It’s 11 am on a Tuesday in Drybar’s underground salon in the basement of Manhattan’s Le Parker Meridien hotel. With Adele belting it out over the sound system, rising above the roar of nine blow-dryers on full blast, women aged 21 to 62 are spun out sleek and smooth. One by one, the stylists spin their clients to face the mirror and show the results. “You look incredible,” says Drybar founder Alli Webb to a middle-aged attorney who admires herself.
“Great job,” Webb nods to the stylist, who, in turn, sighs to a co-worker, “God, she’s amazing.” What’s amazing is how Webb, a 37-year-old mother of two, has made a $20 million (sales) business out of nothing but hot air. Four years ago, she was peddling her services from a 2001 Nissan Xterra, driving around Los Angeles. “Between gas and babysitters, I doubt I ever broke even,” she recalls. Today, with 23 salons in six states (26 by year-end), Drybar is styling the hair of more than 50,000 women every month. At 40 bucks a pop—for just a blowout; no scissors, no dyes—it adds up. Drybar has the usual expenses of labour, real estate and utility bills. But each store nets 15 percent to 35 percent, says Michael Landau, who is CEO and Webb’s brother. Hair salons usually clear 11 percent or so.
The Drybar phenom may feel like a throwback to the weekly hairdo our moms (or grandmothers) used as a way to pamper themselves. But its success rests on a replicable formula that Webb, husband Cameron, Landau and architect friend Josh Heitler have laboured to perfect—down to every step along the 40-minute process of beautification, the decor and layout, even the soundtrack playlist. “I know what works, I know what doesn’t,” says Webb. “What we’re really selling is self-esteem.”
Brother Michael, 41, had doubts—especially after Alli came to him begging for $250,000 to open her first location in Brentwood, California. “Alli has always been overly confident that this was a service that women wanted, needed and would love,” says Landau, who served as a vice president of brand marketing at Yahoo before cofounding his own marketing company. “What does a guy with no hair understand about why a woman would need a blowout, much less why she couldn’t do it herself or would ever pay for it?”
The first few weeks turned his shiny head. In pro forma projections, he and Webb had figured it would take 20 to 30 blowouts a day to keep the doors open. But demand blew the doors off—even before they opened. After an e-mail blast went out, alerting Brentwood women about Drybar’s opening, thousands of appointments were in the books—six weeks’ worth in just eight hours by Landau’s count. He laughs in hindsight. Twenty to 30 blowouts “would be the single worst day we’ve ever had”.
Within weeks, they were overwhelmed, understaffed—and in danger of losing business. They’d planned on answering the phones at the receptionist desk like any other salon but wound up not being able to hear clients over the noise of the blow-dryers, resulting in dozens of missed appointments. Within weeks, they switched to a VoIP phone system and hired a receptionist to take calls in her living room and then communicate with the salon over instant message—a process still in place today, although the call centre now employs more than 50 customer service reps. Thanks to a classy, simple website designed by Alli’s husband, Cameron, you can book and pay for a blowout online.
Still, as Drybar began to scale up, new concerns surfaced. Three new stores opened in 2010—in West Hollywood, Studio City and Pacific Palisades—while Landau held his breath. He worried the new locations weren’t chic enough and that the concept wouldn’t translate. “I really thought the women of Brentwood just had too much time, too much money and cared too much about their appearances,” he says. “Turns out it’s universal.”
Rapid expansion strained the war chest. Since each new outlet cost $500,000, Drybar looked to franchising in late 2010, and quickly moved into seven new markets in California, Georgia, Texas and Arizona. They turned, for the most part, to longtime friends—even a pair of Landau’s fraternity brothers who head up Atlanta operations. But the model was shortlived. “It was a great growth vehicle for us, and we couldn’t ask for a better group of partners,” says Landau. “But, in the end, you can’t control consistency when they’re just not you.”
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(This story appears in the 21 December, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)