Ted Gibson and Jason Backe’s LA reinvention has turned the professional hair channel on its head with the launch of Starring. Closing their namesake 50+ employee, 20-chair salon in NYC, the duo headed West, drawn by the entrepreneurial and creative spirit of Los Angeles. Throwing the traditional playbook out the window, Gibson and Backe focused on the shift in consumer behavior and, avoiding the inherent pain points in the current salon paradigm, created a high-concept experiential salon and a channel-agnostic product launch. The result is a number of firsts. Leveraging the power of Amazon, Gibson and Backe embraced the reach and technology of the mega-retailer for their self-funded reinvention.
Phase one was the launch of Starring product exclusively on Amazon, and a methodical rollout with Violet Grey and a handful of salons and pharmacies. Phase two is the first smart salon Starring by Ted Gibson, which had a soft opening on March 5. BeautyMatter caught up with Gibson to chat about the path to reinvention and plans for the future.
You had one of the top salons in New York for 13 years. What precipitated closing the Flatiron salon?
We had 50+ employees, over $20,000 rent and 20 chairs. We felt that model was a dying model. It was outdated and stale. The very thing that originally inspired us, became the very thing that was making us miserable in the end. It felt like a ball and chain. As creatives, we need to be inspired. We also noticed that with the onset of social influencers, some stylists didn’t need to work in big-name salons to be successful anymore. The digital and social landscape was changing hair dressers’ thought processes.
After living for 20 years in New York, you packed up and moved to Los Angeles. Why?
We accomplished everything we wanted to do in NYC. We had salons in three major cities, in 3 different states, a successful product line that was sold in Henri Bendel, Saks, Sephora, and Target. We married for the second time. Everything we wanted to do, we did. After we closed our Fifth Avenue salon, we looked at each other and said, “What are we doing in NYC?” There was nothing left there for us. We were driving home from dinner in Manhattan one night and on one block there was a Duane Reade, a Starbucks, and two banks. We realized that NYC had changed from an island of creative energy to a banking and real estate town. Los Angeles seemed like a golden opportunity for entrepreneurs and creatives. We wanted to reinvent ourselves, and LA had the right creative energy that we wanted to be a part of.
How has the salon industry changed since you opened your first salon and launched your first product line?
The industry has changed so much. There was a time where there were only a few key players in the fashion, editorial, and salon business. If you did Vogue, you didn’t do Harper’s Bazaar. If you did Harper’s Bazaar, you didn’t do ELLE. After 2008, we had to do everything. Then, there was the onset of social, which leveled the playing field. When we first opened our salon, the trend was MEGA salons—Fekkai for example, had three floors in the Chanel building. We opened what was considered to be a boutique in an untapped neighborhood. Now that size salon seems like a monster to us. Today’s client can go on an app to have her needs met. Now to get her to leave home to have her hair done really requires something special!
Did you have the intention of opening a salon and launching a product range when you made the move?
We weren’t sure which way we wanted to go. We didn’t want to retire, although we could have. We still had a lot of creative energy inside of us. We said we would never open another salon, it was the last thing we thought we would do, but we felt like our brand loves the salon! We also discovered we really love a project. We kept it a secret at first, because we didn’t know what we wanted to do or who we wanted to be.
You launched a new hair care brand first exclusively with Amazon, which was an interesting choice. How did that come about?
Yes, it was a conscious and disruptive decision, for sure. We had a conversation with Amazon about what their plan was for beauty. We told them that we have this idea. We want to launch one SKU and we want to launch it with you.
Why did you decide Amazon was the right launch partner?
It made sense. We are the FIRST professional luxury haircare to launch exclusively on Amazon. For us it made sense because everyone shops on Amazon and salons are not selling retail in salon like they used to. We were really frustrated with the traditional salon retail model. In that model the small business owner has to buy in to a relationship with huge opening order and monthly commitments. In our previous salons, we had tens of thousands of dollars sitting on the shelf waiting for someone to sell it who doesn’t want to sell it (the hairdresser) and for someone to buy it who doesn’t want to buy it in that environment anymore (the client). Our thought was to set a new example. Nowadays in the salon environment, when you tell clients about a product, they immediately take out their phones and go to Amazon to purchase it. This is why we went directly to Amazon.
Will you expand distribution beyond Amazon and, if so, what will that look like?
Yes we are! Right now we are in a few salons around the country, a few pharmacies. We just launched on Violet Grey and we are looking for other retail partners, as well.
You had one of the most successful salons in Manhattan. Why did you walk away from the traditional salon model this time?
Statistics state that over 50% of woman view going to the salon just like going to the dentist—it’s just not the best experience anymore. So if we opened a new salon, we knew it had to be an experience. Women have so many options to have their hair done. The salon used to be the only place. To get a women to leave her house to have her hair done, she is looking for an experience. That’s how we came up with Starring. The salon is a spacious, 1,100-square-foot open floor plan salon features individual pods known as clouds, instead of traditional stylist chairs, backed by state-of-the-art Amazon technology to provide an unprecedented client experience that is unlike any other currently offered.
Each cloud offers different ambient lighting options like “Everyday Sunshine,” “Moonlight,” and “Indoors,” to view hair color and styles in various light and ambiance settings. Additionally, each individual cloud features an Amazon Fire Tablet, Amazon Prime Video application, and Sonos speakers for truly personalized entertainment programming and music options. The salon itself is entirely voice activated through Amazon Alexa, and a state-of-the-art entertainment lounge welcomes guests instead of a traditional salon waiting area.
What exactly is a technology-driven salon? What inspired the vision?
The salon is powered by Alexa and Amazon. We know the guest experience in most salons is lackluster. We know the power of social media. We wanted to change the traditional salon model that hasn’t been updated in a long time. We wanted to create a unique experience that balances the fine line of drawing in the 20-something influencers and the 40+ ladies who want luxury and will pay for it. With this salon concept, we can capture both. It is tech and luxury combined. We are visionaries, and Starring is our vision—the first smart salon in the world.
Retail is an important part of a successful salon equation. Can you explain how your partnership with Amazon has allowed you to reinvent salon retail?
We believe that women don’t really buy retail in the salon like they used to, and hairdressers are not salespeople. So with this thought we wanted to essentially change that dynamic. We know consumers are shopping online, sometimes to look for it cheaper, but also looking for convenience. We wanted to translate this to the salon retail game. We wanted to be the first to have this model. With Amazon Associates each person working in the salon can have their own storefront on Amazon. They can curate their own list of favorite products on the page and then instruct the client to shop the link. Amazon pays a commission to the Associate and the salon owner isn’t warehousing product for the manufacturer. And everything has a QR code, the client experiences the product, she likes it, she pulls out her phone and camera, it takes her right to the shopping cart where the product is sold online. Talk about convenience.
Partnering with Amazon probably offset some of the start-up costs, but launching a product line and opening a high-tech salon is a costly proposition. How did you fund the venture?
Jason and I funded everything. Our goal is to have Starring Salon Concepts in major cities in the world where Amazon does business. Which also encompasses a product line of 10 SKUs that round out the concept. We know this takes dollars to do this. We are looking for investors that are interested in taking our concept global. We are true entrepreneurs in the sense that we have an idea, we manifest it and self-fund it. We have a habit of betting the farm on our ideas.
I know you’ve just launched a product line and opened a new salon, but what’s next in the Starring world?
The great thing about being an entrepreneur is creating. I still work on the most beautiful women in the world: Priyanka Chopra, Sandra Oh, Lupita Nyongo, Melissa McCarthy, Keri Russell, Rachel Brosnahan, and Kate Walsh. Our plan is to launch two more products this year and expand our distribution.
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