How a Tennis Racket for Hair Became a Multimillion-Dollar Business
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because innovative products can come from the strangest of places.
By Mark W. Wright
The bad news arrived via Instagram: Pirated versions of Noel Durity’s innovative Twist It Up comb were popping up in convenience stores. Most entrepreneurs would quickly seek legal advice, maybe write a strongly worded letter. Durity instead channeled Liam Neeson. “I decided to confront them,” he says.
A solo tour to 100 stores in 24 cities — from New York down through the East Coast and ending in Texas — netted him 500 knockoffs of his device resembling a tennis racket to tease out Afrocentric hair. He also collected more than 40 invoices, a paper trail to the source of the knockoffs. For a budding businessman who looks in the mirror and sees a superhero, it was just another day at the office.
To figure out Durity, 31, you have to go all the way back to the start, when he was born two and a half months premature — his extended hospital stay nearly bankrupting his family, which had no insurance. “He is my million-dollar baby,” says Durity’s mom, Cheryl.
They can take our swag, they can take our music, [but] the one thing that cannot be replicated that most of us are hesitant to embrace is our hair.
The youngest of three, Noel was born in San Fernando, in Trinidad and Tobago, and raised there and in the U.S. on a strict diet of discipline and accountability. Cheryl worked in the medical processing industry and Durity’s father, Julian, plied his trade as an entrepreneur — servicing Xerox copiers and venturing into the prepaid credit card business. Summer break for the Durity kids included four hours of daily reading and multiplication.
Noel would catch the entrepreneurial bug from his dad, who taught him to “respect your elders but always speak your mind.” Cheryl, meanwhile, stressed “discipline. My friends are not his friends. You call your teacher Miss Cathy — not Cathy.”
Even though Durity showed outward confidence, he carried some insecurities that he tried to cover up by growing his hair long to cover his forehead. Again, it relates to him being a premature infant, when Cheryl says “they had to set up IVs in his head. … It was very hard looking at him fight and struggle.”
So convinced that his product would be a game changer for people with Afrocentric hair — the Black hair care market generates an estimated $2.5 billion a year — Durity had the temerity to audition for the TV show Shark Tank during a live casting call in Las Vegas in December 2017. He got rejected a couple of times before making the show. By then he had already done $140,000 in sales. “Not to sound cocky or whatever, but I was not nervous,” he says of the day he went in to pitch the Sharks. “The way I was raised, you don’t get nervous around people. What am I going to be scared of?”
Durity had hoped judges Mark Cuban or Daymond John would buy in. Based on his own research, Durity believed that Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary wouldn’t understand the product, while Lori Greiner tended to invest in ideas or products “for the masses.”
Durity presented alongside close friends Derrall Brownlee and Adrian Brown, who were among the first to ask how he got his hair to twist up. After a high-energy and choreographed pitch, Durity couldn’t have scripted the response any better: Cuban and John went in together at $225,000 for a 25 percent stake in the company.
And yet, for a moment, the loquacious kid who was taught to speak up, couldn’t. As the other judges were egging him on to accept the deal, he shot back: “Yo, can I take the moment in?” Then, at last, he replied: “Deal!”
Striking a nationally televised business deal made him reflect on some tough teenage years, when Durity battled with his my-way-or-the-highway-thinking mom, particularly after his parents divorced. He also flashed to his lowest point, when, at 22, he dropped out of Cal State Fullerton, 18 credits short of getting his bachelor’s degree, penniless after totaling his beloved two-door Saab. He had to move back home to Corona, California.
That struggle formed an entrepreneur audacious enough to, as a San Diego–based real estate broker in 2016, create his Twist It Up Comb after he realized using an actual tennis racket in a circular motion to twist his combed-out ’fro was not only functional, it also took no time.
And now? Twist It Up’s lean and mean operation — with just a dedicated social media person, a photographer and an outside CPA — is on track to do $1.2 million in sales this year, steadily rising from 2018 ($410,000) and 2017 ($150,000). And he’s got the famed entrepreneur and investor Cuban in his corner.
“Noel is a grinder and smart — someone who loved and had confidence in his product,” Cuban says. “I like Noel. He knows his goal and gets after it. [Twist It Up] has no ceiling; it is the best product on the market. Customers love it, and people who know I’m involved stop me to tell me how much they love it. I just wish I owned more of the company.”
Much like Neeson’s characters, Durity’s head stays swiveled — looking for bad guys and pirates. Competition is always lurking, but he feels confident that his utility patent, which has language restricting the creation of any device like a racket that is woven and used to twist urban hair, is airtight. His main competitors are the Curl Sponge and Afro Twist Comb.
And, what’s next for Durity? “I want to start an academy for entrepreneurs,” he says, “to teach teenagers how to start a business from the ground up, like I did.”
As the face of Twist It Up, Durity has grown comfortable making pitches — while always being aware of the messages he sends to people who look like him.
“They can take our swag, they can take our music, they can take all that, but at the end of the day the one thing that cannot be replicated that most of us are hesitant to embrace is our hair,” says Durity. “I want them to understand: Wear it proudly [and] be proud of it.”
When asked if she’s surprised at her son’s gumption, Cheryl, who’s now retired, can only smile.
“We’re very proud of him,” she says. “You know, he went through a lot to get there.”
Too many twists and turns to count.