Learning how to start an ecommerce business is never as easy as it may seem like it is. There are so many lessons you learn along the way and so many mistakes that lead to growth. There may be huge roadblocks that you have to get over but overall as long as you invest in the right areas, you can make sure your ecommerce business grows as you want. There is constant work that goes into making an ecommerce business successful and a certain number of sales is never the end goal, yearly growth is.
As part of my founder series, I interview successful ecommerce business owners and the lessons they learned on their way to success. So today I talked to Vivian Kaye who is the founder and CEO of KinkyCurlyYaki which is a premium hair extensions brand that she built from the ground up to over $6 million in sales. Her story is very inspirational because she did this all while being an immigrant, a single mother, and a college dropout. Along with running a successful business she also hosts a podcast, appears on a TV show as an entrepreneurial expert, and takes pride in the life that she has built for herself and her family.
I first came to know about Vivian through one of our clients where she was modeling their product. The pictures were bright and bubbly and through further research, I came to know what a boss babe she really is in the ecommerce space. She has a lot of skill sets that have enabled her to be where is today and she has knowledge that all of us can take advantage of.
I hope some of her insights are useful to you as you are learning how to start an ecommerce business.
The Journey from Bootstrapping to 7-Figures
A lot of businesses, not just those in the ecommerce space, are founded because the owners see a problem in the market that they think they can solve. Now, just because you have identified a problem doesn’t mean your business will automatically be a success. You need to put in the work and evolve as the market changes and your business grows.
I asked Vivian what her journey from zero to a 7-figure business looked like and she admits it took time to learn how to start an ecommerce business. Her success didn’t happen overnight. She already had a business as a wedding decorator and she wasn’t looking to start another business until she saw a problem in the hair extension market. A lot of women of color, like Vivian, wear protective hairstyles like wigs, weaves, or braids and she wanted something that matched her natural hair which she couldn’t find in the market. Even when she did find something it was buried under the silkier, European-looking version which just didn’t cut it.
She decided to create her own weave that matched her natural hair. She did her research and development and after some QA testing, she wore it to a networking event where another woman of color asked her about her hair and upon finding out that it was a weave, said she would love to buy something like it. Vivian says this is when the light bulb went off in her head and she saw the potential in the market. So, when she was in the off-season of her wedding decorating business, she decided to launch KinkyCurlyYaki in December 2012 which was early on in the ecommerce business revolution.
KinkyCurlyYaki almost instantly took off and within the first year, her sales hit the $500,000 mark. Vivian says she didn’t know much but she knew she had a product that people wanted, she wanted the same product and she knew the high pain points that her customers had. She addressed those in her marketing campaigns and that led to a lot of organic traffic for her ecommerce business. Fun fact, she didn’t even invest in paid ads till 2017 because she was attracting organic visitors because she was the ideal customer for her brand and she knew what to say when it came to identifying the problem and presenting the solution.
Again, Vivian didn’t know much when it came to the ecommerce world but she credits her naivety for allowing her to enjoy her early success and not have any preconceived notions of how things should go. She took KinkyCurlyYaki to Facebook and Instagram as the apps started getting popular and became one of the first hair extensions brands on the platforms. She says it wasn’t easy and it was never smooth sailing but getting from zero to 100,000 sales is the hardest part and then you sort of glide on. The business hit its first $1 million in sales 3 years after being founded.
Ask any ecommerce business owners and they will be able to tell you a time when they felt stuck in their ecommerce business. Something that they could have worked on and accelerated their business even further. So, I asked Vivian if there was ever a time where she felt stuck or looking back now, was there anything she wished she could’ve done differently that could have potentially led to better growth for KinkyCurlyYaki.
Staying true to her bright spirit, Vivian said she doesn’t have anything that she regrets doing or not doing, solely because she believes everything turned out how it had to. But, if she had to say something she believes that she is her own bottleneck. There are a lot of companies in the market now that sell the same product she does but isn’t the ideal customer like she is. They have trouble getting the customer to come back because they serve such a big market, she likes to focus on the opposite.
For Vivian, sales and revenue don’t matter as much as making sure women of color everywhere feel the best that they can. She focuses on retention rather than gaining more market share and that is something that she feels has stopped her business from scaling up much faster. This is something that I also tell everyone, focus on the joy your business brings you and your customers, take pride in what you do and the money will just flow. For Vivian, it has worked wonderfully.
