Successful Sola Salons franchisee Becky McDougall walks through a typical day at her Oshawa location
By Kym Wolfe
For most people, Sola Salons is where you go when you need a hairstylist, massage therapist, esthetician, or other salon professional. But the franchisee who owns a Sola Salons location isn’t the one delivering those personal services. Instead, their typical day is spent providing support to the beauty professionals who are the public face of the business. In a typical day, a Sola Salons franchise owner will interact with entrepreneurs who operate in individual studios in their building, ensure the property is clean and well-maintained, spend time promoting and raising awareness of the Sola Salons brand, and engage in the administrative and financial oversight of the location to ensure its ongoing success.
Sola Salons rents studio space to independent beauty professionals, enabling them to operate autonomously without the risk and overhead costs associated with opening a traditional salon. Each move-in-ready suite comes with high-end furnishings and the equipment that the beauty pro will need to provide their services. Since opening in Denver, Colorado in 2004, Sola has become a dominant brand in the salon suites category in the U.S., and is working to repeat its success in the Canadian salon landscape.
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Becky McDougall is co-owner of the Sola Salons franchise territory in Ontario’s Durham region, along with her husband and another couple. The four began pursuing Sola franchise ownership in 2019 and went to the head office in Denver in February 2020, hoping to make a final decision. Of course, those plans had to be postponed due to the pandemic, which had a huge impact on the salon industry. Last year the four were able to revisit their decision, and opened their Sola Salons location in Oshawa, Ontario, where McDougall is the lease manager and first point of contact for all the daily operations.
A cutting-edge venture
“This is a fairly new concept in Canada, but many hairstylists here are familiar with it because it’s very popular in the U.S.,” says McDougall. That familiarity was helpful in attracting tenants to the newly built 7,000-squarefoot space that houses 36 studios. Located in a plaza, the building has ample free parking and is close to shopping centres, restaurants, and coffee shops. During the first year, McDougall leased 20 of the turnkey private salons, and her goal this year is to fill the remaining suites and establish a waiting list.
McDougall usually starts her day by dropping her children off at school, then works in her home office until mid-morning. Once she’s caught up on emails and administrative tasks, she heads to the Sola Salons building. “I love the buzz when you walk in on a busy day. Each salon has sliding glass doors, and most people keep them open. There’s a real feel of community here.”
On any given day McDougall may be meeting with the painter, handyman, or health and safety inspector prior to a move-in, or attending a ribbon cutting for a newly opened suite. She may take a potential tenant on a tour, or find herself with some unexpected free time due to a last-minute tour rescheduling. She may pop into different suites to stay connected with existing tenants, keeping an eye on cleanliness and maintenance of shared spaces—public bathrooms and shared hallways, plus a kitchen, break room, and laundry facilities that are available to the beauty professionals. Then there are social media posts to create and manage, and often evening phone calls to connect with potential studio tenants who work during the day. “Every day is different, but it’s a very flexible schedule,” says McDougall. As a mother of three, she appreciates that flexibility.
Establishing and maintaining relationships with the various salon professionals is important, says McDougall, who cites good people skills as one of the key qualities of a successful Sola franchisee. “They should also be good with numbers and very systematized,” she says. “For example, I have a system I follow when I’m giving tours and doing follow-ups.”
All hands on deck
None of the four Durham region co-owners have salon experience, but they do have business experience. When they learned about Sola Salons, they liked the model, and when they started exploring the system, they were impressed with how generous the existing franchisees were in sharing information. They felt that the franchise had done the work to establish tried-and-true methods, and they liked the support and tools that the company offered.
When they decided to move forward and were looking for a location, Sola Salons headquarters provided salon density, population, and demographic information to help them identify an ideal spot. Now that they’re up and running, there’s a portal that enables a constant flow of messages and answers to questions. Additionally, there are monthly online meetings with other franchise owners, and both headquarters and other franchisees are always available to answer questions or to brainstorm.
McDougall is impressed with the tools and resources that the brand provides to Sola Salons tenants. The company recently revamped its website as well as the Sola Pro app. That app is for tenants—they can edit the information on their webpage themselves, and take technical courses on a variety of topics, from running a business to keeping up with the latest trends in hairstyling. There’s an annual three-day convention for the “Sola-preneurs” across North America called Sola Sessions, where several hundred Sola beauty pros come together to participate in breakout sessions with industry experts. Here they learn about everything from industry trends to artistic techniques to business topics like crisis management, price strategy, marketing, and customer service. McDougall also offers educational sessions at the Oshawa location, bringing in speakers to help her tenants learn different aspects of managing and marketing their own salons.
Tenants are often attracted by the prospect of having total control over their business. “They can set their own hours and have access to come and go whenever they choose, 24/7,” says McDougall. “It’s a little more expensive than renting a chair in a salon, but their space is their own, and it’s fully equipped with everything they need, including cabinets, shelving, sinks, and chairs.” There’s also free Wi-Fi, a 24-hour security system, and video surveillance.
“This is not for someone who is just starting out. They need to have an established clientele,” says McDougall, and that provides another benefit—the different professionals get to know each other and cross-refer clients.
Durham region is large enough to support multiple Sola Salons locations, and McDougall and her partners have already started to look at other potential sites. While the initial investment for the build-out of the Oshawa space was higher than anticipated, she says they’re on track financially. The goal is to fill the remaining studios, open a second building, and eventually add a third. “It will take a few years, and we need to be patient. Anyone thinking of opening a Sola Salons needs to be aware that it is definitely a marathon, not a sprint,” she says.
When the Oshawa building first opened, McDougall wasn’t sure what to expect. “I didn’t realize how fulfilling it would be to see these business owners invest in themselves and thrive. Most of them are women, and I feel like Sola Salons is empowering them and helping them to be successful,” she says. “We’ve already seen some of them expand and move into a larger studio space. We are definitely disrupting the traditional salon model, and in a good way.”
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