Taking your product idea to market
an interview with Yelista Jean-Charles.
So you have a great business idea- and you know it will make money. But what’s next? How do you take your idea to market?
In this episode, we’re discussing how to create an actionable plan for your business and make sure your idea doesn’t just stay an idea.
We finish this episode by interviewing Yelista Jean-Charles, founder of Healthy Roots Dolls.
Yelitsa took the toy market by storm when she started a company that creates dolls and storybooks that empower young girls and represent the beauty of diversity.
Grab a mug and listen in.
Founder & CEO of Healthy Roots Dolls
Yelitsa never had a doll that looked like her growing up. The one time her parents gave her a black doll, she burst into tears because it wasn’t the “pretty one”. Since then, Yelitsa has made it her goal to make sure that no other children feel the way she did about her own appearance growing.
Yelitsa has gone from not knowing how to do her own hair at the age 21 to teaching young girls all about their own.
Since starting Healthy Roots Dolls, Yelitsa has graduated from RISD with a BFA in Illustration and a concentration in Gender, Race & Sexuality. She has won the Startup Stampede, New Voices Fund Pitch competition, participated in the Backstage Capital Accelerator program and was awarded the first Main Street Ventures Wendy S. Lea Female founders Grant. In 2019, Healthy Roots Dolls took First Place and People's Choice at the Quicken Loans Detroit Demo Day.
To date, Yelitsa has raised nearly $500,000 for Healthy Roots Dolls and helped thousands of parents provide their children with a product that makes them feel seen and beautiful. Her mission is to make sure everyone loves their healthy roots.
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[02:03] Let’s talk about business plans
[02:17] Rhian isn’t fun at parties
[3:47] Why business plans matter
[7:29 Unpacking the executive summary
[12:04] Why Kelly loves market analysis
[13:14] Business acronyms: SWOT and SMART
[15:11] Who is your target audience?
[18:27] What products are you selling?
[18:48] Why financial planning makes sense and you need to have these tough conversations
[20:48] Why we all need mentors
[22:07] Get a CPA, its worth it
[22:54] What’s your marketing plan?
[24:40] Hype can be overrated.
[27:10] Consistency is key
[28:49] Yelitsa Jean-Charles, an introduction
[29:17] How Yelitsa went from being an illustrator to being a doll maker
[31:02] Selling online: how Healthy Roots got online
[31:14] Playing with ad spends
[32:48] Fundraising: the process
[35:33] Scaling a business; Yelitsa’s way
[38:20] Viral, and sold out
[39:53] How Yelitsa handles pre-orders
[41:52] Yelitsa’s favorite Shopify apps
[44:12] Biggest lessons learned
[45:35] Top 3 takeaways
- Building a business plan
- Fyre Festival documentary
- Startup Stampede
- Minding my Damn Business
- Arlan Hamilton
- Essence Fest
- My Black is Beautiful
- Bold Commerce
- Yelitsa on Twitter
- Yelitsa on Instagram
- Healthy Roots Dolls
- Phenomenal Girl
- Arlan Hamilton
- Liber & Co
So, you have a great business idea, and you know it'll make money, but what's next? How do you take your idea to market? In this episode, we're discussing how to create an actionable plan for your business and make sure your idea doesn't just stay an idea. We finish this episode by interviewing Dr. Yelitsa Jean-Charles founder of Healthy Roots Dolls. Yelitsa took the toy market by storm when she started a company that creates dolls and storybooks that empower young girls and represent the beauty of diversity. Grab a mug and listen in.
Welcome to Commerce Tea, a podcast to help you succeed on Shopify. I'm Rhian.
And I'm Kelly. Grab a mug and join us as we talk about all things commerce.
Hey, Kelly, have you ever been working on a Shopify store and then bam, something happens and you lose what you're working on.
I'd love to say no, but the reality is accidents do happen especially when you have multiple people working on a store. Apps that automatically add code to your theme may cause an issue or a team member may delete product images by mistake.
Doesn't Shopify back your store up automatically?
It's a common misconception but no, and that's where the Shopify app, Rewind comes in.
Rewind is like having your very own magic undo button. It helps you recover from human error or misbehaving apps. It's trusted by over 25,000 businesses from side hustles to some of the biggest online retailers like Gymshark or MVMT Watches.
That sounds awesome. Where can I learn more?
Head to rewind.io/commercetea to learn more about Rewind Backups. You'll get your first month free when signing up on that page. Again, that's rewind.io/commercetea.
I have an idea.
Let's talk about building a business plan.
I love business plans.
It sounds like the great morning activity, right?
I think so. I feel like every morning we should wake up and just make a business plan for something.
We're really fun at parties.
This is why everyone wants to talk to me. They're like, "Oh, yeah, Rhian. And I'm like, "Oh, let's talk about your vision statement and how we can activate your idea." And then they're like, "I'm going to get a drink," and then they walk away.
I'm speechless. It's funny because it's true.
