You can’t always get it right, but you can most of the time if you make it your job to pay attention.
Seven years ago, Michael Portman moved to Austin and headed to the apartment of his only friend in town, Jayson Rapaport. Originally from Laredo, they have been buds forever, so Michael immediately started asking Jayson where to go for the basics: breakfast tacos, outdoor music and decent haircuts. The last one stumped Jayson.
Back then it seemed like the only place to get a trim was a super dude place, a cheap mega-chain or some “shmancy” salon that left them both feeling icky. They thought there had to be a better way—somewhere affordable that was salon-quality and lady-friendly, without all the fuss. They thought a cold Shiner to go with each cut would be nice too. By the time Michael got home that night, Jayson (Mr. Left Brain) had left him a message saying they ought to make their own haircut place. They’d both paid their dues in the corporate world, so creating a barbershop sounded like a fun next project.
In May of 2006, the first Birds Barbershop opened in south Austin. They took their time getting there, finding a business plan on the internet, attending a bank fair for an SBA loan, and creating building plans with a pencil. They went with their gut and hired eight people, three of whom are still with them today. Beth, their very first receptionist, has been Birds’ GM since they’ve had a general manager. Without her, they never would have won Best Barbershop in The Chronicle every year since they opened.
Birds is now much more than the lark the two of them started in 2006. Today there are more than 100 people involved in a Responsibility Project they all take very seriously (but not too seriously). Without customers like you, none of them would be here.
What are you working on right now?
On the Birds side, we are always working on perfecting our barbershop experience. Birds is not your grandfather’s barbershop, so making certain that we are constantly re-defining our approach matters greatly. It’s no simple task. How do you stay walk-in friendly but satisfy women’s needs to have appointments for services that take longer? How does a guy trust that his salon-quality cut will be just that, without him ever having to feel like he is in a “salon?” How much Shiner beer do we need to keep cold to accommodate the people walking in the door? Luckily, Birds is established enough that we now have the infrastructure for our most trusted people to spend their days tackling these questions.
Verb Products takes up a lot of our time currently. Like Birds, Verb came from us trying to address our own need. Affordable, professional-quality unisex haircuts was what Birds did best, but nobody wanted the expensive hair products on the shelves. Customers still wanted to look good–they just didn’t want to pay as much as their haircuts cost to do so. We went looking for something that cost less, but maintained a high level of quality. We wanted a product that focused on quality over frills, like Birds. We never found one, so we created Verb, offering everything in the line for a retail priced of no more than $14.
Where did the idea for Birds Barbershop come from?
Michael to Jayson: “Where do I get my hair cut that isn’t an old man barber place, cheap chain or too-fancy salon?”
Jayson to Michael: “I have never heard of such a thing.”
Michael to Jayson: “Really? Middle price range, fun atmosphere, unisex? This is Austin. How can it not exist?”
Jayson to Michael: “I’m sold. Let’s build it.”
What does your typical day look like?
Our typical day involves managing a very full email inbox. With Verb and Birds, the thing that takes the most patience is saying “no.” It’s easy to “yes” your way out of business, but choosing which direction to take at every fork in the road is crucial. We are lucky to be a partnership, and we question everything until we know we are headed the right way. Left and right brains get equal say. Every decision is still a best guess, but we think we are in a much better position together than we would be if just one of the two of us was calling the shots.
You only know so much. The best qualification to being a successful entrepreneur is knowing that you don’t know everything. So to answer the question succinctly, our typical day is filled with putting ourselves in touch with the people who can answer the questions we don’t know or the ones think we know, but really don’t.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The best ideas come from the trenches—there is no doubt about that. If you have a hair place, the best ideas, or at least the primo seeds of those ideas, will inevitably come from the people who actually cut hair and deal with customers. We have marketing meetings for Birds bi-weekly and make people responsible for bringing ideas to life. Without ideas, we are nothing more than just another place to get your hair cut. We are in the style business, so sitting around and resting on our laurels doesn’t cut it.
Verb is even more of an idea machine. Since we don’t have the luxury of having a test lab of 100 employees who immediately tell us if an idea is working (like we do for Birds), Verb relies on a lot of gut instinct backed by a whole lot of research. But mostly we go on gut instinct and make sure we hire people who get it right. You can’t always get it right, but you can most of the time if you make it your job to pay attention. We pay a lot of attention to everything that moves in the world of style, fashion and so much more. What’s happening on the streets of Austin is often times just as relevant as what’s going on in Milan.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Pattern on pattern (on pattern). And chrome–always.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
Jayson: I was a file clerk at college. I learned how expensive it is to run an institution.
