Making It

Making It
STYLED TO GO: For Tamara Chapman Dolton, Office Cuts benefits both herself and her clients. (D.A. Peterson)
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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, May 24, 2009

In 2000, Tamara Chapman Dolton was a former hairstylist and a divorced mother of two looking for a way to pay her bills. She knew she didn't want to return to a typical salon, where she'd have to arrange her hours to accommodate 9-to-5 workers. "My children were in grade school, and I wanted to be home after school," she says. "I didn't want to work weekends. I didn't want to work evenings."by coming to their workplaces. She had dismissed the idea as impractical (give a professional haircut in an office setting?), but suddenly she started taking it seriously. If she went to the clients instead of having them come to her, she could cut hair while her children were in school. She could improve her own work/life balance as well as that of her clients. "I thought somebody would already be doing it; it's just so smart," says Tamara, 47.

The next step was to figure out how best to do it, which took several years of trial and error. At first, Tamara, who incorporated Office Cuts in 2002, had clients sit in a wheeled conference chair that she would borrow on-site. But she considers herself "an inventor, a solution finder," and she kept looking for the right equipment to create a portable hairstyling studio. So she fashioned a rolling suitcase filled with everything she needs: a hydraulic chair base, a drop cloth for the floor, a drape for the client, sanitary neck strips, an apron, tools, sanitizers, hair products, front and back mirrors and a small industrial vacuum with a hose that fits through a hole in the suitcase. A boat seat folds over the handle of the case. Tamara says the salon takes five minutes to set up.

Tamara applied for a patent on the rolling studio in 2005; the process took 3 years and a visit to the patent office. "I'm a very positive thinker," she said, adding that she told her skeptical patent lawyer, "I want you to write it as if you think you're going to get it." In the meantime, the Alexandria resident has built up her customer base: Office Cuts now has regular hours and serves 40 to 50 clients a month at eight Northern Virginia office buildings housing companies such as Mitre and Booz Allen Hamilton. To help her keep up with the demand, Tamara has hired two part-time stylists. "Our target is anybody who needs a haircut, and they're short on time."

Tamara usually sets up in an employee service room. At Mitre, for example, she works in a room next to the gym. She asks clients to arrive with clean hair with little product on it, and she spritzes their hair. (The one thing she cannot do like a regular salon is give shampoos, but she does do head massages.) She charges $30 for short hair and $35 for long. "We do everything from the president of the company to the plumber," she says. "I've built a relationship with people in all the companies."

Tamara estimates her startup costs at $20,000, including equipment, insurance and legal fees. Last year, she brought in $23,000 in sales and broke even. She pays herself a small monthly salary of $1,000. To make ends meet, she also rents out a room in her basement and opened a home equity line of credit. "I've always believed in it," she says. "I just think on-site services are the way of the future."

Tamara would like to franchise the business someday, but says she's still proving that the business model works. "For me, it's not so much about the money," she says. "It's really about being a successful business that provides an opportunity for stylists."

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