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Liora Dudar and Maegan Scarlett have long eschewed basic brown and blond hair for vibrant, hard-to-ignore shades. (Dudar’s is currently a pastel blue, Scarlett’s a cheerful peach.) But maintaining their flamboyant locks took some of the fun out of rocking the rainbow—dyes were expensive and faded quickly, and their ingredients left strands desiccated.
Tired of fried manes and annoyed that Big Hair Dye wasn’t fixing the problem, the friends decided to invent a better product themselves. An entrepreneur who’d helped start several small businesses, Scarlett experimented in her Los Angeles kitchen for weeks until she landed on two gentle, oil-based conditioners: one for coloring, the other for maintenance. Instead of using harsh chemicals to force open cuticles, as traditional dyes do, Scarlett’s blend deposits pigments in existing breakage from sun exposure and heat styling. They named the company Overtone, pooled $10,000 of their savings, and launched in 2014.
Despite having few resources, Dudar and Scarlett, now 31 and 30, respectively, didn’t pursue venture capitalist money because they knew women-run businesses rarely scored funds. (Female founders netted just 2.2 percent of VC outlays in 2018, according to Pitchbook, a financial data and software company.) What they did have was a close relationship with their customers: “We were part of the demographic we were selling to,” Scarlett says. So they knew exactly how to sell it.
Scarlett and Dudar, a professional photographer who took pictures of the product for the website, sent samples to their trusted beauty guides: social media influencers such as Luz Miranda of @youremynirvana. “I’d been bleaching my hair for years,” Miranda says. “I needed something healthier. Overtone completely replaced everything I was using.” When the internet gurus endorsed the product, sales exploded; it turned a profit in just four months.
The company moved to Denver four years ago to take advantage of the city’s growing labor pool and startup-friendly ethos. Revenue continued to climb, increasing 352 percent from 2018 to 2020. Scarlett credits Overtone’s rise to its pricing (the most expensive kit is $56) and the founders’ commitment to responding to consumer requests, such as adding traditional hair colors and, as of this month, four new conditioners. The pair still owns 100 percent of the business, though Scarlett receives at least one email a day from venture capital or private equity firms. “Once you start to disrupt an industry, people take notice,” she says. With that hair, it’s hard not to.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in the April issue of 5280, which went to press before COVID-19 became the biggest story in recent memory. As such, some events and dates listed may now be out of date. For more on how 5280 is shifting coverage during this time, read Editorial Director Geoff Van Dyke’s editor’s note.