Building a great business often starts with a big dream, but it never ends there. Success also requires securing the right team and honing a clear vision. Many entrepreneurs who’ve built empires realize the value of focusing their energy on what only they can do and finding the best people to do what they can’t. But no one exemplifies that vision more than the subject of today’s Storytime Tuesday, Alli Webb, the founder of Drybar, the nation’s premier blow dry bar specializing in just blowouts, no cuts, no color!
Alli Webb’s blowout success story began where most people’s business stories start–at home with her family. Key players on the right team already surrounded Alli since they were related by blood or by marriage. Her brother, Michael Landau, was a successful business executive, and her husband, Cameron Webb, was an experienced advertiser. Although Michael and Cameron both lacked something essential to a blowout salon–hair–the two men also brought critical business and creative pieces to the puzzle when Alli first expressed her idea.
After a rocky start in 2010, Alli’s dry salon now boasts more than 125 locations with 4,000 stylists and is set to close above $100 million in revenue this year. Even among the array of successful small-businesses-that-made-it-big narratives, Alli’s story stands out. How does one person come so far in so little time? The answer, of course, is that one person doesn’t. It takes the right team focused on the right vision.
Here’s how Alli achieved her big business dream.
How It All Got Started
Like a lot of folks, Alli floundered after high school. College wasn’t her thing, but she thought fashion might be. That led to a move to New York where her older brother Michael Landau worked in Nicole Miller’s corporate office. The two siblings, already close, decided to open Nicole Miller shops and run them as a team closer to their home in South Florida. It didn’t work.
Alli was managing people–not her strongest gift–while Michael did backend office work and played golf. She and Michael parted ways rather than fray their tight bond. With Michael’s approval, Alli attended beauty school, returned to New York, and started working in salons.
There, she met her husband Cameron, an advertising executive. Alli followed Cameron to Los Angeles, had two children, and settled into life as a stay-at-home mom. After about five years, it felt like time to return to the work world. But being Alli, she couldn’t just show up at a local office and snag a job like many back-to-work moms do. Her family had instilled an entrepreneurial bent, and she knew she had a solid idea.
Remember the days when your grandmother and her friends went to the salon to get their hair “done” and then they left it alone for a week? What if you could do that with a modern twist? Before 2010, young women had to visit a chain salon to get a blowout, something few stylists wanted to do since the procedure paid far less than a shampoo and cut. But Alli knew if she could give the right experience in the right location, she could build herself a tidy little business to run before picking up her kids from preschool. The dream began as a small one.
But Alli had the right team to launch something bigger.
The First Team
To build her core leadership group, Alli turned to the people she knew best–Cameron and Michael. Her creative husband brought advertising experience, and her brother was a seasoned business leader. It wasn’t an easy sell, however. Not only were both men bald and therefore unable to appreciate blowouts, but also neither of them initially saw her idea as one with mammoth success potential.
So Alli began by traveling to friends’ houses and giving them blowouts for $40. Cameron created a website. Alli posted the link to her Yahoo mommy group. Demand for her mobile blowout salon soon grew. It was time to get Michael involved.
“Michael wasn’t 100 percent sold,” Alli later told Lindsay Blakely, Managing Editor at Inc.com, “but he said he wanted to back me. Our parents, knowing what happened with the Nicole Miller stores, said, ‘You guys are out of your … minds. You should not be working together.’ But this time, it was my idea. He understood business in a way I didn’t.”
Humility Is A Virtue
Alli’s humility, knowing what she didn’t know, gave her the freedom to hire the best person she knew to help co-found her business. She also secured a $250,000 investment from her brother. Without Michael’s support, Alli might indeed be a one-store business owner.
In fact, in an interview with Gary Vee, Alli admitted that at the beginning she still wasn’t even dreaming beyond one store–a single brick-and-mortar location in Los Angeles where women could come for quality blowouts in a fun, welcoming atmosphere that would be as much about the experience as the product. Alli didn’t want to get into cuts, colors, curls, or other traditional salon offerings.
If she was going to succeed, she knew, she would have to stand out. And no business ever stood out by being the same as everyone else. “Do one thing,” Alli told Gary in their interview, “and do it well. That’s my concept.”
With Michael’s partnership and Cameron’s support, Alli took her one thing to the next level.
A Blowout Of An Expansion
The first Drybar location opened in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles in 2010. At the Grand Opening, a line formed out the door. While Alli had expected to do 40 blowouts that day, she ended up performing 80 of them. For the next six months, an ever expanding wave of customers kept Alli hiring new stylists as fast as she could.
While the rapid growth felt exciting, Michael knew that he and Alli had to expand their reach or risk getting sidelined when a richer, faster-moving company saw Drybar’s success and copied it.
At first, the brother and sister team expanded through a franchise model. Today, out of 125 stores, about 40 are franchised, and the rest are company owned. Soon, however, Michael and Alli decided that wasn’t the best approach for them. They started looking for venture funders willing to invest in Drybar. Most people just didn’t see the potential in what looked like a glorified hair stylist with a blowdryer, but one company did. Castanea Partners poured $16 million into Alli’s concept.
