The Road You Choose

There are many industry paths you can take, but in the salon, the five primary ones are hairstylist, colorist, esthetician, nail technician and makeup artist. Each requires different technical skills and offers variations—or even cross-overs, like moving from makeup to skincare. For some, such as cutting, you’ll find tons of online education; others, such as hair coloring, tend to lend themselves to more hands-on classes. But in all cases, the more you learn and the more you practice, the more proficient you’ll be.

To help you travel the high-speed success train, we asked experts in each of the five emphasis areas to share the skills needed to advance, add their expert advice and contribute business-building  tips. Combine these with your passion and as much advanced education as you can manage, add a mentor and stay the course, and your path to success will be a sure one.


It’s what you went to school for. Here’s how to make it all pay off. Eric Fisher owns three Eric Fisher Salons and an academy in Wichita, Kansas, and is the creator of Prosper U: a business training program that’s used by 20 other schools. He knows how to succeed and how to help others do the same.

His best advice for beginners is to find a great salon with a structured training program, come in early, stay late and practice, practice, practice.

“Where you focus determines where you get results,” Fisher says. “Don’t define yourself by mistakes; work through them and stay focused on your career.”

Structured training and classes are best augmented with a mentor. Find one by networking at local shows. Consultation, communication and business skills are as important as technical ones, says Robert LaMorte, owner of Robert Jeffrey Salon in Chicago. LaMorte also points out that you might need different mentors for each skill.

As you grow, develop a taste level and the ability to know what looks good on an individual. Analyze face shapes and haircuts in magazines. For instance, a wide neck looks better with a round shaped cut, while a skinny neck looks better with a square-shaped one, Fisher says.

“If you do more than you are paid to do, stay focused, practice and continue learning, in a couple of years, you should have a loyal client base,” Fisher says. “Our Prosper U program covers everything beginners need to build and maintain a clientele. Eighty-five percent of your new clients will come from existing ones, and managing and satisfying them is key.”

Skills you'll need to advance through the tiers:

Beginner: Ability to perform basic cuts (Fisher teaches 8 Pure Forms based on one-length, layered and graduated cutting), understanding of shapes and balance, and skills with round, fl at and Denman brushes and thermal tools. Basic consultation and business-building skills.

Intermediate: Greater proficiency and speed at both cutting and styling. Knowledge of what looks good on individuals and what all hair textures can produce. Ability to maintain a clientele and act as a beauty advisor.

Expert: The ability to perfectly execute whatever you visualize. Men’s barbering and styling-specialty skills (updos, pin curls, fingerwaves and hair extensions). Ability to attract and maintain a full book and raise prices.



Specialists trump generalists, but because haircolor represents the most salon service growth, stylists want to do it all. Start with the best salon you can find. A great color career starts in a salon with extensive training. Just ask Kathi Pixley who shows up first when you Google “best colorist in Texas.” “I started at Visible Changes and spent 17 years there,” Pixley says. “They were departmentalized, open 7 days a week and had great training programs with models, classes and tests that let you advance at your own pace.”

American Board Certified Colorist (ABCH) Deborah McCann, who has a private namesake studio in Dublin, Ohio, and is an educator and evaluator for Redken color certification agrees. “Look for a salon that has a written associate training program and staged education that charts out a career path,” McCann says. “Then take classes and attend all the educational events you can.”

Pixley adds that when you are new, a mall salon with high walk-in traffic and weekend hours is a must. “Work when clients want you to, which is weekends and after 5 p.m.,” Pixley says. Both Pixley and McCann ended up as trainers, so they know where colorists go astray most often, technically speaking. Pixley says that 9 out of 10 colorists don’t understand contributing pigment, for instance. “A successful career in color is based on principles,” McCann says. “Trends change; color principles don’t. Lacking a foundation in principles and taking shortcuts are the biggest mistakes of colorists at all levels.”

You can learn techniques online, but color is truly a hands-on skill. At each career stage, you should master:
Beginner: Understanding of dye systems (direct and oxidative), stages of lightening, undertones and their contribution, color chemistry and deposit. Root retouches, basic consulting skills.

Intermediate: Foiling and principles of line (horizontal, vertical, diagonal); faster foiling. Balayage, formulating, gray coverage and consulting to include facial structure, skin tones and suitability.

Expert: Tintbacks, double processes, highlight retouches; recognition that all color is corrective. Principles of filling in stages (fill for every 1-2 Levels, ending 1 level lighter than the target). Consulting to meet all client challenges.



Women (and increasingly, men), are investing in looking younger. The most lucrative future is in working with medical pros—you can get there in stages. Driven by innovation and anti-aging products, skin care is highly clinical, and estheticians are focusing on results-driven treatments and products. According to Klein Group, Parsippany, New Jersey, spas, salons and medical pros are growing their business by modernizing facilities and using social networking. You can be an esthetician with a cosmetology license or a 600-hour specialty course, but more states are adding Master Esthetician licenses because expertise and being current are vital.

At Last Tangle Salon in Overland Park, Kansas, Mayari Gomez got a degree in psychology, then took a 1,000-hour esthetics program because “with experience and guidance, opportunities
in esthetics are endless.” Once employed, Gomez continued to take classes as she built a clientele by enlisting friends and peers. “It’s up to you how advanced, educated and unique to your area your want to be,” Gomez says. “Social networking is your best tool for advertising and marketing.” Christine Heathman, CEO of Glymed Plus Professional Skin Care, spent 30 years researching and training all over the world. She says continuing education is what leads to success, and that it must include business skills—many top estheticians are salon owners or independent contractors.

