Cutting a Startup Helped a KC Entrepreneur Couple Tease Out Growth for Their SalonDavid Cawthon
When it came time to focus on his family’s startup business, Rickey Leathers didn’t double down. He cut it in half.
In 2019, Rickey closed his insurance agency to focus on Savvy Salon, the African-American hairstyling business his wife, Lenora, started in 2013. The couple found building two startup businesses in the same household was too much, so Rickey took his passion for entrepreneurship and together with Lenora worked toward their goal of a chain of salons dedicated to African-American hair.
To get started, they adjusted their business model and focused on developing their team to provide the best possible customer experience. The process seems to be working. They now have two locations, five employees, and plans to grow. Rickey and Lenora knew developing a chain would require a sensible business model and consistent standards, and Rickey’s participation in Growth360 would help them develop them. (Growth360 is a class that gave Rickey and Lenora the tools, connections and coaching to grow, but more on that later.)
The business idea is pretty straightforward. Because of texture and styling processes, African-American hair requires a different type of expertise. Yet, most hair styling chains focus on a white customer base, with African Americans often going to home salons or shops dedicated to their hair care needs. For Rickey and Lenora, that’s where the opportunity lies.
“Styling African-American hair is not taught at many cosmetology schools,” Rickey says. “If a black person walks into a salon chain, that location will have a hard time serving her if they don’t have a stylist who is black.”
Changing the business model to change perceptions
The market demand is there, but Savvy Salon would have to overcome an industry stigma, Rickey says. Many clients think they will have a long wait, will be double booked and will be dissatisfied with the experience, he adds. To change that perception, Rickey and Lenora decided to change from the standard business model of renting space to stylists – renting “a chair” – and instead hiring them as staff.
“With the chair rental model, you essentially have four of five different business owners doing their own thing,” Rickey says.
Rickey and Lenora believed hiring stylists as staff would facilitate teamwork and a consistent expectation of standards. They often can tell if a stylist will be a good fit during the first interview. As they share their vision with a potential stylist, they look to see if that person gets excited about the vision and connects with Savvy Salon’s values.
Changing the stigma of salons is a group effort
As part of a Growth360 exercise in company values, Rickey asked Lenora why she had so many happy, repeat customers. She responded with a checklist of what makes a client feel special, ranging from short wait times to quality of service. Through those standards, Rickey and Lenora created a certification process for onboarding new stylists, which begin with greeting customers when they come into the salon to a variety of techniques. During the training process, new staff are paired with longtime stylists to learn basic processes and techniques.
Those company values also became a client-facing mantra with “VIBE,” which is defined on the salon’s website as “the belief that everyone is valuable, important and beautiful every day.” VIBE also became an internal rallying cry with their stylists. In every staff meeting, the group discusses the VIBE moments they had in the previous week, Rickey says.
Rickey always wanted to run his own business. As a teenager, he had his own lawn care business. In college, he kept his dream alive as he read “Rich Dad, Poor Dad and The E Myth.” He took advantage of development opportunities while at State Farm, which showed him the importance of providing development opportunities to Savvy Salon staff.
When he and Lenora decided to devote all of their energy to Savvy Salon, Rickey looked for other entrepreneurial resources. He stopped by the KCSourceLink office one day and bumped into a high school classmate, Chris Goode, founder of Ruby Jean’s Kitchen & Juicery. Later that day, Rickey contacted Chris to ask whether Growth360 was a good investment of his time.
“Chris told me ‘you’ve got to do it,” Rickey says. “I made great contacts and resources from it. It’s totally worth it.’”
Growth360 was both a learning experience and a validation for Rickey. He saw that developing an African-American hair salon business was scalable, and the course convinced him and Lenora to put less effort in other parts of the business, such as e-commerce.
“It helped me wrap my mind around growing the business in a way we hadn’t thought of before,” Rickey says. “It was nice to be in a classroom with brilliant, hungry small-business owners.”
Dedicated stylists equal happier clients
Typically, hair stylists spend nine months in cosmetology school and are expected to come out of class as a small business owner when they rent space in a salon, Rickey says. They need more seasoning in areas such as acquiring and retaining clients and managing their customer flow. Too often, it drives them out of the industry.
“We make our stylists a priority and give them opportunities to fine tune their craft and make this place a viable career option,” Rickey says. “We want to be a place where stylists can grow, develop and be part of a team.”
Hair stylists often move from salon to salon, and the ongoing training helps keep the team together and focused. It doesn’t hurt that Lenora has a background in educating other stylists while working at Dillard’s corporate salons. She began styling hair at 13 at a home styling salon and went to styling school at Dillard’s. After several years of working for others, she opened Savvy Salon in 2013.
Rickey and Lenora found the salon space in Mission and snapped it up. It had been a salon previously, which meant a limited amount of work on plumbing and other infrastructure. It took some sweat equity to get the right look and feel. In the beginning, Lenora was the only stylist.
“We bootstrapped this business, really,” Rickey says. “We’ve been risk takers when it feels right. We don’t let fear hold us back.”
Rickey and Lenora have seen their focus on process begin to take hold. On a Saturday afternoon not long ago, Rickey and Lenora weren’t working in the salon but dropped by to see how things were going. They found a busy salon, running smoothly with everyone working as a team. The confidence in her staff has given Lenora confidence to spend less time working as a stylist and more time working on the business.
“It’s nice step out from behind the chair,” she says. “I don’t have to be the center of the business.”
Growth is the big goal in 2021, Rickey says. He and Lenora are looking to add a third location in Kansas City, which means hiring and training more staff. It also means promoting the brand through social media, paid advertising to a larger audience. They look forward to having events later this year and “putting the brand out in the community,” Rickey says.
Oh, and their family will grow, too. The couple is expecting their third child this summer. Business and family will keep Rickey and Lenora busy.
“The work is never done. We still have processes we want to improve in how our team works with clients,” Rickey says. “And seeing the vision grow is the rewarding part.”