When I was 17, like most high school seniors, I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest my life. And so, unlike most kids my age, I finished high school, and I enrolled in two schools — a bit from indecisiveness, a bit from boredom and a bit because I just wanted to try new things. I went to a regular college and also a cosmetology school. I figured that I was ‘supposed’ to have a college degree, and beauty school was something that interested me. At the end of the day, I felt I’d have some fallback options if one or the other didn’t pan out.
But then something happened. I fell in love with two careers. My boyfriend at the time convinced me to take a journalism class, and after scoffing at him, I eventually enrolled in the course. The first day in class, I knew: This is what I want to do in my life. That same week, during my first few night classes in cosmetology school, I remember when I had the same lightbulb moment I had in that journalism class. This is exactly what I want to do.
Fast forward a few years — I juggled regular college and a blossoming hairstylist career, and in tandem, these eventually led to me being able to move to NYC on my own, and then into a freelance career(s). If you’re on this site, chances are you know the story behind my career as a travel journalist/content creator, but more likely than not, you aren’t aware that I ever worked as a hairstylist.
During the eight years I spent doing hair, I worked in three salons, ran my own freelance bi-coastal business, had work published in Vogue Tokyo, Nylon, Wild Magazine and more, my clientele ranged from your girl next door to Lea Michelle, Paris Hilton, Lo Bosworth and others, and I did hair backstage for fashion shows, hustled during NYFW, worked with Maybelline and more.
And while each of my career paths were very different, I feel very fortunate that I was able to pursue two paths in tandem. And as I hairstylist, I learned valuable lessons for any entrepreneur:
1. Learn ROI-driven business skills. They are valuable in every industry.
When I worked in a salon, it was up to me (and only me) to fill my chair. If I didn’t work, I didn’t make money. So I got creative with how I marketed myself. I figured out that certain types of social media posts (and certain times to post) meant that I was able to increase my bookings — a valuable experience in affirming that social media is about more than just likes or comments, and a huge component of what eventually led me to consult for social media clients. I also learned how to run my own business. I set my own hours and prices, invested in my own products (and continued education), managed my own invoicing and learned a balance to earn my ideal hourly rate and bottom line in business.
2. Time management is crucial to success. Period.
When you’re at the salon, you need to know exactly how long it takes you to do a single task. If you’re running even just 15 minutes late (or your client is), and you’ve got back-to-back clients, your whole day can get thrown off track. Manage your time, plan ahead and develop the skill set to make quick decisions if something doesn’t go as planned. Learn how to discipline yourself to stay on schedule, even if you don’t have a boss prodding you on. Know how to manage marketing time vs. actual work/client time, and how to strike a balance between the two so you can maintain consistency in your freelance career.
3. You need to find your feeder fish.
One of my favorite business classes ever was a lesson on “feeder fish” for hairstylists. It’s a silly metaphor, but one that sticks. Say you want to make $100k in a year. Sounds nice, right? So that means you could, for example, book 1,000 clients throughout the year with $100 haircuts, or about 85/month. On one hand, this feels totally feasible — it’s just about 20 clients a week, and four a day (and technically, you could easily fit 8 into a day). But on the other hand, 85 clients a month seems like a lot. If you manage to book every single person on exactly the right schedule (cuts every 8 weeks), that means you need to find 170 clients. And maybe you don’t know 170 people who are in search of a hairstylist (pro-tip: you don’t). And you’ll quickly realize it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
It can be so much easier. Focus on finding your “feeder fish,” clients who are your biggest cheerleaders, can’t stop bragging about their cut and want to refer all of their friends. To run a successful business, on average, you need five of these individuals. Just five, and you’re set. Focus on spending your time developing and nurturing relationships with those five, and the rest will fall into place. Ready to get the ball rolling? Build out a referral system to bring these feeder fish out of the woodwork.
4. Talk to people outside of your industry.
Yes, it is unconventional to juggle two careers at once, and yes, it is challenging. But I found that many of my most valuable connections (both for business, as well as friendships) came from this unconventional path. Clients found both sides of my career interesting, and more often than not, they were more than willing to help make travel industry or media connections that I would not have otherwise had access to, especially at a young age. At the end of the day, I transitioned out of hairstyling because it was no longer my passion — but I am grateful for each of the people who I encountered through this career path.
