Kate Zarvis has been in the beauty industry since she was 15 and got a job washing hair. Now, she owns her own nail salon that is growing rapidly.
Hannah and I cam by her salon to learn about how she’s doing it.
Perhaps the most interesting idea we touched on was the difficulty technology will have in disrupting her industry.
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Kate’s Challenge; Stop comparing yourself to other people on social media.
Connect with Kate
If you liked this interview, check out episode 349 with Bri Conley where we discuss how she’s built a specialty boutique off of Instagram and Snapchat.
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Watson: Welcome to Going Deep with Aaron Watson.
Kate Zarvis: Thanks for having me.
Watson: Thank you for coming on the show. I am excited. This is a completely novel interview experience for me. We have not yet interviewed any founders, entrepreneurs behind a nail salon. I'm curious, just to start off with, what the inspiration was for Manikure and how you came to own your own shop.
Kate Zarvis: Okay. Manikure was born this January, January 10th was our first day open. We haven't been open for a year yet. I've been in the beauty industry since I was 15. My first job was washing hair at a local mom and pop shop. I did that until age 18. My dad made me go to college for three months, even though I didn't want to. I realized that's not where I wanted to be.
I came home, proceeded to beauty school, and fell into the hair industry because that's because I'd been washing hair for so long, always in the salon. That's the only job I ever had. So, I went the hair route, and at my first job, the owner was a nail tech. So, even though she put me on the floor doing hair, she couldn't really guide me where I needed to be. So, I started messing up hair left and right. I was not confident. In this industry, confidence is key. So, because she did nails, she was able to actually teach me how to do manicures. Whenever you're not busy doing hair,
you can be doing nails as well.
I've got extremely comfortable because I could ask her, ‘why isn't this working? How do I fix this?’ She put me through a very intensive training training program, and that's whenever I decided I don't want to be in the hair room, I'm more comfortable here. I just want to do nails. That kind of started my nail career.
Fast forward, five years later to me always having the dream to open up my salon. The stars were never aligning, and thank God they weren't, because I would have been drowning. You know what I'm saying? I was actually working downstairs at Swank Hair studio for two years, and that's whenever she decided to expand with hair, and I was taking up too much space. So up here it was our landlord's office. He moved to Arizona, the space came vacant, and it was a perfect transition for me to want to open up my salon.
So, the inspo of Manikure, I found it in West Palm Beach whenever Despacito came out with Justin Bieber. I remember driving on the highway, the Palm trees were everywhere, Despacito was on. I was like, I need to bring this back to Pittsburgh, hence the banana leaf wallpaper, like kind of a beachy vibe.
Watson: It’s definitely a different mood. I'd imagine particularly once it gets cold out, someone comes up here and they just feel like they've kind of escaped from the brutal Pittsburgh weather.
Two things I wanna get clarity on- the first is when we're talking about being downstairs at Swank, you were effectively running the micro, like your own business, had your book of clients down in that area. It was just because being a young business, you didn't necessarily want to incur the cost of rent and having an entire space for yourself, so you had a smaller area. Is that what you meant by that?
Kate Zarvis: Exactly. So, I worked for a few years in Bridgeville. That's where I started doing nails. Whenever I left Bridgeville, I came to Lawrenceville, and I didn't have any clientele. So, even though I was the only person doing nails downstairs, I had to build my client base from scratch.
I was the only nail tech there. I was just like taking up a whole wall. My nail polish was everywhere, and the owner of Swang didn't really want to expand with nails. Hair is her forte.
Watson: The other question I have is around beauty school. So you mentioned you tried college, went to beauty school instead, like how long does that take? What does that entail? That's something that I'm not very familiar with.
Kate Zarvis: So there's three like degrees you can get for beauty school. Cosmetology is the whole shebang: it's hair, skin, and nails. You learn it all. You're licensed at all. After you're licensed and you have a cosmetology license, you can go on and do whatever.
You can go for nails. Cosmetology is nine months. Nails is, let's say three months. Skincare, which is called esthetician, is also like three months. So I went for cosmetology, took about nine months, and then that's how I was able to jump from hair, and then I fell into nails.
