It goes without saying that since the COVID pandemic, there’s been a trend to “be your own boss,” with the allure of working flexible hours while maintaining a healthy work-life balance. But even prior to the pandemic, there was a noticeable shift in the industry to more independent options, with hairstylists from coast to coast leaving salons to venture out on their own. “It has definitely become more popular, not just for hairstylists but for all beauty professionals,” says Ceci Nguyen, a freelance stylist at Tru Salon Suites in Halifax. “Nowadays, most beauty professionals I know run their own businesses.” “I worked for a salon chain in Halifax for three years before venturing out on my own,” she adds. “I had been feeling unfulfilled at my previous workplace, but it didn’t cross my mind to go on my own. After having a conversation with the owner [of Tru Salon Suites], I was sold and knew it was time to make some big changes.”
With the economy being a major consideration for this shift, the overall movement has been influenced by a wide variety of factors that have prompted stylists to opt out of the traditional commission-based salon model. Daniella Carreiro, an independent stylist at Pro Beauty Suites based in Mississauga, Ont., cites the pandemic as the kickstart she needed to begin freelancing, with the shutdowns being particularly difficult in that respective region. “Around the last year, before everything started opening up again, was when I decided that I wanted to do something on my own,” she says. “I just felt like it gives you more freedom, and you have a lot more say in what you can do.” In fact, freedom is a key factor for many freelancers, noting it as their primary motivation in their shift to being independent. “What freedom means is different to everyone, but for me, [it means] freedom in my schedule,” says Jeremy Wilde, an independent stylist and a Redken ambassador based in Montreal. “Coming in whenever I want, getting out whenever I want, creating a schedule that’s beneficial for my mental health and having that balance in my professional and personal life.” With that said, for many, autonomy doesn’t just mean choosing your work schedule and hours. It also means the ability to dictate your own business endeavours, choose your products, decide where to work, establish what to charge for your services and even pursue other ventures simultaneously. Brent Chaikowsky, a Calgary-based freelance stylist at Sola Salon Studios, shares that being independent has allowed him to customize and tailor the overall in-chair experience to his clientele—from taking balayage courses from celebrity hairstylists in California that he knows will impress his clients to something as simple as playing jazz music when he knows that’s what his next client loves to listen to. He is now able to effectively cater to the type of service his clients are looking for, giving him an edge in addition to his performance within the competitive landscape. These types of competitive advantages are key, especially when building a loyal clientele.
It’s not all glamorous, though. Moving to an independent business model can be enticing precisely because of this new sense of freedom, but what many fail to understand is the additional considerations they must take before diving into this new domain. “There’s always a learning curve,” says Simon James, a freelance stylist at Style Lab Headquarters and a national artist for Goldwell. “You definitely have to hold yourself a lot more accountable. For some, finding that motivation can be a little bit challenging. When people make the choice to go independent, [they should] find somebody that has been independent for some time. I think it’s really important that you lean on those people for mentorship and be open to information because there’s always something to learn in every venture.”
Knowing the Basics
While working in a salon can have its drawbacks, it has the benefit of setting stylists up for success with elements that often go unnoticed, like administrative support, marketing efforts, consistent bookings from salon clients and even payroll. But when you’re on your own, you’re responsible for your own success, so it’s crucial to understand that many of the tasks that were previously done for you can be massive undertakings, especially if they don’t come as naturally as the creative aspects. “Sometimes the smallest bumps in the road can be the highest mountains,” says Wilde. “When it comes to doing taxes and stuff like that, you have to be on it because, if not, it’s going to come back to bite you. It’s happened to me before and also happens to so many people.” Inflation has also been a major concern plaguing the industry on the whole. While some salon owners are still struggling to get back on track from the pandemic, inflation has caused a whole new set of challenges that are also having an impact on independent stylists. “Everything has gone up [in price], but products have definitely gone up a lot,” says Chaikowsky. “It’s important to always look at your budget—what you’re bringing in and what you’re wanting to spend—and make sure that everything lines up.” While raising your service prices can be enticing in times of economic uncertainty, James notes that there are a lot of dynamics at play. “You really need to be on top of your numbers and ensure that you are not only pricing your services effectively to ensure profits but also making sure that you’re still in a position to increase your clientele on a consistent basis.”
Taking the Leap
Perhaps the most important consideration to make before jumping into an independent work model is having a solid clientele. “Make sure that you have a steady clientele because if you don’t, you’re not going to be able to survive on your own,” says Carreiro. Wilde also emphasizes the importance of social media when building your business, which is especially critical for those who are going solo. “Some people think they didn’t become a hairstylist to be a content creator or social media manager, but the reality is, in today’s industry, it’s part of your job.” It’s worth noting that even if you have considered these pros and cons, and feel that you’re ready, it’s important to have a solid understanding of your skills and take a serious audit of your abilities before jumping in on your own. While many love being independent, and wish they had done it sooner, James has an alternative school of thought. Growing up in salons, with family ties to the industry, James puts a particular focus on the education aspect of a hairstylist’s career span, thinking of it as a longterm plan. “I was actually encouraged to go independent earlier,” he recalls. “My father thought I was doing quite well and had a fairly decent skill set. But I chose the long play, which was thinking about the career as a longterm investment. Waiting until you’re incredibly seasoned—or at least incredibly competent in all areas of hairdressing—and gaining as much information, mentorship and education as possible is paramount to success.”
Location, Location, Location
When it comes to the number of independent hairstylists in Canada, geography plays a huge role in the opportunities that are available for stylists and can have an impact on how successful they may be. Chaikowsky notes that the shift to freelance and salon suites in Calgary started around five or six years ago, whereas James says the popularization of freelancing in Vancouver began nearly two decades ago. He also adds the distinction of population density as being of particular importance. “When you look into the suburban settings versus the big cities, a lot of times those suburban settings tend to still function really well on a commission model,” says James. “But when you’re going into major urban and economic hubs, you tend to see people shift a little bit more to that independent structure.” While many pros and cons fall into their own separate categories, many can be a double-edged sword. As Nguyen explains, “You are 100 per cent responsible for every part of your business and the success of it, which can be a good thing or a bad thing.” She also cites the financial impact as being both a pro and a con in her eyes, explaining that while it can be great to make extra money, you are having cash flow in daily and need to be an expert at managing that type of payment structure to avoid financial slip-ups. Being independent can also affect one’s ability to set boundaries. “Because I make the schedule, it’s harder to say no if a client wants to be squeezed in for an appointment,” she says. “Too much of this leads to more stress. I’m guilty of this.” As with any decision, it’s best to be prepared and do your research before jumping into anything too quickly. Understanding both the benefits and risks of a new opportunity can allow you to temper your expectations and give yourself the best chance of success.
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