My Life As A Hairstylist

Salon owner, hairstylist, educator, product maker, photographer

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It’s Not You, It’s You.

Is success not happening for you? If you’ve been in the same town for a few years and you’re not successful, the issue is you.

Michael Levine is the co-owner of Space Salons, and the Vancouver Hairdressing Academy. The VHA is a revolutionary hair school where we teach you the craft of hairdressing faster and better than anywhere else. 2 time winner of Canadian Student of the Year.

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I Have a Love/ Hate Relationship With Hairshows

My wife and I attended the Long Beach ISSE for the 4th time in 4 years and we had a great time. ISSE has made one big change that made a huge difference in the experience, and that was to move all the classroom education into the main building instead of in a second building away from the actual show.

What this change has done is created a more education-friendly environment, where the show floor was quiet and the classrooms were packed, which is good because if you’re not careful and spend too much time on the show floor, you might see things like this:

Even when I am speaking at the show, I always sit in on seminars that I think will be helpful to me and our team. The first seminar we attended was put on by two prominent Instagrammer and colourists, was listed in the “Color” section of the education itinerary/ schedule, and was described as,

“_______________ will light up the stage with some life changing information. This class is all about HIGH IMPACT color placement that will change your life behind the chair.”

Upon arrival, the screen had a slide reading “10 Ways to Slay Your Life.”
I personally hate the word “slay” (almost as much as I hate “yaaasss,)” but I know I’m not the target audience for people who use those words. I still had high hopes though.

After the first presenter, who gave didn’t touch at all on colour in their 30 minutes but did give some inspiration, the second presenter came on.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone asks their audience to clap louder at the beginning of a performance. I feel it’s cheap and cliche to ask at all, let alone before you do anything to warrant it. And this second presenter did just that. Once she felt we had given her the proper amount and volume of praise, she spent 15 minutes talking about how powerful the information she was about to give us was. Her introduction to how mind-blowing the material she was going to present took half of her time on stage, as much as her delivery of the actual material! As the clock was ticking, she finally got to her slides, which seemed thrown together in the hotel room either that morning or the night before. Trust me, I know a little about writing a presentation at the last minute.

She told us to listen to Tony Robbins and also referred to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and then briefly broke them down, and told us if we can meet three of those needs for our clients, we can create lifelong raving fans.

Now all of this is solid information, especially if one has never studied entry level psychology or read anything on similar subjects, or listened to Tony Robbins. My issue with the presentation was how rushed it was because the intro was so long. She was trying to cram an hours worth of material into 15 minutes.

Another other pet peeve of mine is trying to sell tickets to another class during a class. You have to give value in each session you do, and a speaker has a responsibility to at least touch on things in the description of the classes they are leading. And this free class was solely to sell tickets to the paid color class later that day. Super annoying.

After we left this class, the next one we wanted to attend was full, so we walked the show floor for a while, where we came upon Habibe‘s booth, where he was selling sunglasses.

Sunglasses at a hair show! Ridiculous, it’s more flea market than hair at these things.

My wife and I bought a pair each.

We then made our way to the last class I wanted to sit in on before my own session started. We arrived early in order to guarantee a seat, and were surprised to find the speaker, Daniel Mason Jones, speaking and answering questions 20 minutes before his class started, giving out great information. This is something I like to do as well whenever possible, and I feel it really shows the sincerity of the speaker.

Once Daniel’s class started, his AV immediately died and he ended up doing his session without any slides. Charming, professional, funny, heartfelt, gracious, sincere… Liz and I hung on his every word.

In sitting in his class, I knew immediately how much work I had to do in my own business. He was wonderful, and a contrast to the morning’s session. It was a profound experience for me, and I was saddened I had to leave right at before it ended in order to get to my own classroom. It was among the best sessions I’ve ever attended, though there was little I was able to walk away with and apply to my life and career other than realizing how I had so much more to do. I will definitely be attending anything I can with Mr. Jones in the future.

