In this exclusive Q&A, we learn about Sola Salon Studios from its director of franchise development, Lori Merrall.
Franchise Chatter (FC): What is Sola Salon Studios?
Lori Merrall (LM): Sola Salon Studios is the world’s largest and fastest growing salon studios franchise. The concept was originally founded in Denver, Colorado in 2004 by Stratton Smith and Matt Briger, who both dreamed of building a thriving community where independent beauty professionals could create a life and career they loved. Their vision was to give hair stylists, estheticians, nail technicians and massage therapists more control over their environment, schedule, choice of retail, pricing, etc.
Today, Sola leads the largest segment within the $64 billion salon services market, and has more than doubled in size in the last five years. We currently have more than 530 locations open in the U.S., Canada and Brazil, and are proud to now support a growing community of 15,000+ salon professionals, offering them the freedom and benefits of owning their own salon business without the upfront costs and risks associated with opening a traditional model.
FC: What sets Sola apart from other concepts? How does your unique design cater to the new normal for the salon industry?
LM: Two things that I would say set us apart from other concepts in the salon studios segment are our size, as well as our leadership in technology and innovation. We’re the largest brand in our category with 533 locations in three countries and, in recent years, we have developed proprietary tools to better support our franchisees and the independent beauty professionals that call Sola home.
As a brand built around supporting entrepreneurs on their path to business ownership, our number-one priority is sharing all the resources we can to help ensure their success. In terms of our design, Sola locations feature a collection of 20-40 boutique, move-in-ready salon studios all under one roof; similar to that of an executive office suites model, but that has been specifically adapted for the cosmetology industry.
The intentional design of the salon studios model helps to limit foot traffic inside the building because entry doors remain locked and beauty professionals have one-on-one sessions with clients in their own studios with floor-to-ceiling walls and sliding glass doors, completely separating them from hallways and other studios in the building. Unlike traditional salon models which typically boast an open-concept floorplan, salon studios have the ability to meet strict health and safety standards.
And, because each studio is independently owned and operated, Sola beauty professionals do not share any sinks, chairs, equipment or surfaces and there is no congregation of people.
FC: What support does Sola provide for independent beauty professionals?
LM: Far beyond simply leasing studio space, Sola has created a turnkey solution for beauty professionals looking to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, and we provide marketing resources, proprietary technology, education opportunities, business tools, a supportive, like-minded community, and much, much more in order to help them succeed in business ownership.
Every modern business owner knows that a key component of achieving success in today’s landscape is having technology that not only makes their lives easier, but also helps their businesses grow. That’s why technology and innovation are of the utmost importance to us at Sola and have been key areas of our focus in enhancing the support we provide to independent beauty professionals.
In 2017, Sola partnered with GlossGenius, a leading appointment management and scheduling system developer, to develop an all-in-one business platform exclusive to Sola pros, called SolaGenius. On SolaGenius, Sola beauty professionals can accept bookings 24/7, manage clients and check their history, streamline their personal calendars, build loyalty and a following, accept payments, get analytics, run reports and more.
We also launched a centralized booking system on our website last year after noticing high volumes of consumer traffic looking for information on how to book an appointment on SolaSalonStudios.com. We wanted to cater to the demand and create something that would direct consumers to the right place, as well as drive client bookings for our independent beauty professionals.
As an extension of SolaGenius, our team developed BookNow, which launched in January 2019, delivering an easy-to-use search function that allows clients to book appointments with their favorite Sola pro. Throughout 2019, approximately 6,000 bookings came through the platform, generating more than $300,000 in revenue for our Sola pros.
None of this is to say that this year hasn’t been challenging for us. Our industry has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and all of our locations were mandated to close for several weeks, leaving our Sola pros unable to earn an income.
During the shutdowns, our marketing team quickly mobilized and launched a COVID-19 Resource Center to help keep Sola pros engaged, inspired and informed. There were blogs, business/marketing tips, virtual education, webinars, downloadable social media content, and more. We also debuted a new podcast called “Sola Stories” as a way to share inspirational stories, tips and best practices coming directly from our Sola community.
FC: Salon businesses remained closed for several weeks at the beginning of the pandemic. How did Sola support franchisees through that time?
LM: The mandated shutdowns of salon businesses was an incredibly hard time for our entire industry. At Sola, we’ve always put independent beauty professionals first and, with them unable to earn an income, our franchisees made the difficult and selfless decision to stop collecting rent. This was such a difficult decision because the rent that they collect from independent beauty professionals is their primary source of revenue and what they use to pay their commercial landlords.
To add insult to injury, Sola, along with other salon studios franchise brands, was excluded from relief from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) due to an SBA technicality. In total, this technicality impacted around 1,000 franchise locations, over 300 employees and nearly 30,000 independent beauty professionals. With our brand representing half of that total, we felt a tremendous responsibility to fight hard to get the issue resolved.
