Episode 15: Nick Arrojo, Founder and Owner of Arrojo

Meet Nick Arrojo. He came to the US on a one-way ticket and went on to start America’s largest independent hairdressing brand. Listen as he explains how his job is like a boxing match, and how he gets back up when he is knocked down.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzI'm so excited that we're joined today by Nick Arrojo, owner of Arrojo. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty.
Nick ArrojoOh, I'm so happy to be on the phone with you, and communicating and connecting.
Jodi KatzYeah, this is so cool. Nick, I'm so excited about this, because our listeners, they're just so curious and hungry for the real story, right, not the shiny PR spin that companies put out there to customers and the press, but really what happens behind the scenes for people who are running and growing brands. You have an incredibly interesting story to tell, so we're going to jump into it. You're a very well-established hairstylist. You have several business platforms. Will you walk our audience through the company Arrojo, and what it means?
Nick ArrojoSure. I've been hairdressing for 35 years. I came to America 22 years ago as an employee in a leading hair brand, and just over 15 years ago I started Arrojo, which is a hair company. When I say it's a hair company, it's broken up into three different pillars. Pillar number one is the foundation of our brand, which is this hair salon piece. At present we have three salons in New York, one in Tribeca, what we call our mothership here in SoHo, and our location out in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We employ over 75 full-time employee stylists, and we have about 30 people in training to be the future of the hairdressing brand. We service over 1,500 clients a week, and the clients come from all over the country. That's pillar number one, and that was the foundation of the brand.

The second pillar is our education platform. Our education platform is the key that keeps us relevant and real, and it keeps us well grounded, because we are having what we call an education culture company. To flesh that out, we have two cosmetology schools, so if anyone's interested in embarking on a career in hairdressing, you have to get licensed by the state so you can actually start to become a hairdresser. We have two cosmetology schools, one in our Tribeca location and one in our SoHo location. That's really exciting, and we also offer advanced, ongoing education for hairdressers from all over the country, if not from all over the world. Literally every weekend, we are teaching, training existing hairdressers from all over the place, as well as through every week, Monday through Friday, we're training the future of the hairdressing business in our cosmetology schools.
Then the third pillar is our hair products. We launched our hair products about 10 years ago, and we really believe that the goal is always to make people look great and feel fabulous. Without hair products, you cannot do that, so we have our hair products. The way in which we do that is we have our products to sell in our own locations ... it's called Arrojo Product ... and we also sell our product through to salons across the country who also believe in our synergistic vision of education and making people look great and feel fab. Three pillars, the salon business, the education platform, and of course our products business too.
Jodi KatzIt's incredible what you've built here, and obviously clearly it's [inaudible 03:54], which makes me curious to know, why did you come to the U.S.? What prompted that?
Nick ArrojoYou know, I started hairdressing when I was 16 years of age, and by the time I was 17, I kind of had this dream that I would move to New York. I'd never been to New York. I came to America for the very first time when I was 21 years of age, and I worked in Chicago. I used to work for one of the most leading hair brands in the UK, Vidal Sassoon, and they had locations here in America. I had this dream that one day I would move to New York, and I had a vision of what it would be.

The first time I came to New York was on a one-way ticket, and that was when I came to work here. I was 28 years of age, and my dream came true. When I started working here, it was the beginning of the eye-opener for me, having more than 10 years' experience in the hair business but coming to this super, super-fast-paced city and this great country, which kind of really helps you to I suppose believe in yourself, and can help you kind of fulfill that thing that we call the American dream. That's what got me here, and I'm still dreaming.
Jodi KatzWas it hard to get your first job in the U.S.? Did you have to work really hard to get it, or was it easy to just be yourself into it?
Nick ArrojoI don't think a lot of people understand how difficult it is to legally come into America, and I came here legally. I was very fortunate that I had two job offers. One was to work for a leading manufacturer, and one was to work for a leading hair salon. I did that based on my reputation that I'd created in the UK. The world was getting smaller then. It's much smaller now, but thankfully, through what I did and what I achieved in England, people Stateside got to hear about me, and I managed to have enough reputation and accolade that made it that I could actually get a true sponsorship to come and work here in America.

