With a degree in Art Education, Melanie Guzzo never planned on becoming a salon owner. It wasn’t until she started interviewing at salons that she realized the salon she was looking for didn’t exist yet. Self-funded and debt-free for the first seven years, Virtue Vegan Salon is guided by Melanie’s focus on community, giving back, and paying her employees well. Read about why she believes failure is a vital part of being a business owner and Virtue Salon’s exciting new development that’ll be launched later this year!
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Give us a summary of your business in 200 words or less.
Virtue Salon is a multi-cultural, gender-affirming salon with a team trained in top-shelf haircutting and hair color services. All products used at Virtue Salon are 100% vegan and sulfate and paraben-free. Our mission is to celebrate community and inspire individuals to be their authentic selves. Our passion is to enrich the lives of our team, guests, and community.
We pursue our passion and mission by giving the community hair that makes them feel like their true self. We like to celebrate each person by helping them look their personal best. If you look around the salon you will see a team of artists working together and creating magic every day.
How did the idea for your business come about?
I was a young hairdresser experimenting with veganism and I had never been interested in opening my own salon. After I graduated college, I was excited to interview at salons in the area and find my perfect salon home. After interviewing at a couple of salons, I realized the salon I had in mind simply didn’t exist. At that moment, I thought, “If I can’t find my perfect salon, I will create my own.”
What was the turning point for your business? Was there a moment you knew you had something special?
I still remember being at an event in downtown Columbus around 2013 where several people recognized Virtue Salon, and I couldn’t believe that anyone knew who we were! I felt like pushing for a vegan concept was really worth it, especially when people found it memorable.
What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner?
It means that I have a responsibility to continue to learn and innovate so I can offer the best employment opportunities. I also believe I have a responsibility to see the blindspots in society and fight against them to create better spaces for all people.
Has advocacy always been a part of your ethos as a business owner? Where does this come from?
Advocacy has always been important to me. I grew up in a family that cared about giving back to the community. I was involved with recycling, helping people in need, and anything that could lift others up. My parents always encouraged this, and over time it became my natural way of seeing the world.
When Virtue Salon first started I was excited to find ways to give back and make less of a negative environmental impact as a business. Immediately, we were saving hair clippings to help with oil spills and doing events to give haircuts to people in need. Early on, I was lucky enough to find team members that cared about the same things.
What does the city of Columbus mean to your business?
The city of Columbus has been such an exciting community for me and Virtue Salon to be part of. I feel so connected and at home with the network of small businesses that the city knows and loves.
It’s clear that the city of Columbus is a positive environment for small businesses to thrive. So many other small businesses and business owners go out of their way to support one another, and it is simply beautiful.
Are you from Columbus?
I am originally from Galion, Ohio which is one hour north of Columbus. I moved to Columbus in 2005 to finish my degree at The Ohio State University in Art Education. I worked at salons all the way through college and decided to stay in Columbus long-term after I graduated.
I always loved living in a small town, but once I was introduced to Columbus’ diversity, art scene, bars, restaurants, and the general community, I just couldn’t leave!
What made you stick with hair as a career path? Do you see it as being connected with your art degree?
I never thought hairdressing would be my forever career. I figured I would end up being an art teacher or with a career in marketing. When I first started as a hairdresser, people would say things like, “that makes sense you are a hairdresser because of how much you love art.” I always nodded and acted like I understood what they meant until I finally saw it for myself.
What made me stick with it was watching other hairdressers on TV and at tradeshows. Once I noticed the elevated craft of hairdressing, I was hooked and finally understood hairdressing to be an art form. I was extremely influenced by Tabatha Coffey, Vidal Sassoon, and Toni & Guy. I started to see that hairdressing had a powerful global presence, and I wanted to be more of a part of it.
I do believe that hairdressers are artists. We are asked to make sculptures out of organic material on people’s heads in approximately one hour. Not only are haircuts/styles sculptures, they are also connected to the person’s confidence and identity. That is definitely art in my opinion. Hairdressing is art.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start a business?
If I had pursued a business coach sooner, I think I would have found balance much sooner than I did. Learning to be a good leader and manager is something that is often caught, not taught, so any support that you can find from the genesis of your business will be beyond helpful. Having outside voices that support you will make your journey much more sustainable.
What do you mean by “caught, not taught”?
