Their loyal followers have witnessed the rise of beauty brand Miss Jessie’s. Started in the home of sisters Titi and Miko Branch, the hair care company helped ignite women’s love for their natural curls. The Internet helped catapult the budding startup into a multimillion-dollar company. This month cofounder Miko Branch reflects with Lioness on their humble beginnings, what she learned about being a CEO and keeping the dream of Miss Jessie’s alive after the devastating loss of her sister Titi.
Miko Branch is the cofounder of Miss Jessie’s, one of the most recognizable curly-hair-care products on retail shelves today. On Feb. 14, her popular book, “Miss Jessie’s: Creating a Successful Business from Scratch – Naturally,” is being released in paperback. Lioness caught up with Miko a few days after New Year’s Eve to reflect on her startup days and what it actually takes to build a profitable business.
NO PAIN, NO GAIN
Sisters Miko and Titi Branch were rookies just getting over their failed beauty salon in downtown Brooklyn when they came up with the multimillion-dollar idea for Miss Jessie’s. Named for their paternal grandmother, the brand was a strong, new voice leading the natural hair revolution when they hit the beauty market in 2004. Their first product, Miss Jessie’s Curly Pudding, helped the startup carve out a niche amongst a surge of women who began to embrace their curls and document their natural hair journey online. But in those early days when the sisters were using the first level of their brownstone as a make-shift salon and their upstairs kitchen as a lab to test products, they were getting by on sheer tenacity. They had no startup capital and no business connections. But, they did have each other.
“To create Miss Jessie’s, we had to sacrifice a lot,” Miko told Lioness. “When people think of an entrepreneur, they think about success and money might come to mind, but I’m not sure we focus on the sacrifices and some of the failures that might have taken place in order for us to become successful. We didn’t go to business school. We learned everything on the job. We had a lot of endurance and commitment and we built capital through efficiency. We shared clothes. We shared the same car. We got a roommate. We shared toiletries. We grew up in New York in the 90s. It was the Puffy era. We didn’t go to the parties. As women we have to spend money on hair and nails [and we couldn’t afford that]. We really clamped down on all of the expenses going out. So when I talk about sacrifice, I’m also talking about sitting out and just conserving.”
Born to a Japanese American mother and African American father, Miko and Titi grew up understanding the complex world of managing curls. They had trouble finding salons that could deal with their textured hair and often found it easier to style it themselves. By the time Titi started spending hours in the kitchen until the wee hours of the morning working on natural hair product recipes, she had an idea of what she wanted the hair formula to do – enhance curls and give them brilliant shine.
The sisters often tested their products on their clients and then shared their results. “If you wanted to get your hair done you had to come to my house in the hood and get your hair done. When we started making product, we had our whole operation in the basement and we could no longer fit all of the jars of curly hair pudding and the mixers,” Miko said.
They leveraged the Internet to showcase the effectiveness of their products, often posting before and after photographs. It was before the era of bloggers, posting was free and they had immediate access to their audience. They were one of the early adopters of using images and videos online to talk about product ingredients and how to use and style the hair with it. “We showed women all the possibilities that can be done with their hair and that ignited the fire. Women are going natural and doing it without fear. What Miss Jessie’s did was that we shared information and it was unheard of. It’s part of the [beauty] industry to keep your secrets,” Miko said, explaining their go to market strategy. “My sister encouraged me to share information. I was fearful to do it, but it helped women and helped us grow at a faster rate.”
Miss Jessie’s took off. Within two years, they were generating nearly $400,000 and available in major retailers throughout the United States. Miko and Titi spent the next decade building their brand, adding conditioners, stylers and cleansers while growing their hair salon and changing its name from Curve to Miss Jessie’s as well. They’ve been featured in publications such as The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire and on NBC’s The Today Show.
Miko said their journey to success required personal growth as well. “There was so much that I didn’t know about myself. I realized I’m a bit stronger than I thought I was. There’s a lot of balance that comes into being a boss and being responsible for other people. For so many years it was just my sister and I and as our business grew we learned as we went. I found a sweet spot and being fair as an employer worked best for me,” Miko said. “You need to be good to the people who are helping you and that takes maturity.”
FINDING HER WAY
While certain aspects of her life were thriving, Titi was dealing with depression. On Dec. 4, 2014, at the age of 45, she took her own life in her Midtown apartment. Miko described her as a “great communicator with great organization and a great partner.”
When asked how she has managed to continue on with the dreams they both shared, Miko said, “Honestly, I don’t know. What I found myself doing was focusing on staying strong. I have a son. I’m a single parent and I have parents who are older now. All of the hard work inspired me to keep going. I felt like if I broke or fell … when you experience a loss like that everything can crack and crumble. Throughout the years we kept a manageable business and that was helpful to me in her absence. We didn’t have a big ship. With that in play I was able to do a lot of things at one time and do it with a lot of coordination. And she was so many things to me at one time. I lost a friend, a co-parent.”
For now, Miko is still trying to forge ahead with the vision she and her sister dreamed about all those years ago inside that Brooklyn brownstone. She’s kicking off 2017 by celebrating their books release to paperback. “We’re really excited that we get to share our experience and reach another crop of people at another price point. As we speak, I’m working on our second book and it’s going to be a continuation.”
She said women entrepreneurs need to embrace the ephiphanies that take place when leading a business and discover what you’re good and not so good at and be OK with it. “Being an entrepreneur is a very personal experience. I’ve found it’s a great match for me and my personality and if you realize you’re not an entrepreneur, it’s not a bad thing. There’s certain personality traits that you need. You need to have a strong stomach and deal with failures,” Miko added. “There might be a false burden or expectation that we put on ourselves when we try to be an entrepreneur. It’s OK to say, ‘hey, that didn’t work for me.’”