The retreating south east monsoon’s light drizzle and its moist breeze that embraced us (Ms. Mona Saluja - a marketing professional from ‘Cosmetics and Lifestyle’ industry and her life partner Mr. Biswajit Chowdhury – a service marketing professional), on that fateful full moon night of December, 2010, possibly had little more than the usual Bangalore charm in its soothing caress!
Hidden deep within its mysterious womb was the spark of an idea – that was to change our lives, including those of many beauticians across India. A spark which had the power to inspire many yet to graduate B-School and Engineering students from prestigious colleges in the years to come.
The idea or call it – the service value proposition; of providing professional beauty services to urban ladies of India, at their doorstep, was conceived in my (Ms. Mona’s) mind in a flash, as I walked past the ‘Sarjapura’ Road fire station, animatedly discussing the quality of ‘Parpu’ (Yellow Daal) that was served at a ‘Bellandur’ based restaurant.
We cannot recall anything beyond this, about our Eureka moment. The distant flash of lightning and the occasional rumbling of clouds had nothing special or dramatic about them either. And till date we have neither been able to fathom the exact trigger point nor connect the unconnected dots between a full moon – a light drizzle – Bangalore city – Andhra Meal – Yellow Daal - Sarjapura Road Fire Station – And salon at home service! So in absence of a clear and logical answer – we would like to call it a mystical child of destiny.
However, reflecting back on that fateful night, both of us now strongly feel that the magical or mystical breeze of that evening had left behind a few of her trusted invisible maidens to ensure that we stayed enraptured with the spark, for a little longer than usual between the two of us; with 30+ man years of corporate and business management exposure!
The newly conceived ‘SPARK’ and the resultant excitement of being the first professional endeavour to be ‘BY & FOR THE PROFESSIONAL INDIAN WOMEN’ of today, in the domain of beauty, in the new year of 2011, made us send personal invites to many of the Bangalore based beauticians working in mid-range salons with whom we had struck a casual acquaintance during the past 04 years of our stay in Bangalore, for a discussion over a cup of coffee / tea and snacks. Countless cups of Assam tea and Coorg coffee were guzzled besides south Indian snacks in the various cafes and eateries of Koramangala, Yelahanka, Yeshwantpura, Whitefield, Electronic city, Bannerghatta Road, HSR Layout, K.R.Puram, M.G. Road, Old Madras Road, Cunningham Road, Silk Board junction, RT Nagar, Indiranagar and many other nooks and corners of Bangalore city over the next 03 – 04 months.
Most beauticians were either suspicious or alarmed about the ‘SPARK’. Many shuddered at the idea of visiting a stranger’s house and being confined inside the customer’s premise for hours. They had legitimate worries about their personal safety and reputation. A few were justifiably indignant and a few found it blasphemous to even hear or talk about it. The negativity was all pervasive and contagious. No professional therapist was willing to even give it a second thought. Most of them firmly believed that a female beautician having the right moral values, a good repute and the right skillset, ought to find work only in the confines of a stationary parlour, salon or a spa or at best a mobile van!
After 06 months of earnest endeavour and failure to,
We nearly reached the decision to abort the ‘SPARK’ mission, assuming that it was a bit too premature to conceive and implement this idea in urban India.
Either the ‘SPARK’ herself or her chosen hand maidens of destiny ensured that something dramatic and inspiring finally did happen!
On the morning of 10th July, two friends – Lalitha and Sabeena; mothers in their mid-thirties, who found their 10 hours long shift in a Bangalore based salon a bit too tiring, called us out of the blue, to convey their consent to assist us in the birth of this ‘SPARK’. They wanted to test the safety and feasibility of this nascent concept first; by working with us on their weekly off days.
The ‘SPARK’ eventually became a regular reality in the fabric of time and space on Tuesday 09th August, 2011. And it could not have chosen a better place than the Silicon city or the erstwhile Garden city of India; to take its first gasp of life giving breath, nearly 09 months after its conception.
We decided to quit our respective jobs. Our friends and well- wishers playfully call it our maternity and paternity leave.
The ‘SPARK’ – Now our bundle of joy - was adoringly named by us as – ‘Home Salon Service‘, Bangalore, on the offset printed 4 colour leaflets and pamphlets that were sent out to announce her arrival to the English and Kannada language newspaper reading women of Bangalore and lived on or near Sarjapura Outer Ring Road, Hosur Road and the 80 Feet Road.
Lalitha and Sabeena wore colourful sarees, (not a uniform), travelled by bus and carried the tools of their trade in a ‘Khakhi’ coloured shoulder bag provided by us. The revenue was shared 70: 30. 70% for the professional beauticians and 30 per cent for us!
The initial response was lukewarm from the ladies of Bangalore. Though there were many queries, seeking information on services and rates the revenue inflow was nothing much to talk about.
