Diishan Imira is a really hard man to reach. “It’s the craziest time of my life right now. I never know what my schedule is like. It’s never been like this before,” says the CEO and cofounder of Mayvenn (Yiddish for trusted expert), which empowers stylists and salons to retail hair care products without having to purchase or manage inventory.
Imira and his cofounder Taylor Wang have raised $13 million for a business that’s grown to 50,000 sellers since launching in 2011, with sales and customer service communications operating through mobile chat.
African-American health and beauty startups are getting a big push from Silicon Valley. First there was Mayvenn (raising a $10 million Series A in May), led by Andressen Horowitz, with Trinity Ventures, Core Innovation Capital, Cross Culture Ventures, Impact America, Jimmy Iovine, Serena Willians and Steve Stoute also investing. Then there was Tristan Walker, with his Bevel Shaving System for Black men raising a $24 million Series B in September.
In the case of Mayvenn, it was all about getting VCs to understand the business of hair extensions, as well as the company’s significant traction in terms of customers and revenue.
EBONY: What was your background before Mayvenn?
Diishan Imira: Most of my background has been in distribution and supply chain. I lived in China for a couple of years and I’ve been in imports and exports for the past 10 years. I’m from Oakland and I come from a family that has hairstylists, so I’ve been around the salon culture. I went to school on the East Coast at Hampton University, where I was a sociology major. I didn’t get into business until after I graduated college.
EBONY: How did you and your cofounder meet?
DI: He’s from the Bay Area also, but we didn’t know each other before. Back in 2004, a mutual friend connected us when I was living in China and he was living in the Bay Area. He was selling rare release sneakers online and needed someone who could get shoes that were coming out in Asia that were not available in the US. So after we connected, we sold shoes online together.
We kept in touch and around 2011 when I had the concept for Mayvenn, we bumped into each other again and I told him what I was working on. He’s the technology/e-commerce side of the business and I’m more of the supply chain side, so it made a lot of sense that we linked up.
EBONY: What was your inspiration?
DI: My inspiration for pursuing it and putting so much time and commitment into it was that it was a business I could do that could have so much impact on my community. In the Black community, it’s a huge issue that we don’t participate in the retail of our own beauty products, and Mayvenn was a way we could reverse that and that the stylists and salons could be in on the business of retailing the products. The combination that this could be a huge business and could be transformative for us as a community economically is what really inspired me.
EBONY: How big is the hair care market?
DI: The Black hair care market is $9 billion. Online is growing, and a lot of things have changed structurally. The African-American community is heavily online through mobile and participating in e-commerce. A lot of people have moved from just having cash to using prepaid debit cards to buy things online and the demographic is heavily using social media. So these things converged to make this business possible.
EBONY: Current e-commerce trends also make it easy to buy directly from China.
DI: Most people understand that when you buy something directly from China, you’re gambling. You get a cheap price, but you have zero protection and you don’t know what you’re going to get if you get anything at all. What Mayvenn has pioneered is a risk-free environment for people to purchase hair. You can wear the hair and if you don’t like it, we will take it back. Buying hair online is now convenient, but there’s also a lot of risk, and there are a lot of bad products out there. Almost nowhere will give you any sort of guarantee on the product, but we will.
EBONY: How did your network grow?
DI: We have 50,000 stylists now. We have an incredible amount of word-of-mouth and referral traffic. When one stylist sees another stylist making incremental income without having to put up any money, she’s interested. We make it easy. We don’t charge any fees to join, and we don’t charge for maintenance or upkeep. You sign up, you get a free website with tools and digital marketing materials. It’s up to you to start selling and building your business.
EBONY: What kind of commission do they get?
DI: It’s 15% with extra bonus credits, like store credit for selling more products. The typical stylist will get close to 30% with commission and credits.
EBONY: Once the stylist sets up an account, how easy is it?
DI: Right now, we’re slowing down on acquiring more stylists and working on developing more tools to increase the usefulness of the platform and decrease some of the friction of selling. We’re increasing marketing capabilities with automated tools and more offline materials, as well as better communication of how to use the tools. We’re tightening the top of the funnel and making it harder to get into Mayvenn, looking at the stylists we already have and figuring out how we can give them more tools and products to make it even more valuable for them.
Now we have a set list of products available, so the sites are pre-populated with the items. As we expand the product mix, we’ll look to provide more customizations of the websites for the stylists.
EBONY: What about the consumer side?
DI: On the consumer side, things work pretty well. As we optimize more from a marketing perspective, it will help to connect more with the consumer and help drive more traffic for the sellers. We’re building customer referral programs now. We’re building more community tools. All of this we’re doing with the intention of helping the customer have a better experience and for our stylists to become better professionals who are earning more money through their craft.
EBONY: How did you get Silicon Valley to see that you were the Uber of hair extensions?
DI: Not easily, and it took awhile. It took two years to even get the first round of funding, which was a little under $1 million. I had to knock on a lot of doors. Most Silicon Valley investors don’t know anything about the world I’m talking about, and so the challenge was to bridge the cultures, to see there are these real issues and these real opportunities. I went as far as taking some of the VCs into West Oakland and brought them to beauty supply stores. It was one thing to tell them that the typical salon doesn’t sell products like the mainstream ones, but it was another to take them into Oakland and show them.
EBONY: You started in 2012 with $50,000 from friends and family. Then after doing 500 Startups in 2013, you raised $750,000. Then your total funding for seed investment was $3 million, and quickly behind that, you raised the $10 million. Where are you now?
DI: One woman that I knew from college put up $10,000, and then I got a $20,000 check from an angel investor, and then another $8,000 from someone’s mother. I took the early angel investors to the ’hood when I got the $750,000. From 2012 to the first quarter of 2015, we raised $3 million total. And then in May of 2015, we raised $10 million led by Andreessen Horowitz. So to date, it’s $13 million.
Andreessen is definitely on the cutting edge in seeing the opportunity in investing in diverse demographics. I think of all the VC funds, they are looking at it the right way. By the time we got to them, the business had significant traction. We already had 20,000 hair stylists, so we weren’t just showing up with an idea. We had a lot of traction and millions of dollars in revenue already. I think they were also impressed with the execution.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.