Financial rewards and personal satisfaction – these are the yardsticks by which many nail techs measure their success. What factors influence who makes it and who doesn’t? Why do some techs enjoy a full clientele and a healthy paycheck, while others struggle for months to fill their books, often while holding a second job to cover their bills?

We then talked to several top nail techs about how these habits have shaped their careers and impacted their success. They also share words of advice and encouragement for their peers on developing the same career-healthy habits.

Taking a cue form a popular business bestseller, NAILS examines the seven characteristics of successful nail techs.

1 They are never too good or too experienced to learn.

The most successful nail techs – even those who are educators – continue taking classes and seeking out knowledge to improve their technical and business skills, regardless of how long they’ve been in the industry.

“I’ve been in this industry 21 years, and I’ve clocked more than 2,600 hours of continuing education over the past 10 years alone,” says Nancy King, a nail tech at Millennium Day Spa in Scottsdale, Ariz. “There are so many new products and new techniques that you can’t possibly learn it all.”

These techs say continuing education also helps to remind them of the many things they’ve forgotten. For example, Shari Finger, owner of Finger’s Nail Studio in W. Dundee, Ill, had forgotten how much she loved the look of pink-and-whites formed with a dowel until she recently attended Tom Holcomb’s class.

Debbie Krakalovich, owner of The Nail Shoppe in Toronto and of two The Nail Bar locations in Las Vegas, had a similar epiphany a few years ago. “My salons in Toronto were doing fine, and I got out of the habit of taking everyone to tradeshows and seminars and encouraging them to compete,” she remembers.

Over time, Krakalovich says the salons lost their competitive edge and began having a hard time attracting nail techs. Then, she began feeling the pressure from discount salons. She got herself and her staff back to class, and soon saw the difference – new tips and tricks came into play, and enthusiasm and motivation rose.

By the same token, these techs recognize the flaws in continuing education. “I once took a class on fills where someone asked what to do if the product lifted. The instructor said, ‘If you do it right it will never lift.’ That doesn’t help anyone,” Finger says.

Help is on the way. Some schools, distributors, and manufacturers are working to improve their classes and seminars. Finger and other top techs tell us they’re developing education centered on advanced technical and business skills.

These technicians also urge their peers to explore personal development seminars, motivational seminars geared to hairstylists (but often just as inspiring to nail techs), and business classes through local resources such as community college.

2 They network with their peers and give as much as they take.

 Networking isn’t just talk. It’s sharing strategies and solving problems. It’s giving advice and getting ideas. It’s about brainstorming, questioning, challenging, and growing. In a word, it’s all about connections. When you’ve got them, the possibilities are limitless.

For example, Louis Mattassi, president of Mattassi Education Trainings and nail education director at Paul Mitchell The School in Costa Mesa, Calif., never dreamt he’d spend his spring and summer island-hopping around the Caribbean, but networking has had him doing just that.

An executive at Sandals Resorts asked a mutual contact if he knew of anyone who could consult with them on their spa operations. He recommend Mattassi.

“We believe in sharing,” says Trang Nguyen, president of Odyssey Nail Systems and owner of Hollywood Nails (Longwood, Fla.) “We are in a tiny area in small town – we’re not competing with the industry for clients. And if everyone in the industry knows what they’re doing and does a good job, we can all grow together.”

Diana Bonn, owner of Color Classiques in Muncie, Ind., agrees. “I get such great ideas on Beauty Tech. “When you go to the manufacturer with a question, they say, ‘Do it this way’. When you network with other techs, they suggest you try this, that, and this.”

Karol Singleton, a nail technician at Lori’s and Kim’s Hair Designs in Pinellas Park, Fla., got so much out of the connections she made on Beauty Tech that she conceived “Nail Techs Networking on the Internet Breakfast”, an annual get-together now in its third year.

The beauty of networking is that you can do it everywhere – at home with techs in nearby salons, with school instructors and students, with salon owners, and with distributor salespeople. Carry your business cards with you everywhere, and offer to exchange cards with everyone you meet. When you learn something that might interest them or, say, hear of a new opportunity they might want to know about, pass along the information. Networking does take time and effort – but your efforts will be rewarded multi-fold.

3 They act as industry advocates.

All successful nail techs share a passion for nails and for the industry. They recognize that their personal success is intrinsically linked to the industry’s, and they’re willing to fight for both. They’ve taken on their state boards, their state legislatures, and the consumer media to fight for change, improve the industry, and enhance its image.

For some it means taking up a cause, such as fighting to have MMA banned. Yet others act as industry spokes persons, talking up the latest trends and services to keep nails in the public eye as in essential element of good grooming and a statement on personal style.

Rarely do the crusaders seek out a cause. Rather, says Bonn, “It boils down to getting mad and doing something.” Several years ago, Bonn became angered by what she perceived as state boards’ ignorance and indifference toward MMA. She started by lobbying the Indiana State Board to ban MMA.

