The start up story of a serial entrepreneur who has created a unique business in South Africa by elevating the world-class nail bar concept to a luxury girls club.
For the image conscious woman in South Africa, having one’s nails done is a must-have regular experience. Yet, serial entrepreneur Ego Iwegbu-Daley is taking the established concept of the nail and beauty experience to a whole new level in the country. Her Miss Salon London concept has created a unique environment where music, movies, friends, conversation, a glass of wine, and of course incredibly beautiful nails, all combine in the ultimate pampering experience. Ego is a real mover and shaker in the world of nails and beauty, and her brand is one to watch in Africa.
LoA recently caught up with Ego and got to speak with her about her extraordinary entrepreneurial journey.
How did your entrepreneurial journey start?
My entrepreneurial journey started when I realized I wanted to do my own thing probably around the age of 16. However, I come from a very academic background – my father is a professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, and my mother is a Doctor of Climatology. So, in my family, we had to study and become lawyers, doctors, etc. But at the age of 16, I thought there was something else I wanted to do apart from just studying. So at 17, I started by exporting records to Nigerian DJs from the UK, because I knew that they weren’t getting music fast enough, it was back in the day when everything was much slower than it is today. So, that is where my own entrepreneurial journey started. In those early days, I was afraid because although I knew deep down I had to be in business, I knew I was supposed to become a doctor and stay in the education system. So, the idea of starting something independently was a major fear. After I finally graduated, during university I started running nightclubs and became a club promoter in London around three different clubs, in fact I took a year out of university to do this. I actually managed to pay off all my student debt as a result of this club promotion work. After a year, I was back at Kings College in London finishing my Mathematics degree, which was also a disaster in my parents eyes because what do you do with mathematics, but I finished and did really well. So then, the quest was to get a job. I applied for all the graduate positions and I got into Ford Motor Company on their graduate recruitment programme in the UK. I remember on my second day at work, I had a small yellow diary and I scratched into it the word ‘nightmare’. I realized I couldn’t bear the idea of being one person in a pool of ten thousand people, knowing that whether I showed up to work or didn’t , the company would still build as many vans and cars as ever, and I would make no difference whatsoever. This was back in 1996, the internet had just started, we had just got email at the time, and I realized that being in this office environment was actually quite powerful and I had all of this great office technology at my disposal. It was there that I wrote my first businessplan. So, in my spare time whilst working, I was actually trying to start my first business. I didn’t know what that business was to be, but I knew that I had to start something.
How did you get into the business of nail salons?
I was walking through Croydon in the UK one day and there was a nail bar, which at the time was quite a unique concept back in 1997. I walked in and had my first experience of fibreglass nail extensions being applied and painted and I loved them. I remember staring at them for hours, but of course, they didn’t last. So, I went back to the salon to have them redone, but instead had the terrible experience of a trainee doing the extensions and making an awful mess of them. I found another group of nail bars doing similar things, but in a not too great part of London. As a person who usually shopped in the upmarket West End of the city, I realized that I needed to open a nail salon in the places I liked to be. In 1998, I visited the USA and saw lots of nail salons, all doing nail extensions and beautifully painted nails, and women from all walks of life were using those salons. I returned to London and immediately knew I had to start a business focused on nail salons in the City. I wrote my business plan in 7 days, I knew I needed to find the money to start the business, and I was confident of being able to start up the business and introduce London to upmarket nail salons within weeks. The reality was that my first nail salon opened in 1999 in London, a year and a half later, following a period of hell trying to raise the money for the business, find the right location, etc. I lost my first investor just as I was about to sign the lease on the premises for the businesses and, as a result, was an emotional wreck. At the time, I was still working at Ford Motor Company whilst trying to set up the business at the same time. I was devastated having worked on the business plan, created the business model, the logos, the products, etc, all ready and destined to be the best new thing in the market. A few days later, I was walking through the high end retail store, Selfridges in London, and I saw a group of henna artists in the store, doing henna tattoos for customers, and in the process drawing huge crowds around them. I realized that I needed to offer a similar experience but doing nails on the shop floor. It was sociable grooming in a shopping environment. I actually opened my first nail bar called Nail Haven in major retail fashion store, Top Shop, in London’s West End in 1999 at the age of 27, the first such in-store concept of its kind in the UK. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life, particularly trying to finance the venture in those early days – initially every bank rejected me, I had no private investor backing me, but I managed to get the initial seed money I needed to get started from savings, friends, a grant from Business Link, and finally a top up loan from the bank. One of the early challenges was that my people management skills were non-existent, my practical business and financial management skills were lacking, and I learned the hard way how to practically run a business.
"If you are thinking of starting a business, just go ahead and start the business. If you fail, so what! Just do it. As for money and investment, if you have an idea that is worthwhile and viable, then the money and investment will be the least of your problems. Just do the business and the money will come."
