Business Management

School’s Out

A practical guide to success in the nail business for students, recent grads, and newcomers.

When you have finished all the hours of training, learned all about nail anatomy and diseases, practiced every known nail extension service, and memorized the state board regulations, you’d think you’d be ready to start working on real clients and earning real money.

But as every veteran nail technician and salon manager will tell you, your education is only beginning. There are many things you don’t learn in school: how to find the right salon, what compensation method suits your needs, how to develop a clientele and a professional image, and where to get continuing education.

The following guide is for students, recent graduates, and any other professional whose career could use a refresher course.


A professional image begins with a professional attitude. Take your chosen profession seriously and set goals for yourself. Act businesslike and strive to be the best: provide the best service, constantly improve your skills, and treat clients with respect.

When it comes to your workday appearance, the tone of the salon dictates your dress. Aim for a well-groomed, neat appearance.

Whether you are running errands or working in the salon, make sure your nails are at their best. Clients won’t believe in the need for great looking nails if your own are a mess. Carolyn Mitchell, a nail technician at The Ultimate Touch in Orlando, Florida, recommends wearing nails natural or with a French manicure to avoid polish disasters.

Check your personal life at the salon door. Clients like to know you’re human, but resist the temptation to tell clients the details of your personal life. Be a good listener.

Be courteous with clients and let them guide the conversation. Encourage them to talk about themselves and avoid controversial subjects. Lindy Hornaday, a nail technician in Palmdale, California, says, “Don’t talk about politics or religion, and if they do, just don’t disagree with them, no matter how you feel.”

Other dont’s include smoking or chewing gum, folding your legs underneath yourself, and taking your shoes off. Bad-mouthing other technicians or salons will make the client think you also ridicule her behind her back. Hold all phone calls during services and allow yourself short breaks between customers to answer messages. Never mislead a client. If a client wants acrylics to grow out her nails and then expects to remove them and have long, beautiful nails, tell her what she can realistically expect.

Your professional image will help you gain and retain clients, but it also will improve the image of the industry as a whole.


Finding a job is sometimes easier said than done. Many salons are looking for nail technicians, but few advertise. Knowing where to start is difficult, and cold-calling yellow page listings is a daunting task.

Visit salons, introduce yourself, and observe how they operate. Ask owners if they hire beginning nail technicians. You may not get any job offers, but you will become familiar with different management styles and atmospheres. Or, schedule a few “informational interviews.” Call a salon owner or veteran technician and ask her for 15 minutes to gather information about the field.

Prepare a resume. “List your general grade average and the  skills you learned in school. Emphasize that you are a recent graduate and are willing to learn. Voice a willingness to take extra training,” says Beckett.

When you’re ready to find a job, start at school. Many beauty schools have placement services or have a network of salons they refer new graduates to. It’s best to start there because you know these salons are willing to hire and train beginning technicians. Some distributors and supply houses also post job openings.

Don’t take the first job you’re offered just because you’re scared you won’t find anything else. “Take the time to prepare,” says Ingarra. “It shows you’re serious about your work.”

Observe other technicians in the salon. Are they happy? Are they people you could work with? Ask for a second interview and a chance to talk to the other technicians. This process is more time-consuming, but you’ll be happier in the end. Also ask if the salon will train you and work with you on different techniques. A good salon will help you improve your techniques, cut your time, and build your clientele.

In return, beware that the salon owner has certain expectations of you. She wants a dependable technician who will work set hours. Many salons offer extensive training, but they expect you to remain loyal to the salon in return.

Be honest with the salon owner. Let her know what techniques you can and can’t do, how long different techniques take you, and your strengths and weaknesses. Don’t deprecate yourself, but let her know your capabilities. Most salon managers will be impressed with your frankness, and it will save frustration and disappointment in the long run.


When you first start searching for a salon, compute the minimum income you need to pay your expenses, and look for a salon that can provide this.

It’s also important to know how new clients are distributed. Some salons give each new client to a different technician until everyone has one. This is great unless there are 10 technicians in the salon, because you’ll only get one of every 10 new clients. The nail experts we spoke to recommend avoiding booth rental until you have built a steady clientele.

Says Ingarra, “With booth renting you pay your own taxes, supplies, advertising, and booth rental, but you need to have the clients to pay for it.”

`Salary is ideal for the beginning nail technician because you are guaranteed a set amount of money for your time. If you’re offered a salary, ask the salon owner when you can switch to a commission basis. It’s rarely to your advantage to stay salaried for long because you do make more money on commission. You might be able to negotiate a base salary plus commission for a six-month period and then cut to commission only.

