It’s generally assumed that most salons are owned or managed by former therapists who have years of industry experience under their belts. But there are those who enter the industry from different worlds entirely to open a beauty business without any prior experience, finding a unique set of challenges and opportunities.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing; I had to learn fast or sink,” says Jemima Holly, owner and manager of Bombshells Beauty in Plymouth. Holly left her job as a carer for the elderly to open her salon opposite a naval base after her partner, who is in the Navy, commented on the lack of local hair and beauty facilities for people in the forces. “We found a dilapidated building and thought it would make a great salon, but in the beginning I knew nothing; I had to learn what a therapist needed to do their job,” she says.
Holly spent months researching everything she could think she’d need to know, booking into local salons for treatments and getting to know the types of clients who live in the area.
“I’m so glad I spent all that time doing market research and learning those things; the demographics and footfall in the area and working out what my overheads were going to be beforehand,” she says.
Despite being as well prepared as possible, Holly says she regrets her naivety in the beginning as a first -time business owner with no knowledge of what equipment or product lines she should invest in. “You get people trying to sell you everything and it can be quite tricky to navigate, especially when you might not yet know who your market is. I invested in a machine that ended up costing me money because I didn’t need it,” she says, adding: “I made mistakes and learned the hard way.”
To avoid slip-ups where possible, Rebecca Dowdeswell, founder and owner of two Nkd Waxing salons in Nottingham and Leicester, made finding a salon manager with industry experience her first task upon embarking on her venture. “I knew I couldn’t have carried out a trade test myself when recruiting,” says Dowdeswell. “My manager had been in the industry for years, so I got her trained in intimate waxing, talked her through my vision and she helped me bring it to life.”
Having been a journalist and held various roles in the automotive industry before deciding to open a specialist waxing salon, Dowdeswell knew she wouldn’t be the best person to manage the business, her only beauty experience coming from being a client. “Because I don’t have a beauty background, I’ve never had an operational role in the salons. That’s not where my skills and expertise lie,” she says. “You have to surround yourself with experts. You don’t have that expertise yourself so you have to get people in that do”.
This is what Elizabeth Grieve did after deciding to swap her former career for beauty. Now manager of Charli and the Beauty Factory in Blackburn, Grieve first worked in the salon as a therapist but only had six months’ experience before being promoted. “I worked in child protection for 15 years. I’d reached a management role and was on quite a decent wage, but I’d always been interested in beauty,” says Grieve. “While on maternity leave, I decided to train in nails and worked from home for a while.” When the time came to go back to work, Grieve began part time in the salon owned by her trainer – Nail Harmony master educator Charli Jepson. After quitting her other job she was managing the salon within six months.
“There were definitely times I thought I might have made the wrong decision, moving from being home-based to a salon,” she says. “I was so used to being in charge of myself and my work and suddenly I wasn’t, but I think that spurred me on to have ambitions of becoming manager quickly; I started doing things like stock orders pretty early on, I took on a massive amount for myself straight away.” It didn’t get easier when Grieve became manager of the salon, as she faced difficulties with team members who felt they’d been overlooked for the role because they’d been at the salon for longer and had more industry experience than her.
“There were challenges because I could see changes that needed to be made to make the running of the business smoother and some people aren’t the best with change, but that’s life. There were staff that had been in the industry longer than me, so it took some time for some of them to get used to me, and I tried to make the changes slowly so it wasn’t too invasive,” she says. “I learned that you have to have the confidence to raise and clear any issues with your staff.” Staff management and recruitment is an industry-wide problem, but for those with no experience of ever hiring or managing staff, it’s an even bigger challenge. While she didn’t experience any kind of resistance from staff owing to her lack of beauty training at the time, Holly admits she lacked knowledge in terms of what to look for in potential therapists when she started Bombshells.
“Interviewees would show me their certificates, tell me what they could do and say they had a big client base, but then they’d start and it would turn out they actually didn’t,” she says. Just over two years after opening the salon, Holly recently secured a second premises in a local gym, and says she felt far more confident in how to find staff: “I now know to get references, and check out their social pages to make sure they’ve got a following and a decent client base. I learned the hard way.”
However, for Grieve, experience in recruiting gained from her previous management role was one of the things that stood her in good stead when she became manager at Charli and the Beauty Factory. “Coming from the sector I worked in – where I sat in on a lot of interview panels for Government positions – we had to do it properly, whereas in the beauty industry there’s no set structure for recruitment,” she says. The salon’s recruitment process was one of the first things she changed.
“I brought that structure with me, so when people sent a Facebook message or Instagram comment saying they wanted to apply for a job we were advertising, we asked for a CV and cover letter. We then held a full day of interviews and asked to see evidence of their work, plus a demonstration,” she says, adding: “I think some of the applicants were a bit shocked, but if they’re going to put themselves through that process then they definitely want the job.”
The somewhat relaxed attitude to applying for jobs in salons is something Dowdeswell was also shocked by when she first recruited for Nkd. She says: “One of the biggest challenges I faced in the early days was my professional expectations. Beauty has its own culture and it’s very different to how I’d worked in the past. I used to write off 90% of job applications because they weren’t professional enough. I’d get applications signed off with kisses, for example, but I’ve come to realise that that’s the norm, and just because someone does that they may still be a brilliant beauty therapist.”
Dowdeswell says she had to adjust her expectations and standards slightly in accordance with differences in working culture, but that other key elements to running a successful business remain the same across industries. “When I was working for car companies, I was doing a lot of marketing and branding; that’s where I’ve chosen to spend my time in the business. The brand was a big thing when we set up Nkd; I wanted to create something that set the salon apart from others and my background definitely came in handy. Being able to write good marketing material has really helped me grow the business over the years,” she says.
Management experience, no matter the industry, provides many transferable skills that can prove invaluable in a new career. Grieve says her previous position taught her “people skills”, adding, “It equipped me to know how to manage staff and different situations that can arise. It’s definitely helped me manage clients too.” Despite entering the industry with little to no prior knowledge of how to thrive professionally in their new environments, both Grieve and Holly found that skills they already had proved useful on the salon floor.
“I didn’t really think it would come in handy, but my bedside manner learned from years of being a carer really does lend itself to the job,” says Holly. “I know how to speak to people and be caring, compassionate and considerate. I think that’s helped me a lot, especially now I do treatments myself.” One thing Holly feels may have hindered her when she opened up the business, however, is having no working knowledge of a salon reception – something she regrets not taking the opportunity to learn in the early days. “I’d recommend going to a salon and volunteering to be a receptionist for a few weeks so you can get a bit of knowledge under your belt; things like knowing how bookings work, shift rotations and the different terms of employment you might have to navigate,” she says.
Entering the industry with ambitions to open a salon straight away is a daunting prospect, but one that can turn into a great success. Having launched a business with the subjectivity of someone on the outside and a clear vision of how to make her unique concept work, Dowdeswell’s Nkd Waxing has gone on to win multiple Professional Beauty Regional Awards and opened its second location in Leicester in 2017.
Her key piece of advice for others embarking on opening a salon without a background in beauty is to “build a well-rounded salon team who between them have all the experience and knowledge that you don’t. Don’t be afraid of employing people with more expertise than you.”