As founder and CEO of LUS Brands, Sahar Saidi's mission was personal: to simplify curly hair care (Photograph by Gillian Mapp)

As founder and CEO of LUS Brands, Sahar Saidi’s mission was personal: to simplify curly hair care (Photograph by Gillian Mapp)

As a child, Sahar Saidi was teased for her curls. She implored her mother to help straighten her hair, which included conditioning and detangling, two hours under the hair dryer and sometimes a flat iron. When she later embraced her curls, hair care still took 90 minutes a day and three to six different products.

Four years ago, after a decade in sales and marketing, Saidi, 39, decided to solve this problem: “My mission was to find an all-in-one product that would help people with curly hair feel that they have normal hair.” She began by begging cosmetics manufacturing laboratories* to work with her; today, she runs her business, LUS Brands, with three must-have products and sales of over 100,000 units per month.*

There’s a saying in the business world: you’ll go broke selling the products and services that customers want. The best companies offer products that customers need.

But how to distinguish Needs from wants? This is the challenge that every new business faces. As four of our startups list companies demonstrate, you need to live and breathe your customer problems, embrace rigorous testing, and reduce your risk, before taking that leap of faith.

Sahar Saidi, LUS Brands
TAKEAWAY: THE OBSTACLE IS THE WAY

Saidi approached 40 cosmetic manufacturing laboratories across North America. His offer ? Finding the right formula would allow them to supply the LUS brands (#16 on the startups list).

Most said no, but Saidi eventually hired four companies that agreed to test new formulas and ingredients (moringa oil and shea butter were present, sulfates and paraffin were absent). After more than a year of formulation and after testing with Saidi’s family and friends, a Toronto lab identified the problem. In early 2017, LUS released a three-step solution: Love Ur Curls. Each $45 USD kit includes three products: a shampoo, a conditioner and one of three styling products* (for wavy, curly or kinky-frizzy hair).

“It was important to be turned down,” says Saidi. “I learned a lot about the industry. There is no shortcut.”

Saidi was disappointed when her dream products failed to sell. In the first month, she sold 125 three-bottle packages. The second month, only 300. So Saidi adjusted her messaging, hiring a social media marketer to tell her story through short rambling videos on Facebook and Instagram. The marketer also encouraged customers to respond. “People love our products,” says Saidi. “They make their own videos and we use them in our ads.”

“I woke up today and my hair was perfect, which never happens,” says a satisfied customer. “I went from ‘hot mess’ to ‘hell yeah’ in one use,” another says. “With social networks, says Saidi, “an entrepreneur can succeed with less capital than he needed before”.

LUS now has nearly 40 employees and is beginning to work with international partners to supply customers in Europe and other overseas markets.

Ricardo Evangelho, Hit Point Press
TAKEAWAY: REDUCING THE RISKS WITH PRESALES

Ottawa-based graphic designer Ricardo Evangelho, 34, started out making games on the web, but found it to be a flimsy, success-based line of work. So he focused on e-commerce, designing digital accessories for the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering.

Magic’s owner, Wizards of the Coast, closely protects its intellectual property. They weren’t keen on Evangelho entering their MTG territory. So he moved on to a more accessible Wizards property, Dungeons & Dragons. “Many gamers spend over $1,000 a year on the game and its accessories,” Evangelho says of the still hugely popular game with nine million players in North America alone.

Evangelho’s commercial strategy? It launches new products through the Kickstarter crowdfunding site. By using Kickstarter to launch new products before they’re ready, like a set of new D&D “reference cards” that help players sort out characters, monsters, and weapons, it can gauge demand for each product. and make smart production decisions. In 2017, Hit Point Press (“hits” measure how much damage characters can sustain in fantasy fighting games) set a modest goal for its first Kickstarter campaign and ended up with $63,000 in donations for finance its launch. Today, Hit Point ranks 29th on the list of startups.

Kickstarter also helps Evangelo “gamify” launches by offering ever more enticing promotions and incentives to its fans as each campaign progresses. The formula works. “Kickstarter is doing a fancy pre-order,” says Evangelho. “It reduces your risk and turns any new product or idea you want to create into an event.” This year’s campaign set a goal of $800,000 and raised $1.3 million.

Daniel Yang, DJ Bikes
TAKE AWAY: REVIEW YOUR MARKET

Growing up in the outdoors in Calgary, Daniel Yang loved bike rides with his family and dreamed of opening his own bike business. But when he decided to pursue that dream in January 2017, quitting his job as a tech consultant, the pressure couldn’t have been greater.

Yang decided to sell e-bikes, compact bikes with emission-free motors designed primarily for commuters and seniors who never give up. Electric bikes have been a hit in China and Europe, even at a price of $1,500 and up. But the category was new to North America, and Yang and his wife, Jolin, had a newborn son. He only had one chance to get it right.

The market was too new for Yang, 41, to do consumer testing, so he went with his instincts. He knew e-bikes would be most popular among active seniors (who enjoy cycling but need help pedaling) and eco-conscious commuters. Knowing that cycling is a seasonal sport in Canada, he created an e-commerce website targeting the US market. Yang felt he had sharpened his instincts and judgment through his work as a consultant. “I learned to analyze situations, listen carefully to my clients and solve problems.”

Taiwan-born Yang reached out to Asian e-bike companies to vet suppliers, insisting on branded components such as Shimano gears. He cut costs by initially offering only two models: a commuter cruiser and a mountain bike. He built his own sales website and outsourced distribution to Amazon warehouses, saving on logistics costs.

Three months after launching DJ Bikes in February 2017, Yang wrote a check for $100,000 to fund his first container of 90 e-bikes, the minimum possible order. It took 45 days to sell all 90 units, and he quickly ordered another shipment – ​​he was already making more money selling e-bikes than he had as a full-time consultant. Today, DJ Bikes is #27 on the startup list. With COVID-19 driving sales, Yang expects revenue to double this year, and again in 2021.

Handsome Standish, 7D Surgery
TAKE AWAY: TEST FOR CUSTOMER PASSION

Computer-assisted back surgery is a recent medical breakthrough. But every minute patients spend on operating tables increases their risk of infection, and the X-rays that guide surgeons to the patient’s spine expose patients and staff to radiation. In 2012, three doctors of medical physics and a neurosurgeon teamed up to solve this problem.

Led by Victor Yang, a neurosurgeon at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto, the team developed Flash, a computer vision system that replaces X-rays with patterns of visible light projected onto the patient’s body. It reduces the time it takes to “register” a patient (align their position with the surgeon’s 3D model) from 30 minutes to less than 30 seconds, reducing risk and costing less than half of competing solutions.

Success took its time. But CEO Beau Standish knew the product would succeed when the partners offered their first product demos — and time-pressed surgeons stuck around for hours, impressed enough to watch one procedure after another. With such commitment, partners, friends and families have invested more than $20 million to develop the system. Said Standish, 41, who holds a degree in engineering physics and a doctorate. in medical biophysics, “We have a lot of people betting on us.”

Since launching sales in 2017, 7D Surgical (#23 on the startup list) has sold its platform for US$480,000 to more than 30 hospitals in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, including Stanford and the Cleveland Clinic. But funds are notoriously tight in medicine and oversight is high. Even 7D’s handful of Canadian customers needed strong government incentives before buying. Standish and its co-founders are optimistic. Sales doubled in 2018 and 2019, and the company received approvals to sell in Europe (a third of the global market) and Singapore.


CORRECTION, October 16, 2020: An earlier version of this story misrepresented LUS brands’ monthly sales and included incorrect information about the company’s styling products and the manufacturing labs that made those products.

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