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Boston native is giving access to beauty on demand

Boston native Rica Elysée grew up styling her younger sister Jessica's hair. Jessica had suffered a stroke as a baby, leaving one of her arms immobile.

As a youngster, Jessica often went to a hairstylist, but missed or canceled appointments led to tearful calls to her sister, asking, "Can you do this for me?"

"I saw how not having her hair done would impact her confidence," Elysée, now 30, said.

Coincidentally, Elysée happened to be the founder of Boston Naturals, a meet-up group for women of color, focusing on natural hair and makeup. There, she realized others had the same issues with their salons — overbookings, late or canceled appointments or just a general disappointment with how their hair turned out. She was also an avid reader of the Twitter hashtag #BlackSalonProblems, where users chronicle their own misadventures at hairstylists.

So Elysée decided to create a platform where stylists and makeup artists could be called to customers' homes for services on demand. At the time, she was working in the nonprofit world as a fundraiser and then consultant until June 2015. By July 2015 she had built out the first version of what is now BeautyLynk.

Her first canvassing of 10 people brought in four appointments, making her realize she might be on to something. The current version of the platform launched this past June.

BeautyLynk founder Rica Elysée
CNBC
BeautyLynk founder Rica Elysée

"We do women of all different cultures, hair textures," Elysée said. "We understand that not everyone wants a blowout. We're also compassionate toward individuals who are disabled or home bound, who might not get the same service elsewhere. We focus on making them look great."

That personal touch, along with the start-up's roots in styling for women of color and emphasis on those with disabilities or those who may be home bound, help to set the company apart from competitors in the on-demand beauty salon space, like Glamsquad, she said.

Here's how the BeautyLynk app works: Users click "Book now," choose the service they are seeking — whether it's makeup or hairstyling — select their desired time, and wait for the stylist to arrive.

Already the start-up has 65 stylists on the platform, which offers blowouts and makeup at around $70, including travel and tip. The company keeps between 20 percent and 40 percent of the fee, depending on the services performed.

Since launching, BeautyLynk has served thousands of customers in Boston, as well as Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and is hoping to expand its reach to cities such as Detroit, Miami and Los Angeles.

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Like many other entrepreneurs, Elysée had help developing her business plan. She applied to the MassChallenge accelerator in Boston in February 2016 and was selected to be part of the program's 128 start-up roster in May, from more than 1,700 applicants. There she was given access to mentors and free office space, as well as a chance to win capital when the accelerator doles out more than $1.5 million in zero-equity grants in November.

"We're pretty comparable to salons — there's a markup because we want to be sure we are covering the cost of transportation and the products being used," she said, adding that as a customer convenience, "we also try to be sure there are no cash transactions."

Stylists go through an online application process and background check, as well as an in-person skill verification and interview. Elysée said about 60 percent of the customers book services again, pointing out that some are those just coming into town, or even emergency appointments for brides who've made last-minute bookings. BeautyLynk has been gaining momentum primarily through social media and word of mouth.

Elysée's biggest challenge today is being viewed as a full-fledged brand.

"Being a bootstrapped start-up with limited funds has made it a bit challenging to reach more beauty professionals," she said.

"We're very personal and transparent as a company, and people who look for that personal feel always wind up finding us."