Increased Customer Retention
Now, Vivian talked about how it was very important for her to have her customers come back. For ecommerce business owners this is one of those metrics that can be very hard to achieve. There is so much competition in the ecommerce space and as more and more options pop up, customers tend to get distributed. It is important to work on retaining as many customers as you can, and Vivian has worked especially hard on that sometimes even forgoing increased revenue and market share.
One of the best things Vivian says she did was to stay true to herself. To stand out against the ‘Amazons of the world’ you need to be you, and no one can be a better you, than yourself. Even the little things go a long way into making sure your customers come back. You can write handwritten notes or send out emails that make customers feel seen and heard.
For KinkyCurlyYaki, Vivian has email flows that are sent out to customers 24 hours after they have made a purchase to thank them and let them know they can ask any questions if they have any. This email flow alone gets a lot of engagement for her ecommerce business because customers feel like they are cared for. She puts in the effort to make sure that the customers receive this email even if it’s 3am in the morning.
When customers repurchase from her brand, she has another email flow that gets sent out and thanks to them for entrusting KinkyCurlyYaki with their beauty and confidence. To stand out from the bigger players in the market, you, as a small business owner, need to make your customers feel like you care. You can personalize anything and let them know you are there for them. It doesn’t have to be fancy either, Vivian has just simple word emails, while some have a GIF but nothing too fancy and gets a lot of engagement in return.
If you are struggling with your own email marketing strategy, you may get value out of my post: How to 2x Your Ecommerce Sales in 30 Days: A Definitive Email Marketing for Ecommerce Guide
Talking about a specific thing that made a difference in the growth and scaling of her business, Vivian said paid ads are what helped her grow fast the most. She started doing paid ads in 2017 through Facebook and her business really blew up. They started making around 6 figures monthly and after 6 months Vivian had to stop doing paid ads. She didn’t want to compromise on the quality of her product and with that, it was hard to keep up with the increased demand.
Businesses like Vivian’s face these issues regularly when it comes to increased traffic and demand. Vivian sources her materials from India, the processing takes place in China, and then finally she imports it to Canada. Scaling a business that depends on a higher quality product is hard work and when more orders started coming in for KinkyCurlyYaki, Vivian noticed that a lot of the products coming in had matted hair and were just not up to the quality that her brand was known for.
Cutting off her paid ads for a while enabled her to get her quality back on track and when she decided to come back, Facebook ad rules had changed. Now there is a lot more opportunity in email marketing, SMS marketing, and apps that allow SMS registration like TikTok and Snapchat. Again, Klaviyo is one of the best email marketing tools that you can use for ecommerce businesses and that is what Vivian uses as well.
Email marketing is free and it is one of the best ways to get traffic and orders on your ecommerce business. Setting up email flows that create awareness, up-sell, cross-sell, or just plain keep your customers coming back to you through the content you share or the customer service you provide.
When you start your own ecommerce business and begin scaling it up, you’re bound to learn some lessons along the way. These lessons are what inform your decisions moving forward and can become valuable knowledge that you can pass on to newer ecommerce business owners. These lessons can then lead you into becoming a more powerful CEO for your brand. For Vivian, the biggest lesson she learned through her success was to always trust herself.
According to Vivian, there are a lot of mistakes she made when she trusted people she was paying more than her gut. She made decisions based more on logic than her intuition and that led her to make some of the biggest mistakes she has made in the ecommerce journey. She feels like she should’ve trusted her gut and maybe the outcome would’ve been different. You know your business the best, you built it to where it is and so you should always trust yourself when it comes to making decisions for your brand.
The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward – that is something that a lot of ecommerce business owners will tell you of their success journey. You need to take risks to stand out from the crowd and that is what can lead to great growth for your brand. For Vivian, the biggest risk she took was using influencers before they were even called influencers.
She was one of the first small business owners to send her products out to different bloggers and vloggers for them to try out and review potentially. It was a big risk for her because her products are valuable and to send them out for free meant forgoing revenue that she could otherwise earn from the pieces. The trust she put in these influencers led her to her first $1 million in sales and brought on a lot more traffic and orders to KinkyCurlyYaki.
