Lightbulb moments – we’ve all had them. It’s the moment where we suddenly realize the solution to a problem that is staring us in the face. For entrepreneurs, these “eureka!” moments have the compelling potential to be developed into a brilliant business idea.
Sophie Trelles-Tvede was only 18 years old when she had found the key to a business that would land her on the Forbes Magazine 30 under 30 four years later. Her company, Invisibobble, was actually the result of a hangover after attending a ‘Bad Taste Party’ at university.
Who knew that a telephone cord that she used to tie her hair with would become such an international phenomenon and sell 100 million pieces, no less?
Read on to find out the success story of this young entrepreneur!
How Invisibobble was established
Sophie was attending university as a first year student in 2012 when she came up with the idea behind Invisibobble. She found herself with less to do on a daily basis than she initially expected because all assignment deadlines and exams were due at the end of the academic year.
While getting ready for a party, she spotted an old telephone cord and decided to use it to tie her hair with. “I went out to the party with a pineapple up on top of my head.”
The “aha!” moment came the next morning.
She woke up hungover but without a headache and her hair still in place. “It hadn’t given me a headache or any kind of tension around the back of my head, which I usually have,” she said. “Then as I was taking it out, I was realizing that it had left a lot less of a dent than the normal hair ties would.”
She called up her then-boyfriend, now business partner, Felix Haffa. The two decided to work on creating a prototype for an innovative hair accessory, what would become known as the spiral hair tie.
Publishing a book
Sophie is the author of the award-winning book “100 Million Hair Ties And A Vodka Tonic”. The book candidly narrates her journey to entrepreneurship and explores all the fun and tough sides that come with founding your own company.
She shares her insights on what it takes for young entrepreneurs like her, who want nothing more than getting their ideas into action.
“I was 18 years old. I happen to be operating in what a lot of people perceive as a really basic industry, because I make hair ties. So simple that people sometimes have referred to me as the ‘hair tie girl’ or something like that. It’s not that they disregard what comes with it but don’t understand necessarily that there’s much more to it.”
The idea of writing a book was appealing to Sophie because she didn’t want to forget her story and it would serve as a reference point later on. It’s something that younger people can look at as well with the inspiration about starting their own companies.
The book portrays a very real experience of what it is like to be an entrepreneur. Oftentimes, there is a misconception that being an entrepreneur is like the cool, rich person thing you can do and living life on your own terms, all while making tons of money. But it’s actually not.
“The reality is that, if I’m allowed to use dirty words, you eat a lot of sh*t,” Sophie confessed. “It’s chaotic, it’s stressful. And of course, the highs are incredibly high, but also the lows are really low.”
The book is available in five different languages, including Sophie’s mother tongue languages of Spanish and Danish, something she’s very proud of.
Merging with New Flag group
New Flag is the leading beauty distributor in Europe and a global brand builder. In early 2020, she merged the Invisibobble entity into the New Flag group. New Flag began its international expansion with distribution before building a portfolio of owned brands. Currently, it distributes about 15 brands in Europe, including Invisibobble.
When I talked to Sophie in December 2021, New Flag employed about 350 people. I asked her how she’s managing such a large workforce in terms of responsibility.
“I’m not gonna lie. It’s heavy on the shoulders,” she shared. “Especially, when you think about the fact that there’s 350 souls who lie under your responsibility, and if you were to make a big enough mistake that you need to start laying off people.”
At the same time, she wants to make sure they’re getting top-notch people from all over the world and building a company culture that appeals across many cultures and countries.
“The whole people topic is much bigger. And I also think it has an ability to make a significantly larger impact than anything else in the company, because if you can empower your workforce to do what they’re supposed to do and be the best version of themselves, then that’s worth a lot more than a strong brand.”
If you have a strong idea and want to transform it into a successful business, I encourage you to tune in to this episode of the Fascinating Entrepreneurs podcast to draw inspiration from Sophie’s success story.