Watson: Yeah. I love that you can be ready to enter the working world with an actual marketable skill in nine months, versus some of these colleges that take four years, and you don't even know what you do after you're done with that. So you got here, and then when we met at the Pittsburgh Tech 50 awards, you told me a fascinating story about how quickly upon opening the assassination that you built up a client base and kind of had people beating down your door to get their nails done in here.
Kate Zarvis: Yeah. I wish I could tell you why or how, or I would definitely tell every young entrepreneur in this industry to do it, but truly we opened in January. So, I was by myself downstairs. It was Christmas season and that's the busiest season of our year. Whenever I came upstairs, it was January, which is the slowest time of the year, let me remind you.
I had one nail tech, Victoria. We had never worked together before, like her first day. My first day up here was our first day together. To be honest, I didn't train her because it's January, the slowest season. You know, we'll get there. As we moved in here, her first week, she had 40 clients and she only worked 40 hours a week. It was insane. That just continued. So, I mean, we were messing things up left and right. We had no wiggle room for mistakes, but you know, I answered the messages and I answered through the complaints and I was like, ‘I'll fix them.’
Since January 10th, it's been like that. So, I quickly hired my second employee, and she even said that when she was starting, she was anticipating, you know, a lot of downtime sitting around her first week, 40 new clients. Then my third employee, the same thing, my fourth employee, the same thing.
I feel that there's so many young people who live in Lawrenceville, and there's no great salon in this area on Butler street. So I feel like the location had a lot to do with it.
Watson: Certainly, but the other aspect of it has to be the ambiance. Even beyond the way that the space is decorated, like you mentioned, you've wine or coffee if someone comes in. I'm sure that a lot of thought is put into as much as it is the caliber of work that the stylists can do on the nails. There has to also be, for lack of a better word, like a bedside manner, or how do you think about how people feel welcome? How do they feel like this is their space, as opposed to just a place where you kind of get a service done and then leave? If that makes sense.
Kate Zarvis: From the salons I've worked in, I've learned a lot about how I wanted my salon to be. I want my clients to feel welcome. I want them to feel at home. I teach my staff that, you know, always, I don't care how good you are at nails, just being nice. That's our number one rule, and we don't have a dress code, and I think that that makes my employees feel very comfortable. Then our clients feel very comfortable as well. Sometimes, whenever it feels too uppity, and maybe they're in their scrubs or they're in their sweats, they're like, ‘oh, I'm not dressed nice enough for this,’ and everyone looks different here. All, you know, all different shapes, sizes, hair color, you know, we're all very comfortable with ourselves. I think that we bring that aura here.
Watson: Makes sense. Now, in terms of the cosmetology degree and it covering these different areas, skin, nails, hair in the beauty industry, is that, so with Piper, I'm always drawing comparisons back to my own business, but you know, what's particularly powerful is someone who in the media space can do audio, can do video, can do these different kind of forms of media and be this kind of multipurpose star.
Do you have a lot of people coming in from an employment standpoint who have those multifaceted skills, how you tried hair and also went into nails, or is it usually something where people specialize and kind of double down on one thing that they do particularly well?
Kate Zarvis: in this industry focus, wins. I truly believe that. Almost like practice makes perfect, but if you have your hand in every cookie jar, then don't think that you'll be extremely successful in one. This industry takes a lot of practice and a lot of time, so to get good, and to create your skill level, and to grow your skill level, you really have to be honed in.
My aesthetician only does lashes. She only does facials. My nail techs only do nails. If you were doing all the services in one day, then would you really be able to perfect one.?
Watson: Yeah. When you have a bigger team, it allows different people to specialize. So, on that front, in terms of getting better, you mentioned that it takes a lot of practice, and I'm sure that if you have 40 clients in 40 hours, that's a good way to hone your skills. Are there other steps that you take to either stay on top of trends? Like maybe a different color or a different style, or, I don't know, I've seen pictures of the ones with people with hair attached to their nails. I don't know if you guys are into that, but how do you manage that part? Are there places that you go? Is it Instagram? Where do you learn that type of stuff?
