As a hairstylist and salon owner, I have had some really great moments and some crushing experiences.
After 20 years in the business, it can be hard to push ahead after so many setbacks. When people leave you, it’s very personal. It’s like being dumped. And I’ve been dumped a lot over the last 12 months. But I look forward to the next 12.
Here’s how salon owners can survive and thrive, based on my observations from the past year.
21 Truths All Salon Owners Should Know
1. Dream big. If you are opening a salon, think big, even if you are small. Have a plan for growth. If your goal is for a four chair salon, then you are guaranteeing you will be a slave to that business for the rest of your life as the owner of that salon.
2. Don’t invest a lot of money in opening your business. A good location is more valuable than a spectacular renovation, and clients care about accessibility and cleanliness more than décor. Use quality, replaceable materials/ components and a floor that is easy to keep clean. Walk-ins and retail sales can make a huge difference to your bottom line so consider spending a little more to be on the right block so you don’t have to spend on trying to get people to walk in.
3. Plan for succession. If you already have a salon and you don’t have a tiered system, create one. You should always be training and developing new talent. It keeps you sharp and means you always have people ready to move into roles that will inevitably open up.
4. Create a culture. It starts with creating a manual. Write down every aspect of how a customer is going to be treated; on the phone, in person, and when they open your doors. If you want to get your staff to buy into it, get them involved in the changes by having them help write your manual.
5. Communicate with your staff. You avoid the rumours and back-room gossip about you. They will still think you are evil, but have an open door when it comes to questions and issues that they may have. They won’t talk to you unless you are receptive and respectful, and if they don’t talk, they will eventually walk.
6. Care about your stylists’ incomes. Before implementing new policies, consider them from the employee’s experience. Be empathetic. And NEVER mess with their money. They already think you are taking too much of it and living the good life from their hard work.
7. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t screw over another salon owner by trying to lure away their staff. It’s disgusting. And if you build your business on the backs of stylists who have walked out of another salon, I promise you it will happen to you too.
8. Don’t just open a salon for the sake of opening a salon. Unless you have a vision and a plan to be better or different than your competitors, what’s the point? This business is tough. What’s your reasoning for opening a salon? If it’s money, understand that most owners don’t really make any. You might be better off having a good investment advisor and working hard for someone else or being independent, that way you can relax on time off and you will sleep much better. Trust me.
9. Never stop sharing or giving. You will get your heart broken in this business. People you trust will lie to your face while they are stealing your only real asset: your client list. But you can’t become jaded and you can’t stop giving to people.
10. Build a strong system. Create service systems for your success so that you don’t have to rely on extraordinary people. There are some amazingly special stylists out there, but with strong systems, everyone can be great. Make your success come from who you are as a company, not from the outstanding performance of one or two people within your company.
11. Know that you may not always be on top. Salons generally have a life cycle. Most older owners are plugging away, likely not living the life they thought they would be 20 years ago. If your salon is the current spot, you will eventually not be the spot, so you will need to work hard to stay on top, and develop a plan when things inevitably start to slow.
12. Have a plan to survive a walk-out. Can you pay the rent on your own? Do you have new talent looking to move up in your company?
13. Have your own brand. Don’t truly ever get in bed with a product company unless you have no interest in your own branding. That is fine for some, but if you want to create your own brand, use the product company as a vehicle to help drive your own success. Be loyal only to your own company. Take advantage of what a product company can do for you, but make sure building your own brand is your priority.
14. Treat your team the way you wanted to be treated when you were an employee. All owners worked for someone we resented at some point. Yet often, the same mistakes are repeated. It’s kind of like how we often parent the way they were parented, despite swearing we never would. Respect the past-employee version of yourself.
15. Delegate. People want to have more responsibility. Give people the opportunity to shine and to take ownership of projects and your company.People want to be led and they want to work for someone and something they can believe in. Be an inspiration and have a cause.
16. Watch what you say. I’ve learned this the hard way. You will say 100 wonderful things to someone but they will remember the one mean thing you said to them that one time. It’s human nature. It isn’t logical and it isn’t really fair but it’s the truth. And I’ve also been driven to greater success by a few nasty comments another owner once said to me.
17. Look outside the hair business for your inspiration. The fact is, most salons aren’t doing well. You would be shocked if you saw their books. Owners lie to each other about how busy and successful they are. Look at successful restaurants and hotels to see how they create systems for consistency in product and service.
18. Avoid bad karma. If you open a booth rental salon, 100% of your success comes from the misfortune of some other owner. You are a landlord, not a salon owner. And your need to fill an empty station means you are luring someone away another business. That someone else may have sacrificed a lot to help that stylist get to the position where they generate enough that they can rent a chair. If you build your business off the backs of others who took all the risk, you are a leech. Some rental owners may not fall under this, but most do.
19. Don’t only hire stylists with a client list. If you are always looking for a “stylist with clientele,” you are not a success. You need people to bring you business. Why would they? What kind of business owner puts themselves in a position where they are relying on people they barely know in order to be successful. If this is your current strategy, this cycle will never end, so stop it! Start developing your own talent from within. BUILD something great.
20. Have fun. Don’t stress out too much. Don’t develop an ego when things are good and don’t get too down when things are bad. It is a roller coaster.
21. This business is a marathon, not a sprint. You can speed things up by doing things right, but know that you will make huge sacrifices to build something lasting and great. If it happens overnight, that means it will likely disappear quickly as well. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so avoid the temptation to rent chairs or hire from other salons. Start at the beginning of this column.
Michael Levine co-owns Caramel Salon, Space Salon and the Vancouver Hairdressing Academy with his wife in Vancouver BC. A hairdresser since 1994, Michael has done it all, from apprentice to platform artist, and loves coaching and inspiring hairdressers to see more for themselves. Visit his blog here.