Small business stories: Abigail Butler, Strictly Xtended

Starting up

21 April 2022

Starting your own business takes passion, hard work and dedication. But it also takes time to make it the success you know it can be.

That’s one of the biggest lessons Abigail Butler – owner of the Strictly Xtended salon in Bishop’s Stortford – has learned in her 13 years in the hairdressing industry. She’s grown her business from cutting hair in people’s homes to owning her own beauty salon, adding to her skillset along the way.

Here, Abigail talks to AXA about how she maintains customer loyalty, the best business advice she’s ever received and why it’s important to take your time when building your business.

Hi Abigail. Tell us a bit about how you got started.

I’ve always had a passion for hairdressing. From the age of eight I always knew that hair fascinated me. When I left school I used to do wigs and hair pieces for family members, and I knew this was something I wanted to move towards.

I actually started off as a mobile service, driving round to clients in their houses. But when I was working mobile I was travelling quite far to see my clients. I realised that by taking half an hour there and half an hour back I was missing out on the opportunity to fit more customers into that day. I wanted to give more of a tailored service to my clients, and I couldn’t really do that mobile. So, I opened a salon.

I started in 2009 and opened the first salon in 2014 in a little industrial area. It wasn’t really what I wanted but I needed to start somewhere. And it meant I was able to offer more services. I wanted to give clients a more total package and a full experience, rather than just one service. And that’s where we are today with Strictly Xtended. We moved into our new salon two years ago and to see the transition from starting out so small, doing mobile hairdressing, then the progression from my first salon and now to this place has been amazing.

Was launching a 'high-street' style salon always the eventual plan?

I felt like starting up as a mobile hairdresser was just the easiest way to build myself up and get to the point where I could run my own salon and understand the business side of things. I needed to build myself up to get to the point where I thought: ‘ok, I can run this business, I know my profits, my loss, my cashflow’. Because initially it was just me doing people’s hair. That’s totally different from running a business. So, I kept it quite small at first, my costs were low, and I was able to train myself to understand the business side of it. I’m still learning though!

What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

The best thing about being your own boss is that what you put in is what you get out. I like the fact that when I’m working really hard I’m doing it for me and my family and to improve their lives.

I do believe we should have a balanced life between our work and our personal lives. I want people to live their best lives. We need a better quality of life. And being your own boss means you can set that culture and you can push people, help them grow and develop.

Biggest challenge in running your own business?

The biggest challenge is that it all falls on you. You have your team around you but at the end of the day, the business is your baby. 

There’s no holiday pay; you need to show up. And with a job like hairdressing you need to ride the waves. Everyone thinks that because I have a shop it automatically means that everything is going amazing all the time. It’s not always like that. It’s a lot of hard work and sleepless nights. It can be stressful. You start from the bottom and you graft and sometimes you think ‘is it worth it?’. But it is worth it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

How do you handle the stress that comes with running your own business?

I meditate. And I constantly remind myself that this is business, it’s not personal. So, I take myself out of it through meditation.

You specialise in hair extensions. Do you think that having a specialty like that helps you stand out from your competitors?

Hairdressing is a competitive market. Years ago, it used to be quite niche for us to specialise in extensions, but more recently it’s become saturated with more and more people coming through. And a lot of the newer businesses might not have the experience we do, they might not have the qualifications. Maybe they learned their skills from YouTube, for example. So, the way we stand out is through our professionalism, our experience. I’ve been doing extensions since I was 16, so there’s a lot I’ve learned. Experience does carry you through.

Are you self-taught or did you train under someone?

I’m a qualified hairdresser. I’ve always built my skillset. When I first started, I knew how to do weaves and wigs because it’s in my culture, but I built on that and went on training and courses to learn different methods and to get more qualified professionally.

I definitely think it helps to have that qualification behind me. When your skills have been assessed professionally it gives you a more well-rounded skillset.

I take it you have a lot of regular clients and return customers – how do you keep your customers happy?

A lot of my clients have been with me since I was doing the mobile service, so they’ve been on this journey with me, which is beautiful.

My tips to keep customers happy would be to put them first, definitely. Be honest with your customers. If you can’t do something, be honest and tell them that. It’s so important that you let clients know that you want them to be the best version of themselves.

It’s a very people-centric job. And you need to make sure your customers know that you don’t want them walking out of your shop looking bad. You want the best for them.

What do you look for in employees/how do you know they're the right fit?

It can be hard to find staff and to retain them. I tend to look for apprentices because I like having younger people come in and you get to mould them and teach them from the ground up. So, it tends to be a lot of students. But trying to retain staff is quite tricky, especially when you’re trying to grow the business.

Hairdressers can do a lot of different tasks, from the actual care of hair to the customer service aspect. Are there some skills that come more naturally to you than others?

I’m a people person through and through. I’m quite altruistic. I naturally like to help people. And as a hairdresser you naturally want to make someone feel good and look their best. You love to talk to people, it’s a very customer-focused job. So, I remember everything about my clients. Hairdressers are a caring people, so it comes quite naturally.

That connection with customers can have a drawback on your business though, because you still have to remember that this is business. You have to be able to step back, not take things personally. You need to find the point where the personal ends and the professionalism comes in. This is business.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a hairdresser or stylist?

Master your trade and be kind to yourself. I think everyone who starts their own business has this entrepreneurial drive to push themselves. And it’s ok to push yourself but take your time. Everything happens in time. The world wasn’t built in a day, so do it properly. Don’t jump steps. Take your time, do the work, don’t take shortcuts. Master your trade.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

Charge your worth. Believe in what you’re doing, know the service you provide and charge what you believe is right. It’s a shame because in this industry, people are closing because we can be so eager to please and so nice to our clients that we’re selling ourselves short and not charging what we should be. But if you treat every customer like a friend, you’re not running a business and you’ll find yourself out of pocket. Take care of yourself first.

What’s next for you and your business?

For Strictly Xtended I’d love to build a franchise business model. I’d love for us to be known as the specialists in our field across the country. I’d love to have my own product line to go along with the brand. I’m also at the first stages of training to be a trichologist. I want to be an expert in hair and I think that goes hand in hand with what we offer. So, I want to see more Strictly Xtended salons around and I want us to be the experts in what we do.

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