BY DAVID STERNBERG
Michelle Breyer didn’t set out to start a multimillion-dollar company. She merely wanted to create a space where curly-haired women like her could address their frustrations with the lack of positive representations of textured hair. But what started out as a simple online forum in the late ‘90s has since transformed into an expansive digital platform offering a diverse body of products, information and services for the curly-haired community.
Today, Breyer’s company, Naturally Curly, is a one-stop shop for everything from styling tips and salon reviews to DIY hair treatments and empowering messages for those with curly hair. Naturally Curly also hosts a marketplace for established and emerging brands to sell their products and still maintains a robust discussion board. As a champion for the beauty of textured hair, Naturally Curly has helped launch numerous successful bloggers and products.
Although Breyer created a new career for herself, and subsequently for others involved in the Naturally Curly community, that was not her initial intention.
“I didn’t even have any plans to launch a business,” Breyer said. “I used to be a business reporter at the [Austin American-Statesman]. I loved covering entrepreneurs to hear about how they started their businesses. My idea came organically out of frustration. I never thought I wouldn’t be a reporter.”
The concept behind Naturally Curly was born in 1998, during a conversation over mimosas. Breyer was at brunch with two of her friends, “bitching about our hair,” when a man who had overheard them recommended they launch a website. He was amazed, he told them, that three women could talk for so many hours just about their hair.
The group decided to make a place for people who, like them, were frustrated with their curly hair and the dearth of products made for them, and where they could inspire others to love their natural hair. With no web designing skills herself, Breyer hired her 13-year-old neighbor to create a bare-bones website with a discussion forum.
As users started posting to the forum, Breyer would read posts expressing the same lack of confidence she had about her curly hair while growing up in California. She hated her hair as a teenager, and on humid days, her straightening products were no match for the moisture in the air.
The conversations on the forum led Breyer to realize that her team was developing a niche industry. Naturally Curly filled a void in the beauty and fashion worlds, where few, if any, companies were addressing the concerns of people with curly or textured hair. Perhaps for that reason, Naturally Curly quickly reached millions of consumers — from a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds — with its mission to inspire women to feel beautiful with their naturally curly hair. The forum became a place for people to learn to embrace themselves.
“People come for a variety of reasons,” Breyer said. “Their journeys are different, but there’s definitely a cultural divide in the black community, where up until recently it wasn’t OK to not relax your hair.”
The discussion board also became a jumping off point for people with large followings to launch their own blogs and products. Sunita Vee, a hair and fashion blogger, got her start through Naturally Curly.
“Naturally Curly was accepting of everyone when pretty much no other sites were doing that, especially for women of color to have a place and forum to talk about that,” Vee said. “It was a big deal to me and that’s why I’m blogging today.”
Jessica’s Curls, founded by Jessica Perkins, also started out through Naturally Curly after Perkins sent her hair product directly to Breyer.
“I remember someone in the discussion boards with a large following sending me product she had made in her kitchen,” Breyer said. “It was in this plastic bottle with hand writing on the front. Now she’s a worldwide distributor.”
Naturally Curly added an e-commerce site after Jessica’s Curls launched and advertisers began to see the impact it had. The Naturally Curly founders quickly surpassed their goal of breaking $1 million in revenue. People were visiting the site, reading and shopping from around the globe.
“One of my favorite things to do in the early days,” Breyer said, “was go and see where our traffic was coming from each day — Brazil, Australia, Israel. … It was crazy how quickly we were growing, because we were the first to kind of take curly hair seriously.”
As Naturally Curly’s web presence expanded, it also started to branch out into the real world. Breyer and the Naturally Curly team were sick of not seeing curly hair represented in the fashion industry, so during New York Fashion Week in 2011, they hosted their first fashion show. They didn’t expect the show to get much attention, considering they set it up last minute and their models were unconventional compared to those in other shows. But when the event began, the room was filled to capacity. The Naturally Curly fashion show has only grown since. This year, Target is one of the fashion show’s largest sponsors.
While large retailers and sponsors like Target like Michelle for her intelligence and entrepreneurship, her individual employees love her for her kindness and work ethic.
“When you’re around Michelle, you feel like her best friend,” said Devri Velazquez, a freelance writer who has written for Naturally Curly. “She’s so sweet, but her work ethic is the strongest I’ve ever seen. I think it’s one of the reasons she’s so successful.”
Even though it was unintentional at the start, Breyer has created a strong business, and through that success, has helped launch the careers of many others. She found a niche that everyone was overlooking and helped its inhabitants shine with confidence and curls.
“I truly believe if we had come up with a business plan in the beginning we could have ruined it,” Breyer said. “It was all about creating something we thought there was a need for and then listening to this growing community about what they wanted.”