WOODLAWN — Kim Lewis always knew she was meant to be in service of others. As founder and CEO of CurlMix, which was featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank” Sunday night, she gets to do just that.
In a year’s time, she and her husband/co-founder Tim have gone from mixing small batches of their clean beauty product for curly hair in their South Side kitchen to moving into a small business incubator on the city’s Near West Side.
Employing a staff of 20, Lewis gets to help people feed their families and pay their mortgages. It’s the satisfaction of providing opportunities for others that keeps her going.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that people who make more money don’t work less, they work more,” said Lewis, a Roseland native. “If we’re successful, we’re just going to use it to make more opportunities. It’s really about loving what you do.”
The journey to finding that love wasn’t easy, of course. As with any journey, the waters were a bit rough, almost unnavigable at times. It was a course fraught with unfulfilling jobs, failed business ventures and near-empty bank accounts.
And then there were sharks. Well, the formidable quartet of “Shark Tank” titans known for crushing the hopes and dreams of aspiring entrepreneurs. The Lewises’ face-to-face with the cast aired Sunday night, and the couple threw a watch party for friends, family and supporters at a South Loop loft.
Lewis was floored by the turnout.
“I had no idea people were going to show up like this. I’m extremely grateful,” Lewis said.
The Lewises were seeking a $400,000 investment for a 10 percent stake in their company. They ultimately walked away from the one offer they received — Robert Herjavec’s $400,000 offers for 20 percent equity stake in the company.
Though they didn’t come home with a deal, it was still a great experience, Lewis said.
“I thought Mr. Wonderful [Kevin O’Leary] was going to be our toughest critic, but he wasn’t and the person who was completely surprised me,” she said.
“I was looking for Mark Cuban’s approval, if anything,” Lewis confessed.
Appearing on “Shark Tank” was the culmination of years of persistence and hard work, hard work that started in high school and continued during her years at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“I grew up poor. Business administration was a practical major,” said Lewis, who, at one point, worked three jobs while handling a full course load. “I knew I wanted to be able to live comfortably.”
She and Tim, also a Morgan Park High School alum, married after college graduation and returned to Chicago soon after to start their post-collegiate lives; she at Aldi as a district manager, and he as a tour guide at the Museum of Science and Industry.
“It was the worst job I had in my life,” recalled Lewis. “Every day my boss would tell me how horrible I was. I hated it.”
When Tim won $100,000 from an appearance on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” she quit her job, and the two decided to focus on their first venture, an app that offered stylist recommendations for people with natural hair.
“We learned a lot, but we just couldn’t monetize,” Lewis said. “When that first check came, it was only $200, and I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Taking a job at a photography studio, she spent a year honing her camera skills. Then one night, while watching “Shark Tank,” inspiration struck. A contestant was pitching an organic cookie kit with individually wrapped ingredients.
“Tim suggested I do the same, with natural hair care products,” Lewis said.
So they started another venture, this time creating a subscription service for their homemade products. While they landed investors and advertisers, they still didn’t see enough growth to sustain.
“At one point I was making 70 batches of flaxseed gel while pregnant,” said Lewis. “So we decided to focus on that.”
In January 2018, they made $3,000 in sales. The Lewises, frustrated and in fear of folding, receive $25,000 from Backstage Capital, an investment group that helps entrepreneurs from marginalized groups. The money came just in time, and with a team of microinfluencers, they increased their sales, making $30,000 in March 2018.
Eventually, they moved their operation from their kitchen into the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago Incubator on the Near West Side, and the team of two expanded to 20. By the end of 2018, they had made $1 million in sales.
Which made it a little easier to walk away from Herjavec’s “Shark Tank” offer.
“We’d done the research. We knew what we were worth,” Lewis said. “This is our third company, and we’d already made $400,000 in sales. They couldn’t play the same game with us that they’ve played with other people.”
So, what’s next?
“We’re going to make $10 million in sales this year,” Lewis promised. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
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