Hot Barber was a website that let hair stylists set up profiles and customers browse portfolios, but the founders couldn't find a way to monetize it!
Hello Julia! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
Hi! I’m Julia, a 24-year-old web developer living in San Francisco. My co-founder, Eric, and I are working on an online video editor called Kapwing. We built and launched Kapwing about a month ago and are now growing it and developing new features.
What was Hot Barber about? Why did you build it?
We started Hot Barber to help people get cheaper, higher-value haircuts. I felt like I was overpaying for my salon in San Francisco, but I was also too afraid to risk going somewhere cheaper. Plus, it was hard for me to connect with a stylist who knew my hair type. Hot Barber was a website designed to connect customers with stylists without the salon middleman. We wanted to simplify the process of finding a great hairstylist with more visuals, more personalization, and an emphasis on affordability and showcase the awesome talent of up-and-coming stylists.
How did you build Hot Barber? How did you grow it?
Hot Barber is a simple website that lets hair stylists set up profiles and customers browse portfolios for the stylists they need. Since we were focused on affordability, we started by partnering with local cosmetology schools (with cold calls and emails) to built the initial supply. Our hypothesis was that, for some services, senior beauty school students could provide high-quality service for a fraction of a price of an elite salon. This turned out to be only partly true - students definitely need experience before they’re as capable as a professional stylist, but some students have experience before they start cosmo school.
We designed and developed an MVP ourselves and spent time at our cosmo school getting students onboard. Our plan was to launch a pilot with one beauty school and Facebook ADS to generate some demand, then move towards a beta with hundreds of students from all the schools in San Francisco.
Why did Hot Barber fail?
We didn’t have a short-term monetization strategy. At first, we thought that we could make Hot Barber a transactional site where customers reserved and paid for haircuts online. But, through interviews with domain experts, we realized that scheduling and payment processing are complex, decentralized problems and that the margins would be low since hairstylists have a personal relationship with their clients and many existing alternatives. We also had trouble getting enough stylists onto the platform.
So, we pivoted Hot Barber towards discovery - “Houzz for hair” - and planned to aggregate all existing data on the web about stylists to help people find a personalized match. But, like a blog, a discovery website doesn’t make money unless it attracts a lot of traffic, and we were worried that our runway would run out before we were able to make money on ads. So we paused the project and moved on to something new. We’re planning to shut down the Hot Barber website soon.
What were your biggest mistakes and disadvantages?
Our MVP wasn’t focused enough on a pressing user problem. From weeks of user interviews, it seemed that nearly everyone we talked to had a gripe about their hair experience, but the complaints were related to different issues: expense, booking, opaque pricing, quality, etc. We grouped all of these user needs together under the umbrella of “finding a good hair stylist,” but we should have been more focused on delivering a product that addressed one need very well instead of many needs halfway.
Also, we are first-time entrepreneurs, which makes it riskier (and scarier) to work on a project that won’t make money for a long time. I think that Hot Barber is doable if the founders raised venture capital at the onset or built and grew the website on the side while working a full-time job, but it wasn’t a good fit for us.
If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
I would have focused my efforts - user interviews, launch strategy, and product development - on the problem of discovering a local hair stylist rather than the whole experience of finding and getting an affordable haircut.
What did you learn?
I learned that my first startup needs to be something with a shorter term monetization strategy so that I can gain confidence in my own development and growth skills before risking several years and a lot of money. I also learned that marketplaces are hard and that I should focus on building something great for customers before trying to get suppliers on board.
What's your advice for someone who is just starting?
It’s easier to build a solution for a problem that is really pressing, something that people are already spending money on and/or searching for on Google. It’s also easier if you build a product either for people like you or for a domain you have expertise in. These are obvious pieces of advice, but Hot Barber failure definitely reinforce them for me.
Which business book would you recommend?
Where can we go to learn more?
You can check out the remains of the website and message me on Twitter to learn more. Our new website, Kapwing, helps people make short-form video for social media, and we officially made our first dollar a few weeks ago!