In about 1978, Bonnie Steen became a blonde. It’s a decision she has never regretted, despite the huge maintenance responsibility it carries with it. We’re talking dark roots here. To remain perfectly coifed, a bottle blond must religiously cover those unsightly roots as her hair grows. Otherwise, she’ll risk looking like, well, a bottle blonde, or bottle redhead, or bottle brunette. While some gals regularly visit a hairdresser to keep telltale roots in check, many women such as Bonnie are do-it-yourselfers.
They cover their roots at home, alone or with the help of a friend. But even with an extra pair of hands to apply the color, it’s a difficult and messy chore that can produce spotty results. Then there’s the added danger of frying one’s hair with the chemicals, which is what happened to Bonnie. “My hairdresser said I was damaging my hair to the point that it was going to start falling out because it was over-processed. She told me to apply the hair color to my roots only if there was going to be any hope of saving my hair,” Bonnie explained.
The troublemaker for do-it-yourselfers is the single-head applicator bottle that comes in the hair color package. Working with small sections of hair, the chemicals must be applied to the roots only — a clumsy and imperfect process. “When I would do my roots, I’d end up with globs of color in the wrong places. And it was especially hard to do the back of my head because I couldn’t see what I was doing,” Bonnie said.
“I thought, ‘There has to be a better way’.” So she invented it, with the help of her late husband, Claude. “I asked him to build a hair pick with hollow teeth that would screw onto a hair color bottle so I could comb it through my hair,” Bonnie explained.
Using one of Bonnie’s plastic hair color bottles, Claude capped the top and drilled 10 small holes down one side of the bottle. He cut tiny straws from WD-40 cans to comb-size length and glued them in place. A prototype for Roots Only was born. The year was 1998. “I put hair conditioner in it to test the bottle, to see if would saturate just at the scalp, and oh…my…gosh! It worked!” Bonnie said.
Bonnie’s invention worked so well, she instantly knew she had discovered a pot of gold. “I felt like I was sitting on a winning lotto ticket — I knew it was a winner because I was not the only one with this problem of coloring my roots.” At the time, Bonnie and Claude were still a couple of years away from retirement. She had logged 25 years at Antelope Valley College in California and was the assistant director of financial aid. Claude was in his 28th year at Edwards Air Force Base and was chief of instrumentation. Neither one had experience with patents, manufacturing or marketing.
So Bonnie did what most people do when they need to learn something new. She went online and bought a book. “I did a lot of research. One book in particular had a quiz. It said if you had more ‘no’ answers than yeses, then you may not have a good invention. Well, for us, just about every single question was a yes. So I applied and got a patent for our idea,” she recalled.
The couple dipped into their retirement savings, investing $30,000 in a custom mold to manufacture the Roots Only applicator head and packaging. Selling the product became a family affair, enlisting the help of the couple’s daughter, son-in-law and Bonnie’s sisters. The troupe set up shop at county fairs and festivals, selling hundreds of Roots Only applicator bottles to grateful customers.
“We didn’t have a clue how to price Roots Only. We ended up charging $12.95 for it. Our first time out, at the 1998 Antelope County Fair, we sold 250. We were thrilled,” Bonnie said, adding that Roots Only sells itself. “I can do my roots in less than five minutes — I just comb and squeeze. There are no drips and globs.” As retirement neared in 2000, Bonnie and Claude were considering moving from their Palmdale, Calif., home to Lake Havasu City.
“Since the early 1980s, we’d been hooked on Havasu. We bought a small vacation home and Claude loved to come here and fish. In 2004, we bought a bigger house and moved here full time,” she said. Despite the move to Havasu,
Bonnie and Claude decided to keep the Roots Only manufacturing and packaging processes in California. It was a good thing that their business ran like a well-oiled machine because things were about to change in a big way for their product.
“In 2000, I met with Rodney Colycott, the Wal-Mart store manager in Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.). I showed him Roots Only and he helped me start the process of getting our product in his store,” Bonnie said. About 18 months and several hurdles later, Roots Only was for sale at the Rancho Cucamonga Wal-Mart. Priced at $4.94, it flew off the shelf. In a few short months, Roots Only was in six more Wal-Marts. Again, it sold well and was put in more Southern California Wal-Marts, bringing the total up to 35 stores.
“It was an exciting time for us. We put Roots Only in a few privately owned beauty supply stores, but we also had a stack of rejection letters from several national chain stores. To be in all of these Wal-Marts was really something,” Bonnie said.
In 2002, Bonnie and Claude’s invention was selling like hotcakes at Wal-Mart. She said the retailer required that each week, four units must be sold in each store to keep her product on the shelves. Roots Only was selling 15 to 18 units per week in each store. Based on their product’s strong sales, Bonnie and Claude were invited to Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville. Ark. to meet with buyers. As a result of that trip, Roots Only was placed in 1,028 Wal-Mart stores.
The product again performed well. In 2004, Roots Only was placed in 3,500 Wal-Mart stores and Super Centers. Though Roots Only is no longer available through Wal-Mart, Bonnie estimated that she’s has sold close to a million Roots Only units so far. When Claude died unexpectedly in 2007, Bonnie ratcheted down her involvement in the day-to-day business. Daughter, Susan Ladua holds the company’s reins fulltime from Rancho Cucamonga, California, but she continues to keep a close eye on sales and answers e-mails from customers from the comfort of her Havasu home. Today Roots Only can now be found in more that 2700 Sally Beauty Supply Stores across the USA and Canada. Soon, Roots Only will be expanding in Mexico and South America through Sally Beauty Supply Stores.