Tune into another episode of Caldwell Chats as Trademark Attorney, Julie Tolek, and the Director of Marketing and Creative Services, Eyob Yohannes, discuss with Susana Hawken, Head of Product and Co-Founder of Waeve, the tips for start-ups and the impact of trademarking in branding.
Caldwell Chats is a fireside chat series centered around emerging trends and hot topics in innovation. We have the inside scoop and want to share it. Working alongside pioneering business leaders and cutting-edge machinery and methods, our team members are witness to the next generation of tech shaping the future. We regularly invite top executives from a variety of industries to pick their brain on the latest innovations and IP matters. Our mission is to inform, guide and inspire innovators through this series.
Hello and welcome to another series of Caldwell Chats. My name is Eyob, I am the Director of Marketing and Creative Services here at Caldwell IP Law. Today I have two special guests: again, we have Julie Tolek, our very own Trademark Attorney, and we have Susana Hawken from Waeve. And I’m really interested in Susana’s story and the story of Waeve and I’ll have Susana talk to you a little bit about the brand how they’ve built a brand. Caldwell Chats is a series aimed to inspire. Inspire entrepreneurs, inspire the innovative community, and to talk about intellectual property at the same time. So we’ll do a little bit of both, and about branding, of course. So Susana, I guess let’s start off:
What is Waeve the company?
Who started it?
How did you come up with the idea to start this company?
Yeah, so Waeve, as it is now, is a direct-to-consumer, black women owned, wig brand. We sell trend forward and high quality wigs and really want to make the wig buying experience amazing for everyone involved. The idea was really born out of my co-founder’s experience, Mary – who is now the CEO of the company – and her experience with hair in undergrad and her hair journey. She spent a lot of time with her natural hair trying to figure out what to do with it growing up and then ended up finding a wigs early on in undergrad. We all went to Williams College together – I’ll talk about my other co-founder, she comes in later in the story as well – but we all went to William’s College together, which is in a remote place in Western Massachusetts, so not a lot of black hair salon places to get your hair done. So wigs offered that super easy, fun solution for her and she had worked with her mom to figure out how to get wigs when she was in college. For her 21st birthday she really wanted to find a wig on her own so she naturally went online, as we all did, and so she was searching for a wig online, it was such a difficult experience sifting through all of these sites. The customer service was all over the place, it just wasn’t a great experience, and none of the wig brands seemed to be owned by people who look like us. So, she just had a very terrible experience and that’s when she called one of our best friends, Tiiso, who is also a co-founder as well. Then they got to talking and said, “We should create a brand around this, we should just do it, no one else is trying to do this, we should do it”. This was back in 2018 and then that’s when they started having this idea of “Can we create a new, synthetic product that’s super heat resistant, something alternative to human hair? Something biology related?”. And that’s when they got in touch with me it’s because I was in Computer Science but I also did Biology research as well. So that’s how I ended up in the loop and learning about this problem that they were having and that’s really how Waeve was born. We entered into the Williams College Business Competition in 2018 and we won that and so we had some money to kind of try to make this happen. Then we all graduated college, went to our various places: I am a PhD student at MIT now, Mary went to a company called, PillPack, where she was a Software Engineer. And then we were doing our separate thing, and then the pandemic happened, and we were like , “Let’s really try to make this work”. And so that’s when we went to try to raise money, and we did last summer, which was really exciting. And that’s how Waeve today was born – we launched in June.
Awesome to hear and it’s really interesting that you were able to bring in your scientific background in wig production. I find that very, very awesome because we don’t see a lot of that and so it’s really great to see that. And fun story, I recently found out that you and Julie met through MIT, because we do a lot of work with MIT, and it’s interesting how our paths have crossed.
Yeah through MIT, during the pandemic, all online, sitting in living rooms or makeshift offices, or whatever surface was available. I think it was early pandemic, too, I believe, like in the Spring of 2020 we filed everything. If I may, I have kind of a follow-up question about how you came up with the name and the double entendre or pun of the spelling, if you will. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Yeah, in truth, the name really came out of brainstorm session that happened in Sawyer Library in Williams College in 2018. We were just trying to think of names, writing on the whiteboard, trying to figure out hair-related names, what kind of sticks. So, obviously “Weave” came up in our thinking about this and then we were just playing around with the letters, honestly. And we said, “How about switching the ‘e’ and the ‘a'”? and making it Waeve. And then we just had Waeves, Hair Waeves, Ride the Waeve you know there was just so many fun things that came out of it ,and obviously, Julie you know all of those things as well because we trademarked them. So yeah we thought it was just a really great name to go with and so many just fun spin-offs from it as well, just very recognizable.
