Jason Backe (left) and Ted Gibson.
Ted Gibson (right) with husband and business partner, Jason Backe. — Ted Gibson

Entrepreneurial tips from celebrity stylist Ted Gibson on running a healthy business:

  • Stay ahead of industry trends so your business is positioned to both follow market growth and pivot away from down-trending pockets of business.
  • Listen to experts on areas beyond your core competency — from seasoned public relations executives to lawyers and accountants — when making key business decisions.
  • Integrate technology to mirror consumers’ new convenience expectations: For example, Ted Gibson’s new “smart salon” enables customers to book an appointment and pay by app.

Celebrity stylist Ted Gibson’s haircuts command $2,400 a pop at his Los Angeles salon on La Brea Avenue.

He has coiffed the manes of actress clients including Lupita Nyong’o and Melissa McCarthy; gained TV fame as the hair makeover impresario on TLC’s “What Not To Wear”; and hustled his brand into 1,000-plus retail doors with an eponymous beauty collection that sold at stores from Target to Saks. The independent hairdresser has built a multimillion-dollar enterprise — without a dime of funding.

Along the way, Gibson has learned a thing or two about building (and reinventing) a business in a beauty industry that has undergone its own makeover many times over: He’s navigated the heady days when celebrity stylists reigned supreme, only to then cede the spotlight to influencers, just as Amazon and chains like Ulta Beauty stormed his turf, selling professional hair care products at a fraction of the salon price.

Gibson, who is African American, has bootstrapped his business because he’s had to: Despite celeb clients, a network series, national retail partners and editorial spreads in Vogue to Vanity Fair, funding remained elusive, he told CO—.

He’s not alone. As of August 2020, Black and Latino entrepreneurs received a mere 2.6% of the funding that went to all founders last year, according to a Crunchbase diversity report.

Yet Gibson has powered on. Amid his latest reinvention helming Starring by Ted Gibson, a tech-driven, Amazon-enabled “smart salon” designed to meet the changing demands of a digital-first beauty customer and the rise of in-home haircuts from new players like GlamSquad, he’s now intent on paying it forward via the Worth-Up Alliance.

The alliance, the brainchild of Gibson and his husband, business partner and colorist Jason Backe, launched last year as the pandemic devastated salons and barber shops around the country.

It aims to jump-start the careers of next gen “beauty-preneuers” from underrepresented groups (90% are women and people of color) by summoning the wisdom of industry veterans via mentoring and practical business education, and by investing in them with startup capital grants. “We want them to be successful,” Gibson said. “My dad joined the army so that he didn’t have to pick cotton anymore. We want them to have the same kind of life that we’ve had.”

Here, Gibson pulls the curtain back on the game-changing moments and strategic moves that sent his business soaring, from picking the right name (his) to landing celebrity clients. He also reveals insights from some hard lessons learned, like the ill-fated rollout of his product line to Target, and shares why late comedian Joan Rivers’ comeback story inspires his own ever-evolving entrepreneurship in a post-pandemic beauty sector.

[Read here on the pros and cons of bootstrapping your business.]

Game-changing moment: What’s in a name? A whole lot

Back in 2002, Gibson and Backe thought they’d hit on the perfect name for their new business: Fame.

Today they feel lucky that Nancy Berhman, the public relations veteran who’s helped build beauty brands and counts Kiehl’s, Burt’s Bees and Ulta Beauty among her firm’s clients, intervened. “She said, ‘That’s a terrible name,’” Gibson remembered.

Monetizing the moment: They took Berhrman’s advice, simply naming the business Ted Gibson, forever linking the stylist’s name to his growing brand. “It was the moment that we decided to have the brand Ted Gibson, and to make the distinction between the man and the brand,” Gibson said.

Insider takeaway: “Don’t be afraid of an opportunity,” Gibson said.

We want to create a better way for people to live their lives as the next generation of beauty entrepreneurs.

