My Life As A Hairstylist

Salon owner, hairstylist, educator, product maker, photographer

How to Survive and Thrive as a Hairstylist and Salon Owner

260 Comments

ElijahHairdresser
As a hairstylist and salon owner, I have had some really great moments and some crushing experiences over the last 25 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.”
  • Nobody is going to do it for you. Make things happen for yourself.  But people will want to help and be a part of your success if you contribute positively to theirs.
  • 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.
  • Be nice and take care of people. You are in the service industry. You’ve chosen a career where you are supposed to put others’ experience ahead of your own.
  • Don’t bitch to other people until you have given your boss the chance to explain things. 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.
  • Give an amazing massage and learn to finish hair beautifully. 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 looking 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 focused 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…
  • 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.
  • Use your success as a foundation to greater success. 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.  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.
  • 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 adviser 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 and be prepared to survive the inevitable walk-out. Can you pay the rent on your own? Do you have new talent looking to move up in your company? Never stop hiring and developing new talent. 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.

    Salon ownership 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.

260 thoughts on “How to Survive and Thrive as a Hairstylist and Salon Owner

  1. I feel very refreshed and inspired after reading this! There are some great points that I think anyone with respect to their career as a hairdresser would really appreciate this article as much as I did! Thankyou 🙂

  2. I think this is amazing and so true. I especially value your message of surrounding yourself with positive, uplifting people who want to support you and I think that any stylist who respects themselves, their work, and the industry would want to support others as well. I think your comment about booth rental salons holds a lot of truth, however, it is a general statement and doesn’t speak for every situation I have encountered. I will continue to look forward to more posts like this one.

  3. this blog is great a bit long winded but it is written well…. do u think u could post one about employers i find it hard to talk to mine so i have been writing a letter however personal thoughts and feelings get in the way thought maybe if u had something for employers it would make things easier thank you

  4. I was about to post this quote from Ice-T in the backroom the other day: “Life ain’t a track meet, it’s a marathon!”…..Just came across your blog and you said the same thing. And I thought I was so unique!

    My husband and I have owned our salon for over 15 years, in our second location for over 5. We have the same issues. I agree, the industry is changing. It’s all about a mentality of whats in it for me? How does a stylist, who started with nothing, who was so grateful for the opportunity, feel no sense of giving back and helping grow someone else in return? No, it’s about taking their clients, renting a suite, (while telling everyone they’re opening their own “salon”)…and working for themselves, all by themselves.

    This business has broken my heart many times, but I have learned that it will heal and I just keep on going. I know my calling is to serve people and to help grow New talent. I feel an obligation to my industry to give back. I feel so blessed that I’ve been able to make a wonderful living for my family. I will plant that seed to all who will listen. You get out of it what you put into it, I’ve said 1,000 Times!

    • Yes. You put in a lot of training. You get back a lot of well trained competitors! Raising the bar all the time.

    • Nice article but I disagree about the “you are not an artist” bit. I think it’s a mistake to consider yourself as anything less and don’t keep it too simple.

      • Hi Kimberly,

        That’s cool, view yourself any way you want.

        Simple is not about being basic. It’s about making it repeatable because you used solid systems for your approach. Clients will pay a lot of money for the privilege of sitting in your chair without any fear, stress or risk. I know this because it’s one of the main reasons for the success I’ve had.
        If you are a true master of your craft this won’t be a problem for you. And if you are already killing it, this advice isn’t for you. It’s for the stylist who is struggling and maybe wondering why they are not building.

  5. I want to say you just saved me from future aches and pain. Thank you for being honest and direct!

  6. Right on target ….so true…

  7. Thank you for this! As a young and newly qualified stylist this made me think big and realise what’s important, truly inspiring

  8. Probably one of the best, most insightful articles I’ve ever read on the subject. Well done!

  9. When someone writes an post he/she retains the plan of a user in his/her brain that how a user can be aware of
    it. So that’s why this post is great. Thanks!

  10. Hello! I simply would like to offer you a big thumbs
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  11. Michael, we share the same views. Well said. I hope things are better for you than when you wrote that. Sounds like you have a great plan.

  12. You are so straight forward, and I love everything that you Preached! I’m a new salon owner and hearing certain responses about the commission ! You gave me a Great break down based on the facts, and what they think we make!

