Value Added: Marriott deal strategist shapes second career in a blow-dry salon

Thomas Heath
Reporter March 16

I am not the target customer for the business I am about to describe, as you can tell from my visage.

This is about a blow-dry salon.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Instead of washing and cutting your hair, a blow-dry salon fixes you up — faster and cheaper than a full haircut and coloring — so you are put together for that day’s board meeting, that night’s dinner at the Palm or the concert at the Kennedy Center.

Blow-dry salons serve men, but the target customers are women.

Which brings us to Maha Sharma, a 28-year-old Marriott International finance executive who is putting $300,000 into a blow-dry salon near Dupont Circle to scratch her entrepreneurial itch.

I usually write about businesses that have been in the works for a while, sometimes decades, but I also can’t resist telling another story about the details, the work, risk and sheer will that goes into turning a business idea into wealth.

“My philosophy has always been unless you are doing what you are passionate about and working for your own self, you are never going to get rich,” Sharma said.

Personally, I think that to succeed you need to be passionate about making money and less in love with the subject matter. But then again, I am the wage slave and she is the risk-taker.

A little background on Sharma. She grew up in India and used loans, scholarship money and help from her parents to put herself through the University of Maryland, where she studied finance and economics.

She worked as a research analyst at the International Monetary Fund after graduation, then went to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, from which she graduated in 2011.

The self-described Type A personality and perfectionist minored in entre­pre­neur­ship at Wharton and began scouting start-up opportunities before she graduated.

The blow-dry bar business fit the bill for a number of reasons: She uses them herself at least three times a week. The business dovetails with her interest in the fashion, beauty and retail sectors.

Besides, starting a retail or cosmetics business or a full-service hair salon would have cost between $500,000 and $800,000, according to her estimates.

“I’m not made of money,” said Sharma, who still carries loans from two years at a top business school that costs more than $100,000 for two years.

Sharma didn’t write a business plan, but her disciplined, thorough approach to her blow-dry start-up, which is set to open Saturday, is a valuable primer for any would-be entrepreneur.

She settled on a franchise for Blo Blow Dry Bar, a Toronto-based company that has about 40 locations, for a few reasons. She liked the company’s Web site. She liked the seamless integration between its online booking system and its mobile app. She also felt the company wasn’t so large that she would be ignored.

She even phoned the company’s chief operating officer, who flew to Washington to meet her. She researched the price and found she could do it for $300,000, all in.

To finance her investment, Sharma pulled together cash from savings and family. That enabled her to pay Blo Blow Dry Bar’s $30,000 franchise fee and cover the $150,000 needed to fix up the salon, with enough left over to cover a down payment on the lease, insurance, inventory and other start-up costs.

Ask anyone in the retail business, and they will tell you that location is everything.

Sharma knows this, so she was disciplined about her approach. She spent weekends and time off walking around Washington with her brother, a George Washington University sophomore. She visited Foggy Bottom. She visited Gallery Place. She visited the K Street corridor, Adams Morgan and 14th Street NW. She measured foot traffic.

A real estate agent recommended Dupont Circle, and Sharma found a vacant storefront at the corner of 22nd and P streets NW on her own. It is a couple of blocks west of Dupont Circle, in a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood.

“Dupont is the only place where you find the whole enchilada, where you get a mix of women who are going places, either work, to play or social gatherings,” she said.

She parked herself in a coffee shop across the street, counting the number of professional-looking women who marched past her would-be store while she sipped black tea with milk. She staggered her times in the coffee shop between weekdays,weekends and evenings. One bonus that went into her equation was the fact that her shop would be near a Pilates studio.

Once she satisfied herself that the location worked, the agent helped her to negotiate a 10-year lease for 1,200 square feet. She then hired a contractor and went to work.

The air conditioning had to be replaced. A bathroom was demolished. The plumbing was reworked. After building 37 stores, Blo Blow Dry knew how to maximize salon space, so she followed preset map and manufacturer for the eight blow-dry stations, 40 pieces of lighting, chairs, reception desk and retail displays. That came to around $50,000.

“As a first-time entrepreneur, so far, I am loving the franchise route as they have tried and tested ways that you can leverage,” Sharma said. “That said, I told the franchise that I was going to fit out the bathroom in my own taste and the reception desk lighting would be of my choice. For the bathroom I chose Carrara marble, which is my favorite. “

The next key assignment was hiring key employees. Because she has a day job that requires her full attention, Sharma needed a manager to run the business side (personnel, accounting, managing) and a second manager, a licensed hairstylist, to handle the design end “to ensure that every blow dry that leaves our floor is ‘catwalk worthy.’ ”

She placed ads on Craigslist, in The Washington Post and through word of mouth during her own visits to hair salons. She interviewed 30 people, asking questions like: What if a client isn’t happy with her hair? How do you handle a stylist not keeping up with their job? How do you deliver bad news? How do you motivate?

“I was very picky,” she said. “I was keen on making sure that this person had experience, aptitude and personality.”

Sharma estimates that the business needs 200 blow-drys a week — or about 10,000 visits a year — to make money. At a $40 average, that amounts to about $400,000 a year in gross revenues, not including retail sales.

After expenses, including labor costs for 14 part-time and full-time employees, royalties to Blo Blow Dry, insurance and the lease, she expects a mid-teens profit, which I estimate should amount to $60,000.

”I can’t live on that,” she said. “But I want the Dupont store to be a halo location,” generating word-of-mouth that will open up opportunities in Washington’s upscale suburbs like Arlington, Chevy Chase, Alexandria and McLean. She eventually wants to cover the entire Washington market.

“This is my first venture, so I am keeping my head up,” she said.

It’s other people’s heads she needs to worry about.

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