My Life As A Hairstylist

Salon owner, hairstylist, educator, product maker, photographer

Two Very Different Sides of the Hair Industry In 24 Hours


My good friend Russel Mayes contacted me a few months ago to see if I would present at a hair show he was putting on called HairPooloza. One of his employees, Nick Huynh was walking his broken down motorcycle on the side of the road in Orange County when he was struck by a drunk driver, who then ran. It sent him 25 feet through the air. He had just taken off his helmet.

This weekend, my wife and business partner Liz Abreu and I flew down for the event to benefit Nick. Some of the biggest names in the industry had agreed to perform on stage, and some equally big names sat in the audience and watched. I was surrounded by amazing, giving hairstylists and had a temporary break from the shitty side of salon ownership I have to deal with from time to time. I was back home for about 14 hours before being covered in it. Again.

I get a call this morning from my operations manager stating that an employee had quit without notice. She said she was not into hairdressing anymore, didn’t have a job to go to and just wanted a break. She was a keyholder and a person in a position of trust so we would need to find someone else to fill that role.

It was about 2 hours before I realized I had a new blocker in instagram and an opening for friends on Facebook. Sure enough this now former stylist was no longer my friend or follower. And she had listed a new salon as her place of employment, about 1200 yards away. A chair rental salon.

Now I have my opinions on most chair rental salon owners, I’ve written about it in another blog post so I won’t rehash it here. And I also understand why someone would want to go into rental. Most people didn’t get into hair to work a 9-5 with two 15 minute coffee breaks and a 30 minute lunch. And most successful stylists will have a degree of entrepreneurial spirit, in that their success is based on their hard work and hustle. A good employee-based salon will try to bridge the gap and allow their busier stylists some freedom while helping them to achieve more success, usually more than they would have on their own. It’s why high-end commission stylists usually charge more than high-end rental stylists.

And then there are the people who simply don’t want to be a part of a team or be told when to come to work or how to dress or behave while at work. And I understand these people too. These ones are much harder to appeal to as an owner. They will usually dig deep and tolerate the ownership and the salon rules just long enough to build a big enough clientele so that they can leave, and attempt to take that clientele with them to the new salon.

This post is for salon clients and maybe for commission or TBP stylists in the hope that maybe they will understand the unending bullshit that a salon owner goes through.  And it’s also for those salon owners, because each one of them will read this and nod their heads. And a few will probably write me to write me thanking me for writing down exactly how they feel.

When a stylist leaves the salon ethically, they give the owner 2 weeks notice and the owner will either decide to keep them on for their notice or pay them out their severance and have the person leave. I tend to pay out the severance because in order to have someone work out their notice, they would not be able to solicit their clients, which puts awkward pressure on everyone. If a stylist is going to another salon, it’s best to simply let them go and wish them luck. The arrangement we have with our staff is that we, the salon get first contact with the clients. We can do this because we never hire anyone with a clientele.

We will inform the client that their stylist has left and offer another stylist. If the client accepts, then great, we’ve retained them. If the client asks where the stylist has gone, we gladly tell them. This scenario has happened exactly once in 18 years of ownership. And we retained a fair number of those clients.

The usual way someone quits the salon is not so nice and polite. The first thing anyone will tell you if you are going to leave a salon is that you have to get your client list. Now there are lots of ways to do this, and of course social media sure helps. But often these people will directly raid the salon’s database. And it’s really easy if you have a key to the salon. Just show up 15 minutes before everyone every day for a little while and chip away at your list. Enter them in your phone while you are at the desk and before long you have your entire list.

Now once a stylist has that list, the gloves tend to come off. The stylist will reach out to their entire clientele, usually while still an employee of the salon. And very often they will have primed their clients while in the salon, badmouthing the salon here and there and making the clients believe the owner is an asshole or that the place is falling apart or that everyone is unhappy. It’s never positive, because you have to try to get the client to your side so the transition is easier for the stylist.

This is why in a perfect world, the salon should get first contact. The salon won’t badmouth an employee. It makes the salon look bad and it’s not professional. The salon will make an offer and be honest and upfront to let the client make an unbiased and informed decision. The stylist will almost never do this.

