The secrets to running a successful small business (even in 2020!)
Welcome to Money and Me, the podcast where we talk honestly about money, how it makes us feel, and how it shapes our lives and the decisions we make. In this episode, Caroline talks to Chloe and Pont, co-owners of hair salon Bebop, about taking on the financial risks of setting up as a small business, riding out not one but two COVID lockdowns and building resilience.
#11 Chloe & Pont: The secrets to small business success (even in 2020!)
In this episode, Caroline talks to Chloe and Pont, co-owners of hair salon Bebop, in Islington London, which has made…
Hello, my friends. Today I’m joined by Chloe and Pont, who are the owners of the Bebop hair salon in Islington London, which has made the best hairdresser list in Timeout and Refinery29. They set up Bebop to shake up the outdated hair industry, focusing on making hair wearable and ethical, with cruelty free and vegan products, and pushing equality with gender neutral pricing. Hi, Chloe, hi, Pont. So lovely to have you on the show. How are you both doing?
Hi, thank you for having us.
I was really excited to talk to you both because my first job was at a Tony & Guy hairdressers when I was 15. So I know just how hard you guys work. And I know we’ve talked before about- we all forget that you all start when you’re so so young. How old were you both?
I started at 14, Saturday, and then I was sort of full time by the time I was 15. Which is mad because at that age you kind of feel like you’re older until you look at the 14 year olds starting now, and realise how young they are.
And you’re thinking that’s child labour!
Yeah, great! I’m joking!
I actually started a little bit later, I started when I was, I think I must have been about 19/20. I got to this point in college where I just wasn’t doing anything at college and I needed to do something. And yeah, some reason just kind of came across hairdressing, basically.
Most people kind of just fall into it early on. And then somehow, like I think you just then find your passion for it.
How long have you had the salon now?
So we opened in December 2017. So we’re literally coming up to three years now. Which is mad. I don’t know if we’re counting the whole of this year! Three years. We opened it literally the week before Christmas, so you can imagine how manic that week was.
Yeah, we were in the middle of getting the salon ready and even knocking down walls and doing everything basically. And then me and Pont would be like individually going right crap, I’ve got to go and do a client’s hair now. So you just run off to their house, go and do their hair! So we were keeping our clientele going.
We were juggling so many things, because we all had our clientele from our previous salons. So yeah, like Chloe said, we were just knocking down everything and just coming home covered in plasterboard, dust and stuff like that. Then right, full head of highlights on this lady, and then yeah, back at it again tomorrow.
And just talk us through a little bit about how you came up with the name because Bebop is really cute.
I’d say that was pretty much one of the hardest things that we had to come up with. I think it was probably six months of us just like, I’ll message a couple of them to Pont and I’m like, “yeah, this is going to be good” and he’s like “no I don’t like it”. And then it would happen the other way around.
This one we were just working on music terms, really, because we’re both very passionate about listening to music, going to gigs and things like that. So we wanted to have some sort of music focus, and then I don’t know who it was, but we started looking at jazz terms and Bebop come up.
It all looks visually nice. It sounds fun to me. I don’t think it sounds too pretentious. I think salons can be quite intimidating, so it’s quite nice that it sounds a little bit more fun. It can also go on anything so if we ever expand into different things, it’s not ‘Hair by Chloe and Pont’.
It’s really funny, isn’t it? Because there’s something about branding that it almost feels like you know when you’ve got it right. But you can’t explain why.
No you’re totally right with that. It was just a feeling really and as soon as we kind of agreed on Bebop everything just felt right. So the branding kind of went hand in hand with that.
Tell me a bit about what led up to you opening the salon. What were you both doing? Where had you got to in your careers, what made opening the salon the natural next step for you?
I think there were a lot of key points that made it kind of the perfect time and the perfect partnership. Like we’re both experienced enough but also getting to that stage in our career where we had our own vision, and it was hard to just go by other people’s, which is nothing wrong with that, but you kind of get excited about things that you enjoy. So I think we were both ready to take that next step. But also just the fact that you need to find someone that you can do it with. We both had the same style, the same vision, the same ethos, work ethic. Same age as well, I think that sort of helps, so you’re on the same level.