Transcript from Podcast
[00:00:00] Sophie: I was 18 years old. I had just arrived at university and yeah, I think I found myself with a lot less to do and on my daily basis than what I originally expected. Reason being that at university, you’re a lot more free to, let’s say, work on your courses as you so wish.
And then it all came together one evening. I was invited to attend a “bad taste” party on campus. That literally means you dress up in bad taste attire. And I put on my clothes, I put on my makeup, it was really like crazy makeup as it’s like a six year old that goes in her mom’s makeup kit for the first time and tries it on.
And then I thought, Hey, it’s a shame. I haven’t done anything with my hair. I lived in university dorm rooms from like 1970 or something like this. And there was an emergency telephone box on each floor. On my floor, for whatever reason it was in my room, but I could definitely tell that it was telephone box that had not been used probably since the day they mounted it.
So I thought, “Okay, why don’t I just unplug the cable? Put it in my hair.” So I went out to the party really with a pineapple up on top of my head. Really enjoyed the night, made a lot of new friends and then I came back, woke up the next morning and I had managed to not quite take off the telephone cord.
So the first thing I did was sit up and think, “Oh, I forgot to take it out.” I take it out. And I realized, ah, despite the fact that it’s been in all night, it’s literally huge compared to a regular hair tie, which is like a tiny thing. It hadn’t given me a headache or any kind of tension around the back of my head, which I usually have.
And then as I was taking it out, I was realizing that it had left a lot less of a dent or a kink than the normal hair ties would. So I did the first thing that one does when they’re 18 years old, hungover and don’t know who else to call. So I called my boyfriend – I called Felix at the time. And I was like, “Look, I have this idea for a hair tie that we can make for friends and family.”
And I think very quickly he said that he was on board. But “If we do this, then we do it properly and we create a product that women can enjoy around the world.” So yeah, that was now almost 10 years ago to the day. Yeah. And now we’re here.
[00:02:05] Natasha: Wow. So wonderful invention. I remember my daughter, who’s 26 now. She was studying in Germany in college. So that would have been.
[00:02:16] Sophie: More or less-
[00:02:18] Natasha: Yeah, six times. And she came back with these I don’t know if it was an Invisibobble or a replica. But she was explaining to me, “Mom. Yeah. These, these don’t leave kinks in your hair,” and I just texted her last night and said, “Oh my gosh, was that the Invisibobble?” But she hasn’t responded, but great.
[00:02:35] Sophie: And that if she’s 26, so then she graduated probably one or two years later than me, then it’s definitely an Invisibobble because then it was too soon for replicas to be on the market yet. So she was one of our first users.
[00:02:48] Natasha: Amazing. Cool. So tell me about the collaborations that you guys are working on right now.
[00:02:55] Sophie: So we did a collaboration earlier this year with a jewelry designer. I actually happen to be wearing her hair halo. We thought it was really nice to do a collaboration like this to let’s say bind the world of jewelry and hair accessories, because it had never really been done before.
And hair accessories are very often seen as a utility item, especially hair ties. And she has, yeah, so she has this whole like rainbow world. And so when we thought, why don’t we bring that into hair accessories so that they almost become a piece of jewelry in themselves?
Of course, what makes our items special is that they’re still, from the core, made so that they don’t damage your hair and they’re inherently hair-caring and of course, very comfortable to wear. So that was a collaboration we did. Then we’ve just launched with Myprotein. So Myprotein I’m aware is not such a famous company in the US but they are the biggest supplier of protein powders across Europe.
So anyone who’s like drinking a protein shake at the gym is most likely to be drinking one from Myprotein. And we just collaborated with them for the launch of their clothing line. So you can now match your Invisibobble scrunchies– so our variation of scrunchies and our hair ties–with their Myprotein clothing line.
