Britta Cox shares her secrets to building AQUIS & selling millions of units each year (after 31yrs)

Today we’re learning from Britta Cox who is the founder behind a brand I am sure you’ve heard about - AQUIS. She started this brand in 1990 which makes it almost as old as me and she’s still showing up everyday as excited as ever to learn and expand and grow which is truly something special to see.

We’re talking through her journey in the early years when she was literally faxing her manufacturing company and taking out ads in the newspaper to sell her products through to today being a brand that’s partnered with folks like Kourtney Kardashian. I think we can all take some key insights and learnings from Britta’s laser focus on building this brand, her resilience and approach to keep building this company and what she would do differently if she were starting this thing again tomorrow.

To rewind a little bit: Britta felt like her hair routine was holding her back instead of helping her. Her haircare routine meant tons of time wasted washing her hair and waiting forever while it dried. She didn’t want rough terry towels that cause breakage and she also didn’t want to wait hours for her to air dry or be damp enough to blow-dry. That all changed when she had her aha! moment, taking note of the high-performance fabrics found in ski wear that rapidly wick away moisture to keep skiers dry. From that inspiration, Britta developed the first AQUIS hair towel. It was lightweight and easy to use, with a proprietary microfiber called AQUITEX™ that rapidly wicks water away from hair. She had found her time-saving solution.

This innovation led to the original hair turban shape. 20 years later, with a full line of Rapid Dry Hair Wraps and Towels selling over a million units every year, AQUIS continues to champion the message that less is more for hair—focusing on hair when it’s at its weakest (when it’s wet) to protect vulnerable strands and lock in strength.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Okay cool. My name is Britta Cox, I'm in the san Francisco Bay area. My brand is AQUIS, it's a hair tool, really a towel and turban that dry hair quickly to basically help hair regain strength after being wet and give us our best hair with less effort basically. As simple as that. I mean I love it, it's simple and it's genius and everyone needs it. We do, we do and that's exactly why I started it. Let's go back to those early days, I imagine, you know, probably in the 80s when you were starting to think about this idea and starting to think about wanting to start a business in the first place. What was that time like and how did you make that decision? Well, I think I grew up around an entrepreneurial family, so I think I've always had that mindset and I was in the ski industry and I'm very curious about things and I go very deep in trying to understand them. When I was in the ski industry, I was wearing the first wicking fabrics that wicks sweat away from your body, the base layers of clothes that you would wear, let's say under your ski park it a wick sweat away from your body so you stay dry and warm.

00:05:53 And at the same time I grew up with long hair, I just washing, it was always a household because of how long it took to dry. I would leave the house with a wet back. I wouldn't blow dry it. I never used a blow dryer and the big clunky baths, I'll just simply didn't work. It was heavy, it would fall off and it didn't take the water out of my hair. So as I'm wearing this exposed these wicking fabrics moving moisture and sweat like, okay, that was my aha moment, like we've got to make a towel to dry your hair better and more efficiently than what there is. So that was the impetus of that. And because I'm dating myself back to 30 years, I was curious like who's making these fibers? Where is this fabric coming from? So I literally went to the library when we have things like called microfiche and found the company in Japan who invented the first wicking fibers um and worked with them. So I reached out to them. They're very large company, thousands of employees, 100 years old. Finally got to the right department, right person finally got their attention and um then worked with them to make a towel to dry hair fast.

00:07:00 We worked really hard on how do we make a towel that is lightweight, very absorbent. So it just weeks the water away and um it doesn't cause friction on your hair. Mhm. Why do you think they were interested in working with you and accepted working with you? I mean obviously a, it was a different time in the 90s and be a huge company kind of taking this thing that didn't really exist for hair and being like, yeah, let's bring it to life. You know, I think that the constant threat of any entrepreneur is just being just relentlessly determined to make things happen and um honestly, they did not think I was totally customer and they ignored me in the beginning, um again dating myself, I was sending them faxes and trying to make phone calls and get to the right person and it was only a story five years later when we sold our million tell and I got a free first class trip to Japan that you know, when they promised me, they told me their story about working with me from their perspective and they said, oh you know girl from California, not really our client, not really our type of customer and they just ignored me and then they said, oh but you know, faxes middle of the night, what time is it in san Francisco more faxes and faxes and faxes, maybe we should talk to her.

