Today, thanks to social media, you don't need an enormous ad budget to communicate with your customers. You can reach them organically -- if you understand who they are and what motivates them.
Take Ryford Estores, the 33 year-old inventor of Self-Cut System, a portable three-way mirror and app marketed to the $2.5 billion male short hair-style market. Self-Cut System is a category-defining product, and its growth has been inextricably tied to the rise of social media.
Estores solved a problem for men who like to keep their short, short hair looking as fresh as possible without weekly visits to a barbershop. Incredibly, Estores grew his $3 million dollar product business from scratch on his own by using digital and mobile content marketing.
Bringing any product to market is a feat, let alone one you self-finance and never take on any debt for. How'd he do it? I interviewed him to find out.
Short hair takes effort. Self-Cut understands that.
Full disclosure: I met Estores because I run a company that helps people license their ideas. I think licensing is the most sane and efficient way of bringing products to market today. But some ideas cannot be licensed, at least not at first.
Instead, if your idea is novel, you first have to create a market for it -- meaning invest the time and money necessary to build a successful business, brand and audience. That's the typical way you bring products to market. I cannot stress this enough: Social media? That's your marketing plan.
How Estores grew Self-Cut System illustrates perfectly the way you can and should let your customer tell your story for you. That goal is incredibly powerful; and with social media, it's incedibly do-able.
After six years in business, Self-Cut System is a well-known and celebrated product: Type "Self-Cut System" into YouTube, and amateur videos pop up showing men cutting their own hair.
Related: 6 Must-Do's for Effective Social Media Marketing
In April, Estores got a big marketing boost: 15 men and one woman competed in front of 10,000 people at the Barber Expo trade show and competition in Connecticut using Estores' product. That's incredible when you consider that until 2012, no category even existed for self-grooming.
"Self-grooming" at the Expo entailed men cutting their own hair at the Expo, as opposed to barbers battling it out for prizes based on hair-cutting originality and precision of outline and edge.
By solving a problem, Estores himself had experienced, then telling that story on YouTube, Instagram and the popular digital video aggregate site WorldStarHipHop.com, this entrepreneur built a new industry segment. "We've been profitable from day one," he told me proudly.
He should be proud. He drew on his many years of experience cutting hair -- first his own, then others', which he did informally -- and finally, cutting professionally starting at the ripe old age of 16. In other words, Estores knew his audience well. And, crucially, he kept paying close close attention.
For example, after he founded Self-Cut and began using Instagram to promote it, he quickly realized that men who wanted fresh, professional-looking haircuts all the time liked showing off their skills. Their hair was a point of pride -- like any aspect of looking your best.
During our interview, I was not surprised to discover that Estores is currently fielding interest from beauty companies seeking to acquire or license his invention. In a few days, Estores will host the first international Self-Cut System seminars in Colombia and Brazil. "Based on our research and our own customers, we discovered that Hispanic men are most likely to cut their own hair," he told me. "The hair industry is booming in South America countries."
The result? When he gets his licensing deal there, his licensee will be getting more than a three-way mirror and an app.
Estores shares eight tips on bringing your product to market.
1. Be able to sell your vision. "As an entrepreneur, persuasion is your number one tool," Estores said. As an immigrant to the New York suburbs from the Philippines, he remembers, he'd go door-to-door offering to shovel neighbors' driveways. "If I wanted something, I had to work for it."
2. Be unafraid to experiment. Estores remembers hating a shaggy haircut his mother gave him. He didn't like his local barber's attempts to fix it, either, so he ditched the first day of eighth grade. The next day, he wore a hat. A friend recommended another barber. "When I went to a barber in a black neighborhood, I fit right in. I fell in love with my first fade," Estores said. He went back every week. But he often had to wait, sometimes for hours.
He thought, "I can't do this anymore." He bought clippers at a local drugstore and set himself up with multiple mirrors. Once he could see every angle of his head, he began cutting his own hair.
3. Practice your craft. In high school, where he showed up with his new self-cut, he became known as the local barber. "I cut everyone's hair -- even my basketball coaches'. Even the teachers'! That was my hustle."
A local barbershop offered Estores his own chair to stop him from taking business away. He picked up the trade. After graduation, he studied nursing and marketing. But after he started watching The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch religiously, he began thinking about product ideas. "It lit a fire under me."
One night, the idea hit: Men don't cut their own hair because they can't see and don't have instructions. If he could design a three-way mirror that was portable and adjustable, and film himself doing demos, he was confident he could market it.
4. Be unafraid to fail. To get a prototype made cheaply, Estores returned to his native Philippines. But the prototype he obtained was made of wood and weighed 30 pounds. The next was 10 pounds, but still wasn't right. He turned to Craigslist to scout out models.
5. Don't try to do everything yourself. Self-Cut's first Facebook page had "five likes from friends and family." But after Estores paid a YouTube self-grooming influencer to post a Self-Cut video, traffic skyrocketed. Reaching out to an influencer was a turning point.
Today's fans of Estores' product include R&B's Boyz II Men and the hosts of the New York hip-hop station Hot97. Videos of the hugely popular YouTube self-grooming artist 360Jeezy using Self-Cut have garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
6. Stay lean -- but not all the time. When bringing a product to market, resist the temptation to spend money. In 2011, when he was invited to his first barber battle, Estores resisted spending money for marketing materials and focused on putting himself out there. It worked: He met an industry leader who loved his product and invited him to film men using it at an event in a nightclub packed with 2,000 attendees. "The footage was brilliant! I owe him a lot," Estores told me. After posting it on YouTube, he debated whether to pay the video aggregate site WorldStarHipHop.com $2,000-plus to post it.
Go big or go home, he figured, and transferred the money. Checking his phone the next morning, he saw hundreds of missed calls from customers. "I took 200 orders and got my money back in one day. My website went from having 25 to 30 visitors a day to more than 10,000."
7. Let social media do the work. for you. Estores noticed that men liked to post videos on Instagram of themselves using Self-Cut. So he reposted their videos in lieu of advertising and encouraged customers to send him more. "There are no fancy photos on our page. They don't need to be high quality," Estores said. In short, social media worked better than advertising.
8. Keep innovating. Next month, Estores will release a travel version of the Self-Cut System. The launch of Self-Cut Shave Club is set for March.
"I tell people all the time: 'Start from what you know," Estore said. "I was a frustrated customer first. My biggest advantage was that I knew my audience. I didn't have to open a book to learn about the urban market. It was all fun for me."
How will you use social media to grow your product business?