Inspired By The Culture Of His Barbershop, Serial Entrepreneur Houston White’s Grooming Brand Could Reach $25M In Sales This Year

Shortly after Houston White established Fresh, a barbershop in the Camdentown neighborhood of Minneapolis, in 2007, he formulated a pomade for his clients that’s blossomed into Fresh by Houston White, an 11-product face, hair and body collection priced from $8.99 to $11.99 that launched exclusively at Target last year.

The collection is just one of White’s many business feats. In his 15 years of building companies, he’s touched upon fashion, recreation, real estate and more with ventures such as Houston White Goods and Gathering Spaces, The Get Down Coffee Company, Camdentown Flats and Be The Change golf tournament. Entrepreneurship is in White’s blood. His grandmothers, father and uncle were the first Black drywall contractors in Mississippi.

Ahead, we speak to White about how he starting cutting hair, his ambitions to grow Fresh by Houston White into a $25 million brand this year and goal to own the streets.

How did you get involved in beauty?

It started growing up. I spent a lot of time in family-owned barbershops when I was young, and there was just something about the environment. I used to go to the beauty shop with my mom in the early to mid-1980s, and I remember the smell of the chemicals. My dad even used to go to the salon because curls for men was the thing.

Then, when I got to 11, 12, I was trying to figure out some kind of hustle. I was always creative, I liked to draw, so barbering was akin to sculpting or drawing. Whoever could put the Nike symbol in somebody’s head could make a lot of money. I was pretty good at that, which translated to starting to cut hair in the basement. Then, it just took off.

I spent probably more time in the basement cutting hair than I spent at school. I was 16, and I just really felt the power of it. I very rarely went to the high school games on Friday nights because I was in the basement cutting hair for everybody that was headed to the game. It was just one of those powerful tools, and I fell in love with it.

At what point did you decide to open your own barbershop?

My last semester of senior year I started barber school. When most of my class was headed off to college that September, I had started my career as a barber in September of ’97. I got in the shop and my brother-in-law wanted to do something big, so we started talking about partnering and creating a bigger shop. At that time, the [Minnesota] Vikings were getting hot, and they were coming in the shop.

Next was taking off. R.L. used to come in the shop, their song Butta Luv was starting to buzz. It was like, man, this shop is the epicenter of everything culture and cool in the town. I got a small business loan from a big homie of mine, and we worked day and night, negotiated a lease. I just turned 19 years old when we started.

Serial entrepreneur Houston White launched his 11-piece collection of face, hair and body products at Target in July last year.

Is the shop you opened at 19 the one you still run today?

No, there have been like three or four iterations. I’ve had a whole lot of careers. In 2008, I was building houses and realized that I had done a lot of cutting hair, I had made a lot of moves, but nobody my age owned the real estate that they occupied. We were all renters. So, I’m like, well, we need to own this space.

I found a building that I bought, and that’s the space that I renovated into this luxury concept called H White Men that emerged into what is now Fresh. Fresh became the physical space, but I had been dabbling in making pomades and all these different things for a long, long time. I put the physical space of cutting hair on pause to work on a product line. I wanted to take the concept, the feel of the shop and what was happening there to the world.

How long did it take to develop Fresh?

Shit, all my life. I started making pomade in the kitchen in 2009 out of necessity. There wasn’t any clean and male-based, male-forward product that could work on any hair type. I started iterating in 2009 and perfected it right around 2012. We had sold 10,000-plus cans just hand to hand, online and out of the shop.

About two years ago, we really started to figure out, well, what could an entire Fresh product line be? So, it took a couple years of developing the entire product line from the pomades.

Is the pomade the bestselling product today?

It’s far and away the bestseller week after week. We have three pomades: wavy, straight and curly. That was one of the differentiators. There are a lot of pomades out there, but I don’t know that we’ve ever seen a brand drop three pomades for specific hair types. They all smell the same, but they all function a little bit differently for how people might want to wear their hair that day or the type of the hair folks have.

How did the partnership with Target come about?

In 2020, I was seeding some ideas I had for Target, everything from clothing to hair and skincare and on and on and on. I got really good feedback about the vibrancy, the color, so I knew I was on the right track. It was after that meeting, knowing that there was a lot of interest in Fresh and knowing that I was going to be launching an apparel line soon, it was just like, alright, we’re going to develop this, and we’re going to pitch it to the actual buyer, which we did in 2023.

Independently of the meetings that I had been having before at Target, this buyer just resonated powerfully with the product and said it was new, it was fresh, it was unique, it was vibrant. It had stopping power in her words when we did the line review. That’s how we got there, taking a big bet based on insights from the Target leadership, and just like everybody else, putting it out there in front of the buyer who saw something that they actually thought would work with their guest. We got the nod.

Fresh started out with a pomade product which White began formulating in 2008 for clients at his Minneapolis-based barbershop.

What does the future distribution strategy look like?

We’re expanding in Target for 2024 into about 30% additional stores. We just landed in one of the most prestigious male boutiques in the country, Martin Patrick, so that’ll be launching in 2024. Obviously, we’re looking at a lot of major retailers and an expansion strategy, but we wanted to launch in Target first and make it an exclusive, and we’ll grow from there.

What’s been the marketing strategy? 

We’re on For the Houston White page, Fresh is front and center. All those people that come on to search Houston White, they’re going to see Fresh. We have a robust social media strategy, a lot of paid ads, influencer strategies. We’ve seeded a lot of product to different people that are using it, giving us their feedback.

Then, honestly, the goal is to own the streets, a lot like Ruff Ryders. I was a kid that started cutting hair in the basement, loving hair, and I built my whole entrepreneurial career off of it. So, part of the strategy is to make sure that we stay connected to what made us, the streets. We’re going to hit all the barbershops, a lot like the old Dudley model.

When I was coming up, the Dudley family had distribution all over the country, and people who didn’t even know who the Dudleys were, they would see their signs. My hope and our goal is to make sure we’re hitting the streets like that, so Fresh is at every local barbershop from LA to New York, and everybody’s like, this is my stuff.

Who’s typically picking up the products?

The unique thing about the product is it’s really for everyone. In my shop, 40% of our clients are non-Black and probably 30% are women. There are tons of women that use the product on all different hair types. We’ve had tons of just UGC of people using it, from their locs to the deep conditioner. It’s obviously grounded in the barbershop and my origin story, but the reality is these products work on all hair types, so our customer reflects that.

Looking ahead, what long-term goals do you have for the brand?

Brand recognition. We want to make sure we’re in the right places, we want folks to know about it because Fresh is one of those brands that I think, a lot like what Biggie said, to know it is to love it, so making sure we’re getting in front of people, the right audiences. Obviously, we want to continue to grow through mass retail distribution, which we have a lot of exciting things not yet to be announced coming up. By the end of 2024, we really want to have Fresh positioned to be a $25 million-plus brand and growing.

How have you funded the brand up until this point? Have you raised money for it?

No, I’m an entrepreneur and from the South, and you got to honor the family’s last name, so I have zero VC money in any of my businesses. It’s all been self-funded, I’ve done the Nipsey [Hussle] model, doubled up and reinvested. We bootstrapped it, so I’m proud of that. Nobody owns any of my company, but me. Obviously, at some point we may take on certain capital to grow, but it’s a partnership, not ownership.