Overall, Vivian thinks starting her business is a pretty big risk in itself because she already had her wedding decorating business and she didn’t know anything about hairdressing or ecommerce. It seemed simple enough for her and so she gave it a shot. A big risk that paid off for her in the long run. She found a gap in the market and took her chance bringing a product that could help so many women around the world. She learned about ecommerce along the way whenever the market and social media landscape evolved.
Influencer Marketing Now
In the last few years, the social media marketing landscape has changed a lot. Influencer marketing has become very popular and many brands are trying to use it to their advantage. For Vivian, influencer marketing brought in a lot more revenue and so I asked her if she had any advice for business owners who are new to influencer marketing.
For Vivian focusing on Nano-influencers is something she believes works the best. Influencers that have around 30,000 followers are truly only going to talk about brands that they really care about and their audience trusts them with their opinions. Bigger influencers generally have a more transactional relationship with their audience and so smaller influencers are better for your brand. They need content and you will provide them with it while they provide you with marketing.
The key to being successful at influencer marketing is making sure you are choosing influencers that have a connection to your brand. Choosing people that have nothing to do with your brand is never a good idea and does not get you the audience that will actually buy from your brand. Focusing on smaller influencers, either through Instagram or YouTube is one of the best ways you can succeed at influencer marketing no matter how big or small your ecommerce business is.
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Mind-set Change from 6-Figures to 7-Figures
One of the most consistent things that I hear from ecommerce business owners who have successfully grown their business to 7-figures is that they were wearing all the hats before but now they don’t. Vivian was doing everything for her business and that meant that she was working in her business rather than on growing her brand.
As soon as her business started growing, she hired a couple of people that helped her really take a step back and focus on growing her business. Focusing on the day-to-day processes limits you just working in your business and not focusing enough on the other decisions that can lead to growth for your businesses.
Vivian’s mindset also changed when her business started growing. She realized that she had a small mindset that she needed to get rid of to allow her business to really flourish. When she stopped her paid ads, she realized it was because she was afraid to think big and invest in her business. Her immigrant background meant she grew up with tight money constraints and that followed her to her adulthood and meant that she was afraid of spending money.
This is something that I see with a lot of ecommerce business owners, their mindset is narrow and they are afraid to invest in growth. It is really important as an entrepreneur to learn to let go of such notions and work on them day by day because it really isn’t that easy. You have to find the balance between spending no money to spending all the money and that is when your brand can really grow and scale-up.
Daily Habits for Success
Vivian’s daily habits, like many of ours, changed drastically during the COVID-19 pandemic. She had the 5-minute journal that she wrote every night which she is figuring out how to navigate as she learns how to go about her day after going through the 2 years that this world has had. Apart from journaling, Vivian loves to visualize things. Her office is covered in things that help her visualize the success that she sees for herself.
When Vivian was in her 20s, she bought her first car from a car dealer and while browsing cars there she promised herself that when she is successful, she would buy herself a navy blue luxury car. Through the hard work she did on her business and visualization and manifestation, she now drives a new Porsche that reminds her every day that she made it. Porsche themselves reached out to Vivian and offered her to test drive their new car for a campaign they were running. The car was navy blue, the interior was beige, and the accents were neon yellow, which is a color that Vivian always has on her nails.
Daily work on her mindset is also something that helps Vivian conquer each and every day as best as she can. During the pandemic, the lead times on her products became longer but she still had revenue coming in. She realized that she can use her knowledge to help brick-and-mortar stores that had lost all business, come online and get their revenue streams going again. She started doing IG live and YouTube to mentor new entrepreneurs that have now led her to have a podcast and a TV show that has helped different businesses succeed in the ecommerce space.
Going back to the scarcity mindset that Vivian had at the start, she focused on daily habits that could help her visualize herself with more money. She has prop money with her face on it and the words “encouraging you to do big things” that she uses to calm her down whenever she gets anxious about spending large amounts of money. She started with 10,000 and now she has $1.3 million and this has helped her spend more and in turn, accept the revenue that comes to her. Like attracts like when it comes to energy and that is what Vivian did.
Collaborations with Big Companies
Vivian has been able to collaborate with companies such as YouTube because of the mentorship she provides to so many young entrepreneurs using the lessons she has learned through the success of KinkyCurlyYaki. She believes that being herself has enabled her to really stand out from the herd and many companies who have wanted to collaborate have asked for her to bring the same energy that she does in her Instagram stories.