Yeah definitely, absolutely.
And a follow-up question to you Julie, so how does that work? I think Susana you were talking about a little bit about the trademarking process about names and trying to find a name for your brand and speaking to a Trademark Attorney about that, Julie what do you normally see with clients when they come to you, first off, and say, “Hey I have an idea for a bunch of names” – what do you do?
So the first thing I think about is what the parent name is, if you will. So what is the main brand name or the main company name and what are the other brand names that they are considering using?
Are they tag lines?
Are they slogans?
Are they different product names?
And I think about it as a hierarchy of priority and you always want the main brand-name, or company name, to definitely be the highest priority because that’s going to give you the most protection over everything: all your product lines. It’s interesting because I love, and the USPTO also loves, puns or clever – they call them – fanciful names or suggestive names. So fanciful means it’s a completely made of name and then suggestive are those puns and double entendres that you find the names. To me it’s always really exciting to see when clients come up with the name that has something interesting like that and then you see it trickle down into the slogan and all those things that Susana was just talking about and how to develop the different trademarks from there and to be able to have the branding consistent throughout all of the trademarks and all the different products and have it all tie back to the actual brand name or business name.
And, Susana, for you and for your company, what made you guys think of trademarks so early on in your company?
Yeah, it’s a really great question. I mean, for us, it was definitely very early days that we did this. So it was after we had incorporated the company but before we had a raised any money. We really had this vision of trying to shake up the wig industry, not just with new products, ideas, innovations, but our thinking was that we wanted to have a really innovative brand and we wanted to protect that brand, because we thought we were onto something really cool and it was before other people had validated it yet. That’s really why we decided to go down the trademark route because we loved our name and we loved our slogans that we had come up with and we want to make them – wanted to make Waeve – feel official and make the brand feel official and be official with a trademark as well.
And Susana, did you find it all that the trademark helped make you more appealing to investors? Did it come up in pitches? Did they ask you about your IP? How do you feel that it benefited, or helped, you through this process of getting to where you are with the company?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think it necessarily came up with investors because we were still at the early stages of the idea, I can definitely see it coming up in later investing rounds. But yes, I think at least for us, and I think just having that protection and making everything feel very official, and especially with some of the slogans that we were using, like “Ride the Waeve” or “Feel Good Hair” – were two of the ones that we trademarked – it just really helped us in feeling very secure that we are a brand and these are our slogans and we are protected in that way so I think that’s kind of what I did to us that out of the value to us to a trademark.
It sounds like a kind of helps to embody the brand when you know it’s official unprotected it’s like – your the mindset becomes more official too, in a way.
Yeah exactly and also I think it can be kind of scary as a brand knowing what you can and can’t use in terms of phrases. Because there are so many people who have trademarked phrases and have all of these protections over certain phrases so having our own set made us really feel good. We can just put “Ride the Waeve”, “Feel good Hair”, all that stuff out there and it’s ours.
Yeah and I wanted to also ask you, Susana, a little bit about what some of your obstacles were as women of color in the start-up space? Because there are obstacles for anyone that’s in the start-up space, it’s inevitable, but particularly for women of color, I wanted to get your two cents on that.
I think definitely as we were going to raise money I think the biggest obstacle was explaining that this is a problem. I think a lot of the investors that we talked to didn’t know a lot about black hair or about wigs or what they were and why people wore them. So when you go into a pitch and you’re trying to present the problem, we really had to set it up and in a way that anyone could understand why it was a problem for a lot of people. So that was definitely the first obstacle in going out to raise money, but I think the more subtle one, was knowing that we should trust our instincts on things. I think we talked to a lot of people who gave really great advice, and often they don’t look like us, and so we think that maybe I don’t quite know what I’m doing – which was true for sure – but I think we do have really good instincts about this space, we have a lot of knowledge about the wig industry and a lot of expert knowledge, at this point about it, so, we’re still really trying to figure out how to trust our own instincts especially being not the face that we see all the time in the space. And especially not leaders in the start-up world so we’re still trying to figure out how to bridge that gap but I would say that’s definitely one of the bigger obstacles.
