“Along came COVID-19”: Stylist-turned-entrepreneur launches hair-care tech to support devastated Aussie salon industry

COVID-19 hair salons

Piiq and Support Your Salon founder Richard Kavanagh. Source: supplied.

A celebrated stylist turned startup founder, Richard Kavanagh was just getting his revolutionary tech product into Aussie salons when COVID-19 hit, throwing the whole industry into turmoil.

Now, the entrepreneur has made a quick pivot, both to keep his business afloat and to offer a lifeline to the salons he works with.

Founded in 2017, Piiq is an augmented reality smart mirror, built for more effective salon consultations. The hardware-software combo allows customers to test out colours and styles, and helps stylists build a visual client profile, Kavanagh tells SmartCompany.

He and his co-founders initially self-funded the venture, and later raised $3 million in friends and family funding.

Last year, they secured funding from the Fairfax Family Fund, bringing more cash, but also “some really smart people to the table”, Kavanagh explains.

Following a few years of developing and honing the tech product, by early-March, the founders had their product installed in about 50 salons, and momentum was building.

“We were trucking along really nicely, we had a beautiful product, we had gone through a heavy phase of getting the software and hardware product to the level we were happy with,” Kavanagh says.

“And along came COVID-19.”

As he was spending most of his time visiting new or potential customers, Kavanagh saw how suddenly his clients were hit by the crisis.

He was at one salon where an entire afternoon’s worth of clients cancelled within the first half-hour of the day, he recalls.

“That’s when I started panicking,” he says.

“All of a sudden, our customers were no longer a viable customer, because they didn’t have customers.”

Kavanagh was forced to put a halt on Piiq’s growth, almost before it started. He had to let nine staff members go, and put the business into “a state of hibernation”, he says.

“No growth, no new sales … just enough to keep the lights on for the customers who have the product at the moment,” he says.

Meanwhile, as an active member of the Australian hairdressing community, Kavanagh could see the devastating effect the pandemic was having on his peers.

Salon owners are typically fairly active on social media. And through observing those channels, he saw an industry “in a state of absolute turmoil”, he says.

“I saw them shouting at the government, shouting at each other, just generally shouting at the universe, and obviously in a state of panic and fear.”

Many salon owners are stylists on the floor, who have built their brand around their own persona, he says. Like for many small business owners, running a salon is more than just a job.

“It’s their baby. It’s their love, it’s their lifeblood, it’s their everything,” Kavanagh explains.

“And they could just see it crumbling.”

“Every little bit helps”

Having put his own business into hibernation, Kavanagh set out to create something that would keep Piiq’s head above water, while supporting the salon industry as it grapples with the COVID-19 crisis.

Already, he and the team had been working on a new element of the product — a ‘smart retail’ solution that would recommend hair care products based on the client’s hair type.

The founder had planned for six months of product development to create an MVP, plus six months of testing.

“I reckoned we could do a really simple version of that, whip it up, get it out into the world and see if it could help,” he explains.

Working with a “skeleton crew”, Kavanagh and the team got the product up and running within just nine days, he says.

The new Support Your Salon product offers salons a personalised link they can send to their client list, allowing people to complete a kind of digital hair quiz, which recommends products to use at home, tailored to them.

There’s no cost outlay for the salons, and when a customer purchases the products, 40% of the revenue goes directly to the business that referred them.

After three days, 350 salons signed up to the Support Your Salon platform, Kavanagh says and about $6,000 was directed back to the small businesses.

“When you’re a small business, and you’re a cash business … every little bit helps,” he says.

“Even if it’s only a few hundred dollars, it’s a few hundred dollars that is in the pocket of somebody who is literally living hand-to-mouth, it makes a huge difference.”

A soft entry

In fact, Kavanagh has spoken to business owners who want to continue using the retail platform even after they can re-open.

Others, after using this platform, are reaching out to enquire about the Piiq smart mirrors.

It’s not necessarily the way Kavanagh had planned on approaching the market, but for the kind of product Piiq produces, it makes sense.

“We’ve gone to market with a really beautiful offering, which is a hardware, software subscription, with the smart mirror,” he explains.

“We’ve gone out with something that’s never been done before.”

With any new technology, there are early adopters. It can take a while for the masses to be convinced, Kavanagh notes. A smart mirror is a whole new piece of hardware that has to be integrated into a workflow.

Something like the Support Your Salon platform can serve to offer “a tiered approach to our software”, he says.

“We can actually have a lot more customers having a really wonderful experience with our company and our business, having a soft entry to our software,” he adds.

“It’s opened up a lot of opportunity for the future when we go back to trading.”

A moment of clarity

It’s a tumultuous time to be in business, no matter your industry. Many entrepreneurs have been left shell shocked by the speed at which the crisis hit.

Kavanagh compares the experience to a car crash he was in as a teenager.

“You’re hit by a shock and all you can see is everything very clearly and very slowly, and you have to act,” he says.

“There’s no room for feeling or emotion at all, it was quite shocking, to be honest … I was just in full protection mode.”

Without bringing emotions into it, Kavanagh found himself completely scrapping and re-writing his business plan, communicating with investors and stakeholders, and putting the business into hibernation, all with no idea how long the crisis could last.

Looking back on that time, he says it’s surreal, almost like it was happening to someone else.

In the car crash Kavanagh experienced as a teen, his mum was taken away by ambulance, while he was left on the side of the road, he recalls.

“I remember feeling exactly the same way,” he says.

“I had this moment of clarity,” he adds.

“In a really cold and clinical way, I knew I had to act in the best interest of protecting my business, my company, and my friends’ and families’ millions,” he explains.

“It was this cold realisation. It was almost like the first stages of mourning,” he adds.

“I need to do what I have to do to protect my business,” he says.

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