MELITTA NGALONKULU: A very warm welcome to the Small Business Conversations podcast. I am your host, Melitta Ngalonkulu. India Arie once said, “I’m not my hair, I’m not this skin, I am the soul that lives within”. While that may be true, the cosmetics industry is a very lucrative business, which contributes millions towards the South African economy. In this week’s podcast, we speak to Sonto Pooe, founder of NativeChild, a natural hair and body-care brand. Santo has been in the industry for five years and her products are available at various retail stores. Santo, thank you so much for joining us this week. How did you get into the cosmetics industry?
SONTO POOE: It was a long, long labour of love for me. It wasn’t something that I decided looked like a lucrative business, and I want to get into it. For me, it was more a personal relationship I had with my hair, which I later found out was something I took from my great grandmother and my grandmother. So I think it was inevitable for me to kind of get into this industry, even though at the time when I was younger, loving hair, I didn’t think I’d own a company which has grown like NativeChild has. So yes, for me it definitely has been a labour of love. I love, love, love my own natural texture and I got frustrated when my hair got thinner with relaxers or whatever else I had tried, and so I made it my mission to convince people to go natural.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: Was it difficult to source the materials and products used to produce NativeChild?
SONTO POOE: It was. It’s one thing to have a dream, but if it’s not something that’s accessible to you, or maybe as a home business, and you grew up in that environment, you go completely “blind”. So for me it was difficult to figure out how to [do it], and then I just felt like the best way for me to navigate this dream that I had was to go back to school.
So I then went back … and studied cosmetic science. And from there I was linked to certain companies and businesses and relationships, sourcing companies and so on. So I knew, okay, these are the people you contact if you need to source this and that and the other. But I also have a love of cooking, and this is actually very similar. You literally are cooking products in your kitchen. That’s where NativeChild started. Sourcing good-quality product is difficult, to answer your question. But is attainable.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: Sonto, would you say that there’s a lot of resilience which is required to be in the industry?
SONTO POOE: Absolutely, 1000%. What most people don’t know about me is that I started sewing when I was young. I’m going to go off track a bit just to give a point. I started sewing, I was self-taught. I got a machine at the age of 10 and all of that. The reason why I left sewing is because I simply didn’t have the patience for it. And so it doesn’t matter what business you’re going into – if you don’t have the resilience and the patience for it, you’ll give up too quickly before you see the fruits of your labour.
So resilience is extremely important. You go through high highs and low lows.
And when you’re at a low, you need to remember why you started, and you need to motivate yourself to get up and get going again. So you really can’t rely on other people to do that for you; that has to come from within.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: What was your marketing strategy when you started your business?
SONTO POOE: It just depends. We’ve been around a while. When you ask what my marketing strategy was, are you referring to at the beginning, when we started? To tell you the truth, I didn’t have one. [Laughing] I literally went in completely in the dark. I didn’t know a thing about marketing. I didn’t know anything about that. What I realised was that you could post things on Instagram. Basically NativeChild grew out of Instagram. So my first, first marketing idea was when I thought, okay, I really need to get other people outside my family and friends, because obviously you start with the circle next to you. And then when I thought, okay, how do I make sure that other people get to know about it, I discovered Instagram.
And just to get that one ‘like’ was just, Oh, thank you. It took such a long time to grow. But for me that was what made sense. I didn’t have a budget to go on radio.
I didn’t have a budget to go on billboards. So for me the initial strategy was just to grow my Instagram account. And then, secondly, to make sure that customer service is 110% because, if you have one happy customer, you have 10 happy customers. One brings in more and more, and so you grow that way.
That really was my initial strategy, which didn’t require a lot of finance, it just required consistency..
I later realised, oh, you can even advertise on Instagram. Then I started doing that. And, as you say, it wasn’t just posting random pictures. It was posting people’s before-and-after pictures, posting people’s testimonials, educating people about product usage and what benefits they would get out of it. So Instagram became my go-to marketing tool.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: How challenging was it to get retailers to stock NativeChild?
SONTO POOE: Oh yes, they are not going to share their space and gamble on a product … that may or may not work. The bottom line for retailers is they want to see growth. We needed to do our own selling on the side so that by the time we got to them, we could say, “Here are the figures, these are the numbers”. And even then there was some resistance. I mean, when I got into this industry a couple of years back now – it’s been four-and-a-half years or so – even then it was like “we’re not really sure that there really is a market that you’re seeing”. I had to convince them. I said, “Trust”. [Even] if it means they take my products on consignment – consignment means they’re not buying it from you – you put it there. If it sells, then you continue the relationship. If it doesn’t sell, you take your stuff off the shelf, and that’s it. No strings attached. Those are the type of discussions you need to have to make sure that your stuff ends up on shelves.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: And how have things been for you when it comes to the export front?
SONTO POOE: That’s great. I think the difficulty with the export market is that, because of our conversion and unstable economy, it becomes very expensive to export things. However, it is a lucrative market, and it is one that we are wanting to grow more into. But, you know, compared to other countries … if, say, you’re shipping stuff from the US to here, using the same courier company, and from here the other way, it’s like three times the amount – and I’m still not sure why that is. But fortunately we have die-hard NativeChild customers who are willing to still support the brand, despite the cost of exporting. But yes, it’s not an easy thing.
Sometimes you lose money, sometimes you make money. But you just continue to figure it out; you navigate through the hazards and you find a medium to make sure that it works.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: Thank you for that insight, Sonto. That was Sonto Pooe, the founder of NativeChild, discussing how to branch into the cosmetics industry.