Kate Zarvis: I'm thankful for social media because we're able to see the trends as soon as they're happening. I couldn't imagine only having magazines and newspapers and trying to keep up with that. It's really at our fingertips, and we can see what all those celebrities are doing, the celebrity nail stylist and all that.
I work for Gelish. It's a company. It's a nail polish brand. I'm able to tap into that, where they're always keeping me up with the trends as far as not really the style trends, but more of the product trends. So like, how are we extending nails? What products are we doing? Stuff like that. So, yeah, I would definitely say that social media is the best way that I kind of hone in on what people are wearing.
Watson: Makes sense. How often do people come in and they're not sure of what they want, versus they know the exact color, the exact, ‘do this picture that I've already found for you guys.’
What's the balance of that?
Kate Zarvis: I almost want to say it's 50/50. I feel like there's two types of women in this world. You know, a type who knows what she wants in her nails, and the type who doesn't know what she wants on her nails. My first client can say, ‘okay, I went red on this finger, yellow on this finger, stars, stripes, the whole nine. I want them to look exactly like this. Sometimes they even bring in a picture and they are like, copy this.
Then on the flip side, I have clients that say, ‘do whatever.’ That's almost harder for me cause I don't want to disappoint. So, it comes in the consultation with ‘what don't you like? Are you sure you don't like that? Are you going to an event? Why are you getting your nails done?’ and so on.
Watson: Makes sense. Does nail polish go bad if it sits on the counter for three months? Does it go back?
Kate Zarvis: It does have an expiration date. Yes. It says on the bottle. Gel is different from nail polish. Nail polis can go bad and you know, it's going bad whenever it gets thick and chunky. It's as simple as that. Gel has about a one year life-span, and it does say on the bottle, so it's easy to find out.
Watson: Gotcha. How often do clients come in? I'm sure that there's people for special occasions or a certain time of year, like you were saying with the holidays, but are there people that are coming in? I know my grandma used to go for her hair, because I had to go with her when I was little about every other week. She wanted her hair looking right, but it was also partially a social routine of seeing her friends and it was just part of her routine. Do you see people coming that frequently?
Kate Zarvis: Yeah, so we have our base clientele comes every two weeks for gel. Sometimes every three weeks, and then we have some that come every four weeks and in between them, we have our like special occasions or birthdays or dinners or whatever it may be. So I would say two weeks, two to three weeks.
Watson: Now, in terms of scaling up the team, like you mentioned, you brought someone on, they filled up, brought someone on, they filled up. What have you learned about attracting the right type of talent to your team to fill out the space?
Kate Zarvis: That's probably the hardest part of my job. Not finding talent, but trusting that person, that you go on a one hour interview, maybe less, that she's going to be a good employee, and that falls under loyal, respectful. Hopefully she doesn't steal from you, stuff like that. It's very interesting.
You date a guy, and you don't move in with them for maybe a year, but here I am going on a 30 minute interview with you, and now you're working for me. I really go under as long as you are nice. Please be nice. I can teach you how to do nails, but it's about your personality that you are able to chat with me. You have a good vibe. You have a good personality. Smiling. I just feel like you're a genuine person and I guess I have an act for that because all of my girls are extremely genuine. They're so nice, and they bring so much joy here.
Watson: That's awesome.
Kate Zarvis: My first two girls were experienced doing nails. For everyone else, I've kind of trained them from the get go. They didn't have any experience.
Watson: Wow. Is any part of the interview process like them doing your nails or something like that?
Kate Zarvis: If they have experience, yes. If they don't have experience, it would be like a crap shoot, I guess. If they are a nail tech that says that she's been doing nails for three years, our first interview would be me meeting her, chatting about her goals, and that kind of stuff. Then, the second interview would be her doing my nails. Would you have a specific thing you want? Would you want it done in a specific stylish civic where you kind of say, ‘show me what you got’ in terms of how you like to go about it.
Kate Zarvis: Yeah. I definitely guide them. So that'd be, that'd be so nerve-wracking if I didn't. It might just be like five nails. One nail would be per service, so gel one nail, acrylic one nail, French, one nail a design. Then maybe another one, show me what you got on the next two and see where their skill level is. It's more of, let me see where your skill level was. Then that's how I know where to train you.
