Hannah Diop talks about working with Target and adding Issa Rae as a co-owner of Sienna Naturals

In today’s episode we are learning from Hannah Diop, the Founder of Sienna Naturals.

What I love about this episode is the perseverance that Hannah has undertaken into creating the brand that we see today. Starting in 2012 it took multiple pivots and years of iterating and tweaking her approach before things really caught steam in 2020. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day and overnight success takes 10 years. Literally.

Owned by Hannah & Issa Rae, Sienna Naturals is setting a new standard for clean, plant-based performance in the textured hair care industry, one that is focused on hair and scalp health. Just like a skincare regimen, Sienna Naturals products create Wash Day Rituals that keep textured hair and scalp healthy, enabling customers to see immediate improvement and wear their hair in all of the magnificent and diverse ways people with kinks, curls, frizz, waves and texture choose - without compromising on ingredients.

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

My name is Hannah Diop. I'm the founder and creator of Sienna Naturals. Sienna Naturals is a clean hair care brand for textured hair and our mission is really to put textured hair consumers at the center of clean Innovation. So we're a company that's very focused on creating treatment focused, innovative hair care products that improve your hair outcomes and the health of your scalp and hair while doing so in a very conscientious way with ingredients that are safe and natural.

00:04:42Edit And also we are dermatologist tested. So we also, you know, sometimes clean and natural doesn't always mean safe and so in addition to sourcing products that are safe to use. We also test the final formulas with uh All right. Petey testing to ensure that they're, they're good for you. That's crazy. I didn't know that clean didn't necessarily mean safe. Oh, absolutely. You know, you can create a lot of chemicals or a lot of ingredients that are naturally derived from plants that can also be irritating. So it's, it's really interesting because I think, yeah, the clean landscape is pretty hard to navigate, but it's something to keep in mind. I mean, not only that, I mean consumers even still have allergies to some very everyday products as well. Right? So there's allergies are a factor, but then also you can create a soap. Like you can create a surfactant system out of a lot of different vegetables, but some might be more irritating than others. So yeah, wow! Oh my gosh, learning something new every day on the show.

00:05:47Edit Love that for me. Thanks for sharing. Let's go back to, I think I read that you started in like 2012. So you've been going at this for quite a while. Let's go back to life before you started sienna naturals. What was it that was getting you interested in starting this business in the first place? Yeah. I always say to start the story of Sienna naturals, we have to go back to my childhood. Honestly, let's go back to baby Hannah. Um I grew up in Minneapolis Minnesota and it's a very cold environment, but my family was really focused on natural living and a wellness lifestyle. So I had allergies and sensitivities from childhood where my mom would take me to a natural pathetic doctor to get allergies tested. Um She liked to shop at the natural food store. We were members of um community supported agriculture, whereas you sort of like a cooperative of families that all buy produce from a local farm. And my house was the pickup spot so people would come and pick their vegetables up off of our porch.

00:06:53Edit So you know, my mom made her own yogurt. She was really into natural living and wellness. And so her instinct was to get our hair care and our beauty products even from the natural food store and I would get them home, I would try them in the shower and I just couldn't get them through my hair. You know, the shampoo made my hair feel like a brillo pad and very dry even the wet feel when it was going into my hair just felt wrong. It felt all kinds of wrong. And the conditioner wasn't de tangling. And one thing that is very true about textured hair is that, you know, the anatomy of our hair with all the coils and turns and bends, makes our hair more fragile. And so we have to have products that are tailored to be more efficacious and have more slip so that we can do tangle more easily and so you know, she thought she was doing the right thing, buying these at the health food store and they absolutely didn't work, I would add to it, I was on a swim team. So I was in the pool you know five sometimes six days in a week and washing my hair every single day and I think like that just being in there all the time having to do my hair almost every single day really forced me to take care and I became kind of obsessed with hair care with lotions and like just understanding and I would try everybody's products in my locker room and try to figure out like which one worked best for me.

