When Their Investor Bailed, These Female Founders Launched Their Company Anyway
Riawna Capri and Nikki Lee bootstrapped a single hair salon in Hollywood. When a client requested a braiding style, the stylists decided to 'own' the trend.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about the pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality -- and the first steps they took to make that happen.
In 2010, best friends, hairstylists and longtime coworkers Riawna Capri and Nikki Lee decided to go into business together, opening a high-end salon in Los Angeles. The pair had impressive résumés and a growing roster of celebrity clients, though their journey to launching Nine Zero One Salon was no easy feat.
Nine years later, however, Capri and Lee have built a booming hair empire that’s grown to include not just a salon, but an educational program called 901 Academy, a content platform, consumer products and a nonprofit arm called the BeYOUtiful Foundation, which helps provide support to women fighting cancer. (They count Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Roberts and Selena Gomez as clients.)
Here’s how they built the business they’d always dreamed of.
1. Commit to your idea.
Lee and Capri met nearly 15 years ago, when both were working as salon assistants at Fred Segal in Santa Monica; they then worked at two other salons together before they considered starting their own business.
“We were ready for our next step, and started looking at other high-end salons, but when we walked in, it felt like people were more concerned about the shoes we were wearing or the bags we were carrying,” Capri told Entrepreneur. “It just wasn’t a good energy. We realized that the grass wouldn’t be greener at a new salon, unless it was our own.”
2. Do your homework.
A client of Lee’s had a husband who was interested in funding the pair’s business, and they jumped at the chance. “We were 26 and 27 and did not even think about what an 'investor' meant,” said Capri. “We thought we just got to make a pretty salon and use someone else’s money.”
But when their investor requested a business plan and financial statement, the women got to work. “We Googled to make a business plan, did the same with a financial statement, turned it in, and he said it looked great,” Lee said. “And we moved forward with him.”
3. Find a space.
With the help of another client who happened to be a real estate agent, Lee and Capri started hunting for a space in 2009. “Because of the recession, there were so many spaces available,” Lee said. In the interest of promoting “fresh juju,” the women said, they wanted a storefront that had never before been a salon.
They ended up changing their tune. “Our realtor showed us a space located at 901 Westbourne Drive in West Hollywood -- the old Jonathan Antin salon where [reality show] Blow Out was filmed -- and we loved it,” Capri said. “Our agent was like, ‘Stop saying you love it in front of the landlord, so I can get the rent down!’”
4. When everything goes wrong, adapt.
After settling on a lease, the women reached out to their investor to share the good news and take the next steps. “And we got no answer,” Capri says. “We called his wife -- no answer. This happened for days. Finally, she called us crying, saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’ Apparently he'd lost a chunk of money gambling, and they had to back out of the deal.”
Rather than give up, the partners got scrappy. They pooled their bank accounts, opened three credit cards and got the salon off the ground. Said Capri: “We didn’t feel panicked because after working on our business plan and the financial statement, we knew we could make this work. Plus, there was a whole attic space on top that we figured we could sleep in if worse came to worse and we had to get rid of our apartments!”
Luckily, the two entrepreneurs never did take up residency in that attic.
5. Build a team -- slowly.
At a time most high-end salons were named after their owners, Lee and Capri wanted to take a more democratic approach, and instead named their salon after its address: Nine Zero One. “It made everyone equal,” Capri said. “A customer walks in, and they don’t know who the owner is.”
Nine Zero One opened its doors with just five staff members: Lee, Capri, a third stylist, an assistant and a receptionist. “We wanted to take our time hiring good human beings that wanted to grow with us and be a part of a family,” Lee said. “We made a dream list of stylists we wanted to work for us, and now they all do! It was just a matter of holding out until they were available. We didn’t want to rush.”
6. Find your niche.
Capri had a client that loved having her hair styled in a simple braid, and the duo noticed that a small trend was developing. They decided to own it.
“It was right around the time that Drybar had created its blow-dry menu, so we decided to offer up a Braid Bar and a braid menu,” Capri said. “It was $25 for a braid, which got clients in the door. It was cheap, nothing permanent, and once we got them in the door, we prayed they would stay. It’s how we built our clientele. And we trademarked.”
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