My Life As A Hairstylist

Salon owner, hairstylist, educator, product maker, photographer


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How to Survive and Thrive as a Hairstylist and Salon Owner

ElijahHairdresser
As a hairstylist and salon owner, I have had some really great moments and some crushing experiences over the last 23 years. If you are interested, here are some of my observations.

Stylists

  • Work your ass off. This means in every way. On slow days, help clean. Contribute.  And always pick up after yourself. It takes a second and shows you respect your co-workers and the assistants. You were an assistant and likely had to pick up after some stylist that could have done it themselves most of the time. Respect the assistant version of you that swore you would not be a diva.
  • Act like a successful stylist right away. Dress the part, act the part and be the part right from the beginning. This means asking for pre-bookings from the first day you are on the floor. Asking for referrals, promoting yourself, retailing, assisting the busier stylists rather than hanging out in the staff room, or as we like to call it, the “minimum wage room.”
  • Be pro-active. It’s your life and it’s your career. Make things happen for yourself. Nobody is going to do it for you. But people will want to help and be a part of your success if you show up to everything you can and say “yes” to every opportunity.
  • Say “YES” to virtually every opportunity the salon offers you. It shows you are motivated and put your career and your company first. You will likely be promoted and given amazing opportunities eventually.
  • You are in the service industry. You’ve chosen a career where you are supposed to be nice and take care of people. Do it.
  • Your employer is (for the most part) a normal, nice person. He or she doesn’t sit at home at night thinking of ways to make your work life shittier. If you have an issue, communicate and express yourself to the owner and only the owner. Don’t bitch to other people until you have given your boss the chance to explain things.
  • Give an amazing massage and learn to finish hair beautifully. On everyone. These skills are much easier to master than haircutting and colouring is. You will fast-track your success this way. The best way to mentally approach this is to…
  • Be empathetic. Put yourself in the clients’ shoes. How do you like to be treated? Do you love a great shampoo service? Would you want your hair to look like this? Be present, aware, and sensitive to your client.
  • Focus on your client. Look for every opportunity to exceed their expectations. You can only do this by committing yourself to their experience and their hair. Eye contact, listen, be present. Your client is always giving you cues. But most stylists ignore them. These can be retail and referral opportunities, or areas where they are not as happy as they could be; things that can be fixed and addressed before the client leaves less than thrilled.
  • Keep your work simple and make it repeatable. Develop mastery of foundations and an understanding of what happens when you do certain things. Learn from your own work by cutting a section and evaluating what it did when it fell back into place. Don’t come at your client with 5 colour bowls unless absolutely necessary. And always make your work pretty. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
  • Work with intent. Be present and focussed on your work. It is much more satisfying when you are involved rather than going through the motions. Get down so the hair is at eye level. Stand back and check your balance and weight distribution. Put your hands into the hair and move it around. Sculpt. But remember…
  • You are not an artist. Certainly we have artistic integrity and we must have an understanding of what is flattering, but you are a service person first and foremost. It is almost never carte blanche, you are being given limitations by the client and it is your goal to make the client look and feel beautiful. And most hairdressers who see themselves as artists are generally assholes…
  • So don’t be an asshole. There is no room for ego in this business. We do hair for a living. Get over yourself. Perspective. Obviously if you are great at what you do, enjoy and celebrate your success. But don’t throw it in people’s faces and don’t put other stylists down or judge their work negatively. Let your work and your success do the talking. If you have to say you are, you probably aren’t.
  • If you are lucky enough to become the “hot hairdresser” in your town, enjoy it but don’t let your ego get in the way of your long-term career. Use your success as a foundation to greater success. Eventually you will get older and another hairdresser will become the go-to in your city and the cool people will go elsewhere. So enjoy being “it” but understand it is fleeting.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. The important work you do is to make people look and feel beautiful. It’s about giving. For educators, it’s to enlighten your students and help them to have better careers and lives, which is also all about giving. Snobbery in the fashion business is just dumb and boorish. So don’t take yourself so seriously, but absolutely take what you do seriously.
  • Your employer is not taking half your money. If you make 50% commission, the owner might be able to make, at most, 10% profit from their investment. Most are making between 3-5%. It is a very expensive business to run, and unless the salon is always packed and is very large, your owner is likely under a degree of financial stress. Don’t feel sorry for them, but don’t make them out to be some greedy jerk who sits at home counting Benjamins.
  • When you become a success, never forget where you came from. You sucked at one point. Someone supported you and took a chance on you. Respect the people who did. You worked hard to get there and you are responsible for your success but most likely people had your back along the way.
  • Be a mentor. Your support for a younger stylist is incredibly powerful. Too many people leave salons or the industry because they feel jaded by it. We all remember the people we looked up to along the way, who helped us and inspired us. You can be that person for someone else. And they will forever hold you in high regard, which is pretty cool.
  • Do photoshoots, fashion shows and take classes. Go on inspiring or educational holidays instead of relaxing ones, especially at first. Clients love to hear your stories and they love to talk about you to their friends. If you never have anything cool about your career to talk about then it’s a guarantee your growth will be slower. So skip the beach and go to New York or London and take a class. Go to Paris and tour salons and make connections and new friends.
  • Never let a client leave unhappy. Never tell them to wash it a few times and it should fade, never tell them to live with it and then call you on Tuesday. If she goes into her weekend hating her hair, you better believe she’s going to be talking about it and you all weekend to her friends. And she will not tell them that she asked for the level 4 she pointed at in the swatch book, only that you made her hair “black.”

Salon Owners

  • If you are opening a salon, think big, even if you are small. Have a plan for growth. If your goal is for a 4 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, what they experience when they open your doors etc. The rest will go from there. If you want to get your staff to buy into it, get them involved in the changes by having them help write your manual.
  • 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 to any 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Don’t 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.
  • 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, the client list. But you can’t become jaded and you can’t stop giving to people.
  • Create service systems for your success so that you don’t have to rely on extraordinary people. Certainly 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.
  • 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 you will need to work hard to stay on top, and develop a plan when things inevitably start to slow.
  • 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? This is where the tiered system comes into play.
  • 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 simply 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. Watch what you say. I’ve learned this the hard way. And I’ve also been driven to greater success by a few nasty comments another owner once said to me.
  • 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 busy-ness and success. Look at successful restaurants and hotels to see how they create systems for consistency in product and service.
  • It’s easy when things go well. Your business is defined by how you handle the mistakes. Never let a client leave your salon unhappy. If a client is unhappy, fix it right then and there. If she leaves hating her hair and you’ve told her to came back in a few days, you are giving her an opportunity to involve friends, or worse, Yelp. Intervene if you hear a stylist saying those terrible words, “go home and wash it a few times, it should lighten up.”
  • If you open a booth rental salon, much 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. Many rental owners don’t fall under this, but most do.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 and start at the beginning of this column.