Welcome to What’s New Wednesday, where we profile local startups and the entrepreneurs behind them. This week, we meet Janell Shaffer and Danielle McDowell, who started MyBestFriendsHair.com last year.
Type of business: Website offering consumer reviews of hair stylists and salons, plus online and mobile resources for industry professionals.
Founded: July 2011
Owners: Janell Shaffer and Danielle McDowell
Owners’ background: Shaffer and McDowell met when both were working for Indianapolis tech firm BitWise Solutions in 2010; they left the company last July.
A natural entrepreneur, Shaffer started young with the quintessential lemonade stand before moving on to selling doughnuts and offering swimming lessons.
She earned a degree in business management from Indiana University and worked as a project manager at local Alt & Witzig Engineering before moving into strategy consulting roles at Vision Cos. and BitWise.
“My mom wasn’t surprised” when she left the corporate world for her own enterprise, Shaffer said with a smile. Now 37, she lives with her husband and four children in Carmel.
McDowell, 28, graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in marketing. She landed her first job after college at local entrepreneur Scott Jones’ startup ChaCha Search. (She was employee No. 11).
As marketing communications manager, she helped to create awareness for the question-and-answer service as it rolled out nationally—and discovered she loved the rush that comes from building something from scratch.
“I almost feel like I’m destined to do this,” she said, adding that her dad and grandfather were small-business owners, too. “It comes naturally to me.”
After three years at ChaCha, she moved to Carmel-based mobile marketing startup Tetherball, then to BitWise. She lives in Indianapolis with her husband and son.
Why started business: Shaffer came up with the idea of a matchmaking site for stylists in 2010 when her own hairdresser changed salons without notice—not unusual in such a transient industry.
She started to search for someone new and found herself wishing for a consumer-review site akin to Angie’s List, which focuses on home improvement and medical services.
“I’m obsessed with reviews,” Shaffer said. “I don’t buy a thing without knowing what other people think.”
“And there are so many hair horror stories out there,” McDowell added.
Shaffer started MyBestFriendsHair.com as a hobby site while working full-time, and last year she and McDowell decided to devote themselves to fleshing out the idea. Shaffer is the company’s CEO; McDowell is chief marketing officer.
They launched the site nationwide in January 2012, and by May had listings for stylists in all 50 states. In June, MyBestFriendsHair released its mobile “Style Seeker” app for industry pros.
Basic listings on the website are free, but stylists and salons can pay for premium membership—$10 and $50 a month, respectively—to include photo galleries and appear first in search results.
“This is a phenomenal tool for stylists to market what they do,” McDowell said.
Competitive advantage: The partners say their service has a leg up on other online review sites like Yelp because of its laser focus on hair.
“We’re not doing nail salons; we’re not doing spas,” Shaffer said. The site aims to meet consumers’ needs from “top to bottom in this channel,” she added. “We’ll help you find a great stylist, a great cut and great products.”
And MyBestFriendsHair wants to help stylists, too. Its free mobile app allows professionals to manage client information from their phones—an advantage in what the partners said is a tech-averse industry. Stylists can keep track of details like the texture, length and color of their clients’ hair and store before and after pictures. The application also includes an interactive stylebook, an updated alternative to flipping through giant books of different hairstyles.
“It’s a great consultation tool,” McDowell said.
Funding source: The partners got the company started with their personal savings and began looking for additional funding in November. By mid-February, they had raised $365,000. Investors include some individual “angels” and local venture funds Elevate Ventures and Gravity Ventures.
Potential problem and contingency plan: Although MyBestFriendsHair.com continues to introduce new features for consumers and stylists alike, the partners know it won’t be easy to get hair professionals to embrace technology.
“Our biggest competition really is a tablet of paper,” Shaffer said.
Tools like the interactive stylebook and client data manager should help demonstrate the product’s value, she said, and MyBestFriendsHair is planning to partner with another firm to add online appointment booking in the next few months.
The company also is tweaking its business model to lessen the reliance on user fees and increase advertising sales. McDowell said some makers of hair-care products, for example, already have expressed an interest in the site and Style Seeker app as a way to reach stylists and their clients.
“We are partnering with brands in the industry to develop ways consumers can access information generally available only to stylists,” she said. Although manufacturers do what they can to pitch their products to salons, “there’s a big disconnect when it comes to consumers.”
Among the ideas: Step-by-step how-to videos sponsored (and produced) by a corporate partner.
One-year goal: The partners are proud of the progress the site has made since its soft launch almost a year ago, and they have high hopes for the next 12 months. Signing on the dotted line with a big partner/sponsor is at the top of the list.
“We’d like to stay on the trajectory we’re on,” Shaffer said.