While salary may sometimes be ideal for a new technician, some salons simply cannot afford to pay a base salary. In that case, commission is the next best thing. Do some research and find out what the average commission for your area is, but don’t expect to get top dollar unless you already have a large clientele.

If you find a salon you really like but you aren’t satisfied with pay or other stipulations, feel free to negotiate. Says Beckett, “Don’t ask for an outrageous amount, but make sure you get what you’re worth.” And put everything in writing.

You should start earning enough to pay your bills in a matter of months. Then it’s a matter of building a healthy clientele. How do you know when you’ve made it? A full appointment book, a healthy pay check, and regular referrals are good indications.


Veteran technicians and salon owners say it’s up to the beginning nail technician to bring clients in, whether or not the salon is advertising and promoting her services.

Contact church groups, hospitals, and senior citizen groups. Network with civic organizations and the chamber of commerce. Make up flyers with a price listing or your salon menu and put it in grocery stores, churches, and flea markets. Advertise everywhere a potential client is likely to go. Beckett says the response from advertising in weekly shoppers can be tremendous.

You can also place flyers at diet centers, women’s clubs, health clubs, and police and fire stations. Suggest joint promotions at health clubs and bridal shops.

Promote your talents right in the salon. If you work in a full-service salon, offer nail specials to hair clients. Lindy Hornaday, a nail technician in Palmdale, California, suggests offering manicures to women under the hair dryer. Roll your table right up to the hair dryer and go to work. Other in salon promotions include referral incentives for regular clients, like one free fill with a purchase of a full set. You can also offer a “lunchtime express” one-hour fill, then apply the polish after work. Many women complain that they mess up their polish after returning to work so this should be very popular. You can also do complimentary nail art- a stripe or stone---with each full set.

Keep client cards with names, addresses, work phone numbers, birthdays, services, referred by, dates of services, and the amount spent. Hand out referral cards to clients. When redeemed by referrals, the regular client receives a discount on her next service. Include discount coupons in birthday cards.

If a client has a complaint, solve the problem immediately. If she is not satisfied with the service, get to the root of the problem. Give her something to please her, show her the problem wasn’t her mistake and make it up to her. “You don’t have to go overboard, but do something to please her,” says salon owner Sharon Parker.

Developing a steady clientele can take anywhere from six months to a year and a half. It depends on the region, whether you’re in a city or a suburb, the neighbourhood, and the salon itself. Most of all, it depends on how hard you work. The clients won’t come unless they know you’re there and willing to work hard for their business.


Instructors, salon owners, and veteran nail technicians advise new technicians to choose a mentor. Look to experienced, successful nail technicians around you for examples, training, and advice. Everyone remembers starting out and most are happy to share their secrets.

Many veterans recommend choosing a nail technician you admire as your mentor. “Find out who the top nail technicians are in your area. Ask them if they’re willing to teach you some beginning or advanced techniques,” says Jackie Randolph, independent educator and owner of Nail Expressions salon in Washington, D.C. “Find out who teaches and try to arrange a teaching session. Learn at the knee of a master. You could even apply for an apprenticeship and exchange a certain number of hours of work for training.”


Obtaining your license should not mean the end of your education. Continuing education classes and seminars prevent professional stagnation and help you develop and grow as a nail technician.

Educational classes are offered everywhere. Manufacturers sponsor workshops through distributors, and some distributors offer their own classes. Many classes are designed just to promote products but educators will critique your technique and show you how to build a better extension or cut application time.

Start attending classes and seminars straight out of school. The schools teach you enough information to get your license. But schools focus on providing a broad overview of the industry. Do you know about the products you work with? What the ingredients are and how they work together? The best application method? Tips to cut application time? You need information about salon sanitation, chemicals, nail diseases and disorders. Classes on marketing, management, and motivation are also beneficial, especially if you aspire to own your own salon.

 “Even after you’ve been trained and you think you know everything you go to six different companies and you will learn something new,” says Beckett. “Maybe a twist to work a little faster a little better---always something that you can use to improve your skills and working conditions.”

Trade shows bring the nail industry to you. You can examine manufacturers’ and distributors exhibits at your leisure and observe product demonstrations at the booths. Most shows also schedule a full agenda of educational classes, many of which are free. Trends change each season and fashion dictates nail designs, so you should attend several  shows a year.

Join associations to become more involved in the industry. Association involvement keeps you up to date with the issues that affect you directly, such as licensing.

Being a successful nail technician means staying a step ahead of the competition in all that you do. Doing good nails is important, but you also need a well-rounded education, an awareness of what awaits you, and a desire to be the best.

School may be out, but a career’s worth of learning is ahead.

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