10 Things I Learned From My First Business

My first career as a professional hairdresser lasted eleven and a half years. I worked at Jack’s Hair-em for six and a half years then ran my own salon – Cathy’s Coiffures – for five more years, still in my 20’s. It gave me a wonderful sense of pride to be my own boss and taught me many valuable lessons. Here are 10 things I learned from my first venture in business:

1) Technique
If you want to be successful in your chosen field, you have to be good at what you do.

During those 1500 hours required for a Cosmetology license, I practiced a lot. It wasn’t always easy for me to create a certain style. Dancing curls were all the rage, but hair piled high in loops and swirls just didn’t make music for me. Try as I might, it just fell flat. But I kept practicing until it became second nature. Now, hair cutting… I was good at that! I could razor cut a bob or shag into pure poetry in motion. Those 2 talents became my specialties.

2) Advertising
If you want people to know where you are and what you do, you have to advertise.

Being a stylist in my local neighborhood, I had a built-in clientele. My customers were girls I knew in school, their mothers, sisters, grandmothers, boyfriends and children. You can’t beat word of mouth advertising. My business thrived on it. I also did newspaper ads with coupon specials for light-duty days, like: Tuesday and Wednesday, Cut and Perm Specials.

My salon was on a busy street and the uncovered picture windows allowed passersby to see what was going on inside. I kept the window box filled with live foliage plants, and hanging baskets made by clients. It looked pretty and did not obstruct the view. Mr. Roby said I needed to attract the attention of night traffic as well, so he purchased an electric sign with flashing lights that advertised hours of operation, the phone number, and rotating specials.

Every business requires some type of advertising that will be determined by what you offer.

3) Customer Service
Be good to your customers and they will be good to you.

It goes without saying your customers deserve to be treated with respect. It’s also important they enjoy coming back. In my salon, clients appreciated the bottomless coffeepot. They would bring in homemade baked goods to share, and often compete with one another on whose cake was the fluffiest or best decorated. Their artistic efforts were displayed in macramé, potted plants, and an array of craft projects that decorated my walls and windows. It gave them a sense of pride to show off their work and allowed them to share ideas while awaiting their comb-out or blow-dry.

4) Competition
My boss at Jack’s Hair-em always said, “Never worry about the competition. They can’t hurt you, they can only bring more business into the area.”

There were 3 salons within a block from us in each direction, and many others throughout the neighborhood. We knew each other, and our customers frequented them from time-to-time – but they always came back to us. It’s good to know your competition and be aware of their business practices, techniques, similarities and differences. You can learn from them, copy them even teach them a thing or two – all in good spirit. But your style is unique and customers come to you because of who you are and what you do for them. You may not have the best product or even the best price; but you have something that they can’t get anywhere else. That something is the essence of you.

5) Inventory Control and Scheduling
Know what you have on hand, know what you might be missing, and know what you will need for the future.

When Jack went away for his 2-week military reserves training, I was left on my own – straight out of beauty school. I knew how to do my job, but I had to learn how to keep up with supplies. Towels had to be washed and folded every day and neatly stacked by the washbowls. Coffee cups, cream and sugar, and that endless coffeepot had to be filled. Tints and toners, perm solutions, cotton rolls and paper products had to be on hand. If you used one and had five in reserve, you were in good shape for tomorrow. But, if you used one each on Tues/Wed/Thur, you better have enough for the weekend crowd.

It wasn’t enough to keep supplies on hand. I had to check the schedule to see who might be coming in for what process. If I had several color touch-ups on the book, I had to check supplies for product on hand and pre-order what might be needed. It didn’t make sense to overstock items that were not in demand, but have plenty of the popular items in case of emergency. And, when we ran a perm special, we had to have enough in stock for the unexpected walk-in customers.

6) Employee to Customer Relations
Not every customer is a jewel. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue; sometimes you have to cut them loose.

For the most part, my clients were sweet, kind and very easy to work with. They gave me free reign with their hairstyles and trusted that I knew what would look good on them. On the other hand, some were demanding and exacting, and I was a people pleaser. I had to follow a magazine photo to the last detail or they would take the comb from my hand and show me how to do it right. One even jumped out of my chair in the middle of a haircut and started screaming that I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew she was wrong but I didn’t argue; and, when she tried to pay me, I respectfully declined.