And then of course we have a couple of collaborations, also USA-specific that are launching anywhere from early through to the end of next year, which I’m not allowed to share yet. But I’m really excited. We’re actually working on this collaboration through the Christmas holidays and into the new year to really ensure that it has a smooth start. But yeah, really exciting stuff to come.
[00:04:31] Natasha: So on this secret new launch that you’re doing, where will we be able to find it? Especially in the US but all over, will it be online only? Will it be in stores? You don’t have to say which one.
[00:04:43] Sophie: So it will definitely be online and in stores.
And I can also definitely tell you that it will be amongst the larger retailers. That’s it nationwide. So for us it’s a really really cool execution. And we’re looking forward to seeing it physically in stores.
[00:04:59] Natasha: Would you describe Invisibobble as a luxury brand or middle of the road or is it really accessible?
[00:05:08] Sophie: Definitely not luxury. I think for us, it’s a fully accessible brand. I think what we had in our ethos from the beginning is that our products are actually meant for anyone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re old, young what hair type you have, where you live. Everyone should have access to an Invisibobble product.
I think what you see as well, and not only how we’ve chosen to package your item, but how we’ve chosen to price them in the market. So we’re very known for putting less physical items in a pack and therefore bringing the overall price point down. Our thought behind that was that no one needs a pack of 50 hair ties.
You just don’t. So we offered them in pack sizes as a smallest three hair ties in a pack. So that’s really for entry level so that you can test out the product first before, you want to say that you want to invest.
[00:05:54] Natasha: Before you start losing them.
[00:05:55] Sophie: That’s actually a funny thing that you touch on because a lot of people say that they have always lost, like all of their hair ties, all of their Bobby pins.
You wear it one time and then it goes into like the fourth dimension of the hair ties. But people hang on to their Invisibobbles. It’s just something, I guess it’s because per unit you invest a little bit more into the product and they’re physically larger. Let’s say, they sit on your wrist quite predominantly.
And people like them, people like to combine them with our outfits and with different things. So people hang on to them. And I’ve met people who are like old friends that I gave an Invisibobble two or three years ago. And then they show me like in the meantime, pretty dirty one, they’re like, “I still have it.” Oh my God. I’m going to gift you another one or please go and get a new one.
[00:06:35] Natasha: They can also clean them, but you know that’s…
[00:06:37] Sophie: Put it in your washing machine when you do your next load it will come out cleaner.
[00:06:42] Natasha: So I saw that you have a book, “100 Million Hair Ties and a Vodka Tonic: An Entrepreneur’s Story.” Tell me about how that came to be, why you wrote the book, how it’s doing, what is it about? I haven’t read it yet.
[00:06:56] Sophie: Yeah, so we launched it actually in 2020.
And in the meantime, it’s available in five different languages, which I’m personally very proud of, especially because it’s also available in my two home or my two mother-tongue languages of Spanish and Danish. How did the book come about? I think for me, I started my business when I was incredibly young.
I was 18 years old. I happen to be operating in what a lot of people perceive as a really basic industry, because I make hair ties. So simple that people sometimes have referred me to, I was like the ‘hair ties girl’ or something like that. And oftentimes. Also it’s not that they disregard what comes with it but don’t understand necessarily that there’s much more to it.
And I’ve traveled the world, especially across Asia. I’ve been a lot in the US as well. I’ve met so many different people and had a lot of experiences and I would always come back home to Germany and tell my stories to friends, family, whoever it was.
And they loved the stories. And they’re like, I can’t believe that you make hair ties at the end of the day, travel the world and these are the stories that come out. And so I started having a little journal. My laptop or whenever I had a few minutes, especially when I was at airports, I would write a little bit of what had happened.
And I thought I should just shove this together into a book. And what I really wanted was a book was other than for me not to forget my own stories and to have a reference point for later on. I wanted to use that as an inspiration for younger people who want to start their own companies.
