Success took Anna Phillips by surprise. In 2001, after being laid off from an IT job, she began working full time as a massage therapist. Soon she was offering beauty services as well, like applying permanent makeup. It was a good business, but nothing she couldn't handle. Until she started doing eyelash extensions.
"It just grew out of control," says Phillips, who is based in Colleyville, Texas, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth. "I told my husband I either needed to stop taking new clients, or expand and do only eyelashes."
They decided to try an eyelash salon, renting a five-room space that needed minimal construction. Within two months, they had to add a sixth room, and Phillips still had a two-month waiting list.
"The year after, we set up a second location in Plano and a third in Fort Worth," she says. "That's when I started thinking we might have a hit on our hands."
Others thought so, too, and in 2010 Phillips began selling The Lash Lounge franchises. Today there are eight locations, all in Texas; she hopes to sell 10 more this year and eventually expand across the U.S. We batted our eyes at her and asked nicely if she would tell us how her business has become so popular.
What exactly are semi-permanent eyelash extensions?
We attach a synthetic hair to the natural lash, one that's much thicker and pitch black. It looks like makeup and is very low maintenance. You can swim, shower, sweat and live your life and not worry about mascara. Since eyelashes naturally fall out over time, clients can come back every two to three weeks so we can refill their lashes. Or people can just get the lashes for special occasions, like weddings or holiday parties.
Are lashes enough to support an entire business?
We wanted to be very niche, so we do lashes and four or five other small services, like lash and brow tinting, eyelash curling and permanent makeup. We are adding brow threading soon. The whole concept is low-maintenance beauty. On top of all that, in the front lobby we have a small boutique with a private-label cosmetics line that we designed.
We've been working on our strategic plan and on what the future looks like. We may create a smaller version to accommodate places with smaller customer counts. We'd also like to team up with a boutique hotel chain, like W Hotels, that caters to the type of client who likes to get their lashes on.
Who does get their lashes on?
Our core customers are women between 30 and 65. That's not to say we don't get women in their 20s, but not as many, because our initial price is $250 to $300. We also have some male clients. We've been getting a lot of customers you wouldn't expect. And considering the economy is still in a downturn, we're excited to see who will be coming in once things pick up.
Women in Texas are fond of makeup. Will this concept fly elsewhere?
That's right, women in Texas love their makeup, and they love mascara for sure.
We are the first of our kind in the franchise world, and half the battle is letting people know who we are. At trade shows, they sometimes classify us as a bar or lounge! Being first to market appeals to a lot of people, whether they're interested in the beauty industry or entrepreneurship.
People have been playing up their lashes for thousands of years. Why?
They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and in my opinion eyelashes are a big part of that. I think they make the biggest difference in a woman's face really quickly. We see lots of ladies who were thinking about an eyelid lift or surgical enhancement, but they opted for this instead. It makes an instant change in their face. When customers get off our tables and look at themselves in the mirror, a lot of them are seeing themselves as beautiful for the first time.
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.