After a victory in her home state, Bonn called every state board in the country, the followed up by mailing each executive director a packet of information she had gathered and photocopied. At times frustrated and exhausted, Bonn’s belief in her cause carried her through. “We went from 19 states that banned MMA to 30.” She says. “I’m very proud of that.”

Currently Bonn’s pulling out her phone list in preparation for another round of calls to state boards – this time regarding electric file education in schools. “If they’re going to use these in salons, nail techs need to be trained in how to use them properly,” she asserts.

Not everyone appreciates the efforts: King says she’s endured some harsh criticism from a few peers for working so closely with “20/20” earlier this year on the nail segment the broadcast news magazine aired in May.

As King points out, though, “20/20” was going to do the piece. So why, she asks, should she turn away from the opportunity to deliver to the reports the other side of the story about the professional nail industry.

“If consumers are armed with information, they’ll know what to expect from the salon experience and be able to make educated choices,” she asserts. “If the consumer doesn’t know what to expect from a salon and ends up with a damaging service, she’ll never go to another salon.”

Industry advocacy has its softer – yet equally important – form as well. Erika Kirkland of Polish Nail Emporium in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, acts as an industry advocate every time she talks to editors at consumer fashion and beauty magazines.

“The nail industry has a negative connotation with [the consumer editors],” she says. In her role as nail stylist on photo shoots and as a “hot contact” for articles, Kirkland says she constantly reinforces her message that professional nail care encompasses much more that the application of artificial nails.

“I’m trying to educate the public that they can have attractive hands and feet and beautiful natural nails,” she explains. “They need to keep hearing that the salon is a place where they can have a great time and forget about their problems for a while.”

Just as these industry advocates prove that one person can make a difference in a variety of ways, know that you can apply the same philosophy with your clientele. “Talk to your clients and educate them,” emphasizes Sharon Martin, competition director for The Nail Olympics and a working nail tech in Tampa Bay, Fla.,

Educate clients on the benefits of professional nail care as well as how to care for their hands and feet at home. Without putting down the competition, let them know what to look for in a salon, as well as what they should avoid.

4 They are consummate professionals.

Professionalism is one of those terms that’s hard to define in words, but easy to judge by actions. It encompasses everything from your level of expertise and knowledge in your field to whether your hair is styles and your nails polished.

“Professionalism covers everything from how you dress, to the way you greet and handle clients, to the cleanliness of your salon, to how you answer the phone,” says La Shaun Brown-Glenn, owner of Nails Naturally in Chicago.

Does that mean most clients will mind if you wear jeans? Probably not, she admits, but she adds that they won’t necessarily view you as a professional who’s serious about her work and who takes pride in her career.

Brown-Glenn knows her high level of professionalism has helped to grow her business. “A while ago a lady called from London to ask about our services,” she says. “We never courteous and polite and took the time to answer her questions.” Later, the woman called back and explained she had been looking for nail techs to work on location for a movie production company. The woman hired Nails Naturally based solely on how professionally they had treated her on the phone.

Being a professional also means being prepared at all times. “Six years ago I stopped at a manufacturer’s booth at a show to ask if they were looking for East Coast educators,” Maisie Dunbar, owner of M&M Nails in Silver Spring, Md., remembers. “The woman working in the booth told me they weren’t hiring at the moment, but that I could mail my resume to her.”

Dunbar whipped out both her resume and portfolio, was hired on the spot. “She said they always had opening for professionals,” she says.

Professionalism also means examining every situation from the viewpoint of how it will impact the business and your career before reacting on emotion. That doesn’t mean being dishonest, but everything has a price.

“In my younger years, I would never say anything when people or things upset me until it all built up and I just blew,” Krakalovich explains. When she placed a higher emphasis on communicating better with both employees and clients, she says employee and client retention both increased.

5 They innovate.

Offering clients something unique – whether it’s the setting, the service, or the products – attracts attention, generates excitement, and engenders client loyalty. Industry innovators constantly seek out the new and different for their salons. In addition to building their own businesses, the trickle-down effect benefits the entire industry.

Roxana Pintilie, celebrity manicurist and partner in New York’s Warren-Tricomi Salon, credits her continual innovations in nail services with building her reputation and enhancing her career. From the Milk & Honey Manicure to the Charmed Pedicure, Pintilie never stops seeking out new ideas and natural ingredients to incorporate into services.

“Our business is doing unbelievably great based on all these new treatments,” she remarks. In fact, it’s tripled.

Tom Holcomb epitomizes the term “industry innovator.” From introducing sculpted moons to competitions pushing the edge of the envelope on sculpted nail designs, Holcomb has said discovering new techniques or even twists on techniques energizes him and keeps his enthusiasm high.