But beyond this, the really shitty part of the situation is that an owner will have spent as much as the last month being lied to by the stylist, while the only real asset the salon has is being stolen. Smiling to your face while stealing from you. Understand that a salon has almost no value outside of the client list. A salon without a client list is simply a room full of used furniture, and the proof of this is shown by how few salon owners have sold their salons for even the value of that furniture. Most owners have to simply close up their salons and walk away. In fact I’ve just done a video blog for American Salon Online on this exact subject. It should be out soon.

Now the stylist will say that clients aren’t the salon’s property and the clients have the right to make whatever choice they want. And that is true, which is why my salons have this conversation in an ethical and honest way. But ask that same stylist if they took that information openly in front of the salons owners and managers. They didn’t and they never do. That simple act of secrecy speaks to their awareness of the crime. And after stealing from you they will say it was nothing personal.

Even worse, it is all but guaranteed that one or two people in the salon knew that this was going on. Maybe even several. People on your staff allowing co-workers to steal from their place of employment, making their own salon weaker and hurting their own reputations. And this is extremely common. If it was a bank, the thief would be doing it in secret. If it was a store, the merchandise would be stolen carefully and the thief would be too fearful to let a co-worker know. But for some reason it seems to be different in the salon. Someone always knows something and chooses to not let the owner know.

Full disclosure, I left a salon once in a disgraceful way. I’m ashamed of what I did. I was an asshole and anything that happens to me as an owner is probably karmically deserved. But I had also once told this owner about staff that were conspiring and instead of treating me anonymously he outed me to my co-workers and to this day there are still people who won’t speak to me. We were also not allowed to disclose where former staff had went so he couldn’t be trusted to be honest with clients. There are a lot of salon owners like this, and you sometimes have to do shitty things in these situations. But I understand his behaviours now that I’m an owner and I do my best to learn from them.

I chose to own an employee salon because I want things done a certain way and I myself have high standards of service. I’m old fashioned and I like a degree of formality to service even if we are covered in tattoos and play loud music.

I chose to develop my own talent because I wanted my team to have common knowledge and work their way up through my company. No egos because nobody is above cleaning the bathroom.

I chose not to hire from the competition because I want to be able to hold my head high knowing I never hurt another business by luring their staff.

My choices, and I will accept everything that goes along with them. But people like me are a dying breed, maybe even a dinosaur in concept. I’ve watched several salons like mine either go rental or downsize and stop hiring new talent. There used to be lots of salons to apprentice with, now there are a lot less. And most of them either left the business with nothing after all their years of hard work. If I sound like I’m being melodramatic, I apologize. But I wanted to shed some light on what we go through as salon owners, how and why an incredible experience that will go down as a career highlight like HairPooloza is completely smothered by something as small as someone quitting. It’s because it’s much bigger than just someone quitting. If it was just that, salon owners would sleep better. It’s happened to me 150 times and it still feels exactly the same each time. People say I take things too personally, and I shouldn’t. I hope you can have some perspective as to why we take it personally.

Oh, and my new friend Nick in Orange County? He’s permanently lost the use of his arm. The driver was caught because the VIN from inside the door was actually embedded in Nicks clothing. We raised a nice amount of money to help fund training for a new career. But more importantly, we all got together to show that we care about each other.

26 thoughts on “Two Very Different Sides of the Hair Industry In 24 Hours

  1. Right on the money, as usual! I enjoy everything you write, feel as though you are speaking to me only quite often. I loved what you wrote retail. It’s all about perspective. So many stylists aren’t looking at the big picture; what you sell in retail is a barometer of your success behind the chair. Teach the client how to recreate what you did to their hair, however, you can’t do that without quality haircare! It also helps maintain the color and cut, while acting as your walking advertisement. = $$$$.
    Anyway, I can totally relate to your story here. I had a stylist leave (my then salon) right before Thanksgiving (um thanks? ) She told my partner (at the time) via textbook “look in the top station drawer” and my ex-biz partner did and she a letter notifying us that she found employment elsewhere. Then unfriended us on Facebook, (look out!).

    It was a domino effect. Kristin and I have known each other for almost 15 years . She texted me to tell me she quit while I was at my birthday dinner on December 22 AND my son’s first birthday was the next day. Of course she knew where I was, because we were family!!! She came to every birthday party for my older son AND every one of my birthday get-together’s.
    She texted me, texted me. She’s 45 years old she knows better. My five year old knows better. She quit and went to a salon less than 10 streets down.
    She has left every job like this. Our salon was the longest. I believe in karma, one day life comes back at you and bites in the rear.,
    Needless to say , our salon situation was unstable after that and it created a domino effect of people leaving.
    It was depressing and I’m still recovering from financial set-back it has had on me.
    I love your posts thank you.

