We can all learn from the mistakes of others, so read these words to the wise from salon owners who have made their share of mistakes along the way.

Fear of failure may be preventing you from opening your own salon, but you can take heart in the fact that every successful salon owner has made her share of mistakes along the road to the top. NAILS asked several top owners what they feel was the biggest mistake they made when they opened their first salon. The universal response was, “Mistakes back then? Hey, I’m making mistakes now!” They agreed to share their early experiences with us and to offer suggestions to would-be salon owners.

Overpaying Technicians
Don’t overpay technicians right at the start. “Some owners begin by offering their technicians a crazy percentage, like 70%,” says Chenzo Balsamo, owner of Chenzo & Co. in Boca Raton, Fla. “But too high a commission only causes trouble later on,” he says. “You end up resenting paying that.” Balsamo made that mistake in the beginning and eventually had to let go technicians. He knew he could get others for 50% commission who were just as qualified. He assures new salon owners that “once you get established, business will get good. It’s only a matter of time.” A new salon owner has to ask herself what commission she can really afford to pay over the long term.

If not with a high commission, how should salon owners lure top-quality technicians? “Let the technician in on your business plan. Convince her that your salon is credible, exciting. If she believes that your salon is going to be a success, she will want to be a part of it,” Balsamo says.

Inadequately Screening Prospective Technicians
Don’t rush into hiring new technicians. You need to take the time to check the would-be employee’s training, education, job history, and abilities. Some owners get into trouble when they trust the employee right off the bat and don’t screen her carefully.

Teresa Bell, owner of At Your Fingertips in Phoenix, Ariz., says “I wanted to make my salon busy right away, so I hired technicians, taking them at their word that they were reliable and performed good work. They outright deceived me.” She says these technicians came in late or not at all, and then she was left having to pick up the slack.

Hiring Over-experienced Technicians
There are disadvantages to hiring technicians with too much experience. Tony Fanelli, owner of Concept Elite in Brooklyn, N.Y., says, “I prefer to hire technicians who have one year of experience and no clientele of their own.” If someone works at a salon for too long, she picks up the corporate style of that salon (which may conflict with the new company’s style) as well as any bad habits that were condoned there, he warns.

A technician can be too good in the sense that she may be enamored with her own creativity at the expense of the client. Fanelli says he has hired creative people who “think they are the most important person;

Frank Burge Sr., who runs Day Spa Beautique Salon with his son, Frank Burge Jr., has owned salons since the 1950s, and according to him, it’s not the experience that’s important; it’s how much the person wants the job. “The most important thing is to look for someone who has some training and needs the job. People come to me wanting something part-time or on the side, or they think they want the job and they really don’t. These people take the job but immediately start looking for something else. I look for people who want a career – a full-time, 40-plus-hour-a-week job.”

Hiring Technicians Without Trying Them Out
It’s a good idea to give a prospective employee a hands-on test. Margaret Din, who owns Dinmar Salon on Madison Avenue in New York City, tests candidates. She says, “I have them sit down with a model, either one of my technicians or a hired model, and have them show me what they can do.” Din says one time she left out that requirement, with disastrous results. “I needed an extra nail technician, and I was anxious to fill that spot. A technician came to me with good references, so I hired her. Later on, she cut a client, and I ended up in a lawsuit.” Din says a failproof solution is to hire on a trial basis; try a new technician for one or two weeks.

Obscuring Your Business
Don’t set up your salon so that you’re invisible or so that your nail care business is obscured. The salons we investigated were primarily in or near shopping centers, and shopping centers can provide visibility and pedestrian traffic. Successful salons make it crystal clear by their layout and their signs that they provide nail services.

Caruso-Jollette says her salon began as “three separate entities under one roof. We offered hair, facial, and nail services, thinking each service would complement the others. But it ended up that there were managerial problems and there was competition. Now we are totally separate. Our nails-only salon occupies almost all of the second floor of a building. The facialists are across the hall from us and downstairs, and the hairstylists are on the first floor. We each have our own receptionist and are closed off from one another.”

A salon’s sign can make a big difference in traffic. Donna Dennison, who helps run her daughter Brenda Leaver’s salon. A Hair & Nail Cottage in Las Vegas, Nev., says her daughter didn’t even have a sign in the beginning. “We’re in the back of a grocery store center, in a professional building. We couldn’t put a sign on the professional building, so we had to put a sign on the side of the building, which nobody saw. Now we have a neon sign right out on the street, in front of the grocery store. People know we’re here. It helped a lot.”

Failing to Take Care of Business
Develop and use your business sense. Once you become a salon owner, you can no longer rely on your creative talents alone to keep your business going. Fanelli says the biggest mistake he made when he started out as a salon owner was running the salon as a creative venture rather than as a business venture.

In the beginning, his salon staff was wonderfully creative, but “they didn’t have a clue how to run a business,” he says. “We had plenty of clients, but no profits.” To run a successful business, Fanelli advises that you get a system in place. “Refine it to its utmost simplicity, then document every step. For instance, some salons will pay on technician one percentage and another technician a different percentage, saying, ‘That technician was lured away from that salon.’ Well, the Marriott isn’t run that way. You have to run your salon like a business. At our salon,
 part of taking care of business is being aware of your reputation. The salon owners we spoke to emphasized unanimously that the number-one source for new clients is word-of-mouth. Hiatt puts it as well as anyone: “I tried just about every advertising and marketing technique there is, and only two work – word-of-mouth and the yellow pages.”