My own session was called Incredible Salon Success, and I was with several fantastic business leaders. Led by my friend Larry Curtis, we simply introduced ourselves and then took questions from the audience. I enjoy the format because it requires little preparation and allows each panel member to chime in where they feel they can add. I found myself being perhaps a little aggressive with a couple of attendees in my answers, as I struggle when people start businesses without a plan. If you’ve read my posts or sat in one of my classrooms, you know I am raw and real, which is a nice way of saying I can be a bit of an asshole sometimes. For me to feel I was being aggressive definitely means I was.

After the class, we made our way towards the exits as our kids were in LA and had been alone since 8am. Luckily we ran into some good friends on our way out and were able to get some hugs and conversations in before hitting the road.

Two days later, we went to Pulp Riot Headquarters where I shot a haircutting and highlighting video.

Such an amazing day, capped with cocktails at Pulp Riot founders David and Alexis Thurston’s beautiful new home.

It was a fabulous trip and mini vacation that had us in the airport right when the Corona Virus scare was starting. 3.5 months later, I so look forward to a time when we can travel again and enjoy a trip and trade show without worry.

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How To Colour and Trim Your Own Hair

We aren’t shaming you, do your own roots if you need to.

Here are some tips and tricks from Michael Levine and Liz Abreu, owners of Space Salon and the Vancouver Hairdressing Academy.

– No henna
– Ammonia isn’t bad
– Natural doesn’t mean better for you
– Don’t try to go blonde
– Err on the side of slightly too dark and more neutral/ natural in tone

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And Another One Gone…

Yesterday I was contacted by students from another Vancouver hair school, a 25 year business which also operates as a salon. That business has suddenly closed, leaving their students’ without a way to complete their program. Apparently the students received the message via text yesterday. A few days ago, this company was posting how they are looking forward to 2020. Things are rarely what they seem.

I completely understand how difficult the salon business is and how challenging the school business has become in the last few years, especially since there are 2 schools in my city that are very hard to compete with. Kudos to them. And when Aveda and Evelyn Charles can’t make it work in your city, you know things are tough.

Closing a business is one of the hardest decisions to make and usually we owners hang on until there are no other options, which is always too late.

I led a seminar last spring at the Toronto ABA called When To Call it Quits. It was likely the first ever seminar of this kind, and in it I outline the signs to look for before its too late, how to get out with minimum exposure, who to pay and who to let sue you. That kind of thing.

The salon business is incredibly hard. For every brand that has managed to maintain their size and actually grow over the years, there are 1000 that cannot survive the first 3 years.

I worked like a maniac the first decade, and we made good money between years 7 and 18 of salon ownership, and lost almost everything in the 19th year. I wish I could take back 2 bad decisions I made, and there are a few things over the years I’d change if I could. We are in recovery mode today and I think 2020 will be a positive year. I think we have a wonderful team and we’ve gone back to basics in a lot of ways. I just don’t have the same energy at 50 that I did at 30.

Our business, like the restaurant business, is cyclical. If you’re up, unless you are very careful, you will go down eventually. Think back to all the top restaurants 20 years ago. Think about the top salons 20 years ago. I’m not naming names but almost all will have either shrunk, have aged poorly, or don’t exist.

What’s my point?

Build your business with a strong foundation. If “success” happens quickly, you will probably be in real trouble if you don’t take advantage of it and build something lasting that doesn’t rely solely on talented people.

Lastly, don’t get arrogant when you’re up, and understand there is no shame in the struggles you may be facing.

The question is, what are you doing about it?

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Who’s Going to #ISSELB?

How to survive2
Who’s going to be at Long Beach ISSE in January?

I’m going to be speaking twice on Sunday, then I’ll likely hang out at the Pulp Riot stage as well.

My first session is geared towards owners and managers, and I’m going to address the reality of the business;
how, through a lot of hard work, good systems, trial and error, and a lot courage, my wife and I became very successful.

