Hair stylist goes mobile with RV-turned-salon

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Every three weeks or so, a black, custom-outfitted recreational vehicle rumbles into a cul-de-sac in Alexandria, Virginia. The neighbors pour out of their homes to greet it.

"It's kind of like the ice cream truck," said Mary Beth Buchholz, who lives on the tree-lined street. "All the kids come running."

Grown-ups, too.

The RV pulls up to the curb, the driver's door swings open and out steps Rubie Williams, entrepreneur and owner of Hair Nirvana, the mobile hair salon that delivers her to her 100-plus customers all over the Washington region.

It's her answer to the era of on-demand services.

"It's catering," said Williams, 46, who has been styling hair for a quarter century. "I'm two years into this [mobile] business, and it is a learning process. I love the traveling. It gets me publicity."

There isn't a ton of money at stake here, but there is a lesson for entrepreneurs big and small: Recognize a problem, come up with a solution, and hustle until the world beats a path to your door. (In this case, a salon on wheels.)

Williams satisfied both a customer demand and a common desire among most small-business owners: independence. She was also tired of forking over rent and/or a chunk of each haircut to a salon owner or a landlord.

"I don't like when people tell me what to do," the resourceful entrepreneur said. (Join the club, I thought to myself.)

Unlike most of us wage-earners, Williams went out and did something about it. Without being too dramatic, she went after her dream.

After more than two decades living on commissions and paying rent to salons (something she still does), Williams in 2015 mustered the courage, tapped her savings account for $31,000 and bought a used RV.

The vehicle was cheap: $6,000. The refurbishment was not. It cost her around $25,000 to outfit her mobile money-earner with water tanks, a generator, hair-dryers, sinks, shelves and chairs - everything that goes with a salon.

"It was difficult in the beginning," she said. For one thing, she needed zoning from the city of Alexandria, where she lives. She worked with the city's zoning manager, who helped adapt a zoning code covering her vehicular business.

"If I knew what I know now, I would have done it a long time ago," she said.

That's because she keeps all the money from her jobs in the RV. She doesn't have to share those haircut fees with a salon owner.

"It's a blessing," she said of her motorized salon. Using it three days a week helped boost her income from $60,000 to $72,000.

Williams still runs a portion of her styling business the conventional way: renting space in a salon off Duke Street in Alexandria. She pays $300 to $400 a week for the spot, using it from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

She revs up the RV for its rounds on Tuesdays and Thursdays, cutting hair from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. And on Sundays starting in May, she will motor to a farmers market, where she will serve clients from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. She also tries to squeeze in one wedding party a month.

Williams said she goes anywhere in Virginia and Maryland. The truck does not yet travel to the District of Columbia for insurance reasons.

The nice thing about the hair business is its recurring revenue: Hair never stops growing.

The more efficiently and cheaply you can tend to clients' hair, the more you can earn. That's where the truck comes in. Williams uses it to employ a hub-and-spoke strategy: She parks in one place and the customers - most of whom are in Alexandria, Woodbridge and Arlington - come to her.

She'll park near Marymount University in Arlington or in a neighborhood like Buchholz's, where nine or 10 customers can stream in over several hours, which saves on inefficient long-distance schlepping from house to house. Williams said she can get up to 13 walk-ins at the Sunday farmers market, earning hundreds of dollars depending on the customers' needs.

Her prices run the gamut. A man getting his beard trimmed pays $17. It's $30 to $40 for a men's shampoo and haircut, and $45 to $60 for women. Prices run all the way up to $205 for a keratin treatment and $260 for "weave-ins."

Williams likes cutting hair, but a lot of what she does is listening. Some professors would call that a "stick" business because it keeps the customers coming back.

"We are like therapists ... like healers to our clients," she said. "They come and share and we give them positive input. For the most part, we have conversations about life in general."

Customers like Buchholz love the flexibility.

"I had several friends that were her clients," said Buchholz, who started patronizing Williams before the mobile salon rode into the picture. "Unlike many beauticians, she worked on Mondays."

Williams has been cutting hair since graduating from Lake Braddock High School in 1988. Her father ran his own car-repair business in Falls Church. Her mother has had her own housecleaning business. Both instilled the entrepreneurship bug in her.

"They figured out that instead of making other people rich, just put the money in your own pocket," she said.

Williams started out at Hair Cuttery, where she earned a $4 commission (50 percent) on every $8 haircut. It was a slog, but she eventually pushed her income to $32,000 a year before moving to another salon in the same shopping center that charged more per haircut, which meant that her 50 percent commission went up.

Williams learned some important business lessons early on, such as convincing people that you care what they think of you.

That meant looking the part.

"I was stylish and very professional," she said. "When you look professional, you look like you know what you are doing. You are comfortable. And it gives people confidence in you."

The RV came of necessity. One of her clients asked whether she would drive to her house once a month in rural Virginia and cut her hair.

Williams would pile into her Infiniti, drive out and charge about $110. Sometimes, the woman's sister-in-law and children would show up too, asking for haircuts. That's when Williams started thinking about the advantages of a mobile salon. The idea crystallized when she saw a news show on Fox 5 television about someone in Maryland with a mobile salon. She started trolling Craigslist for used RVs. She found a 1992 Rockwood RV with low mileage. She paid her handyman to build it out into a salon.

Her next plan is to expand to a second mobile salon built around nail care. Her dream is to one day have a fleet and go national. For now, she has fulfilled a need - both for her customers and herself.

"It's simply ingenious," said Buchholz, who runs her own floral-delivery business out of her home.

"When the mobile salon pulls up into my cul-de-sac, one by one she cuts and styles my daughters' hair and mine," she said. "I'm not cooling my heels in a salon, juggling my laptop or cellphone. I don't lose any time in my day."

When Williams's mobile salon arrives in the morning, usually around 8:30 a.m., one of the neighbors sends out a text message to the local families, signaling that she's in the neighborhood.

"I so admire her for having the vision and the tenacity to make it happen. Local and state governments can be big obstacles to entrepreneurial ingenuity and Rubie did her homework and made it happen," Buchholz said. "Most people would not have had the moxie to see their dream become reality."

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