Even though she ‘doesn’t read books’, Kelly Vowles picked up a copy of Vegan Ventures at VegFestUK London in 2017. Since then she’s opened her own eco-vegan hair salon Pixal-Rose Hair Design in Swindon which was shortlisted for a major British hairdressing award; created her first product; and is about to launch a vegan training academy. Kelly, who is one of my consulting clients, shares her journey to success.
Tell us a bit about your professional and job background before starting your hairdressing business and how and why you got into hairdressing.
My career history isn’t particularly conventional. I actually dabbled with a few different jobs including working in gyms, retail, and holiday parks, before I eventually settled working as a nightclub DJ.
I even have a university degree in Popular Music and spent most of my twenties travelling the UK, performing at festivals, corporate events and club nights.
Then, one day, I met my husband and realized I didn’t enjoy all the late night working, the travelling to various towns by myself, the irregular income and being constantly tired.
My husband suggested that I re-train and learn a new skill. At the time I couldn’t think of anything worse, three years of my life had already been committed to university which felt a little wasted but eventually I agreed to browse the local college prospectus and came across the hairdressing course.
I decided to go for it but this time was a bit harder as I had to find a 9-5 full time job, which I couldn’t stand, and attend college two to three evenings a week.
What made you want to start your own hairdressing business?
From the very first minute of learning to be a hairdresser, it was obvious I’d need to somehow start my own business. At the time my course began I was pescatarian and refused to buy into any products that had been tested on animals.
Most products at that time had been tested on animals at some point in its manufacturing life so I was uncomfortable using them, but I knew this was a means to an end, so it was always in the back of my mind that I’d open a salon which was completely cruelty-free.
Three years of training and a conversion to veganism later and I was a qualified hairdresser with a dream but no idea how to take the leap into what I needed to be doing.
I got a Saturday job with a popular hairdressing salon in the town but again, using and selling products to clients which were highly unethical just sat very uncomfortably with me so it wasn’t long before I put some wheels in motion to start a vegan hairdressing service.
How did you know when the time was right?
Initially, I knew I had to take a leap of faith and start a rent-a-chair hairdressing business. I dropped my hours in what I called my muggle office job to allow me to spend a little more time focusing on the hairdressing dream but realistically I had zero business experience and no idea how to make things move a little quicker for me.
It was actually a chance meeting with you, Katrina, at VegFestUK London in 2017 which really pushed and helped me take the leap. I bought your book Vegan Ventures: Start and Grow an Ethical Business, despite a little opposition, because I’ve never in my life read a book, and carried it with me everywhere I went along with a notepad. If I had a spare moment and the mood took me, I’d sit and read a little more and make notes on my journey.
It wasn’t long before I’d quit my job to become a full time rent-a-chair hairdresser, providing vegan-only services. I absolutely loved it and it was great to do gentle activism in my daily life, talking about veganism to my clients, some non-vegan but curious, some vegan already and some newly vegan with loads of enthusiasm and questions.
It was clear, there was a lot of merit and demand for what I was doing and I knew I was working towards the big scary dream of opening the very first vegan salon in my home town, a vegan haven where all were welcome. That was the scary part.
My husband and I had been saving for some time, ready for the day to come that I could take on my very own salon, but knowing when the time was right was a whole other ball-game. In the grand scheme of things, there were many other hairdressers out there who had way more experience than me.
Could I afford to run an actual salon? Would people actually come? So many questions that you realistically only answer once the door is actually open.
I was hoping to have a salon in the area I lived in. Firstly there was zero competition in the area with hair salons and being within walking distance from my home to work was very appealing to me.
I loosely kept an eye on the local retail units and frequently browsed the commercial internet pages for property to rent. I also performed a regular exercise of ‘asking the Universe’ which I truly believe kept my mind open and ready for the right opportunity.
In July 2018, I was driving in the car with my husband down the main high street in my area and to my surprise, one of the retail units was completely empty, the lights were turned on and it appeared that a workman was fixing some of the lights. A week later, I gained the courage to walk up to the unit to speak to the workmen, asking if the unit would be available to rent.
