Fear of failure may be preventing you from opening your own salon, but you can take heart in the fact that every successful salon owner has made her share of mistakes along the road to the top. NAILS asked several top owners what they feel was the biggest mistake they made when they opened their first salon. The universal response was, “Mistakes back then? Hey, I’m making mistakes now!” They agreed to share their early experiences with us and to offer suggestions to would-be salon owners.

Overpaying Technicians

Don’t overpay technicians right at the start. “Some owners begin by offering their technicians a crazy percentage, like 70%,” says Chenzo Balsamo, owner of Chenzo & Co. in Boca Raton, Fla. “But too high a commission only causes trouble later on,” he says. “You end up resenting paying that.”

Balsamo made that mistake in the beginning and eventually had to let go technicians. He knew he could get others for 50% commission who were just as qualified. He assures new salon owners that “once you get established, business will get good. It’s only a matter of time.” A new salon owner has to ask herself what commission she can really afford to pay over the long term.

If not with a high commission, how should salon owners lure top-quality technicians? “Let the technician in on your business plan. Convince her that your salon is credible, exciting. If she believes that your salon is going to be a success, she will want to be a part of it,” Balsamo says.

Inadequately Screening Prospective Technicians

Don’t rush into hiring new technicians. You need to take the time to check the would-be employee’s training, education, job history, and abilities. Some owners get into trouble when they trust the employee right off the bat and don’t screen her carefully.

Teresa Bell, owner of At Your Fingertips in Phoenix, Ariz., says, “I wanted to make my salon busy right away, so I hired technicians, taking them at their word that they were reliable and performed good work. They outright deceived me.” She says these technicians came in late or not at all, and then she was left having to fill in herself.

Hiring Over-experienced Technicians

There are disadvantages to hiring technicians with too much experience. Tony Fanelli, owner of Concept Elite in Brooklyn, N.Y., says, “I prefer to hire technicians who have one year of experience and no clientele of their own.” If someone works at a salon for too long, she picks up the corporate style of that salon (which may conflict with the new company’s style) as well as any bad habits that were condoned there, he warns.

A technician can be "too good" in the sense that she may be enamored with her own creativity at the expense of the client. Fanelli says he has hired creative people who think they are the most important person. "I think the client is the most important person. Clients come to us because they like the way we make their nails and hair look, not because we have the most creative people working here.”

Frank Burge Sr., who runs Day Spa Beautique Salon with his son, Frank Burge Jr., has owned salons since the 1950s, and according to him, it’s not the experience that’s important; it’s how much the person wants the job.

“The most important thing is to look for someone who has some training and needs the job. People come to me wanting something part-time or on the side, or they think they want the job and they really don’t. These people take the job but immediately start looking for something else. I look for people who want a career – a  full-time, 40-plus-hour-a-week job.”

Hiring Technicians Without Trying Them Out

It’s a good idea to give a prospective employee a hands-on test. Margaret Din, who owns Dinmar Salon on Madison Avenue in New York City, tests candidates. She says, “I have them sit down with a model, either one of my technicians or a hired model, and have them show me what they can do.” Din says one time she left out that requirement, and it had disastrous results. “I needed an extra nail technician and I was anxious to fill that spot. A technician came to me with good references, so I hired her. Later on, she cut a client, and I ended up in a lawsuit.” Din says a failproof solution is to hire on a trial basis and try a new technician for one or two weeks.

Select a Location That Promotes Your Business

The salon owners we talked to were primarily in or near shopping centers, and shopping centers can provide visibility and pedestrian traffic. Successful salons make it crystal clear by their layout and their signs that they provide nail services.

Caruso-Jollette says her salon began as three separate entities under one roof. "We offered hair, facial, and nail services, thinking each service would complement the others. But it ended up that there were managerial problems and there was competition. Now we are totally separate. Our nails-only salon occupies almost all of the second floor of a building. The facialists are across the hall from us and downstairs, and the hairstylists are on the first floor. We each have our own receptionist and are closed off from one another.”

A salon’s sign can make a big difference in driving business traffic. Donna Dennison, who helps run her daughter Brenda Leaver’s salon. A Hair & Nail Cottage in Las Vegas, Nev., says her daughter didn’t even have a sign in the beginning. “We’re in the back of a grocery store center, in a professional building. We couldn’t put a sign on the professional building, so we had to put a sign on the side of the building, which nobody saw. Now we have a neon sign right out on the street, in front of the grocery store. People know we’re here. It helped a lot.”

Failing to Take Care of Business

Develop and use your business sense. Once you become a salon owner, you can no longer simply rely on your creative talents alone to keep your business going. Fanelli says the biggest mistake he made when he started out as a salon owner was running the salon as a creative venture rather than as a business venture.

In the beginning, his salon staff was wonderfully creative, but “they didn’t have a clue how to run a business,” he says. “We had plenty of clients, but no profits.”