00:08:21 So this is their story and he's not going anywhere. And literally I got Japan, they're big company, had a newsletter, monthly newsletter, It was a two page spread about their story and journey of working with me and that was, you know, very insightful because I learned a lot of insights from their perspective is really cool. So you know, they learned very quickly that I had a unique experience with, you know, being a woman having hair that needed to dry quickly, having a unique viewpoint on how something works and it became a really beautiful relationship. I mean they were learn things that they had never learned. Well our first customer was Macy's department store. So that helped because they were very proud when they came over and you know we had to display at Macy's and I was running you know Macy's read newspaper ads with me and they were like wow because usually what they were doing their selling wholesale fabrics too big manufacturers so they didn't have a retail presence and they didn't have that kind of feeling to see their fabrics branded and displayed in a department store like that.

00:09:29 So they it was just a really beautiful relationship. Really learned so much from each other. Gosh they're almost became like the gentleman who actually was in charge of the ultra fine fiber department that became the person who gave me the I really had the global rights to the fabric and this proprietary fabric we made together and um Mr Nakano became like almost like a dad to me, I became, he referred to me as my daughter. Oh wow, it was very sweet. It's funny how when I talked to any entrepreneur on the show, what it all comes back to his relationships and relationship building, whether it's with your manufacturer, whether it's with your customer, whether it's with a retailer, really when you break it down, it's problem solving and it's relentless kind of you know going after what you want and then relationships. Absolutely, that's like the three cool kind of things I think when you absolutely drill into it and those relationships like the common thread and that is authenticity. Like the passion and the love and the authenticity of how much you know, I really understood how much this helped women to have a better day drying their hair faster getting better hair with less effort saving time which everybody is short of time and it just became, you know, has really a very personal thing to people.

00:10:46 I mean that last for years and it literally something they use every day, something that makes their life better and that means so much and so it really comes from a place building those relationships with authenticity. So you're right, whether it's with our supplier or with our customers and you know, for 1/30 anniversary re reached out to a lot of our customers and we got the most beautiful, again like love letters that they had for this towel for their brand and just how much they loved it and they remembered, you know where they got it and who gifted it and that they in turn would buy one and gifted to others. It's just, it really is a story of relationships and based on authenticity inherently had word of mouth built into the product, especially for women. I feel like women talk a lot to girlfriends, whether it's in like the dems on social media or like your group chat with all your girls. It's like if you find something that's genius and makes your life a bit easier that women understand you share that with your girlfriends and next thing, you know, everyone's got the same product. Exactly.

00:11:47 And for now it's so fun because Acquis lends it so well to things like Tiktok and social media and instagram because you know this before after pictures and you know people putting the terminal doing masking and you know, and his mother, we see a lot of mothers daughters, you know with the mother daughters both having their turbans on and sitting around and having their, their self care moments and their moments together. It's our reading books and storytelling at night. It's pretty beautiful. That is really beautiful. I want to switch to understanding more of the marketing side. I know you said in the beginning you were running ads in the newspaper which is obviously very foreign to me. Although having said that, you know, I do see brands today doing crazy amazing things when they do, you know the full page ad in the new york times and it's some witty clap at some kind of brand doing something but different times in marketing when you were getting started, could you paint the picture of what life looks like as in, you know, did you need a lot of capital invested to get this off the ground?

00:12:51 What were you doing to actually attract customers and who were your sort of 1st 1000 loyal customers. Uh huh um you know, I think the exposure of working with, you know, um Macy's, they were very helpful to kind of do a lot of these ads, they had a lot better experience and the days were different than that was how you reached people is through more direct mailings. We got an even Marcus early on as a customer, we did a little campaign with them where we went into the credit card mailing to when people got their bills and so it's just a bit of a different, you know, era. But what's interesting and this is what's so you know with entrepreneurs and you just have to be so agile all the time and just pay attention and pivoting to what works because you know as everything changed to digital and social media and as that an instagram, let's say, you know, paid advertising has gotten so expensive, we're seeing more at home again. So you're saying I'm getting a lot more mailers from brands that are sending direct mail now again because it's less expensive than paying media and or outdoor, so more billboards and more things at home, that's why you're probably, you know, we're all seeing a little bit more ads in newspapers.

00:14:03 So your question about early investment and how do you get started? I mean honestly I come from a family of entrepreneurs and we're very bootstrap e and that was my first three years for the first almost year I didn't have a earn a salary. Um I think like many entrepreneurs who are thinking about getting into and starting a business, like I kept, you know, the thing I was doing that paid me while I started my new venture and until my new venture could pay me um that's when I let the other one go and I think that's a very common thing. I think it was only literally our third year I brought in an investor who was really a friend. It's really, that's at that time, it's, it's really seed money you can get, you can't really get professional investors until you're pretty sizable and so you really need to go to friends and family route and I, you know a friend of mine was, you know, fortunately really believed in what I was doing and really believed in me and gave us our first investment and not only just an investment in equity but also gave me a line of credit and that was pretty amazing because I worked and leverage that really for the first five years and then it wasn't probably is our fifth year that we could even get bank financing because again, thanks will only and we were profitable early, but as I needed to grow then I needed to be able to use the line of credit I had and used because as you grow, you need a lot more inventory and you know, you have a lot more receivables and so you need more and more cash all the time.

