Whether it was scribbled down in an incomprehensive drawing during childhood, or hit you like an epiphany right before you were headed to sleep after a long work week, all of us have had an idea for a dream product at one point or another. The spark roars to life, your motivation and courage are surging, and now you want to make your concept into a reality. However, this is where many of us have to throw on the brakes. What is the next step? Do you have any idea of how to actually create the product? Is it even viable for you to make? It is these questions that tend to strangle the life out of ideas and keep many game changers out of the market. But these doubts do not stop everyone.
Carrie Sporer, co-founder of SWAIR Hair, fought back these inhibitions with an unbridled confidence in her concept. We sat down and chatted with her about the intricacies of ferrying a product from a figment of the imagination into the hands of consumers.
Let’s start with a little introduction. Could you please introduce yourself, your company, and your product? For anybody who hasn’t heard of it before, they might not know what we’re even talking about with SWAIR.
“We launched in September of 2020. So we’ve just celebrated our one year anniversary, which seems crazy because in some ways it seems like the blink of an eye, and in some ways I feel like I’ve been doing this for decades.
The brand is meant to address the special hair care needs of people that work out. So, we launched with a hero product, which is our showerless shampoo. It is a product that is an alternative to dry shampoo that lets you clean sweaty hair really quickly.
I know a lot of people that work out or, you know, try to stagger the days that they use in- shower shampoo and use dry shampoo to hold them over in between. I never really loved that product and neither did my co-founder. She has a sensitive scalp and I have dark hair. Dry shampoo left my hair really dull. It looked great for five minutes. Then after I left the bathroom and went on with my day, it kind of became piecy and chunky from the stuff that you add to your hair. So we thought that there had to be a better way – something in between a dry shampoo and an in-shower shampoo. That’s where our inspiration started.
My co-founder and I actually met through a marathon training group. We met back in 2007 and were complaining about this for over a decade before we started doing some research about how to make our dream product. We also really love doing bootcamp classes together. So this was a product that was really in our faces from the moment we met. We were always the people sneaking out of class a few minutes early so we could hit the showers first. That way we had time to wash and dry our hair before heading into the office that day.
The way that you actually use the product is you spray it on and it interacts with the dirt and sweat on your hair. Then you towel dry. That’s it! It removes the excess product as well as the dirt and sweat from your hair. Since sweat is mostly water and the product is wet, you may have a little bit of extra dampness, but you can either air or blow dry it. Instead of starting with sopping wet hair from the shower, this cuts it down.”
How did you figure out how to actually make something like this?
“We are both beauty industry outsiders. My background is in the fashion industry and Meredith, my co-founder, comes from finance.
So, we had no clue what we were doing.
I kind of assumed anybody that launched a hair or beauty brand was actually making things in their kitchen, like experimenting with the chemicals and ingredients themselves.
My job most recently before starting SWAIR was in the fashion industry. Then after I had my first son and wanted to stop traveling, I started consulting. I met a lot of founders, (this in the fashion space) but a lot of them came from completely unrelated industries. I started to learn more about contract manufacturing, which is when you have the idea, but you don’t actually make the product, or even the first sample. These are a little bit more like plug-and-play factories that you can bring your idea to and they’ll help you start the process.
In the beauty space, there are a lot of contract manufacturers. We talked to a bunch of people and gave them our proposal of what we wanted to make.
We felt really strongly that since we’re spending all of this time running and working out for our mental and physical health, why are we going to put chemicals onto and into our bodies? I’m not perfect in that practice myself. But, I’m trying all of the time to get healthier products for myself, my own routine, and for the brand. So a lot of the factories that we went to with this said, ‘We can’t make this happen for you without these ingredients. You need harsher ingredients.’
If that was gonna be the answer, we didn’t want to do it. But we stumbled upon one factory, and one chemist in particular, that was so excited by this. He said, ‘This is not going to be easy. But I think it’s awesome. I want to help you.’
That was all the spark that we needed to go full force. Honestly, at that point it was like Googling our way to success. That’s how we found all of the different factories to call. Once we knew the needs, we just researched and spent a lot of time talking to them and them talking to us. The relationship has to work both ways to be successful.”
What kinds of challenges did you face? What did that process look like?
“When we were describing it to the factories, we kind of described it like a Lysol for your hair. That’s the kind of verbiage we were using. That and the fact that we wanted it to be completely free of harsh chemicals. That’s kind of a funny comparison to me. But we meant it in terms of efficacy, something that can really get it clean quickly without a lot of effort.