The dream just got a whole lot bigger.
Moving Outside The Family
With such a huge investment at stake, Castanea Partners sat Michael and Alli down for a hard conversation. The investors knew that the two siblings had never run a huge company. It was time, they told Michael and Alli, to bring in a professional CEO. Showing the same humility Alli had when she brought him on, Michael agreed that he needed to make room for a replacement.
Drybar couldn’t grow to its potential and stay a family business forever. So, the siblings told Castanea Partners to send them a CEO.
John Heffner was not what Alli had in mind, however. Tall and corporate looking, Heffner seemed to embody every stereotype Alli was fighting against. She didn’t want her dream company reconfigured by a man in a starched shirt. In 20 minutes, Heffner transformed Alli’s outlook. Unlike the other CEO candidates Castanea sent her way, Heffner didn’t want to alter the company or turn it into a traditional beauty-industry behemoth. Neither did he want Alli and Michael to stand aside.
“I remember him making this analogy of me, Michael, and him being a three-legged stool. Without the three of us, everything falls apart. I was like, ‘That’s a good one,'” Webb told Business Insider. Since coming on board as CEO in 2013, Heffner has left the company’s culture and values alone while focusing on management and his core responsibilities.
That could be the secret to Drybar’s success. Like a good business founder, an effective leader knows what they can’t do as well as what they can so they stick to their niche.
Filling A Niche
Nearly a decade after its founding, Drybar still announces proudly that it doesn’t do cuts or colors, just blowouts. It’s the classic tale that entrepreneurs everywhere love to tell–a single, simple idea with a clever twist that made it big.
And entrepreneurship apparently ran unnoticed through Alli’s DNA. Although her parents were entrepreneurs, Alli didn’t grow up with an entrepreneurial bent. She laughingly tells interviewers now that her parents probably thought of her as the family’s underachiever.
But Alli had one important thing going for her–frizzy hair. Her naturally wavy locks turned frizzy in south Florida’s muggy heat. So she became an overachiever at blow drying her hair. That meant she understood how hard it was to get a blowout experience that left women both looking great and feeling great.
Top-of-the-line shops could offer a fun, rewarding blowout that looked fabulous, but they also charged top prices that most women couldn’t afford. Chain locations, on the other hand, while less expensive, also offered a less glamorous look and feel. Alli wanted to bring top-shelf blowouts to market where she could charge affordable prices. It was an idea with a great team behind it and a lot of interest ahead of it.
Why Alli’s Simple Idea Held Such Extraordinary Potential
Why would a blow dry salon make such big waves? When asked that question, Alli likes to talk about her passion for hair. But entrepreneurial passion is cheap and often goes unrewarded. In Alli, observers see more than a love of hairstyling. They see someone who took a simple idea and added just the right flair.
Writers at LAMag went to a Drybar salon to see what all the fuss was about. What they found was “a female tailgate party” complete with mimosas, flat-screen TVs, and a cocktail-party atmosphere. Women walked in with flat, lifeless hair and walked out 45 minutes and $40 later with a new style and a refreshed outlook. The change is, of course, temporary, but it’s just right for everyday events or nights out on the town.
But Drybar offers more than a temporary personal rebrand. It’s a full-on, all-girl experience. Drybar exudes polish at a price today’s average woman can afford. The whimsical color palette, cocktail-inspired hair menu, girl-power ballads pumping through the speakers, and post-feminist films rolling on the TV screens all inject a shot of confidence into clients.
It’s an experience that a blowdry at Fantastic Sam’s just won’t cut. As Michael puts it, the company doesn’t just sell hairstyles; it also sells happiness and confidence at the right price point.
Where Alli Is Going Today
Though not a college graduate herself, Alli often gets invited to speak on campuses around the country. One of her themes is difficulty. When writers at Bustle asked Alli to recommend her favorite book, she responded with Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser, a New York Times bestseller that her therapist recommended. 2018 was a tough year for Alli who faced a divorce, and with it, the need to learn to co-parent. She also shifted to a more public role, appearing on ABC’s Shark Tank and launching an app called Squeeze. Alli’s talking a lot these days about contentedness, self care, and staying organized.
With ambitions to sell dry shampoos and other products both in the U.S. and around the world, Alli will need the self-care and organizational skills she’s talking about. But Alli already knows it takes more than a big dream to accomplish anything worthwhile.
“You can dream up anything,” Alli told Lindsey Benoit O’Connell at Thrive Global, “but it’s really about execution and surrounding yourself with people who know things that you don’t.”
Observing her parents’ entrepreneurial enterprises, launching her own initiative, and learning from her partnerships with Michael and Cameron, Alli has actualized her dreams beyond what she ever imagined. With the team she’s built, the humility she’s shown, and her skill in defining her products and services, Alli may just be getting started in the dream business.
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