To run a successful business, Fanelli advises that you get a system in place. “Refine it to its utmost simplicity, then document every step. For instance, some salons will pay one technician one percentage and another technician a different percentage, saying, ‘That technician was lured away from that salon.’ Well, the Marriott and other large corporations aren't run that way. You have to run your salon like a business. At our salon, everything is documented and coded, from the time a client calls for an appointment to the time we send a follow-up note to her asking if she is happy with the service she received.”

Part of taking care of business is being aware of your reputation. The salon owners we spoke to emphasized unanimously that the number-one source for new clients is word-of-mouth. Hiatt puts it as well as anyone: “I tried just about every advertising and marketing technique there is and only two work – word-of-mouth and the yellow pages.”

Not Placing a Yellow Pages Ad

Being in the yellow pages is a necessity. According to one salon owner, even if you get no new clients from the yellow pages, occasionally old clients need to look up your address or phone number. Do you need to place a large ad? Many salon owners didn’t think that the size of the ad was as important as where the ad appears.

When roll call comes, is your salon last? Leaver’s salon used to be just Hair & Nail Cottage. It occurred to her that putting an A in the front to change it to A Hair & Nail Cottage would bring in more business because it would put her salon in front of the others in the yellow pages. She was right. “Moving up our salon name improved business,” she says.

Whether you choose to be listed under Manicures, Pedicures, Fingernails, Beauty Salons, or all, get listed. It also doesn’t hurt to put your salon in more than one book. Tricia says “It’s expensive, but we advertise in two books because it’s considered essential.”

Advertising Ineffectively

Are you adequately advertising your salon? Although being close to a supermarket can get you plenty of walk-in clients, it doesn’t follow that advertising on the back of grocery receipts will bring you business, according to several salon owners we spoke with. Caruso-Jollette says that idea was a total failure. “Salespeople called wanting us to try advertising on the grocery bills. Well, we did, and we got almost no response at all.”

Dennison agrees: “We spent a lot of money to be on supermarket receipts, and we only got one client from it. Plus, the company that sold them was flaky.”

Dennison advertises her salon’s services in a local church newsletter.

“That brings in many clients.” Caruso-Jollette advertises yearly in local bridal magazines. “Bridal advertising always works. Brides want us to put together different deals and packages, and they don’t say no to expensive services,” she says.

Tricia at Happy Beauty Salon in Carle Place, N.Y., says, “We tried coupons and mailers, but some clients received them and others didn’t. We’re in a shopping center, so in-house specials work well. Walk-bys see our promotional signs and come in.”

Being Computer-Phobic

Don’t forget the power of the computer. Burge says, “When we had six salons back in the 1960s, we put large weekly ads in the local papers, which was expensive. But now we don’t have to. We use our database.” Burge says every new client goes in his computer database. Then he does mailings promoting specials and crossover services. 

“If a person comes in for a manicure or pedicure, we mail her an invitation to try our facialist,” he says.

Fanelli encourages every salon owner to become computerized. He does what he calls “service sampling.”

“For example, every client who receives hair services but not nail services gets a code in the database. Then everyone with that code gets a mailer offering either a free nail service or a discount on one.”

Turning a Deaf Ear on Employees

Your employees are valuable. You probably worked hard to get them, so take steps to keep them. Bell advises to “Address problems as soon as they come up. An employee came to me expressing a problem with another employee. I told her that the other employee wasn’t so bad, thinking the problem would go away. It didn’t.” If you ignore a small problem, it can become a big problem, she warns.

Cetta Mastronardi, owner of Cetta Boutique Ltd. in Port Jefferson, N.Y., advises that keeping the relationship between management and staff clear makes things a lot easier in the salon. She didn’t spell out the rules and regulations in the beginning, which caused friction.

“Take a little thing like who cleans up the salon after work. The senior workers felt like they didn’t have to do it so the younger ones did all the cleanup, and then they resented it.”

You have to make things comfortable for the employee, because even though you pay the rent – and pay for advertising and everything else – the technician feels she is still doing all the work.

"If she leaves, she takes her clients with her,” says Mastronardi.

Keeping your employees happy not only helps keep them, it can pay off in additional ways. Fanelli sees his company as a unified system; creative input and working together for a common goal are encouraged. He says his turnover is extremely low, partly because of this. What’s more, his employees have come up with fresh ideas.

Fanelli’s salon has a planning group made up of a cross section of his employees who brainstorm marketing and promotional ideas. “I encourage input from employees,” he says. One of the ideas the planning group come up with, Fanelli says, was “Theme Day, a day of entertainment and fun.” Everyone participates – clients as well as technicians – wearing costumes that fit in with the theme. According to him, the best promotions are those that let everyone, the technicians, the clients, and the owner, win.

Thinking of your salon as a business, hiring top-quality technicians, encouraging teamwork, and letting the community know who you are and where you are, are ways you can make your salon succeed – to the point where maybe you’ll one day be one of the top salons in the nation.

Read more in our Career Handbook: A Helpful Guide to Your Career in Nails

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.