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“What Makes you Different Makes you Successful”, 5 Business Tips from Alexis Courtney

“Build a soft place to land. Everyone wants to be valued. I’ve always thought my employees’ #1 reason for staying at my salons was because of the pay. When we became the franchisor we started doing one on one discovery days and as our potential franchisees would tour our stores I would always have them talk to the stylists. I was surprised to find that the #1 reason our stylists stayed with us was because of the people and the environment. They felt supported, they felt the team oriented atmosphere, they felt safe. Safety, not only physical but emotional, is highly underestimated in the workforce. If you can provide it, your turnover will be much lower.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexis Courtney, COO of Cookie Cutters Haircuts for Kids. Alexis got her degree in mathematics and became a high school math teacher before discovering her desire to be a business owner. After 8 years of teaching she walked in to a Cookie Cutters Haircuts for Kids and new it was what she was looking for. Eleven years later after running five stores she is now the franchisor of the concept and the COO. Alexis is joined by her husband Neal Courtney, CEO of Cookie Cutters, who formerly served as the CEO of Famous Brands. In 2014, after being franchisees for the brand, the Courtneys purchased Cookie Cutters from its founders. Since then they have grown the brand to more than 55 locations in 19 states, with more than 130 in pipeline. The brand was recognized on the Inc.5000 list as #1353 with a 301 percent growth rate over the past three years. Neal and Alexis sat down with me to discuss their journey from franchisees to franchisors, and the five things they wish someone told them beforehand.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Alexis: I made my way to Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania in 1999 after being recruited to play on their water polo team. It was a little tricky because women’s water polo was not an NCAA sport at the time. I was fast enough to earn a swimming scholarship in order to both swim and play on the water polo team. It was the perfect fit, I had always wanted to be a teacher and Slippery Rock was known for producing great teachers. Neal and I met when we were Juniors in College and married after graduating. After eight years of teaching, and pregnant with our second child, my income was a wash. We started looking into small business ownership. It just so happened that our two year old daughter needs a haircut. My cousin had told me about a children’s hair salon 20 minutes from my home. It was Cookie Cutters Haircuts for Kids. I knew the minute I walked into it that I wanted to be a part of it. Neal wasn’t as jazzed, I don’t know too many men that see themselves in children’s haircare but I was persistent and he was great with the research and we chose Cookie Cutters Haircuts for Kids.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I have about 1000 stories I could tell you about the kids that come into our salon. Probably my favorite was about 5 years ago. I boy of about 4 finished his haircut and was helped out of his car. He started doing all of these wide leg stretches from left to right. The barber said, “Hey buddy, are you okay?” And he replied, “Sometimes my peepee gets stuck to my leg.” The barber reply, “Me too man, me too.”

So what exactly does your company do?

Neal: Cookie Cutters offers an interactive haircut experience that both children and parents won’t soon forget. Children are welcome by an in-store playground with slides. Each station has unique fantasy chairs in the shapes of sports care, firetrucks, airplanes, and more, as well as TVs for kids to watch movies or play video games. We end each haircut with a balloon, sucker, and if we did our job right, a smile.

Alexis: We’ve designed the entire experience to be as fun and memorable as possible. Haircuts are inevitable and they happen frequently with children. Why not create an atmosphere that a child enjoys and wants to keep coming back to?

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Alexis: Cookie Cutters Haircuts for Kids is a semi-absentee model with the majority of owners not having a background in haircare. I have a great deal of pride seeing four of my managers become owners of the salons they managed. The ultimate goal for every stylist/barber is to one day own their own salon and I feel I had a part in providing this opportunity. I am also very aware of the children who come into our stores fearing haircuts or have special needs. I’ve watch many heartwarming haircuts where the parents will sob at the end of the haircut because they have been everywhere else and no one had the tools or the knowledge to cut their child’s hair. Why do anything if it doesn’t bring goodness to the world. I watch franchisees connect in their community and donate to causes that are close to their hearts. This year many Cookie Cutters Haircuts for Kids will donate to walk in “Light the Night” a celebration of those affect by Leukemia and Lymphoma.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Neal: For starters, working in franchising is inherently a people-oriented business. I wish someone would’ve told me how emotionally invested you get with those individuals that become franchises. A franchisor is only as successful as the franchisees that operate within that respective business. As a franchisor you are with them every step of the way and you long for them to be successful. Franchisees not only invest in the concept but they invest in you as a leader. The burden can be heavy.”

