Five unbelievable business lessons I learned from my (new) barber

Yesterday, my wife, two kids and I got our family pictures taken.

And, of course, I filled my life with all sorts of things that kept me from getting my hair cut until the very day of the photos: a huge risk.

So, since this was no ordinary haircut (after all, this haircut will live eternally in our family photos), I decided to skip the usual $8 haircut salon I go to and find a nice barbershop.

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Now, I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but there are thousands of places you can get your hair cut for less than $10, but very few places you can get a high-quality, photo-ready haircut.

But I found one (pictured above).

It was awesome. It had old-fashioned barber’s chairs, I got a flat-bladed neck shave and a back massage, and the vibe of the place was just top-notch.

I’ll definitely go back even though I paid almost four times the amount as usual to get my haircut.

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I was fascinated that this barber shop (in a matter of 24 hours) has caused me to:

  1. Pay 4 times what I regularly pay for a haircut.
  2. Tip the barber more than I ever tip a hair stylist.
  3. Tell a few people I work with about the place and encourage them to get their hair cut there.
  4. Blog about my experience to thousands of people.
  5. Become a customer who plans to return time and time again.

And why am I telling you about my procrastination and subsequent high-ticket haircut?

Because I think many of the reasons I bought the haircut and also plan to return can be applied to our freelance design businesses.

Allow me to explain. Here are a few lessons I learned from my new barber about finding, impressing, and keeping clients.

When I sat down in the weathered leather barber chair (that was probably older than I was), the first thing I asked him as he sprayed my hair with water was, “So what’s the difference between the haircut I get at [a cheap hair salon] and the one you’re giving me today?”

His response was golden.

He continued to (with lots of passion by the way) tell me all about the difference between cosmetologists and barbers.

I never knew there was a difference.

“Cosmetologists,” he said, “do all sorts of work. They paint nails, they perm hair, they give pedicures. And, even though barbers used to do all of that sort of thing and more (did you know barbers used to perform dental surgery!?), now we focus exclusively on cutting hair.”

He then went on to explain to me that he was likely far more passionate about my haircut than any cosmetologist since most cosmetologists have a passion for manicures, pedicures, hair-dying, etc.

It was obvious he was very passionate about barbering.

Lesson #1: Be entirely passionate and dedicated to what you do. Narrow your focus and become really great at the one thing you love the most.

As designers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing print design, web design, logo design, etc etc. I found out early in my design career that I really don’t like doing logo design.

I never see eye to eye with a client on it and, frankly, I don’t feel like I am a very good logo designer. But I can carry my weight when it comes to web design, social media design, etc. So I choose to be passionate and focused on that.

Be dedicated and focused like my new barber.

Back to the story:

My barber continued, “Not only that, but you’ll notice that when you go to a cheap salon, they use guards on their buzzers, right?”

I had to admit he was right.

“That creates a real cookie-cutter approach to your haircut and leaves lines and strange tapers that you don’t want.”

Again, I had to agree. Usually, I have to wait days or even weeks before I feel like my haircut is normal-looking again. I was relieved to think I may not have to worry about that today.

“Instead,” he went on, “I use a free-hand style with my buzzers that allows me to taper your hair according to the shape of your head. It’s completely custom and looks great from the moment you walk out of the shop.”

(He was right, it did look great.)

Lesson #2: Don’t be afraid to tell people why you’re better and why your competition doesn’t measure up.

One of the most difficult things about being a creative professional is that there are millions of other people out there who do the “same thing we do.”

Many times our competition offers the same service (seemingly) as we do for cheaper and more quickly.

But, you have something your competition doesn’t have (at least you should): quality.

Don’t be afraid to tell your clients and potential clients why you’re better than the competition. To be able to do that, you must first actually be better than your competition too.

Back to the story:
We continued to talk (the guy wouldn’t stop talking about barbering…and I mean that in a good way) and he told me how he ended up where he is and what he wanted to do with his life.

His ultimate dream? Open a barber shop of his own one day and cut hair for the rest of his life.

This guy was more passionate about cutting hair than any human being I had ever met in my entire life. He told me the history of barbering, he told me why my cowlicks always stick up when I get a haircut and how he would fix it, he told me how to handle my (gasp, they’re coming) widow’s peaks, and much much more.

Knowing that he had a passion for the work he was doing allowed me to rest easy knowing I would have a great hair cut.

Usually I watch closely as my hair stylist cuts so I can stop them if they do something strange.

After my new barber let his passion shine through, I allowed myself to relax, sit back, enjoy the process, and trust that whatever he did would be better than I could do.

Lesson #3: Let your passion shine through and you’ll see more trust and less micromanagement from your clients.

Sometimes our clients don’t understand that we know way more than they do about design.

It’s common to be micromanaged by your clients.