00:15:42 And it was really my fifth year that I actually got bank financing which is like what they call it, a bl asset based lending loan and its percentages of inventory and receivables. But you have to have a, you know, depending on what the bank covenants are at that time, which always kind of changes generally. Banks like to see, you know, three years of profitability and you know certain things that make them comfortable to know that you're gonna be good for your loan and then you have to sign a personal guarantee a that's a lot of yourself on the line. Um it's very much later, like we've recently taken a strategic investor on which is amazing. We love them. Um true beauty ventures and others and they come with a tremendous amount of experience and when you decide to get that type of capital, really deciding on who can help you really grow your business the most, where do you need support and how can they most align with what you need as well. And it's been beautiful because it's a, it's a journey of Really, you know, you say Okay, you've been in business for 30 years, you must, you know, entrepreneurs, we get bored, but it's always learning business is always changing and you're always needing to be adaptable and agile and really being astute to what's going on in the market and aware so you can pivot and do what you need to to survive.

00:17:04 I mean I think surviving through you know 30 years, I've learned that that just you just don't take no for an answer. You just you fought your super resourceful when the type get going, the going gets tough, that's gosh, that is just incredible. My goodness. I'm interested to talk about the true beauty ventures partnership to understand like at what kind of scale you were at when they entered the picture and then what is it that they were able to strategically do to help you grow even further and take you to that next level? Well, you know, we are very far down our road because we're already doing $20 million dollars in sales by the time we did that, so that's what's so ironic, you know like you have to get so far too, you can get that more strategic kind of you know, funding um I mean they just you know rich and Christina and their team just they are amazing people, they have amazing experiences that they bring to the table to help you identify, you know the right people to hire what, you know, talking to other brands, what's working for people, what's not working for people and um just a great sounding board when you have you know key decisions to make, have just very unique and experienced insights and they're very available and super super helpful.

00:18:26 Gosh, yeah I guess it's such a for entrepreneurs who are early on in the journey like that just seems, you know, like a mountain to climb. So I probably jumped too far ahead and I'd love to go back a little bit rewind a bit to understand what the kind of pivotal things that happened in your journey to get you, you know, from like 1-10 million in revenue even, or even just to one million in revenue. Like what are the key kind of initiatives to growth in those early foundational years of making this kind of a long term brand? I think it's again, they're just really looking at the market, thinking about, you know, we were consumer based, we needed to rely on retailers, that's what there was. Um so identifying like where are people going to buy the thing you have and I mean, honestly, I had not one sales person for the 1st 10 years, I did all the sales, all the cold calling and I just didn't take no for an answer. That's how I got Neiman Marcus was just calling and calling and calling and and then we were able to, you know, when I was looking at the landscape, there was no Sephora didn't exist um back in 1990, so who was getting those customers?

00:19:40 It was, it was Bath and Body Works and the Body Shop, if you remember those brands and you know, even a Vada and some specialty retailers, so we were able to partner with um all of those brands and you know, it's really unique because Acquis was so unique that we were able to get into both Bath and Body works in the body shop with our brand as Oculus and usually everything else in the store was their brand. And I mean I really always held to, I need to support my brand new, I will not do private label because it's important that I grow awareness and and they never pushed back those brands even though they didn't push back hard on me. Um, Ivan did partnerships with the gap at times. So I think really leveraging communities that exist and um, it's always key in those communities change and you know, it was where it's, you know, people walking into stores and now it's people walk into stores as people online, as people on all these different platforms.

00:20:40 It's wherever people are you meet them and you just understand like what is that community? So today for example, you know, Acquis is if I were looking at from the outside today, it's like who are some of those places that can help raise your voice. And um, you know, violet grey was one of those early partners that really helped raise our voice with Oculus. We did a partnership with them where we embroidered, they gave us, you know, a list of a lot of their key um, influencers that they worked with and it was over 50 people and we took all these celebrity and we boarded their first names on our turban and we did together with them a mailer to everyone. So it happened and I think Goop is another partner that we really appreciate and love because they do a lot of um, the way they write their content and share other learnings, they've been able to not just say here's a towel that dr, you know, dr your hair fast, but they are able to write about why that makes a difference to people and how what happens, you know, so many learnings we want to share with people about what happens to hear one wet and how, by drying your hair quickly, you actually save your hair and get better, better hair with less effort.

