The Making It! Institute 
For The Advancement of Business 

The Barber Shop Lesson

Barber shops in African American neighborhoods play several roles. They are a town hall and political debate forum as well as offering the expected hair care services. In addition to a hair trim this past weekend, I was reminded of the microcosm of the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in these shops as well.

My barber, Rodney, is a grandfather of Social Security collection age, and he considers himself to be semi-retired. Here is what I noticed during 45 minutes in the Crenshaw Boulevard shop where he cuts hair several days per week: When I arrived, there was one customer in the chair getting a cut, and there was another person lined up ahead of me. By the time my haircut was done and he handed me a mirror to admire his craftsmanship, before pocketing my $20 bill, I did a quick calculation. Three customers in forty five minutes at $20 each adds up to $60 an hour, including a 15 minute break! A junior attorney or aerospace engineer would be tickled to accept the equivalent of $60 an hour in today’s environment.

While Rodney doesn’t work forty hours per week nor does he capture $60 for every hour that he’s in the shop, he probably takes home enough working for himself to nicely supplement any other income, and while I suspect that the word honesty must be in the shop’s code of conduct, I would not bet that all the cash is reported to those who care about such things, like the IRS.

While I waited for my turn in the barber’s chair, a man of undetermined age walked through the shop with a belt slung over his shoulder and that belt held about ten various cell phone pouches. Though sunglasses shielded his eyes it was easy to see that he was sizing up the room in search of customers. Since I do love to support other small businesses and my Blackberry didn’t have the benefit of a pouch that could go on my hip, he probably spotted me as a likely buyer. Five dollars for the fake leather holder seemed like a fair deal, and the transaction only took thirty seconds to capture me as another happy customer. He may not see himself as an entrepreneur, but he was demonstrating the spirit.

Just after I settled into Rodney’s chair for my trim, a woman came up to him with a Styrofoam container and said that she is launching her catering business and wanted some of the barbers to sample her food at no charge. Though I didn’t want to suddenly move my head for fear of leaving there with more than a simple trim, I gave her an “atta girl” smile for that smart marketing move. I loved the simple resourcefulness of what she was doing.

This barber shop is a beehive of activity with about twelve chairs and customers ranging in age from four years up to people in the cocktail hour of life. I hope the youngsters were taking in these lessons on what my father used to call “the hustle,” which meant having a variety of legal ways to make a living. When I hear people say there aren’t enough opportunities and that they can’t make money, I’ll tell them about the simple but valuable barber shop lessons.

- Nelson Davis | Small Business Expert