The key to keeping yourself and your clientele enthusiastic and refreshed is to look for small innovation. For example, Dunbar focuses on the small touches, such as disinfecting every client’s implements and wrapping them in a towel tied off with a ribbon. She also begins each client’s service with an invitation to sit back and relax with a heated aromatherapy pillow over her eyes.

The thing is to make yourself original and new to people,” Kirkland agrees. If that makes her work harder to stay a step ahead, she’s thrilled. But she cautions nail techs not to fall into the lazy habit of following the leader.

“If someone copies one of my pedicures, I get angry,” she says. “But if you change it to make it better than what it was, that’s great. To really be an innovator is not necessarily to create something new, but to change and improve on what already exists.”

Mattassi emphasizes that innovation is not just critical to growing your client base, but to strengthening the industry as well. Many salon owners say they have enough interest in services to keep one or more additional nail techs busy – but they’re nowhere to be found.

“We need to get innovation into the schools so that students see and learn new images, techniques, and ideas,” he asserts. “Nothing is more motivating. The technical aspect is just the tool to achieve the images.”

So where do innovators come up with their great ideas? Pintilie and Kirkland say they actively listen to what their clients tell them about what excites and interests them or what they want but can’t find.

They also track the newest trends and think about ways they could apply them to nails. “We need to get rid of our tunnel vision and start looking outside the nail industry for innovation,” Mattassi adds. “I look at fashion, fitness, and beauty as a whole concept. Find ideas in hairstyles and make-up; look at trends in holistic health care.”

Expect some failures along the way. “It’s easy to get inspired,” Kirkland notes. “Then you have to be realistic. You can have the greatest idea, but you’ve got to make sure it’s practical and financially feasible, that you have the target market, and that the timing is right.”

6 They’re business-savvy.

The most successful nail techs spend just as much time honing their business skills as they do their techniques. Business-savvy covers the whole package, from how you market yourself to pricing services appropriately to promoting and building the business. “A properly run business makes money,” King says. “A business that is not well-run doesn’t do well and tends to run to you. Whether you’re a salon owner or nail tech, King urges her peers to remember they are business people first, friend second.

To keep things in perspective, Finger views her business as a separate “individual.” “I am not the business; I’m an employee of the business,” she explains. “That affects my decisions because instead of looking at things from the angle of what will make the business successful.”

Businesspeople are made, not born. While your skills and personality may make you a success behind the station, you can develop your business sense. Krakalovich says she had no business background before opening her salon, but she read books and sought out business courses to learn business management and operations. Once the doors opened, she began examining her operations for ways to cut costs and boost productivity to maximize profitability.

Krakalovich urges salons to examine discount salons for the valuable lessons they can offer in running a salon. “When discount salons first came on the scene we were all up in arms and trying to keep our distance,” she notes. “But they fine-tuned the concept and cut out costs. I think we can learn a lot from them.”

Rather than lament the lack of industry-specific business training (which is becoming more widely available through companies such as Salon Business Strategies and Salon Training International), mine your community resources. For example, Brown-Glenn recently completed a 12-week business management class through the local women’s business development center in preparation for expanding her salon into a spa.

There’s also a lot of value in on-the-job training. Kirkland, for example, says her stint as a manager of a Gap store prepared her better for her future as a salon owner than any class or book. She not only learned about managing a staff, but how to handle inventory and customer-service problems.

7 They do really great nails.

“People are getting into it thinking they can make some money rather than viewing as a career,” said Tom Holcomb in a previous interview. However, he believes career-minded techs who don’t mind refining their skills and gaining new ones can still make an excellent living.

Top-notch skills also open doors. When Holcomb shoed a magazine editor some snapshots of his sculptured nail designs, she wrote about it in a magazine. “I had phone calls from reporters, a talk show, and 16 press agents – in one day,” he told us last year.

Dunbar shares a similarly inspiring story. “I did a lady’s nails many years ago and at the end of the service she told me it was the best manicure she had ever had,” she remembers.

The new client turned out to be the former fashion editor for Essence magazine. The client recommended Dunbar to the magazine, which soon called her in for an interview. “I did a photo shoot for them, and the fashion editor turned me on to the person who is now my agent,” she says.

Top-notch technical skills really pay off in Asia, says Nguyen. “[Nails techs there] don’t care who owns a company,” he shares. “They only appreciate who is in the booth doing great nails. Companies there use our skill, talent, and knowledge to promote products.”

In the salon, Dunbar says many technicians can quickly boost client’s perception of their skills by polishing their polish skills. “Practice on polishing in three strokes, which will make your application smooth and clean,” she advises.

Clients judge your skills just as much on their experience and the results, these top techs emphasize. Clients don’t see the flaws that jump out at nail techs, and most clients will willingly tolerate a longer-than-average service time or less-than-perfect extensions. But appear rushed or inattentive, and you may lose them forever. “It’s not just good nails; it’s the total package,” Bonn says.




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