Gerard Scarpaci: Building Hairbrained And The Birth Of The #CraftHairdresserJul 14, 2021
Consistency has helped in building Hairbrained, an international group for craft hairdressers and colorists. In this episode, we trace the origins of this success story. Ryan Weeden sits down for an interview with the co-founder of Hairbrained, Gerard Scarpaci. Gerard talks about his start in the industry, and the lessons he learned in the wake of 9-11. Listen as they discuss marketing techniques and what Gerard did to take his business to the next level.
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Gerard Scarpaci: Building Hairbrained And The Birth Of The #CraftHairdresser
I'm excited to have somebody in our industry that is big time. He is the founder of an incredible company. You've heard about it. You've seen it all over Instagram. If you're not a craft hairdresser, you should strive to become one. We have Gerard Scarpaci. Welcome, Mr. Cofounder of Hairbrained.
Thanks, Ryan. I'm excited to chat.
I've met you and I felt complimented when I made it to your page. When I did some work, I wound up on your page where it's something that's inspiring because you talked about being a craft hairdresser. Sometimes balayage can look sloppy. A lot of times, I'll do things that the application might look sloppy but the result is breathtaking. I feel like it was nice to be on there and be recognized. Thank you for that.
Your work is great. The industry is so broad and diverse that you can only judge things by the end result. There are so many different processes and ways to get there that if you want to judge, you got to judge on the end result.
This whole craft movement, you were the one that started #CraftHairdresser with Hairbrained. Before we get into Hairbrained, what do you think makes a craft hairdresser?
Our industry is very diverse. There are people who get into it because they are people, persons, people-people, they want to make people feel better or beautiful or they like the social element. A craft hairdresser might not even know it at the beginning but they love the work, working with their hands and always striving to create a better end result. That's number one. All my clients can love me. I can make a ton of money but if I'm not happy with the quality of my work, I'm miserable. This isn't always good. I can be happy with the quality of my work but not be making a lot of money. Maybe people don't enjoy what I'm doing and I could still be happy. That's me personally because I put the work first before anything else.
I can relate that to acting. I was an actor for a couple of years in New York City. I know you're from Brooklyn. There are so many actors that will do it for their entire life because they just love acting. They will starve and go from job to job. That's when I realized I wasn't an actor. I wasn't willing to do that. I feel like if those people would be craft actors, they're doing it because they love the work and process, feeds their soul and makes it sing. If you're in the hair business and you're not continually growing with intention, purpose and focus on the quality of your work over again then maybe you don't fall into that category. It doesn't mean that you have to be a craft hairdresser but it takes that intention to want to be the best you can be.
What's great about hairdressing is you can do whatever you want with it. I don't look down on anyone that gets licensed and makes money. If you want to do it on the weekend in your garage to make a little extra money to pay for your kids' baseball camp, I can respect that. It's up to the individual. You mentioned acting. We could talk about plumbing or electrician. If you're a real craft plumber, you've spent years going through a journey of learning all these different things, working with different masters, learning, growing and getting better or you could just be, "I do some plumbing at home, too." If I have a leaky faucet, I can fix it but it doesn't make me a craft plumber. That's my analogy.
Hairbrained, is this something that you've had in your mind for a long time? When was it released to the world?
I've been fortunate that from the beginning of my career, I was around like-minded people. I started off in a terrible cosmetology school. I ended up having horrible experiences and probably could have quit the industry but there was one person in the school who said, "You should meet the owner of the salon I'm working in. He is looking for apprentices and assistants." She organized for me to go in and meet him. His name was Vince Smith. He still has a salon in Downtown Manhattan. He celebrated his 35th year in business. He put me on the right path. I realized quickly, just like anything, it's who you surround yourself with.
The origins of Hairbrained were in building a community of like-minded people in the real world. Vince, even though he trained me and I could have ended up working for him, he turned me on to Vidal Sassoon. It was a dream of his to work there that he never did. I went and interviewed and got a job at Sassoon. In every group, you're not going to be all the same-mindedness but I found a small group. The people that I trained with was an apprentice with Traci Sakosits, Julian Perlingiero, Christine Zilinski and Lina Arrojo.
The beauty industry is so broad and diverse that you can only judge things by the end result.
This group grew until there were fifteen people who have all gone off and done incredible things in the industry. To me, the real birth of it was within my first year, realizing who you surround yourself with your network. Unfortunately, we don't use the word social network much anymore because the wool pulled over our eyes and now it's social media because on media, you can sell ad space. Networks don't have ad space. Originally, it was a real-world network and then it was a social network. Now, it's social media.
It is important about who we surround ourselves with. Whenever I talk to people that have worked with people that tell them that they're not good enough or that they shouldn't do this or that, I always say, "Don't listen to those people. They're not important." There's no reason why you shouldn't be surrounding yourself with people that support you in your journey. They should be happy for your successes, not trying to hold you back.