And how after some poor decision making and mismanagement, solely our fault, we almost lost everything, suffering 2 walkouts, the most recent being 4 months ago.

I will be putting it all out there: what happened, the mistakes we made, and how are we navigating the hardest challenges we’ve ever faced in 20 years as salon owners.

This is going to be the first time I’ve spoken about our issues and this is largely the reason my blog has been quiet for the last year.
Sunday, January 27, 2019: 9:30 AM – 10:45 AM
Room: Hyatt – Seaview C

My second session will be as part of the Incredible Salon Success panel with some people I truly respect and look up to. I’m looking forward to adding my perspective to this group.
Sunday, January 27, 2019: 2:45 PM – 4:00 PM
Room: 104A

I look forward to being back in California and seeing some familiar and new faces.

I’m back, older, wiser, and will continue to bring the reality that nobody else talks about.

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Stop Making Excuses

Doing what you love is easy, and hairdressers are among the luckiest people because they get to do what they love all day. But most of us wish for more; more success, more money, more respect, more publicity, more notoriety.

To get more you need to put in the real work and often that means getting better at the things that you aren’t good at or don’t enjoy as much. It involves tackling challenges rather than shying away from them, and taking risk when you are afraid and unsure.

Achieving mediocrity is easy, achieving something great is hard, but you’ll find it far more rewarding once you overcome your challenges.

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Empathy, Perseverance, Responsibility, and Thinking Bigger

shutterstock_452441251I reached out to a realtor looking for a new space and discovered a very new salon, less than 2 years old, is now available for sale. This is the owner’s 3rd location that has closed, changed hands, or is closing. This is a person who may be a very talented stylist but is not equipped to own a hair salon. Salon ownership is hard, and if you go into it without plans for a real, actual business, you will fail. It’s inevitable, and it is why the vast majority of salons close.

I recently closed a salon, and I caught myself feeling like, “I’m tired of trying to take over the world.” I am reevaluating who and where I want to be in  the industry .”
I currently have 28 employees and 4 locations and I told myself I was no longer interested in growing and that I was simplifying.

And this is business suicide.

Salon ownership kicks you in the balls over and over again until you decide you don’t want to get kicked anymore. So you downsize and just rent the chairs. You’re done with the bullshit and you have no fight in you anymore. And this is where you will start hammering the nails into the coffin.

Luckily, like Kenny Powers, (very NSFW and dirty, I advise against clicking this link) I listen to my own recordings and I gave my head a shake and got my act together again. In business, you are either growing or you are dying. There is no such thing as maintaining what you have.

Salon owners are trying to make money by billing by the hour and relying on the talents and skills of individual employees. It’s very much like a law firm but but with much smaller income and a ridiculously low profit margin potential. In order to mitigate the losses when your top talent inevitably leave you, you must constantly be developing new talent. This year I lost 2 of my long term and high earning employees. And other than emotionally, I wasn’t really hurt in any way. In fact, our numbers really didn’t change much.

If you offer your team a path, provide them a cool salon in a good location, and never stop growing and developing your team because you know that you will lose people, you will be OK. You just have to keep the fire going.

A couple of years ago I was asked to speak at Paul Mitchell The School in Costa Mesa, California as well as do a Masters interview for Winn Claybaugh. This audio is and excerpt from that interview, where I cover a few different ideas, but they all come together with my usual message;
Grow up, look in the mirror, get your act together, and think big.


These Two “Successful” Hairdresser Behaviours Need To Stop

There are so many amazing hairdressers out there, but social media has made industry stars out of some people that may not be the best business people.

Take your cues from truly successful people and you will understand why these two behaviours are counterproductive to your long-term success.

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How Hairdressers Can Create Imagery and Content for Instagram, and Why It Matters.


Instagram is like a drug. You get some action on an image and you keep checking back every 30 seconds to hopefully watch your engagement grow and to read comments on how great your image is. It’s a huge rush when an image gets a little traction and you think,

“Finally, this is the one that is going to grow my following.”