Ted Gibson, celebrity hairstylist and co-owner of salon Starring by Ted Gibson

Game-changing moment: ‘I’m not a celebrity hairdresser’

In 2003, Marie Claire came calling. The magazine wanted Gibson to do Angelina Jolie’s hair for a photo shoot. He almost turned it down, figuring, “I’m not a celebrity hairdresser,” Gibson said, who considered himself a fashion hairstylist because along with his peers, “we created the trends during fashion weeks in Milan, London and Paris.”

Monetizing the moment: Saying ‘yes’ — instead of ‘no’ — to Angelina Jolie. Gibson eventually changed his mind, and after the shoot, the calls came rushing in from stars including Gabrielle Union, Renee Zellweger and Debra Messing. “They were all asking, ’Who is doing Angie’s hair?’” he said. “The salon was packed after that.” Photo shoots with iconic French fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier for magazines like Cosmopolitan followed. That led to “What Not to Wear,” which brought Gibson into consumers’ homes nationwide.

Insider takeaway: Gibson expanded his vision of what he could be, which “changed my life and changed my career,” he said. “It turned my name into a brand name.”

Game-changing moment: Cracking big retail in 1,000 retail doors from Saks to Target — and losing big, too

In 2005, Gibson started to penetrate national retail with his first product line. Over the next few years, Ted Gibson hair care, body care and candles reached the shelves of 200-plus Sephora, Saks and Bendel stores — and entered 1,000 Target doors. Landing big retail is a beauty entrepreneur’s dream, offering the promise of unprecedented scale. But the Target rollout didn’t go well.

As Ted Gibson the brand couldn’t go it alone fulfilling orders for 1,000 Target doors, it partnered with a manufacturer to do just that. “We took on a partner that was supposed to be an investor, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Gibson said. “We licensed the name Ted Gibson to a company that we formed together with the partner,” losing the rights to his name in the process. “We went with the wrong partner.”

Monetizing the moment: After “four years of fighting,” Gibson won the rights back to the use of his name on January 15, 2013, fortuitously, on Backe’s birthday, he said.

Insider takeaway: “You want to listen to the people who are your lawyers, accountants, etc.,” Gibson said.

[Read here on hiring when scaling a business.]

Game-changing moment: Gibson spots customers at his Manhattan salon shopping Amazon, signaling a shifting beauty market and the rise of influencers

Around 2015, Gibson started to notice a trend at his Fifth Avenue Manhattan salon. Following a cut and style, customers whipped out their phones. “We had a 24-foot wall with $20,000 worth of products on the shelf,” he recalled. Surveying the goods, the customer “would go to [their] shopping cart on Amazon” and buy the items there instead.

The moment was emblematic of a changing industry that went beyond showrooming, when consumers browse a physical store for an item only to buy the product online for less.

As “professional” salon product became commodified online, Gibson saw the bigger writing on the wall. For one, selling salon product ran counter to the way consumers were shopping. “The Amazons, Sephoras and Ultas, even eBay, for professional product are more convenient to her,” he said.

Meanwhile, “between 2013 and 2018, social started to happen,” Gibson said.

Younger consumers increasingly turned to influencers on YouTube, for one, for inspiration and beauty expertise.

Amid the surge of e-commerce and rise of Instagram-birthed influencers, the heyday of the celebrity hairdresser had passed. Photo studios once paid stylists big money to coif A-list stars for the Academy Awards or a fashion spread in Vogue. “Just like [supermodel] Linda Evangelista said she wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day, hairdressers commanded that kind of money too,” Gibson said. But that money dried up.

The rise of the digital era and influencer culture “actually changed what it meant to be a celebrity stylist,” Gibson said. Before, “there were only a few of us that did everything. Then with the onset of influencers, there were more of them and cheaper because it became about economics, not about talent and loyalty,” he said.