What we were envisioning was really just a spray that was going to clean your hair. But what we quickly realized was that it could not be done without alcohol. And that was something that we didn’t want to use. It really makes your hair brittle. It’s also a real problem to ship things that contain alcohol.
If you wanted to do a big shipment via air it’s a problem because it’s flammable. So, for logistical and health reasons, we didn’t want to put alcohol in the product and what we learned is that we needed another process besides the spray.”
You alluded to your co-founder. What was it like to start a company with someone else?
“For me, having a co-founder is just instrumental to the business and the whole experience of being an entrepreneur.
We always talked about wanting to have a business together. I think one of the smart moves that we did at the very beginning of the partnership was speaking to a lawyer about putting an agreement together just to have all of the expectations set from the get-go. I think a lot of people do the reverse. They get the business going and then spend the time and money to do an agreement. But I prefer the way that we did it. I feel like it puts the structure in place. Any of those uncomfortable conversations had to be said from the very, very beginning, oftentimes things that we wouldn’t even think about.
The lawyer was asking us about what happens if somebody wants out of the business? What happens if you want to take on investors? Getting all of that awkwardness out from the beginning was really helpful.
The person that you choose is super important as well. I know that with Meredith, we can be very honest with each other. We’re making the decisions for the interest of the business and not in the interest of our friendship. We’re able to separate that, which is great. It gets lonely and it gets challenging. I don’t know if I would still be doing it if I was doing it myself, to be very honest.”
When you first start, you obviously don’t know if anyone’s going to buy the product. I think that people were going to want this product, but did you have to order a minimum amount? Did you start with ordering a tiny bit to see or did you have to order a whole lot at first?
“We did have a minimum. We started with 6,000 between two sizes. We needed to do at least a thousand of each size to get a production run.
Because we do have our smaller travel size, we thought that instead of doing a true sample, we would just order more of the travel size and then we’d use those for press and events and things like that.
We try to be pretty strategic about it, and it was a really big check to write not knowing what was going to happen. But we had confidence that this product would really be a game changer. There was no deadline in moving this, which gave us a little bit of ability to relax about ordering that number.”
Did you have any kind of investors?
“We’re completely self-funded. Meredith and I have both been working for about 15 years now and we’re able to do this. It’s a luxury for us to be able to invest our own money.
We’ve just felt like we didn’t want the pressure of having an outside perspective or expectation or numbers to meet. As you said, the brand came across to you strongly when you were researching it. That’s what we wanted to focus on. Yes, we do want to sell. Obviously, we need the income to keep everything moving smoothly. But this first year to five years it’s really just, ‘build the brand, build the brand, build the brand.’
That may come a little bit at the sacrifice of sales, but we’re okay with it because we know we’re playing the long game. The longer that we can keep everything in-house in terms of funding, the better.”
What is one thing that you wish you had known more about when you first started the business?
“Instagram and Facebook paid advertising.
Learning more about how you can invest, as well as preparing your brand and your product to be marketed on Instagram makes a ton of sense. A lot of entrepreneurship is trial and error, and I’m really glad that we tried it. It definitely worked to some extent. We were excited to do it – grow our audience and be exposed to more people. But I think that there’s just certain nuances with our brand. We only have one product right now. So we’re spending a lot of money to get consumers to buy one product as opposed to sending them to our website when they can load up their cart with like 10 different SWAIR things, which will hopefully be the case in the future.
Having a business is really just creative problem-solving, one after the other.
There’s a part of people that are entrepreneurs that says, ‘I’m going to start this business and I’m going to do it right. We’re going to build the website and then sell the product and it’s going to be great.’
But little problems come up all the time. A synonym for ‘entrepreneur’ really should be ‘problem-solver’ because that’s what you do on a daily basis. Having the mindset that that’s what you’re going to encounter really helps the journey.”
Is there one last word that you’d want to share with others going along this entrepreneurial journey with you?
“I’m going to pass along some words of wisdom that somebody recently gave to me. I was talking to an entrepreneur who has a very different business from what I’m working with. He has a gaming business for website apps and making different tech components for games.
He said to me, ‘Even if the exact vision of the brand you have now doesn’t work, you’re going to work because you’re committed to this. You’re following the signs, moving in the right direction, and you’re being nimble. You’re not sticking to the plan just because that was the plan. You’re moving and you’re changing. You’re growing.’
I thought that was really reassuring because it does get hard and you have to make sure that you’re sticking to your instincts while also being flexible. Finding the alternate plan, but staying within your bigger picture.”
To learn more about Carrie’s story and the journey of SWAIR Hair, take a listen to her feature episode of the Quotable Podcast.