Joseph Thomas of 180v talks about building a business—and a legacy.
From the outside, Joseph Thomas looks like he’s got the business of running a small business completely figured out.
In the past seven years, he’s started not one, but two popular barber salons: the now-decommissioned JoeyCuts and then 180v, located in the heart of Kansas City’s Historic 18th and Vine Jazz District. He’s won a series of local and national awards, including a Steve Harvey Hoodie Award for the nation’s best barbershop.
But as successful as he’s been, there’s a sobering thought that Thomas just can’t shake. The customer who’s here today might not be there next month.
“After every head I cut,” he said, “I’m unemployed again.”
He’s been thinking more and more about ways he can grow and evolve his company, so that he doesn’t have to worry as much about the constant churn of individual customers.
Fortunately, Thomas was selected for ScaleUP! Kansas City, a program offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration and the UMKC Innovation Center. Over the space of a few months, a select group of local business owners take part in intensive training, one-on-one mentoring and roundtables with other entrepreneurs.
The goal is to help these small to midsize businesses “get over the hump” and generate more than $1 million in annual revenue.
Thomas is just a few weeks into the program, but he’s confident that he’s already on his way to a bigger, better company. Here are three valuable lessons he’d share with other entrepreneurs.
Don’t Sell a Product—Sell an Experience
Time for a confession: When he was growing up, Thomas hated the hair business. His mother worked as a stylist, and after school, Thomas was forced to hang out at her shop, where he swept up clippings and did other chores.
“Honestly, when I was a kid,” Thomas said, “I hated everything about hair.”
But he grew to love being a barber because of what a sharp-looking haircut can mean to a customer. Whenever people are girding up for a big moment like a job interview or a marriage proposal, they almost always get their hair cut first. When Thomas hands a customer the mirror, he said, you can practically see that person’s confidence rise.
That feeling—along with the conversation and the camaraderie at 180v—is what keeps customers coming back.
Thomas compares it to the toy inside McDonald’s Happy Meals. “I honestly believe that McDonald’s key to success is the Happy Meal,” he said.
A lot of experts say McDonald’s does well because of its ability to pick great locations for its stores. But Thomas thinks McDonald’s relationships with its customers are just as important, and those usually start when customers are kids, getting excited over the toy inside their Happy Meal.
He wants his shop’s haircuts to create that same kind of joy. “My product, my haircut, is now that toy in the Happy Meal.”
Learn How to Build Systems
Thomas is 32, and believe it or not, he’s got 20 years of experience cutting hair. His first “client” was his brother. Though he’s still relatively young now, Thomas knows he’s eventually going to want a job where he’s not on his feet all day.
That’s why he’s working on creating his own barber school. He already does some in-salon training, and he’s produced an instructional DVD.
The school will teach students how to deliver terrific haircuts, and it’ll include a suite of business training that will let them become managers, develop their own branded products and launch their own shops—possibly under 180v franchise branding, creating another stream of revenue for Thomas.
He won’t be cutting hair anymore. He’ll be creating entrepreneurs.
“I can actually produce what I’d love to see: more people that are independent, self-sufficient, have an understanding of business and want to grow.”
Keep the Faith, and Keep Going
When Thomas went to sign the lease on his first shop at 39th and Indiana, there was gunfire during a robbery at the dollar store across the street. A few days later, his lead investor backed out, after Thomas and his fellow barbers had already given notice at their old jobs.
“It tore my life apart,” Thomas said. “I don’t think I ever stressed about something so crazy in my life.”
But he didn’t let those setbacks stop him. His faith in God, he said, has encouraged him to keep going. He’s trusted that things would work out, and they have.
Take the situation with the investor. Losing that capital hurt, but Thomas was able to find two used barber chairs, enough to get him in business for the first month. The shop soon made enough that he was able to go out and buy another chair.
“Every month, I bought a chair, and every month I started a new barber,” Thomas said. “Things just kind of started working out.”
Along the way, Thomas has done his best to give back. Every fall, his team hosts Fresh Cut Fresh Start, a daylong event where K-12 students can receive a free haircut and a backpack full of school supplies. In November, 180v hosts Turkey Tuesday, a 24-hour food drive that gathers frozen turkeys and other food so families in need can have a happy Thanksgiving.
By working with ScaleUP! Kansas City, Thomas hopes to develop skills and strategies that will let him keep building his business and his long-term legacy. He wants to “really create a brand that not only the community, but the nation can trust.”