The morning routine is a nightmare for children who scream with pain at having their hair brushed. But, the Ugly Swan founders knew they could make a difference with their new business idea.
Getting the Business Started
The three busy Adelaide mums, Marissa, Annette and Marisa, had worked together for another company for 15 years. While on a business trip, Marissa made a Skype call home and found her daughter in floods of tears while dad brushed her hair. Marisa and Annette agreed it was a daily occurrence in their house. The three thought there must be a solution to a problem that plagues so many families across the country.
The business women had all worked their way up through the company they worked for and knew there wasn’t much else to accomplish. However, the best friends weren’t ready to stop working together. So, they decided to embark on a new career that involved manufacturing and selling the ultimate Scream-Free Detangling Hairbrush.
They left their jobs and began contacting manufacturers to make prototypes. They had tried every brush available on the market and knew what they liked and didn’t like, what worked and what didn’t. Their goal was to produce a brush that was superior to anything else available on the market. They achieved their goal on 1 July, 2017 when Ugly Swan was officially born. The combination of a natural boar bristle and hand-dipped soft pin brush won children and their parents over with the first stroke and the business grew from there.
A Product That Solves a Problem
The Ugly Swan founders knew from the outset that their product needed to fix a common problem to be successful.
From their own experience and from talking to other parents, the Ugly Swan founders knew that many children with sensory issues find having their hair brushed to be painful, even traumatic. Also, fair skinned children often have a highly sensitive scalp and a hard plastic hairbrush can be very painful. Parents can spend valuable time in the morning chasing their terrified child around the house with a brush.
“We have parents of children living with Autism, Rett Syndrome and ADHD come up to us and say what a huge difference the Ugly Swan brush has made to their life. They no longer experience slamming doors and everyone goes off to school much happier,” Marissa said.
The Ugly Swan brush is recognised by the NDIS as an aid that can assist people with a range of disabilities. Many parents can claim the cost of the Ugly Swan brush through NDIS.
“We know that we’ve designed a product that works and we’re proud that we’ve made a tiny but important difference to many families,” Annette said.
Business Changes With Covid
Ugly Swan sales and word of mouth began by attending baby, parenting, rural, and trade shows plus all the Royal Shows. They had a stand at up to 100 shows per year using their direct selling expertise to demonstrate the product and learn more about their potential markets. The shows helped build their social media following and awareness.
“But then Covid hit, and the shows stopped overnight. Marisa loved this part of the business and with that now gone, she decided to move on to something else leaving two founders to continue on,” Annette said.
With no opportunities to sell face to face, Ugly Swan’s online presence became even more important for new and repeat orders. The team focused on building their Australian stockists to make sure that their customers could easily access their products from local salons. They now have over 160 stockists across Australia and are still building.
Ugly Swan did a record year in 2021 with over $1 million in sales. They have now moved into a huge warehouse to stream-line productivity in their home state of South Australia. All parcels are sent directly from SA as Marissa and Annette believe in keeping everything as local as possible.
“We want to support Australian businesses as much as we can,” Annette said.
Hands-On With the Business
Five years since starting the business, Marissa and Annette are still as hands-on as they were in the early days. The only part they don’t do is take the parcels to the post office, they need the Australia Post truck to pick up now. Ugly Swan has two full time employees and five casuals to help get orders out the door. Plus, they hire up to 30 casual sales staff during the year. On top of this they work with three Australian agencies that help with their online business.
“We like to keep all our IT, digital and marketing exclusively in Australia, supporting other Australian businesses,” Marissa said.
“We still like to be involved in every order. Each of our exclusively manufactured brushes is checked by one of us before it’s sent to customers. We check for any broken or missing bristles or pins. A damaged brush still works fine but we want every brush we send to be perfect,” Annette said.
Ugly Swan donates brushes with slight imperfections to an Adelaide domestic violence shelter and another shelter in Cambodia receives brushes.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
When quizzed about what has been the most difficult part of the business, Marissa and Annette agree it’s predicting stock levels. With a long lead time on manufacturing the brushes, it’s important to have enough stock on hand. Stock levels are hard to predict when shows can be cancelled at short notice which then impacts on the business’ cash flow. But they’ve worked through every setback and grown the business year on year.
“We’ve never minded working long hours because we’re building our own business. In the early days we did everything ourselves learning along the way from marketing, bookwork, social media and building the first website. Our website didn’t work on launch day but we figured it out. We look at all the things that we have learnt along the way, and we are grateful for all the things that did go wrong and the learnings that have come from them,” Marissa said
Asked what advice they would give other women thinking of setting up their own business, they said to go for it.
“If you have a great idea and you’re willing to do the hard work, you won’t regret it. Having stickability will take you a long way!,” Marissa said.
It’s not just the acclaimed Scream-Free brush that Ugly Swan is known for. The palm-sized brush ideal for kids and the round brush for blow drying hair have since been introduced. The Unicorn hair towel has become a hot selling item too. A toddler brush has just been launched.
There have been other products that Marissa and Annette have considered introducing to the stable but they place strict requirements on every new product. If the product isn’t an improvement on what’s currently available on the market, they won’t launch it.
“We don’t just want our products to be good, they need to be the best available. We started with that philosophy and we intend to keep it,” Marissa said.
The Ugly Swan brand has received accolades from influencers who have happily shared their unsponsored love for the Scream-Free brush. Beauty vlogger Chloe Morello and a Channel 9 personality have helped grow the Ugly Swan social followings and provided Marissa and Annette with further proof that they’re making a difference.