HJ visited Mary Forester, new business owner, entrepreneur and @thisgirldoeshair founder in her hair studio space in Kingston-Upon-Thames. Mary has been in the industry for many years, working as both an employee and a freelancer. We chatted about the challenges, successes and empowering moments of freelance life.
What made you get a studio space?
I knew I wanted to have a family and that I wanted to remain within commutable distance of London. For me, working in a salon five days (or more) a week was never going to give me the flexibility I needed. Realistically I would have had to take a management position to move up the career ladder, which I didn't want to do. I also found that in a post-covid world, people are craving a quiet, private, one-to-one service and that's the USP of my space and my brand as a whole.
I'm a living example of why this industry offers so many opportunities, especially for women and especially for mothers. I feel really passionate about it because I've got a 19 month old, I've opened my own business and I work part time. Everything works around me. There's so much opportunity to thrive. I've worked in the way that I want. I know there's a lot of discussion about why women aren't at the 'top levels' of hairdressing. But I don't think that means that women aren't as successful as men in hairdressing, it’s just what success means to you.
How did you begin to set up on your own?
I did rent a chair for a while, but to make ends meet I had to charge a significant amount for colour. Then I moved to a flat with quite a big bathroom, so I thought, well, I could still offer a level of service. A lot of my clients are from social media, or have found me through my YouTube channel, so even though I was working from home, I was able to build a pretty good client base. I've always wanted my own space, but because it was going well at home, I couldn't justify the added expense. Plus, it's incredibly hard to find a studio space that works as a salon thanks to things like plumbing, having a private entrance and lots of natural light.
So, how did you find this space?
I actually found this building on Gumtree, and when I went to visit there were tradesmen in there and I asked them about the water supply and the landlord (amazingly!) approved it. It was a personal choice not to have a street-facing salon. Because most of my business comes to me through social media, which I'm very lucky to have – I wanted to create a more private experience. Unlike a retail space, where you get locked into like a long-term contract, this is a rolling contract. Everything's included – I've got wifi, water and heating, all included in my rent. When I heard that I thought: "This is such a fluke, I've got to go for it."
Once you've found a space, what are the next steps to setting up a business?
I got a government-backed small business loan, which my friend had recommended. It felt very grown up and a real big step. To get the loan I had to present a business plan. I had to make spreadsheets, and it has forced me to keep track of things in a way that I'd never done before. You also get a free business advisor who looks through your plan, They show you exactly what you need because it’s just a start-up loan, it's not a long-term loan. For example, I said I’d like part of it to cover 6 months rent, and they said ‘no, you can only have 3 months’. It makes you consider what you really need to get the business off the ground. At the end of the day you don't want to request more than you need – because you'll only have to pay it back. Also with this loan you don't get penalized for paying it back early, you can pay it back between one and five years. It was incredibly validating to present my plan and then get granted the loan.
What are your next plans?
I debated long and hard about providing retail for my clients. I really liked the idea of having a collection of commercial products, taking inspiration from places like Glass House in Hackney. So like a curated offering of my favourite products from different brands. It depends how you think as a business owner, but for me, brand positioning is really important. I like the idea of brand adjacency, because if you want clients to spend, that's what they're into and that's what resonates now more than ever. People just want to buy from people and have that personal recommendation.
What are the challenges facing colourists right now?
Being an independent business owner, you have to be able to stick up for yourself and the value of your service. I had a potential client that asked if she could bring her own Olaplex and get a reduction on price, but I felt very strongly about that - I would never ask you to do your job for less money, so don't ask me. If someone's trying to negotiate in that way, we're not the right match for one another. I normally tell them that all of my appointments are colour and cuts, so if you want colour then we can talk about it, but that's how it works at the moment.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
J Edwards in Australia, he's got a chain of salons with Edwards and Co. I actually did a colour class with him at Nashwhite in Warwick. Jake has the biggest chain salon in Australia and utilized social media to grow his business and he's now got six salons. Also, there’s a podcast I listen to called the Millionaire Hairstylist. It's created by a guy called Cash Lawless, he's American and he interviews lots of different successful people. He believes hairdressers are uniquely placed to build wealth for themselves, because we can create multiple streams of income, especially now with social media. So whether that's creating product or brand partnerships or having salons or education, there's all these different ways to create business.
What's been the biggest challenge of setting up your own business? Areas like plumbing - I had no idea where to go! Secondly, budgeting for those unexpected costs. Also, I've never done like stock takes or things like that. So being mindful of the stock that you actually need and not over-ordering. Like with retail, yes it would have been lovely, but I had to make a decision about what's necessary for now and what’s not.
In the beginning, stick to what you know works for you. Even in our everyday work, I think there's a pressure to be extraordinary all the time. On the podcast I listen to Cash says to his stylists when they're freaking out, “Just do your 90”. That means: do what works for you 90% of the time. So if you end up using the same toner time and time again, just do it, don't feel like you have to be using a ginormous range. Like on Instagram, stylists will have used 10 different toners, but it’s unnecessary, wasteful and overwhelming.
It's easy to feel that you need to be doing extraordinary things every day. The reason why that toner formula always works for you is because you've worked hard to get to that point. It's not a cop-out to do what's made you a success. Whatever works for you, works.
Interested in going freelance? Check out our think-piece around the hairdressing employment model.