And now, I blame myself for any moment I’ve been micromanaged.

To avoid micromanaging from your client and to feel more trusted by your client, show more passion.

The more passion you show, the more they can trust you and the more leeway you get as a designer to do what you feel is best.

Back to the story:
My haircut was almost finished.

And in that moment, he started shamelessly plugging his services to me.

He told me that most of his business comes from word of mouth. (Sound familiar?)

He said that at the end of each haircut, he sends his customers away with two business cards: one for the client, and one for the client to give to a friend.

He was confident I would be needing two cards as well since he was sure I would want to recommend his services to people I know.

Again, he would prove to be right. This was one smart barber.

At the end of the haircut, he lathered up my face and neck, gave me a shave, applied aftershave, brushed the hair off my face and head, and (get this) gave me a back massage.

Yeah. Awesome.

As promised, at the end of the session, he gave me two cards and again encouraged me to keep on and send the other to a friend.

I think it’s obvious if I took him up on his offer (and then some).

Lesson #4: Give your client a great experience and don’t be ashamed to ask for referrals.

The easiest way to feel comfortable asking for referrals from your current design clients is to ensure, first, that they have a fantastic, over-the-top experience working with you.

Once they are completely impressed with your work, it will be natural for them to recommend you to other people seeking your services.

And you can have no shame in asking them to promote your business to other people.

But it all starts with a positive experience.

My barber, the businessman.

Turns out, my barber isn’t even really a barber.

He’s a businessman.

I mean, he doesn’t know it. All he knows is that he LOVES to cut hair.

Which leaves me with lesson #5.

Lesson #5: Be a designer first, business person second.

If you do as my barber has and love what you do FIRST, naturally the sales will follow.

Be passionate about what you do, narrow your focus, don’t be afraid to tell people why you’re better and why your competition doesn’t measure up, let your passion shine through, and always give your client a great experience and you’ll be well on the road to owning your own barber shop running a successful design business.

If you think other designers can benefit from my barber story, please do me a favor and tweet, like, share, pin, or post this article and help me spread the word.

And as always, if I’ve left something out, please add it in the comments. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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  1. Love the article. I’m looking to structure myself and feel this article puts you in that place.

  2. I am a Barber, who recently wrote something similar, from the Barbers point of view – I too am very passionate about being a Barber -Unfortunately, my post did not get me praise, it got me the comments to change my attitude, and to fall in with the crowd – – – but I WON’T – I am a BARBER – I LOVE what I do – and I am VERY PROUD to do it! – Preston, please post this on LinkedIn so I can share it – maybe then my negative nellies will see that Barbers ARE a cut above the rest!!! Thank you BTW REALLY LOVED THIS ARTICLE!

  3. You got to love what you do if it’s going to last. Thats what I think. This was a fun and inspiring story. The best part is that the passion makes the businessman, and not the other way around! And if you start from that angle and are really open about your passion, the road forward will be alot easier 🙂

  4. As you go back to your barber and you learn more about each other there will be a personal connection that endures. I have been going to the same barber shop that my father and Grandfather went to. My boys are now going to the same place as well. Four generations at the same barber shop. All four generations have had their hair cut by the same barber.

    We can all call on the phone to make an appointment and he knows each one of us by name. He remembers how many kids we have, their names, when our relations were in, etc.

    I don’t know many of my friends who would know all of that and this is just my barber. It is one of the reasons I keep going back. I never feel rushed, I get to catch up on what’s going on at the shop and with the other barbers (banter from all three seats).

    Even my daughter is now seeing the female “barber” at the shop. She is just as good at cutting hair as any salon, BUT my daughter has found out that they get to chatter away at the same time.

    I really don’t understand why people go to a box store to get their hair cut when you can truly have a personal, family type atmosphere at the barber shop. Do you think your “stylist” will know who you are when you see her at the grocery store? My barber has said “Hi Matt. How are you doing?” When I see him!

  5. Awesome blog Preston, you could have also called this ‘The Zen of The Barbershop’. It’s amazing how we can find inspiration anywhere… if only you take the time to stop and listen.

    1. Oops I hadn’t finished before I accidentally pressed ‘post comment’!

      I was thinking more about your article after I read it the other day and I wanted to pop back here again to tell you know I started to notice more of what was happening around me as I went about my frantically busy life.

      You really made me think and you’re SO right, inspiration is everywhere. Also quite a few good examples of how you DON’T want to do business out there too, haha!

      I think you know when a process, or a business or a person is working the right way when there is good energy flowing and it’s an enjoyable experience… just like your expensive (but worth every penny) haircut. The end result is that positive energy always comes back to you (hopefully in the form of a booming business).

  6. I’m really enjoy the way you always find inspiration in you daily routine. Nice article, very helpful, thanks for share your experiences. Greetings from Nicaragua!

