They say that everything happens for a reason, but for Tasha Burton that statement couldn’t be closer to the truth.
In 2009, while working full-time in the psychiatry department at the School of Medicine at Washington University, Tasha began to mix store-bought shea butter with a curated cocktail of oils to create a product that would soften and extend the benefits of the butter on her tightly coiled hair.
Two years later the University laid her off after more than four years of service. And it would be the beauty experiment she conducted in her kitchen to create a remedy to easily manage her hair that would ultimately lead her to her next chapter: Belle Butters.
Now 30, Tasha runs Belle Butters full-time and has expanded her line from that first product to more than a dozen products that provide benefits for hair, face and body. Her products are sold online and at Tendrils and Curls in Houston, TX, though she’s looking to expand.
I recently caught up with Tasha to learn more about her inspiration, her journey, and her vision for the future of her business.
Hashtags + Stilettos: How would you describe Belle Butters to someone who’s hearing about your company for the first time?
Tasha Burton: Belle Butters is a handmade natural hair and body care product company that uses the best natural ingredients.
H+S: You launched the company as a way to supplement your income while you were employed at Washington University. Was that the only catalyst to launching the company?
TB: In addition to supplementing my income, I also needed a product that would keep my very coarse, tightly-coiled and dry hair softer longer. I noticed that at the time, there weren’t many products on the market geared towards women with a similar hair type as mine. Most products were only effective on those who had a looser curl pattern and finer hair. I really wanted my products to help fill this void.
H+S: How many employees do you have?
TB: None. If things get really busy, I may ask my mom or sister to drop orders off at the post office for me, but that’s about it. I do everything on my own.
H+S: Did you have any previous experience in the natural hair/beauty industry before you launched?
TB: No. But, on a personal level, I knew a few things about natural hair from when my mother cared for mine when I was younger.
H+S: What type of beauty problems do your products solve?
TB: Many of my products have multiple uses. For example, one of my best sellers, the Unyevu (pronounced oon-yay-vu) Butter can be used on the hair and body. On the hair, you can use it to seal the ends (lock-in moisture) or use it on a wet twist-out.
The ingredients in this butter also help ease irritated scalps and works to eliminate dandruff. For the skin, I’ve found that this product works wonderfully for those who suffer from eczema or severely dry skin. The scent of the Unyevu Butter also makes it a great unisex product and I find that men enjoy using it also.
H+S: How did you come up with the recipes for each product?
TB: All of my product recipes were developed through trial and error and research. When I am considering an ingredient, I look closely at the benefits it provides for hair and skin care and then I try to pair it with other ingredients to increase the overall desired effect.
Usually, when I’m making a product for the first time, I think about my needs first but really my main focus is on what problem I want the product to solve. Some of my products, like my Mint Chocolate Butter, are inspired by food.
I wanted to make a butter that did not have shea in it because I know there are some people who do not like it or are allergic to it. So one day, I had olive butter and cocoa butter and I thought, “What if I add this?” I put a bit of peppermint essential oil in the mix and it smelled like a Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie! After that revelation I had to figure out what I wanted it to do, so I added macadamia nut oil which helps calm down frizziness in the hair and it goes on the skin like silk! Just those four ingredients created a great product. Experimentation is key.
H+S: If you could choose one product that best represents Belle Butters, which one would it be and why?
TB: I would have to say our Unyevu Butter. To create it, I use what I like to call the “Trifecta of Butters” and that’s shea, avocado and mango. These butters just work together perfectly. And this particular product has multiple uses for hair and skin, and it smells amazing.
H+S: What were some of the challenges with launching Belle Butters?
TB: The main challenge was fear. I was mostly afraid of the feedback I would receive. So, after I launched, the response was okay and then a few months later, the floodgates kind of opened and I started receiving some not-so-positive feedback. But that just taught me that you can’t please everyone and as long as I remember that, I’ll be okay.
H+S: Did you seek out investment before launching?
TB: No, I funded everything myself and still do, with the exception of a brief period last year when I was flown out to New York City to do an event. When I decided I wanted to do this, I sat down did my research, developed the recipes and figured out a budget of what I would need (hardware, ingredients, business cards, shipping supplies, etc.). I took half of my paycheck, got everything I needed and went to work.
