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A Cut Above

Sustainability comes in many forms. This month, veteran barber and regular columnist, Ian Harrold, ponders the challenges of running a business that goes the distance

words by Ian HARROLD

My first barber shop turns 23 this year. My second just turned 15, and my third is seven. I’m not one for sentimentality, generally, but those kinds of numbers do tend to get you feeling nostalgic. Truth be told, it feels like quite an achievement, and it does get me thinking about the idea of how sustainability applies to small, independent businesses.

I’m not talking about plastic straws, recycled cups and all that (categorically and undeniably noble) jazz. I’m talking about the idea of longevity in business. After all, it’s not always a guarantee: A small business owner is at the constant mercy of the tides of trend and favour alike. In reality, there are relatively few aspects of a business over which an owner is truly in control. With the right staff, however, you sure can stack the deck in your favour. 

A good lineup of barbers is, obviously, the key to success in any barber shop (which is probably why they’re often so hard to secure in today’s industry). More importantly though, your staff are an investment like any other. Realistically, it’s going to take time before they’re cutting hair to a good standard and putting any money back into your business. It’s the same principle when it comes to the tools of the trade. Clippers, scissors, mannequins, you name it, they don’t come cheap, and any corner-cutting in those departments will show pretty quickly and hurt your business in the long run. These are all costly elements, no doubt, but they reveal their worth over time. And that’s how things should be, really: A slow-but-steady, buy-less-buy-better mentality will always prevail on a long enough time scale. Whether that’s in business or in day-to-day life.

A good workman is only as good as his tools, and when you’re cutting hair for upwards of ten hours a day, it pays to surround yourself with the best tools. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’ve just called my barbers a bunch of tools. While that’s not quite what I’m trying to say, I think it’s fair to suggest that, over time, they do become finely-tuned instruments.

That’s why I’ve always preferred to train people from scratch. This is, of course, the slower way of doing things, and it does leave you open to life’s general unpredictability – from sickness and injury to marriage and long vacations. Which often means you’re more hands-on than you’d like to be. As I’ve said before, owning your own business is like buying yourself a full time job in some respects. But invest in your people, build a strong enough team and you just might find that it’s a full time job that will go the distance.

Over the last 23 years, I’ve had the pleasure of training up 34 apprentices. With one or two exceptions, they’re still cutting hair today. That’s quite the way of keeping the trade alive if you ask me. Not bad odds at all. IH

Follow Ian on instagram: @ianharrold1