It's good to be challenged too. Sometimes supporting your journey can be challenged and competitiveness. I can't say that I wasn't competitive with the other assistants that I trained with who then mostly became stylists at Sassoon and educators. We're still competitive but with respect as a network that supports each other.
Somebody in cosmetology school who may be an educator or a teacher told you that you would never make it. Is that right?
That is a true story. I had no experience with hair and I was the only guy in my class. Not that that matters but most of the girls in the class had experience doing their own hair. It was a very diverse group. When I started school, I didn't even know the concept that you could make curly hair straight by blow-drying it. I had never heard of that. My mother always wore short hair. I had never seen anyone get up, blow-dry and style their hair. I had no idea. Everything was like, "What? Are you kidding?" I also wanted to be good. The roller set that we were learning would take me half a day. I kept taking it down and redoing it. The teacher came over and told me, "You'll never make it in this industry. You got to be fast. It doesn't have to be perfect." I didn't last much longer in cosmetology school. I ended up doing an apprenticeship in New York and got a barber's license. I took the barber test rather than the cosmetology test.
You got into Sassoon after that and then you were Sassoon-trained.
I got to Sassoon after that. At that time, they still had barbers. There was a barbershop that had integrated but there were still 4 or 5 master barbers of this 100-person staff. I was able as a barber to work with them but you didn't have to just do men's hair. As a barber, you could also cut women's hair, which was great. With Sassoon, I became a teacher. I moved to California. I became a teacher in the original Santa Monica Academy and that's where I got my first cosmetology license. I had to go through all this training, go and take the test, which I failed numerous times. It took me three times to get it.
You were talking about taking tests and I was thinking about driving tests. I'm throwing out a bunch of random topics here. Did you just learn how to drive? Is that right?
I got my license when I was 38. I grew up in New York. The mass transit was awesome and I never had a need to drive. When I moved to California, I was involved with being at Sassoon. The rest of the time, I was involved with smoking marijuana and none of the things about driving appealed to me. I lived two blocks away from the academy. I would walk there and work. I would walk back home. I'm probably one of the only people who lived in California for six years or so and never had a car or driver's license, although I eventually had a girlfriend with a car so it worked out. I moved back to New York and had no purpose for a car until I was about 38. I got into a place in my life where I could afford one and all that good stuff and I did it.
You were born in Brooklyn. What part of Brooklyn?
I was born in the part called Bay Ridge.
I lived in Williamsburg. One year there and one year in the East Village when I was there in New York. I love the city and the energy. Everything about it was incredible. I love visiting it. One of the catalysts for me leaving was 9/11. I saw that happen with my eyes that saw the towers fall and made me look at my life, "Am I passionate about what I want to do?" That's when I decided that acting wasn't for me. I got to go back to the drawing board and then I ended up finding hair. I remember visiting Williamsburg years later. It's incredible now.
It's interesting that you mentioned 9/11. I had moved back to New York two months before 9/11 to open a salon in June, right before September 11th, 2001. I had a brand-new salon six miles from the World Trade Center that was two months old. A lot of what I learned about business, marketing and growing a business came from those tough times. I thought, "I'm at a busy place. There's a lot of traffic outside. People are hustling and bustling. All of a sudden, people are in a complete state of shock." It's interesting for the rest of the world. It's a tragic event. People see it and then they move on but when you live right there, it takes a long time. It probably took eight months just for the mentality of people to normalize and with a brand-new business, eight months with zero in the bank account. I put every penny I had and opened the doors with a zero balance in my bank account.
Those are the types we look back on now. We never want to go back there but we appreciate where we are now so much more. I was bankrupt at one point in my life and to know that you can get through something like that and then create something awesome out of that.
It breeds creativity. Up to that point, I never owned my own personal computer and never had an email address. I realized that all of a sudden, there was this thing called email marketing that was free. All you had to do was get the emails. That was my first foray into the world of connecting and growing a business. I had sent out postcards and did flyers. That didn't work at all and it costs money. Postcards are expensive. It was $0.31 per card for postage, push it out to make and print it and pay a designer. We had to buy a list. I'm sure people still get them those value-packs. Those guys sell mailing lists but they're not cheap especially back in 2001. I had bought a mailing list, sent out all these postcards and had zero return on investment. I was like, "There's got to be a better way."
Email marketing is a big part of what you do. For the readers, if you don't understand what marketing is, I'm sure you would agree with this. Marketing is a nice way of saying selling. We hate to be selling things but marketing is selling. That's what we do to reach our target audience.
