“Drybar for Braids..?…What do ya’ll think?” This short group message from Swella CEO and Co-Founder Brooke Hill to her classmates was just the beginning. Together with Co-Founder Zanbria Asante, Brooke Hill has been working to create a one-stop shop for luxury, convenient, and stress-free braiding experiences while building wealth within the community. In September of 2022, the Swella Braid Bar opened in Atlanta, Georgia and it is already changing the way women receive braids and the way braiders operate. We got to ask Hill how they brought this business idea to life.
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How was the idea for the Swella born out of your experience in school?
I was sitting in the classroom as a graduate student, reviewing the case study of Drybar. It was 2020, and my class had been recently sanctioned to virtual courses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My camera was turned off because I was getting my hair braided during class; I’d like to say this was an unusual occasion, but it wasn’t; receiving braids while working remotely had become a staple in my monthly hair maintenance routine. While the comfort of my home was cool, I longed for something better that didn’t leave long strands of braiding hair on my kitchen floor. The idea of Drybar sounded much more appealing. Without much thought, I swiped through my peers’ faces and realized four of the five black women in my virtual classroom were rocking braids. I immediately messaged them in a group with the words, “Drybar for Braids..?…What do ya’ll think?” Immediately everyone in the text thread agreed this idea should’ve manifested itself yesterday.
What inspired you to innovate and disrupt both the salon industry and the technology used in it?
Frustration was the start of it all – for myself and my co-founder, Zanbria Asante. I wasn’t asking for much; I wanted safe spaces that served accessible, convenient, and quality braid services. I always say, “If hair braiding impacted everyone like it impacted Black Women, someone would’ve already created technology to improve the process.” My idea was “Drybar for braids,” and I knew more cities than Philadelphia – where I launched our first pop-up – could benefit from the model. I also knew that to be scalable; I had to find a way to make the process more efficient. One of Swella’s investors, Daniel Acheampong, of Visible Hands, introduced me to my now co-founder Zanbria Asante, who was working on integrating robotics to remove monotonous tasks in hair braiding to improve braider lives and make the process more efficient for customers. As soon as I heard about what she was doing, I first thought, “wow, this is genius,” I knew this was exactly what we needed to scale this Drybar for Braids model. We needed technology that would expedite hair braiding. Zanbria was living in Texas at the time, and so I flew up there for a week for us to visualize and manifest all that Swella would become. The rest is history!
What has the process of building this business looked like from idea to development?
Step 1: Research; Step 2: Test!
Step 1 was User Interviews. Zanbria and I have interviewed more than 200+ Black Women on their braiding experiences. Having worn braids for more than 20 years, we knew our experiences. Still, I knew it was essential to gather feedback because not everyone’s experiences would match ours. We built Swella to respond to the 200+ Black Women we interviewed. We heard the women we interviewed loud and clear – they wanted a space that allowed them to receive the same quality of braids at the same price but with a better experience in half the time. Step 2 was rolling out our MVP to the market. The MVP was meant to meet the user more than 60% of the way and still be differentiated enough, making us significantly better than any alternative on the market. We re-launched our Drybar for Braids model in Atlanta, Georgia September 7, 2022. By November, we had met capacity and sought ways to turn this pop-up into something permanent. We are now headquartered in Atlanta, GA, at our original location. We started in our space with three chairs dedicated to Swella, roughly 33% of the salon. We now own and manage 100% of the salon.
For other small business owners in our industry, can you talk a bit about what fundraising looked like for you?
On paper, it looks like a scribble, but there is a method and strategy to the madness! I was a member of Visible Hand’s first cohort of entrepreneurs. I got $25K to attempt to launch Swella. Once I proved the business model, Visible Hands gave us a follow-on investment of $150k that allowed us to launch our first braid bar in Atlanta, GA.
At one point, we were heavily seeking VC – we were on the fundraising bandwagon without really realizing how much we needed. I had a conversation with an LP that changed my perspective one day. He made me realize that sometimes you have to work and show progress with minimal resources so that you can accurately determine how much you need and not fall into fundraising to fundraise and potentially find yourself partnered with firms or individuals who do not have an aligned vision or goals for Swella.
Fortunately, Swella was blessed to receive several grants, including Africon, Afrotech, The Whitney M Young Venture Competition, Grid 110 + Slauson and Co., and others that have enabled us the funding we need to keep building. We still plan to fundraise actively, but at our stage, we are very picky about who we partner with and we want to ensure that the VCs and angel investors are aligned with our long-term vision for Swella, which is to empower and inspire people with textured hair. We will get there by innovating and creating sustainable business practices; Swella will be a leader in generating wealth for communities of color.
What unique business challenges did you face, and how were you able to overcome them in launching Swella?
The biggest challenge has been appealing to braid stylists. We are disrupting a space that has primarily existed as a shadow market. We found in our research that if you ask a person wearing box braids where she received them seven times out of ten, her response will not be a salon. Some Swella customers come to us simply because we can provide shampoo services alongside braid services. We are a one-stop shop for braid services, and according to our customers, that is a game-changer. However, if you look from the braiders’ lens – which we attempt to do at Swella often – you realize why this experience never existed. Because many states require you to have a cosmetology license to shampoo and blow-dry hair, Black women turn to braiding as a way to enter the industry without having to jump through legal hoops. Swella says, “hey, as a braider, you can feel confident that we’re providing everything we can to make your job easier. We provide shampoo and blow-dry for your customer. We provide the luxury atmosphere and vibes, for once – all you have to do is show up and perfect your craft of hair braiding.”
You recently opened Swella Braid Bar in Atlanta, what have the first few months been like?
We are so grateful because the Atlanta community has welcomed us! We have more than 50% of our returning customer base, and our braiders love the experience.
Do you have any advice for other budding entrepreneurs who also want to create a business in an untapped market?
Research and test. I advise entrepreneurs like myself to become obsessed with the customer and to speak to them! Figure out their needs and desires and then build an imperfect version of the solution and test it. Remember, it is just a test, and you don’t obsess over the test version because it will change based on your insights and learnings – build something. The goal should be to develop and test an MVP that addresses just over 50% of your target markets’ needs.
What can we look forward to from Swella in 2023?
Expansion! We plan to continue to build and test in various markets. Swella Braid Bar, Atlanta, will be our flagship, and we want to continue to serve our customers there. We’re not going anywhere – so please keep us in mind the next time you get that itch to receive braid services. Swella’s got you!
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