From the February 2008 issue of Entrepreneur

People tell their hairstylists everything. In that spirit, Behindthechair.com is a very good listener. The web community for salon professionals converts seemingly idle online chatter into custom marketing ideas, trendsetting training programs and better customer service.

Within the site, members dish about the latest color formulas, swap hairstyling tips, share photos of their work in public portfolios and participate in video-based training sessions. Behindthechair.com monitors and collects as much information as visitors are willing to share--and therein lies its value proposition.

"Our registration is free but intense," says Mary Rector-Gable, founder of the Roselle, Illinois, company, which generates $5 million to $10 million in annual sales. "We know everything--age, name, address, phone number. But we also know what types of salon professionals they are, how many chairs are in the salon, annual revenue and, most important, the types of products they carry."

More than 500,000 people interact on the site on a monthly basis. Rector-Gable, who plans to switch to a subscription model this year, says her company's aggregate knowledge of this fragmented community is unique, considering that many salons employ fewer than 10 individuals. "No one has wanted to give up this information," she says.

Rector-Gable, 42, is using this knowledge to introduce targeted, fee-based services for her members. One example is Behindthechair.com's library of video demonstrations. Some clips are free to watch, while others can be "checked out" temporarily for fees starting at $4.95.

The site's most common searches are also tracked and cross-referenced. This has fueled the master plan for a new sister site, Whodoesyourhair.com, which is essentially a directory that links salon professionals with potential customers. Salon professionals, in turn, have access to customer data from Whodoesyourhair.com as it is gathered, allowing them to create promotions that can be communicated to specific individuals via e-mail or text message. "We will test a lot of different things," Rector-Gable says. "The common denominator is that this is all user-generated content."

Heather Clancy, a freelance journalist and consultant, has been covering the high-tech industry for close to 20 years. She can be reached at hccollins@mac.com.