The expression “caught, not taught” means you pick up knowledge simply by living and doing. Not all things are teachable in a traditional sense. When you own a small business, you often do not have 100% of the skills you need to run a business so you continue to add to what you know by catching different bits of knowledge and experience that mold your abilities to run a business and lead people. Failure is a huge component of this. In order to “catch” certain knowledge, one must experience failure in order to deeply understand.
What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business?
Honestly, I had no idea how difficult ownership would be. Although I love it so much, I struggled with balance for years. For an owner, the business is usually personal and an extension of themself. This makes many things painful as the business grows and sees people come and go.
I believe I would have had less struggle early on if I would have sought outside help from a business coach. I was far too worried about finances to invest in one early on. However, now I see that an investment like that is worth its weight in gold.
What’s the most challenging part of your business?
I am hard on myself and constantly trying to make the business better. When I get inspired or feel like something isn’t quite “good enough,” I definitely lose sleep trying to find ways to “fix” the problem.
Every business owner has a flaw. What’s yours?
I overthink things and get stuck in my head!
Have you developed any practices to help with this?
I go to the gym and do weight lifting every day. Most days I also try to make it to yoga. I see a therapist, journal, and try to eat healthy and make good decisions for my health. I also reach out to friends, especially other salon owners, to verbally process. I read mantras to myself each morning to set myself up for success.
Why do you think most business owners fail? What has made you different?
I don’t think there is any one reason that businesses fail. Many business owners want to open their own business because they think it seems easy. I have seen this false belief set many businesses up for failure. It will take tenfold the time, money, and energy that you anticipate. Once it’s built, it may seem easier, but it takes a lot of work and sacrifice to get to that point. I always say, if it was easy, everyone would do it!
I think Virtue Salon’s success can be traced back to my parents. Although they didn’t pay for my college, they were adamant to make sure I didn’t graduate with debt, so they urged me to find scholarships and other means to help me through. So I graduated with zero debt, which is rare and truly set me up for success. My parents also taught my sister and me a very solid work ethic. That made me ready to work 80-hour weeks for a big part of the first years of business.
How did you raise funding early on?
I self-funded my entire startup. I did not raise any funding or get any investments. I was young and the recession had hit a year earlier.
What was the single worst decision you made regarding your business and how’d you recover?
Expecting a person hired to be a manager to build systems for their management position. I hired several lovely folks over the years, and I set them up for failure by expecting them to read my mind and develop a system for managing the salon.
I have since built systems for the business and put people in place to grow and innovate the systems. That has been the key to growth and a healthier workplace.
What was your biggest mistake and what did it cost you?
Funding my own projects for the first 7 years. I refused to apply for loans for business build-outs, etc. That always restricted the business’s growth. While being debt-free is great, it isn’t always the best way to play the game of growing a business.
What tool has helped you the most for your business?
Always hire out anything that you are not an expert at. Since the beginning, I’ve had an excellent accountant, Ron DeLaney. The salon would have never survived without this service. Occasionally I used to toy with the idea of doing my own bookkeeping and payroll but it just wouldn’t be a good use of my time!
When did you know it was time to expand your business, make your first hire, etc.?
It was clear I needed to hire the first person when we were getting walk-in clients that I didn’t have time for! It happened very naturally because one of my previous students (I taught cosmetology school before I opened the salon) was interning with me at the very beginning. So she started to take the walk-in clients and she still works at Virtue today!
What’s something that was a game changer for your business?
Hired a coach! Heather Yakes, my coach, holds me accountable on all of my goals. And then I learned how to empower members of my team into management positions.
What’s an idea you’ve spent a lot of time on or thought would make a big difference that didn’t pan out?
At different times, I’ve worked on pursuing a wedding segment of the business with make-up services and whatnot. It always proves to be too stressful, too costly, and doesn’t fit into our business model. Every time we invest time and resources into it, it’s clear the decision is not quite right for us. We just need to stay in our lane and do what we do best!
What is something your business spends a lot of money on that’s worth it?
Paying my team the most that I can afford. I’ve had many business-minded folks recommend that I pay my people less, and I think that is absurd. Although it makes some parts of ownership difficult, I believe it’s only fair to pay your team their worth, including benefits such as retirement and healthcare. This includes offering benefits such as retirement and healthcare. That’s integrity to me.
