When her marriage fell apart and Sarah needed to support her son, she went into banking, where she worked for 15 years. But in midlife, she woke up to her dream and went back to beauty school; after a successful run in Minneapolis, she’s recently moved her business to Santa Barbara, CA, where she is building her clientele anew.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born in New Jersey, but was basically raised in Minneapolis. We moved there when my Dad got a Professorship at the University of Minnesota. He’s a retired Psychologist and my mum (she’s English) is a retired Hospice Nurse. My brother has a Masters Degree in Public Administration, but had a career correction himself—he was very influential in my transition—and is now self-employed as a large package courier. My parents, like many of their generation, stayed together “for the children.” I honestly wish they hadn’t; there was a lot of tension at home.
I’ve been married for 16 years to Patrick, a JAVA developer of a small ISP in Golden Valley, Minnesota. He now telecommutes from our new home in Santa Barbara, California. He is stepfather to my son Christian, who is 21. Chris took a gap year after high school that’s turned into three years. He is currently working for Macy’s. We have a Bernese mountain dog named Louie, that we rescued at 14 months old; he’s now four.
I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1990—yes, ten years after my high school graduation—with an economics major. I have worked in customer service jobs most of my career, starting with selling encyclopedias door-to-door and working at Dayton’s Department Store (now part of Macy’s).
I took a year off after the birth of my son but when my marriage unraveled, I knew I’d have to be prepared to support Chris alone. I went back to work at Wells Fargo Bank (then Norwest), where I’d stay for 15 years. I started as a teller in the drive through; it was a very family-friendly work environment with great benefits. I moved to the Operations office after a couple of months, where I worked in the adjustments area and met the love of my life, Patrick. We had a very un-scandalous office romance, married during our lunch break at the courthouse, and held our reception at the office (that’s a good story too!).
When my department was moved to Fargo/Billings, I found a job in the cash vault, where I forecasted cash usage for the banking stores, using a system I had developed that was more effective than the multi-million dollar software that everyone else used. Then I moved to information reporting, where I was a Mainframe Database Analyst, a pretty fancy name for a customer service rep.
When did you start to think about making a change?
After five years, it became pretty clear that my department at Wells Fargo was not really interested in customer service and really wanted a programmer. I was upset and frustrated every day that I didn’t have the skills to do my job well.
When my husband asked, “I get it, you’re miserable, what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” I spent several sleepless nights ruminating on that question. No one had ever asked me that before. It hit me at about 3 a.m. on the third night: I wanted to do hair.
What is your next act?
I am a hair stylist in Santa Barbara, California. After having grown my salon in the Twin Cities, I am back to building my business, P3 Hair Design, in this warmer climate.
I love having the opportunity to interact with so many new and interesting people every day. I have to admit that I also love the transformation process, helping clients see something in themselves they’ve never seen before. I think, especially as women, we get stuck in the decade we felt most beautiful, whether we rocked a curly perm or long layers in high school. I believe that it’s okay to rock the look, but as a professional, I can update their style and create something new and more flattering for where they are right now. I love it when clients look in the mirror and say “perfect.”
Why did you choose this next act? How did you figure out which way to go?
When I told Patrick about my dream, he was not so sure; he thought I might switch banks or go into project management somewhere else. But, after thinking about it, he understood. I’d had subscriptions to hair magazines for 20+ years, I’d been cutting my son’s and my husband’s hair (and even continued to cut my ex’s hair!), and I’d colored my own hair forever. I was that super picky client who brought in a million pictures of what I wanted and micro-managed the whole process.
With Patrick on board, we looked at our finances and agreed that if I could get a job right after I graduated, we could live on his salary for a year while I went back to school. It was a pretty straightforward cost analysis. We felt that, if we were frugal, we should be okay. We had some savings built up (we were basically putting my paycheck into savings every month except for vacations and occasional splurges). So we used our savings to finance beauty school; we felt we were investing in my happiness.
I resigned from Wells Fargo in May 2009, to spend the summer with my son before I started at the Aveda Institute in October of that same year. I considered a couple of options for beauty school in the Twin Cities area. Regency Beauty was actually closer to home, but Aveda’s mission statement was so compelling and Horst Rechelbacher, Aveda’s founder, was so famous in our area that Aveda was always my first choice.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband was completely on board. My son, well, we hadn’t figured on Patrick being parent-on-duty when I started beauty school, and it was tough on him at first to lose that closeness with me, but Patrick was much better at monitoring projects and checking the status of homework than I ever was. So I’d say in the end, Chris thrived during that time.
My mother felt I was throwing my life away. My father felt that in some way, I was joining the family business (he’s a 2nd generation psychologist). I actually considered naming my salon tHAIRapy at one point! Being a hairdresser is a lot like being a doctor. I know an awful lot about people’s private lives. When I’ve established trust with my client (for their hair care), and build a relationship, the intimate details of someone’s life tend to follow.