First of all, I prefer permission marketing. Fortunately, with Hairbrained, what we've been able to do over the years is gather enough people's contact information that wants to be contacted. If someone does not want to be contacted, they can drop off and don't have to be a part of it. Although the ultimate goal is a conversion. Before that, to me, it's about creating awareness and letting people know because people want to know like, "There are great combs or courses available." I don't go into it always with the mindset of making the conversion or sale. I go into with the mindset of informing, inspiring, educating and connecting. Every once in a while, when you ask at the end and you say shop now, people feel a little bit more inclined to shop.
People like you and I are trying to solve problems and we're relating to those problems. We've been there. You don't sell everything. You sell things that work. I'm sure you've used and trusted all of those brands that you sell and you know they work. They've worked for you and, "This has worked for me. Hopefully, it will work for you too. I understand where you're at. I'm here to help solve your problems so you can have the results that you want to get."
That's the mindset right there. We've always had this thing where hairdressers don't like to sell. It's a typical thing that has been plastered in our industry. It's the mindset. We do like to inform, educate and inspire. If you think about doing that, even the simplest thing as a product recommendation when you're working behind the chair, I never thought of it as selling. I thought of it as informing, teaching, connecting and caring. I've been around thousands of hairdressers that have garbage combs. The majority of hairdressers still use crappy equipment. I don't blame them. I blame the fact that number one, there isn't a lot of great equipment. Number two, a lot of people haven't communicated the importance of the equipment because inevitably, 99% of the time when people see the option and feel it and even though it might be a little bit more expensive, the quality is there. You can feel, "This is $3 more than the one I normally get." You can feel and see it in the performance.
When students come into my classes and I see the brushes that they're using, I look at this brush they're using. I'm like, "You can't and I couldn't balayage with that. I could do okay, make something and play with it but I'm not going to create great work with this."
It goes right back to the craft mindset. A craft person is only as good as their tools. It doesn't mean if you're shitty that tools are going to make you great but if you're good and you understand what you're doing and you have the option to use a better tool, you're going to get even better results.
With your emails that you have, do you have a team that does that? Is that something that you do personally with the copy?
What's great about hairdressing is you can do whatever you want with it.
You're looking at them. We have help. We have a graphic designer. We bounce things around between the whole team with copywriting but ultimately, it's me. It's something I've had up for a while. We've all worn different hats. At one point, we used to do one email a week. We did that for years. We sold and promoted nothing via email. For at least 6 to 7 years, we sent out what was called the Sunday News. This was prior to the explosion of sharing on Instagram. We had our original prep platform, which was a desktop platform called Hairbrained.me which is now an app and has a mobile version that is still very much alive.
This is where people went to post their photos because there was no Instagram. We would curate them once a week and send them out in an email. It was recognizing the talent and connecting people. I used to write a little blurb in the beginning. I got my little writer fix from doing that. We did that for years until it saw its course. When you had this instant gratification of Instagram, we didn't need a weekly email anymore to say, "Here are the best photos of the week." We had earned the right to begin to promote other things.
I'm sure you send off a lot more emails now. Maybe several a week, depending on what you're trying to let the audience know about.
It still is. If anybody is trying to figure out marketing, we've got all these fancy things of social media marketing, paid social media and influencer but the best thing is still email. I don't see that changing. Looking into SMS now, I'm a little behind the curve on it. We probably could have shot on it a little bit earlier but I didn't feel right. Now, it feels right to me. We're looking into building the SMS messaging.
That's an easy transition. You already have the brand and the respect. That's another way to reach people in like, "There's a training and I don't want you to miss it. Check it out." The greatest thing about SMS is that you never ignore a text. It's almost impossible to ignore a text. You can send an email and it goes to spam. It might be lost forever. I used to always worry about email marketing, which I'm sure a lot of people that are trying to build an email list and maybe even come up with their own email strategy is you don't want to get these unsubscribes. It's like that rejection that unsubscribed but you start to learn. You want those because you're going to get more of the people that are your supporters.
As you get more into it, you can segment, tag your list and try to make sure you're sending the appropriate thing to the appropriate person to get fewer unsubscribes. If someone is a colorist and somehow you've been able to determine that all they do is color, you should be able to tag and segment them so they only get color information. It's easier said than done. I can't say we nailed that 100% of the time. I would rather people unsubscribe than get something that they don't want but there are also ways to help figure out that they get what they want.
We still have several properties. We've got Hairbrained.me. The Hairbrained app is still the continuation of the original community. It's still alive and kicking. There are about 70,000 users so 70,000 people have installed the app. There's still an active community. People still share their photos there that maybe aren't comfortable with the Instagram world. They don't want to be troubled or judged. We still get a lot of that people sharing. We do a lot of polls and questions. It's a little bit more of a safe space. We have the Hairbrained.pro. That is our online tool store and then we've got HBLive.me, which is our online academy. There are still three separate properties. It's a technological issue to make it all one that eventually I would love to tackle but it might cost a fortune because all of these properties are built on their own platforms, which are like SaaS platforms, Software as a Solution rather than custom-coded.