As a franchisor, we deferred 50% of royalties in March, along with all ad fees, and from April until salons reopened, we deferred 100% of both. We provided our franchisees with guidance, letter templates and other resources as they worked with their landlords, who, for the most part, were understanding.
At the national level, we were actively involved with the International Franchise Association and its broader lobbying efforts. Our CEO, Christina Russell, spoke with over 30 legislators to underscore our exclusion from PPP, as well as the impact on our independent stylists. At the state-level, we pushed for commercial lease forbearance, requesting that landlords give forbearance to commercial tenants, and requiring banks to give forbearance to the landlords on their commercial loans.
We fought hard to have technical fixes made to PPP because we were hopeful that the relief would give our franchisees the optimism to continue developing and creating opportunities for their employees and the independent beauty professionals that operate their microbusinesses within Sola’s four walls.
As independents, our Sola pros were faced with a lot of complexities around applying for and receiving PPP funding, so many had to file for unemployment to sustain themselves and their families through the mandated closures. We lobbied for independent beauty professionals, as well, so they get unemployment money faster as many of them are the primary providers for their families.
FC: How is Sola performing now that salons have been given the green light to reopen?
LM: We are so excited to finally be 100% open systemwide. Our independent beauty professionals are back to work and have seen steady bookings with the pent-up demand coming from clients eager to return to the salon. Our one-on-one studio model lends itself to the “new normal” for the salon industry and we expect to see a positive performance across the board as our locations are settling in to reopening their doors.
Because of our unique design, we’ve seen our model come out strong on the other side of this with demand for private salon studios being high. Sadly, part of this demand is resulting from beauty professionals being displaced because the salon they were working at closed permanently due to the shutdowns or traditional salon owners are looking to downsize because they could no longer make it work in the space they were in.
While we’re seeing leasing at a tremendous high right now, we understand that the current demand is different from the demand that we’ve experienced before, so we’re taking it as an opportunity to support and uplift these stylists through whatever transition they’re working through.
The increase in leasing activity has been great for our franchisees, and the sustained demand has resulted in waiting lists for studio space to open up. With all the uncertainty that the pandemic brought, it seems like there’s a big push for beauty professionals to go independent and take control of their futures.
FC: Can you share more about Sola’s recent development success and growth?
LM: Despite the closures of our salons for several weeks throughout the pandemic, we saw a steady flow of candidates. In August, we announced that we signed eight franchise agreements to develop 22 new locations throughout the U.S. over the next several years in markets including New York City; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Miami-Dade County in Florida. The majority of these signings were with franchisees of other brands, seeking to diversify with our simple, yet compelling business model.
In addition to the new signings, we opened 16 new locations in North America in June and July in states like California, Arizona, Washington, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, as well as in Calgary, Alberta. Even more recently, we signed an additional seven deals to bring 17 locations to Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, and the Ontario province of Canada, and we have a few more agreements in the works.
FC: What do you look for in the ideal franchise candidate? Do you require your franchise owners to have experience in the salon industry?
LM: At Sola, our business is very altruistic and we pride ourselves on that; we’re helping 15,000 small business owners achieve their dreams and live their best lives! To us, that’s the essence of franchising – being in business for yourself, not by yourself. That being said, we are looking for candidates that have a passion for helping others pursue and achieve their entrepreneurial dreams and that will put our Sola pros first. Our business model is made up of entrepreneurs working together to help one another continue to grow and succeed.
We do not require our franchise owners to have experience in the salon industry. Our current network consists of 150+ franchisee groups coming from all kinds of different backgrounds. For example, approximately 15 of our franchisee groups currently own and operate leading restaurant brands like Panera Bread, Tim Hortons, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. We have found that these franchisees are attracted to the simplicity of our business model when considering the saturation and complexities of today’s foodservice industry.
Our turnkey real estate model and low labor cost provide easy day-to-day operations for our franchise owners.
Potential candidates should have a minimum net worth of $1,500,000 and a liquid capital of $500,000. When joining, franchisees can expect the total investment to be approximately $532,282 to $1,715,682 with a $55,000 franchise fee.
FC: What are the brand’s development plans for the future?
LM: Looking ahead, we’ll continue to focus on our growth throughout North America, targeting states like New York, Texas, Florida and California in the U.S., as well as in Canada. We aim to position ourselves in larger metropolitan areas like New York City, Dallas, Miami and Toronto because of the dense population centers and high foot traffic.
As part of a competitive industry, we want to continue to develop locations easily accessible to consumers in order to drive leasing activity for our franchisees and help our beauty professionals grow their clientele.
FC: How can our readers learn more about franchising opportunities with Sola Salon Studios?
LM: To learn more about franchise opportunities with Sola Salon Studios, you can visit www.solafranchising.com or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.