Any woman will tell you that she expects to walk out of a hair salon feeling prettier and more confident than when she walked in. But that’s not the case for many women of color. Stylists who are not trained to handle textured hair may say they can fulfill a client’s expectations, only to send her away with damaged locks.
Such unhappy outcomes are what inspired Jihan Thompson, a former magazine editor, and her business partner, Jennifer Lambert, a former corporate lawyer, to create Swivel, an app that makes it easy for women to make appointments with stylists who specialize in their hair types.
Launched in 2016 with Thompson’s and Lambert’s savings, Swivel currently caters to customers in New York City and Washington, D.C. But thanks to its successful revenue model (Swivel takes a small cut of fees for services it books), and enthusiastic demand, the founders plan to expand nationwide. How did they know their little side hustle business had what it took to go big? Here, Thompson shares her ingredients for a successful company, and why she believes anyone can start one.
FROM DISSATISFIED CUSTOMER TO APP MAKER
I got the entrepreneurial bug while I was editing work and money stories for Redbook. I would talk to entrepreneurs all day long and ask them how they got the courage to take the leap. I started to notice a theme: These women didn’t have something that I didn’t have. They just decided to create what they wanted to see in the world, and that really inspired me.
At the time, there were all these beauty innovations happening. New tech was connecting women with hairstylists and blow dry bars, but I often felt like, “Gosh, I would love this, but it isn’t for me.” I have super thick hair, which I had been chemically treating for years and had just started growing out naturally. I can’t just walk into a salon and get it blown out. I have to have a stylist who knows how to work with kinky hair. It’s the same issue a lot of my friends have.
“We both felt like this was such an overlooked opportunity for women of color that someone was going to do it. And we thought, why not us?”
So one day — not long after a particularly bad experience, where a stylist mangled my hair right before I had to do a TV appearance — I started thinking like an entrepreneur. I said to my longtime friend Jennifer, who was a corporate lawyer in New York: “Wouldn’t it be great to have an app to find skilled stylists for our hair?” She agreed. We both felt like this was such an overlooked opportunity for women of color that someone was going to do it. So we thought, why not us?
We started side hustling at first to make it happen, working on the idea nights and weekends. I’m a big proponent of side hustling. You do not need to quit your job just because you have an amazing business idea. There are a lot of things you can do to prepare — and saving is one of them. Plan for how you’re going to pay for your business expenses, and how your lifestyle may change once you decide to do this full time. Before we left our full time jobs to work on Swivel, Jennifer and I spent many nights and weekends putting together a business plan and talking to women and stylists to make sure there was a real demand. It quickly became very clear that there was! On the one hand, we had women saying, “How can I find the right stylist for me?” And on the other, we had countless stylists saying, “How do I let people know I’m out there?” So it was about bridging the gap and bringing these two sides together.
As important as it is to get feedback on your business idea, it’s more important to know that you’re never going to feel ready. You have to go out a little on faith. Is your idea worth the risk? Does your gut tell you that you need to do this? That you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t? My aha moment was when I realized that if I didn’t do this and someone else did, I would use the service and then be really mad that it wasn’t me who created it.