One lady came in every busy Saturday smelling like gin. She would fall asleep under the dryer and wake up with renewed determination to make my life a living hell. I never satisfied her, never got “it” right. But she came back every busy Saturday. I had to post affirmations on my mirror to remind me, “nothing can disturb the calm peace of my soul.” Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. She made some biting remark; I threw my comb on the floor and dashed off to the bathroom to collect my thoughts. When I returned, I calmly told her to book an appointment someplace else. After all, I couldn’t satisfy her; why did she keep coming back? She replied, “Because you keep taking it.” Lesson learned. I don’t have to take that anymore.

7) Employee to Manager Relations
Sometimes you have to deal with employees that are lazy, sloppy, foul-mouthed or inept.

One of my coworkers at Jack’s was biting, sarcastic, and sometimes used words my virgin ears had never heard. She would be so sweet to her clients while they sat in her chair, but once under the dryer, she would gossip and tell all their business. To my everlasting shame, her manner rubbed off on me and I started to mimic her. Thankfully, I learned to distance myself by moving my station to the other side of the room where I was better able to concentrate and didn’t have to participate in constant chatter. Since she and Jack were old friends, and she was a good stylist with a following, he never attempted to rein her in. I don’t know how long she lasted because it wasn’t long after that I left Jack’s Hair-em and opened Cathy’s Coiffures a few blocks away.

At my shop, I employed a sweet young shampoo girl named Cindy who was practically perfect in every way: cooperative, good with patrons, liked to keep things tidy and clean. Until, one Saturday she was expected to come in, she didn’t show up. When I phoned her, she told me she just didn’t feel like it. I told her that wasn’t a good enough reason to leave me stranded on a busy weekend; so, either show up now, or don’t bother to come in next week. She realized her error and came running. Problem solved. Later, when I hired a second shampoo girl, Cindy trained her to be a model employee by assigning tasks and establishing rules.

I also hired a stylist who was very nice and customers really liked her. But, no one liked the way she did hair. I kept her on staff for the walk-ins, but she never developed a following of her own. After months of agonizing over it, I finally let her go. It’s hard to dismiss a likeable person.

8) Housekeeping
Keep your tools and workplace clean and sanitized.

Sanitation is a very important function in the beauty salon. State Board Representatives make unannounced site visits that can result in hefty fines for a salon that does not follow designated sanitary requirements. We had to keep our tools and workstations clean using Barbicide disinfectant, promptly sweep up hair clippings, and generally maintain sanitary conditions throughout the salon.

9) Bookkeeping
Keeping good records mean balancing the checkbook, matching purchase receipts with payment methods, and filing official documents and forms in a timely manner to maintain your business in good standing.

The best part of being in business for me was learning about tax write-offs. I love a legitimate business deduction and appreciate that businesses are allowed certain tax benefits. While I have always followed good bookkeeping practices, thanks to my Mom’s advice, and there are software packages like QuickBooks that organize income and expenses, I do believe in hiring a professional tax preparer/adviser who will find all the benefits my business can take advantage of.

10) Continuing Education
It is important to continue learning about your chosen field and watch for changes that can improve your performance or make the job easier, and even more fun.

While I considered hairdressing as more play than work, I was always motivated to learn about new products and trends. I subscribed to industry magazines and attended classes and seminars sponsored by my suppliers. The yearly beauty convention was a fun-filled field trip to a downtown hotel where my staff and I saw new techniques and products demonstrated. The suppliers gave out free samples and merchandise discounts, and we got to participate in hands-on activities that we brought back to the salon to benefit our clients.

As I said before, I gave really good razor cuts. But, when the fashion changed to scissor cuts and blow-dry styling, I wanted to see what the competition was doing. I made an appointment for one of my friends at The Crimpers on Oak Street – Chicago’s premier Gold Coast salon in the ’70s – so I could watch them scissor cut and style her hair. While the technique was new to me, the results were much like my original work. However, the experience helped me introduce the new concept to my more mature clients who were resistant to change. It revolutionized my business and attracted a younger “more hip” clientele. It was good for me professionally and financially great for business.

Next Time:
I’ll tell you how getting fired from my job was the best thing that could happen.

I hope you find my experience helpful, inspiring, or at least an easy read. Feel free to leave a comment or suggest topics that interest you.