Armed with a business card I walked in with confidence to be informed that the unit was being prepared for a local dog groomer who was taking on the lease. Something in me didn’t let that put me off and I handed over my card asking for the landlord to call me if the situation changed.
I then called my husband and said, ‘The unit is already rented out, but I’m telling you now, that business isn’t going to move in. Something is telling me to get ready, because that’s going to be my hair salon’
Four weeks later, I got a text asking me to come view the unit because the situation had changed and the lease was now up for grabs.
It didn’t end there. I talked myself out of the opportunity 100 times. One evening I even went to dinner with my husband to tell him I was going to pull out as I was so scared but he told me, ‘You’re opening a hairdressers whether you like it or not so you’d better get used to it.’
Truth is, I never felt ready. It was other people who could see that I was ready.
Why the name?
The concept of my business is to ‘Celebrate Pets, Not Test’ and my ‘why’ is to prove that you can have great hair without harming animals. So what better way to celebrate pets but to name a business after them?
Pixal is the name of one of my guinea pigs, now at the rainbow bridge. She was the most confident, loving little piglet and I’m so proud to say her name every day. A true example that every creature big and small is important and we shouldn’t be exploiting them for our luxury.
With a business like hairdressing that requires a physical location, fit-out is key – and can be expensive, along with buying products, chairs, equipment and other expenses. How did you fund the initial startup?
There was a bit of an advantage with knowing what my dream was from the outset. I started collecting furniture from day one.
The entire salon, unless completely unavoidable, was kitted out with pre-loved furniture, as I wanted to recycle everything I could. This kept our costs down, gave the salon a unique look and also kept completely in line with our eco ethics.
We had a few expenses that were unavoidable such as plumbing costs, signage for the front of the shop, licenses, extra stock and so on, but they were covered by the savings that we had.
I was keen not to owe any money to the banks, family or friends, as I was concerned about how much money the business would or wouldn’t make and I really didn’t want any debts hanging over my head while struggling to make ends meet.
What were some of your key challenges when first starting out with the business?
Finding team members to come into the salon to rent the chairs. This is a problem which challenges every hair salon, but mine more so as it had to be stylists who were willing to respect the vegan message.
What I quickly learned is that for every genuine, hard-working and talented stylist, there was one or in my case two that were only on board to ride the wave I’d worked so hard to create.
Getting the vegan message right was a challenge, so letting people know who I am and what my business ethics stand for without alienating new non-vegan clients.
And finally, learning not to work too hard. There were many nights where I worked in the salon until 10pm, by myself, because I was too scared to say ‘no’ to clients.
How did you handle these challenges?
First of all, I had to find the confidence in me to be resilient and let go of a couple of staff members to protect my reputation.
Second, I had to learn to say ‘no’ to people. One situation sticks out so clearly in my mind. On the lead up to our first Christmas in the salon, we were absolutely booked to the rafters, when I received a phone call from a lady asking me to squeeze her in for a hair cut the next day.
Despite explaining we had no space, she begged for me to look again and get her in as she had a church service to go to and needed to look smart.
I offered to open the salon an hourly early at 8am the next day to cut her hair and made it very clear, this was a big favour to help her out. I remember waking up at 6am on that Wednesday morning to get the salon open for 8am. My eyes were stinging I was so tired.
I walked to work that morning, exhausted and got the doors open ready to start – and the client never showed. The tiredness got to me and I cried and decided from there I would have set working hours that clients would need to work around because there’s so much at stake when you’re putting yourself out there like that – your home life, relationships as well as your physical and mental health.
Over a year later, the business is still growing without having to work crazy hours and without having to compromise on the calibre of stylists that work here.
What are your current challenges as a business and how are you handling them?
Maintaining a USP [unique selling proposition] is a big challenge. Being vegan and eco-friendly has always been our ‘thing’ but veganism is so huge now. Lots of businesses are jumping on board with it, which is great.