00:21:52 And then my little hair hack is everyone should wash their hair at the end of the shower, not the beginning, because the last time Harris went the stronger it stays and um, that's just something people don't know. So part of it, like we have learnings from our brand and from our science that we want to share in the community, so who can help you share that information and who is best suited to, and sometimes those, you know, platforms and partners who are communicating in more of an editorial way can help share more learnings, which is why we really appreciate a lot of those partners. Yeah, identifying the voices of trust within the communities that you really want to target, um, the partnership with all the celebrities. That's so cool. I saw you have, you know people like the Kardashians who were your turbine, is that how that came about? Well, yeah, I mean the push collaboration was also a super big, you know, kick starter of awareness because Courtney had loved our towel and turban and she um their team as she was launching, push reached out to us to do a partnership with them.

00:23:02 Oh my God, cool. Yes, Yeah, it was one of those amazing moments that you're like wow pinching yourself and you know, Kourtney was amazing in the amount of content she created and she really went all out and they were great to work with the push team and um you know, we had an understanding like okay we'll do X, y, Z hits and whatnot and they just did so far and above what we expected, beautiful videos and engagement and had, I mean she had it on everybody was a great partnership if you haven't already implemented a crm system into your business. Now is the time crm or customer relationship management is at the heart of scaling your side hustle into your success story crm systems, take any customer interaction and transform that interaction into valuable data and insights allowing you to strengthen the relationships with your customers and grow your business with tools for marketing, sales, customer service, content management and operations.

00:24:04 The hubspot crm platform is fully customizable for whatever your business needs. Use hubspot to meet customer demand, align your teams and work smarter without slowing down With total control and over 650 integrations. Hubspot is totally customizable and purpose built for businesses big and small, so whether you're just getting started or you're looking for all the bells and whistles, hubspot is the number one crm platform for scaling businesses, learn more about how you can customize your Crm platform with hubspot at hubspot dot com, What's the impact of working with a celebrity like that at that scale? Like are we talking like thousands of orders, like millions of orders like are you able to share any kind of that next layer of data or insights on what it's like to work with a celebrity, I think everybody's experience is a bit different I think you know we did um you know tremendous numbers, you know at least you know five times what we would normally do in that period of time.

00:25:07 Um But what you can't really calculate is the awareness factor and how it ripples through the whole, you know, ecosystem and you know, the level of awareness and the other things that brought is really invaluable. Gosh I can only imagine, but I do think that it's very hard to spend for especially anybody in a startup to be able to afford just to pay outright to any anyone to get the R. O. I on that is very difficult. Yeah, you really need to be at a certain level and you need to, I think like I've heard some horror stories of people who didn't do that foundational kind of influencer marketing and building the brand so that there was all the, you know, micro influencers, midsized influences and then reaching up until you get to the point of being able to have a celebrity where it all kind of comes together versus just going straight for a celebrity, doing a one off post, expecting the world, it crumbling on you and you being like, oh crap, I've just spent, you know, potentially six figures on something that didn't work and craziness that kind of comes from that totally.

00:26:16 Yeah, that's exactly our experience, you have to really build your foundation with every level and the micro influencers are extremely, you know important and if you watch how the ecosystem gets fed, it starts with microbes, who then goes to mid level then to upright and then it goes up. But if you just, you know, Throwing money at the top slab right out the gate is kind of like going to Las Vegas and putting $100,000. Yeah, totally, totally. I guess it's also, you need to have proven the concept in the market which is given, but also have the infrastructure to even fulfill the demand and kind of keep up with what could potentially happen when all those kind of things come together in a really beautiful way. I think that leads to one thing that I do and I think has always been helpful is having anticipating the worst as well, like you got to think about okay this could go really well and I'm going to assume that I can sell X. Y. Z. But if I don't then what you have to factor that in.

00:27:19 So you know whether that's in your agreement that you know if you do something with somebody else's brand on it and you don't sell all of that is like as a co brand with both your names and that doesn't sell, what are you gonna do with that inventory? You don't want to go back and take your labels off and go you know so you can go sell it you know somewhere else or do something else. So you really have to always be thinking about like what's your plan B plan for the downside as well as the upside? Yeah I really like that, that's a great piece of advice. Especially because you can get caught up in the excitement of what could go really well and you're not thinking about necessarily what could go really wrong and how that could totally mock you up. I love that. It only has to happen to let me think about that upfront, what's gonna happen if it doesn't go as planned? Do you have any examples? Oh gosh uh Not off the bat, sorry I know that I can think of, I think the biggest thing is just always being resourceful and never letting fear take over and just know that there's always a way and just don't give up.