Today, “it’s got to be about convenience versus listening to an expert,” Gibson said. Beauty consumers today are also turning to tech-platforms like Glamsquad for on-demand, in-home haircuts.

Monetizing the moment: Walking away from what ‘was making us the most rich and the most famous.' So, while Gibson’s business was still hot and profitable, he shuttered his New York salon after a 13-year run to start all over again on the West Coast. Eager to take part in a burgeoning beauty era, “We knew influencers lived in Los Angeles, not New York, so we sold our Manhattan apartment in the West Village and house in Phoenicia, New York to [ready the launch of] Starring by Ted Gibson,” he said, what he dubs “the salon of the future.”

Insider takeaway: Know thy industry. Gibson stayed a step ahead of industry trends, pivoting his model to follow market growth, while abandoning down-trending pockets of business, like salon-sold products. “We walked away from the thing that was making us the most rich and the most famous to plant the seeds for something else,” Backe said. “Sometimes you have to let go of the good to make room for the better.”

 Interior of Starring by Ted Gibson salon.
Starring by Ted Gibson is a tech-driven, Amazon-enabled “smart salon” designed to meet the changing demands of a digital-first beauty customer. — Ted Gibson

Game-changing moment: Summoning a Joan Rivers-style comeback

Joan Rivers’ comeback is a source of inspiration for Gibson. After the comedian was allegedly blacklisted in Hollywood for invoking the ire of talk show icon Johnny Carson, Gibson watched as her humility, work ethic and doggedness led to her late-career boom. “She decided to open every single door,” Gibson said. “Selling nail polish on QVC led to ‘Live From the Red Carpet’ and ‘Fashion Police,’” he said. “It changed her career.”

Monetizing the moment: Enmeshed in another reinvention of sorts, Gibson and Backe are now having their own Joan Rivers moment.

Starring by Ted Gibson, the Los Angeles-based salon that opened 11 months before COVID hit, speaks to what beauty consumers want today, he says. The “smart salon” enables customers to schedule and pay for appointments by app “like you would book a ride share,” featuring private pods known as clouds, in lieu of traditional stylist stations and chairs, Gibson said. “We were social distanced before it was mandatory and thought about. In the cloud you have your individual service—cut, color, extensions.” Each cloud is outfitted with Amazon technology to provide a personalized client experience, and each cloud includes LED light strips, so “you can customize your experience even further by light therapy, with 11 programmed lights for checking hair color and enhancing your mood,” he said.

As for influencers, “We invite them into Starring by Ted Gibson, I do photo shoots with them and they use our product,” he said.

Gibson has also set out to disrupt the traditional distribution model for beauty products. In 2018, for example, he launched the Starring by Ted Gibson’s Shooting Star Texture Meringue hair care line exclusively on Amazon. “We were the first luxury, professional hair care company to launch directly on Amazon,” Gibson said. “That’s what we did instead of going with the traditional distribution model because times have changed.”

Indeed, they have: E-commerce sales in the U.S. prestige beauty industry have nearly doubled from 2019 to 2021, according to figures provided to CO— by the NPD Group. From January 2021 to May 2021, prestige beauty generated $2.4 billion in e-commerce sales, up from $1.5 billion in the January to May 2019 period.

Insider takeaway: As Gibson sees it, the strategy bottles the future of the beauty industry.

It’s an industry he wants to demystify for would-be entrepreneurs via Worth-Up, a program that’s akin to in-person Master Classes (for $9.99 a month) from industry insiders, offering real-life stories on writing a business plan to navigating funding inequities.

Gibson and Backe know of what they speak. “We did the dog-and-pony show a million times for investors, and we never received funding,” Backe said. “It’s not lost on us that we’re a mixed gay couple.”

The idea now, they said, is to nurture up-and-coming stylists that might not have had a fighting chance otherwise. “We want to create a better way for people to live their lives as the next generation of beauty entrepreneurs,” Gibson said.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published July 26, 2021