Within that I think what’s really important to say is a lot of people have a tendency to to use the word of entrepreneurship as if it was like this really fancy written word and like gold letters with fireworks in the background and being an entrepreneur like a 10 out of 10, the coolest, like most flamboyant thing you can do.
The reality is that, if I’m allowed to use dirty words, you eat a lot of shit. Like from day to day, is just bad things happen that you have to clean up. It’s chaotic, it’s stressful. And of course, like the highs are incredibly high, but also the lows are really low. And I want it to depict a very real experience of what it is to be an entrepreneur.
And I don’t want it to be something that puts people off of it, because for me, it’s the best thing that I could have ever done. And I will never regret anything that I’ve done in the last 10 years of my life. But yeah. So to offer people that insight that a lot of other entrepreneurs are not really willing to share and to hopefully say, “Look, me as an 18 year old, who had no prior working experience, didn’t know what I was doing, started it with my boyfriend, which can also be an iffy thing to do.”
[00:09:33] Natasha: I don’t even want to ask about the boyfriend. I hesitate when your 18, boyfriends don’t typically become lasting, but who knows.
[00:09:42] Sophie: No, and he didn’t, but he’s still my business partner and we got along really well.
[00:09:46] Natasha: That’s great. That’s great. Talking about entrepreneurship and your being referred to as like the hair tie girl, when you create things and you create a business as big as you have to learn about sourcing materials, right?
Pricing, making sure that the factories are run well, manufacturing, shipping, logistics, not to mention the regular things of hiring and firing and developing a team. And it’s a lot.
[00:10:15] Sophie: It is. Yeah.
[00:10:16] Natasha: Yeah, you may be a hair tie girl, you can take whatever you learned to create this business and do anything with it, which I think people need to know the skills are invaluable.
So I wanted to ask you about your dad and if he influenced and supported your entrepreneurial endeavors. And I asked personally, because as you heard I have a daughter and she would rather hear nothing out of my mouth in regards to her in any entrepreneurial endeavor, she’s just shut it. How about you?
[00:10:51] Sophie: Yeah, so I think, my dad definitely played a role. My father has been an on and off entrepreneur for a large portion of his life. And in full transparency I’ve seen when it goes well. And I’ve also seen when it goes really bad. I think the nice thing for me to experience was that he always worked from home.
He didn’t have an office to go to. He did everything, everything remote. That’s what he did many years ago, which is now like super fashionable and in but I think what I got with that is just full transparency as to what my dad does day in, day up. Whereas most other children just see their parents go off to work.
And then they come home after a long day. I participated in phone calls, for him it was no problem. He would be sitting at his desk and I would come in and wanna throw a ball around. And I would throw it to him and he would throw it back, just things like this.
And I think. The biggest thing that he gave me was to remove the stigma and the fear of becoming an entrepreneur. I think when I speak with other people, they always blow it up a lot and say, “Oh, you were so brave that you started your company.” And I’m like, “Brave? I was 18 years old. I was hungover in my dorm room, and I called my boyfriend and started a project.”
There was no, there was nothing more to it. It wasn’t this “Oh, we’re going to Silicon valley and we’re going to like pitch for millions of dollars and whatever else.” Not at all. Entrepreneurship can mean so many different things.
Of course it can mean that like the fancy side of, getting funding for millions and millions, but it can also be like, I’m literally in my dorm room and I’m making something from scratch. What was for us $4,000. Our initial investment.
[00:12:20] Natasha: I wonder if being able to be there, a fly on the wall with your dad’s endeavors, that you absorbed so many business lessons that you can’t quite put your thumb on.
And I know for my daughter, I was trying to teach her. By showing her my PNL a couple of years ago. And she started like ripping it apart. I’m like, “How do you know that? I’m trying to teach you.” She’s like, “Mom, your cogs. What’s going on here?”
[00:12:44] Sophie: They’re a lot of whack to get them done.