It's funny because it's true. I love ideas, and I think ideas are really great. But oftentimes, ideas just stay ideas. I've met so many people, and they talk about the great idea. And I'm like, "Cool, well, what are you going to do about it?" And then they're like... And it kind of like fades into oblivion, and they [crosstalk 00:03:09]-
Especially because it can be overwhelming to know what to do next, or just the thought of having to do literally anything to actually make it happen.
Well, right, especially if you're new business owner, it's like, where do you start? You have to form a business entity potentially, if you're not a sole proprietor. I mean, there's so many things to consider. Tax implications, where you live, business licenses, and that's just to get your foot into the room to do a business. You have so many things you need to do, and it's really challenging to start.
But despite all that, even though writing a business plan does not seem like the most glamorous thing. It's so incredibly helpful because it now becomes your guide for how you're going to be operating your business. How are you going to be talking about your business. If you're going to be pitching to investors you know exactly the things that you need to be saying because everything's there in your business plan.
Absolutely. And I really think when you put pen to paper with your ideas, and then you have an actionable plan with measurable results, that's when you can see the business happening and actually just executing upon it, and it stops becoming an idea and it starts becoming a reality.
Exactly. So let's dig in. Why do you need a business plan?
Well, I don't know who told me this, and I'm sure it's a really famous saying, but if you don't plan, you plan to fail, right? So, a plan in general is needed in business, especially when it's documented and if you have a co-founder or if it's just yourself and you're holding yourself accountable. Because Kelly, you're a founder-
... alone, and I have a business partner. So we're kind of in different positions. But there's still accountability there no matter what. And I feel like when it's on paper in front of you, you can say, "You know what, yes, I did that."
Exactly. And you can also read exactly what you just wrote you're like, "Okay, does this actually make sense? Is it feasible?"
Yeah, or have I gone totally off scope here? Because you run the risk of that in any business where you start chasing the next shiny object instead of staying where you need to be, and focusing on the path ahead of you. So I think when you build a business plan, not only are you able to flesh out your idea, and make sure it's something that is feasible, and you can actually take it to market, but then you can also do a lot of research.
What kind of research do you normally do when you you're starting a business and creating a business plan?
Most importantly, who is your customer? Who are you going to be selling your product to? What already exists in that space? Who are going to be your competitors? And don't start off saying my competitor is Amazon or my competitor is Nike.
Yes, because they are not your competitor.
Maybe one day they will be-
... but right now, start where the customers are currently shopping. And there are a lot of other smaller businesses. And even if you have the most unique idea in the world, there is another similar business out there doing something sort of similar that you can base their customer, their brand voice, everything that they're doing, you can use that as your competition research.
Absolutely. And I think it's pivotal as well in your business plan and when you're doing this research is to say what makes me different than my competitors that I can leverage later on.
The unique selling proposition.
Yes. What is your unique selling proposition, and believing in that and continuing to believe in that as you move forward in the business? That was something in my previous life when I was a business banker, we spoke about a lot either with my clients who I would help apply for SBA loans because most SBA loans you actually need a business plan to apply for, or just in general be if we were thinking about ways they could grow their business thinking we would often pontificate upon what makes them different? Why them? Is it their customer service? Because I'm willing to pay more money if I get better customer service.
And most people are, so that's when you start getting into the nitty gritty. But when you're building your business plan, you have the opportunity then to say, I might have the exact same product as this next person, but you know what, my customer success is going to be through the roof compared to theirs. So people will choose me.
Exactly. So, Rhian.
There are a lot of parts that go into a business plan, and since you are our resident's party goer who discusses business plans at parties what is the anatomy of a business plan?
Well, first, you have your executive summary, which ironically is something that normally comes first but maybe should be written at the end. It's sort of like the TLDR of the rest of the document. And you can think about it as like an elevator pitch or just something that identifies your business and your unique value prop.
Yeah, think about when you're going through and you're hiring somebody. You're looking through a bunch of resumes, a bunch of cover letters, you want the quick overview, who is this person? Why do they stand out? Why should I hire them? That's your executive summary. It is what is my business? What is my unique selling proposition? What are my goals here? Who's my competition? All of that stuff, but in like a one page summary.
Absolutely. It shouldn't be more than one page, and that's pretty key to note. And then if you are trying to raise money off of this, you also want to ask... That's where you put the ask. I'm asking for $100,000 to do Y. And then you also talk about your team in the executive summary. I think that's less important if you're not raising capital, but if you are trying to raise capital, you have to have those things in otherwise no one's going to look past the first page.
Talking about your team is actually a really good segue to the second part, which is-
... the company overview.
Right. And I think one thing that's so cool about company overviews is every company is structured totally differently. And that's important to outline because some companies have really flat structures, right? Where no one really reports to anybody that's very tech, where no one really reports to everybody and it's kind of nebulous, and that's really normal in tech. But then in more traditional sectors, that is not normal at all. It's actually if you were to take that into a bank, for instance, people would just wander around all day wondering who they're supposed to report to. And so, a company overview is really critical and delineating what you're selling, what your industry is, what your business' mission, vision, and values are, and then how your company is structured. [crosstalk 00:09:52].