How old were you when you started it? So 2017, how old were you both?
No, I just turned 28.
Yeah, both late 20s, I’ll just leave it at that!
I think it all depends on how long you’ve been doing it for. Your experience, like you said, because we start young, we’ve had a lot of experience, we’ve done this. Well I actually worked out now I’ve been doing it longer, like more than I haven’t been doing it, 15 years now. So I think you just build that experience up. And also, it’s a job that you need a lot of energy to do. So I think I want to do it now. I wouldn’t want to do it in 10 years.
You’re thinking you’re going to be too knackered! So you’ve worked in other salons before, like, how would you build- because for me, I know that before I started my business, I was lucky that I got to practice running a business in other people’s businesses so that when I came to do it myself, I knew a little bit of what I was doing. I wasn’t going completely cold. Was that the same for you?
Yeah, we both had experiences within other hair salons, managerial roles and things like that, and team leaders. I was with one salon group where essentially, they were opening quite a lot of salons so my job was pretty much to help set them up. But in that situation, you’re using someone else’s money, you’re not using your own money. So for me the stresses and anxieties that come with setting up your own business just don’t happen with that, you can just sort of tick boxes and just go with it.
Okay, so on that point of setting up your own thing and the financial and other risks involved, was it your own money that you used? Did you get any investment or loans or anything?
We got a small loan, we managed to do it on quite a small budget.
It was tiny!
Yeah, and it’s surprising how clever you can be with that though. If you have too much money, then you just spend it. If you don’t have enough, then you try and be clever with how you spend it.
Yeah, being clever to looked like what? So what did it look like in the early days, did you kind of have everything? Was it a little bit scrappy at the beginning?
Luckily, over our careers we had built up our own equipment, so hairdressing wise we had everything that we needed. But when we did open, we did have Pont’s two speakers stuck in a corner of the salon. What else did we have in there? No, we didn’t have much.
That was literally it. I think it was just that long table where we did clients and some speakers in the corner, and that was essentially it. But we always knew that we’re going to start off small and build it up because we were quite lucky to have our own clientele that just went with it, basically.
Also, we’re very lucky that it is a job that we could start ourselves. So you’re starting your business, but we are the product. So it made it a lot easier, let alone people starting businesses that have to employ people from day one, I think when you’re starting out first time, that’d be really difficult. It was just us two for the first 3/4 months.
I think about that, yeah, then we took on our first person and we’ve just been learning ever since that really.
Three months, so you’d already built up enough work by then that you needed?
We were just knackered already! Yeah, well the right person approached us and that’s kind of how it goes in our job. It’s very hard to find stylists, people tend to approach you. So the more we grow, the more people will come to us.
Make sense. And how did you decide, because I always think hairdressing is one of those professions where it seems to me that location is a really interesting point because people will travel to a great hairdresser but you often also want to be in an area that makes sense for you. How on earth in the whole of London, did you decide where to locate it?
I think it was, obviously we had such a small budget to play around with and it was more of a case of we live in a world of social media, it’s such a big marketing tool. So we were gonna focus on that and like you said, people will come and find you. And it just so happened that this space came up in Islington, Holloway, and it kind of ticked all the boxes as it was fairly inexpensive start up costs, there was not really that much competition in the area, and it was really accessible to all our clients and to potential clients as well.
I think we had it in our mind as well that we really wanted to go off of that main street. Because we felt like hairdressing was changing in that way and that’s kind of been proven this year. When you’re walking down a busy High Street, you’re never looking for a salon. Being on a side street, we might not have as many people, but all of the people are potential clients.
Did you have like a real financial plan for the business? I love Chloe’s face there! You can’t see Chloe’s face, but Chloe’s face went: nope! I mean, as you say, one of the great things about your business is that you get paid for each haircut or colour that you do, right? There isn’t this long lead time for a sale, you know that if you’ve got someone sat in a chair, and you’re doing something to their hair, you’re gonna get paid for it. So that helps with cash flow, but did you kind of map out in advance what you needed to make to be able to pay your own rent and the business rent and all of these things?