It's not easy to do, but I was very fortunate. I got the opportunity to fulfill my dream, because I always believed that one day I would get to New York, and I always want to do everything correctly. I think it's a very important principle to do everything correctly, so I did not come to New York until I had that firm commitment of a job. I had my working papers. I arrived here on a one-way ticket with $1,500, and my dream continued.
Jodi KatzThat's so cool. Before I got to meet you through the podcast, I knew you ... and I'm dating myself now ... from "What Not to Wear," which was the coolest television show ever way back when. You had many, many years on this show, and this show really was the beginning of everything that we know from TV now. Tell us a little bit about what it was like to be part of that reality TV experience back then.
Nick ArrojoIt was pretty amazing, you know? It was very kind of matter-of-fact when it happened. I didn't know what was happening. I'd left my company, my partnership business. I'd been in America for seven, eight years. I found myself downtown, trying to create Arrojo. I had very little money. I was renting a couple of chairs inside a school, and one of my clients said to me, "Oh, there's a TV show that they're casting for hairdressers, and are you interested in trying out?" One of the keys to success is always saying yes, and I said, "Yeah, no problem."

They came down to meet me, they filmed me for a short period of time. I was so tired and exhausted when they came to film me. It was probably one of the worst experiences for me personally, thinking that someone's going to film me and watch me. Literally a week later, they said, "Nick, you're in the top two or three hairdressers that could get this role for this 10-episode season." I was very nonchalant and said, "Well, if it works, great, and if it doesn't work, great. Just let me know, because I'm working on trying to build my dream." Shortly thereafter they came back and said, "Congratulations, you're the guy."
This is based off a successful show in England. Of course, being from England, I called my mum and I said, "Mum, I'm going to be on this TV show called `What Not to Wear.'" She said, "I've never heard about it," so I was confused as to whether it was going to be a big thing or not. I rolled into the show, and it was pretty lowbrow. We filmed it inside an apartment. We did the 10 episodes. There was no change in my business personally, but it was fun to do. I really enjoyed it. There was some lightbulb moments when I got to experience the change that people have when they get their hair done and when they've never had great hair, so it was personally very rewarding.
I think the real reward came when I eventually opened up and got my first lease for Arrojo, and the producers of the show came down and they said, "Guess what, Nick. We just signed season two, 50 episodes," and literally six months after that, I started to see a major impact in my business from being on television. It was really an amazing experience.
Jodi KatzThat's so cool. For the people who are listening who are younger than me, we're talking about late 2003, 2004.
Nick ArrojoYeah, 2003 we started filming, and I stopped filming in 2010. It's the gift that keeps on giving, because they keep playing those reruns.
Jodi KatzYeah, it was such a great show. Back then, there weren't as many great things to watch in that kind of makeover reality, because it didn't feel like fake reality. It felt really real, right?
Nick ArrojoIt felt real, and that was the hook. We had a couple of other hairdressers that worked for me that also got success. There was "Style Court." That was one of my hairdressers who worked with me that was on TV, because I think the makeover shows became very popular. At the same time that I started doing "What Not to Wear," my apprentice, Kyan Douglas, became the hair guru for "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Remember that show?
Jodi KatzOh, yeah. Of course, of course.
Nick ArrojoIt was a TV explosion of reality in our lives, and we tried to ride the journey as much as we could.
Jodi KatzIt makes me think about this idea of being really open. You mentioned that you were very open to this idea of trying new things, and it's hard to be open because it means you're being vulnerable. Do you remember what it felt like to just say okay to things without overthinking it?
Nick ArrojoWell, my attorney said, "Don't sign this contract, because with television comes contracts," and I said, "You know what, if it works, it's going to be great, and if it doesn't work, it'll be over." I think you have to have optimism, and I think if you're overly guarded, I think maybe you might lose some opportunities. I suppose I'll give you a better example. When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose. When you have a lot, maybe you have something to lose.

