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Tatiana Hair Extensions: Tatiana Karelina

From Russia with locks: the hair stylist to the stars talks healthy growth

When someone who specialises in hair extensions talks of an organic approach to business, it's hard not to raise an eyebrow. But Tatiana Karelina, the founder and owner of Tatiana Hair Extensions, is determined to build her business on the most natural and sustainable lines.

Three years after opening her first salon in Kensington, Tatiana has earned international renown for fitting high-grade hair extensions, through the processes of either clip- ins and silicon micro rings. Her company's ability to combine untreated hair from different sources to get an exact colour match, and blend in seamlessly with the customer's natural hair, has earned rave reviews both in Britain and overseas.

Tatiana Hair Extensions already has a string of celebrity clients, and has branched out from its London base to open a thriving salon in Manchester – plans are now afoot to expand to America, Canada and the Middle East.

The roots of success

Born and raised in Russia, Tatiana got the idea for her businesses when she was working in the United States, and took a course in hair extensions. She says: “I recognised [the potential of the business] straightaway because quite a lot of women in the States were interested.

“When I came to London (in 2005) I worked in the UK's largest specialist salon for hair extension and hair loss, and I saw how keen women were to look glamorous all the time.”

Ploughing into the savings she had made in the salon, Tatiana set up a hair extension business from home in 2006, making an initial investment of £50,000 in hair. Her early business strategy was based on a commitment to maximum flexibility, specifically the ability to “match any colour, any texture, any thickness of hair.”

Tatiana established a system whereby the client selects the hair best suited to their hair texture and desired look, and the extension is then prepared using different samples, bonded together. Tatiana claims that, while most of her competitors can supply extensions in only a single colour, her company can bond different shades and colours together to create an exact match with the client's natural hair.

“If you don't provide an exact colour match, it's obvious that the client is wearing extensions,” Tatiana says. “You sometimes see this in magazines like Hello – a celebrity is spotted with cheap, tacky extensions. We wanted to avoid this.”

Returning to Russia

Many of Tatiana's competitors had built their companies on Chinese and Indian hair, but she decided to ignore these sources, because, in her words: “Indian and Chinese hair is not suitable for British women, particularly those who have blonde hair. In order for the Chinese hair to get bleached to blonde hair, it takes quite a lot of dye, which results in a lower-quality product and isn't ethical.”

Instead, she returned to her native Russia, a country which has a sound and well-established hair extension market. She describes the Russian system thus:

“The suppliers have hair collectors who work for them, who in turn travel to small rural communities to collect the hair. They put an ad in the local paper two weeks before the hair collector comes round, inviting people to supply hair at a good price. The price varies on how long people's hair is – if it's waistline hair they get paid more.”

Aided by her familiarity with the language and culture, Tatiana established close personal contacts with her suppliers, and now travels back home several times a year to check the operation – and make sure everything is being done ethically.

“When I travel back to Russia, I pick the hair personally. I pay quite a lot for it, but it's great quality and everyone gets a fair deal.”

Since first sourcing the hair, Tatiana has established a network of international suppliers, including FedEX and DHL, to transport the product back to the UK. To move the product inside Russia, she has engaged a special local courier, who offers expert knowledge of the people and customs.

Branching out

After working entirely on her own in the first few weeks, she recruited two members of staff to work alongside her and share the load of her growing business. Unlike many other entrepreneurs, Tatiana found success almost immediately – the business was cashflow-positive within three months, and her initial investment of £50,000 was recouped within the first year.

“At the beginning I broke down my competitors into four categories – salons specialising in hair extensions, multi-service hair salons, those guys who rent chairs in salons, and people who work from home. As our brand grew, the smaller ones who rent chairs or work from home became less competitive, and our marketshare increased.”

In 2008 she decided to move into a permanent salon, as her home could no longer satisfy the demands of her growing business. Due to the economic crisis, she found a number of vacant high-street premises in ideal London locations, offering plenty of choice.

She eventually settled upon a quiet street in Kensington, which offered a perfect mix of residential and commercial footfall, and matched the demographics of the majority of her clients. The previous tenant was a hair salon, so Tatiana was able to adapt the premises without spending a fortune on fixtures; the only major requirement was some branded fittings, which were funded from the new owner's personal savings.

Tatiana says she was always “fairly confident” the salon would work. She continues: “Although the most dangerous risks to a business are the ones you don't see coming, we knew this was a viable venture based on the demand we saw from the market.”

In fact, the new outlet was extremely successful. Although Tatiana originally planned to stick with a single salon, the rapid growth of the business facilitated the opening of a second base, in Manchester.

The business is currently growing 30% year-on-year, and Tatiana claims she is serving 80 new clients per month, mainly women aged between 19 and 52 – although the oldest client is 73 years old, “which shows how women of all ages pride themselves on having beautiful hair!”

Prices range from £285 for the cheapest, 12-inch half-head extension, to £1,220 for a full, 22-inch package. Tatiana says the average price paid by her customers is around £640, and adds that many competitors offer lower-grade extensions at a much higher price.

The business currently employs 11 full-time staff; seven based in London, three in Manchester, and one in business development. Strategies for digital expansion, and search engine optimisation, are outsourced between France and the UK, and Tatiana has hired a company in Omsk, Russia to develop an iPad app for the business.

Plans for expansion

Flushed by her UK success, Tatiana is set to open a branch in Toronto in April, with plans for further salons in New York, Los Angeles and even Bahrain.

Ultimately, she intends to develop “a business model like Ikea,” with a nationwide network of outlets. But, for now, that remains a long way off – Tatiana Hair Extensions is already moving fast enough by anyone's standards.


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