I think we started doing that and then I think we very quickly realised that could almost put you off doing it, because you start overthinking it too much. And we knew that once we had clients we’d keep them, the unknown was how quickly they’re going to come to us. But sometimes, to a certain extent you have to take risks, like we’ve always said from the beginning that as long as we just focus on doing everything how we know to do it and do it well, people talk, and then it grows. Rather than trying to focus so much on the money, then you start forgetting about what you’re actually about.
Was it exciting in those early days? Or did you have anxiety?
At the beginning it was almost like a blur, really, because there was so much intensity with everything. So you’re going from a very like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing! You know, look at this, the buildings coming together, all the decorations coming up’. And then you’ll be like, ‘crap, I’ve got this massive bill coming up. And oh my God, the lawyers want to speak to us that costs X amount’. So yeah, I think it was just a roller coaster of emotions at the beginning.
No, I don’t remember anything from that first week.
I remember us opening a bottle of champagne on the last day, I think it was Christmas Eve. I think me and Pont had like one sip of it, and then just went ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go home’. We were just too tired. Yeah, we’re sort of like ‘Yeah, cheers, bye’.
Does it help having two of you in it together? I know that it does in my business.
100%, I wouldn’t want to do on my own. I think you can help each other out. If one person is getting stressed, the other person calms that one down. And then the next day, it’s the other one. And we have different strengths, everyone has different strengths, so you can compliment each other.
I think we both have similar characteristics, but in a way our strengths are kind of divided between us in terms of like, with Chloe, she manages more of the numbers side. Whereas with my abilities, I can’t sit down and focus and look at numbers or talk to accountants because I just switch off really automatically. And we both have input in different aspects of the job but we always focus on our strengths. And we’re quite lucky that we complement each other.
And not afraid of asking each other for help. I think that’s the main thing. Like we haven’t got big egos in the way where if we need help with something, we just ask each other.
That’s the thing, it’s not bad to admit that you can’t do X, Y, Z, you know?
Yeah. And I think it really comes across in the way that you create the team. And from what you’ve told me before, it’s really something that you’ve tried to instil in your wider team. I think the thing that has always really shone for me in what you do is you’re very thoughtful about things. You’re very thoughtful about how you treat your staff, you’re very thoughtful and ethical in the way that you’ve created your brand and the products that you use. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about what that means to you, like the brand values that you have for the business.
I think our main one that we would always go by is just treating people how we want to be treated. And we went into business- there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve always moaned about in our careers, so anything that we did moan about, we’ve made a pact that we’re not ever going to do it to them. So we have to figure out a different way. So it does relay into the team because we want to make it the perfect environment for them to work. So even during lockdown it made us all realise that we needed a bit more time away from work as well and I feel if me and Pont felt like that then surely the team does. So you have to treat them in the same way as we’re treating ourselves.
I think listening and the communication is such a big thing with us and even expressing gratitude as well. Because we were quite lucky we’ve got such good stylists with us and we couldn’t be where we are without them, so gratitude’s a big one and just trusting them as well.
What were your kind of growth plans? So it’s nearly third birthday and we’ll talk about 2020 in a minute, but pre-pandemic you’ve created this salon, what stage had you got to in terms of growth?
We were just about to sort of expand into a new place. But obviously, that’s all gone on hold at the moment. But I think we’ve definitely noticed as well, even after the first lockdown, the salon is definitely still growing, so I don’t feel like we’ve been sort of set back.
So let’s talk a bit about March. Here you are, you’ve got this busy, busy salon, you had growth plans, you have great staff, you set a great culture, everything’s wonderful, you know you’re probably working too hard, but that’s pretty standard. And then lockdown comes, what does that look like for you? Because I think for small businesses, and for high street businesses like yours, that must have been quite a shock.
It was very tough, I’m not gonna lie. It presented a lot of challenges that when you talk to other businesses, no one’s had experience in this whatsoever. So it was the unknown and that presented so many anxieties of just dealing with that. And then, obviously, we’ve gotten into this pace of constantly being on 110% at all times, and then suddenly to be three months of just stop, silence, nothing. And then it was just, yeah, it’s been challenging with that.