Are these platforms WordPress or Shopify?
Yes, Shopify, WordPress, Mailchimp and Mighty Networks. We've used every single one of them. That's the thing. From the beginning, it was very low to no startup costs. That's the world we live in now. I know what your show is called. It's hard for me to say the word. How do you say that?
The Hairpreneur Show, like an entrepreneur and hairpreneur.
What I like was salontrepreneur.
That's a mouthful. That's harder than hairpreneur.
At this point, if you have an idea and a tribe, you can store all kinds of things for free or at a very low cost. At $14 a month, you can get your first platform. What happens is if you're going to scale, you have to be prepared to invest. If I had an extra $1 million, that's exactly what I would do is custom-code everything.
We've got the same kind of issue. We were hosting our website, which is pretty. That's on Wix. My wife created that a long time ago. I would rather use something different than Wix but that's her space and I'm going to leave that alone. I've got my online program, Balayage Online. That's on Kajabi. Now, you have so many different moving parts. From somebody that is growing their business and has a lot of moving parts as well, you need a lot of manpower because you can only put yourself in many situations. I'm sure you want to stick around in your zone of genius where you're best serving the community. How many people do you have now and how many different teams? What does your infrastructure look like?
We're six full-time people. We've got me, Randy Taylor, who is the Cofounder, Gordon Miller, Amy Dodds, my wife, Kelly and Marie-Claire Bozant. Randy, mostly and MC focus on video production and capture photos and videos. Gordon mostly deals with brand relations. Amy and Kelly work on social media and then I do a little bit of everything.
It's a huge accomplishment. I love to watch you grow. You're such a staple in the industry now. It's incredible. Congratulations on all of that.
Thank you. I feel like we still have so much to do and further to go. I'm super excited about the future and to get back to live events because it was always something that I believe is magical. Although we're a completely digital company and big supporters of digital and social education, I still believe that all of that is in support of the live event. I don't think an online course will ever replace a hands-on class. It complements the hands-on class.
It’s because I listen to my favorite band's MP3 doesn't mean I don't want to see them live. I could just listen to them here. I figured that out from the beginning where people were like, "Don't do. Don't give away. Why did you do all these Facebook Lives?" I was like, "It helps the educators grow their business." "Once people see it, they'll never take a class." I found that to be absolutely the opposite, I could be booked with classes every weekend of the year for the rest of my life because of how much I've personally shared on social media.
Anybody that watches a Facebook Live and feels like they learned everything they could doesn't have to take a live class.
I wouldn't want them in my class.
They don't have that student mindset anyway. People like us have to take time as we're growing our business to stop, reflect and look at why we've done a lot because I'm always looking ahead too and I'm like, "Almost there." You're never going to be there. We're always going to be growing but we're never going to be until we stop and say, "Look back at what we've accomplished." They're like, "This is cool and very different." You were broke. I was bankrupt. People told us we wouldn't be successful in this industry. I'm right there with you.
You want to be successful at anything, you have to be consistent.
It's cool to watch people do the impossible or what people said was impossible. It gives hope to other hairdressers that have those naysayers in their life that feel like they don't have opportunities but they have mentors and people that will tell them. People aren't always going to give you what you need and very rarely, somebody is going to put their hand out and say, "Come with me." You have to create your own opportunities. As we close the show here, I would love if you could give a couple of strong pointers and lessons in your life that you could give to somebody that's stuck, burned out and doesn't feel like there's a future.
One of the people I've always taken inspiration from is Gary Vaynerchuk. First of all, the guy is so consistent. There's a message right there, "If you want to be successful at anything, you have to be consistent." We sent out those Sunday News emails every Sunday no matter what for years. We were consistent. We knew that one of the many keys to success is consistency. First, be consistent. Second off, don't give a fuck what anybody else has to say because the honest truth is we value too much other people's opinions. You have to be true to yourself but I'm not saying that you shouldn't have a small circle of people that you trust and you take their word from. That's a small circle of people outside of 3 or 4 people.
Not to say the rest of the world is your enemy but the rest of the world, what they think doesn't matter to what you're going to do or not do. They don't necessarily have valid input because they don't even know you. Be consistent and you want to get something accomplished. Partner and align with a small group of people that you know have your best interest at heart. Not to say people are evil but most people have their own best interests at heart. Take your own best interest and push it to the side to put someone else's interest in front of it is a very small group of people.
Those are the ones you want to hang on to and appreciate fully. It was great to pick your brain and get to know you a little bit better. Gerard, thank you so much for being here. I appreciate you.
Right on, Ryan. Congratulations on all your success. Keep doing what you're doing in making a difference for hairdressers.