Alexis: “I second that. I wish I knew the bill of responsibility that comes with being leaders. Neal and I take this very seriously, people are putting their livelihood into our brand and I wish I knew beforehand the responsibility that came with it.”

Alexis:

1. You are the face of your business. It took me seven years to figure this out. I always wanted to hide behind the brand name. I didn’t want anyone to know I was the owner of a business. What if they didn’t like the service? What if they thought I was some millionaire who only cared about the bottom line? What if they thought they could run the business better than I could? I write this and think how silly it is now. Brand or no brand you are the face of your business. Your actions will seep into your business with every choice you make. Your employees will act the way they are treated.

2. Build a soft place to land. Everyone wants to be valued. Employment is very low and I’ve always thought my employees #1 reason for staying at my salons was because of the pay. When we became the franchisor we started doing one on one discovery days and as our potential franchisees would tour our stores I would always have them talk to the stylists. I was surprised to find that the #1 reason our stylists stayed with us was because of the people and the environment. They felt supported, they felt the team oriented atmosphere, they felt safe. Safety, not only physical but emotional, is highly over estimated in the workforce if you can provide it, your turnover will be much lower.

3. You need a thick skin. If you are in the service business you will be reviewed. Funny story about this, I received a review about 4 years ago where the mom stated that the owner of the store must not value her employees because there weren’t salon mats around the chairs. Up until that time we didn’t have mats because we consistently moved our chairs around between stations. I was so mad, I went out that day and bought mats for my store. I told my stylists not to move the chairs and I hoped they enjoyed the mats. I didn’t even ask them if they wanted mats, I wasn’t going to have anyone think that I would choose to not do what was best for my stylists.

4. Do lose why you chose to be a part of your business in the first place. I was the mother of two, I was a teacher and loved my profession but knew I wanted to be in charge of my own time. I searched for business opportunities that would match this desire. When I walked into Cookie Cutters Haircuts for Kids in 2005. I saw kids playing on the slide, laughing and having fun. I saw my own daughter, who happened to be sporting a mullet because her hair wouldn’t grow and I had waited way too long to get it cut, look into the mirror after her haircut and beam at her new a-line bob. I had no idea a haircut could build the self-esteem of a child so instantly. I saw 20-year-old girls doing everything they could to make each and every child feel like a million bucks. That’s what I fell in love with that day. That’s what I will always want to be a part of.

5. What makes you different makes you successful. I did not get an MBA. I watched my husband work up the corporate ladder. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “I have no choice.” People feel this way when they think their job is at stake unless they adhere to their boss. I don’t play by these rules, I get it, I am my own boss and when I became the franchisor of my own concept I had plenty of example of successful franchises to look to. What makes Neal and I different is we both speak to all potential franchisees, we both participate in a one on one discovery day with each candidate. We work to connect with all the people who are a part of Cookie Cutters Haircuts for Kids. We listen to our franchisees, we take criticism and think of the future and what we can do to better each store individually and the brand as a whole. I still own my own store. I will always own my own store, I don’t ever want a franchisee to call me and explain a situation I can’t relate to. I do not sit at a desk and run my company. I sometimes get criticized for this. It’s not the normal way a COO would run their company but I’m not a normal COO. I’m a high school math teacher who became a business owner and then made a choice to be in charge of my own destiny by buying the franchise.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

Alexis: Wow, that’s quite the question. Jennifer Garner, I’ve watched her since Alias. We have children of similar age and I just think we would be friends.

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