How to grow a global business from its roots
From door-to-door solo operation to multinational distribution enterprise in just 10 years, The Hair Senta has experienced a remarkable growth trajectory. For founder and CEO Gwen Addo (CEIBS Africa EMBA 2015), the journey has been one marked by periods of explosive growth, setbacks, steep learning curves and constant innovation. Today, The Hair Senta is an exemplar of entrepreneurship in Gwen’s home country of Ghana, and her story continues to inspire business owners to persevere and thrive. But what are Gwen’s secrets to developing, growing, and maintaining a business that continues to shine? In her own words: self-investment.
The root cause of success? Building on solid foundations
“In Africa, starting a business is easy, but keeping it going is hard. Why? Because we have a tendency to try and run before we can crawl (let alone walk). There is not enough emphasis on putting in the necessary groundwork and planning ahead. Too many people think that a good idea and hard work is enough. Until you have the basics, until you know your target market and how you’re going to approach it strategically, you have nothing. That’s why you must invest in yourself. You need to invest in securing yourself the vital knowledge and know-how to not just start a business, but to keep it going once it’s off the ground,” Gwen says.
Despite a successful career in the banking industry for seven years after graduating from The University of Ghana, Gwen decided that her passion lay in entrepreneurship. She struck out into the world of selling human hair extensions, selling to co-workers and going door-to-door in her local area. Gradually, her solo venture grew to the point where she felt confident enough to officially found The Hair Senta in 2012.
The ten years since then, The Hair Senta has grown into Ghana’s leading hair extension brand, franchised widely throughout the country and distributed across the US, UK, Germany, Ukraine, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Africa, Sweden, Togo and others. In addition to being highly visible in salons across Ghana, The Hair Senta has also dominated social media. Instagram is a particularly important digital stronghold for the brand, as it exerts significant trendsetting influence amongst its 323,000+ followers as well as industry observers and onlookers.
However, getting to this point was by no means a self-fulfilling prophecy. It required more than hard work and an appealing product. It needed a viable long-term strategy, backed by a solid grasp of business fundamentals.
Setting off in the right direction – Choosing CEIBS
“Selling hair is not rocket science. It was easy enough to demonstrate the value of a product and sell it face-to-face. However, when it came to scaling things up wisely, that was the hard part. I knew I needed to better understand how I could properly position my business in the market, and how to work well with salons and wholesalers. In essence, it was about how to build The Hair Senta into a higher-volume business without sacrificing its uniqueness. I knew I wouldn’t just pick all of that up as I went along. That’s why I wanted to do an EMBA, and this is what led me to CEIBS,” Gwen explains.
With some quick research, and encouragement from CEIBS alumnus Dr. David Amoo-Osae Jnr., Gwen settled on the EMBA programme at CEIBS Africa to fill in the gap in her business knowledge. She describes her two years of studying as a time of intense personal discovery, broadening of horizons and, more importantly, lots of fun.
“Like any educational experience, it’s the people who bring it to life. I met the most amazing people during my EMBA studies. My classmates and professors were the kindest, smartest and most genuine people. They have opened my eyes to where my company could go – what I already had in place, what I could improve on, and where I was going wrong. CEIBS has changed who I am as a businessperson, and what I learned has transformed the entire direction of The Hair Senta,” Gwen says.
Early in the programme, several key presentations and business analysis tasks helped Gwen identify a mismatch between her product offering and target market. This led to a quick adjustment of pricing and marketing strategies to better serve a lower income, but larger, market segment. This proved decisive in expanding The Hair Senta’s footprint in key areas of Ghana, paving the way for greater brand recognition and wider international distribution.
“Everything we did in our studies had practical value. I could see how every lesson was applicable to what I was doing with The Hair Senta. My company was even the focus of a class business case, which was simply invaluable. The ideas and analysis generated by my classmates in that module had a direct impact on how I changed the business, and the lessons I learned continue to influence how I run it today,” Gwen says.
This is why Gwen advocates – without exception – that anyone who is serious about being an entrepreneur should seek out this kind of learning. She believes that if you are running your own business, you are not going to be able to discover all these things by yourself. Rather, you need to learn the fundamentals and then learn how to best apply them to your specific setup.
Success grown from failure – Learning from mistakes
Gwen openly tells many businesspeople she mentored (more on that later) that making mistakes are inevitable when you’re building a business from scratch. She firmly believes in acknowledging that something has gone wrong, before addressing the “why” and “what now” questions?