I also would go into the history of the company as well. If it's a brand new company you might not have history. So talk about how you came up with this idea. What sparked this interest in the first place?
And especially if you are trying to go for lending here and I am not a... I cannot give financial advice. However, that's my legal disclosure to you all. But however, if you say your background information and really explain why you have relevant competencies in this vertical, you're more likely to get that SBA loan or get that business loan. Banks especially are less likely to give you money if they're like, "Well, you have no... You want to run an ice cream shop and you've never worked in any kind of retail or service or food. Why do you want to run an ice cream shop?" They're like, "Why?" Whereas if you're like, "Oh, well, I worked 10 years in retail and did this and now I'm going here." "Oh, well, that makes sense. That seems logical."
I think it's also really important to talk about business objectives. Do you include both short term and long term business objectives in your company overview?
Absolutely. I think both are important because long term objectives, they can honestly change over time. And by providing yourself with smaller goals and smaller objectives, especially when you're just getting started, you can shape that that business plan as you reach the first goal or the second goal or you realize that you go straight into... You're a quarter, three months into your business, and suddenly you realize that who you thought your target audience is actually somebody totally different. So you need to pivot a little bit. So that's why I think it's important to include both your short and long term goals.
100%. And it's also important to lay out your team, and the key players on your team as well as their salaries [crosstalk 00:11:43].
Especially the salaries and I get it, it's tough coming up with those salaries up front, especially when you don't have the money to hire them. Or you're just not ready to hire them because you're still forming this idea. But these are the types of things that need to be included because when you're running gear, you're trying to build out your operational budget, you need to know how much you're going to be spending on people.
Right. Like if you, for instance, want to hire a COO and you're like, "I want to spend $50,000 on a COO," that's not going to happen. And it's important to set realistic expectations as to your salaries and who you want to develop in your leadership hierarchy.
For sure. So the next part is the market analysis. And to me, this is kind of my favorite part because I love a good competitive analysis and see who else is out there. [crosstalk 00:12:34].
You get paint, like the brand story, the customer story. Who is your ideal customer? What are they like? You get to get super creative and you get super deep into the research in this part.
I have... Well, everyone knows I like data. So market analysis to me is always super fun and digging deep even by using something like Wikipedia. But there's also tools like Manta that you can really dig deep into that field and you can look at competitors across your space and where you want to be. And when you take the time to do that, you're not going to have as many surprises down the road. You're not going to say, "Oh, whoa, I never even thought of that." Because you have thought of it because someone has already done a SWOT on your market, which is Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities-
And Threats. I forgot. I was like, and the T.
So, you talk about business plans at parties. I talk about SWOT analysis at parties.
Oh, we're so much fun.
I'll never forget the time when Daniel and I were at a co-working space and I was doing my off-site business plan for 2020. Haha, what a time to plan a year and this is how it turned out. But I obviously created a SWOT analysis in there because I love SWOT analysis. And I showed Daniel the whole business plan afterwards, the strategic plan for 2020. He was like, "Kelly, don't be offended by this question. But how do you know what a SWOT analysis is?"
I mean, first of all, Silicon Valley. I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding. I learned it somewhere in banking, but they do talk about SWOT analysis in the HBO show-
Oh, I didn't know that.
I learned because I have a degree in Public Health. And when you're doing community planning and program planning, you're absolutely conducting a SWOT analysis.
Like 100% of the time, right?
Exactly. Every program has a SWOT analysis.
So while we're talking about acronyms, I also want to talk about goals and how they should be smart, which is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. And the reason I say that is because much like ideas, goals are a great thing to have, but only when you can either achieve it in the sense of a goal or do it in the sense of an idea. And so, when you set SMART goals, you are more likely to achieve them and not just set some wild goal that is like 10 years out, and then what are the measureables? And then it becomes overwhelming. It's really easy to get overwhelmed as an entrepreneur. I know I get overwhelmed as an entrepreneur, and I'm not in the Genesis stage still of my company. So, especially when you're starting out doing a SWOT and also setting SMART goals for yourself is critical.
So I think a really interesting one to talk about here also is your customer segmentation, your target audience. You have to get hyper specific about who your target audience is. And I'll give you an example. I know of a boutique that's based in a college town, so the average age in that college town is late teens to early 20s. It's a pretty large university. I'm talking about the University of Georgia, really rare there. That's where I went to school. So most of the people who are shopping in the store are women who are likely in a sorority, but they're young. They don't have a ton of money because they are college students. So this is who you would think that their standard customer is, their target audience. It turns out that even though they have that brick and mortar location where the college students are shopping, they also have this online store. And their most popular target audience, their most popular customer is women in their 40s and 50s who live in Texas.