My brother reinvented himself much earlier than I did and was really an inspiration to me; he was very supportive. My in-laws were really excited for me and happy I was happy.
My friends at the bank about fell out of their chairs when I told them what I wanted to do. They thought I was nuts when I said I was going to beauty school. But after graduating and opening my salon, they knew I was in the right place and were happy for me.
How was going back to school at 47?
The Aveda program is 10 months long. We started with introductory classes covering anatomy, diseases of the skin and hair, and color theory, then we did some up-dos and a one-length bob on a mannequin. In the next section, we studied advanced color theory and other chemical processes like perms and relaxers. Here is where we started tracking all the procedures for our licensing with the state of Minnesota: X number of cuts, X number of perms, X number of manicures and pedicures. We also started to spend some time on the clinic floor (salon) and we had to bring in models to work on. I brought in friends and family to complete different hair cuts, layering techniques, and color processes.
We were the largest class they’d had so far, so we also worked on each other’s hair a lot. In the final stages, we would take tickets. Regular people would let us do their hair with Instructor supervision (one of the most terrifying days of my life). The last class was “Salon Life,” which was on the clinic floor, but with less supervision; we still had to go over our design plans with an Instructor, but we didn’t have to get every step checked. At this point we had finished the program but needed additional hours (1500 in all) to get our licenses. It was also when we would practice for the State Board Practical Exam, which was administered by the school.
I was scared what the 20-something kids would think of this old lady in their beauty classes but was pleasantly surprised at how nice all the students were to me. Most of these kids were right out of high school, so there were still the unavoidable cliques, but I found students turned to me for advice. I had been to school and had worked for many years so I was pretty organized and always had the homework. Some of these kids were far from home and wanted a mom to talk to, so I fit the bill. It was great. I felt needed, wanted and loved.
The instructors often forgot I was a student, and would tell me what was going on behind the scenes. They confided their true feelings about policies and procedures. When I was in “Salon Life,” I was left to my own devices for the most part and was often mistaken for an instructor—I relished the role. They trusted me to keep an eye on everyone else.
I had a couple of runs to the bathroom in beauty school. The first time was when I couldn’t cut a straight line (it turned out I needed reading glasses). The second time was when I had rolled a perm on a mannequin and my instructor refused to critique it so I couldn’t add it to my state board tally (100 little perm rods take awhile when you’re learning!).
Why did you choose to open your own salon after graduation?
It was pretty clear, while I was at Aveda, that the job environment was tough for the graduates. The options were to work for a corporate salon chain and make minimum wage or work for a different salon chain where the house gets 60% of what you’re taking in and they “own” the clients. I felt that the salon owners were taking advantage, and putting us at a disadvantage.
So I decided I needed to work for myself. The only other business model was to rent a booth in a salon (be an independent contractor) but the laws in Minnesota were clear: I needed a Manager’s License to do this. This would require an additional 2500 hours behind the chair and I’d have to work for someone else to achieve that. Patrick and I combed through the laws and rules until we found a loophole. If I was a salon owner, I could do hair as long as I had someone around with a Manager’s License. So I made sure that everyone who rented a booth from me had their Manager’s License so I could work too. That was the best option for me.
The way it worked when I rented booths was that I would provide the space, credit card processing (Square wasn’t a thing yet), and my “contractors” rented their chair and could use my shampoo and product or not. Housekeeping and reception were shared duties. They each paid a flat weekly rate or they’d get a discount if they paid for the month upfront.
How did you go about setting up your business?
Two weeks before graduation from beauty school, I signed a lease on a salon space across the street from my house. The previous salon owners were separating and looking to downsize. I wasn’t interested in buying their business, I just wanted the turnkey ready salon.
I met a woman on my last day at school who was touring Aveda with her daughter. She wanted to get back into the hair business and was looking for a place to set up shop; could she join me? This was the beginning of P3 Hair Design.
One piece of advice: Never name your business after an inside joke. I wanted my salon to appeal to both men and women. I wanted it to feel like an architecture office (I’m a huge fan of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright in particular) so Design was going to be in the name somewhere. Patrick and I were floating in our pool and we were playing around with different names. Things got a little silly when I mentioned Pretty, Pretty Princess, which is our joke as it’s the antithesis of who I am. P3 was born. I later found out that the Pink Princess Palace is an inside joke in the hair biz for a 1950s Beauty Parlor cliché (think pink walls, leopard prints, walls lined with hood dryers). Live and learn.
