Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in personal care but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Jonathan Tunis, Co-Owner of Guys & Dolls Hair Salon, located in Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Guys & Dolls Hair Salon is an independent, upscale hair salon located in Fort Lauderdale. Guys & Dolls has been at the same location and under the same management/ownership for 17 years (since March 2006). By 2008 we had assembled a top-notch staff and started getting very busy. It was about this time when Yelp first appeared, and we were thrown into the online reputation world. We consistently ranked 5-stars on Google, Yelp, and Facebook. Our growth was exponential, and being a relatively small salon ensured that our staff remained busy and made good money.
As I mentioned, we grew into a 5-Star salon due to our hiring philosophy. Mediocre did not cut it for us, and we sought out the right staff to 'deliver the goods.' In 2008 we made the decision to go paperless and to pitch Guys & Dolls as a destination for hair staffed with 'Color Specialists.' We were not the most expensive salon, but we also weren't Supercuts or Hair Cuttery. This strategy seemed to attract the kind of clients we wanted: upscale, professional people who care about their appearance and care about their hair. We were also attracting many students and retirees. We were truly blessed with a diverse clientele who wanted what we had to offer. You would not find Guys & Dolls in Clipper Magazine or in ValPacks. Barbershops, JC Penny, and Hair Cuttery were for those who wanted a $10 haircut or color, cut, and style for $50.
While most of our clients were local, we pulled clients from the Ocean to the Everglades and the Keys up to Palm Beach. We were even receiving calls from people out of state who were coming to Fort Lauderdale and wanted appointments while they were here. I can proudly say that we received appointment calls from six continents, and I am still waiting for a call from someone in Antarctica wanting an appointment. I don't know what we were thinking or hoping for when we opened, but never in a million years did we think we would still be here 17 years later. I don't know what the average life expectancy is for a hair salon in Fort Lauderdale, but I would venture to say it is not 17 years.
Tell us about yourself
Guys & Dolls have two key staff members. I am not a stylist, so I do everything else. I like to say that Francisco is the talent, and I am the numbers guy. Francisco joined Guys & Dolls in 1998 - at that time, Linda & Dana owned the business, and it was located on Sunrise Blvd. & A1A. They had been at that location for a very long time. In 2004 the girls made what turned out to be a horrible business decision and moved the salon into the Sands Harbor Hotel on Riverside Drive in Pompano Beach. In 2006 Linda came to the realization that her social security benefits would not amount to much and wanted to get a job where she could put into her SS account. So they packed up and moved, not to Beverly Hills but to Panama City. The girls loved to say that they gave Guys & Dolls to Francisco, but the truth was that they had run the business into the ground, and the only thing of any value left to Francisco was the phone number and a couple of tubes of hair color. By this point, Francisco had grown and matured into a top-notch hair stylist and was going to be successful wherever he went. He did not want to see Guys & Dolls evaporate and disappear, so we made the decision to find a new home for the business.
It was mid-April, and the lease at the hotel ran through July 31. We spent every Sunday & Monday driving around Fort Lauderdale looking for a new space to reincarnate Guys & Dolls (without much luck). We were out of time, and it looked as if Francisco would have to take a job at another salon or rent a suite - neither of those options appealed to us. Finally, in the last week of July, our Schwarzkopf rep told of two guys who were looking to sell their salon. Frankie's staff staged a 'walk-out,' and he had no choice but to sell. Knowing Frankie, I can say that he got what he deserved... bad for him & great for us. We walked into Frankie & Company, and when we left 4 hours later, we had secured a new home for Guys & Dolls.
As for myself, I was in sales, and I was very good at it. So we decided to move forward with me being the business owner and Francisco being the managing owner. While we did not know this at the time, what we came to realize was the huge advantage we had over most of the other salons because Guys & Dolls had two owners, and we were both there all day, every day. I cannot overstate how important that was with both of us always present. Most salons have one owner who works behind the chair and finds someone to answer the phone and schedule appointments for $10/hr. What they did by that is they put an 'order taker' behind the front desk who has no vested interest in the business - it's just a job. We looked at it a little differently. The phone is the lifeline of the business because 99% of the time, everyone who walks through the front door has already called the shop and scheduled an appointment. I took that position because, during my time as a salesman, I easily had over 1000 hours just on phone training. Being that the phone is the lifeline and I have a mortgage to pay each month, I would not trust that position to anyone else. Having a mortgage is a very powerful motivator.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
We have had many ups and downs over the last 17 years. This was our first business, and neither one of us knew anything about running a business – we just figured that with Francisco’s experience as a hairstylist and my sales experience, running a business would be a breeze. The girls informed us in March 2006 that they were leaving in July. This gave us 90 days to get incorporated, secure a location, and obtain all the necessary state, county, and city licenses. The first thing we did was obtain the Federal Tax ID number. The IRS phone interview took 5 hours, but at 10 PM on March 6, we were granted the FEIN and were now officially an S Corporation. Being advised to form an S Corporation instead of an LLC was the best advice we could have received. I could go on for pages and pages about why, but I won’t. Ask your tax person or attorney.