Mid-January 2012, saw the opening of ‘Home Salon Service ‘website, a current account in a Public Sector Bank and the service tax registration etc. The website made us visible to a much larger audience. The number of queries generated jumped to approx. 15-20 per day within 60 days of the website launch and the conversion ratio was a healthy 40%. This service proposition of having a salon or salon like experience at home, was so unique to most urban Indians at that point of time that I (Mona) had to personally attend to each call and spend a lot of time explaining the concept to the ladies (both clients and beauticians) calling us from different cities of India, especially those living in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Hyderabad and Chandigarh.
Many students from premier business management colleges in Ahmedabad and Kolkata had detailed telephonic chat with me to understand the doorstep salon service concept and the key operational challenges faced by us. We also received many calls and mails from NRIs visiting different cities of India, congratulating us for successfully launching our beauty treatment on demand services in Bangalore, India.
Each one of our customers in the city of Bangalore, especially the new mom was pampered beyond her expectations. Our beauticians often patiently waited for them to feed or put their bundle of joys to sleep. At times they even assisted the new moms in helping the baby burp or just keep an eye on the little one, while the mom prepared the family meal or light snacks – resulting in frequent ‘WOW’ moments for the customers.
Buoyed by the warm compliments and the 100% positive feedback received from our customers, we took a massive leap of faith on 09th April, 2012, to not only increase our team size of freelance beauticians in Bangalore to 07 but also be the first enterprise in India, to launch this professional salon at home experience, exclusively for the women of India, simultaneously across multiple cities and locations. We travelled by road, across many western Indian cities, in our SUV to interact with the beauticians. The beauticians we met in these cities (except those in the city of Mumbai) were willing to consider our proposal with lot of hesitation. By now, our understanding of the underlying reasons for their angst, genuine hesitation in providing home salon service at customer’s premises was far more lucid. It was still difficult to bring them on board but it was not half as difficult as what we experienced in first 06 months of our struggle in the year 2010.
The cities chosen to deliver the professional beauty services at customer’s doorstep were – Ahmedabad, Baroda, Mumbai, Panaji, Pune and Surat. And the SUV was chosen to double up as our hotel room, whenever we ran out of cash or energy to drive further.
Aided by the love and affection of our customers, we were delighted to spread our wings to increase the width and depth of our service footprint; having clocked a healthy figure of 5000 happy customer experiences in the very first year of our operation excluding the repeat orders.
Before the end of January 2013, we had launched our home salon services in Delhi NCR (including Gurgaon, Noida, Greater Noida, Ghaziabad and Faridabad) Bhopal, Chandigarh, Indore, Jaipur and Kanpur in North and North West and Central India and in Hyderabad and Chennai in the South. This was the best phase of our growth story with near monopolistic domination of this on demand grooming business, exclusively focussed on the ladies. It was also the period when we learnt the maximum about customer need, regional demand patterns and customer behaviour and the customer – beautician interactions.
As a thought leader, we added a new dimension to the home salon business by going for tie-up with a payment gateway to help facilitate collection of either 100% or a token 30% advance payment from most of our customers.
While the going was good and we were cruising along nicely in 18 cities by providing parlour at home services, we began experiencing frequent mid-air turbulence. We were forewarned though, when a few proprietorship firms got inspiration from our ‘SPARK and launched similar services with a truncated or twisted namesake in various metro cities of India.
Mid- march onwards, we also began to receive this disturbing input, quite frequently from some of our front line service delivery team members, about clients soliciting the contact details of our therapists to bypass the system put in place. And the exact moment, when our ‘SPARK’s innocence was lost, was the receipt of a confessional mail from one of our Karol Bagh, New Delhi based client. She sent us a detailed mail stating how she had always under-invoiced and bypassed us after getting the contact detail of the beauticians and make-up artists on different occasions! Some awakening of the conscience, we must admit.
The innocence was now lost for good and the idealistic relationship that we had carefully nurtured with our ‘SPARK’, over the past 02 years had received its first rude shock of market place reality.
Like all parents, with good intention and genuine concern about their child’s well-being and future in their mind; we decided to halt our geographical expansion a bit and go back to the drawing board.
Let’s communicate…was the unanimous decision. Let’s talk internally, let’s communicate with the team, and let us listen more often to our customers.
Above all let us reconnect with the ‘SPARK’- The soul of our beauty services on the go concept.
After a thorough soul searching exercise, introspection, debate, dissent and discussion, we decided to tread cautiously. This exercise however did not deter us from expanding our ‘salon at your doorstep’ services along the eastern borders and south east India cities like Kolkata, Bhubaneshwar, Ranchi, Vishakhapatnam, Coimbatore and Pondicherry.