Heathman recommends starting at a well-established spa or skin care clinic; Gomez says many spas want work experience if they offer advanced treatments and require equipment mastery.
“I tell job applicants to work in a salon, gain a clientele and basic skills, take classes in consumer behavior, and then come back to me,” says medical esthetician Nancy Dugan of the Plastic Surgery Group in Montclair, New Jersey. “I’ll train them the rest of the way. Get a full education that leads to contacts and exposure first.”

What skills do you need to advance from beginner to expert?
Beginner: Skin anatomy, physiology and analysis; client ethics and use of medical history forms. Basic facials, peels, photo-damaged and acne skin care, microdermabrasion,
use of basic tools and machines, waxing, simple makeup application and communication skills.

Intermediate: Body wraps, spa treatments, chemical peels for all skin types and ethnicities, lymphatic drainage, menopausal skin care, treatments for all types of acne and rosacea, as well as hyper-pigmentation.

Expert: Expertise in medical peels and pre- and post-operative patient skin care. Understanding of how to work with a physician and use lasers (per state regulation/ licensure). Camouflage makeup, varied treatments for all skin types, ethnicities and skin conditions.



The $7.3-billion nail business goes well beyond mani/pedis. Your cosmetology license already allows you to do nails; just add practice, education and speed. Most basic schools cover some nail care. Depending on your state, a separate nail license requires 240-600 hours, but techs who started as cosmetologists say another license isn’t necessary if you have drive and interest. Tracy Cole, owner of Elements in Jonesboro, Arkansas, attended a nail-only school, but says finding a mentor and practicing mattered most. Today she’s a certified Advanced Nail Technician (ANT) and Medical Nail Technician (MNT) who is booked solid more than seven months in advance. While still in school, Cole found a tech with 15 years experience, and along with a few other students, paid her for training in the newest odorless nail system at the time. Cole also attended shows, watched videos and practiced daily. But relentless self-promotion is what secured her success. “I made a scrapbook with a list of my services and prices, and photos of gel nails I did,” Cole says. “I’d introduce myself to stylists’ clients and offer a polish change, a hand massage or paraffin treatment and perform the service while they were still in the chair.” Her entire first year, she also offered a two-week guarantee on artificial nails. After four months, she had very few redos.

Service, then skills

Alicia DiCaro, owner of MoCaro’s Salon & Spa in Elmhurst, Illinois, and an OPI educator, says the most important part of the business is sanitation. “Clients notice!” DiCaro says. “Always remember you are in the customer service business.” Practice boosts speed, mentors with different styles help build skills, and passion, drive and personality ensure advancement.

Skills to master for advancing by level of expertise include:

Basic: Sanitation, mani/pedis, nail art, customer service, basic massage

Intermediate: Gels, acrylics, fills, electric filling, business skills, faster service speed

Expert: Medical nail care, the ability to recognize disorders and recommend a physician, reflexology, spa nail services, an artificial set in 1-1½ hours. (Cole says it took her about 2 years to do a full set of artificial nails quickly and correctly, using an electric file.)



From salons to weddings, runways to editorial, film to theatre, makeup artists have some of the most diverse careers in beauty. Not every state requires a license to do makeup, and the ones that do focus on permanent makeup. You can teach yourself, take manufacturer classes or go to a specialized makeup school. Nancy Dugan, who moved from makeup artist to medical aesthetician and paramedical camouflage therapist at the Plastic Surgery Group in Montclair, New Jersey, says a cosmetology license is the best place to start because you’ll understand skin, plus, makeup artists are often asked to do hair. But whether you want to do touch-ups in the salon or create special effects for film, start by assisting another artist, Dugan says. “Then you’ll get to do ancillary services, and the goal is to expand your services.”

Genevieve Strazisar, a Paul Mitchell educator at Revive Salon in Athens, Georgia, says she started out by “practicing on everyone” and shadowing other artists. “I worked for several companies, too; ones like MAC, Makeup Forever and Bobbi Brown offer hands-on courses,” Strazisar says. Now, due to high demand, she does on-location bridal makeup. If you don’t have money for makeup school, not to worry. Like many younger artists, Rochelle Huynh, a stylist and makeup artist at Bluxom in San Diego, California, says she learned dozens of techniques from YouTube tutorials. She also built an online portfolio, which showcases her wedding and editorial work.

In the salon, post-facial touchups and makeup applications develop skills. Dugan says retail drives salon makeup, and it’s the makeup artist who can drive clients to other departments, like skin care. This builds co-worker respect and referrals. From there, practice, assist, attend shows and classes, and get online. When you’re ready to branch out (and most makeup artists
freelance), take specialized courses in editorial or film, or get a mentor.

Skills you’ll need to advance at each career stage include:

Beginner: Makeup touch-up, brow filling, color matching. Dugan suggests getting black, white, yellow, blue and red paints, (then, cream stage makeup in those colors) and learning to create light, medium and dark skin tones.

Intermediate: Bridal/special occasion makeup, lashes, contouring, highlighting, ideal makeup for different age groups, airbrushing.

Expert: Camouflage, editorial, runway, special effects and TV/film makeup— under all weather and conditions.

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