That is bizarre, but I love it.
Because it's totally unexpected.
Yeah. So these are going to be people who likely have a little bit more money because they aren't poor college students like I was at that time. I mean, just the age is a huge difference. Their level of education could be different. So I mean, these are all the types of things that you need to be thinking about. How are they spending their free time? Do they work? If they do work, where do they work? What kind of sectors are they usually working in? How much money do they make? That is a really, really important one to figure out.
Very important to figure out. Well, and then you get to see market tolerance for pricing, right?
Because maybe that shirt that you're selling for $20 could be sold for 40.
Or vice versa. Or maybe no one's going to buy the $40 shirt, and you got to knock it down to 20.
And I think one more important thing to talk about here as well is what do your customers believe in? Especially now customers tend to shop at brands that align with their own beliefs. So, if you know where you... Why you created this company, what you believe in, if you're instilling those same values into your business, your customers are likely to follow those same values.
That makes a lot of sense. When I think of a brand that executes this really well, it's Everlane because they talk so much about sustainability, and it's always on the front. The first thing... Yes, Everlane is a fashion company, but at the same time they position sustainability and fair and ethical work as the major... That's their differentiator. I really believe that, that's one of the reasons why so many millennials and Gen Z or Zoomers as I was told they're preferred to be called.
[crosstalk 00:18:20] finally gave them a name, honestly.
Yeah, I was told by a Gen Z person that the term is Zoomer. So, we're going with Zoomer. But there's a reason why so many of us want to shop at Everlane and it has a lot to do with their brand positioning.
And the product that they offer, which is different than everybody else.
Speaking of products, that's the next section, products and services.
I love it.
What products are you selling? Or what services are you offering? Just depending on how you structure your business, this is where you get into the nitty gritty of what are you planning to offer? Do they come in various options? Are you going to offer different sizes, different colors? Whatever it might be. Where are you sourcing your products? Are you creating them yourself? Are you drop shipping? In other words, are you sourcing the products elsewhere, and reselling somebody else's products? Lots of things to think about here.
Lots of things to think about. And I also think it's... I'm just going to throw this out there. If you're starting a business, I would advocate that you do a little bit of research on economics, and not like a full on undergrad course or grad course in econ. But just so you have a good understanding of not just supply and demand, which is your high school based knowledge. But a more advanced understanding of econ because it will help you inform your business choices and your business plan in a better way.
Well, which really, then I mean, essentially also leads into how your financial planning, right? Like how do you set your prices or how are you going to save for taxes? Are you going to take a loan? Are you going to take a line of credit? What are you doing financially? And it's something that I feel like talking about finances is kind of taboo in North American society, and because I'm a former banker, I tend to have terrible boundaries when talking about money, because I'm just like, "Yeah, let's talk about it. It's so normal." But it's something that people do not speak about very openly. And in a business plan, you have to speak about it openly because it's critical to your business operations.
Absolutely. The reality is, there are so many people out there who are willing to share so continue to network with people who are in a similar space. And if you can share that knowledge, if you have that open transparency, not only is it going to help you form your own financial plan and figuring out what do you need to include on your operating expenses and things like that. But you're also getting the mentorship from somebody who's already been in the space.
Which is always critical. I think finding a good mentor is one of the best things anyone can ever do for their business. I've had several good mentors throughout my career. And they have without a doubt changed the way that I think about things. And to this day, I have a mentor, advisor. He's my uncle, but that's fine because he's been in tech for really long, and I literally call him. I'll be like, "I have this idea," and I'll tell him, and he'll normally just tell me it's terrible. But sometimes you need someone like that in your life where you're like, "No, no, stay on track." [crosstalk 00:21:37].
No, it's really great because Rhian's my mentor and I will do that with her. I always know when I have a bad idea because she doesn't flat out say it. She just says, "Let's massage that a little bit."
I'm big on like, "Let's massage it." [inaudible 00:21:51] that a little bit, and then maybe we just massage it right off the table.
Just massage it right off the table. So, one last point on the financials, there are three things that you definitely want to include in there. And again, this is going to be more for people who are not starting a business from scratch, but you are updating your business plan if you already have one. That's going to be your income statements, your balance sheet, and your cash flow statements. Talk to your CPA to get this information.
Also, hire a CPA.
You could be like me and try to DIY it. Yeah, hire a... I tried to DIY our accounting for the first many years of business and I'm going to say I'm a competent bookkeeper, sort of. But once we got a full time CPA was I like, "Oh, I should have done this a really long time ago.
I love your CPA.
It's worth it.
I love my CPA too.
They save you so much money.
They really do. But you have to wrap your mind around that.
You're like, "Oh, it costs a lot but I'm getting a lot back."
And then of course, you also have to have a marketing plan in your business plan.
Yeah. How are you going to market to your customers? Where are they?
Yeah. Where are they? [crosstalk 00:23:11].
