fact that the media and the venture capital world seem to mostly celebrate companies for how much they raise and rarely for how much they actually earn, and I understand why. Most startups these days (at least before Coronavirus) take a growth approach–meaning, they raise and spend a lot of money early on in order to grow fast and gain market share. They only start to think about profitability after they have a considerable slice of the market, which seems topsy turvy to me 🤷🏾♀️. And they cite companies like Facebook as examples of successfully putting growth first, despite those examples being rare cases. That combined with the fact that early- to middle-stage investors only need founders to raise another round of capital or sell their company in order to see a return on their investment, has made raising money more valuable than actually earning money. And to me that’s just crazy. I mean, I get it. But I just… can’t. Not then, not now.
Raising money was part of my business plan. It’s what would’ve gotten me to the seven figures I had my eye on if things had gone according to plan, which they rarely do. But at the same time, I hadn’t even intended to raise that much to get started. And when I started working on my MVP (my minimum viable product), launching lean and fast, I quickly realized that a blog—what Un-ruly started out as—didn’t really need much to get going. So I began focusing on proving its viability as a business. If I was going to raise money later, I wanted to be able to point to a point down the line where I could give investors a return on their investment. I didn’t want to raise and raise and raise. I wanted to raise once-ish and build a company that sustained itself.
And I guess that’s what I’ve ended up doing.
I funded the first year of Un-ruly with my savings and a very small investment from my mentor/first boss. That year the site made national and international news through a controversial 😅 short film we created, we secured our first advertiser, and traffic levels went from hundreds to tens of thousands. But it wasn’t enough. By the end of year one I ran out of money. However, after a year of straight hustling, troubleshooting and being “cancelled” on Twitter, all in a foreign country, my skin got THICKER and I was even more motivated.
That "hair touch" thing http://t.co/w29rEzWOWR could save my daughter's nerves. Thanks @hairunruled
— Ofelia (@OfeliaPnj) June 7, 2013
WTEF? “@ljoywilliams: Oh HELL NAWL – #YouCanTouchMyHair Public Exhibit Lets People Interact W/Black Hair http://t.co/bM4nr1gGmn #twibdocket”
— Purl Wakanda Wild Side Bailey (@TallGrrl) June 7, 2013
I’d go on to freelance with a very impressive friend of mine at her agency, consulting for international startups that wanted to launch in the US. Doing so allowed me to continue to work remotely while still building my content-commerce platform. It also allowed me to strengthen my performance marketing and content marketing muscles. During this time I worked with startups that had gotten funding and I could see that what they were doing wasn’t much different from what I was doing—we were using the same growth tactics, facing the same challenges just at a different scale. Most importantly, freelancing gave me an income and I put the majority of it back into Un-ruly. That would go on for about, say, two or three years.
By around late 2016 we finally secured a second big advertising client, which had taken about two years of pitching, following up, being ghosted but following up still until the right person responded, and we created a beautiful multi-generational multi-media content piece for them. The money we earned from that content sponsorship went right back into the business and fueled the launch of an extension of Un-ruly—Yeluchi by Un-ruly, a mobile hairstyling service, a service that I, myself, needed and knew other women could find useful as well.
I was so sure about how valuable a service like Yeluchi would be to women in NYC, where we first launched, that I thought that as soon as we hit the proverbial green go-live button the flood gates would open. 😆😆😆
I think that first month we had one booking. The second month we had nine! Third month three… it would take until December (the sixth month) until we’d hit a solid 10 bookings for the month. Mind you, we only had a couple hundred dollars to spend on advertising each month. So our growth with Yeluchi, like Un-ruly, was relatively slow too. But it was steady. And along the way we’d learn that money is not the only thing a company needs to grow.
Money is not the only thing a company needs to grow. - Antonia Opiah Click To Tweet
One of our biggest peaks in growth on the styling side of the business came early on when we shifted our focus to the quality of the service and made drastic changes to our vetting process. We focused on making sure that the stylists on our platform met a certain standard. That change cost us nothing to implement but paid off threefold. From there we started to really gain momentum. And at the same time we had more advertising revenue come in, so both revenue streams were growing. Last year was Yeluchi’s best year so far, which is how we got to the point where instead of putting money into the company I could finally take money out. I paid myself that whopping $200 and paid my sister and co-founder, Abigail, $600 🤑. *Big money honey!* Since then we’ve been able to pay ourselves a bit more. On top of that, and more importantly, we’ve been able to create a solid source of income for the stylists that use our platform.
We’re obviously not making full salaries ourselves, but we have a plan to get there. We have a plan to scale while keeping the company in the black vs growing an unprofitable company. And our growth so far, even though it’s been relatively slow, ultimately attracted the perfect investor for us. Toward the end of last year we closed our seed round of funding. And we did so at a time when we have a clear path to giving our investor a return on their investment (without having to raise a round A – Z 😆 of funding), just as I wanted to from the beginning.
We have a plan to scale while keeping the company in the black vs growing an unprofitable company.
Abigail always asks me why I like talking about the $200 so much. She’s not too fond of telling the world how little money we make hahaha. But for me that $200 means so much. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. So much went into getting to this point. And I’ve gained and grown so much as a person and a professional to get here. Most importantly, getting to this point also gives me an unshakeable confidence that we can get to where we’re going next, because we’ve done what we’ve done with way fewer resources than most.
Getting to our next big milestone isn’t going to be easy, especially with the world facing a pandemic and the global economy slowing to a practical halt. But for some reason I’m not worried. I’m not worried because I’m old enough to have lived through a recession and see companies and a nation get through that. I’m also not worried because we’ve had to be lean as a business before–being lean is all we’ve known. I personally, have had to be resourceful and patient my whole. damn. life. So, this is nothing new for me. Also, worrying only gets you so far. Resilience gets you further and thanks to the past seven years, I’ve got PLENTY of that!