00:08:16Edit And so this fascination has been you know it's been present in me for a very long time, lifelong. And then you know I got to college and I went to a historically black college called Howard University here in in Washington D. C. And I was surrounded by women who had hair texture like mine, we all had the same hair texture and I was just it was just a new experience to be a part of a majority and realized like, oh wow! The problem isn't my hair. The problem is that the industry isn't serving me at least not in the clean and healthy space. And so that was kind of the original motivation to get into this category, wow that's crazy. But when was there like the moment of okay I'm actually going to do this, I'm going to be the person to come out and create a solution and yeah, bring this into the world, I think I started, so I went, I attended business school um and I think even in business school I started having this notion that I wanted to make an impact in a wellness category related to personal care to hair care and so I had a few business concept ideas that I had sort of written and then I was working in consulting and I really think that sort of solidified the toolkit of just being able to jump into a situation and problem solve and figure out how to, how to get something done, how to think through a strategy, how to identify an opportunity in the market and therefore identify like an entry point for Sienna naturals and so you know, while I was consulting, I was really, I really wanted to make the move into beauty and so I started interviewing and I interviewed with a lot of beauty companies in new york, I was living in new york at the time and they all wanted me to apply for a strategy job and I was like no, I want to make something, I want to create, I want to be in like product development or like I want to be in the brand and they were just sort of like, well your skill set that you would bring that we will find useful is actually better suited over here, maybe you can move over there after some time and then I just kind of did the math and I was like it's gonna take me a long time to get where I want to be in one of these companies and then if I do want to make that entrepreneurial leap eventually it's gonna be hard because you have to sign these non competes and then I could be at risk and you know, I might be shut out of certain categories and ultimately I actually spoke with an alum, a woman who had attended my same business school and she worked in in beauty for a big company and she also worked at a startup and she really encouraged me.

00:10:52Edit I mean I just, she told me the story of how that founder got started and um it's really kind of a make it till you make it mentality right? Not a fake it till you make it like no make it till you make it. And so I decided to take the leap and go for it. I think at the same time I would add, we jumped off that lip, off that ledge, I jumped off the ledge and honestly I will say like it's one of those instances where not knowing the entire landscape, like not really having a concept of how much it would take to get where I wanted to go sort of was useful because I just, you know you meet an obstacle, you overcome it, you meet another one, you overcome it and like just going at it. I think in some senses it was helpful that I didn't really have the experience in the industry before I got started. I might have been too afraid to go. I hear that often on the show, it's kind of like that naivety that you blindly go into something with such conviction and such energy.

00:11:54Edit But looking back you have known what it takes to get to where you are, you're kind of like, I'm not sure if I would have done it, but that's what propels people forward in the beginning, is that kind of blindsided of blinding like conviction towards something. I think that's so interesting. So how do you start, what were those early steps in like actually bringing this to life? Obviously when they're manufacturing and building a formulation or capital? Like what, what's the blueprint if you will, if you had to kind of step someone through those early years. Yeah, so I actually wrote like a strategy and I really started focusing on an issue that I'd had as a child, which was eczema. And so I wanted to create like a very simple regimen which included a shampoo which also could be a body wash, a conditioner product and a body cream and they would all go towards addressing that. I also focused on this one. I don't know why I did, but I focused on the mommy market and this was with like zero marketing dollars going after women who were pregnant because the product was so clean and safe.

00:13:04Edit The idea in my mind was, you can use it during pregnancy and you can use it on your baby and yourself and it's formulated for textured hair, but it was just like trying to bite off too much at once and also you need money to go after women, women don't even know they're pregnant. You know, they don't know they're pregnant until like a few months in. Then you've got to convert them into a customer and then they might not use it when they're done being pregnant, right? So like it was really, it was a really tough customer segment to go after. So I ended up pivoting and going a little more broadly and then ultimately pivoting again and being more kind of laser focused on hair and scalp help because that's where I saw the most traction with my core customer in terms of getting started. So, the brand went through a number of pivots before I sort of landed in the sweet spot where we are Now, when you say, you know, before it got traction, what did that traction actually look like for anyone listening who might be feeling? You know, they're at a point in their journey where they don't know if they're on the right track or they don't know what the signal should be to keep going.