  13. I am a seasoned stylist and moved to a new salon 2 years ago after a salon closed. Although I love some of the staff at my current salon, the amount of space and staff support as caused me not able to give the service I want to my clients. I feel I could not grow anymore. I was approached by a past co worker that was opening a new salon with all the amenities that I would need for my mental health and for my clients. I decided to take this opportunity and have given my current salon 2 months notice. Based on what you have said about salon owners taking stylist from other salons, have I approached this change correctly? I have met with my current employer in the past and shared my concern but she was not able to make much change. What are your thoughts?

    • Patti, don’t worry about my set of guidelines. I write generally.

      If the situation was not good you had to move.

      I can only speak from the side of good owners who want their team to be successful and grow. There are a lot of people who have no business owning a business. You have to give your team a path. Many salon owners don’t have a clue how to do this nor a desire to.

      Good luck!

  14. Thanks so much, Michael. This was invaluable to me…someone who has been thinking about opening up a salon with her man for some time. I loved reading that you and your wife opened up a salon on your own, no staff. How super rad and generous of you to share your experience. I appreciate your honesty and your frankness so much. I was led here after watching your video about retailing on American Salon. It was SO relatable and changed my retailing-brain’s DNA. ha. It takes a big strong love to keep thriving in this industry..and you’ve got HEART. Thank you. Now, I just need to figure out financing so I can create a rad salon for my very underserved community. Do you have financing advice too, oh omniscient one? 🙂

  15. AWESOME!!! Wonderful advice- THANK YOU!

  16. Amazingly accurate account of my past 12 months. Onward and upward.

  17. Thanks great advice,am hairdresser cum asalon owner.

  18. Hey Micheal,
    love your blog! awesome Job.
    Jules Peacocke

    http://www.lilyjackson.com.au

  19. Hi Machael. Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom. I now have a better understanding of what it’s like to own a salon in the real world.
    Best wishes—-Sarah

  20. Half of this was informative. The other half sounded like it was written by a very bitter, jaded person. Some hairdressers are artists actually, and they are not assholes.I have a staff member who hand paints highlights, she is not a cutter, she looks at the way she goes about her colouring as art. Placing the highlights in a way that they will reflect light in the right places in a non structured way. She is down to earth and not egotistical however she is proud of Her work and rightly so. The only asshole here is you

    • Everyone should be proud of their work and everyone should see art in what they do. All highlights are hand painted. It’s what we all do. Whether you lay it in foil, saran wrap or lay it on the hair, the point of it is to draw attention to an area.

      And good hairdressers are definitely artistic, we are in a creative field and balance, shape, and form are all a part of it.
      But hairdressers who actually refer to themselves as artists generally are assholes. It’s because they aren’t happy with themselves as hairdressers so they have to try to upgrade.

      Artists have freedom of expression. We are working with the limitations of the medium presented us and the wishes of our clients.

      We are artistic but we are service people, craftsmen. We are hairdressers.

      My name is Michael Levine and I have the courage to speak my opinion and put my name next to it.
      If you’re going to call someone an asshole, at least sign your name to it.
      ANd understand that I have to approve every comment. I approve them all, good and bad.

  21. Ok me reading this must have been Devine intervention. I’ve been a salon owner for 20 years now and because of disrespect and disloyalty I was thinking of closing this year. But I needed this burst I’ve gotten my second wind and damn it I’m going to use it! Thanks!

  22. Hi! I am so blessed to have stumbled across this authentic read. I admire your transparency and appreciate your willingness to share your experiences and truths with total strangers. You have most certainly encouraged me to continue my journey at becoming a successful owner of my own salon. Thank you again for taking the time out to share!

  23. Great article. Only comment is, I own a salon where the stylists pay rent. However I still create a salon culture and team. My rental salon is run as if they were on commission. With operating hours, salon assistants, education, front desk, and other amenities a non rental salon would offer. I do this with hopes that my team will grow make more money and start their own business down the line. Rental doesn’t mean 5 different businesses and how the operate in one. People rent from my space a chair but also the culture and client customer service that is a high standard in my salon.

  24. A privilege to read. Such nuggets of gold that ordinarily is leant from cold experience. I can say your advice has been a thought provoking read. I totally got the intention behind the term artist and found your explanation apt for the meaning of this word.

