But thanks to Swimma caps, an SME (Small to Medium Enterprise) from South Africa, people with big hairstyles are now taking the plunge.
The problem, from Nomvuyo Treffers’ point of view, was relatively simple: when she would take her children to the pool in Salt River, South Africa, her kids would dive right in. Treffers herself, however, was reluctant to take the plunge.
“I have very long locks,” Treffers explains, “which retain a lot of water. You have to plan because there is a lot of drying after you get hair like that wet. So sometimes I’d just sit on the sidelines and read when they’d swim.”
A swim cap did not exist that would accommodate Treffers’ hair, which presented an additional problem at pools requiring caps. Her kids pleaded with her time and time again to join them in the water before Treffers finally decided that if no one else was going to solve the problem, she’d have to do it herself.
Treffers suspected that she wasn’t the only person facing the issue of swim caps that weren’t equipped to handle the job, so she got to work on a business plan and established Swimma. The company specializes in swim caps made of silicon, rather than latex, that come in many different sizes to accommodate all hair styles: dreadlocks, braids, afros, long hair, and weaves – with smaller caps specially designed for children.
Finding the right cap size is important Treffers says, because if the cap fits properly, it does a much better job of keeping a wearer’s hair dry – a huge benefit for someone like her who wears her hair in dreadlocks. The response to her new business took her by surprise. Originally targeting South Africa and other neighboring countries in Africa, word spread quickly around the world about the caps once they were on the market.
“People from the United States and United Kingdom said, ‘I want Swimma caps!’” Treffers recalls. “I always thought of South Africa and Africa because it was close, but we’ve gotten used to being an international business.”
Treffers’ thinking shifted quickly from being a small business serving a local market, to a global company with clients all over the world. She attributes the quick success to a number of things, but first and foremost was the immediate demand from all corners of the globe. While Treffers knew she couldn’t be the only person staying out of the pool because of her hair, she admits the demand took her a bit off guard.
"Why shouldn’t a business-minded person take a chance and create a product that can benefit so many other people with the same problem?"
“The assumption is that black people don’t swim, so maybe no one thought it was a valuable business idea,” Treffers said with a laugh. “We know that caps are centuries old, but the people who made them obviously didn’t think of hair that was considered outside the norm.”
The hairstyles she is referring to are of course quite commonplace, leading Treffers to fully embrace her quickly budding business and dive head first into international markets.
“Having dreadlocks and afros and stuff is not unique in [South Africa] or around the world, so why shouldn’t a business-minded person take a chance and create a product that can benefit so many other people with the same problem?” She said.
Looking beyond South Africa came with its share of growing pains, one of which was the sheer practicality of getting Swimma caps from the very bottom tip of Africa to where customers in the US, UK, or France were eagerly waiting. As soon as the first orders came in, Treffers headed for the first place that came to mind when sending anything: the post office. But a good solution domestically isn’t necessarily the best for international, as Treffers found.
“You have no influence over uncertainty and delays,” she explained. “That was frustrating. A lot went smoothly, but there were hiccups. Things not getting where they were supposed to. There was also the cost – we are so far from the rest of the world.”
Treffers was confronted with another problem, and found another solution. For her customers in the United States, Swimma had found a central distributor, meaning the caps could be sent in bulk to one location in the US and shipped to individual customers locally at a lower cost.
Another issue was understanding the needs of her international customers – not in terms of their swimwear, but in terms of their online shopping habits. As a South African business, Swimma’s online shop was initially set up with South African rand as the only currency. Treffers’ customers needed a way of knowing how much a cap would cost in their own currency.
“If they see 185 rand and think it’s 185 dollars, they think we’re mad,” Treffers said. The conversion works out to a more than reasonable US$13.80.
Configuring the platform to accept forms of payment that customers around the world were familiar with was another big step for the success of the online store.
Solid distribution, a strong online platform, and high demand – Treffers found the perfect ingredients for a successful small business. She says she is treated like a rock star for her pioneering invention that has taken many people from the poolside to the deep end.
"It is not one size fits all."
Solving the problem that was keeping her out of the pool with her kids is part of the success of Swimma, and reaching customers around the world who faced a similar problem is another, but Treffers has seen a third upside to her special swim caps: it is helping people feel included.
“We were telling our kids that black hair was too big for a cap,” she said. “Now they have a cap. It’s like shoes – it is not ‘one size fits all’.”
That lesson is one that extends beyond the pool, demonstrated by requests for collaboration from groups that have nothing to do with swimming. Treffers mentions that ‘World Afro Day’ in London has reached out, because they believe Swimma caps link to the group’s passion for celebrating and teaching people about afro hair.
Treffers loves that her caps have taken off, gaining worldwide media coverage and eager wearers in many different countries. She acknowledges that success came relatively quickly, but would encourage any small business owner to be receptive to the day when opportunity comes knocking and to embrace it, even if it means a mistake or two at the beginning.
Looking back, Treffers said she would have launched with a wider range of sizes and colors than she did, but she now has a broad portfolio catering to a variety of needs.
That includes the one Treffers originally had when she launched Swimma – the need to go for a swim with her kids, without a big hair care in the world.
"Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value."