  2. Michael,
    My name is Andrea and I am a salon owner in Portland, Or. I love your honesty and candor when you wrote this and I read it with intent. Basically, the reason for my intense interest is this: I own a lease salon. 90% of salons in this area are set up that way. Frankly, I get so frustrated with it because I, like you, have very high standards and have been in the industry 20 years! I have always strived for the next level, working with some of the top artists of our time and my passion for hairdressing runs deep. I fucking HATE running a lease salon, yet see every salon that is employee based around me either closing or reducing their investment in training their staff over time because of the relentless work to try and stay open turns their focus away from why they started the business in the first place.
    As a booth rent salon I have a better situation than most. My staff are all very talented, get along, don’t bitch too much, and do want that sense of “team” that is essential to survival. I don’t have much room to whine. But, it is so hard. On my end, this is what it looks like: a stylist comes to my salon full of piss and angst. They usually have a story. One that involves the last employee salon wronging them in some way. They just want out. They want to have the freedom.
    I see that they have experience and a nice portfolio, ok, maybe this will work. But, now here is the hard part, they still expect all of the hand holding that they were accustom to.
    “But you can’t tell me what to do, what to wear, how to act, when to leave/show up.!!” They say,” Who got the last new client? Why should I have to clean up? I should be able to wear a bra as a shirt!” “You’re not the boss of me!”……BTW- “Can you talk to so and so for me? and can you deal with my client who is complaining? and can you teach me how to do x,y,z? and can I sit in on your classes you teach to your assistant? and can you help me formulate my color?”
    The competition for stylists with experience is ferocious here. You are battling with keeping your staff just because the other salon down the street has offered yet another incentive to get you to come lease there.
    I have a dream of opening a commission salon very soon. My goal is 2017. I am great at what I do, and my lease salon has been thriving since 2005 with a staff of 13 in a very nice area. I am what most would consider to be very successful. Yet, I would give it all up tomorrow to start over in a smaller space with staff that were doing things for the sake of honest intention and love of the craft and a standard of excellence that I aspire to. I thoroughly enjoy mentoring new talent. Yet, I am terrified. I would love to chat with you some time or write emails back and forth if necessary. My question to you would be, ” How do we stop cannibalizing our industry?” How can we find a way to make this dichotomy cease to exist? maybe the first step is to get both sides of the equation to finally start putting their heads together?
    Andrea H

    • I totally understand how you feel. We all feel it and I agree about getting both sides together. I try hard in my seminars to bring stylists and owners together and make them understand each other. THat they don’t have to be adversarial. I think it falls on deaf ears mostly, but it’s my mission.

    • I work for a beautiful booth rent salon (there 13 years) w/ a full spa next door. Recently I toured 10 salons within a ten mile radius and was horrified to see the condition they were in. Messy, dirty , a zoo. Hip is one thing, but loud chaos get’s old. Clients want professionality and courtesy in a clean environment -booth rent salons still have to have some guidelines and it’s up to the owner to let the “independents” know they must follow the rules or else. It’s the owner’s reputation on the line. Keep the rent competitive, update the salon , communicate
      and take care of your stylists.

      • Hi Cindy,
        I would actually say that often BR salons keep things cleaner and more updated because if they don’t they won’t attract renters, whereas employee based salons often let things slip. It’s an interesting dilemma and there and there are certainly a lot of owners who need to get their acts together.
        Commission or BR, I believe all owners need to commit to their clients, their business plan and identity, their culture and their team.
        If they aren’t willing to do it or they don’t have a vision, they should get out of it. There are too many bad to mediocre salon owners out there doing the bare minimum.

  3. Hey Michael,
    I feel your pain I had this happen this year too.
    We build all our staff too, Ive just implemented a re straight of trade in all our contracts its expensive to enforce, but worth make sure your team know that what you build stays when they go.
    I pay for my salon clients to find us I sell my team and talent I own the clients, if you don’t like it don’t work for me, work for me and Ill show you how to make 2x what you would earn working for your self…. go after the salon clients expect a law suit.
    X feel better.
    Jules Peacocke.