I purchased the furniture and fixtures from the previous owners. I painted and decorated. I wanted the salon to be a gathering place, to feel like you were coming into my home. I put bookshelves in the front for retail (and books) and set up the reception area like a living room, with an oriental rug, two club chairs, a couple of dining room chairs, and a coffee table. I put art on the walls and created a kitchen area in the dispensary (off limits to clients, but really nice for stylists). I had seven chairs, 1800 square feet, and three wash bowls. I loved going to work there.
Eventually, the first renter moved in, one of the previous owners came back, and several others stopped by to see if I had space available. A business was born.
I liked to say that the hair was incidental; I just had an excuse to chat and laugh with really terrific people. I built a niche business in curly hair, thanks to a couple of Yelp reviews from super happy curly clients. Folks came from all over the Twin Cities to have me cut and style their hair.
What challenges did you encounter?
The first challenge was building my business. I used my tech experience to launch a website, but I didn’t know anything about marketing a business and was afraid no one would show up. I picked up a couple of For Dummies books at the bookstore and they kept talking about SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and how to get your website to come up on the front page of a Google search. Somehow, this really resonated with me, and I was able to get on that first page by using keywords and differentiating myself. I was right up there with the Big Corporate Salons, who had entire marketing departments and agencies working for them! It was a proud moment for me. I also have to give kudos to Yelp. I got a few amazing reviews on Yelp and they also promoted my business for several months. The attention was overwhelming!
The second challenge was managing a booth rental salon, which is a lot like herding cats: They do not necessarily do what is in their own best interest and don’t mind telling you that you have no idea what you are doing. According to the IRS, Independent Contractors have complete control over their time, dress, products, and clients. Frankly, I was just the landlord. As I mentioned, my vision was for a collaborative environment; I was happy to do the business stuff, but I felt it was their responsibility to retain the clients that my marketing brought in.
I had two problems with my contractors: First, they would come in, see if I had booked anything for them, then go to lunch, or shopping, or expect me to call them if someone showed up. Unfortunately, when a customer did call or walk in, they would either not pick up their phone or they were already doing something else and couldn’t make it back in a timely manner. Second, Hair Stylists are artists and have an artist’s temperament. They’re slightly ADD and are too impatient to sit and wait for the phone or a walk-in.
I had perhaps established an unreasonable expectation for building their clientele, but when things were really rolling, they burned through about 90% of my new leads, meaning only 10% of the new clients ever returned, which was clearly unacceptable. The leads were going to dry up at some point, and the reputation of the salon was going to suffer. So I printed out all the clients’ names they’d seen and suggested that they reach out to them to try to get them back on the books. If they hesitated, I suggested that it was a great opportunity to find out how they could improve their service.
I also cancelled the Yelp advertising campaign; it was a tough decision but it was expensive advertising and the influx of leads was greater than our abilities to schedule and service them at the time. I went home and had a good cry; this seems to be the best way I have found to truly purge my frustrations. Sometimes I would ask my husband if he would just hold me and tell me everything will be okay, but he’s mostly a problem solver (aren’t most men?) and I really didn’t need solutions, I just needed to adjust my expectations of others. This is an ongoing struggle.
A third challenge was the occasional difficult client. I think this is my Karmic lesson, honestly; I work everyday to manage expectations. I’m a perfectionist and I hate to disappoint anyone. So my lesson is to help people achieve the style they want, but help them understand the raw material I have to work with. If a client has an unrealistic view of was is really possible on their particular canvas, I won’t do the service. For example, in the early days, I had a young lady ask for platinum blonde hair, but she had years of box color on her hair at the time. I told her I could do a double process blonde and would have to charge her several hundred dollars to do it. She was a waitress and couldn’t afford it, so I said here’s what I can do: I’ll micro foil your hair to lift as much of your hair as I can and we’ll do that a couple of times, over a few visits, and eventually you’ll be blonde. All she heard was you’ll be blonde, so when we finished and she wasn’t completely blonde, she was disappointed and because I didn’t want to do that, I did the double process for free (it took me six hours). Moral of the story is I have to learn to manage my expectations as well as those of my clients. I have found that I can trace just about every customer complaint to a miscommunication of expectations. I’m still learning this one.
A final challenge was weathering the inevitable strain that owning and nurturing a business will put on any marriage. Patrick and I fought a lot the first couple of years in business. He’s an amazing software developer and knows how to build and manage complicated systems. I, on the other hand, am very evenly right and left-brained, so I can do the analysis and create art at the same time. Patrick is a problem solver while I’m okay with uncertainty. Our management styles did not mesh well. So bless his heart, he gave it over to me completely: It was my baby, my vision, and he wasn’t going to get in my way. I’m very “determined” (read: stubborn) so in the interest of keeping the peace, he let it go emotionally.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have very high standards for myself and for others. I’ve really learned that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. I’m always working on managing client expectations (no, you will not go from box color black to platinum blonde in one session). I’ve gotten much better at saying ‘no’ to people. I no longer keep people in my life (family, friends, clients) who don’t respect my time or me.
