Disrupting the nail salon industry may sound glamorous, but it’s not.
Manda Mason points this out, while sitting outside of urgent care for the pneumonia she’s been battling for more than a month.
Mason and her sister, Lauren Hunter, created and opened their first nail salon in 2015. In four and a half years, The W Nail Bar has opened five locations, including three inside footwear retailer DSW. By November, four more salons will open in DSWs in the Washington, D.C., area and Austin, Texas.
“Don’t get into owning your own business because you think it’s going to be glamorous,” warns Mason, who often wears sweatpants to work. “We eat lunch in our car most days and spill it on ourselves. I’ve never done anything harder. You will work 100 hours a week. It’s not glamorous. It’s exhausting. You have to really have a passion and a heart for it, which we do.
“Lauren and my end goal is to better the lives of our employees,” she says. “That’s what gets you out of bed at the end of the day.”
The sisters shared the story behind their rapidly growing nail salon business, which includes a unique store-within-a-store partnership deal with DSW.
When the sisters opened a second location in German Village, Columbus-based DSW came calling. The corporation had been talking to its consumers and felt opening nail salons inside its stores would benefit everyone.
“We wanted it to be the Starbucks of nails, recognizable from city to city, state to state, and we wanted huge growth nationwide and then hopefully internationally,” Mason says. “That was always a part of our plan. So DSW coming along was really serendipitous and just a great opportunity.”
The sisters had been asked to do a lot of projects in the early life of their startup, all of which they turned down. DSW, however, was an instant yes.
DSW is a large corporation with different layers, departments and regulations, so The W Nail Bar is a tiny fish within a whale. But the sisters say the companies share many of the same values. And it’s important to note that DSW wanted to keep the integrity of the concept — it’s not DSW’s nail salon, it’s The W Nail Bar inside DSW, Hunter says.
While Mason and Hunter can make decisions more quickly, DSW has been invaluable as the sisters spend their days and nights building processes to scale.
“We’re going out of Columbus for the first time and there’s no playbook,” Hunter says. “No one’s done a shop-in-shop to the level that we’re doing it at. We’re really being trailblazers with what we want to do in this concept, and so we’re creating what each step looks, as opposed to following along and doing what somebody else has done.”
She says opening outside of Columbus takes more pre-branding with every facet of The W Nail Bar, not only marketing but also hiring, capturing guests and doing back legwork. But it won’t be quite as difficult inside DSW locations.
Instant success, with a lot of hard work
Mason and Hunter, who grew up in their family grocery business, knew they wanted to own a business together. When Mason left her corporate career to get her nail license and learned about conditions in the nail industry, a brainstorm was born: a full-service nail salon focused on customer service and sanitation.
“We wanted our guests and our employees to feel valued,” Hunter says.
After they wrote their business plan, they found someone who understood their vision. With just a small private loan, they opened their first location in the Short North. By the second year, sales had doubled; they tripled by year three.
“We have had an explosive growth rate, and I really attribute that to our being entrepreneurial minded,” Mason says. “It’s not like I was a nail tech that decided to open a nail salon. Whatever we were going to do, we were going to make work because we were going to work really hard.”
It’s also important to be organized and able to handle the pressure, she says. A lot of people depend on you, and you have to take that seriously.
Hunter says they realize their experience isn’t normal.
“We’re really proud to say that our company is debt free,” she says. “We truly are a needle in a haystack. We are blessed. We’re very aware that it’s not always like this for everybody.”
They’ve also worked to surround themselves with strong advisers, including Rich Langdale of NCT Ventures. Hunter and Mason were friends with Langdale’s kids growing up.
Complementary skill sets
Working together feels natural for the sisters, who are best friends with similar core values but different strengths.
“We feel like we’re moving at 1,000 miles an hour because we are,” Hunter says. “But something important for people to understand is Manda and I have completely separate roles in our company and we stay on our own train tracks. We stay out of each other’s way, and that’s why we’re able to grow so fast.”
Mason focuses on construction, accounting, legal and day-to-day administration, while Hunter is creative and works on everything to do with people, marketing and technology.
“We know who does what,” Mason says. “A lot of people ask, ‘How did you decide that?’ And we’re like, ‘We didn’t.’ That just was naturally how it fell, and it was very obvious. This is going to be your path, and this is going to be my path.”
In addition to opening more national locations in 2020, the sisters have a products company to bring in more revenue. They added this component because once an existing location gets to a maturity rate where all the seats are filled, growth plateaus.
Mason and Hunter also already employ more than 100 people, but they hope to make that 1,000 one day.
“We want to create a safe place for women to work, and men as well, where they’re offered health insurance, where they’re valued, where they’re given breaks, where they’re paid incredibly well — because this is an industry where those things don’t happen,” Mason says.