Building a Brand In-House Without Losing Your Shirt

We spoke to Birds Barbershop co-founder, Michael Portman, to talk about how Birds became a local favorite and national smash in just five years.

Honestly, I was hesitant to step into Birds Barbershop. I thought it was gimmicky.  Free Lonestars while I’m getting my hair cut? Suspiciously low prices? Hipsters? But I went in, and over a year later I’m still getting my hair cut there by the same talented woman who cut it the first time. I now fully understand why Birds has been named the Austin Chronicle‘s “Best Barbershop” every year since 2006 and one of the top 100 salons in America by Elle magazine.

When I finally spoke to Birds co-founder, Michael Portman, to talk about his success, I found his attitude about the business to be delightfully familiar. It’s palpable during every part of the Birds hair cut experience.

The most surprising thing to learn about Birds might be that they “do it all in-house and don’t outsource anything,” according to Portman, who has served as writer/advisor to Vicente Fox, editor in chief of a multi-million dollar PR agency, and communications director for Disneyland. “We’re like a little ad agency at Birds, and there are surprisingly few people doing what we do.”

What catapulted Birds from local startup to major success? Read Portman’s tips below to find out.

6 Tips for Business Success from Michael Portman:

1.    “Co- everything”: No one person knows everything. Side with people who complement your strengths.

We don’t have any “know-it-alls” here. I co-own the business with my business partner, Jayson Rapaport. We complement each other in a lot of ways. Hair is usually a drama-prone business. It doesn’t have to be. We have a great team working for us.

2.    Ideas are free. The trick is finding that great idea that is so obviously, simply, correctly the answer that there is no alternative.

We started Birds Barbershop because it needed to exist and didn’t. Birds is in the “needs” business, not the “wants” business. We cut out all the fluff. There’s a lot of largess and mystery in the hair business. We take the Jet Blue approach. Make your customers comfortable, not like they’re in a strange place they don’t understand—which is what most hair salons feel like.

3.    If it doesn’t sell itself, don’t do it.

Birds $19 shortcut comes with a free beer and a super pro cut. Verb is Birds $11 version of American Crew, which sells for $17. In the industry, getting 5% of your customers to buy hair product is standard. Why settle for that? Make everyone want to buy your product. Offer maximum quality at minimum cost.

Lonestar: We stocked it in the store because we liked it. That eventually led to a partnership with the brand and direct supply of the product.

Our niche: The person who thinks, “I don’t have time for an appointment. I don’t want extras. I don’t want sprinkles, just the brownie. I don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard. I just want a decent haircut at a decent price.”

4.    Everyone tries local once, but they only return if you can deliver on the big guy’s level.

If you’re local, you have an advantage over a large chain. You’re part of your community and know what it wants. You have to be living the community experience to know and sell to your customer.

The biggest thing to remember is that “being local” is part of what makes you exceptional. It’s not everything. Once you’ve got people’s attention and trust, you’ve got to deliver. Your customer demands value, so give it to them.

5.    Authenticity counts now more than ever.

Nowadays, people don’t walk in the door unless their friend has recommended it. Be conscious about your customer, and be authentic.  My customers appreciate me climbing a pole at a rock club and putting a sticker on it more than paying for an ad in the newspaper.

6.    Force yourself to sit down and listen to people.

Coming from a creative background, I respect creativity in colleagues and employees. We have a small group that sits down to brainstorm ideas regularly. We take the best ideas, the ones that feel right, and do them. (An example is this year to celebrate Cinco de Mayo—and our five-year anniversary on May 16—we came up with “Birds Barbershots” and got a tequila vendor on board.)

Don’t do a zillion ideas just to be able to post on Twitter about it. If you’ve hit on an idea and everyone in the room has a happy face and is high-fiving each other, go with that idea!

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