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Inspired by travel #16: The Chapel

How spending a year backpacking around the world inspired Amanda Dicker to launch the pioneering hair salon chain that treats customers like VIPs...

Business: The Chapel
Founder: Amanda Dicker
Started in: 1997

Having spent 12 years navigating a demanding career, Amanda Dicker decided that it was finally time to think about herself – and bravely left her life behind to take a year-long trip around the world.

Realising that she was at her happiest when receiving personal, attentive customer service from the hotels that she stayed in, the former salon manager wondered why similar VIP-style service couldn't be given to hairdressing customers.

So, after returning to the UK, Dicker launched The Chapel – a hair salon which would give each customer their own private space, treat them like royalty and encourage a relaxing experience.

Despite the ridicule Dicker initially faced for her fresh take on hairdressing, the multiple award-winning company has proved its doubters wrong, and now has three UK salons in Islington, Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells, and a fourth in Verbier, Switzerland. The Chapel also retails products such as hand creams, candles and fragrances designed for relaxation.

Dicker gives us the full story of how backpacking inspired a luxury salon…

Where were you when you had your business idea?

I was travelling the world at the time, specifically backpacking Australia and South Africa. Back home I’d left behind my career: simultaneously running six salons and a training school. After 12 years, given the choice of being the manager or selling everything and going travelling, I chose the latter.

What was unknown to me before I left was that taking time out of my hectic life to travel and recoup was the best thing I would ever do.

Why were you so inspired?

The one thing that really stood out to me whilst I was travelling around the world was the amazing hospitality I received in some places. When I thought about it, the plain white beds in a $20 room weren’t that different from a $100 room – but it was the experience surrounding those hotels that made the difference.

It was the way the service and experience made me feel, the way someone treated you made all the difference to your day – it made you feel special. Why wouldn’t you bring this process into the hairdressing industry? I wanted to build a destination, not a hairdressers.

Were you actively looking for a start-up idea or did it just seem too good to pass up?

It was far more than just the experience inspiration. I couldn’t bear the hairdressing industry at the time; how they treated hairdressers and the public perception of hairdressers being unprofessional. I started collecting ideas from my own experience of how I’d do it differently and better. It wasn’t setting up a business, it was setting up a belief. The profit and everything else would follow.

I knew that I wanted to run my own salon – one that would treat you as if you were visiting a five-star hotel, not just as a customer who is no different to any of the others.

How easy was it to start the business?

The hardest part of starting a business is making the decision to do it. That doesn’t mean it won’t be the hardest journey you’ve ever been on, but it will be easier to overcome the challenges along the way once you’ve started.

Despite some non-believers in the idea beforehand, the new formula for hairdressing connected brilliantly and so quickly with the community when it started up that word flew around. In all honesty, it luckily wasn’t the enormous stress that I’d anticipated beforehand. It hasn’t been all been rainbows at all times of course, but it gave me confidence to grow!

What research did you have to carry out to learn more about the sector and the market opportunity?

I was laughed at when I came up with the idea of The Chapel – at the time it was just so different from what other salons were like. I wanted to do away with the idea of sitting in a line, having your hair done at the same time as others and feeling like a number.

In terms of research, all I had to do to realise the huge opportunity was talk to women about how they felt about getting their hair done. I found that so many women were dissatisfied or didn't know how to ask for what they wanted. There was a huge opportunity to give back to them and create a space where they would feel comfortable.

How did you replicate what you’d seen overseas or use your experience there? Did you modify the idea for the UK market?

I knew there was good hospitality to be had over here, but as I said before, the idea of bringing that style of hospitality to salons – it had never been done before.

How much did you invest in getting started?

It was way back in 1997 and I had recently met my then-boyfriend (now husband) Toby, and he was convinced by my passion that we could make things work – so he persuaded me that outside investors would rip me off. We spent £25,000 getting things of the ground and the rest, as they say, is history.

How quickly after starting did you experience what you’d describe as ‘success’?

That’s probably the best question of all. What ‘success’ is changes at all stages along the journey. To start with it’s financial, then it becomes other people’s opinions of what you are doing through awards, etc.

Fortunately, it was quick because of how well word-of-mouth spread in our local area. But what success has become to us now is genuinely loving what we do and having the time to do all the truly important things in life. Time with family and friends, and also time for you to be yourself, take exercise and pursue other interests. I now have that time and it makes me feel like I’m achieving success every day.

Where did you go for business advice?

Most of what we did was common sense from the start, but the figures side of things was definitely not my forte. In fact, when Toby asked me how many customers I would have a day and what I should charge I had no idea. However I knew my customers well and I knew my people well, and Toby had the skills with regards to numbers and marketing, so in many ways we made the perfect team.

We learned a lot along the way and opened other businesses too. However, when we really made a giant leap forward was when we decided to go to Cranfield Business School and enroll on the Business Growth Program. It changed our outlook and our business practices and has led us to a place where we are truly ready to grow the business.

What advice would you give to others who travel looking for start-up ideas?

I would say that the best ideas hit you when you focus on yourself and how you want to feel. What makes you feel that way, and is it available in an area that you enjoy working in?

Also, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get out there and talk to people. Other people can be such a huge source of inspiration, so go and chat to them and listen to their stories. Constantly listening to your gut, being open-minded and especially listening to and having empathy with your potential consumers.

What are your future plans?

To build the existing awareness of The Chapel as the brand that listens to you first, helps individuals to fancy themselves, and builds a community of like-minded hairdressers who are proud of what they do and represent. It’s not about multiplying the salons for profit; the profit follows a real ethos. And that’s what excites me.

We are planning on expanding our salons (two more in 2018) and bringing The Chapel and our ethos to more people. We really believe in the importance of taking time for yourself and pausing, and we’ve rolled this into all our messaging. We’ve also created a product range which encourages people to take a deep breath and take time for themselves.