[00:12:46] Natasha: I know. I was like, geez whiz. Okay. So tell me about New Flag. How do you balance both this position? Invisibobble and what is New Flag?
[00:12:54] Sophie: Yeah, so as I said, I started Invisibobble 10 years ago. So in December, 2011. So 10 years. Yeah. As I said, almost to the day. At the time when I started it with Felix, Felix’s older brother, Danny, had co-founded New Flag with his partner almost a year earlier.
And they had a quite different business model. They were a distribution company, which meant that they brought in brands from other places and sold them in local markets at the time where we came to them. They only had one brand which was called Tangle Teezer. It’s not so large in the US but in Europe it was the first de-tangling hairbrush.
Yeah. And it was really a super revolutionary brand and it hit the UK market by storm. And then, Danny and Niki brought it to Germany and it started going really well. And yeah, so we came really just a few months later with the idea of a new version of a hair tie. We were like, okay, we’re doing a new version of a hair tie.
They’re selling a brand around a whole new variation of a hairbrush. And maybe we can find some synergies here, whether we sell it together, market it together, and either way we should somehow work together. So legally there were two entities for many years but we’ve been working as if we were one almost from the beginning, to be honest.
And I think Danny and Niki, they also supported Felix and I very much into getting Invisibobble into the German market. We were then very focused on not only developing the product and the brand, but also bringing it to the international market.
And then, eventually, we merged in the Invisibobble entity into the New Flag group in early 2020. So we’re now one large entity, one house of brands. And I think what’s really cool as well is because of the New Flag side, we have a lot of distribution brands, but because of the Invisibobble side of developing everything from scratch, we now have a portfolio of seven owned brands that we bring to the global markets.
How many employees does the business have today?.
[00:14:56] Sophie: So the New Flag group now has almost 350 employees.
I think we were going to close off the year with 349, it always varies a bit with the interns and so on. So that includes everyone in our offices in Munich, we have subsidiaries in seven countries around the world and we have our warehouse that sits on the outskirts of Munich as well.
[00:15:15] Natasha: How does that sit with you? In the form of responsibility and potential stress to have such a big workforce at this point of your life?
[00:15:28] Sophie: I’m not gonna lie. It’s heavy on the shoulders. Especially, when you think about the fact that there’s 350 souls who lie under your responsibility, and if you were to make a big enough mistake that you need to start laying off people.
That is the lives of 350 people and their respective families and so on. That being said, I think, it’s really amazing to see how we grow year on year. How we acquire more and more people. We’re at a point now where I don’t know everyone’s name, like people come so quickly. At the same time, I also head our HR department.
So with that, the growth and development of people, how do we recruit? How do we make sure we’re recruiting people from all over the world, not just from Munich. How do we retain our top talents and all of this? And it’s so interesting to see. All of the things you can do, like building a company culture and spreading it across so many different people, also in different countries, people with different nationalities, all of this.
So the more people there are on board, the funner it gets, if I can put it like that, because there’s just more to play with.
[00:16:28] Natasha: Right, building a culture for a small, inclusive business is very challenging and then amplifying that out to all over the world. Different lifestyles. I can’t imagine. I don’t have a business that big, I don’t know how I would be. I would have to hire an incredibly amazing team to help facilitate that because culture to me and the employment experience is really important to me.
[00:16:57] Sophie: Yeah. And I think as well, you speak to an important point, which is the size of the company and how you instill culture in that. At the beginning, we were a team of what, 15 people, and we all sat in the same room.
There was no need to explain what your culture is because people live it day in, day out. We all sit in the same room, We know each other. We know what we’re like. And also the management sits in the same room as the intern. Now it’s very different because we sit in a big office in Munich, but people also sit like different countries that even in different time zones. We have an office in the US as well, and it gets harder and harder.
And that’s why you need to think deeper and more creatively about how do you better define that culture, given that you want to instill that into someone who doesn’t know me personally, or any of my three other partners. And make sure that we’re all pulling on the same thread or that everyone has the same mindset, but within that mindset has the freedom to be creative and come up with their own ideas.
