What do you get when you combine a former chemist, a product engineer with an MBA, and the drive to start a small business from scratch? Answer: Inahsi Naturals.
What started as an in-house venture of making natural hair and body products, quickly turned into an overwhelmingly successful start-up for Inahsi owners Brian and Rhonda Marshall. “Inahsi,” explains Rhonda, “is Latin for ‘innate.’ It’s something you’re born with, and that’s where the main focus of our company lives. We create products that celebrate men and women with naturally curly hair textures. Our lotions and conditioners embrace what you’re born with because there’s no shame in anything about you, not even how uncontrollable hair might feel at times.”
“This is my baby,” Rhonda continues. “I have a professional background in chemistry. For years, I formulated products for Suave before teaching at the high school level. But I was the only African-American in the district and I experienced a lot of racism, so I left. I was discouraged and didn’t know what I was going to do. One day, someone told me that I should make my own hair and body products. I knew friends who were similarly making soaps and shampoos in their kitchen so I thought I’d give it a try.”
At first, Rhonda tested her products on close family and friends. “They loved my products, but I needed to reach out to others who didn’t know me. I had to make sure my idea was valid and that the demand was real.” Rhonda believes that this is one of the most important steps for those wanting to create a new product. “Test with people you don’t know. Make sure there is a customer base.”
Rhonda quickly found out that the customers were certainly there, and fortunately the young entrepreneur knew a talented product engineer with an MBA who could help with the ins and outs of operating a start-up: her husband, Brian.
“Once we started selling online in bigger quantities, we started to go through a few phases of finding a business to help us,” Brian recalls. At this point, everything from mixing bulk materials and filling the bottles to labeling and shipping their products was done out of their kitchen and living room. “Our distributor at the time said they could formulate everything as well, and they did that for a year or so. One day, they contacted us saying they couldn’t fulfill a huge order because their company recently signed a non-compete with another client who also sold curly-hair products. They offered to deliver our materials in bulk 5 gallon buckets so we could pour and package them ourselves,” Brian chuckles in disbelief. “We left, obviously, and went through a couple more businesses, but found them generally unreliable. A company once ran out of our biggest product at Christmas! We knew we had to take control.”
That’s what led the Chicago couple to Dream HUB, specifically Dream Kitchen. The Marshalls say that the shared-use kitchen was a logical and reliable step for their business. Brian and Rhonda spend most weekends and a few evenings each week using their rented space to mix, fill, label, and package their hair and body products. They store a few self-owned pieces in the kitchen, like a filling machine, a couple of mixers, and a giant 40 gallon kettle. But the game changer is the commercial stove that Inahsi rents as a co-share from Dream HUB. Brian explains that this was huge for them. “Imagine mixing 20 or 40 gallon batches of mango and shea butter in a residential home on a tiny stove.”
The Marshalls laugh, recalling their early days at Dream Kitchen in April 2018. “We worked for almost a full 24 hours our first day, staying until 3 or 4am to figure out our product process from start to finish. We ended up having to get a hotel and then we came back the next day to get the system down. Now, it’s a science, but we still spend a lot of time there because Dream Kitchen is like our second home.”
Just before a full year of renting space from Dream Kitchen, the Marshalls began to hit all-time revenue highs. “I mean, this was just a side hustle at the time. In fact, right now it still is,” Rhonda begins. “But March of 2019 was our biggest month that wasn’t during a major holiday. Then July was our biggest and then in August we beat July. We were even in September and now October has been our number one biggest month. It’s weird because this is what we always wanted but at times we are just amazed and in disbelief that this is all really working so well!”
Having the ability to fill the orders themselves in Dream Kitchen has been a huge advantage for the success of their business, in addition to a few brand ambassadors and posting on Instagram. Rhonda explains that they no longer need to be concerned about filling orders. “We constantly run out of stuff but now we act right away, restocking our own supplies. We’re even making inventory before we come close to emptying our stock, especially around the holiday seasons. The ability to keep inventory is a big driver.”
The Marshalls, of course, have dreams for the future of Inahsi, including hiring employees through a staffing agency, leaving their current 9-5 jobs to dedicate their time fully to the company, and eventually buying their own commercial space. As for Dream Kitchen? “Dream Kitchen will be there as long as we need it, and we’re thankful for that. The idea is that one day we can get our own production facility but currently, Dream Kitchen is a stepping stone.”
Right now, Brian and Rhonda are where they need to be, and customers are happy to have more reliable access to all of Inahsi’s products. “We have the best customers,” explains Rhonda. “They are committed. They want our products. We’re getting orders not just from the US but from all around the world: Kuwait. India, the Netherlands, even a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar. I had to zoom in on the map to see where it was and I’m sitting there trying to figure out how they heard about our products. “
Inahsi has 15 collections, with Island Breeze (whipped butter for hair and body) ranking as the most popular. Rhonda describes its formulation as a labor of love. “Large batches need to be made differently than smaller ones and that process takes time! But customers demand that we always stock Island Breeze, even out of season, and it took a number of rounds to get the consistency right.” Rhonda’s personal favorite, however, is their Aloe Hibiscus Leave-In Conditioner and Detangler. “It’s lightweight, versatile, and it’s used as a base for so many of our other products. It has hyaluronic acid, something that we lose as we age but can restore to our bodies through Inahsi’s products.”
Brian and Rhonda’s words of wisdom for someone considering creating a start-up are the following: “Just do it! Put yourself out there a bit. When you first start you’ll have obstacles and you’ll have to push yourself. But what’s the alternative if you don’t? For us, we wanted to work for ourselves and we knew we had to take the leap.” And as for considering Dream Kitchen, the Marshalls enthusiastically agree. “If you decide to take the leap, Dream Kitchen is a logical step. They provide you with the essentials so you can grow. The rates are affordable, you’ll have use of shared equipment, and Kevin’s been so reasonable about letting us store our own equipment there, as well. We are so grateful to have Dream Kitchen to help us scale our business.”