It’s a weird feeling to close your shop and not know, we didn’t know about the furlough scheme then, we didn’t know we were going to get any help.
It was getting to that point with our clients, we had so many clients just cancelling. And then we’re trying to prolong our salon hours, just try and fit everyone in and then suddenly there was no clients. And we’re like, yeah, it was a mixed bag of emotions just going on there.
What was it like for your staff? So at the point in time, so I’ve spoken to a lot of businesses about this, and for most of us the real challenge has been that responsibility that we feel towards our staff. And particularly, as you say, back in March nobody knew, it literally was just like, okay, businesses close now. You didn’t know that there was going to be furlough, you didn’t know that there might be some loans or grants that you could get. How did you deal with that, from the perspective of looking after your staff?
We just told them that we just need a week to- just told them not to worry about it, just let us get it sorted and then we’ll get back to them. And by that time, we knew about the furlough scheme. I think the trust is there that they knew that we were going to try and look after them as much as we could. I also think the way that it’s worked, they were just as worried about us or the salon. So it was definitely a team feeling. It wasn’t just me and Pont.
And how did you both feel? Like did you have enough cash? Did you have a buffer to be able to tide you over, or were you sort of looking at this- because obviously back in March, we had no idea how long it was going to last. We didn’t really know what was happening. Were you at panic levels or were you just going to go along with it and see what happened?
You know us now, right, go along with it and see what happens! No, I think we could have managed and I know that we would have just about managed with what we had saved but then it was the unknown of how long it would go on for. So it’s okay going ‘okay, we’ve got a little bit of money to pay this month’s rent’, but then are we in this for another two months or are we in this for another four months? So you never knew how much your money had to last you.
That must have actually been really quite tough because you’ve still got rent to pay. You’ve still presumably got other overheads and things that you have to carry on paying and yet you don’t know when the next amount of income is gonna come in. How did you two kind of deal with it together being in lockdown?
We kept ourselves busy with clients emailing, right? So we knew that we had that big list to go back to so I think that was our reassurance. But we had loads of support. And then everyone was there for us, I think we had 450 people on our waiting list.
Wow! So you’re actually looking at this list thinking when do we dare open up and tell people that we’re open? Did you have to give people like staggered start dates for reopening?
It was insane. I don’t know how we did it. No to be fair all the clients were quite understanding as well. So if they had to wait a little bit they were fine.
Given that hairdressing was so talked about on social media and in the news over lockdown, because all of a sudden, the whole of the UK realised that actually the one thing they needed to feel good was a decent haircut and probably not to do their own colour at home. So when you did reopen, did it feel good or did it feel weird because you had to like PPE up? What was it like then?
Again, with this there was sort of mixed emotions because three months off, we just wanted to have some purpose. At the end of the day, I remember having a team meeting a week before with all our new team actually. And you know, everyone wanted to come back in and they’re excited to come back in. But we were getting very anxious because our clients have got three months of anxieties backed up to kind of offload on you. As much as we were excited there was also anxieties with that as well.
I think within a few days, everyone kind of relaxed a little bit. So I think we were more worried about everyone else because we had new staff. But then we were telling them, it was like we were starting a new job anyway, because it was all different. It was tough.
Weird at the same time, because when we were calling people off the list, it was almost like they had won the lottery, basically. So they were like, “Oh, my God, you’ve contacted us”, you know, “I can’t wait to book in, I’ll book in whatever day whatever time”. So it was really nice to be almost like very wanted.
I remember one person nearly put the phone down on me because she was obviously really busy. And I just thought I need to try and express who I am on the phone because if not she’s gonna miss this opportunity. And I was just like, “it’s your hairdresser” and she was like, “Oh, my God it’s fine!”. I was like you nearly put the phone down on me!
