08/05/2011 04:44 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2011

Curl Junkie's Marsha Coulton: Challenges Of Founding, Growing A Natural Hair Care Brand

Marsha Coulton will be the first person to tell you she is impatient.

Maybe that's why her journey from frustrated white-collar worker to proprietor of an international hair care brand has only taken seven years. Coulton, 38, is the sole owner of Curl Junkie Hair Products, LLC, a line of "naturally inspired" products for curly and kinky hair.

Curl Junkie is part of a growing group of hair product companies founded by mostly African-American women. Many of these companies began in the last decade with an idea, a limited sales network and a woman willing to mix together the base ingredients. Together the companies are rapidly claiming a growing share of the nearly $10-billion ethnic hair care market, driving change in the industry and, each in their own way, navigating the complexities of business.

Before Coulton founded Curl Junkie, she trained traders on Wall Street, then worked in career services at a university. Coulton had always wanted to work with hair, but her parents wanted their daughter to get a business degree or become a doctor. By 2004, after Coulton had given white-collar work a try, she decided to enroll in a New York beauty school.

After beauty school, Coulton took a job at an exclusive New York salon known for infusing its hot oil treatments with essential oils like lavender.

"I think that's the first time it really occurred to me, that you can really do that. You can just create products."

In high school, Coulton had been enrolled in a medical science program, so she knew a little about chemistry. And she wasn't afraid to do a little research. Coulton spent about $100 on essential oils and base ingredients and started mixing up products at home.

Soon, some of Coulton's clients were asking if they could buy her custom-blended conditioners. In 2005, Coulton realized she had the beginnings of a product line. The next year, Coulton left her job and threw herself into creating curly-hair products full time. Coulton estimates she's spent about $5,000 on start-up costs, and she's done everything herself.

"I was a marketing major, so I knew a little about marketing," said Coulton. "I know a little something about computer science, so I bought the website platform and tweaked it ... I keep the books. I develop the products. At one point, I even handled the mixing, the packaging and the shipping from my house."

In February 2006, the Curl Junkie website went live. Coulton contacted, a website founded by a pair of white women in Texas who had spent decades struggling with their own curly hair. The pair had created a forum for other women to discuss their struggles, and Coulton wanted to advertise. (Coulton is reluctant to give specifics but says her sales were, at this point, under $30,000.)

The women behind liked the Curl Junkie name, Coulton said. They asked if Coulton would like to sell her products through NaturallyCurly's online marketplace. That led to an August 2006 mention in Essence Magazine, which took the demand for her products to another level, Coulton said. Sales crept closer to the $70,000 mark.

Suddenly, Coulton needed help. Handmixing more products would be hard. Plus, Coulton was pregnant. She started looking for a manufacturer. "That was a horrible process littered with talentless people totally lacking in integrity," said Coulton. "It was really a lot like hazing."

Coulton discovered one of the most difficult parts of being such a successful kitchen chemist: At some point, the company will outgrow the kitchen. But most manufacturers won't take what they consider to be small orders (anything under 10,000 units). Those that do will often take a product developer's detailed formula and substitute expensive organic ingredients, such as macadamia butter, with cheaper or synthetic ingredients, such as mineral oil or petroleum. These manufacturers sometimes don't tell the producer that the substitutions have been made and pocket the savings, Coulton said.

"I would tell these people that I am serious about not putting anything in my products that could possibly be unhealthy," said Coulton. "That was the standard I had when I was mixing products in my home. Several of them didn't take me seriously."

After several tries, Coulton found a Texas-based manufacturer in 2008. The company mixes according to her specifications and ships the goods. Coulton won't reveal the name of her lab, for fear it will be overrun with requests from the new companies that seem to be cropping up daily with naturally kinky and curly hair products.

"There's no question that there are a lot of new companies out there," said Coulton. "Getting into this business may not be that hard, but I think a lot of people mistakenly think staying in will be easy."

To grow a company has to find a manufacturer. But staying small and selling products out of the home can also be risky, Coulton said. The key is keeping the type of customers who read labels, blogs and message boards -- and who will pay for a $65 styling product -- very happy. And if something goes wrong in the home-manufacturing process -– an ingredient is contaminated or mixed up with another -– the mistake can also carry legal risks, Coulton said.

Today, Curl Junkie products are available online and in about 20 retail locations around the United States and in five locations internationally. Sales are somewhere between the $100,000 and $150,000 mark, Coulton said.

"Right now, I answer to my customers. And I like that."