For the Guy Who Wants More Than a Little Off the TopNew York Times
November 14, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO --- Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone realized that what a certain kind of man wants while getting a haircut is a cold beer — preferably Chimay.
Two graduates of Stanford Graduate School of Business, Sean A. Heywood and Kumi D. Walker, envisioned such an experience a few years ago and have now opened MR., a combination barbershop, club and lounge in the business district of San Francisco.
“Our goal was to make it nicer than most of our clients’ apartments,” said Mr. Heywood, gesturing toward the 100-inch flat-screen television opposite the bar. “Our vision was, what if we can create this sense of community?”
Neither has a background in cutting hair. Before attending business school, Mr. Walker spent a few years at Goldman Sachs, while Mr. Heywood worked at Morgan Stanley and at McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm. “This wasn’t our initial passion,” Mr. Heywood said.
When they were undergraduates together at Brown University in Providence, R.I., away from home — Mr. Heywood grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and Mr. Walker in Columbia, Md. — finding a hair stylist they trusted was not easy. When they decided on this line of business, they were sure they could find a market.
At first they thought to cater to African-Americans like themselves, as well as Asian-American and Hispanic-American men, but then they decided that a shop serving all hair types represented a much bigger business opportunity and better reflected the professional community they wanted to create.
That in itself was a challenge. Licensed barbers can cut anyone’s hair, but most develop expertise in a particular type.
“It’s very unusual that two different hair types can go to the same establishment and get a haircut,” Mr. Walker said.
Currently, about 90 percent of MR. members (there are members as well as walk-ins) are white, reflecting the business neighborhood, Mr. Heywood said.
He and Mr. Walker enrolled in business school in 2004 with the goal of opening MR. To avoid temptation of taking other work, Mr. Walker said, they did not interview for jobs or send out their résumés while at Stanford. MR. remained their focus.
They had to overcome two big obstacles: finding investors willing to trust two untested young African-American men, and finding a landlord willing to lease an attractive retail space on the strength of little more than a business plan and their determination. And they had to do a lot of it while taking their classes.
“Try getting someone to give you money when you don’t have any management experience,” Mr. Heywood said, adding that even former mentors at the investment firms where they had worked were reluctant to invest. The two ended up spending all their savings and eventually found investors.
To reassure one potential landlord, Mr. Heywood prepared a report on the salaries of their business school classmates. That way, the two could show that they had to be serious about the barbershop to give up such lucrative options and that they had the earning potential to repay their debts if the venture fell through.
To find barbers, they auditioned candidates at schools and shops, enduring several bad haircuts. They also used hair models of different races. And then, in a somewhat unusual move for a barbershop, they made their barbers employees instead of contractors.
“We were taking someone who worked at a traditional barbershop environment and training them in the Four Seasons experience,” Mr. Heywood said. The barbers dress in business casual and review profiles of customers beforehand so that they can make small talk.
To help create a club atmosphere, the shop offers memberships, charging flat monthly rates that differ depending on the services wanted. For $65 a month, a customer gets one haircut, one touch-up, shoe shining and a drink at the bar, which serves wine and beer.
There are costlier memberships that include more visits and more benefits. A walk-in cut costs the same as a membership, $65. Both Mr. Heywood and Mr. Walker are well versed in the language of business school and can describe the barbershop’s “target demographic”: professional men, most making $75,000 or more, who shop at Barneys, drive a BMW or Mercedes-Benz and appreciate a duplex along the Embarcadero even if they cannot afford one.
The space that they found to appeal to such men has a loftlike, red-brick-walled lounge area with several couches and the bar. It is a space that has a certain clubhouse mind-set, but is not stodgy, said Alex Clemens, founder of Barbary Coast Consulting, a communications firm, and an early customer.
“I was intrigued by the idea of a living-room lounge where even a dorky middle-aged white guy could go get an up-to-date haircut, watch some sports on a big screen TV and relax,” he said.
It is unclear how successful MR. has been since its opening last spring. Mr. Walker and Mr. Heywood would not disclose revenue or number of customers, but said the business was profitable.
The two have high hopes for MR., even as they concede that barbershops lack the cachet of the businesses employing their Stanford classmates.
“Barbershops may not be sexy,” Mr. Heywood said. “But there’s nothing sexy about Wal-Mart, either.”