And then it starts to dwindle because every second there are 10,000 new images being posted that are just as good or better than yours, (come on, be objective, it’s the only way to improve) and in 24 hours your image is almost meaningless. And you need that hit again.  It’s exactly like smoking rocks. Or so I’ve heard…

And then you see certain accounts taking off and you wonder WTF? Why them? My wife started an IG account last year and gets as many or more likes per picture on average with way less followers than I get with my almost 10K. I have several employees with less than 3000 followers who get way more engagement than I do, and all my followers are legit. Full disclosure, I bought 1000 followers about 5 years ago but  I lost them in the Great IG Purge of 2014.

Now if you’re old like me, you might be wondering, “Is it worth it? Will it really help my bottom line?”

YES IT WILL! In fact, if you don’t use it, it will hurt your bottom line. Here’s why:

People under 25 use Instagram as their search engine for a lot of things. Google to them is almost like the Yellow Pages to us. They search for things they are interested in via IG hashtags. If you don’t have a strong IG presence, not necessarily in following but in the quality of your page and your images, you are losing not just potential clients but your current clientele to the competition.

Have you ever had a client show you a photo of what they want on Instagram? I had just someone send me an image from another local stylist’s IG page. Thankfully she might not have known that stylist was local, and a friend of mine.

Still not convinced, because you have a loyal clientele that loves you and your book is full? You think you don’t need to use the gram to build because you are already where you want to?

Consider this: Your clientele is getting older every day, just like you are. You can become an old hairdresser with an old clientele and watch your career slowly shift into 8/0 and 20 volume grey coverages all day, or you can become an old hairdresser with a more varied and youthful clientele. Where do you want to be?

I spent a day in the studio with Monika Quatrano shooting a How To video for the Vancouver Hairdressing Academy, our school. I knew she was an amazing colourist and finisher, but to watch her in action and to see how much attention and time she spends making sure her work and then her imagery is perfect and representative of her brand was a revelation. She spent 45 minutes finishing her model and then another 45 minutes shooting it, restyling as she went along to keep it perfect.

What Monika taught me is that every image you put out has to best exemplify you, your work, the work you are an expert in, and most importantly, your brand. There are no shortcuts, it’s hard work. And if you want to stand out in a crowd, you have to put everything you can into each image.

Another thing Monika taught is about engagement. Monika grew her account not just with incredible work and a signature look, but by WORKING her social media. By being an active and involved member of a community. She started growing her page by becoming a 1000orBust member and then eventually becoming a mentor with them. By being actively involved in supporting and helping others, you will build a community around your own page.

I’ve learned a few things along the way to mediocrity in my own Instagram account as well. I can’t tell you very much about growing a following other than that you must engage with people if you want them to engage with you. That’s a lot of work and a big reason I struggle to grow my own account.

But I can help you to take a better image. Here are some tips:

  • Learn from other successful IG accounts or from stylists who put out imagery and content that you love or that resonates with your brand. Copy them until you develop your own voice. It’s totally OK to copy people, just credit them as an inspiration. And there are a lot of genres and ideas out there. Look at Dominick Serna’s page as an example of someone who has created a unique niche that stylists and consumers are loving.
  • Make your page public and viewable! Yes, it’s super cool to be exclusive and mysterious. But guess what? It’s actually not, and nobody gives a shit about your account unless you are famous or they can see your content. And even if they can see your content, most people still don’t give a shit, so at least make it easy for the few people interested in you. If Guy Tang is public, you should be as well.
    I personally won’t follow anyone who is private, and there are a lot of you.
  • Keep consistently putting out great imagery, and delete anything bad or with no action. Remember what I wrote above about being objective? Clean up your page, nobody is going back 6 months on your page, so get rid of the duds, but absolutely repost the cool older stuff as you grow.
  • Do free work in order to grow your business in a new direction. Do you wish you could do more vivids in the salon but you don’t have any in your current clientele? Do you wish you could do more barbering but you don’t have a male clientele? Offer your work for free in order to create imagery to attract the clients you want. Better yet, do a model call and get your co-workers together and do a little jam session and get a photographer friend to shoot it for you.
    And take the time to style your model multiple ways so you can get multiple images. One good model can get you 4-5 strong images if you change angles, crops, and styles.
  • Never shoot in Instagram. That means always use your phone’s camera app rather than shooting in the IG app itself. When you shoot in Instagram, you are limiting your image to a square determined by the width of the device the viewer has. That means for longer hair, you will need to be further away from your subject, leaving empty space on the sides of the subject and forcing you to frame your subject from further away.
    If you shoot on your camera app and then add it to IG, there is a handy arrow on the lower left that allows you to toggle between square and 4X5, allowing you a traditional style image, which means you can fill the frame with about 20% more. It is like night and day in it’s impact.
  • Lead With the After Pic. Makeovers and Before and Afters are a great way to showcase your skills and show meaningful change. When you do a B&A, never show the before pic first when featuring a makeover. Most of the time, people won’t even notice there are multiple images together, and even if they do, many won’t bother. Consider how you use IG. Do you read everything or do you quickly scan. Assume people are scanning and show your best right away. You can also do a split screen, but make sure your framing is complimentary to the work. I personally don’t like a lot of busyness to an image, so if you are going to have multiple shots in one image, make sure it looks good.
  • Shoot Tight. It’s a much bigger impact to fill the screen with your hair image, but don’t use your camera’s zoom to frame your shot, use your feet and arms and move the camera closer. Digital zooming or cropping in tighter after the shot degrade your image substantially. So get awkwardly close to your subject and try to frame the work as closely as possible to what you want during the actual shoot. If you are shooting an SLR camera, this is less important as you are generally working with more pixels.
  • To receive, you need to give. Tag the pages that share people’s images and engage with them. Comment on other people’s work. Become a positive and contributing member to the Instagram community. These people/ accounts will engage back with you and the return can be good. You have to have other people sharing your stuff and engaging with you. It’s hugely important.
  • Repost other people’s work. This is also about engaging with others but it helps you to constantly be adding new content to your page even if you haven’t got anything of your own to post.
    But make it very clear that you are inspired by the other artist. It’s a total douche move to imply to your following that it’s your work. Most people quickly scan their feeds so you need to make it super obvious it’s not yours.
  • Get a ringlight, and finish your clients flawlessly in the salon. A ringlight can look generic in the result but it creates even and contrasty lighting and generally doesn’t effect the white balance on your phone because they are usually flourescent, which cools down your blondes. Also, vivid work looks incredible when lit with a ringlight. If you don’t want a ring light, see below.
  • If you are shooting with available light, always have your back to the window or light source. Never shoot across or into the light, the light must be behind you, facing what you are shooting. It’s the first rule of shooting with natural light. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule but master the rule first. Monika Q always shoots with available light and her stuff is amazing. Light is everything to showcasing your work.
  • When shooting longer hair, stand back. Your camera’s screen is much longer than 4X5, so if you framed it for what you saw on your screen, you will have to crop out length when posting it to IG. Instead, stand back a bit so you won’t lose your length when cropping.
  • Use the process of shooting your work to improve. If you want to get better, you have to know that there is room to improve. Look at your work critically. The camera showcases all the things wrong with your work, much like stepping way back from it when working. I’ve seen things in the image I couldn’t see in person. Look at the image and if it needs fixing, sit your client or model back down and fix it. usually there are lengths that don’t line up, or straight bits in your curl, or your waves are too compressed and not loose enough. You’ll see lines in your fades, bits in your bobs, uneven perimeters, straggly bits. The camera is a great critic. Use it as a way to improve your work.
  • Get a new phone, or better yet, a real camera. If your phone takes bad pictures even after trying to improve your shots with light and positioning, it;s time for an upgrade. I personally like my LG G7, but almost all phones released in the last 2 years take amazing shots. But the newest phones are able to achieve a bokeh effect, which gives your images a much more dimensional look. I personally am a photographer and a bit of a purist, so I prefer an actual camera. I shoot Sony myself, and you can get their entry level mirrorless camera with a great lens for under $800.
  • Use filters. Most of them look crap, but you can touch the filter a second time and dial it down. I like Clarendon and then I’ll dial it back to between 10-20%. It will give your image a bit more pop. And if your image is looking a bit yellow, lower the warmth or desaturate it a little. Play around with things, but less is more.
  • Follow the formula for success in the genre you like to work in. Do what everyone else does on IG but with your own slant. There is a huge amount of noise out there but the formula is clear: vivids, waves, sexy hair. And cute girls and boys.
  • Create videos. People love to see a video makeover and it seems video content is becoming bigger than still imagery. But this opens up an entire now can of worms if you struggle, and even more issues if you don’t have a friend or co-worker who can shoot for you. Not every video has to be a big production like this, and as much as I would like to be fun like these guys, it’s not my style. But you can create super cool video by yourself. Firstly, follow the same lighting ideas you would use for an image. Instagram doesn’t lend itself to a 16:9 video format very well, so shoot your video vertically if using a phone.
    I shot this entire video myself just by propping my camera  on the counter in a few different positions so I could get some different angles. I had someone help with the cape trick at the end, but you can do cool things alone with the help of a few tools. Quick cuts, no more than a couple of seconds, are more interesting for videos, and at first your videos will probably suck, but keep at it and eventually you will be creating cool content that people will love.
    And even if you are doing one thing that looks kind of cool, grab a co-worker and ask them to video for you for a few seconds. I got a lot of action for this quick video, which took zero effort and no editing. Interesting content is key.
  • Include a few selfies. There are a lot of people who want to look at your face, not just your work. People want to see a bit of personality. Me? I honestly hate anything with oversized eyes and some ears on your head, I truly think there is nothing that shows a lack of creativity more than your Snapchat pics, but I’m probably not your audience so ignore my opinion. But even an ugly old chunk of coal like me gets a decent amount of love on the selfies I post.
  • Tag what locals will be looking for in finding a new stylist. Remember what the entire point of it is: to position yourself as an expert in your niche, which is hopefully in high demand, fill your chair, your book, create a situation where demand exceeds supply, and then raise your prices. You can do this with a relatively small following provided you are putting out the type of work people want to wear. Use local hashtags so potential clients can find you easily.