I have an image of like, she’s like a surgeon or something and she’s doing some very intricate heart surgery and she’s like, hang on, I’ve got to go! Of course with hairdressers, you wield this unusual power, you can make people feel so so good with that new haircut or colour, but at the same time, you often act as therapists and counsellors. So doing that in a pandemic must be an extra layer of responsibility.
It’s strange because when you first start your career as a hairdresser, you think about the creative and artistic sides of cutting hair, but then you get to a point where you realise because you’re in close contact with your clients, everyone just opens up to you. And it’s weird because people will tell you anything. And these are people that you’ve just never met before, your new clients, and they’re telling you about when a partner did all of this stuff. Especially nowadays mental health is such a big thing, it was nice that people were offloading often to us in a way, because at least they got a chance to offload.
I think that people don’t realise that they need the chat just as much as the hair until it’s happening. So for an example, I’m sure she won’t really mind I’m not using her name, but I had a client that’s a NHS nurse. So obviously, during COVID, she’s had a lot of things happen. And she didn’t really even mention it, but I had kind of asked her a few questions, been chatting to her, I’d changed her hairstyle as well. After like an hour and a half, when we finished she popped her glasses on and straight away I could see that she was going to cry because she was just so happy. But she was so shocked in herself that she felt like that. But I told her, it wasn’t just about the hair, it was about the fact that I’ve been talking to you for an hour and a half. And who has asked you about you for the last three months?
It was strange, because for a lot of our clients, after three months of lockdown we’re their first port of call. It was the first time they’ve been on public transport in three months, it’s the first person outside of their group that they’ve spoken to. So it’s almost like a weird honour in a way but it was a lot of other mental stress to deal with. It felt good.
Because it’s true. It’s such an intimate thing that you do. And like I say it has so much power to make people feel incredible. But there is something unusual about- it almost creates a little circle of trust with your client. Was it hard in any way for you though, hearing people offload? I know you’ve talked about mental health and helping your staff and making this part of a thing within the industry.
It is hard, and there was one situation which was really difficult, it was myself and one of our stylists Anthony, who’s mid 30s really lovely guy, really happy guy, really great to talk to. He had a client that was in, he was booked in for a bleach tint. So all over bleach blonde and a cut. And then when I came in Anthony was speaking to him and then Anthony just got me out the back in the staff room and he was like, ‘Man, this guy just found out like a week ago that he’s in the last stages of cancer’. So basically, what he wanted was essentially to look good for his funeral photos. Because all of his friends were going to be out that night and things like that, and Anthony was very- there was a lot of anxiety about he didn’t want to mess up and do all this stuff. So for us as stylists we were trying to go out of our way to make it a really great thing for him. You know, we’re putting up the music really loud, putting on all the tunes they wanted, all of his friends were there but, after the whole service- it took way longer than what was normal for it. I’m sure Anthony won’t mind me saying this but he was out the back just crying his eyes out because it was all of that emotion and stress that was put onto him. It’s hard when you care about someone it’s difficult, it was mentally exhausting for him. And he was like, that’s one thing I’m always going to remember, that situation.
You could also go from taking in all of that emotion from someone and then your next client sitting outside. So it’s the battle of having to switch your mind as well, because you just want to go home after that. And then the next person could be in a really good mood, which is great because you can also bring your emotions back up. I think it’s the up and down with different clients as well, so it’s the whole day that comes into how we find it difficult.
Well, that’s one of the things that’s kind of spurred on what we’re trying to do with mental health within the industry. One of the things especially when you’re new in the industry and you’re qualifying, there’s nothing in the qualification at all about how to deal with your own mental anxieties and mental health or the clients that you get in. So one of the things that we’re putting together is things to be able to deal with that, how to talk about that subject and just be very open with it really, because I think you need to talk about it.
You’re quite unusual for a salon in that you have different types of pricing, and you’re very ethical. Talk me through some of those things.
We do gender neutral pricing, basically. But that just means that we charge people for doing their hair, not for their gender. So for years, women have been charged more than men but it doesn’t make any difference. I take just as long doing a guy’s cut as I do a woman’s. I had short hair for most of my life, men have long hair. So it’s just a way of us being completely equal. So that’s really important to us, because it’s not discriminating against anybody. Meaning that everyone is welcome to the salon.