Where are the customers?
Well, but that's something that we always talk about when I talk about SEO stuff. It's like when you build a store on Shopify, you are basically... It's like building a store in the middle of the United States with no roads to it, right? And you have to create the roads to get there. And that is your job as the owner, the founder, the marketer, whatever your role is, is to create the path there. And whether that's through paid ads or through SEO or a combination of many, many different things. You have to keep that in mind. It's not a if you open it, they will come situation. It's a if you open it-
And you market it.
... now you have to work really hard.
And you price your products correctly.
And you're selling to the right people, and you have your unique selling proposition really clear. You have your customer objections in mind so you know how to move past those customer objections, then the customers will come and they will buy your stuff.
And they will come. But it is hard work. And I think that's always important to know is part of being an entrepreneur is feeling like you're failing quite often, and it's okay to feel that way.
But you just keep going.
And it's also important to note that you can kind of get carried away when it comes to the promotional plan because you can get super excited about what you're going to do and be like, "Oh, I'm going to go post on social media right now." Just like hype people up. Hype is great. I'm all for it. But finish your plan first.
Yes. Because if you don't have a finished plan then you only have... You've hyped people up for not a lot of things.
Nobody likes an idea that's been hyped that doesn't actually go to market.
I can think of a festival that comes to mind, Frye Fest.
You want to try Fyre Fest?
Is that how it's pronounced?
Yeah. It's F-Y-R-E, Fyre.
I guess the thing that stood out the most for me there was the sandwiches.
I agree. [crosstalk 00:25:15]. Also, that it crashed and burned because some random person who... Did he buy a ticket? I don't remember exactly how he got there, but he posted a picture of the sandwich on social media. And it went viral and people were like, "Oh, okay, so this festival is not actually a real thing."
No. For all of you who want to learn more about that I believe there's a documentary-
There are multiple documentaries.
There's one on Netflix and there's one on Hulu, Fyre Festival.
Everything went wrong.
You have to watch it.
Yeah, but that's a great example of a marketing plan with... I wouldn't even say half baked that was like 1/16th baked marketing plan.
That bread wasn't even toasted.
That bread was not toasted. It was just a set sandwich.
So, four final things just to keep in mind when you are putting together your business plan. First of all know your audience. Going back to the same example of that store in the hometown of the University of Georgia, their audience ended up being somebody completely different. And this is why you need to be very mindful of not who you think your audience might be, but who your audience is actually going to end up being
Second, take your time. This is not something you want to rush.
This is not something I excel in.
No, it is not.
I'm so impatient. Listen to Kelly, though, not me for this.
Again, you can get really excited you're going through these things. You're like, "Oh, I'm going to do this right now. I want to do this right now." I get it. The more details you have in this business plan, the better off you're going to be in the long run. Which is funny that I say the more detail because you also need to be concise. If you put together an 80 page business plan, you're going to be like, "Oh, yeah, look at this business plan, and then you're never going to read it again."
Could you imagine being an investor getting an 80 page business plan? I'd be like, "Cool. This is cute." Like I don't want to read this whole thing.
And trash can.
Yeah, yeah. What's the last thing to keep in mind?
Yeah, the last one is to be consistent with your tone and style. This goes for pretty much everything you do in terms of how you're marketing to your audience, how you're copywriting on your website, but that tone and style starts in your business plan and that is something you should absolutely be defining inside the business plan so you know exactly how you're going to be talking to your customers.
This is great. I hope that you all were able to find some benefit from us speaking about business plans.
I know it was really overwhelming. There was a ton of stuff in here.
I hope it was fun. I had fun.
I hope so because [crosstalk 00:28:08] recording this podcast.
That's true. That's true.
So we are now going to introduce our guest for this week's podcast, Yelitsa Jean-Charles. She's the founder of Healthy Roots Dolls. Her story is incredibly inspiring on how she built this business, and she defied the odds of what other people were saying. Like, "Oh, nobody's going to buy her product," and so on. I'm not going to tell her entire story here because you really need to listen to this interview.
Today we are joined by Yelitsa Jean-Charles, founder of Healthy Roots Dolls. Hi Yelitsa, it's great to have you on. Thanks for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me.
So I'd love to kick things off by just having us... Just tell us about yourself and Healthy Roots Dolls.
Yeah. So, Yelitsa Jean-Charles, CEO of Healthy Roots Dolls. I am a first generation Haitian American graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in illustration, and somehow ended up making physical products as a toy company founder. Healthy Roots Dolls is a toy company. We create multicultural children's products, and our first line of products are dolls, and our first doll is Zoe. And she's all about curl power and teaching girls to love their curls.
So, it sounds like you have a background in art, and you went from being an illustrator to being a maker. Can you tell us more about that experience?