It’s a non-stop grind and unless your work is truly fantastic, your growth is going to take time and consistent effort. I’ve been blessed to have had some very big accounts sharing my work and trying to push me and I still can’t seem to crack 10,000 followers. I’m on some big stages and I’m also a little bit well known in hairdressing and it’s still a struggle for me. But I’ll leave you with this:

My wife and I were out to dinner with this crowd. Throughout the dinner, phones were out constantly as a lot of what we were doing and saying was becoming a part of their Instagram stories. In fact, I was asking @hairbykaseyoh something Instagram related while Jenny Strebe was quietly recording me and turning it into her story. It was fun, very social, and it taught us that becoming truly big on Instagram is a full-time job in itself and that these guys never stop creating new content for their pages and their stories.

For many of us, we just aren’t dedicated enough to see the results that these people enjoy. And that’s OK, there is nothing wrong with that. Having 10K, 20K or 50K followers is not going to make you a whole lot happier than you are now unless a number is your goal. And if a number is your goal, then just buy your following like so many other people out there (you know who you are. Shame.), because pursuit of a number for the sake of a number is empty and soulless and won’t make you happy.

But if you want to increase your brand awareness and show people what you are capable of, start creating content and putting it out there. It feels good to see people experiencing and appreciating your work outside of the salon, and it absolutely will help you to bring new people to your chair.

So, keep at it, Instagram under-achievers! It’s a slow process but remember, you can’t catch if you don’t pitch.