Making It

By Katherine Shaver
Sunday, March 16, 2008

At nine months pregnant, Cinnamon Bowser's former college roommate craved pretty feet. But, with two young children in tow, getting to the salon for some pedicure pampering was nearly impossible.

So Cinnamon, 37, figured she'd send a nail technician to her friend's home. When she couldn't find one, she says, she saw a business opportunity -- a mobile nail boutique.

Almost three years later, Cinnamon's Alexandria-based Nail Taxi has nine technicians serving the Washington area. Through licensing agreements, Nail Taxis also operate in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago and Richmond. The company sends nail technicians to private homes, hospitals, hotels, nursing homes, offices and parties.

"Getting your nails done is a small indulgence," Cinnamon says. For elderly women, especially, "it kind of restores a person's dignity a bit."

When she came up with the idea, Cinnamon says, she knew little about the nail business beyond her monthly pedicures. She'd worked as a reporter for the Catholic Standard newspaper and in public relations for the Hyatt Regency Crystal City hotel, the Urban Institute and the United Negro College Fund. While formulating a business plan and taking classes at the Women's Business Center of Northern Virginia in Springfield, Cinnamon says, she became a spokeswoman for a California congresswoman. With a toddler at home, she soon left Capitol Hill for more predictable hours working in communications for Alexandria City Public Schools.

"I didn't want to be in an office all the time, racing home just to put my daughter to bed," she says of that decision.

In May 2005, Cinnamon says, she used $2,000 in savings to buy supplies, design a Web site and hire two nail technicians who worked on commission and drove their own vehicles. After the business debuted at a women's conference in Tysons Corner that month, she says, demand took off via word of mouth and publicity in trade publications. She quit her schools job five months later. Her husband, Steven, 44, who works in finance, encouraged her to take the leap.

"I figured if it didn't work out I could get another job," Cinnamon says. "I didn't want fear to stop me."

Nail Taxi typically serves about 80 customers a month in the Washington area, she says, including five or so men. (Usually, she says, their wives or girlfriends make the appointments for "someone to do something with their feet.") She concedes that her prices -- starting at $35 for a manicure and $50 for a pedicure, with an hourly rate for group events -- are "considerably more" than typical strip mall salons but says customers pay for convenience.

They include Karen Hamilton, 64, of Fairfax, who says she uses Nail Taxi because her emphysema makes it difficult to leave her house.

"I can't go out to eat and travel anymore, so it's kind of a treat to myself," Hamilton says.

Last year, Cinnamon says, Nail Taxi earned $82,000 in revenue from the Washington area and$22,000 in licensing fees from the other locations. She is able to pay herself enough to cover the $42,000 annual salary she left behind in her school system job, she says.

This spring, she plans to launch a mobile spa for girls' birthday parties. She says she wants to keep her flexibility to be with her children -- ages 6, 3 and 1 -- when she needs to. As for how she juggles growing a business and being a parent to three children, she says, "I don't sleep a lot."

Are you succeeding with a new and unusual career, invention, business or creative endeavor? E-mail

© 2008 The Washington Post Company