How long did it take for your business to find a sense of financial stability?
We were financially stable within the first year. We added on to the salon in 2011 to add more chairs and square footage. After the expansion in 2011, it took about four years to be completely debt-free, but we were stable financially throughout all of the years we’ve been open. We’ve always worked to keep our overhead down to make sure we were profitable as quickly as possible.
What’s something you’re working on now that you’re very excited about?
We are opening a second location on South High Street! We have not formally announced yet — it is going to be, Virtue Vegan Salon Brewery District! The potential opening date will be October 1st, 2022.
In addition to the salon, we will have an attached event/education space at the new location. I am so excited about this new opportunity because it is unusual for hairdressers to have outlets that aren’t “behind the chair.” Having this new location and education space will allow my team to move into other positions as the years wear on. Hairdressing can be difficult on the body, so I am so excited to have more ways to care for the careers of my professionals long-term.
What have been sources of inspiration for Virtue Vegan’s work culture and vision?
I can’t really name one source of inspiration. I take bits and pieces of inspiration from everything I have experienced. Any time I read about a really cool or good business or business owner, I usually think about how I could incorporate more of what they are about.
I knew the things I didn’t like about the salon industry and I did the opposite the best I could. I have always wanted Virtue to be a vibrant and worthy place to work and anywhere that’s doing it better than me was/still is an inspiration to be better.
What form of marketing is the most valuable for you?
Word-of-mouth and referrals are the most valuable. Second to person-to-person referrals is Google! Google is a great way to meet new people who have yet to discover us. We use social media and other types of marketing for communicating with people in our community.
Who is your best Columbus resource?
I recently negotiated a lease for the new location of Virtue and I used an incredible attorney. Her name is Lesley Armour at Kooperman Mentel Ferguson Yaross, Ltd.
I also highly recommend Sharon Delay at GO-HR for any human resource needs.
Who do you vent to when you have a business problem?
I unapologetically call or text friends when I need support! I also have a husband who is always supportive and helpful as I navigate the hardships of small business ownership.
Plus, I have a small tight-knit group of salon owner friends that I rely on a lot. We became a “unit” at the onset of quarantine and have grown to be great friends and supports for one another.
How did you find this network of other salon owners?
I have been an educator for salons for most of my career. Our salon offers classes to outside salons and industry professionals. Hosting classes and events for people outside of our salon builds the community. So I met several of these salon owners through our education brand.
When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, what do you do to overcome this feeling?
I don’t always have a clear method when I am feeling overwhelmed. Every day I fight to get time to exercise, eat well and drink plenty of water. I rely on going to the gym or yoga daily to help snap me out of ruminating thoughts or the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Some other things I do: I go for walks and listen to podcasts. I make a list of how to execute the issue(s) I am dealing with. I journal. I talk to friends/other business owners. I annoy my husband by talking about my feelings of overwhelm over and over. I read inspiring things to help me realize I am not alone.
What’s one component of entrepreneurship that’s much different than what most people think?
It’s lonely. Like really lonely sometimes. As a business owner with a team, as much as I wish I was their favorite work friend, I am viewed as their employer/boss. I know I am a good employer who’s respected and loved by my team, but it is still hard because no matter what, I will never be just co-workers with anyone.
As an adult, a lot of our friends come from our workplace at this point in life. When you are a business owner, you have to work harder to meet new friends later in life. This is why it is so important for me to have other salon owner friends. We are all in the same boat so we need each other!
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
We will still be going stronger than ever. We will continue to slowly grow the salons as appropriate. We will have a couple of locations and a strong salon education brand that supports hairdressers and gives back to the salon community.
We have another type of business up our sleeve to launch soon! We plan to continue to diversify the types of businesses we add to the family of businesses.
What’s your end goal with the business? Is this something you want to pass down to your kids or would you like to eventually sell?
I am not sure! I don’t have any children currently and I have always found it difficult to imagine my “exit.” I imagine I will continue to work on the businesses behind the scenes for as many years as is appropriate while continuing to have younger and smarter management run things day-to-day.
What other entrepreneur do you look up to most?
My friend, Kate Moeves owns two salons in Kentucky along with a number of other properties and businesses. I love the way she thinks and how she continues to innovate. She inspires and helps me so much! It seems that we experience similar things at similar times and she is always willing to offer advice and support.