  4. I think your policy of the salon retaining the right to contact the guests first instead of having restrictive non compete contracts is very thoughtful. It’s respectful to your business, guests, and the exiting stylist because it leaves the choice with the guests. It’s proactive, not reactive and I wish more salons had this system.

    • We do a contract as well because nobody actually ever does what they agreed to, and unfortunately you have to have trust and faith in your staff or else you need to be there 14 hours a day 6 days a week.

      It’s the only business where employee theft goes unpunished.

  5. Wow,I feel your pain so much.This business has change so much over the years.where I live it’s about 90% basically a landlord.and I have had people quit on me so many times,just like you said.

  6. Salon ownership is not for the weak , that’s for sure. The hardest part of being tough thru it all is that we have such BIG hearts. I still Lead with my heart more than I should. Thanks for putting into words the thoughts that run thru my head everyday. I also have never lured from another salon- I realized this when my (former) salon manager was hell bent on recruiting from other salons-I have always grown my own
    Congrats on the success of you hairpalooza, and thanks for taking the time to write this blog

  7. I understand where you are coming from, owning a couple of salons, having a ton of apprentices and assistants over the years and working at and with the biggest commission only salons, you get used to people sneaking out and taking their clients with them.
    Except I see them as “their” clients. As a stylist I was the one that worked my butt off for 60 hours a week to make those clients happy and I was the one that kept them coming back to the salon. The commission I paid was an even exchange and we both got a lot out of it. To this day I am good friends with every salon owner I worked for, no matter how angry they were when I was leaving, because on some level they realized that they had always been “just renting me”.
    You will never be able to make dishonest people honest, but there’s a really great book called “How to win friends and influence people.” By Dale Carnegie that illustrates that no one cares what anyone else wants, because just like you, everyone that works for you just wants it their way too.
    Thx for the article!

    • Hi Kiara,
      I’ve read it and I love it.

      I’m going to make your letter the subject of my next video blog for American Salon, because what you’ve written is exactly part of the problem.

      I think you are talented, driven and cool as hell. At least what I know about you.

      But your job was to keep the clients coming back. It was your job to do good hair. If you didn’t do those things you would have been fired.

      Hairdressers always act like this is something really special and extraordinary when they were just doing what they were supposed to do.

      The only thing that makes it extraordinary is that the majority of hairdressers won’t even do that.

      No owner would hire a young stylist, develop them, promote them, and then smile and wish them well when they stole information from the computer and left.

      I totally understand what you are saying because I used to think that way as well.

      • Thanks for the lovely compliments! Looking forward to your video! Funny enough that is exactly what I do with my employees if they ever leave! LOL!! My favorite quote…you get what you think about most of the time. So make those thoughts count! Best Wishes in your business!

  8. This is ridiculous. I appreciate you think you hold a higher standard, but im sure the underpaid stylist answering the phone is not handing over what salon the person moved to-their booking them for themselves! commission stylist wages are a joke. I would stand around for hours working for free (cleaning, answering phones, helping other stylist). When it was my turn to get a client-the pay was terrible! Say i did a service for $150, the salon takes $75 + cost of product ( which they make me use), and always overcharge me for. By the time taxes n are taken out i might see $50 of that -what a joke!! Its not stealing if its your client. People have to be sneaky beacause the salon wont let them have their own clients info. In essence you are being paid (rent), when you take 1/2 of the service. Doesnt make them salon clients. They obvious come for that salon, not your decor….you sound wealthy and arrogant. You obviously forgot how normal people live.

    • You have the mentality of a finger pointer. Understand that ou wouldn’t have been standing around waiting for clients if you had been spending your time promoting yourself and getting busy.
      Those that wait for it get nothing. Those that go after it get busy.
      Don’t blame the salon for taxes, blame your government. And if you were booked, you would have been making lots of money working commission. Nobody taught you how to be a success. And you should blame your hairdressing school and your first employer for that.

      I’m probably wealthy compared to some. I don’t think I’m arrogant but I suppose perception is reality. But here is what I did do:

      I became a fully booked hairdresser within a year of getting on the floor. Within 3 years I was top 3 in earnings in a company of 60 stylists while charging only $40 for a cut.

      I opened my first salon for $10k and busted my ass. I stood behind the chair full-time until 2 years ago and had a waiting list 4 months long and a $200 haircut price tag.

      I am all about accountability and kicking ass. Most hairdressers are not interested in working harder, they are interested in working less. I am all about filling your book and creating demand first so that when you work less you create even more demand and a higher price tag.

