As an engineer, Elizabeth Davis helped plan the construction of Porsche’s North American headquarters in Hapeville, Georgia and was on the team that built the MGM Casino at the National Harbor in Washington, D.C.
But when she wasn’t working, Davis, now 34, loved spending time on an entirely different interest: Hair. In a perpetual quest for longer locks, Davis would mix up natural elixirs and other products she made with herbs, essential oils and Ayurvedic products at her home.
After testing her recipes on herself and her friends and finding they worked, Davis turned her passion into a side business called Shedavi. Registering the company with the state of Georgia in 2014, she worked on it during every spare moment. “It took me time to develop the product, get the branding done and do all of the basic things I needed to launch,” she says.
In 2016, she began selling her first products, a hair and scalp elixir and a vitamin to support healthy hair. Customers snapped them up. Davis has since grown the luxury hair care brand—which sells vegan products such as shampoo, styling products and vitamins—to a seven figure, one-person business with close to 65,000 followers on Instagram.
Davis is part of a growing trend toward solo entrepreneurs bringing in seven-figure revenues. The U.S. Census Bureau found that the number of nonemployer firms—those staffed only by the owners—with revenue in the $1-2.49 million range reached 36,984 in 2017, up 38% from 2011, when it was 26,744.
Million-dollar, one-person businesses are subject to the same economic forces as other small businesses, and Davis has had to navigate the tough conditions COVID-19 has brought. But her propensity for planning has helped her keep the business thriving since the coronavirus struck. She’s added a detailed order tracking system to make sure customers know where their products are until they’re delivered and stays in close communication with her fulfillment center daily to make sure orders are delivered in a timely manner. One early decision—to make all of her products in the U.S.—has made logistics easier during the crisis.
Fortunately, sales haven’t slowed at a time many people need to look polished on back-to-back Zoom calls—or want a pick-me-up to look forward to. “Since people are home, they are engaging in more self-care rituals,” Davis says.
Here’s a look at how she built her business.
Embrace your personal passions. When Davis was working as an engineer, she knew she wanted to start her own business, but there was one problem: “I didn’t know what it was going to be,” she recalls.
Davis let the idea of entrepreneurship percolate and stayed open to clues from her daily life on what direction to take. As she tested her hair products on herself and her friends—and found that they worked—it dawned on her that she was already working on the business, even though part of her resisted the idea that a business could be this much fun. “A hair care business sounds too easy or too good to be true—but that’s what I did,” she says.
In 2014, she made a commitment to turn the idea into a business and formally registered it with the state of Georgia under the name Shedavi.
Stretch your savings. Although Davis had saved up about six months of living and business expenses prior to launch, she didn’t want to burn through it quickly.
To make her money last, she turned to two credit cards with zero percent interest deals for 18 months. That gave her about $25,000 to spend on research and development, buying raw goods, tools and packaging, and work on branding.
“All I had to do was make a minimum payment on my credit card,” she says. She paid off the balance once she started making sales.
Still, Davis’s budget was limited. Instead of renting a commercial facility to create her first batch of hair products, she mixed them up in her kitchen. That was where she made the first 1,000 units of her first product, a hair and scalp elixir, pouring it into bottles she ordered online from a packaging store and adding labels from a label company.
One decision Davis made that gave her an edge in the crowded and competitive beauty field was custom formulating her hair products. “The most important thing is to distinguish yourself,” she says. “Even though my products are natural and Ayurvedic, they are unique. No one else is selling my product.”
Vitamins can’t be made in a home kitchen, under health and safety laws. To make sure her products were made properly, Davis used part of her budget to hire an FDA-approved factory.
Use all of your talents. Although Davis worked as an engineer, she’d always had an eye for design and loved to draw, studying architecture her first year at Florida A&M University. When it came time to create her white and gold packaging, she tapped that hidden talent and began sketching her ideas before having a graphic designer finalize the look of the logo and product. “I wanted the packaging to be gorgeous,” she recalls. “I wanted it to look clean, simple and clear but I also wanted it to have a luxurious side to it.”
Build a freelance team. Although she did get involved in package design, Davis didn’t try to do everything herself. When she needed a graphic designer, social media manager, videographer and digital marketing manager, she turned to freelance professionals, finding them through word-of-mouth and recommendations from her network and even on Instagram.
Although her team was made up for freelancers, she focused on building long-term relationships with them. “It’s not like a one-off thing,” she says. “I work with them consistently.”
Start your social media work early. Long before she had a product to sell, Davis put up an Instagram page where she shared tips and information about healthy hair. By the time she introduced her hair and scalp elixir and the vitamin, she had attracted 10,000 followers who shared her passion for hair.
Having an audience helped her as she did a countdown to the release of her first product. “I put videos together myself on how to use the product,” she recalls. “We distributed them through social marketing channels. That’s how I was able to get so many people.”
Embrace outsourcing. Like many solo entrepreneurs, Davis wasn’t in a position to open her own factory—so she did the next best thing and turned to an outsourced manufacturer called a co-packer to make the formulas and put them into the bottles she designed. This gave her access to the manufacturer’s knowledge and experience, reducing the learning curve and newbie mistakes.
“That’s something I recommend initially,” says Davis. “When you first start your business, you should probably outsource.”
When it came time to ship her products, Davis didn’t pack them up in boxes herself to mail them to consumers. She found an outsourced partner that does third-party logistics, or 3PL, so she could concentrate on building the brand.
Market smart. When Davis first started selling her first products – the elixir and vitamin February 2016, it was only to her family and friends and a then relatively small Instagram following. She brought in about $2,000 the first weekend after her product launch, where she and used a digital and video marketing strategy to promote it.
Shedavi picked up traction quickly. Rather than focus on selling her products bottle by $25 bottle, Davis looked for ways to group them according to her customers’ needs, which helped in selling more products. Her first kit was the Hair Starter Bundle ($49). “Customers like the recommendation and prescription of the ‘bundle,’” she says. “They know the bundle caters toward their specific problem or issues.”
From February 2016 to February 2017, Shedavi brought in about $1 million in revenue per year, and Davis has grown business since then, she says.
Take time to decompress. Prior to COVID-19, Davis’s escape from work was world travel. She’s hoping that she’ll be able to continue that passion once the crisis ends and it’s safe to hit the road. “The last place I went to was South Africa,” she says. “I’ll be going to Europe when we’re allowed to fly again.”