I opened one salon after another with a prestigious Selfridges location following the year after, but cash flow continued to be a problem, amongst other operational issues. I continued to rapidly expand the business, opening other salons around the country in key locations every eleven months. However, my business strategy was my weakness and by 2005 I had six salon locations, I had closed the in-store Top Shop salon, but I was behind with my VAT payments, I had cash flow problems but turnover was amazing in the business as a whole. I lost my Selfridges contract, my business got into trouble, I had a lot of debt, and I had to go into administration. The experience was devastating and all the old doubts returned at that time. However, looking back, my seven years spent in the salon business gave me my training as an entrepreneur that would stand me in good stead years later. I realized the power of never giving up no matter what the challenges, never giving in to failure, instead seeing it as part of the entrepreneurial journey. When I read the personal stories of global entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, and Dyson, I realized that they all experienced failure at some time or another, yet never gave up and went on to create major business empires.
In 2006, I got a call from London Fashion Week telling me that Superdrug needed to set up a nail bar as part of the event and asking me if I could set it up for them. I leapt at the opportunity and my next business, Miss Salon, a consultancy nail and beauty business was born, which is still operating successfully today. I followed this by publishing a practical book for would-be salon owners, called Open Your Salon the Right Way, which shared all my experiences in the business and provided practical tips for others to follow. I have self published two books and sold 10,000 copies of them since, retailing them through my website.
Tell us about your business, Miss Salon London here in South Africa
In September 2010, I moved to South Africa with my husband and my two children, aged at that time 9 months and 3 years old. At the time, my consultancy in the UK was running successfully, I was writing books, but I was interested to see how salon businesses were running in the country. I looked at some South African beauty salon chains and spas around Johannesburg and experienced their product offerings. In January 2011, I was offered the opportunity to take over an existing nail salon site in Morningside Shopping Centre, and with a friend I had met through our children’s school who had expressed an interest in running her own nail salon, we embarked upon a new business venture. The new shop opened in March that same year.
This experience of running the business of Miss Salon London this time around in South Africa has been amazing and a real blessing. It is like all the experiences I have had over the years are coming to fruition and I am able to reap the rewards of that experience now. I appreciate all the hard times I have been through on my entrepreneurial journey over the years, and now I can enjoy this experience 13 years later. Today, we still have the Morningside Shopping Centre location and also a Miss Salon London is in a prestigious location in Parkhurst, Johannesburg. This new site was precisely chosen following a 9 month period of getting to know the area and watching this building being constructed. Today, the salons are highly social spaces, our customers are made to feel at home, our underlying service is world class, our products are the best in the industry, and we are all about the experience. As a result, women generally leave here feeling better and having had a great time.
What differentiates you from your competitors today?
It is crucial to be different and what is really important in this business is to get a USP (unique selling point). In the case of Miss Salon London, we see ourselves as a girls club, its not just about the nails. It is all about understanding our customers, giving them the exact experience they are looking for, and at the same time, ensuring the nails are the best they will ever get. The difference is the Miss Salon London experience as a whole.
What has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
I am living it right now, I love my life here. I turned 40 in 2012, and I stood there in front of my friends and I said that the most amazing thing about turning 40 is that absolutely everything that I ever wanted I got. And, I got it by making sure that I did not allow my fears to dictate my direction. If I hadn’t overcome my self doubt and the fear of starting a business in the first place all those years ago, I would have ended up with my career at Ford Motor Company, and I would have been miserable. If I hadn’t overcome my doubts and fears back in 2005 when everything came crashing down, I would have ended up a housewife doing nothing. It is all about the journey. There were moments when I could have given up, but I chose to stick it out. Instead, today I have two sons which is all I ever wanted, I have a great business, I still have a passive income stream, and life is good.
What entrepreneurial advice would you give to other women thinking of starting a business?
If you are thinking of starting a business, just go ahead and start the business. If you fail, so what! Just do it. As for money and investment, if you have an idea that is worthwhile and viable, then the money and investment will be the least of your problems. Just do the business and the money will come.
Why LoA loves it….
If there was ever an entrepreneurial startup story that demonstrates the power of a never-give-up attitude, sheer tenacity, and ultimately self belief, then Ego Iwegbu-Daley, Founder of Miss Salon London in the UK and now in South Africa, is such a story. As an international serial entrepreneur, she has celebrated huge success, but at the same time, encountered a vast number of challenges that would have defeated many others on her entrepreneurial journey. Today, she has built an international nail and beauty consulting and salon brand, is a highly successful author, and seems destined for even greater success on the African continent. At LoA, we love Ego’s story, her passion and enthusiasm, and her world-class approach to customer service. Check out her vibey salons in Johannesburg, South Africa. --- Melanie Hawken, LoA founder and editor-in-chief