Rasmus Serup struggles with growing a healthy startup on unhealthy hair
A year ago, CBS graduate Rasmus Serup and his partner were handling all aspects of their company HairLust themselves. Now, they have 15 employees and more than 500 distributors. But the road to success has been a rollercoaster ride. In this interview, Rasmus shares some ups and downs of having a startup that sells vitamin wine gums and bamboo turban hair towels for better hair in a baffling market.
It all started back in 2016, when Rasmus Serup had experienced how some of his best friends had begun losing their hair already in their early twenties. They felt ashamed, and even if it was 30 degrees outside, began wearing hats and caps to hide their budding bald patches.
His partner in love and crime, Sofie Tidemand, also had problems with her hair after having hair extensions in her teenage years, which had ruined her naturally thick, blond hair. Therefore, there were plenty of reasons to create a startup business to help them all recover some of their hair as well as their confidence.
In 2016, Rasmus Serup had just enrolled as a student at CBS and was taking a BSc in International Business. After graduating this summer, he decided not to continue with the master’s degree program and instead began devoting all his energy and full attention to his startup.
“In my third and last year at CBS, I didn’t participate in more than a handful of lectures. Everything was going so fast with HairLust, and during the summer break before my third year of studying, we hired our first employee. Since then, our company has been my main priority, and I haven’t called myself a student since that summer,” Rasmus Serup says.
And from then on, the ride began.
Transparency in a blurry market
When shopping for a shampoo or hairbrush at the local pharmacy or drugstore, it’s quite easy to get confused and overwhelmed by the enormous selection of different products on display.
Evidently, the haircare industry has a lot of players in the market. So why does Rasmus Serup think his products and startup will stand out from the crowd?
Well, HairLust sells dietary supplements and haircare products designed to combat thin hair and hair loss. Its broad line of products spans nearly everything from traditional shampoos and conditioners, to pillowcases and turban hair towels made from bamboo, and wine gums and capsules for better hair growth.
And although these somewhat unusual products by themselves differentiate the startup from the other players in the market, Hairlust also seeks to be transparent about the specific ingredients used in the different products on the shelves, which according to Rasmus Serup, isn’t common practice in this industry.
“For consumers, it can be very difficult to distinguish between good and bad haircare products and the actual purposes they serve. Most often, the labels on the bottles of the dietary supplements only say ‘b-complex’ or ‘hair, skin and nails’,” he says.
Now, you might think it’s pretty funky to mix fruit gummies with bamboo turban hair towels in a product line for healthier and stronger hair.
In that case, you might be right, according to some industry regulations, because the variety in the product portfolio was exactly what became one of the biggest challenges for the startup.
A food, candy or health company?
Rasmus Serup is a true salesman. This becomes very clear when he talks about his startup. Among other perky branding statements, he says that “HairLust breathes life into a traditional market and makes old-fashioned products attractive, effective and available for everyone”.
But breathing life into the rather complex haircare industry certainly hasn’t been easy, according to Rasmus Serup.
“First of all, it isn’t easy to source ingredients for dietary supplements. For instance, the numbers of vitamin suppliers and manufacturers is pretty limited and they’re quite difficult to find. Furthermore, half of the suppliers we contact can’t provide us with the ingredients we want. So, it isn’t easy,” he says, continuing:
“Secondly, our product portfolio isn’t very common. In a lot of people’s opinions, the combination of healthcare and haircare products is crazy because the two markets and their regulations are completely different.”
“If you ask the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, we are a food company. If you ask the Danish Tax Agency, we are a candy company. And if you ask our buyers, we are a health company,” says Rasmus Serup.
“Everyone loves to put us in boxes, but what we’re really aiming for is to be a beauty brand. Although for that, we need to comply with a wide range of contracts and regulations, which has forced us to make countless changes in products as well as in legal registrations.”
Besides struggling with different regulations, Rasmus Serup and his partner have also dealt with various issues that cost both money and customers.
When HairLust was working on claiming the Baltic States as its new export market, things got out of hand when they suddenly found their products were being parallel imported by a large Danish supermarket chain.
“That was a severe devaluation of our brand, which we definitely do not consider a discount brand. We experienced a huge reduction in our B2B sales. Everyone commented on it on our social media profiles, and it was nearly a profound scandal. That really hurt,” says Rasmus Serup.
On another occasion, HairLust lost a six-figure sum to a producer in New Jersey.
“Everything went completely wrong. We transferred a deposit for the production of a new product in New Jersey. We were excited to get this completely new and unique product, but when we got it, it was far from what we had ordered. There was just too much that had gone past the ears of our supplier, and the communication was bad,” he says.
Despite their expensive experiences, HairLust is running pretty well at the moment, and according to Rasmus Serup, one of the main reasons for that is the teamwork with his partner, Sofie Tidemand.
“We started by doing everything ourselves, learning many things the hard way. But luckily, we’ve had each other to share the wild journey with through the ups and downs, and if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have come this far,” he says.