We often have brain-storming periods within the salon if we have quiet times, although there should never be a quiet period – there is always cleaning, admin, stock control, to be done. And we’ve come up with some really exciting ideas of extra angles for the business including our latest vegan training academy. I try to keep on top of consumer trends and identify gaps within the market.
Handling staff issues is also something which I tend to shy away from. It’s key to remain resilient and to not let people ‘walk all over you’ while also being an accommodating person. I’ve appointed an HR person to help with these matters.
Time is a major challenge. First of all, unless absolutely unavoidable, I do have a cut-off time with business and work. When I’m home, with my friends or husband, that’s my time and I have to be strict with myself that things can wait. Equally, staying motivated to keep on top of admin and accounts is absolutely key.
What additional staff do you have and how did you know you were ready to hire them while keeping the business sustainable?
Currently we have one self-employed stylist and three employed stylists: one senior, one graduate and one apprentice. I also have a someone who helps out with social media by replying to messages and queries – in return she receives free hair treatments.
It got to a point where it felt as if we were turning away more work than we were taking in. I started by employing just one part-time stylist to see how things worked out for us. Before long she was getting booked up which is when it felt right to take on some more team members. It’s still very scary as I have to pay them regardless of if they have clients or not so I have to ensure everyone remains busy.
Approximately what percentage of your clients seek you out because you’re vegan, compared with non-vegans?
A good 60%. We have a really good mix of vegan and non-vegan but the phone still rings frequently with people informing they want to come to us because they are vegan and so are we.
In regards to the use of the word ‘vegan’ in your marketing materials, what are your thoughts on this and please explain your choice of how you use the word (or not) in your marketing and why.
We do use the word ‘vegan’ and I think we use it well. For me, veganism isn’t a marketing tool, it’s who I am and something I believe to be the way forward. Although I’d never want someone to be uncomfortable coming to the salon because they are non-vegan, I also don’t want to hide who I am and what I believe in.
Our price list fully explains why the salon is vegan. It touches on animal testing and also explains that we’re vegan for the animals. I think the message is personal, non-aggressive and important.
How did you initially attract customers when you first launched and opened?
When we were getting ready to open, I targeted local vegan Facebook groups as well as local resident groups to let them know about the forthcoming new business. I contacted local press and asked them to do a piece on the first vegan salon in Swindon and also performed leaflet drops in the local area.
What current marketing strategies do you currently use and which are most effective?
Facebook is my biggest resource. It’s free advertising and can be utlitised in so many different ways. We host ‘like and share’ competitions from the page to get the word out more and I ask all the girls to share any posts with offers and promotions.
How do you stand out from other hairdressing businesses, even other vegan and eco-friendly dones? What’s your point of difference?
The best feedback we get from our clients is how friendly we are. The girls that work here are like a big family, we all get on so well and we are invested in each other. This shows to our clients and many of them pop in, in between appointments to check up on us, if one of us has been through a bad time, had a date or an exciting event. They love our friendly, family nature.
We’re also ambassadors to the Animal Justice Project, so we stand out for being very animal focused.
A couple of other things in our pipeline include adopting mental well-being into our services so we’ve just introduced mirror-less work stations into the salon so clients don’t have to stare at themselves for hours on end and focusing on things they don’t like about themselves. We’re also planning to introduce sessions focusing on mental well-being.
You were shortlisted for a major awards even after only being in business for a short time. Tell us about this and the benefits of being shortlisted.
We entered the Salon Business Awards, Green Salon of the Year category in 2019 and were shortlisted into the final eight. Quite simply, we entered these awards because the year before this category was won by a salon we really admire. We decided to aim big and follow suit.
To enter, we had to provide a lengthy description of the measures we take in the salon to be as eco-friendly as possible. This included everything from our sustainable hair brand to the water-saving shower heads. It was abosolutely incredible to be shortlisted, although we didn’t win the trophy on this occasion.