She put in the hard work on her IG live stream and her YouTube channel which then led to bigger opportunities that she now works on. Vivian calls these small steps ‘the big little steps’ that can help you in the long run and ultimately what is meant for you will come to you.
Getting rid of the fear and letting yourself shine through the work you do is very important for personal and professional growth. I recently met someone at a business convention who was afraid to take a course because she was worried people would start copying her. The only advice I gave her was that no one else can be you. Customers don’t buy only products, they buy a brand and when the brand has a personal touch behind it, it is so much better.
Advice for Single Moms
I’m a single mom who was able to build both a 6-figure ecommerce brand and a 7-figure marketing agency, so Vivian’s story deeply resonates with me. I find her struggles very relatable and inspirational. There are so many single moms out there who are struggling and I hope we can both be beacons of hope for them that while they may be going through a dark time, it won’t last forever. Through the struggles I’ve had, I founded a non-profit where we’ve been able to help over 4,500 moms in our community with anything from support, resources, and more.
A piece of advice that Vivian would give to single moms is that girl, you’ve got it. Being in a space that is negatively impacting your mental health is not good for you or for your child. They can see what you are going through and if you don’t want to take a risk for yourself, take a risk for them. Vivian says just start doing something, just because you think you don’t have a degree or a skillset doesn’t mean you can’t get out.
If you’re good at organizing, start making Tik-Tok videos or start posting on Instagram. There will be moments that you feel stuck but focus on working on your mindset and get yourself unstuck. Vivian believes in being true to yourself and by being yourself, you can pull in the audience, the customers, the revenue that you need. Just take a risk and get out there. Don’t compare yourself to others who have had success with one thing or the other, focus on the skills and passions you have, and start from there. As Vivian says ‘done is better than perfect.
Going along with this, recently I took a risk and put up my car on Turo. It was something I had not done before and barely knew anything about but I saw the potential so I decided to take the risk. Within the first 24 hours, I made around $500 even with all the second-guessing and anxiety I had about it. This just shows you that you need to take a risk to get a reward and just getting out there is the best thing you can do for yourself and your children.
Vivian's Favorite Book and Podcast
I love asking this question from all the founders that I interview because it gives me and you, the readers, an insight into what helps people succeed and what they like learning and reading about. One of the first things Vivian talked about was the book ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear. It taught Vivian the importance of cultivating good habits and how to break out of the bad habits that she had. This is something that played a key part in how her brand eventually achieved the growth that it did and why her mindset shifted.
Another resource that she loves is the podcast ‘How I Built This’ by Guy Raz which is hosted on NPR. It is a show talking about how different entrepreneurs built their businesses and it helps Vivian learn and really appreciate the hard work that it takes to achieve success. An app that she loves is Blinkist, which summarizes books for you to listen to quickly which allows Vivian to learn new things really quickly. Then if she loves the summary, she goes out and buys the book.
How to Connect With Vivian
If you want to follow Vivian on her Instagram, which by the way you totally should, her handle is @itsviviankaye. According to Vivian, her IG stories are legendary and she is a treat to follow. She does what she calls tiktok’o’clock where she scrolls through TikTok with her Instagram followers and just connects and has fun with them.
Vivian also has a show on YouTube called ‘Mind Yo Business with Vivian Kaye’ where she talks about ecommerce, entrepreneurship, and just everyday business and advice on her channel Vivian Kaye. Later this year, you will also be able to listen to Vivian on a podcast show called ‘Build it Braver’ which is hosted by American Express which is yet another opportunity she has because she was taking risks, putting herself out there, and just being herself.
You can check out Vivian’s products at kinkycurlyyaki.com and reach out to her at viviankaye.com
Right, and that is it, you guys. I had so much fun talking to Vivian and learning about how she built her business, how she continues to change her mindset, and how she helps other businesses do well in the ecommerce space. It was a pleasure to talk to her, I mean she is one of the brightest and most entertaining people I have ever met, and just seeing her success is heart-warming. To end this post, parting advice from Vivian – Just be you and own it!
CEO of Hawaii's largest Digital Marketing Agency, Karizma Marketing, Toccara Karizma is a Digital Marketing Consultant renowned for turning eCommerce businesses into 7 figure powerhouses. Follow Toccara to discover the best-kept industry secrets that will skyrocket your sales.