Legal advisors came on board and we initiated the necessary paperwork for TRADE MARK ™ registration of our brand name – ‘Home Salon Service’- The logo Unit and our Brand tagline - ‘Professional Doorstep Salon Services for the Women’. The entire website including the services offered, various packages, price list etc. was revamped and an entirely new name / identity given to most of them.
We spent a lot of time, effort, energy and resource on educating the team of freelancers about service delivery etiquettes and the essential Do’s and Don’ts of beauty related services to be delivered at the customer premises. More importantly, we renewed our non-negotiable pledge - to steadfastly stay the course on the following;
The second half of 2014 saw the advent of many ‘me too’ service providers at the local / city / regional level. There was a sudden increase in the mushrooming of on demand beauty service providers, especially where we had a service presence. Many of them also created websites that either copied our content partially or in entirety! Hilariously many of those copy cats and their web-designers / developers did not even bother to use their grey cells at all, while indulging in this kind of blatant plagiarism. They even mentioned our telephone numbers and email ids on their website, besides adding theirs! A few local and regional ‘doorstep parlour service’ providers cleverly tweaked our package names to revamp their website.
Many traditional standalone stationary salons in different parts of India, also decided to plagiarise our package names in entirety, without bothering to check with us or paying any royalty for our creative efforts and our intellectual property.
We decided not to pay any heed to these activities, for the time being, as by copying our concept and services, they were indirectly paying us their respects for being the – thought leader. As someone wiser once said – ‘You cannot achieve anything original or great by copying’.
We sincerely felt that that our ethical conduct and the self-imposed restraint to ignore the entire range of unethical conduct by some of our competitors, will not only help us stay focussed on our business but also aid in building a robust, sustainable and a healthy enterprise in the long-run.
A self-regulatory code of ethics was designed by us for regulating our conduct in this domain of on demand beauty treatment services in India.
Our customers possibly read our mind and by the end of 2014, they had helped us generate 15,000 happy customer experiences.
A regular flow of business and accolades made us tweak our business model a bit by sharing a higher portion of the revenue with our team of freelance beauticians, hair stylists and make-up artists.
2015 proved to be a watershed year for India’s on-demand ‘home salon service’ business, said to be worth nearly Rs.8000/- crore by 2017 – as per the KPMG annual report on this segment. Armed with this information and backed by the upbeat mood of the day, fanned by the signature tune of the start-up India, many bright brains from the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) decided to launch their e-commerce site, either as a service provider and marketplace aggregator – in the domain of ‘beauticians at home’ service!
These young minds launched a killer innovation called the - mobile APPS! One APP that provided 50 services on the go! One APP, that connected the customers to a plethora of service providers in the chosen urban locales of India. Looking for drivers, cooks, maids, photographers, plumbers, electricians and beauticians could not have been easier for these smart Indians living in one of the smart cities of India.
A few of these aggregators and APP based service providers approached us for a tactical tie-up to help them provide the last mile connectivity, wherever we were present. We pondered on the idea of joining hands with some of these new age players.
Just as we signed on the dotted lines to work on a win – win basis with a few of these new age players, we were deeply saddened to know, that they true intention was to poach our team members on the sly. They would call us a decoy customer for providing beauty services at home and once the beautician reached the decoy customer’s residence, they would start offering a bigger portion of revenue with the beauticians or offering them a much higher salary.
Please do not get us wrong. We certainly had and will never have any complaints about beauticians earning more! For us the most important criteria regarding work environment and compensation is the formula that ensures – Safety and total well-being of our therapists and customers. And this includes not just financial but emotional and physical well-being as well.
We at ‘HOME SALON SERVICE’ are also extremely proud to state that we have never indulged in any unfair trade practices. We have never approached, hired or bothered about competition or the beauticians who are working for any of these new age operators of an APP!
But in certain areas like customer service or convenience we are quite flexible to change ourselves and have no qualms in admitting, that though we were a bit late but eventually we did APE the sign of times! In June 2015, we were delighted to initiate and by end-September, 2015, re-launch our new look website + the APP, for our valued customers.
Equally happy to state here that we surpassed our internal milestone of 20,000 happy customer experiences by 31st December, 2015. Our core team took a strategic decision to shift their base camp out of the salubrious clime of the Deccan plateau to the north of Vindhya mountains; nearer to the power centre and ‘Aravalis’ - one of the oldest mountain ranges of India. Yes you guessed it right! We have a major presence in Delhi – The National Capital Region, now.
The winter has been mellow this year. Spring is at our doorstep. The red coloured ‘Palash’ flowers are in full bloom.
The holy trinity - ‘Concept, Entity and Business’ of our passion and profession named ‘Home Salon Service’, is now poised at the most exciting phase of its life-cycle. We are sanguine about the remaining 10 months providing us with the necessary canvas to share many new stories and interesting developments in the domain of personal grooming and aesthetics.
Watch out for this space as our ‘SPARK’ has its first brush with its early youth this spring……