Watson: So, another thing that I was thinking about as I was preparing for this conversation was the fact that this to me seems like one of the best businesses in terms of being insulated from getting disrupted or like the digital revolution. We've interviewed people who are building artificial intelligences to replace reading contracts, lawyers, or using self-driving cars or other things like that.
Yet, a service based business like this is so far from people coming in, justlooking to get the thing done. There's so much, not only like, do I trust the robot to, you know, apply the nail polish correctly, but the environment- you're coming here for social reasons, you're coming here because of the vibe that it gives. It's so much more than just like something that is a commodity, if that makes sense. I don't know if you think about that at all, or if you see tech kind of starting to come in, in any way, shape or form. Does that make any sense?
Kate Zarvis: Yeah. Luckily girls will never stop getting their nails done, and when they do, pigs can fly. I have seen the tech industry kind of trying to disrupt it. So we do nail art, right? We hand paint nail art on people's fingernails. Well, they have machines where you can print out your own art and then put it on your nail that way. You would still have to come to the salon. We would have the machine here, it would print out a picture, and then we would stick it on your nail. It gives the client probably the same amount of freedom, where they can pick what they want but they'd be able to get like the Mona Lisa on their nail, which I can't really create.
Watson: Yeah. It can be super finely detailed because it's the robotic precision of like a 3D printing type of setup.
Kate Zarvis: That's exactly what I would be. I don't think that it's doing very well, and even whenever I saw it, and I thought maybe I should have this in my salon, my dad actually brought up a good point, and he was like, ‘I'm not sure if people would like that because they like that you do the work.’ It would break that personal vibe.
Watson: That's what I was even thinking about that to some degree. If a robot read a contract for me and found eight small errors, I wouldn't be like, ‘oh, I wish a human had found that’- there's none of that feeling whatsoever. It's more of a safety thing. Same thing with self-driving. If the statistics show that I'm safer sitting in a car driven by a robot than driven by a human, sign me up. I want to be safe. That's really what I'm here to do.
Conversely, that's just not the essence of what this experience is. The essence of the experience is, you find the stylists that you like, you find the salon that you like to go to. There is so much more to it than just, maybe there's a small segment of people that would want it, I just wanted efficiency. I want it super finely detailed or what have you, but for a lot of people, that's not even what it's really about.
Kate Zarvis: I think that if they could scale it to where you use the machine in your own home, then it would cancel that. So, you're either going to go get your nails done at a salon, or you're going to do it at your own home and your own convenience. So, being that the machine has to be in a salon, I don't think it works.
Watson: So the other thing that's interesting is you got into this industry, you were already washing hair when you were 15, you went to beauty school, you had a real idea that this is the type of work that you wanted to be doing. As you've gone into business for yourself, and now you have rent, now you have people that you're hiring and doing this other stuff. How have you gone about building the skill set of the entrepreneur business owner to go along with the skills of the cosmetologist?
Kate Zarvis: That was quite the learning curve because I've been in the salon for eight years. I knew in my head what kind of salon I wanted to have. I've worked for so many people under a lot of different management. That could train me on the way I wanted to act. But as far as the business side and the entrepreneur side, being that I went to college for three months, and I was undecided, the university classes didn't really give me any guidance.
So opening up my own business, that's where Pittsburgh comes into play. Pittsburgh has so many free resources that I use. I went through Chatham's entrepreneurship program, and I think I spent $45 total because I went to a QuickBooks class, and I sat with the head of The Women's Entrepreneurship Center. Her name is Anne, and she sat with me. She was like, ‘this is what you need to do.’ The Small Business Association has a website. I ended up just cold calling them, saying, ‘I want to open a business. What do I do?’ I got on the phone with a really nice gentleman. He sent me a packet of pretty much how to open a business 101, and it had everything from the checkbox, to the laws, to this, to that. That kind of guided me as well, who then hooked me up to Pitt’s Entrepreneurship Center, which hooked me up with my first loan.
So, I did apply to like six or seven banks and got denied by six of them. Then, luckily I was able to go through Pitt and they hooked me up with a nonprofit that gave me my first business loan, but it was about an eight month process.