So, I went from illustrator to doll maker after starting my undergrad at the Rhode Island School of Design. And while I was there, I was able to develop the language to talk about the experiences I had had as a woman of color, and especially focusing on children's media and the content that was created that didn't reflect me while I was growing up. So, when I got older, I was able to see the impact that representation or the lack of representation had on my own personal development. And when I was an undergrad, it was during the wave of the Black Lives Matter Movement, and I was very active in the protests and bringing those conversations to my campus and in our curriculum because I felt that artists have a unique position and skill set, and responsibility to educate our culture because we are creating the content that people are consuming.
And so, from that, I realized that I wanted my work to have impact. And so for me, that meant producing content for children. And I wanted to be a children's book illustrator, but somehow I ended up making dolls because of a class project where we redesigned fairytale characters and I got Rapunzel and I turned her into a little brown girl with beautiful kinky curly hair and my friends just said, "Oh my God, this looks like a doll. This looks like a doll." So from there, I went to Facebook and didn't realize I was validating the problem in the marketplace, and having conversations with other women and realizing we never had dolls that looked like us and had hair like us. And why is that? So I did research, learned that toys influence how kids think, act, and see themselves, and ultimately decided that this would be the solution to this problem.
I love that. I have two questions for you.
The first one is how long have you been selling online? And the second one is how did you navigate learning to sell online?
Yeah, so Healthy Roots Dolls started from a Kickstarter campaign. And that was because of how active I was on social media, and I learned how to grow an audience, and define my personal brand really early on. And so, that's basically what I did for the company. So, to people we look like an overnight success, but I've been doing this for five years. I've been having these conversations in this space for five years. And I built a lot of strong relationships. So going to events, finding people who are influencers in my space, and lead conversations.
But most importantly, I participated in accelerated programs that gave me the skillsets to build the company, especially in regards to digital marketing and e-commerce. So one in particular was the Startup Stampede from the American Underground in Durham, North Carolina, where they literally gave us step by step, this is how you build ads. This is how you define audiences. This is how you test things, and they gave us a budget of $800 to do it. And so, I got to play with money to try to make money for a little bit. I've just been doing it for two years, and it's working so far.
I want to do that program. Because despite running an agency, I know nothing about creating and selling when it comes to ads.
It's interesting. I've watched Facebook change over the years and I don't technically consider myself an expert, but whenever I talk to mentors and our investors are about our results. They're like, "This is good. You need to focus on doing your digital marketing." I'm like "Okay, cool."
What was your experience like raising funds to develop, grow, and scale your business?
It was hard. I actually wrote a Medium article about how in order to raise the capital and build my company, I had to mind my damn business. And literally, I just kept my head down. Because what happened was I was in the mass challenge accelerator program in 2015. And people didn't take me seriously. I was young. My team was all black women. We were selling a product that they considered only for black people rather than recognizing that all children can learn and play with different types of dolls and products in general. Another conversation for another day.
But you know, that just adds fuel to my fire. And so, from those conversations, I realized how challenging it was going to be for me as a female founder, as a founder of color, given the fact that less than 1% of black founders raise capital. So, I decided to do a Kickstarter campaign and after that, my first investor was Arlan Hamilton after I connected with her through her Medium post around the same time as my Kickstarter campaign and just kept in touch. And then from there, that's where the challenge began. And so, I took the capital I got from Arlan in a grant and just kept my head down and did the American Underground Startup Stampede program where I learned how to do digital marketing, and did our own sales. And then I did pitch competitions. So I realized that, okay, if you guys in this space are not considering me investable, I'm just going to go get capital from somewhere else and make it happen.
And so, I went to... I ended up at Essence Fest and did the first New Voices Fund Pitch competition, where they were looking to invest in female founders and founders of color and got $25,000 there. I did another accelerator program, got a $25,000 grant, got an investor. Then in 2019 did an accelerator program for Backstage got 100, and then while in Detroit did Demo Day and got $125,000 in grants from winning first place and People's Choice. So, when you do the work, the opportunities come.
I've always wondered because I've never actually pitched myself. Do you find pitching stressful? Does it get easier? What's your take on that?
They are stressful. But for me it changed when I learned to enter spaces where people were looking for me. So, looking up who's judging? What type of people are attending? And going there because in college, I would go to these pitch competitions and it would be other college students trying to cure cancer. I'm like, all right. I'm obviously not going to get this one. Where are my people, the e-commerce, the physical product people?
So, you're up against people who are trying to cure cancer. You're trying to sell this innovative product, first to market product. How was that whole experience?
It's hard as hell. It's really hard especially when you're like... I regret. I often regret not staying in industrial design in my sophomore year. I was in it for one week, but they had this... At my university, they have this challenge where you're supposed to make 100 forms out of sheets of metal. And I was like, "Can I make animals and flowers?" And they were like, "No." I was like, "Oh, this is not the major for me." So that it was challenging, and in order for me to overcome the obstacles of not being technically savvy of the space and experience and being new, I had to find people who were not direct competitors, but in that space and willing and open to mentoring and advising me through it.
