Editor's Note: Alli Webb will be appearing at the 2020 Inc. 5000 Vision conference the week of October 19-23.
After opening the first Drybar location in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2010, Alli Webb quickly realized that she and her co-founders were in over their heads. "We were not ready; we were making all sorts of mistakes," says the 44-year-old New York native, who launched the chain--which only offers blowouts and styling--alongside her brother, Michael Landau, and ex-husband Cameron Webb.
In the latest Inc. Real Talk Business Reboot, Webb talked to Inc.com managing editor Lindsay Blakely about the early challenges of building and scaling Drybar, how she's grown as an entrepreneur, and why she's taking a more detached approach to running her new venture--a massage service called Squeeze.
Obsession and Dedication: Two Sides of the Same Comb
Many of the early challenges of building Drybar, admits Webb, came down to her desire for control. She and her co-founders' obsession with creating a perfect "Drybar experience" is arguably what made the distinctive yellow salons successful--the $100 million company now has nearly 150 salons and Helen of Troy acquired its products business for $255 million in January. But maintaining that kind of control also took a lot of effort.
Webb related how she used to go to every Drybar location and make sure that the "bartenders" (a.k.a. receptionists) greeted people properly. That meant not asking whether people walking in the door had an appointment, a greeting that Webb found too confrontational. She wanted the bartenders to be immediately warm and welcoming--to make everyone who walked into a Drybar feel like they belonged there. "Everything in Drybar is very intentional," she says.
There were times when the co-founders' obsession with a consistent experience in every shop complicated matters. "I didn't want stylists to bring in their own products--I wanted a uniform look, for all of our products, tools, and brushes to be the same. I wanted our clients to be Drybar clients and to come in for the Drybar experience," says Webb. That made sense from a branding perspective, but it turned out that the standard hair dryer cord on the dryers that Webb ordered for the first Drybar location weren't long enough to reach around clients completely--which meant that stylists had to turn clients in their chairs.
That just wasn't the kind of experience Webb wanted her customers to have: "It sounds silly--but that was a big deal for us," she says, adding that now, the dryers in the salons have non-standard extra-long cords.
Webb's attention to detail even extended to things like mirrors. "I didn't want clients staring at themselves in the mirror. I wanted clients to let the stress go," she says. Instead, Webb wanted to recreate the "big reveal" moment that she thought was an enjoyable part of her early days as a mobile hairdresser--when she'd do clients hair in their homes and they'd go in the bathroom to look at the finished product when she was done.
Ten years later, Webb says that hyperfocus on details is what has kept Drybar distinctive. Even though many have copied parts of Drybar's formula (like the reveal mirrors), nobody has been able to copy Drybar's "secret sauce." Webb attributes that to the business's cohesive experience and accessible price point.
Last year, Webb launched L.A.-based massage service Squeeze alongside her Drybar co-founders and former Drybar marketing director Brittany Driscoll, who now serves as Squeeze's CEO. The experience hinges on an app that allows customers to book, customize, and pay for a massage with their phones--a much more enjoyable experience than, say, "waiting in line to pay while in a state of bliss," says Webb. In other words, she's obsessed with getting the customer service details right again. On a personal level, however, Webb says she's approaching the new venture with a looser grip and more maturity. The growth plan for Squeeze, which currently has just one location in Los Angeles, is to franchise future locations--something Webb was initially loath to do with Drybar.
"With Drybar, I held on tight," she says. "There are a lot of ways to do things right, but there's only one way we do it. I didn't want anyone to mess up the brand. But that holding on wasn't sustainable: I remember it being number seven. It was around shop seven that I realized I needed some help and that we needed help training larger numbers of people." Drybar currently has around 40 franchise locations.
Covid-19 hit both Drybar and Squeeze hard. While most Drybar salons are open in other states, its California locations remain shuttered, along with Squeeze's one location. And the current experience at open Drybars reflects the times: Customers must wait in their cars until their stylist is ready, the business is filling only every other chair, and everyone undergoes temperature checks. The business was designed to sell a high volume of blowouts every day, and that won't be possible until the pandemic runs its course.
Webb is choosing to see the upside. She's taken up running and yoga, and putting out content for Drybar customers that encourages them to do what makes them feel good and mentally healthy--and if that means doing their hair at home, she's got plenty of tips for them. She's taking a step back from the "treadmill" of productivity and taking time to really think about her next moves. Sometimes she even takes walks without her phone. She's also focusing on homeschooling her two kids, and when asked if she has any advice for juggling that task with work, she laughs and says, "Headphones."