Businesses On The Rise
Why would anyone choose to start a new business? It’s sort of like asking why someone would take up base-jumping as a hobby. Successfully creating, funding and a operating a new business are nebulous undertakings. Advice from “experts” is all over the board and empirical data is primarily limited to failure rates. Some say it simply takes “vision” and “passion,” while others say you need to be nuts, very lucky, or a combination of both.
One thing that is historically confirmed is that many businesses that grow successfully from inception to healthy adulthood did so where the founder, its employees and its customer base share a somewhat desperate need. A large customer base, a stable and existing need, combined with a hint of desperation in all parties involved and the recipe for real brand value i.e. loyalty, starts to take shape.
Consider the market for men’s haircuts. Back of the napkin analysis describes a customer base of half the population. The need for the service is constant and steady and is immune to economic, political or environmental pressures. The competitive arena is dominated by women’s salons claiming the thinly veiled moniker of “unisex” and low cost chains that compete on price, which inevitably does little for either employee or customer loyalty. The interesting business question is, while men are raised to be tough and “take it,” doesn’t there get to be a point where enough is enough?
Enter the inception of the idea for Weldon Barber. Launched in 2004 in Spokane and now with shops opening in the Seattle market, Weldon Barber emerged from founder Bill Nordstrom’s assumption that most men shared his summation of the monthly haircut. “A few years ago I was at one of the commodity chains labeled with some superlative like great, fantastic or super. Clearly the only benefit was convenience and speed, kind of like ripping a band aid off fast.” The seed for a startup had been sown. “I could lie to you and tell you I did all kinds of research, but really I just felt that someone has to do this.”
Just two and half years later Weldon Barber has seven shops (they are shops, not salons, no female analogies here) with four in Spokane as well as recently opened shops in Issaquah, Kirkland and Mill Creek with plans for more in the area. These are not your typical barbershops however. The design is modern and sleek and the services, while reminiscent of traditional barbershops, have been tweaked based on focus group work and plenty of customer feedback.
The foundation of Weldon’s strategy however is not modern barbershops. “Anyone can build cool shops with flat screen TVs. I did not set out to re-invent the outdated barber shop concept.” Instead, Nordstrom says Weldon is about its people (yes, he’s one of those Nordstrom’s so you have some sense it isn’t just rhetoric). “The reality for cosmetologists is tough. They majority are female and are in there twenties. Pay and benefits at the commodity chains is sparse and breaking into the better paying salon jobs can takes years. Starting one’s own business takes capital that most simply don’t have. The turnover in this industry is not surprisingly, very high.”
“The key to our future will be our ability to attract and retain good people. I realize every business says this. But since we began, our turnover has been surprisingly low. I wanted to create not just good paying jobs, but I wanted these people to have fun and have the potential for growth. I think we are making good progress on creating a place for cosmetologists to join a culture and stay long term.” Nordstrom points out that all of the shops are being managed by people who were hired as barbers and it is clear that is how he intends to have it stay. “This concept will only work if our barbers take ownership and buy into this as an “industry-changing” cause. These people work hard and they want opportunity. If Weldon grows, their opportunities grow.” Case in point, three years ago Jessica Lerch was cutting hair for friends in her kitchen after burning out of the high-end salon game. She took a flyer and signed up when the first Weldon opened in Spokane. Today she is general manager of all seven shops. “All the reasons I almost left the industry are the reasons I love helping create Weldon. There are so many like me. I love working with clients and I want real opportunities to stretch myself, and have fun. That just didn’t exist before.”
Asked what the future holds for the Weldon Barber concept and Nordstrom is hesitant. “I used to think it would simply be an exercise in opening shops as fast as I could raise capital but now I realize that our people really hold the answer to that question. It’s their culture so they must dictate the future. As it stands, they want growth but understand that the culture comes first.”