Suzanne Van Houten of Swans Studios knows a lot about running a beauty business: The self-proclaimed “hair queen” has worked as a stylist and colorist for more than three decades, and she’s owned her own salon at least half of that time.
Van Houten (pictured) shares her expertise as a consultant to colleagues starting their own salons. The first thing she tells stylists who want to graduate to business ownership is “Congratulations on having that dream!” After that, she asks a series of hard-nosed questions to assess their entrepreneurial savvy.
“Standing behind the chair and having a full book of hair clients is not the same as owning and operating an entire salon,” she explains. “It’s a whole different skill set and knowledge base.”
Passion and resilience are also key, she says. A person who “can’t put it down, can’t get it out of their head” and is “willing to be a little humble” is bound to succeed.
Some Advice for Striking Out on Your Own
Van Houten typically recommends that stylists have a full book of clients and at least five years of experience working in the industry before they strike out on their own. “You need to have enough income to cover the nut by yourself — whether you have one employee or 10 employees,” she says.
Van Houten also counsels her clients to be ready for a big increase in workload. “You go from being a creative person with two or three hats at most [as a hair stylist] to being a salon owner/manager with five or six hats,” she says.
The owner also has to “draw a line in the sand” about the culture and environment of the salon, starting on day one. “The pace of the leader is the pace of the pack. If your salon is in crisis, then what is your leader doing or not doing?” Van Houten asks. “It really hurts when you have to look at yourself and say, ‘I want them to be on time, but I’m not on time.’”
And, finally, a salon owner must prepare for the fact that her best employees may do the same thing that she did: leave to open her own salon. “You’ve got to keep a river running of talent,” says Van Houten, noting that human resources can be the hardest job for new salon owners.
She believes this is a skill that is worth cultivating: “You’ve got to be an educator. You’ve got to train your crew and motivate them.” The reward for those who do is a business with beauty at its heart.
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