One of the things we really focus on especially with our clients is actually looking at all aspects of them. So it’s not just looking at their hair, it’s looking at what’s your client wearing? What’s their personality like? Will this kind of haircut fit them?
So we’re now in lockdown two. How does it feel this time around?
It’s definitely easier being that we have everything planned for when we go back, so we don’t really have to worry about that so much. It’s harder being the winter. No, no, it’s okay. I think it’s just the same sort of thing, going from 100 miles an hour to just stopping. We are the sort of people that get a lot of our energy from other people so it can be quite hard to motivate yourself sometimes. But I think what I’ve learnt from last time is to not put pressure on yourself and do what you feel like doing at that time rather than doing what you think you’d be doing.
So three year birthday, is just going to be queues around the block, socially distant queues around the block!
I have no idea what it’s gonna be like, Christmas is our busiest time anyway.
And so do you already have a waitlist of people?
It’s growing by the minute. I think every day we open up the bookings, emails, and then another 100 emails and it’s like, yep, cool. Let’s go with it.
After lockdown one, I think you said that you had to make a lot of changes in the salon anyway, but one of the good changes I think you said, was that you changed your working hours. And actually it made it better for people.
Yeah, we wanted to, we realised that we needed to have time for ourselves to really do a good job in what we do. So it made us rethink the hours. So we have us working on shifts, which is partly because we can’t have too many people in there. But at the same time, it allows the staff to have a nice lifestyle. Like they start at three one day, but then they’re working till 10pm, but they’ve got the whole morning or lunch to do whatever they want. Other days they finish at three. It could be slightly different going back this time being that I think everyone will be quite determined to get the clients in before. But no, definitely I think everyone enjoys their hours more now than before.
Has there been any other kind of things that have come out of this that have changed your outlook on how you run the business?
One of the main things that we’ve both learnt is you can’t control everything. So for us, it’s been a massive lesson in you know, there’s situations where it’s way out of your control, and instead of stressing about it and worrying about it, it’s like okay, let’s cross that bridge when it comes, let’s deal with it when it happens. That’s been a big lesson.
And how are you feeling about the future? So 2020, a bit of a write off for a lot of us! Sounds like you’ve done very well with coping with that but looking at 2021, do you think you’ll want to pick up on growth plans? And obviously, we have to wait and see how things pan out with things like vaccines, but what are your overall plans?
We still want to go into a bigger space, really want to keep growing the team, but we want to keep them all in one place, we don’t want to be splitting everyone up. So our main aim really is to just expand Bebop as it is and keep the same sort of atmosphere.
One of the ideas that we wanted to do was open other salons in Europe, but we have to wait because Brexit is still happening at the same time. So you know, that’s another thing that we just have to just wait and see what happens. So at the moment, we’re just focusing on our team, making sure that they grow really well. And as Chloe said, we’re just gearing up for the next place, so take each time as it comes. But we know we want to grow and we know we’ve got lots of stuff.
How have you developed such a good attitude? Honestly, I’ve spoken to a lot of people doing different things during this pandemic and you two have such good natural resilience. I’m sure you don’t have it every day.
It could be a hairdressing thing, we’re just so used to having to keep the spirits up. But yeah, obviously there are a lot of negatives, it’s just you don’t want to dwell on them.
There’s nothing worse than just focusing on all the anxieties and all the negatives because it doesn’t do any good. And we’ve learned that- there were situations in the past before where it just really got us down. But we treat each situation as something to learn from. And from that learning, you grow. At the end of the day, we’re responsible, we’ve got a team that look up to us, so we’ve got to stay positive and we’ve got to be optimistic.
I’m really glad that you’ve benefited in some way from it, as well as having to ride out the storm. Thank you so much for talking to me about your experience. I think it’ll be really helpful to everybody else who’s listening who has that kind of small business to hear just how well you have actually been able to get through it. And I think it’s testament to both your resilience but how lovely you are in terms of the support that you give one another. I think that really, really shines through.
Thank you. Thank you, that means a lot.