Michael: I worked as a rental tux measurement guy. I learned I didn’t want to touch crotches and definitely didn’t want to become a tux boss.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
For Verb, we would have hired a product developer sooner and not acted like we could transfer our haircutting knowledge into a jar. For Birds, we made many mistakes, but the right thing we did was start from the beginning knowing that we didn’t know everything. We had to rely on experts to help lead us. Our mistakes were learning opportunities. For Birds and Verb, we empower our own to own up to their expertise.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
We never stop listening. We try, as much as possible, to learn from the cookie delivery guy or the woman with the dress shop on the corner. There are all kinds of best practices that can be learned far beyond our own industry. To know your own business backward and forward is easy. But to bring in some out-there answer to a question you didn’t know existed results from putting your ego aside and taking it all in. You can’t listen and talk at the same time.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
With Verb, we thought that since we wanted to bring the affordable, salon-quality of Birds to hair products, all we had to do was put Birds in a can. Look, feel—everything. Services and manufacturing are two very different businesses, and we learned a very valuable and expensive lesson in that process.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Ask yourself if a business idea is a want or a need. The times they are changing, and for us, getting older just means cutting out more of the superfluous. Think about the “middle shelf.” You know that the top one is all marketing smoke and mirrors, and the bottom one might give you a hangover. But think about the businesses that don’t have that third, middle shelf. Airlines have it now. So do eyeglasses and clothing chains. With Birds and Verb, we aimed straight for the middle shelf. There are certainly many other industries waiting to be tapped in that regard, and that’s where the future is. Fancy insignias don’t mean what they used to when there were only a couple of ways for people to express themselves.
Tell us a secret.
Find a way to break the mold. Make dry cleaning affordable. Make is so picture framing doesn’t cost a fortune and printer ink doesn’t subsidize the printer. Warbly Parker broke the mold for eyewear by establishing direct-to-manufacturer relationships that no one thought possible or even worth investigating. There are many perceived, high barriers to entry out there, and the establishment doesn’t want you to think they are that high. That was the case with Verb. It’s up to entrepreneurs to democratize everything and make the world more accessible to the common person.
What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?
- Businessinsider.com is straight dope for every kind of business. It’s a listening lobby.
- Asana and Basecamp. We can’t imagine not having the online project management and assignment tools now available for the masses. We use Asana for Verb and Basecamp for Birds. Viva democracy!
- Myemma.com. While everyone uses Constant Contact, we use Emma. It’s prettier, savvier and just puts the best foot forward for a brand. It’s like the difference between a PC and an Apple computer.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
- Empire of the Summer Moon, which is about the last battle of the Comanches. It centers around Quanah Parker, a half-Comanche, half-white chief who fought the white man to the bitter end. As Texans, we were embarrassed to find out all this drama had happened in our backyard a couple of centuries ago without us even knowing.
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. If you think you’ve done a lot in your time, read this. You haven’t accomplished anything. This dude was publishing books and skinning hyenas by the time he was in college (Harvard, by the way).
- Far Bright Star, Coal Black Horse and The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead. These form a trilogy of sparsely written books that take the western to new, modern levels. It’s like a Cormac McCarthy novel, but more accessible. It’s like the Zion Canyon version of the Grand One. With McCarthy you can look but not touch. With Olmstead, you’re right in there and living a hundred years back, cold and pissed as all hell.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
This happens hourly. When we send each other links to people from our childhood doing things we’d never have guessed. There’s also that penis sandwich link that’s always good for a guffaw.
Who is your hero?
- JP DiJoria, because he is local and he owns it (Paul Mitchell, Patron Tequila).
- Gordon Logan, because he mentors us and really owns it (SportClips—900 locations and counting).
- Abe Lincoln, because he was pretty much always right and didn’t have the internet to get in his way.
Why do you do everything in-house?
We like to control what our message is, and the easiest way to do so is by keeping marketing and design under one roof. Since Michael’s background is in advertising and PR, we are able to do so, but we wouldn’t advise others who don’t have some inherent sense of business to do the same. We aren’t afraid to outsource, but when you have something expensive that you can bring to the table, it gives your business a big leg up on the competition.
Jayson went from Wall Street to barbershops. Why?
Jayson is Mr. Left Brain, and he instantly saw that hair was a recession-resistant business in need of fixing. First Birds, then Verb.
Birds Barbershop on Twitter: @birdsbarbershop
Verb Products on Twitter: @verb
Birds Barbershop on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/birdsbarbershop
Verb Products on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/verbproducts?ref=ts