5. Learn from what others are doing, but develop your own style.
In journalism school, you’re taught to listen. In cosmetology, the norm is to be the talker. In a lot of ways, the two careers are similar — you develop skills to encourage others to open up through candid connections — but each approach is very different. For a long time, I felt like I existed in a weird in-between for both careers, but over time, I found that these dual experiences actually made me better at communicating.
The same lesson goes for building a successful career. Just because something works for someone else doesn’t mean it’s right for you. When I did hair, I always balanced on-location and in-salon clients with other projects like photoshoots. Some hairstylists do make-up, some don’t, some only cut hair, some only color, and others do it all. No matter what career you’re in, surround yourself with others who inspire you, and then decide what path is best for your own future.
6. Teach clients (or team members) about how/why you’re doing what you’re doing.
I’m going to be blunt: People don’t understand hair. I promise — there’s about a million memes floating around hairstylists’ Facebook pages, and we joke about clients who have level 1 hair and want platinum blonde, and that’s also the girl who gives us an hour to do it and they have an $80 budget. And then there’s the girl who wants “curly but straight hair.” (True story.) And the one who wants Jennifer Aniston’s haircut, but has thick, curly hair, and doesn’t want to blow dry it daily. At first glance, these clients can come off as high-maintenance, but those individuals were often my most loyal clients. If you have expertise in something, use it as an opportunity to educate those around you to build loyalty and trust, as well as be more efficient and creative on your own terms.
The takeaways: Learn how to manage an effective consultation. Be clear about what you can (or cannot) achieve. Teach them about how and why something works the way it does. Communicate with them throughout the process. Under promise, and then over deliver.
7. Learn the value of a long-term relationship.
I was always shocked when hairstylists weren’t able to take one last haircut appointment because it was the end of the day and they didn’t want a walk-in, or when someone didn’t take the extra time to make someone feel really special before they let them walk out the door. Yes, I know you’re tired, and I know you’re busy. And yes, I know that doing a quick curl on someone’s hair doesn’t necessarily allow you to charge more, and a walk-in haircut might only mean $20 extra… that day. But get this: A client is not a one-time transaction. Squeezing in someone extra can mean six more slots filled in the year. They will remember that you took the extra time, and they’ll book you again and again (and likely, more frequently). It’s not just about being nice (which should be your default); it’s about good business.
8. It’s not about the hair. (translation: It’s not always what it seems.)
One of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a hairstylist was understanding that I can’t make everyone happy all of the time. Furthermore, sometimes there’s a client who’s high-maintenance and there’s always that one little hair or that one shade that drives them crazy, which means you’re going a bit crazy as well. Let me tell you a secret: It’s not about the hair. Chances are, they’re dealing with something else in their life that’s pushing them to act that way (and probably don’t even realize it). At one of my salons, there was a client who kept requesting different stylists. She was always happy when she left, but then called up 2-3 days later to complain and requesting additional services (at no charge). She was also going through a nasty divorce, and ultimately, it wasn’t about what we were doing with her hair — it had to do more with the fact that she was able to monopolize our attention. She was draining to be around, but at the end of the day, you have to deal with that type of person when they’re in your chair, and they have to deal with themselves all the time. And that, my friends, is one of the most valuable metaphors I know.
9. People care about how you make them feel, perhaps more than anything else.
I always laugh with my clients who let me do their hair when I was still in beauty school. I know they must love (and trust) me because they let me do their hair before I knew what I was doing. As my career progressed, I realized that the confidence I have with my friends is important to portray to strangers as well. When someone sits in your chair and trusts you to make a change in their life, there is an incredibly high level of trust. If you do not have confidence in your ability, then you will make them feel uneasy — which can often translate to them disliking their cut, even if you did a great job. Doing hair is about more than doing hair; it’s about helping someone see the potential in themselves. Understand that in all parts of life, it’s not about what you do; it’s about how you make someone feel.
10. Know your worth.
One of the biggest lessons in running your own business is knowing your worth. Entrepreneurialism can be exhausting, and it’s that much harder when you’re not making enough money or you’re overworked. Know exactly what makes you unique (and therefore what adds value for your clients), plan ahead for how you want your career to take shape, and then stand by these values when taking on clientele. It’s easy to say yes to all of the opportunities that come your way. But it’s more valuable to invest in yourself and your dreams.
Ready for success? Read my post on building your empire.