The barbershop diaries

Barbershops were once a budget option before creatives changed the game. Now an army of startups (and a pandemic) is changing the industry even further.

For much of the 20th century, barbershops were a budget avenue for men’s grooming, offering a traditional but limited array of services – a trim, a shave, and little else. By the turn of the millennium, though, tastes and styles had become much more varied and a cosmopolitan consumer with cash to burn entered the scene, but with few options besides low-budget or high-end. This set the scene for a third path – and led to a new wave of creative barber-entrepreneurs redefining the trade.

‘First I was thinking about opening a men’s shop or maybe a restaurant or a bar. But I kept coming back to the idea of a barbershop because it was the one thing that just didn’t really exist in the way we know it,’ says Sam Buffa, who owns Fellow Barber, a chain of 15 barbershops across New York and California. ‘In New York, you had either the $20 barbershop or the salon, where I was never that excited about the environment. And the price was generally expensive: around a hundred bucks and over.’

Sam’s first shop opened in 2006 in the back of Freemans Sporting Club, a menswear shop on New York City’s Lower East Side. It had just four seats, which was part of the barbershop appeal in the first place, and goes some way to explain the industry’s prolific growth – for a modest startup cost and with a small space, you can quickly have your own creative, people-facing, physical business. ‘It was a boom right from the get-go,’ he says. ‘It was obvious that there were a lot of guys out there like myself who were looking for this thing that just didn’t exist at the time.’

As the talent threshold was raised, it rehabilitated barbering as a lucrative, entrepreneurial pursuit. While some barbers work as full-time employees, an increasing number hire a chair and bring in their own dedicated clientele, paying a cut to the shop-owner. ‘It’s about 50-50 in our business,’ Sam says. ‘We have barbers who are musicians or artists, doing things that are their passion and able to have this flexible job. It’s a great skill that you can take with you anywhere. We have people that make more than $100,000 a year.’

The industry is growing rapidly. In 2018, 813 barbershops opened in the UK, making it one of the fastest-growing retail sectors in the country. Naturally, this means a denser market and tougher competition. ‘It’s pretty saturated now – everyone is fighting for the next customer. When I opened, it was us and the Wacky Barber in Soho,’ says Neil Scothon, founder of the barbershop chain Rocket, in London. ‘We used to have 13 people queuing all the way up the street on a Wednesday. Now, in a mile radius, there are hundreds of [barbers].’ The boom is driven by demand – in the US, men spent $6.9bn on grooming in 2018 – up 11% from the previous year, according to business intelligence firm Euromonitor International – while men in the UK spend more than £500 a year on hair, according to another study.

Yet most barbershops are still small, independent and function on cash and walk-ins – and until quite recently have remained old-school in their approach to tech. Oddly, given how often men get their hair cut, the industry has been one of the last retail-based sectors to be influenced and disrupted by huge online marketplaces – which have already transformed how high-street florists, beauty salons and independent stores operate. It’s made it a lucrative industry – and fertile ground for VC-backed startups keen to move the industry online.

The pandemic has only accelerated that shift, says Olivia Cramer of The Craftory – a London-based sustainable VC firm with a dedicated beauty and personal care portfolio – adding that technology is becoming an inevitable, almost indistinguishable part of the industry. ‘The line between CBG [care-beauty-grooming] and tech is becoming blurred, making it more interesting and understandable to investors.’

Take Texas-based ShearShare (hear from founder Courtney Caldwell on p 54), which connects barbershop owners looking to rent out empty chairs with freelance barbers and stylists on the hunt for physical space to host clients. Another player shaking things up is New York-based Squire, which acts as a back-end management platform for indie barbershop owners – streamlining bookings, company payroll, customer payments and logistics. In March of this year, co-founders Dave Salvant and Songe LaRon raised a $34m Series B round – following an $8m Series A back in 2018.

The pandemic, of course, has bruised the industry in the short term. Squire closed its recent round immediately before lockdown hit. While its barbershop subscribers across the US were shuttered and stuck in wait-and-see mode, Squire launched the site as a way of centralising information and ways to secure grants and loans to survive.

But, DIY lockdown haircuts notwithstanding, the still-uncertain post-lockdown era has shown the barbering industry’s resilience – Squire says it’s already seen big renewed interest from barbershop owners, while ShearShare’s founders have said new users grew by 150% in recent months and June revenue grew 76% year-on-year.

Part of this can be explained by pent-up demand and a change in spending habits. ‘During the 2008 economic crisis, we actually got busier because a lot of people that were going to the salon and spending a lot of money on their haircuts came down to our price point,’ says Sam, who reckons the industry might now attract investor-owners and VC firms in the way restaurants did about decade ago. ‘Investors want to see consistency, and we’re doing that. It’s been done in the women’s world. It’s not yet been done successfully on a larger scale in the men’s world. But I think that it can be,’ he adds.

Yet the combination of Covid-19 along with the emergence of platforms offering cashless payments and streamlined tools to save on admin and other costs, might mean tech is well-positioned to transform the industry for good.

You might like these, too