It’s one of the hardest projects I’ve had to take on. And that’s coming from a brand background, where I’m so product focused and brand oriented and so on.
The whole people topic is much bigger, I think. And I also think it has an ability to make a significantly larger impact than anything else in the company, because if you can empower your workforce to do what they’re supposed to do and be the best version of themselves, then actually that’s worth a lot more than a strong brand. To be honest.
[00:18:22] Natasha: I agree with that. It’s hard to wrap your head around it. I think from the outside, if you’re not an entrepreneur, it also is hard to wrap my head around earlier in my entrepreneurial endeavor. Like I didn’t quite get it yet until I got conked on the head, by my own decisions and my own actions. And I finally woke up and that’s not how you do it.
So what is your growth strategy for the company? For this coming year, I hear collaborations, which is incredible; strategic partnerships. Is there one big thing that you’re really going to focus on?
[00:18:56] Sophie: I think one big thing is difficult to answer and we always have a number of different running projects.
I think one of the bigger things we’re focusing on is stronger relationships with all of our partners. So our brand is not so online driven. It’s much more of a brand that lives in stores. I think part of the reason is because the products are just so great. And when you can feel and touch them in person, that’s a completely different connection.
You can get to the brand rather than looking at some kind of rendering online. So how can we further develop the partners that we have so that we can better present our products in stores and really bring that Invisibobble world across. I would say that is one big thing. And then across the board, we believe very much in innovations.
We’re a completely innovation driven brand since the beginning. So we have never bought off the rack, I believe until this day that we are the only hair accessories brand who does not buy off the rack. Just for clarification, buying off the rack means that someone shows you a catalog and you pick and choose.
We develop all of our products in-house. We have industrial designers, we have graphic designers. We develop our own packaging from scratch as well, because packaging is a really important vessel to telling the bigger story. And for the new year, we have some really amazing innovations that we will be bringing into the market as well. And hopefully they have the big bang effect that we’re hoping for.
[00:20:20] Natasha: I can’t wait to follow that and to hear about the secret collaboration. So the last question I have, I asked most of the people I interview is, and the question would be different if I were asking you when you were 18, probably than right now, but are you building this company for an exit plan?
[00:20:40] Sophie: Never. And I think a lot of people ask me this, and I think it’s a fair enough question to ask because so many people answer yes. In fact, so many people answer yes that the question isn’t even, “Are you building this to exit?”
It’s, “When is your exit?” and I’m like, don’t assume that people have an exit plan.
[00:21:02] Natasha: I asked you this because Sophie, I only really learned, cause I had my core business, if you would ask me five years ago, “So for the first 15, what’s your exit plan?” I’m like, “What are you talking about? There’s no way.” But I’ve recently, and I mean recently by the last five years, have learned about really positioning my company so that I could exit in the event I had to.
Because I get sick or because I have a different endeavor, you just never know. And I wasn’t building my company to exit in any way. But it’s interesting to hear everyone’s take on that question.
[00:21:43] Sophie: I think this is the way that you formulated the question now, you’re the first one to ever ask me that. And that’s a very different take on the same question and I think it’s very fair of you to say it.
It’s in our responsibility, especially now in regards to what we were talking about before with the 350 people that we have on board now we are working endlessly to develop a proper management team and to build a director level. Under that I know in the US the levels are called something else, but we have like our C-level management and one level below that we have our directors.
We’re putting a lot of effort into developing a sound force there. Because as you say, you never know what if one of us has to step out sick? What if something were to happen? And in all honesty, what if we have children and so on and we just need to step out for a while and then come back.
It’s the most responsible thing that needs to be done. And it would just be crazy not to develop a company in the way so that at some point it could live without us. “Could” and “want to” are different things. But in that respect, I totally agree with you. Yeah. Great.