So, basically funnels people to Hasbro. And that was one of the first conversations I had is with somebody who worked in product development at Hasbro, and they gave me some tips and introduced me to some other people and I actually used Maker's Row, I think it's called, which is like this online database of manufacturers to find our first manufacturer. And the manufacturer that we use now was actually an introduction from someone in my Venture for America class who introduced me to the director of entrepreneurship at Duke University while I was attending the Startup Stampede accelerator, who then introduced me to a woman who has founded a very big toy company, but wasn't in competition with me who introduced me to someone who sourced a factory for me.
So, relationships really matter. And that's how we were able to find the factory to produce our product. And in terms of design, I had already had experience as a creative person work. So I took the initial prototype from sketch to sculpting it by hand, and my network is full of creative so I was able to find a 3D modeler to take the prototype and make it a finished product, and then hiring a COO to help me work with the factory. And this is a person who has years of experience in this space and I attribute her to much of Healthy Roots Dolls' success. But yeah, that was basically my experience going from prototype to production is using our relationships to find the right people with the right skills to fill the gaps in what I didn't know.
That's impressive. Especially, some of these things like finding somebody who can do 3D modeling. That's to me like a pretty obscure skill to have. So it's really great that you were able to find somebody who actually does that who is already in your network.
Well, yeah, I honestly attribute everything to social media. Me not being afraid to ask for help, and just putting things out there and being very clear about what I'm looking for.
Speaking of social media-
You recently had a tweet go viral, and I imagine it's brought a lot of interest to Healthy Roots Dolls and the product and wanting to buy one, but are you currently sold out?
Yes, we are sold out. And we talked about this a little bit, but it's funny because we literally sold out three days before we went viral. And I was like, dang, if this would've happened a month ago, that would have been cool. I could have saved some of my marketing budget. All right.
So, speaking of you have all these new incoming visits coming in. Are you doing anything to be able to market to them once you are back in stock?
Yeah, so obviously like any business that knows what they're doing, we have a pop up on our site so you can sign up for our mailing list. I actually had been talking to a PR agency and they recommended... Because I was debating even doing pre-orders to be perfectly honest because pre-order is not my favorite thing. I don't like people waiting for products and you get all those emails, but it creates an opportunity to further communicate your brand and your value props to customers who have on boarded to waiting for the product. And so, I had literally changed it the night before we went viral. Changed the copy, and installed the buttons with the team and make sure everything was running right. And it was because of a PR agency recommending, well, instead of just doing the wait list, give them the option to pre-order if they want to. And I was like, "You know, yes, let's just do both and see what happens."
So, yeah, we have our Klaviyo, vo we have our funnels, we are doing a digital marketing. We're coming up with some new ad campaigns, and riding the wave of our viral content, and communicating with our new audience.
So, you're speaking at going viral. How did that happen, and how are you handling being sold out right now?
It's pretty interesting getting the number of pre-orders that equals what you would do in a month in a couple days. I'm like, "All right, I can rock with this. All right."
Well, first of all, congratulations so much on selling out. And thank you for sharing how you handled your pre-orders. As someone who does SEO, I've seen so many people when they sell out, they just turn off their website and/or their product, and they're like, nope, and then it becomes a 404, which is, as we all know, not great for SEO. So, the way you've done your pre-orders is awesome. And I in fact have a pre-order in for Zoe as we speak.
People turn off their product? They just shut down their website?
Yeah, they really do do that.
Yeah, even with that because we had an original... When we were selling, we were selling a bundle with our special... We were partnered with my black is... We are partnering with My Black is Beautiful. And so, it was a bundle of products. And instead of taking that website, that page down because I knew it was linked all over the internet, I just redirected it. I was like, "Okay, this is sold out. But you can find this here."
See, that's the way to do it.
Yeah, and especially doing both. Not only the pre-order, but also the wait list for people who don't want to pre-order yet or don't, and want to save up for whatever it might be, providing both of those options is honestly the best case scenario right here if you are actively sold out.
Yeah, I'm learning that and we're excited. It's really crazy because we have several thousands, maybe 10s of thousands. I don't know. I haven't really looked at numbers too hard yet. But it's a whole new audience to engage. And it's like, I can't wait to see what user generated content we get from this.
Oh totally. You're going to have so many fun pictures to use across all of your marketing. I am excited to see this. We're going to probably have to have you come back later to discuss what has happened since then.
Yeah. So, here are all the ads we made and here the hair tutorials we did.
Yes, exactly. So you mentioned Klaviyo, other than Klaviyo which I'm a huge fan of, and I could talk about it literally all day. What other apps and services can you do or can you not do without by running your business?