What led you to move your business to Santa Barbara, CA?
When I took over the salon space, it was under the understanding that the road in front of the location was going to be widened and the mall was going to be torn down in the process. My original plan was to relocate.
In the meantime, the I-35 collapsed over the Mississippi River and all the funds that were going to our little project were diverted to rebuild the bridge. The Federal Government, horrified at the state of our infrastructure, pledged to rebuild our roads, but we had to act fast. Our little mall was spared as a cost savings and we were going to stay in business! I reinvested in my salon by purchasing new gel mats, hood dryers, and shampoo chairs.
Then road construction started and, lo and behold, the setback between our building and the new widened road became zero. I no longer had the funds to rebuild elsewhere and I really wasn’t interested in the city’s relocation package. It was a perfect opportunity to move to a more temperate climate!
In the spring of 2014, my husband and I visited Santa Barbara and just loved the place. Patrick had checked out the National Weather Service charts to find places where the average temperatures were in the 68-73 degree range year-round and Santa Barbara fit the bill. The road construction simply moved our plans up by three to five years.
When I informed my landlord of my intent to close up shop, sell my home, and move to California, he offered to buy my house! I definitely got the message the universe was sending me: Leave now. I gave three months’ notice to my booth renters and helped them find new work homes. I sold all the furniture and fixtures in my salon to a local salon equipment wholesaler for fair market value. The last day for P3 Hair Design in Minnetonka was a frigid day on December 29th 2014.
Patrick and I purged 11 years of junk from our basement and boxed up the rest. On January 17th 2015, my son and I landed at the Santa Barbara Airport while Patrick drove the dogs and my truck cross-country.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I would me a liar if I said I did it on my own. It really takes a village. My husband and my son were deeply impacted and supportive of my career change. Obviously, there was considerable financial cost involved. My immediate family definitely had to be on board.
But maybe the most important thing I would tell others is that you have to educate yourself. I’ve relied heavily on the Internet for everything from business plans to insurance to marketing. I read a lot of trade information. I follow industry leaders on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I ordered a lot of books from Amazon on stuff I couldn’t understand: Duct Tape Marketing Revised and Updated: The World’s Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide by John Jantsch, Web Marketing All-in-One For Dummies, Search Engine Optimization All-in-One For Dummies. When I was getting started, I asked a lot of questions of my peers. I watched the others stylists for months while I built my business.
What advice do you have for those who might be interested in going into hair styling in midlife?
Go to the best beauty school you can afford; it will make a difference on your skills. Look for the ones with the best reputation in your area (people from all over the country came to the Aveda School in Minneapolis). Look for a clean environment and instructors who have a passion for what they’re doing. Check the graduation rates and the job placement rates—just as you would for any college or vocational school.
Do not go into hairdressing to make money. It is a heavily commoditized business and the “rock star hair stylists” are few and far between.
As I said, starting a business is a strain on any relationship, so take that under advisement when you open a salon.
I would probably recommend not doing Booth Rental. If I did it again I would have employees, and maybe implement The Strategies, Team Based Pay.
What resources do you recommend?
I mentioned John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing. I’ve read his book, I receive his weekly emails with tools and tips for marketing myself, I read his blog regularly, and I’ve reached out to him through Twitter.
Whenever I have a trendy (fashion forward) service on my books, I will go to YouTube to look at how-to videos. Some trends are very of the moment, like Pixilated Hair Color, or there are hair trends that are cyclical like Balayage.
I subscribe to both Patrick McIvor and Guy Tang to keep up on what they’re into these days. I suppose the prominent stylists are trends as well. Guy built his business on YouTube. He was upset about the do-it-yourself hair videos and wanted to show people what a difference a professional can make.
I try to make some trade shows every year: International Salon & Spa Expo through the Professional Beauty Association and America’s Beauty Show in Chicago. I’m trying to get some interest up in my new salon for us to go to the Las Vegas Show, the unfortunately named IBS Las Vegas (International Beauty Show). These trade shows are excellent opportunities for team building away from our clients and the salon. It’s fun to watch the platform artists and talk to hair stylists from all over the country. It’s also a great time to check out the latest and greatest tools for sale at introductory prices.
What’s next for you?
Hairdressers do not retire, they just curl up and dye…but seriously, I love doing hair, and it is a labor of love. I have entertained the idea of becoming an educator. I have also thought of becoming a marketing consultant specifically for salons, but I just love working with hair more.
Contact Sarah Kelly at email@example.com
P3 Hair: 1819 Cliff Road, Suite B, Santa Barbara, CA 805/962-2887