When Julian Addo first connected with buyers from Sephora back in 2019, she was still running her brand from her one-bedroom apartment. She knew she needed to navigate an entrance into brick-and-mortar retail with expert precision or she could risk derailing her brand.
Four years later, Addo has grown her indie textured hair-care brand, Adwoa Beauty, through uncharted territory and is currently a Sephora-exclusive brand. She raised $4 million dollars in 2022, doubled her team in 2023 to 16 employees and launched globally in Sephora stores this week. Addo spoke about launching and maintaining her brand at Sephora at the Glossy Beauty x Wellness Summit on Monday.
Here are five takeaways from the conversation between Julian Addo and Glossy beauty and wellness editor Emma Sandler.
Focus on being different and retailers will come to you
“What I have learned is when you’re focused on the brand and you’re building a brand that is very different, and you’re executing your vision, [retailers] will make room for you,” Addo said.
“I had no blueprint,” she said. “Prior to Adwoa Beauty launching in 2017, there was no textured hair-care brand in the prestige category. Everybody was at Target and Walmart and CVS. Everyone I talked to wanted to make me the next Shea Moisture. … [I love] the brand, but I don’t want to be the next Shea Moisture. I want to be Adwoa Beauty, which is very different. So I really didn’t have anyone to model myself after.”
Despite the challenge of staying true to her vision, she said it is one of the things that helped propel the brand. “Retailers are always looking for that new, hot, differentiating brand,” she said. “It’s really hard to tell newer founders, ‘Don’t worry about [retailers], just focus on the brand,’ but that’s what happened [to us].” To wit: Sephora found Adwoa Beauty through a recommendation from a Sephora employee, said Addo.
Transparency about your existing resources can help manage a retailer’s expectations
Sephora first reached out to Addo, but she was immediately apprehensive because she didn’t want to get in over her head. “I knew the amount of investment and the amount of work,” she said. “I was honest with myself and I knew that I didn’t have it.”
Addo knew that going into retail too early — even at a store like Sephora — could be detrimental to her brand if she couldn’t sell the product fast enough. So she was honest with Sephora about her reservations and the holes in her indie brand’s team and resources.
“Have you seen the movie ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’? This was like, how to lose a retailer in one hour,” she said. “One of the things I am grateful for is that I have always gone into relationships with honesty that I don’t think a lot of the business world expects.” Where some founders may say, ‘Fake it until you make it,’ Addo’s advice is to fully investigate an opportunity and create an honest understanding about what you need to succeed. She explained where she was lacking in resources and Sephora’s team offered to help bridge the gaps. “After eight months of conversation, we decided to take a chance and we signed our agreement,” she said.
A Sephora PO doesn’t mean an easy loan
Prior to its $4 million funding round in 2022, Adwoa Beauty was fully bootstrapped. Even with the brand’s first purchase order for Sephora, Addo couldn’t secure a traditional loan. She got interest from investors, but she was hesitant to give away a percentage. “What was interesting to me was trying to get bank loans or market capital loans,” she said. “Even during the pandemic, I couldn’t get a grant. I couldn’t get anything.”
Selling in Sephora is pricey
“I didn’t know how expensive it was to sell through a retailer,” Addo said. “For example, the idea of building a field team never came up — and how are we supposed to do that as a small company?” She advises all founders to expect unforeseen costs, no matter what retailer you have your eye on, and to be prepared.
A field team should look different for every brand
Instead of looking at how other brands are managing in-store education — a vital ingredient for success in any retailer — Addo suggests leaning into your brand’s unique challenges. For Adwoa Beauty, that meant hiring professional hairstylists who could style hair on the fly instead of traditional educators. “What I realized is a lot of brands have people that go into stores and talk about the ingredients,” Addo said. “But the Adwoa Beauty customers need someone who can show them a before and after — how this product really works on someone’s hair.”