As told to Rosanne Ullman.
Running an esthetics business carries the advantages of any entrepreneurial effort: you get to control everything, and you keep all the money after expenses. In exchange, you risk having your business dominate your life, since you must spend time on marketing, product and equipment purchases and administrative tasks. Profitability, too, is always in question, since you must invest in promotion, insurance, rent and inventory. It can be stressful. The health of the business rises and falls on your shoulders.
Nevertheless, estheticians Joyce Marie, Diana Donovan and Grace Probert agree that, for them, this is the most rewarding path. They all work for themselves, but in very different environments. Here are their stories.
I’ve owned my business for as long as I’ve been an esthetician—30 years. Back then it took only $10,000 to launch—nothing like now! My father financed me in a room within a Beverly Hills salon. He was the one who named my business, adding the “of Beverly Hills” phrase to attract an upscale clientele and establish a respected reputation. I was 19 years old, the only esthetician among eight hairdressers, and my business grew quickly just from the hair clientele. Soon I added another room, hired a second esthetician and, eventually, took over the salon’s entire upstairs.
After 12 years, I moved to a larger Beverly Hills location, where I hired a receptionist and two more estheticians. The building was new, and people didn’t know about it, so it was a challenge for me to get my name around. This was the big-networking 1990s, so I joined the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce Women’s Network along with three or four other groups. I was always hustling, speaking at the meetings and attending events. I really love teaching, and I looked at those talks as an opportunity to teach women about skin care. Endless networking is a lot of work, but it definitely paid off, and I stayed in that location for eight years. For two of those years I split my time by also working in a plastic surgeon’s office. I’m very organized!
Through this double work experience, I discovered two things about myself. First, while I found the medical field highly educational and full of huge opportunities for estheticians, for me the fun part of esthetics is working in salons. Second, I much preferred the hands-on esthetics work and interaction with clients to the managerial end of the business. I wanted to drop my employees and stop having to worry about what was going on outside my door.
If I was going to work full-time as a solo esthetician, I thought I should move into the exclusive “triangle” part of Beverly Hills, bordered by Rodeo Drive, Wilshire Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard. I found a great location in the Michaeljohn Salon and Spa, where I’ve been happy now for 10 years. This is the best of both worlds, because I have colleagues in the spa, which is separate from the hair area. I’m with five other independent, seasoned estheticians and two manicurists. I like being around other esthetics professionals who have no impact on my business.
I do all the basic skin care services, but no body massage or body wraps because I have limited space. I’m never bored. Each client has a unique face, personality and set of issues. I love doing facials the most. It’s like being a chemist because I design a personal treatment for each client. I layer services; typically a facial client will also get a foot massage or eyebrow wax, which helps to build income. I always add retail. I was one of Dermalogica’s first estheticians, and I have full confidence in their products.
The timing for this move was perfect for me. I could not have walked into this situation at the beginning of my career; it would have been too difficult to build a clientele. Even now, I’ve found it necessary to hire a marketing consultant to partner with me; I pay her on an hourly basis. After working a 10-hour day, I don’t have the energy to create a marketing plan, and networking has become passe in L.A. The public is so much more savvy than when I started out; people are educated and want information. My marketing director develops promotions and books me into charity events where I can demonstrate procedures and distribute product samples. She’s also professionalizing my website. You can be the best at what you do, but if no one knows it you’ll be sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.
I also have a p.r. person and a bookkeeping service, plus I pay a monthly retainer to a CPA to take care of my receipts. I continue to seek out education through Dermalogica’s resources and other avenues. Always educate yourself, because you come back excited and you don’t feel as old!
After 30 years, I’m somewhat of a brand. People have told me that they’ve heard of my business. But in any business that requires your own labor, there’s a ceiling on your earnings. I can’t raise prices beyond staying competitive. So I’m focusing more on retail. I hope to be selling Dermalogica products online, which could become “passive income” that works for me even when I’m not working. People will see that they’re getting a quality product.
I thought I wanted to be a hairdresser like my sister, so I shampooed hair at the salon where she worked. However, being at the salon opened other doors for me, and soon I realized that I’d rather work in skin care. I enrolled in school to become an esthetician and nail technician while continuing to work at my sister’s salon. That was 10 years ago.
When I left school, I went to work for a salon/spa with two locations and learned a lot from a doctor who was on staff there. Next I moved on to work with another spa owner who also taught me a lot about the industry. This was two hours from my previous location, so I really had to start over. There were days I had only one client! It was tough, but little by little I built a client base. When my new owner relocated to Georgia, I took a position with an esthetician who rented space in a doctor’s office. Unfortunately, not long afterward, she died.
At this point, having inherited clients from both the esthetician who relocated and the one who died, I felt confident enough to go out on my own. So ever since then, I’ve been renting space upstairs from a chiropractor’s office. I do facials, mani-pedis, waxing and eyelash extensions.