Watson: I can tell you as someone who went to Pitt, like there's not a lot of education there in terms of like, ‘oh, this really prepared me to be a business owner.’ So much of it is the exact thing that you demonstrated- I'm going to just cold call, find the person that I need to talk to. I'm going to get the answer for myself. It's really your will and your kind of doggedness, for lack of a better word, that creates those results, opposed to someone just kind of handing you the answers.
We only found out when we started Piper, it was our first day in business, and we were at the Carnegie Library, and this woman basically explained that like, ‘oh yeah, I help people all the time with business formation and other resources. No one even tells you that, you have to go digging for it. We just kind of happened upon someone who that was their thing.
Kate Zarvis: I feel like in a nutshell, if you were to ask me how I opened my business, I just Googled it. I Googled ‘how to open a business, Pittsburgh, where do I go?’ That's where Chatham came up. Pittsburgh's Entrepreneurship Center came up. So yeah, I just kind of hustled my way through it.
Watson: Yeah. I don't want to make light of the hustle and the hard work that you had to do to get your name out there and to build those clients. The flip side of it is that answer is so inspirational because you literally went to Google, found the three resources, and got at least from a structural standpoint, everything that you needed. It's not so unattainable, or so far, it's really just putting your head down and working a little bit.
Kate Zarvis: Yeah. You can do it if you, if you want it, you can do it.
Watson: Absolutely. I find that just incredibly inspirational. Any other piece of piece of advice that you would give yourself when you were starting off now that you've kind of been in it for a while? You're still not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination, but looking back, ‘oh, I wish I'd known, or I wish I'd understood this to a greater degree.’
Kate Zarvis: Looking back on the process is so bittersweet, and I shed so many tears and frustrations. I had never used an Excel sheet in my life. That was probably the worst part of it. But advice, I don't know. I wouldn't do anything different. I would not do anything different because I appreciate the way that I kind of battled through it. To someone wanting to do the same things, I would have definitely advise them to use the free resources and the amazing colleges that we have here right at our fingertips.
Watson: Absolutely beautiful. We're going to aim towards wrapping up. Before we have you issue a challenge to the audience, I want to make sure that people learn more about Manikure and everything that you're doing. We want to give them digital coordinates, where they can follow along. What's the best place to do that?
Kate Zarvis: Definitely Instagram. Instagram is where you can see our portfolio of all of our work, so it's covered in nails. If you like nails, if you like nail art, definitely head over to our Instagram it's @manikurepgh. All of my employees have their own pages. It starts with ‘manicuredby’ and then their names. So, go check us out. You can see all the colonial art that we're doing.
Watson: Do you have to train or kind of talk to your employees about how to do that effectively, or do they tend to have an intuitive sense for how to promote them?
Kate Zarvis: Both. It's both. Some do, some don't, but I help them.
Watson: Smart. So, all of that's going to be linked to in the show notes for this episode. People can check that at goingdeepwithaaron.com/podcast. They can just go into the podcast player where they're probably listening to this right now and find all the links to check out Manikure and Kate's accounts.
Before we let you go, I want to give you the mic a final time to issue an actionable personal challenge for the audience.
Kate Zarvis: A personal challenge is something that I struggle with every day is to stop comparing yourself to Instagram and everyone on Instagram. My business is so linked to Instagram. I'm constantly on it. My boyfriend calls me a serial scroller because I'm always on it, but, you know, part of it's me advertising my business. The other part of me is seeing what other nail texts are doing. This other part is probably me comparing myself to all the Instagram models out there.
So, please for the day, you know, don't compare yourself to other people's highlight reel.
Watson: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. It's also a really good idea, what you said too, if someone else is doing something well, taking that idea, stealing shamelessly being like ‘that’s working for them. Let's see if it'll work for us.’ I think there's a great balance there, but yeah, focus on yourself. Better to compare yourself of the present to yourself of the past than anyone else's present. That makes a lot of sense.
Kate Zarvis: Absolutely.
Watson: Beautiful. We just Went Deep with Kate Zarvis, I hope everyone out there has a fantastic day.