00:28:25 My favorite book is shoe dog by Phil Knight. If you read my last story. Oh my gosh. I mean he can tell you how many times he almost went out of business and that's just you have to be really comfortable, you know, with whatever happens totally. Yeah, I'm really excited to read that. I'm going to link it in the show notes for anyone listening. Something else. I was wondering about your product, I know that you have you know, patented things and you obviously own your I p have you had to deal with copycats or issues on that side of the business by having a product that was really, you know, unique at the time, totally the first of its kind. And how is that kind of evolved for you? So yeah, I patented the turban shape, which I had the patent shape, you know, for 14 years and I think um you know by having a patent, it gives you a great leg up, but it's very you've got to defend them and if you don't defend them you lose your you know rights to do that. And it's very hard with, you know copycats.

00:29:28 The thing is that they can't get into your retailers because your retailers can't be selling things that are not legal to sell. So that pretty much gives you the biggest um ability to keep other people out. And as let's say, my patents now that patents expired, I had it for 14 years and I see copycats trying to do my shape. but they can't do my fabric because that's a proprietary fabric. And honestly, what's being sold out there as a hair towel is really what the fabric was designed for cleaning cloths. So most people company are and selling, you know, like on amazon for a lot cheaper are knitted terry fabric that was designed to pick up and grab and hold dust inside of it. And it's really great for that purpose. But it's exactly what you don't want on your hair because as your hair is wet, your cuticles are raised and those little loopy fibers grab onto your upraised cuticles and give you more frizz and probably worse than a cotton towel.

00:30:32 So at the end of that day, you know, it's education and it's when people use Oculus and they see what a difference it makes their hair versus the copycats. And people talk about that and that's you know what keeps you above and keeps you giving you the edge on everything. So you just, I ignore copycats because I can only do the best and create the best product I can always create. And they're going to always try to be like trying to keep up with you, But they they can't you know what's really exciting recently. So here's our copper. Sure and this is our new anti microbial anti bacterial fabric which runs ultra fine fibers of cotton through it. So it doesn't, bacteria literally can't grow on it. So it's not it's not a coding is not like a chemical coating, it's actually um microbes when they eat they try to eat the copper thing is the source of nutrition and then it actually deprives them of nutrition and water and they die so literally bacteria cannot live on it.

00:31:38 So you know we're just you always have to think step ahead of everybody you know and always be innovating and you know doing the best to serve your customer. I always have wanted to put the best possible product out there um and some people will say well gosh Brittany Hotel last too long. People keep it for years I said isn't that great, it's very sustainable. You know it's like back in the day when our parents would buy something like my mother in law room at her house right now in Switzerland and she has like a blender that she got for her wedding you know like forever ago and it still works and it's still amazing and like it was made to last. I love that the world needs more of that as we know. Exactly. And then people by his gift, they love it so much they get so much love out of it for so many years then that's when they the gift and they talk about it. So I hear you, I totally hear you, gosh, if you were to start this business again tomorrow, what would you have spent more money on in the beginning and what would you have not wasted time or money on at all?

00:32:45 I think I would have built a bigger infrastructure organization of people first. I think um I think one thing people need to ensure that they have is a large enough margin to support growing their business and supporting the infrastructure of people that it takes to do that. Um I was quite naive, I was creating a new category, there was no such thing as a hair towel. So I was, you know, being compared when I was talking to the first buyers, to the bath towel. So here you have this big huge bulky bath towel that's you know, like on Macy's White Day sale was selling for $20 and here I was taking this very thin, small, you know towel and selling it at first like when I started 1990 it makes these for 15 and there was like, wow, that's so much money. And so basically I worked on a smaller margin than I ever should have starting off, I should have pushed harder early and I was a little bit naive because I kind of did the math backwards on the yeah, I can live on that and like, Yeah, but I can't hire a sales person on that and I can't factor commission and for that, so that's why I was the salesperson for 10 years.

00:34:00Edit So margin is really important to give you enough to build your business. Um so I would build that in uh yeah, I love that and that's something I think that again, you can really overlook as a new entrepreneur because you just want to, I also feel like sometimes you just like I just want to make it like the best possible price, so it's easier for people to buy and you don't realize that that actually really works in your negative and isn't sustainable, especially you know when you're going out and acquiring people through digital ads and things like that, which are really expensive now, you, you don't allow yourself to do that or you don't have the margin like you say to do that. So, so interesting. A great piece of advice again, thank you so much. Gosh, where do we want to go with this? I'd love to know when you think about marketing today, What is it that's really like your sweet spot at the moment, like how are you growing? What are