00:14:09Edit Well, I did have some traction. So I was selling product. Um, but back in those, in 2012, 14, 15, I was still really focused on like winning a major account. Like I needed a national whole foods to come on board and I needed, you know, a big, a major retailer to sort of give me that check of approval. That was sort of how I measured success and so that was kind of what I was going after I was selling on, on my own dot com and I was selling on amazon. But I sort of was seeing a retail partner as a commitment from a retailer, as an opportunity to fundraise and an opportunity to really then try and scale the business from the bootstrapped stage and if you were to like looking back in hindsight, is that still how you would perceive that traction if you were to start again, say tomorrow? No, I think I would have, I mean, I would say if I could go back because now the landscape is changing all the time. Like with IOS 14 rolling out and everything.

00:15:11Edit But I think I could have benefited from being more DTC focused early on versus seeking this outside approval from a merchant. I think I was a little too fixated on that to be honest, because I did have proof of concept, I had customers who loved the product, I had customers who are buying the product. Um, so I think I could have, I could have invested more there, but I was, I was so yeah, that would be my critique. That's so interesting. When was it that you actually hit that kind of milestone and landed kind of an account that you were like, okay, I'm there, it's in motion now. Well, yeah, I started getting interest, you know, it's interesting, I was in new york city, I was selling in some small boutiques there, I was selling in some natural food stores nationally and on my own dot com and I was just starting to have more conversations with my consumer directly. I would actually go to markets in new york city and sell in person and this was my like, you know, rather than doing it more digitally and connecting more digitally, I was able to meet people and have these conversations and the same people would come back and say, oh my gosh, you know, I love this.

00:16:24Edit What also I'm looking for is this, I would just get into conversations with my customers about what they were looking for and what they needed and that's really when I saw this opportunity to focus the brand as a treatment line for hair and scalp help, because people were having these incredible outcomes using the products as a part of you know, in, I would say there were some lifestyle changes that I was noticing, like customers were becoming more health conscious, so they wanted to put stuff on their body that was healthier for them. They also wanted to exercise more. But then that would come with a set of consequences for their scalp because if you don't want to wash your hair every day with textured hair, you don't necessarily want to wash every day. It can dry out your hair and be very damaging. Right? But how do you maintain a healthy scalp and hair while you're sweating and working out? And I was seeing customers having these outcomes from the product line, that was beneficial. And so that's when I started to notice that I could actually focus the line more on that. And then I received interest from Target to participate in target takeoff.

00:17:25Edit So I participated in that and I had like a number of national retailers start to kind of gain interest and, and take meetings and, and so then I kind of knew I was onto something. Um, I knew I was onto something there. And that's when I really started thinking about fundraising and what year are we talking about? Like in the timeline around this target? So time. Yeah. Well, I should also say like in 2012 I started the company, but I didn't have any product. I didn't come out with products for like another year and a half. And then I pivoted once and then I pivoted a second time. So now we're like 2017 2018 when I get into target takeoff. So then I'm like, God, you think about fundraising. So 2019 I had known this array for a long time, who is like an incredible, you know, multi hyphen it actor, creator, writer, superwoman, um and she, she's been like super supportive of the business and she wanted to partner, she's like, let me know how I can be helpful and I just knew like to bring her on.

00:18:28Edit I really wanted to do it right? And so fundraising made the most sense to be able to support The creation of the content and you know, be able to support like the production level that we would need, you know, just the working capital that we would need to support the business in a sustainable way to bring her on so that I started working on that in in 2019 And then I went out to fundraise my first round of friends and family in 2020 and was kind of had half the round, soft circled and then Covid hit and I sort of, I'm a mother of two young Children. So my, my kids at the time were um like four and six. And so I just sort of like took a pause for two months or so before I could really get back on and continue the journey. But I was able to succeed. Everyone's working from home, kids at home, all the things happ