I’ve built my clientele almost entirely from referrals. My clients and I truly love each other; they’re not just clients, but friends who have become part of my life. They’re very good to me and take every opportunity to send me new clients. In addition, the doctor downstairs refers clients.
It’s funny, because a lot of people who knew me worried about whether I could make it on my own. I had my doubts as well! Coming up with the rent, replacing inventory—it’s all more challenging than going to work and putting your commission in your pocket. But it’s been great. I can’t wait to get to work everyday, and my business has expanded so much that I have another esthetician working full-time for me. I don’t know why I waited as long as I did to go solo.
Contrary to what people might think, I have more time for my personal life now that I have my own business, because I work only by appointment and don’t have to sit around hoping for walk-ins. I’ve structured my business so that I don’t work on Sundays and Mondays, and on other days if I’m finished early I just go home. I have a daughter and am currently pregnant and not feeling so great, but my clients are very understanding if I have to cancel an appointment.
I do my own books, although an accountant helps me with my taxes. My husband has been supportive and helps me with designing my brochures, business cards and menus.
I sell a lot of retail, but I’m not pushy. By working with several different estheticians and doctors, I became comfortable with a variety of product lines. My major line is Sothys; I also like an organic line called A Natural Difference and a pharmaceutical line targeted to doctors. Clients appreciate that they can purchase the products I use here and continue the treatment results at home.
I’ve been very lucky. I met the right people who helped me out. I’m trying to pay it back by mentoring a new esthetician who works about a mile from me.
I was still in massage school when I read a great book, Business Mastery: A Guide for Creating a Fulfilling, Thriving Business and Keeping It Successful, by Cherie Sohnen-Moe. I also had written a business plan as part of our school curriculum. So after graduation when my school’s career counselor mentioned that a fitness center in nearby Littleton was looking to rent space to a massage therapist, that’s all it took for me to know where I was supposed to be. The fitness staff already had been telling members that they were hiring a massage therapist, so clients were lining up for my new business: Body, Mind and Soul Massage.
I focused on providing really good service and had to hire a second therapist to handle the overflow. After two-and-a-half years, I left to open my own spa, where I had 16 employees and offered every service except hair. I also continued contract work I’d been doing at two other spas.
At the three different spas, I observed that the Denver area seemed be experiencing a heightened demand for waxing, particularly for people who could do a Brazilian wax really well and make the client feel comfortable during this service. So I opened my current studio and went back to being a solo esthetician for hair removal by laser and waxing.
I do bikini and Brazilian waxes; about 80 percent of my business is Brazilian. Although I spend only 50 percent of my time doing laser removal, it generates 75 percent of my income because it’s a quicker, higher-priced service than waxing. In Colorado, estheticians are permitted to use the Aesthera laser. The other service I specialize in is bleaching intimate areas of skin that have darkened.
I’m really interested in people. I’ve read a lot of books about different personality types and how to make people feel special, and I think I’ve found a way to work with almost every personality. The most important aspect is trust. When you massage, you’re touching the client’s body. With my new business, I’m touching the most personal areas.
My menu is fun for clients. It shows pictures of various bikini and Brazilian options, which lets my shyer clients just point to one and say, “I’ll have that.” Just about every day I get a client who has never before had my services, particularly the bleaching service. I know that California and Florida have had this business for years, but because I have so many first-timers, I really feel as if I’m getting in on the ground floor of a trend in Denver.
When I launched my studio, I did extensive networking. I belonged to Denver Social, Grape Expectations, Linkedin and others; I went to every networking event I had time for. I also used craigslist.com to generate word-of-mouth advertising.
After about a year my revenue was high enough to place ads in local newspapers and online directories. Recently I hired a website optimization specialist, and I expect the Internet to drive a lot of business.
I now have an assistant who works half-days answering the phone, filing, running errands, doing the ordering and so forth. An accountant handles my finances. I have someone who has her own spray-tanning business come in a few days a week. We do some marketing together and cross-sell clients, and she pays me a fee to use my studio.
This is really good money, and I have a choice of so many directions to follow. I want to sell waxing kits, and I’m creating self-waxing videos as well as videos demonstrating how to wax another person, such as a girl who wants to wax her boyfriend’s back. But I’ve had to switch around my brain to remind myself to continue to develop income that does not depend on my working hours.
I eat, sleep and talk my business; my personal life is part of the same mix. I’ve met so many people through what I do, and I hang out with my clients.
On July 3, I’m hosting an event to inspire other estheticians to become self-employed. Fear is the only thing that gets in the way of an esthetician’s potential. You’ll always have thoughts of fear, but just push through that. Having a business is a mental, even spiritual thing to do. It takes effort, determination, persistence and a love of what you’re doing but, if you have that spark and desire, anyone can do it.