[Interview] Princess Onitilo, Founder, Tress Free, UK
Born in South East London to a Sierra Leonean mother and Nigerian father, Princess Onitilo graduated with honours from Warwick University with a degree in Law and Sociology. And then her entrepreneurial spirit led her down a different path with the launch of Tress Free.
Please introduce Tress Free and tell us your USPs
Tress Free is the first of its kind, creating an aggregation of Afro-Caribbean hair and beauty stylists on one platform.
The prime USP is that we have an integrated e-commerce platform where if you are a stylist and you also sell products, these can be sold on Tress Free - almost like a hair and beauty Ebay. The fact that a stylist can list their services and also sell products through the platform is the fundamental USP for Tress Free which makes it stand out..
The concept itself is something new for the Afro-Caribbean hair community. Having one centralised place where you can not only search hairstylists and makeup artists, but also review their availability, compare and contrast portfolios and reviews as well as book appointments directly with them through the portal. Tress Free is a benefit for stylists can manage bookings and communications with customers in a centralised manner, rather than relying on phone and email communication. It gives smaller mobile stylists the opportunity to increase exposure and maximise their booking potential.
Is this a paid-for or a free platform?
As we have just started the business we are offering this service for free – it is completely free for stylists to sign up and there will be no charges. We want to be the go-to platform for Afro-Caribbean hair and beauty needs. As more hairdressers, makeup artists and beauty therapists sign up we will be able to demonstrate the power of the idea.
Why did you start Tress Free?
My inspiration to start Tress Free came after I was let down by a lady who I had booked an appointment with to do my hair. It was a Sunday before returning to work on Monday and I was very desperate however I struggled to find an alternative hairdresser. I dreamed of a platform that would allow you to search for hairdressers based on availability and location, as well as being able to see example of their work to know whether they are good or not. Something like this didn’t exist for the Afro-Caribbean hair market and I believe a central database like this is something that customers will really value.
What did you do before starting Tress Free?
Before starting Tress Free, and which I am still currently doing, I worked within the financial services sector. I recently graduated from the University of Warwick last year where I studied Law and Sociology. I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and start my own business but what I have learnt over time is that you not only need a good idea but you also need passion because the road is long and there are a lot of setbacks ahead. I am genuinely passionate about the black hair and beauty community and uplifting the black community in general so what I am doing with Tress Free transcends the desire for monetary gain.
What can be done by entrepreneurs and governments to see more businesses of this kind take off?
Advice from entrepreneurs that have started from ground zero is invaluable. Hearing about their challenges and what they overcame can shape your strategy to make sure that you not only make the best out of available resources but also not to make similar mistakes.
I believe more start-ups are in need of mentorship and guidance before even considering financing. There are a lot of things that investors would like to see for example your business plan, objectives and how you seek to meet those, cashflow forecast etc - and for people who do not have the financial understanding, consolidating all this information could be a difficult task.
Do you think women entrepreneurs typically have a harder time accessing loans through traditional bank channels?
I wouldn’t say I believe female entrepreneurs are disadvantaged in this respect. It’s hard for me to tell whether it has been difficult for me because I am a female, black female or whether it is because the business is in its infancy and investors can not see the growth potential and prospective profitability of the business.
In regards to accessing loans and getting investors to buy into your idea, I would say for a business that is targeting an ethnic community it may be difficult for someone who does not understand its nuances of the culture to have confidence in the business idea and model.
What can you say about the targets, plans and ambitions of Tress Free?
The immediate goal right now is to be the go to platform for booking Afro-Caribbean hair and beauty services in the UK. We would like to be the number one booking platform for the Afro-Caribbean hair and beauty sector. Thereafter we would like to expand into other countries in Europe and then focus on African markets. The ultimate goal is to be completely international – I appreciate this will take a lot of hard work and effort but I am excited for the challenges ahead.
In addition to this we hope to expand the Tress Free brand through developing hair and beauty products. This is just an idea at the moment but hopefully in will come into fruition in due course.
Alongside this we want to build a community within the sector, not just being an intermediary service provider but also holding seminars and conferences and award ceremonies promoting Afro-Caribbean hair and beauty experts.
How would you assess the UK’s economic performance in the first half of 2016?
I would say that the UK’s economic performance for the first half of 2016 has been a turbulent period, particularly in recent times as the growth forecast has been revised down post Brexit. As somebody starting a business during this time I am quite worried about the effect this would have on profitability and the availability of funding.