“It is so easy to enjoy your successes and place value in them as learning tools, but we learn so much more from our mistakes. This is harder to do, because no one enjoys going through their own failures in detail, but it is essential because failure is an inevitable part of entrepreneurship, and it can lead to greater long-term success,” she explains.
“For example, we almost went bankrupt in 2018 because we overplayed our hand by ordering too much stock and not being able to sell enough of it. This rather scary crisis caused by mistakes led to one of our best innovations – The Last Call. We created and promoted this last-minute sales event to help clear our inventory backlog. It was so successful that we incorporated The Last Call into our ongoing event line-up and sales cycle, and today it is one of our most anticipated and talked-about sales events. It continues to create social media buzz and gives us reliable capacity to shift stock when necessary,” she says.
Not every mistake leads to a tangible innovation or inspired strategy, of course. Some failures are simply that – costly setbacks with no immediate upside. However, these still represent chances for long-term improvements and adjustments to any businessperson’s mindset and operational setup.
For Gwen, one such failure has informed her whole business ethos. Correct Hair, an offshoot brand of The Hair Senta, was supposed to be a new line appealing to high-income customers looking for high-end products. However, a lack of due preparation, marketing and consumer engagement caused Correct Hair to flop.
“The name, Correct Hair, turned out to be ironic because we didn’t do it correctly at all! I think I was lulled into a false sense of security by the growing success of The Hair Senta. I thought that we could just launch Correct Hair and it would automatically be a hit because it was attached to an established aspirational brand. It absolutely wasn’t a hit, because we were lazy and didn’t take our time to build it up properly. Still, even though Correct Hair failed, the high-end model didn’t. We simply pursued it from a new angle within the established Hair Senta brand. Correct Hair was a watershed moment for me. It made it crystal-clear to me that you cannot take shortcuts in business – it always ends badly. If you want to make something new, do it, but make sure you think long-term and commit to doing it well,” Gwen says.
Extending The Hair Senta’s reach – Next steps and big ambitions
While The Hair Senta is Ghana’s leading hair extension brand, Gwen and her team are not content to rest on their laurels. Gwen estimates that, as big as the business has become, it has only achieved roughly a quarter of its potential turnover.
In search for an answer to the obvious question, we asked Gwen, what comes next? What will it take for The Hair Senta to grow from its current market leadership into a dominant position in key areas and regions of Africa, and consolidate its foothold in other markets beyond the continent?
“We’re not complacent. We’re not claiming that we’ve ‘arrived’. We are still working on it because we want to be the best human hair company in the world. Our mission and vision is to make everyone look ‘best with hair,’ if we can continue to customise our product offering to make that happen, then the vision of becoming number one in the world can be achieved,” Gwen says.
To make this happen, The Hair Senta is stepping up efforts in both production volume and customer experience. The company’s dedicated wig factory opened last year and will go into full operation in early 2023. This will be a major boost to both local retail and wholesaler businesses, allowing for greater market penetration and wider product offerings.
Another exciting development is the increasing digitisation of The Hair Senta’s shopping experience. Even though it was a brand born out of social media, it is still largely dependent on the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. As Gwen explains, human hair is a tangible, tactile product that customers want to touch and physically ‘feel’ before they buy. In its formative years, this presented a major obstacle to digital innovation and online retail development, but this is changing with the advent of 2020s.
“The pandemic and the lockdowns that came with it were game changers in terms of changing consumers’ mindsets and purchasing decisions. When the lockdown happened, we realised that this was an opportunity. If we were truly a social media brand and everybody was at home, then this was a time when we would get the most visibility. So, I set up part of my house as a store with the same brand and setup. We then did a launch event and offered a direct digital shopping experience. It worked like a charm, and has helped make online retailing of our very ‘physical’ products acceptable to our customers,” Gwen says.
Build your business on knowledge, not on sand
While Gwen is devoted to securing The Hair Senta’s future, she is also committed to helping others realise their business dreams as well. In tandem with her own company, she has also developed The Leader Senta (TLS) to provide instruction and inspiration to hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs.
“I love to teach and I love to share. Something I’m really proud of is how a lot of businesspeople have been inspired by the example of The Hair Senta, and how it has encouraged them to stick with their passion and not give up. But I tell anyone who will listen that being inspired, and having an inspirational idea, is not enough to sustain a business. You simply cannot survive in today’s fast-paced and competitive business world without the proper preparation. Part of this preparation is investing in yourself, giving yourself the chance to discover practical and bankable knowledge on which you can build your business, like I gained from CEIBS. Otherwise, you’re just building on a dream, and that’s like building a house on sand,” she says.