H+S: Do you have any mentors in the beauty industry?
TB: I do not have any mentors in the beauty industry, but I do have mentors who are also small business owners. I think having someone who is somewhat of an outsider to the beauty industry gives me a fresh pair of eyes and a different perspective.
However, there are companies, whose business models I look to and study and who represent what I want Belle Butters to become as we grow. Lush is amazing and has kept the integrity of the brand intact as it’s grown; they’ve managed to keep their products handmade and all natural. I’ve noticed a lot of companies go from all natural to then adding ingredients/chemicals to act as fillers or to keep manufacturing pricing low. This alters the product and it’s effectiveness. Lush provides me with some sort of security that it’s possible to keep things the same no matter the demand.
H+S: There’s an intense focus on natural hair and natural beauty products that inevitably lead to an overflow of new products on the marketplace. How is Belle Butters able to compete?
TB: I believe Belle Butters stands out in this very saturated market because of the quality. I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to the way a product feels, smells and performs, so if I’m making something and it doesn’t meet my (very high) standards, than I won’t sell it.
Another way Belle Butters stands out is by having products that do not exist anywhere else on the market. Take the Neutralizing Butter for Oily Skin for example or even better, the Avo-Cocoa Facial Polish. I made an exfoliating scrub for the face, but I didn’t want to do an oil base, so I used butters instead. It’s less messy, but I think it’s a different experience altogether and it works! I used walnut shell powder instead of salt or sugar. Thinking outside the box is what’s keeping Belle Butters relevant and somewhat ahead of the curve.
H+S: Is Belle Butters profitable?
TB: Yes! My growth between my first and second year of business was more than what I could have asked for. Because I started small and didn’t have a huge amount of money invested, I knew that my first year wouldn’t be much to rave about, but when more people became exposed to Belle Butters and told their friends about us too, things really just started to take off.
H+S: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into the beauty product game?
TB: Keep it unique and stay out of the forums! You have to really go outside your normal thinking to come up with a stellar product. Sometimes ideas come together best when it’s unplanned. Just get in the kitchen or sit down and make it. Don’t write anything down. Try to remember what you added and then write it down when the product is finished. This approach has worked for me so much over time. It’s usually when we don’t spend a lot of time worrying or practicing and just doing, that we are able to be freer in our thinking.
Again, not everyone is going to fall in love with your products and the feedback can be very cruel. At the end of the day, you have to validate yourself because if you don’t think you/your product is great, you can’t expect anyone else to.
H+S: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since launching your business?
TB: Presentation and networking. I should be able to sit my product next to the world’s best-selling body butter and be able to compete. And when it comes down to networking, the best way to speak for your brand is through your product. Also, the way you talk about your brand and products to someone who can potentially spread the word and influence others is very important.
H+S: Why do you think people love your products?
TB: I put a lot of work into making the best product I possibly can. When I say “a lot of work,” that means the research and very tedious process of making sure the product is up to par. In the past, I’ve thrown out an entire batch of a raw ingredient because it wasn’t good enough to put into my product. And I feel that a customer should never worry about too many changes (batch-to-batch) with a handmade product. Each time they order it needs to be the same. There’s always room for improvement, so if the next time they order it and it’s different, it’s probably because I made some type of improvement.
H+S: What’s the most challenging aspect of your business?
TB: The most challenging thing for Belle Butters and almost all small businesses is the poor economy. Any small business that is still open and earning, even if it isn’t a lot, deserves a lot of props. This economy has been very hard on us the past year or more.
You have to find creative ways to keep your customers coming back, because right now, people only want to spend money on things they absolutely need. For some, that might mean going back to buying drug store lotion because that’s all they can afford. But, that’s my opportunity to remind consumers about the value of my product. My products have multiple uses and are made with the best ingredients, so yes, the drug store lotion may be less expensive but is it as effective as Belle Butters? Are the ingredients good for you? I find that having these types of conversations are important and customers appreciate them.
H+S: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
TB: Never give up and do not let your fears control you.
*A version of this interview originally appeared on MadameNoire.com