And I love how – I was reading, I did some research and looked at the website – and I love the ethos and the brand and the messaging that comes out as well. The messaging that this isn’t about not honoring our natural hair but it’s actually a way of having fun. Could you speak a little bit more about that, the messaging?
Yes so I think that was really born out of Mary, the CEO’s, experience with wigs and kind of using wigs as a tool to switch up her look on a daily basis. So getting a collection of wigs and being able to be a different person every day if she wants to. And so just having a lot of fun with it – so the collection that we have right now is actually six wigs – and it’s for the days of the week. We have Monday through Saturday, but you’ll notice that Sunday isn’t actually there and Sunday is left as a kind of way to wear your hair however you want to like natural and other styles. So that’s the concept of the first drop and really speaks to wanting to switch up your look and not just not honoring your natural hair.
Beautiful. It’s a beautiful mixture of messaging but also the brand and the brand identity, that’s really interesting. And question to you, but how did you become an entrepreneur? Like did you always feel with in you or did you learn it from a family member? Who were your inspirations?
Yeah I definitely would say I was not always thinking that I was going to be an entrepreneur, or a really even knowing what an entrepreneur was. I think that I had always considered myself as a Scientist from High School and College and I really got into it. And my dad is a Professor and a Scientist, so I think that was a big influence in what I wanted to do, but I think I always had a sense that I wanted to be working on the most interesting ideas in any field that I was in. So, definitely in Biology, I was always most interested in what was the most exciting ideas in human health and disease to be working on at the moment. When Mary and Tiiso came to me about this problem, it was just such an exciting and interesting idea and such a huge problem and I think I just knew that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with them on this huge idea that I just knew was going to be so big. So it definitely wasn’t born out of an inspiration to be an entrepreneur per se but I think just not being able to pass up on the specific opportunity, for sure.
So you’re a natural and you didn’t know it until you started.
I guess so, yeah, I think for all three of us, none of us, Mary and Tiiso as well – the two other co-founders – wanted to be lawyers all throughout undergrad. So, none of us were really thinking that we were going to go into a start-up.
Well it sounds like there was a need and innovation could spur and I think all of you saw that opportunity and it begged you to be entrepreneurs to solve the dilemma.
That is very prevalent. Also, I was also looking at the social media, and it’s great, so I was wondering, how has social media impacted your business? Do you think social media is an important tool in starting a business?
Yeah social media is a huge part of what we do. Before Waeve was really anything, we had an Instagram where we were just posting branded content, hair-related content, and so this is really a tribute to one of my Co-Founders, Tiiso, who is kind of a social media guru at this point. So she’s always been managing our Instagram page and it really has morphed into creating a sense of community. At this point, our Instagram page, we feel like we’re friends with all of our followers because we’ve interacted with them so much in the comments and in virtual, hair-related Zoom chats that we’ve had with Instagram followers. So, social media has been a huge part of creating a community around the brand and making everyone who’s following the brand feel like Waeve is another friend and also another way to connect with many other black women that they might not be able to connect with otherwise. So that’s really what we use social media for – as a way to bring black women together and discuss and engage in hair content, and that wouldn’t be possible especially with the pandemic without social media. But I think that for any business, and I think especially for the e-commerce direct consumer space, social media it’s just such a huge and important tool to kind of get people to feel the real personality of the brand and everyone who works at the company because people are realizing how important it is to know who the people working at the company are, as well.
I love everything that you’re saying Susana because, often times, we don’t think of companies as having personalities, right? And it is really the people that are behind the company whose personalities show through, and whether it’s a small company and you have that direct connection easily, or is a large company and maybe you’re working with you know a couple people from that large company, the brand that you end up associating with is born from whatever relationship and interactions you have with whoever that human being is on the other side of that brand. And I think sometimes people forget that and a lot of branding is, essentially, the relationship and what kind of relationship that is. It’s this intangible connection that people make and it’s always fascinated me and so I love that you recognize this too, as an entrepreneur, that it is that psychology and connection and the humanizing of the brand that makes people buy in. And I don’t say buying in a fake away, but that connection is why people stick with brands and why they give brands their money and their trust – and it’s huge, it’s the most important part of – if you look at marketing and branding in trademarking as this big picture – the most important part is that connection and that relationship. Because if they don’t like you, they’re not gonna be doing business with you, and that comes from the interaction.