    1. Thanks for the great pep talk on passion and dedication! I’m so happy to say that I know of whom you speak! I gave birth to him some years ago! You have inspired a lot of people by your generosity of time and sharing of your thoughts. Thank you in so many ways.

  7. I like how you think. Focus on your strengths and enjoy what you do. I went into an interview and the question they asked me was, “Are you passionate about what you do?” Best interview question I have ever had.

  8. This is a wonderful post, Preston!

    I, like many of you on here, work a full-time job on top of freelancing doing high-end retail sales. It amazes me how this blog post works for so many occupations! You are right about one thing, your barber is not just a barber, he is a business man.

    I, for one, am definitely going to make sure that these principles are in place in my own life. What a valuable experience!

  9. Great post Preston. Loved reading this! Some great pearls shared and inspiring. Not to mention, for anyone that has ever had their hair cut by someone like this who is passionate about their trade, the experience is indeed top notch!

  10. Thank you for a fantastic article. Your story left me inspired both as a business owner and a designer.

  11. i simply love this barber and your experience, this is rear i will share the story with my barber.

  12. This was a really good post on freelance work. I do video and film but still learned a lot. The only thing you didn’t cover was the name of the barber shop!

  13. This is my new favorite article by you! I really like that you included his actual words. That helped me understand how it translated to the design world. Just reading about his passion has increased my own passion. I’m definitely going to put these lessons to good use.

  14. Inspiration X 100 – thank you! In the process of an overhaul of my portfolio and needed to hear this!

  15. Absolutely love this post. It’s true that if you have passion, provide a quality product with amazing client service and bring something to your business that your competition doesn’t offer, then that’s the perfect foundation for your business.

    However, I truly believe that you don’t need to compare yourself to your competition and “tell people how the competition doesn’t measure up”. Badmouthing competition on their faults, just end up making you look bad. When you have an amazing business with all of the qualities you described, then the competition doesn’t even matter in the end 🙂
    If you have all of the above qualities, that should shine through

  16. Love this. Really good business illustration that I will now use in the way I promote my design work!

  17. I love this! My father has been a barber for 40 years. He and his co-workers will love this inspiration!

  18. I really love this INSPIRING story.
    It woke up memories to my time in Vancouver. On a rainy afternoon I stumpled into a barber shop, exactly like yours. And it goes even deeper, into my childhood. The scratchy elastic paper wrapped around my neck. The leather belt the barber used to sharpen his knifes. The rhythmic sound of the blade whizzing up and down the leather …
    Not to mention al the smells that pop up again …

    Thanks for catapulting me back into a more sensory environment 🙂

  19. Wow, that was great and I really, really learned a lot. Keep up the wonderful work.

    I hate micromanaging client and had a couple of trouble clients who micro manage a lot, will surely try your approach #3

    Thanks, for the great article

  20. Great post Preston,

    What resonated most with me was Lesson #3: Let your passion shine through and you’ll see more trust and less micromanagement from your clients.

    I will keep that in mind especially during client meetings and other interactions.

  21. Preston, I love this. It’s amazing how the same sale principals are often evident in all businesses and industries in this world.

    I especially love lesson no.4 “Give your client a great experience and don’t be ashamed to ask for referrals.” It’s what I strive to do everyday.

  22. This is brilliant. Thanks for this wonderful article.

    P.S. Please show us how your hair looks. I’m curious 😀

  23. Solid post here Preston, a fresh angle, some tasty insight and a stylish feel to it. It’s this kinda thing that defines you in this slice of freelance blogging!
    Hair stylists run a fancy joint so it’s a great comparison for making our business utilise these insights!


  24. This is one of the few emails I always take time to read. Kind of reinforces that many in the arts have the same problems. In this case a barber can be business inspiration.

    Your thoughts are always dead on. I have a daughter in art school and I pass these along to her and hopefully they get passed on from there. You are loaded with advice that I simple take for granted and honestly had to learn the hard way.

    Thank you and keep on keeping on!

  25. Where’s the cut? It was a great read.

    I’m Still struggling to get my niche, in this little depression we have I take what I can, even “budget pro bono” vibes is becoming a regular thing.

  26. Great article! The story added human interest, made it personal and kept it casual. The application of what you learned from your barber was insightful.

    I’d like to add to your #3 point that it wasn’t only the barber’s passion that helped you trust him, it was the depth of his understanding of cowlicks, widow’s peaks, individualized solutions per each head shape, etc. These are the most technical parts of a great hair cut—the parts that make customers squirm. His expertise put you at ease. Good designers need to know what challenges their work will face and be competent in navigating those challenges.

    Again, great post. Thanks!

  27. I really like memorable experiences and time with elders like this. Smart man with plenty more knowledge to share, I’m sure. Awesome story.

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