  25. Yes. This article is very much a blessing in disguise. I have been working at a salon for over 7 years now and yes at first for the first 3 years I was excited to even be working in a salon. Now 4 years later after that I have grown tiresome. Its like all my hard work and dedication has been ripped from me and have nothing to show for it. My dream is to be a salon owner and I have built up the confidence to do. So I am ready now. I do have a pretty good clientele most of which they have come from my professional work and personality. I feel like I have given up so much to that salon with no growth. And no room for growth. It’s no team. Just a bunch of women that comes to your station and ask to borrow products all day every even the owner!!! I am actually a little embarrassed to even say I work here as you should see the faces of people when I say I work there and they be like I used to go there years ago but not anymore and they turn their nose up..And even at least 70 percent of my clients ask me when I’m getting my own salon. I am not comfortable and I know the only reason why I still have a clientele is because they like me and my work.
    So would you say that I’m doing the right thing if I am no longer happy and comfortable about my workplace…
    ~broken hearted girl

    • Hi Tineshia,

      I think you are doing the right thing. Ultimately, your own happiness and prosperity is what matters.

      We can sacrifice a little prosperity for happiness and even sacrifice a little happiness for prosperity, but if you are unhappy, you have to go.

      Life is short and our careers are even shorter. Do what you need to do to create the type of environment you want to spend your days in.

      • Thank you! I appreciate your input. And yes im moving forward. I am in my own salon now and I’m very excited. I feel alive and inspired again. I’m forever exploring and challenging myself again. Something that I could never do at the salon I used to work for. I’ve opened my salon with one thing on my mind, and that’s to strive bigger and better with my team aside and behind me. Hoping to carry them higher also. I’ve humbled myself(although it’s taking a little time but I’m almost at that point.) I love the position I’m in. I feel responsible and very greatful. Every day is a new adventure.

  26. I think you have lots of valid points, but you seem very bitter. As an independent contractor for 10 years believe me I have been shit on plenty by owners over the years, not validating my hard work and effort to maintain a clean professional environment. This blog was a little one sided for me.

    • I totally understand K. There are way too many bad owners out there and I completely get why someone would go independent.
      I can only speak for my own experience as an owner, and there are also many good ones out there for people to work with and reap the benefits of a good relationship.

  27. I absolutely love this advice in this article. You highlighted both the pros and cons of what a hairstylist/owner will or might encounter. I’ve been a stylist and salon suite owner for a combining of six years. I’ve quit the industry twice. Came back into doing hair cause I just love the creativity & helping someone look and feel good. But then I become discouraged or disappointed again and give up. Although I’ve made great money supporting 3 children alone, hands down.

    Yes, the industry has changed significantly. Both good and bad. If and when I enter back into this industry I truly can be more successfully in avoiding some setbacks I’ve encountered in the past. Thanks for sharing your advice!

  28. Great stuff! By applying those steps.. I can become a Great owner and one day I will be.. Thanks!

  29. The beauty of this career is that we are artists. Very much so. I am a hair and makeup artist in the salon and in the studio. I’m not sure who you have been around, but the fellow artists I work with are very kind and attentive. When someone wants a mural in a school or studio or business place, ext. They call an artist. That artist is given guidelines and stipulations. But that makes them no less of an artist. I’m very sorry you have such a grim outlook on your work. But behind a hair artist is a beautiful career and I have some of the most kind hearted guests who come back time after time and even tell me I’m sweet and kind. So no, most hair artists are not ass holes. But I’m sorry you don’t see the art in your work. It’s in mine.

    • I would love for you to share your art so we can see how non-commercial and truly unique and creative it is. Most hairdressers are artists like painters who do velvet Elvis’. But I’m sure yours is unlike anything we see every day . So please, what is your name so I can Google your art?

      My outlook isn’t grim, it’s based on reality. I see art in almost everything, but I am not an artist in that I don’t have true creative freedom with the work I do.

      It sounds like you found one thing that bothered you and focused on it rather than actually understand the point.

  30. All of it is true! I have been a salon owner/ stylist for 25 years. Commission salon to booth rent and back to commission. It is a roller coaster and I love roller coasters. Thank you for reminding me to be humble and grateful.

  31. I absolutely needs to read this today! Thank you for your inspiring words!

  32. This is a very uninspiring article. Be passionate. Love what you do.

    • It’s about working hard, knowing your path and having realistic expectations of the business but wild expectations of success. Not everyone gets it, the ones who do are usually very successful.

  33. Wow very informative
    And helpful. Good read

  34. They say whatever you do, you’re an artist in it. You’re pro-active way to guide better and explaining the part that say “YES” to virtually everything the salon has to offer helped me in clearing confusions. I know how to go about it now. Thanks a lot

  35. What the best hidden skills in hairdressing im doing my research on hairdressing?
    thanks for your time

    • Hi Julie, it’s all about 2 things. Actually one: you have to truly care about the client. You need to care about making them look and feel beautiful, or cool, or sexy, or masculine, whatever it is THEY are looking for from you.

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