Next, we needed to find a location. As mentioned previously, we spent every Sunday & Monday that Spring of 2006 looking for a spot. We were just about out of time when by the grace of God, we found our new home. As for the licenses and permits, we had to obtain a salon license from the State of Florida Department Of Business and Professional Regulation Board Of Cosmetology, a Florida Annual Resale Certificate for Sales Tax, a Broward County Business Tax Receipt, a City of Fort Lauderdale Business Tax License, and a Cosmetology Salon Inspection Report. And because we bring Dexter to work every day, we needed to get a Service Dog Certification to make him legal. One by one, we got it done.
By far, the most frustrating and difficult item to obtain was the Salon License from the Florida DBPR. I must have submitted that application 4 or 5 times, each time thinking it was perfectly filled out, what an ordeal. We had never dealt with a landlord or a business lease, and I wish I had it reviewed by an attorney before signing. This lease was the most unfair, 1-sided document I had ever seen. We learned the hard way, by experience. The annual CAM charge reconciliation, the A/C breaking after three weeks, and a storefront sign for the business were all painful learning experiences.
The legal docs were just the beginning, now that we were able to open, we had to deal with hiring employees and bringing in business. It’s funny because even after 17 years, those are still the most challenging aspects of running a small business. And to pour salt into an open wound, as owners in this hair salon industry, we now had to deal with the emergence of these Salon Suites. These suites have planted the seed in the mind of hairstylists (who are employees at a salon) that the grass is greener. Why should the owner get 50% of the revenue? What they fail to realize are the costs of rent, supplies, advertising, and having everything else done for them. All they do is go to work. The clients are given to them, and they have everything they need for anything that may come up. Scheduling is handled, including payroll taxes and social security. These suites have definitely changed the landscape, and we are blessed to have loyal, long-term employees who love working at Guys & Dolls.
I could go on forever, don’t worry, I won’t. To answer this question of what we consider our biggest accomplishment, we would have to say it’s that we have thrived in the same location for over 17 years. There are other salons in business as long – most are bigger, have more employees, offer more services like nails & facials, and massages, and have bigger budgets, yet, with only six stylists in a small space on the train tracks, we have grown into a premiere destination for hair. We get more new clients than 99% of the other salons, our average ticket price is higher, our client retention is twice the national average, and everyone loves coming to work. There is no competition between the stylists, and everyone gets along. We survived Covid and life is great.
What's one of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner?
I’ve heard it said that when you own a small business, you are married to it. I never fully got it until we opened Guys & Dolls. Before owning G&D, both Francisco and I were employees working for someone else. We enjoyed our weekends, taking extra time off for holidays, not thinking about work after we leave, being allowed to be sick, and having a steady paycheck. The last time we took a ‘real’ vacation – the kind where we packed our bags and got on a jet plane for a week or 2 of being away. We didn’t worry about staffing issues, supply chain issues, breaking equipment, or any type of emergency. All that changed overnight when we took over and opened for business.
Like I said, Francisco & I are both there, all day, every day. This is to make sure that things go smoothly – things go the way WE want them to go. I have also heard it said that when the cat’s away, the mice will play. And in a small business with a significant cash component, the cats are always waiting for an opportunity to play. It’s not so much a trust issue as it is a control issue. We are both there every day to ensure things run smoothly – the way we want them to run (I just said that two sentences ago. It deserves repeating because that’s how important it is). I do the equivalent of 4 full-time jobs: Front Desk (phones and scheduling and handling money), Advertising (at this point, we don’t have to spend at all, it’s all organic), Payroll, Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable, Inventory, and of course social media and the website. If I had to pay salaries to others for that work, we would not be able to survive.
