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Small Business Spotlight

How to Run a Successful Hair Salon…Without Any Online Marketing


The San Francisco hair salon business is known for being competitive, creative, and “cutting edge,” but in this city where so many tech companies have been launched, one neighborhood salon is doing things in a uniquely “old-fashioned” way – without even having a website.

Tom’s Beautiful Sexy Hair is a small San Francisco hair salon that is owned by two friends and business partners who both are named “Tom” – Thomas Songin and Tom Gardner. They relocated to San Francisco from Boston in 1995 and have been serving a diverse clientele from their 8-chair hair salon in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood ever since. San Francisco (and their immediate neighborhood) have gone through lots of changes during their 20 years in the city, but Tom and Tom have kept doing what they do best – offering beautiful, sexy hair styles in a charming, comfortable setting. Even without a website or any paid advertising, they’ve built a successful hair salon business in one of America’s most high-priced and competitive cities.

We talked with Tom Gardner, co-founder of Tom’s Beautiful Sexy Hair, about how he and Tom Songin got into business, how they chose their salon’s name, how they approach the work of training employees and building customer relationships, and why the best rewards of small business ownership are in the work itself.

Is it true that you don’t have a website? I couldn’t find a link to any website on your Facebook page.

We’ve never done any online marketing or paid advertising. We’ve always felt that the best advertising is word of mouth. We’ve created a quality business, and we’ve built it entirely on word of mouth.

Our goal has always been to build a business of regular, consistent clientele with local people who are regulars – we will take walk-ins, but our focus has always been on maintaining our clients. We have clients that we’ve had for 23 years. We have clients that have moved away and then a few years later they come back. We have clients who don’t even live in San Francisco, but every time they’re in town, they stop through and come to see us.

Being in San Francisco, we’re very involved in the community. We work with homeless organizations to give free hair cuts to homeless people, and we cut hair for a sisterhood of nuns from the Saints Peter and Paul Archdiocese, which is in our neighborhood. And our clientele is very diverse. We get a lot of schoolteachers, tech billionaires, and everybody in-between. We do a huge variety of people, and it’s a really lovely experience. We really get to see what’s happening in the world – we meet angels, we love our clientele – it’s fun to keep coming to work every day.

We’ve found that with hair salon marketing, referrals are the most important. We know that when someone gets referred here, they already have a good sense of who we are. When people see the work that we do for one of their friends and come in to get a haircut, they already know who we are. When people see the prices that we charge, they automatically are going to have a certain level of confidence to walk in the door – our customers are choosing us, we’re not choosing them.

A couple months ago, a Japanese girl walked in. I was working with a client and she said, “Tom! Tom!” She breaks out a cell phone; she shows me a picture of me from a few years ago with my arms around an Asian client whose hair I had just cut. And this woman spoke very little English, but she pointed to this picture on her phone and she said, very politely, “I want! I want!” And she made an appointment.

And that was my first real sense of the power of the Internet – this new client found us, and already knew who we were, just based on one photo from a friend. So now we’re working with a website designer and we’re going to have a website soon. We are already on Facebook; I know that Yelp has been very helpful, with lots of favorable customer reviews. Yelp would occasionally contact us asking to buy ads, but we never did because we didn’t need to.

What makes your business unique?

We’re in a lovely neighborhood, Telegraph Hill, San Francisco. The physical space that we’re in is quite beautiful, quite unique – we have only 8 chairs, so it’s a small shop, not a typical salon.

The work we do is exceptional – Thomas Songin is an exceptional hairdresser – with special expertise in color and cut. Thomas has his own unique clientele – he charges $150 per haircut. I charge $100 and we have someone in the shop that charges $75, and we also have coloring and other services that are priced identically, regardless of who does the haircut.

And we constantly travel for continuing education and shows; we’ve gone to shows in Europe and we typically attend 5 or 6 shows a year in the U.S. for continuing education. We’re always going forward.

I always joke that Tom Songin is “the talent” of our operation, and I’m “the storyteller” – but I’m the person who does all the visual design for our place. We’ve really put a lot of thought into the overall aesthetic of our salon, and it shows. It doesn’t look at all like a typical salon. Our salon chairs are all from the 1970s and have been refurbished. We have some brilliant local art that we’ve brought into the shop – photography, painting, and during the past few years I’ve been traveling to Southeast Asia and I’ve collected some beautiful antiquities and pieces from Burma and some other places.

We want people to feel really comfortable and well taken care of here, and we have created these little visual points of interest to keep the shop different and unique – we’re curating an experience for our clients.

How did you get started in the hair salon business?

When I first met Tom, he was already working as a very successful hairdresser in Boston, and at the time, I was working in real estate. We met when I was showing him a property. Then the real estate market crashed, and I was looking to start another business. Tom and I had become friends, and I always saw him having a great time with this great community of hair stylists, and so Tom encouraged me to get into hair dressing. But first I had to go to school for it. I was 30 years old at the time, and I was so old they gave me a scholarship!

But I discovered that I really liked the work. Tom was working in a top place in Boston, so I became an apprentice and I was learning from these incredible people who were part of an incredible hair dressing community. After 3 years of training, I decided it was time to open a shop. We knew we wanted to move away to a different warmer-weather city, and we had looked at Miami and L.A., and then we realized that San Francisco was where we wanted to be.

We came to San Francisco in 1995. I had wanted to open a 30-chair salon, because that had always been the size that I was more familiar with. But then we saw this little shop called “Hair Deux”. I think it’s still in business, but it was this beautiful little shop with just a few chairs, and it totally inspired me as the model for what our salon could be. And I remember, I said to Tom, “How brilliant! Let’s just open a little shop and not have to involve other people.” And that was the first time I saw a beautiful little shop like that, and it gave me the inspiration for what we wanted to do.