      I’ve never known how normal people live because I have busted my ass and fought for my success. I don’t want to know how normal people live in my business because most normal people in hairdressing are in poverty and are not happy.

      • Hi Michael, I find you so insightful. I have viewed a few of your videos and found value in each one of those. But a statement you made in your last post on this topic, I feel is the most profound. And that is, “I am all about accountability and kicking ass. Most hairdressers are not interested in working harder, they are interested in working less. I am all about filling your book and creating demand first so that when you work less you create even more demand and a higher price tag.” That says it all. It resonants so well with where I’m at in my career. I have been a hairstylist for several years now and am still working hard to build my brand. After reading this post, I now have a renewed mantra – Build A Demand. You’re absolutely right. Focus on Building a DEMAND; will Build the Brand. Thanks for sharing your insight.

      • Hi KNX Salon!

        Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know. I really like what you’ve written and I appreciate you letting me know my stuff connected with you (just like your salon name!)

      • Hi Micheal, I find you so insightful. I have viewed a few of your videos and found value in each one of those. But a statement you made in your last post on this topic, I feel is the most profound. And that is, “I am all about accountability and kicking ass. Most hairdressers are not interested in working harder, they are interested in working less. I am all about filling your book and creating demand first so that when you work less you create even more demand and a higher price tag.” That says it all. It resonants so well with where I’m at in my career. I have been a hairstylist for several years now and am still working hard to build my brand. After reading this post, I now have a renewed mantra – Build A Demand. You’re absolutely right. Focus on Building a DEMAND; will Build the Brand. Thanks for sharing your insight.

      • Wow, thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I am thrilled you found so much in there.

  9. Hi Micheal, I find you so insightful. I have viewed a few of your videos and found value in each one of those. But a statement you made in your last post on this topic, I feel is the most profound. And that is, “I am all about accountability and kicking ass. Most hairdressers are not interested in working harder, they are interested in working less. I am all about filling your book and creating demand first so that when you work less you create even more demand and a higher price tag.” That says it all. It resonants so well with where I’m at in my career. I have been a hairstylist for several years now and am still working hard to build my brand. After reading this post, I now have a renewed mantra – Build A Demand. You’re absolutely right. Focus on Building a DEMAND; will Build the Brand. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  10. I have been a successful career stylist since the age of 17, and after 12 years in the industry I can honestly say that I have never moved salons without a good reason. Poor managers, suddenly increased chem fees, rude or mistrained desk staff and bounced checks top the list. My clients come to see ME, and when they are not happy I consider them my first priority. If a salon is not ordering an appropriate amount of inventory and I do not have the tools to perform my job to the high expectations needed in this competitive market, I view this as my employer breaking our commission agreement. Our business contract is to provide me with a clean, professional work space to accommodate my guests and as compensation I give my employer a percentage of the business I bring in, when they are not holding up on their end up the deal it is time to move on. Considering most hair salons pay 1099 I do look at my business as my business. Also, no experienced hairstylist would sign a non compete in a high volume area, as it basically ties to you to an establishment that may be faltering in their business practices and handcuffs you to a boss that may not performing as they should. If you are truly offering your employees a good environment to the best of your ability and treat them well they will not want to leave because they will experience some loss of business in the transition. As far as those that leave to go on to open their own spaces, it seems owners forget that they at one time did the same thing themselves.

    • Awesome, and not discounting your experiences.
      I don’t hire anyone with a book, we train and build every single person in our salons. We support them.
      I’m not sure you read this fully. But there are plenty of bad commission salon owners but please don’t put the blame on them for the growing chair rental issues.
      Not everyone is happy in every location, that’s fine. We are talking here about stylists that are supported for years until they build then stealing from the salon the client list and going to rent.
      If I was a shit owner I wouldn’t have some of the most successful stylists in the country working with me.
      This article is about how the bad outweighs the good for those of us who invest heavily in our teams and support them from nothing.

  11. I have been a owner and manager for thirty eight years and I always been their
    To help to. Build a clientele I for the stylist was on commission for twenty years ,this is my second salon now I rent space witch is easier ,they have keys to work the days they rent ,I don’t have to be there all the time I have a great salon and talented stylist and master barber.their are six stylist at this time I have eight stations and three shampoo bowls. Very friendly salon.I have been blessed.

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