At that stage in my life, I had nothing to lose. I had nothing. Somebody came to me and said, "You're going to do hair on TV, they're going to film you doing hair." Regardless of what the contract said, I said, "This is a great opportunity. Jump with it, and let's take it from there." I disagreed with what my attorney advised on this one, and I think I made the right choice.
Jodi KatzLet's go back to running a business, because this is how you spend most of your time. You have three pillars, multiple locations, multiple partners. What role do you take in all this?
Nick ArrojoIt's a guiding role, you know? I've always tried to guide, train, and I've always tried to replace myself. As I've grown my business and seen my vision come to life, I used to have a shoebox, and on that little shoebox was like these little things that I'd keep up. On the inside of the shoebox, I suppose people would put things on their fridge to remind them, and inside my shoebox there was a quote that said, "Try and do something bigger than you can ever imagine," and I'm doing something bigger than I can ever imagine. It's like step by step, yeah? It's not to be overwhelmed, so I take a guiding role in all of my businesses.

I started off being the hairdresser behind the chair, and I'm the educator, but now I have 75 hairdressers what work alongside me, and they're all educators that work alongside me. Then I have key employees that oversee each of the pillars, and I help to guide them and they feed information through me, so it's very multifaceted. I think even today ... and it's barely 11:00, or just past, in the morning ... I've been involved in each facet in many different things. There's never a dull moment, and I just try to do my best to establish the right things for what my experience has given me.
Jodi KatzAs someone who's running and guiding basically multiple businesses under an umbrella, what's the biggest pain point for you in all this, the biggest challenge?
Nick ArrojoThere's not enough hours in the day. I need a 34-hour day. That's what I need to get through. I've learned a long time ago that by the time the day comes to an end, there's always stuff that you didn't get to address. You have to be somewhat okay with that, because it's not like there's an end game. It's a journey, and I enjoy the journey. We prioritize what's the most important thing to deal with today, right now. It keeps it exciting. I'm very fortunate. I don't look at what I do as a job. I never have, and I teach that this is not a job. Hairdressing is a career, and I try to explain to people what that means. A career is something that changes, so you have a guided destination.

My career's evolved and changed. I'm fortunate that I have a career and I'm fortunate that it's multifaceted, and it enables me to constantly keep learning and I suppose enjoying the fact that there is a sense of purpose. The purpose is in education, and that's a great purpose, and the purpose is in making people look good and feel good, and that's a great thing too. The purpose is watching a baby like a brand or like a new product be developed and evolved, and seeing that you have not only maybe innovated it, but you've actually created it with your team of people, so collectively there's a real personal satisfaction.
It is a lot of work. Jodi, I've realized a long time ago that, hey, this is not going to be ... it can't be this much hard work forever, but I think that at a certain point in life you say to yourself, "Hey, you worked hard for success. Now you have to work even harder to nurture the success." I see that my journey in my career is to evolve it, so that maybe it'll be a little bit less physical work and more controlled work in the future. It's an ongoing journey, and it's multifaceted.
Jodi KatzYou mentioned finding a path eventually where you're not physically required, physically present as many hours of the day, and I think about that a lot because when I started my business 10 years ago, I had a personal goal which maybe sounds silly, but it's stayed the same the whole 10 years, which is I want to work as little as possible and make as much money as possible, and then simplifying it, right? Because there's a lot of joy and creativity in that, but how do I do that, right?

I'm not going to be a billionaire because of this strategy, right? That's fine, I don't need to be a billionaire, but how do I basically pack in the fun and joy, the creativity, the pleasure, the collaboration, into fewer hours, knowing that gazillions aren't coming, but can I be comfortable? Can my team be comfortable? Can we get to the point where we have money in our pockets so that feels comfortable? That's been a goal of mine, and it shifts, right, like as far as some of the work. Maybe I work more now than I'd like to, but I don't see myself working that hard forever, right? It's like a give-and-take.
Nick ArrojoWell, for me, honestly I never focused on the money. I just focused on the process, and I focused on the dream of what made me feel good. Then what happened was I never had any money and there was no profit, because the number one motivator for me was always, "Well, as long as we can pay the bills, we're still in business." The last person to take anything was always going to be me. Then what happened was, after year three, the success of the business started to drive profit to the bottom line. I was like, "Oh, my God, we're actually starting to make money."