When we got started in running our own business, lots of people were very generous to us – where to shop, how to get started, how to build the business. And we try to do the same for other people who we work with at our shop today.

The girl and guy who work with us as our employees, we constantly train them and we tell them everything we know. We’re very open about everything, we don’t hold any information back, and we want to create a situation where if our employees want to get up and leave and go into business for themselves, they can.

We don’t believe in running our business by offering “chair rentals” to the younger stylists. For each of us, when we were first looking to start our salon in San Francisco, we realized that it would have been more expensive to rent a chair in someone else’s salon than to just own our own place.

We have an old-fashioned approach to developing talent – of getting trained in the salon and working your way up. We had a great girl who worked for us, she had been working in a restaurant, she went to beauty school, we encouraged her, we trained her, we encouraged her to go to other places, and she ended up working for us for six years, and later she went on to become a very successful and talented hair dresser. She recently came back to visit our salon for the day, and she did a color class for us, for free, and she said she was so grateful to us for what we did for her when she was just getting started.

So we feel like it’s best to be generous and share our knowledge, share our skills, and train people really well. It’s the right thing to do, and actually, we also get a lot out of it because we learn so much from the people we train and the people we work with! We’re constantly learning.

I always tell the people that we’re training, “Success is in the hands. Success is in the work.” The most important thing is the work! In the end, in this business, insincerity doesn’t last. If you’re doing it for ego, it’s the wrong reason. You might do something with a client’s hair that impresses someone else who works at the shop, but how does the client feel about it a week later? The work is the most important thing – knowing what you’re doing, being nice, building relationships.

And the great thing about this business, is that as you develop in hairdressing, if you’re fortunate, you should just get better and better at it, and become a maestro! I first got into hairdressing when I was 30 years old and everyone else at the training program was 10 years younger than me – and I was thinking, “Am I already too old for this?” And one of my trainers said, “No, Tom – you’ll just get better and better.”

You have a unique, direct, bold name for your salon: “Tom’s Beautiful Sexy Hair.” How did you decide on that name?

The reason we chose this name: when we first came to town, we saw lots of salons that had names like “Architects and Angels,” but we thought it was crazy because based on the name, you had no idea what they did or what they were selling. So one day we were like, “We do hair. We do beautiful, sexy hair.” So we decided to call our place, “Tom’s Beautiful Sexy Hair.”

When you relocated from Boston to San Francisco, what was the experience of relocating a business like – especially such a “location dependent” business as a hair salon? Did you find it hard to find new clients in your new city? How did you make a successful transition?

Our current location is the second space we’ve been in on this street. The old location was a famous old barber shop – early on, when I first moved to San Francisco, I got a haircut from the barber there, and 7 months later he died, and the space became available. So I called Tom (Songin) in Boston to tell him about this space that was available, and it just so happened that the client in his chair at that very moment was from San Francisco, and she said, “That is a GREAT location.”

So we started the business from two locations – San Francisco and Boston. Tom would fly out for a few weeks to do hair in San Francisco, and then he would go back to Boston for a few weeks to take care of his clients there. Actually we were fortunate, because we came to San Francisco right before the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, and we ended up having a lot of clients who moved from Boston to San Francisco to take tech jobs, so we had a lot of clients who “followed” us.

But our biggest success didn’t really start until I fully made a commitment to being here in San Francisco. Because for me, I had a difficult first year in San Francisco. Nothing was going right; I was having trouble getting licensed in California. I’m licensed in 5 states but this is California, where these things tend to be more complicated! So I went to work in catering, and those people ended up being the first clients that I had. But the biggest thing was commitment – I just had to really commit to being here and know that this was where my focus was going to be.

What advice would you offer to other salon owners?

Show up. Keep showing up everyday, whether there’s anyone on the appointment book or not. You never know who might walk through the door. Lots of future business might happen over the phone. Show up and be consistent. Be nice. Be polite, respect people. Continue with your education – keep learning all the time. And really communicate with people. Listen! And these are lessons that we constantly have to remind ourselves of, too. Some days we don’t know what’s going to happen, and then a guy shows up with his wife with a briefcase, and the briefcase is full of money.

Being a hairstylist is almost kind of a therapeutic relationship. And this can be taxing sometimes, but it can also be really special. We have a customer whose husband just died – she’s been our customer for 15 years; we were privileged to be invited to the wake for her husband. I’m getting to the stage of life where lots of my clients are dying, but that’s part of the journey that we go through together. We have clients who used to bring little children to the salon whose kids are now in college.

The business goes up and down based on the economy; you have a couple who gets married and moves away, you have people who move away to raise a family. Neighborhoods change. This neighborhood used to be a very working class neighborhood, now it’s more expensive and the clients have changed. In the past, most clients drove here for their appointments, but now we have more clients who live in the neighborhood because the neighborhood has gotten wealthier.

Everything today is evolving, and as business people we have to be ready to evolve and change. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that hair stylists have to keep bringing the attitude of hard work and integrity. Lots of people think that the salon world is all glamour and money and we have these great lifestyles – and some of us do! And you can make a very good living after you’ve worked your way up.

But no matter how much you charge for a haircut, on some level, as hairdressers we are hard working people, we’re humble, working class labor. And money is great, but the best reward is in the work. It’s craftsmanship, it’s art, and it’s an ongoing process of learning. Yesterday I just learned a new technique for coloring, and I’m so excited to share it with my next client. I love my job because I’m learning all the time!

Follow Tom’s Beautiful Sexy Hair on Facebook. Their website will be available soon.


Kabbage Team

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