Yeah, exactly. And for us, we really love to show all of our employees. We have three, full-time employees now and three Co-Founders. So we love to have all six of us on the Instagram to really show people who Waeve is, who’s behind the brand, and working on the day-to-day. I think that’s so important for people to actually get to know what makes us tick. And I think it really does help people buy in, for sure.
And Susana, I just wanted to congratulate you on the success of the company, your funding, and also, with all of that, the question is, what are some of the mistakes that you guys may have made, despite the success? Because there are always mistakes and there are always learning periods and things that we’ve learned from – especially when starting a company and so I was wondering a little bit about that.
I think, from a personal perspective, definitely what I talked about as one of the greater obstacles, trusting instincts, that has also been one of our mistakes as well. On top of being all women of color, we’re also all very young. When we started this company, we were all under 25, so again I think we didn’t really trust that we knew what we were doing. So we were just kind of taking a lot of advice and then acting a lot of advice that kind of, sometimes went against our instincts and I think that sometimes I created some mistakes because I think you know our instincts were actually right in a lot of cases. So I think that was definitely, in a vague way, one of the mistakes that we made was not trusting our instincts in the early stages. But also, I guess this isn’t also necessarily a mistake, but I think we didn’t realize just how challenging the people aspect of everything would be. So I think that we assumed that people would really buy into the brand automatically, and so, selling the brand is not something that we were – I think we were selling the brand from a marketing perspective to the best of our ability and I think that that was kind of a mistake in the early stages. Yeah, I would say, again, two kind of vague examples, but yeah I think those two.
I think they’re great examples. And, I guess, the last question is, what is some advice or tips that you would give to – since you did mentioned that you guys were young when you started this – what is some advice that you’d give a recent college grad, or women of color, that are looking to pursue a company or start-up?
I think, definitely for people coming right out of college, a lot of people coming out of undergrad are thinking, “What job do I want?” not necessarily “What problem do I want to try to solve?”. And so I think shifting your mindset, coming out of undergrad, of “What problems do I want to try to solve in the world?” and then – if you want to go work for a company or whether you want to go to school or whether you want to go start your own thing – I think that can really help in deciding what avenues you want to pursue. Because I think it’s really easy to just get swept up, at the end of undergrad, in “I want this job, because this is going to be the best job” and “I want that job because it’s going to be the most fun” but I think it can be really fruitful to think about your career trajectory in terms of problems that you want to solve in the world, especially when there are so many problems at the moment.
Great advice, and, Julie, for you, as well, what are some advice for people that are starting out with trying to build a brand in terms of trademark and also their branding process? What have you seen and what would you suggest – what are some advice or tips that you’d give?
I would say, as soon as you start brainstorming – even maybe before you start brainstorming a name – talk to a professional, especially from a trademarking perspective, about “What are the requirements for trademarking?”.
Because – what often happens is that people come up with names that are really good for marketing, because they’re very descriptive, and marketing really likes descriptive names, but from the USPTO’s perspective, descriptive names often get rejected. So, there is a balance between – and that’s why a name like Waeve that has a play on words or letters or spelling is so good – because you get a little bit of that descriptive but it’s not exactly descriptive, it falls into suggestive, even. So I think there’s no wrong time to start thinking about naming and trademarking, but the best time, is before you start because then you have all of the options available if you have to change names, if you think of something else. The worst thing is for someone, or a business, to have put money and time and effort and not just financial equity but the sweat equity and the emotional equity that you invest in putting a brand name on something, only to find out that, either it’s not registerable because it’s too descriptive, or someone else is already using it, or for XYZ other reason. Those are the most two common reasons that trademarks get rejected, but the sooner you can start keeping those things in mind, the better.
Well I think time’s up for us so thank you, you two, for such a beautiful conversation. Susana we will put – what’s the Instagram handle for Waeve?
Yeah, so it’s @thewaeve, is our Instagram
Is that also for your website? Where can people- shamelessly plug yourself – where can people get your wigs?
Awesome. I have a spot open for Friday for some wigs so I’ll be sure to check it out. And thank you for everyone listening in and until the next time. Bye guys!
Bye, thank you for having me!
Bye, congratulations again!