I've managed to ... and this has been part of how I've looked at my business, is that I'm prepared to work really hard, and as I've been working really hard there's been times when I've said to myself, "Okay, I need to reward myself for all my hard work." I've been very fortunate that I've managed to superly exceed my expectation of my own personal goal satisfaction, and then I realized that the thing that gives me life is my business, so this is where I love to be. I'm very fortunate. If it was all to stop today, I would say, "Wow, Nick, you exceeded your expectations beyond your personal desire for comfort."
I think what you're saying is we're looking for personal security. I still, because I have such high expectations of my business and myself, don't know that I have that complete security for my business for the future, but I know that I have a really good cushion to help guide me through any kind of headwind or change or difficulty. I do kind of run my business fiscally responsible while still being able to reward myself for all of the hard work. In those moments when I step back, I can say, "Wow, look at this apartment, Nick, that you've got in New York City that you own, or look at this place that you have and look at where you live and how you live and how you travel." I live through my business, and it helps to give me some comfort in my life. I have two great little boys and a beautiful wife, so we're doing pretty good, which is a blessing.
Jodi KatzWhen we first talked together, you described running the business as being like a boxer. Can you talk to us a little bit about what that means?
Nick ArrojoWell, think about a year, and you've got 12 months in a year so you've got 12 rounds in a boxing match, yeah? Throughout the year, you are going to take one or two punches. Throughout a boxing match, you're going to take one or two punches, but as long as you're still standing at the end of the round, at the end of the match, you're still in business, you're still winning. Certain issues happen, hidden surprises that are not planned for, new regulations that get passed down because of employees. If you have legislation, surprise expenditures, or real miscalculations.

There are always surprises, and the surprises could be if a key team member leaves your business, you have to be able to make your business streamline its operation and cope with the loss of somebody that was managing a major asset. If you have an unexpected bill, which would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars ... and those things do happen ... or if costs change. I recently got to the end of my lease here in SoHo, and we're talking about the landlord wanting to triple the rent, so being able to manage the process. When we are making money today, it doesn't mean we're going to have the same rules and regulations and the same employees on staff today. Another thing that I've noticed, having been in business for a long period of time, is when your former employees leave, they actually become competition in your space, and that's part of understanding how to stay in business.
I think that for me, when I had my very first business, which was a partnership business, we had a plan to getting business. We never had a plan after that. What I've done with this business is I've always got a working, changing, evolving business plan, and I pretty much do that year to year. I keep a notebook that keeps me on a thread, because my intention of what I want to achieve in a 12-month period, it may end up not going in the same direction. By keeping just a notebook on hand, it helps me to remember, A, what I thought we should do, and then B, where we end up, and I can kind of work out maybe what I need to do next year to take my business to the next step. There's constant discovery, and there are constant surprises that you have to deal with.
Jodi KatzYou described 12 boxing matches. I think sometimes I have 365 boxing matches. I'm thinking I'm more a one-day-at-a-time than a one-month-at-a-time entrepreneur, and every day is so different. This has been really insightful, Nick. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us today. It was incredible.
Nick ArrojoMy pleasure. It's a lot of fun. I think it's been just such a great journey for me, and it's the middle of the year and I'm in Round 7, and I'm got some boxing, some stuff to deal with right now. I'm looking at so much work ahead of me, but I'm also looking at so much reward at the same time, because we are moving and we are changing and constantly trying to push my business forward.

I'll leave you with this. I teach a lot. I teach hairdressers all over the country, and I talk to my clients. I have a great network of clients that help. They're good, intelligent people that we can share ideas with and thoughts with, and I always say it's really hard to get into business for yourself, but when you get into business for yourself, you have so much motivation and desire that it helps to get you into business. Staying in business is really difficult. It's harder than getting into business, because you have to have that depth of ... you've got to be able to manage the time, stay focused on the role, and you've also got to be able to just stay with the pace.
Then finally, I'm doing business in New York just like you, and to stay at the top in one of the most competitive places in the world is the hardest. I recognize what my role is, I recognize my responsibility, and I always try to remember that I'm fulfilling the dream that I dreamt about. Even though it may be hard at times, there is so much reward being able to at least have a career and have a dream that you can continue to fulfill. I do hope that it really ... you know, being able to share this story, it helps me as an individual because it's a constant reminder that when you actually speak it, it actually reminds you of the excitement of why you're doing what you're doing in the first place.
Jodi KatzThat's great, Nick. Well, you have to keep those gloves up. I'll keep my gloves up.
Nick ArrojoYou got it.
Jodi KatzOkay. Have a great day. Thanks, Nick.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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