Klaviyo is super important. We actually... Let me pull it up. Because we used this website... My friend, he works at another startup and they have so many different... He's always the guy that I talk to when I'm considering new apps. He told me about Enquire Post so that I could see where people were coming from. Like what brought you here? We also use Gorgeous to handle all of our tickets for our customer service team. I love Loox. I love Loox a lot because it helps us get new user generated content and show... I don't think our website would be what it is and people would purchased the way that they are without seeing all of those reviews. The hundreds of reviews from people with the photo because oddly enough, I don't know why. But there's just something about the internet in general where people will message our team and be like, "Is this a scam? Is this a real website?" I'm like, "These are actual people. "What do you mean?"
I'm a real human.
Yes. People are answering these. Privy is something that we plan on using when our website is back the way that it's supposed to be. It's great for capturing emails, and giving rewards and things like that. And then I think I said Small Rewards. But yeah, I'm always looking at new things. I know that... I think it's Bold. They have a bunch of apps that we plan on using in the future as well.
Yeah, yeah. Bold is great for upsells, for customizations, if you want to build your own kind of set, especially customizing like the Zoe doll for example, those Bold options will, or that's the Bold builder. There's so many apps. I don't know what they're all named anymore because they also change occasionally. But yes, long story to say, yes, Bold, has a lot of apps definitely worth checking out. So, all of those apps are some of my absolute favorites. I'm a really big fan of Gorgeous and Privy specially as well. So, in learning everything that you've been through here, what are some of the lessons you learned along the way in getting Healthy Roots Dolls up and running, and all of the attention has gotten and so on?
So, I think the biggest lesson that I've learned, and it's something that I tell a lot of my peers and people who reach out to me looking for advice is you just have to do things. You just have to do it. Because if I had hesitated about switching my website over to pre-orders, we would not have the increase in sales that we have. We wouldn't have had the new lead gen that we have. And so for me, I spent so much time hesitating, and thinking about things rather than actually trying it. The best way for you to know something works is to see if it works.
Absolutely, I think that that trial and error is really is really key, and I think not being afraid of failure, especially.
Yeah, I think doing my own ads has definitely pushed me. Like I don't hesitate to try a new ad campaign now because I'm like, "I just want to see whether or not people respond to this, whether this converts." Let me create this graphic and slap it here and let me do this video because if it doesn't work, I'll just turn it off. That's it.
Yeah, it's perfect. Some things are never good. Some things won't work. That's just the nature of business. I've started new services and killed them just because I'd realized that it's a waste of my time.
It's just how it goes. So, one final question is, what advice do you have for an entrepreneur who has this idea who's never taken it to market before? What would you recommend be the first three steps that they take?
Okay, this is funny, because people... I've had this question where it's like the three steps and these were the three steps I did, and it was from my friend Sophia while were in college, and this is the motivation for... It's not a motivation, but what I used to guide me through Healthy Roots Dolls is step one, figure out what you want to do. Step two, figure out how to do it, and then step three, do it.
I love it.
It sounds simple, but it is so hard for people to determine whether or not they know... To sit down with themselves and be honest about what do I know, and what do I need to learn? And how can I learn it and who can I ask?
For sure. I absolutely love that. So, where can we find you on the internet?
So, you can find me on Twitter at TheYelitsa, please try to spell it as correctly as you can. And on all other platforms I am at blackgirlvstheworld. And if you're looking for Zoe, you can find her at healthyrootsdolls.com.
So, every week we like to close out our episodes by shouting out a store we like or folks who want to bring attention to online. So, Rhian, what is your shout out this week?
So my star of the week is actually a book store. But primarily it's one book and that is Kamala and Maya's Big Idea on phenomenalgirl.com, and I love it because it is about two young girls who are sisters, and they are working together to create a change in their community. And it looks so beautifully designed, and I really can't wait to add this to my children's book collection, which I always like to keep at home for when I have small visitors, my young friends when they come over, and we do some reading time.
Awesome. Yelitsa, what is your shout out?
My shout out is not necessarily to a business but to a boss. It's Arlan Hamilton, our first investor, if you haven't gotten her book, it's about damn time. It's about damn time you get it.
I am currently reading it right now. So my shout out this week is a company called Liber & Co. My husband is super into making cocktails right now and has been getting super creative with the cocktail game and they make syrups of all different types. I think we just bought a passion fruit syrup, and we bought grenadine, and I don't know. There are a bunch of them on there that I really want to buy, but we tried a drink with the passion fruit syrup last night and it was really, really good. So, I highly recommend. It's libreandcompany.com.
Yelitsa, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your story. I cannot wait to see all of the amazing things that Healthy Roots Dolls are going to do and you're going to do. You're just phenomenal, and I really appreciate your time and you coming on the show, and we hope to have you back one day.
Thank you so much for having me. It's been an absolute pleasure sharing my story about starting Healthy Roots Dolls and hopefully it educates and shares and inspires some other entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams.
I have no doubt that it will. And I'm really looking forward to having you back on later to basically recap everything that's happened right now because this is some really exciting time for you.
Oh, I'm excited to share the content that we're going to be getting from customers. So I will definitely have to come back.
Wonderful. Thank you so much.
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