Hair care specialist Only Curls product range (Image: Handout)
Haircare specialist Only Curls, founded by Carter and her boyfriend Hugo Lewis in 2016, forecasts sales of £1million this year for its beauty products. The suite of treatments, designed specifically to enhance all types of curly locks, are British-made and come in a cruelty-free, vegan range that uses bio-plastic, recyclable packaging. The brand now includes accessories such as silk pillowcases (their smoothness a little-known tonic for curls) and devotees have formed a wide-reaching community that stretches from teens to the 90-somethings, all drawn to the light touch formulations that are sulphate and silicone-free.
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While direct internet sales backed by a prominent social media presence are the primary source of revenues, Only Curls does its bit for the high street selling through independently owned salons.
“I have curly hair and spent too long battling to straighten it,” says Carter. “Once I understood how to manage it, I wanted share that with others. Customers know I understand them.”
An expert in branding and lingerie design, it was working in the US for luxury store chain Nordstrom that opened her commercial eyes, she explains.
“I had always wanted to have my own business, but Nordstrom taught me to be always alert to opportunities.
“Where’s the market gap? was ingrained in us.”
For curly hair, it was the limited choice available, consisting of treatments with heavy ingredients that weighed down styles.
It struck Carter, 31, that the “straighteners boom had killed off innovation and presentation was very dated”.
But the natural hair trend that came in more recently, plus digital advances, made disruption of the established, big brand order feasible for the first time for the ambitious start-up.
Beginning with just £500 of personal savings in a trial run of microfibre towels, which reduce frizz and speed up drying time, profits from those sales were reinvested in expanding the range.
“We ran the business alongside full-time jobs, packing in evening and dispatching from the local post office before our commute,” recalls Carter whose daughter Ettie was also born during this time.
Lizzie Carter and daughter Ettie (Image: Handout)
I have curly hair and spent too long battling to straighten it. Once I understood how to manage it, I wanted share that with others. Customers know I understand them
Working with a cosmetics manufacturer it was after Only Curls launched its Hydrating Curl Crème and Enhancing Curl Gel “that the business really took off”, says Carter.
“Our four-step routine is unique. Making that uncomplicated but a combination that is effective and works well together was the biggest challenge on the product development side. The customer response has been enormous. From us they get unlimited curl advice and tips.”
Among the most popular products, which retail at £16 each, is the £30 gift pack which gives customers an affordable way to try out the routine.
Both Carter and Lewis are the only full-time staff based in south-west London, but “our success has created work for dozens more from our warehouse in the Midlands, to packaging designers and shipping thousands of orders each month via Royal Mail,” adds Carter.
Only Curls (Image: Handout)
Without any outside investment to cushion their working capital flows, the couple were instinctively wary about ordering too much stock.
The size of the demand frankly surprised them at first. “We sold out several times and that was a challenge too,” says Carter, “but success means now we can take bigger risks with the amounts.”
Lewis handles the technology side and the couple were keen to “own the UK first”. Having done that this year they are looking to the US and expanding the product range.
“Our goal has always been to make people feel good about their curls and we are achieving this,” they say. “Even little girl knows it is important. ’Only Curls’ have been two of her first words.”