The World’s First Venture-Backed Human-Hair-Extension Company
At Moe’s Hair Hut in Harlem, Raven Johnson, 24, wants to look good for her upcoming baby shower. She’s used to paying as much as $500 for a weave. That includes $250 for long, silky human-hair extensions and another $250 for the stylist who sews them into the tight braids of Johnson’s own hair. Hair vendors
But this time, thanks to a startup called Mayvenn, she’ll pay $250 total. After three hours of meticulous labor by stylist Ericka Barksdale as R&B blasts over the sound system, flowing tresses tumble over Johnson’s shoulders. Beaming, she says, “This is the best deal I’ve ever had—purchasing hair and getting a free install.”
Founded in 2013 by African American entrepreneur Diishan Imira, 38, Mayvenn is the only venture-backed startup to take aim at the $6 billion U.S. market for human-hair extensions. With $36 million from investors including Serena Williams and Silicon Valley powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz, Mayvenn is valued at $100 million. How will the company deliver venture-style returns? “Mayvenn is a high-growth, two-sided marketplace with hundreds of thousands of beauty experts on one side and millions of customers on the other,” says Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz. “It’s important to understand that this is not an e-commerce business or a hair business.
Before Mayvenn launched, black women bought their hair mostly from Korean-controlled beauty-supply stores. “All the money was flowing outside the black community,” says Imira, who’s dressed in a dark gray T-shirt, gray sweatpants and spotless gray Nikes with no socks. He’s sitting in front of a Mac laptop and a 27-inch monitor in his office in downtown Oakland, California. Aside from two cases of Hennessy VSOP stacked by the door, a gift from a friend, the gray-carpeted office is bare. “I’m kind of a minimalist,” he says. His studio apartment in Oakland’s gentrifying Lakeshore neighborhood is similarly sparse.
Keeping things simple helps him focus. He conceived of Mayvenn in 2012 after a stylist friend in Los Angeles asked if he could get her a direct connection to human hair from China. Back in 2003, during a postcollege job in Shenzhen teaching English, he’d learned how to import Chinese goods while picking up conversational Mandarin. He started with $20 Air Jordan knockoffs he sold to friends for $70. When he moved to Miami in 2005, he ran an all-cash furniture-import business. He had fun pocketing six figures a year, sporting his fake Jordans, driving an Acura and partying. But, he says, “I didn’t have a company, I had a hustle—it had no longevity to it.”
He realized he had no concept of business basics. “I didn’t have anyone in my family with the financial wherewithal to explain that,” he says. His black father, a criminal defense lawyer, disappeared from his life when he was 5. His Jewish mother, an ob-gyn who worked in clinics for low-income women, raised him and his younger sister.
He enrolled in an international business program at Georgia State University, studying in Brazil and at the Sorbonne in Paris and doing internships in China and at Ernst & Young’s office in Addis Ababa. In 2010, M.B.A. in hand, he wanted to start a business but didn’t know what kind. He moved in with his mother in Oakland, working menial jobs, like parking cars, and mulling his next move. He describes the succeeding two years as “pretty rough for me psychologically.”
That’s when L.A. stylist Reina Butler, a surrogate sister who had shared a home with his family in Oakland, asked him to find her a Chinese hair supplier. In 2012, he flew to China and found that human hair was a great export. Light and compact, it was cheap to ship, and retail markups ran as high as 400%. He checked U.S. Customs figures and estimated the U.S. market was worth $5 billion to $6 billion.