Francisco & I have been together for over 31 years, and it’s hard to believe that 17 of those years were spent inside those four walls. We have always had a great relationship, but now never being more than 10 feet away from each other has taken us to a new brave world. For me, I found (and still find) it difficult to manage others. I was always an employee and never received managerial training. Having to fire an employee was extremely hard the first, second, third, fourth... time. I don’t like being a policeman, but everyone has to be on time, stay the full day, dress right, and be polite to clients, in short, they must follow the rules and be professional. 90% of the time, it is not an issue. I penned a very detailed Employee Manual that gives them the bulk of the ‘rules.’
Managing people is hard, and so are payroll and the other duties I am responsible for. So, to answer this question, I will say that the hardest thing that comes with being a small business owner is that the buck stops with me. Broken A/C, get it fixed at my expense… alarm goes off at 3:00 AM, go meet the police at the shop… issues with the tax return, deal with the IRS… roaches, call the exterminator… pissed off client, deal with it.
Being married to the business is an understatement. Like I said, we have not had a vacation for longer than five days in the last 17 years. In 2014 when I had open-heart surgery, I was back to work in 6 days. If I had been working for someone, I would have taken six weeks (like any other sane person). When I am not at work, which is not often, I have to pay someone to do my job. They never do it as I do, and I am fixing things for the next two weeks. It took 17 years, but we have finally established a really great staff, and Francisco & I feel secure enough to plan a real vacation for 10 days – 2 weeks.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Immediately claim your Google Business Page and completely fill it out. It is also important to create a Yelp profile, a Facebook page, and an Instagram account. I remember when Linda & Dana were leaving, and I asked them about advertising – this was in 2006. As they were leaving, Linda’s parting words to me were, “Just put an ad in the yellow pages, and that should be enough.” No wonder they had run Guys & Dolls into the ground. I thank God that I listened to one of our first stylists, Scott, and claimed our Google page. Remember that it is Google that will make or break you, and your Google page should be as important to you as your Business Checking Account. Facebook is also a great tool, and we get many clients from them. Just keep posting regularly, at least once a week. As for Yelp, I have written them off. Yelp is the most dishonest, rigged platform out there. On 90% of the search engines, we are listed in the top 5 (usually 1 or 2). With Yelp, they keep us pushed down to page 4 or 5 by manipulating our reviews and deleting the 5-star reviews. In the beginning, we were always in the top 3, but immediately after pausing my advertising account, I went from over 200 reviews to less than 80 reviews, and Yelp makes sure that old, bad, irrelevant reviews are on top. Yelp calls it filtering, and I call it extortion. I rarely check our Yelp listing, and we still get a bunch of new clients from Yelp each month, so screw Yelp!
- Don’t underestimate or try to cheat the IRS. I can say that for over 17 years, I have had the same accountant, and I do what she says. Most hair salon owners in Fort Lauderdale make the staff 1099 – this is to avoid payroll taxes and having to pay half of their social security. The IRS is aware of this and is cracking down on those salons. I use Quickbooks Desktop with Enhanced Payroll, and my staff gets paid weekly by direct deposit… I feel direct deposit is vital. I had a stylist who was married to a plastic surgeon, and she wasn’t desperate for money. I did not notice she was not cashing her paychecks until she cashed 10 of them at the same time, decimating the business checking account. Luckily we got through it and I immediately made direct deposit mandatory. I could write pages on this topic, but for now, I suggest getting a good accountant and listening to them.
- Don’t do this alone. Remember, small business owners are married to their business. I told you about the single-owner hair salons where the owner is stuck behind the chair. That is not an ideal situation. I attribute our longevity and our success to the fact that both Francisco & I are there all day, every day. We are both very good at what we do and share responsibility. There may be two owners, but we have been together for 31 years and share the same vision. This eliminates any trust issues that may arise between the two owners. You need a partner – someone to share the responsibilities. You need a partner you would trust with your life, and you trust handling cash - our business has a significant cash component, and it all goes to the same one pot. I mentioned that it had been a long time since I took a real vacation, and having a trusted family member to cover everything would have been nice.
I didn’t want to turn this questionnaire into a novel, nor did I want to tell the story of a 3-decade romance. We have been through so much these last 17 years and are still going strong. Guys & Dolls have three supporting pillars: We care about our clients, we are good at what we do, and we are honest. You could have many more pillars – but without getting technical or too specific, we find our three pillars a great support to build a business upon.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
Turn your craft into recurring revenue with Subkit. Start your subscription offering in minutes and supercharge it with growth levers. Get early access here.