As a shortlisted salon, we were included in some marketing information provided by Salon Business, featured on their social media and also invited to an exclusive awards event at which we were able to network with several other salons.
You recently launched your first hair product. Tell us about it, including the process you had to go through from conception to final product, the challenges, and how you managed this while running the salon.
The idea for the hair product range was actually a dream before the salon. A random meeting at a vegan fair with a girl who had her own make-up brand inspired me to start my own hair products.
I noticed there was a gap in the market for a truly naturally-focused hair brand as many cosmetic traders at vegan fairs focused on bath bombs, hand lotions and make up etc.
The lady who owned her cosmetic brand ‘Bohemian Chic Minerals’ was very open to chatting with me about her journey and the one piece of advice/ knowledge she gave to me was, ‘You’ll spend your life on the internet trying to figure this out’. And she wasn’t wrong.
I wanted to again celebrate one of my pets, Jim, who was a very fluffy guinea pig and wanted to incorporate his favourite flavours into the products where possible.
I started with a hair wax mainly because there was a massive shortage of styling waxes that didn’t contain beeswax.
This actually made it difficult as a hairdresser when cutting and styling shorter cuts as I was having to finish the looks with sticky hairsprays.
Part of the idea was to include ingredients in the products which also give benefit to the hair – so the wax contains organic carrot oil which helps strengthen the hair and give shine.
The hair wax is a result of months of playing around with varying subtances, many visits to health food shops and playing around with random products I found on the shelves, as well as finding willing people to to have random trials of goo put into their hair until I found something with the right consistency that worked.
Any spare time I had at the salon, I’d be out the back playing around with powders, oils and butters and now have a further two products ready for certification.
Getting the certification was a challenge because my formulations were quite new. They’re completely unique to me and not adapted from formulations I’ve found on the internet, but after a few months of waiting, it finally happened.
For those who aspire to running their own business, what in your opinion are the key things they need to take into account before making the jump from employment to self-employed/employer?
For me, not getting into debt was very very important. I’m really very fortunate that I have a husband with a stable job who will still continues to bring in an income if everything were to go wrong tomorrow. You need to have the right mixture of caution and risk.
Before I quit my steady office job, I sat with my husband and worked out a ‘worst case scenario’ situation where we ensured that, if no one were to ever book another hair cut ever again, could we survive on his income? The answer was, it would be extrememly tight and we’d have no luxuries, but yes, we’d make it work.
I’m aware that not everyone is in the same situation as I was. There are people who are on their own trying to open businesses and I honestly think, if it’s your dream then you’ll make it work. I guess you have to ask yourself, how you’d pay the bills and look after yourself if things didn’t work out for you. Have a solid plan B as well as a plan A.
Ultimately – the best thing that was ever said to me was, ‘You’ll make it work because you have to’.
Also, the greatest piece of advice I would ever give to anyone is, ‘See solutions and not problems’. I truly feel this is the difference between an entreprenuer and a business owner.
If you’re having a quiet day, don’t dwell on it. Find something else you can do: Put your leaflets through doors. I once did this in the snow because everyone cancelled their hair appointments. Get on social media, clean up, get the admin and accounts complete. Make it work for you, because no one else will,
What have been the key lessons you’ve learned through running your business?
The biggest thing I’ve learned about myself is my potential. I spent many years working for companies where I struggled to get promoted or developed.
Some of the feedback I’d receive suggested I was too out-spoken, therefore difficult to work with. For a long time I saw my confidence as a negative but now, I use it to push my creativity and to celebrate my brands wherever possible.
Others will put you down when they feel threatened, but as long as you have good intentions and you’re ‘well-planned’ in your decisions, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something or it won’t work. If there’s a way, you’ll find it.
Professionally – as hard as this can be sometimes – it’s good to collaborate without giving away all of your secrets. I had so many people help and give great advice and assistance when I opened my salon.
Finally, what’s your long-term vision for yourself and your brand/s?
I simply would love for the message of my brands to go global in order to help end all animal exploitation. I can’t wish for anything more than that.