8 minute read
Startup Story

Handsome: Where stylists learn with stars, and barbers let their hair down

Handsome team group photo

Glow up, look sharp, upskill, network: A career platform for millions of overlooked beauty pros

Engineers take to Reddit, and sales types to LinkedIn— but where do beauty pros and hair stylists go to level up, hire talent, and talk shop?

“Oversights are opportunities,” says April Dominguez, CEO and founder of Handsome, an Austin-based startup whose app courts beauty pros over a buzzy platform where beauty pros learn and connect, hire and network. ”We teach beauty pros to increase their income, get more clients, and open a salon with the latest industry insights. We are a one-stop shop for all education, every educator, every brand, every technique.” With 1.4 million salon workplaces and 1.8 million hair and nail employees, labor analysts predict beauty industry employment will grow five times faster than other industries in this decade, driven by a generational demand for services to glow up and look sharp.

“Traditional career platforms don’t gel with hair stylists,” says Dominguez. With a glossy app UX more Depop than Glassdoor, Handsome takes an unapologetic approach to building the careers of stylists, barbers, makeup artists, colorists, microbladers, manicurists, estheticians, or the app’s affectionate catch-all, “beauty industry hustlers.”

Changing the beauty landscape, a Latina founder breaks fundraising barriers

This summer, Modern Salon, in an industry profile of Dominguez, remarked that “Handsome has raised about $2.3M in venture capital funding, when less than 100 Latina founders in 2021 had ever raised over $1M in capital.” Here’s how: “As a startup, Covid hit us pre-funding. We had no capital. And we grew 1,000% organically, as salons were shuttered and stylists were stripped away from their communities,” says Dominguez. “You have to understand that most in the beauty industry see their work as a life’s calling. For critical questions of how stylists were going to feed their families and keep their salons open, Handsome became the online resource for peer support, additional education, and how to find access to more income. “In California, nearly half-million stylists were out of work for large portions of 2020 and even into 2021, which forced beauty pros across the industry to come together.”

With salons now fully reopened, Handsome notches 5.5k+ weekly interactions in forum threads across 35,000 registered users, including a quarter of New York City’s registered cosmetologists. This July, Google for Startups picked Handsome as one of the first recipients of the Latino Founders Fund, receiving $100,000 in non-dilutive funding, Cloud credits, deep mentorship, and hands-on programming and support from Google. “With the funds, we will amplify growth across our newest user experience feature: Masterminds, bringing the beauty and barber industry’s most elite educators to teach techniques and build community in the app,” says Dominguez.

As salons and barbershops emerge as viable tech businesses, Handsome is surfacing as a key player in an ecosystem to digitally transform personal care services. The app’s largest financial backers to date remains MaC Venture Capital and Squire, a Black-owned New York-based SaaS suite valued at $750 million, that handles the operational nitty-gritty of salon management.

With Handsome, we aren’t just building a product. We are serving a group of people who represent ourselves.

The beauty industry is 90% female and 66% Black and Latinx. And it’s a place where you can be entrepreneurial, bring your own style, and blaze your own path. Many formerly incarcerated persons have been able to build successful careers and operate their own studios,” says Dominguez. “We are giving stylists a digital community of their fellow peers and professionals. That’s something stylists have been historically left out of.”

Pink hair? Don’t care. Handsome reimagines the career platform for beauty pros

“Stylists and beauty pros have always fascinated me as rebels who can wear hot pink hair, shape their own careers, and still clear over $100K a year on their own terms,” said Dominguez. “With Handsome, we are betting on the idea that stylists want to partner with a platform that is as passionate about styling and beauty as they are.”

The Handsome app’s extensive content library includes exclusive audio education and Masterminds content from pros like Arod the Barber, Jenny Strebe, Alfredo Lewis, J Ladner; salon business and management performance coach Nina Tulio; and men’s groomer Mira Chai, who crafts red carpet looks for Simu Liu, George Clooney, and Kendrick Lamar from her famed garage studio in Hollywood.

“Look these stylists up. They have triumphant bios as DIY entrepreneurs who overcame disbelief to perfect their techniques and build their own followings,” adds Dominguez. On Handsome, these fast-paced tutorials from master stylists are parsed out as “microdoses,” in 45 second to three-minute chunks that Dominguez describes as “perfect for salon back bar breaks between clients.”

“With Handsome, we help stylists create the careers of their wildest dreams through authentic conversations and masterclasses,” says Dominguez. “We have partnerships with fifty of the industry’s biggest stylists. Yes, they teach skilled techniques, but they also teach marketing, they teach mindset. They take you through what it takes to become a celebrity artist.”

Stylists learn on the Handsome app

Stylists learn on the Handsome app

Salons and barbershops are now tech businesses in a $62 billion industry

“Who cuts your hair?” is a question with a $62 billion market share answer in the U.S. alone. “Over 1.8 million people cut hair or manage salons. That’s more hair stylists than doctors, more barbers than police officers.” says Dominguez. “Yet when it comes to core business functions and education needs, many beauty pros still rely on a mix of Craigslist and YouTube to gain skills and hire talent. So with Handsome, we reimagined the career platform for beauty professionals.”

A vast array of beauty professionals make up the 1.8 million workers in the personal appearance industry. “Handsome has 32 options for professions including makeup artists, nail techs, microbladers, massage therapists, and estheticians we also serve on the platform,” adds Dominguez.

As salons and barber shops develop a digital footprint as valuable as their hands-on services, Handsome leverages its partnership with the barbershop booking app Squire, an adjacent digital barbershop management system built on similar real-world research into stylist and customer pain points. “Having Squire back us as investors (via the Community Fund) has been an open conversation to investors that we’re in the same industry but are adjacent to each other in the emerging tech ecosystem for beauty and barber pros,” adds Dominguez.

Stylists use Handsome for authentic conversations and masterclasses

Stylists use Handsome for authentic conversations and masterclasses

With in-person events resumed, Handsome has also been growing its user base, serving as the official event networking apps of CT Barber Expo and BarberCon in Atlanta, Dallas, New York, and LA. As a marketing strategy, Handsome has also digitally bridged the traditional hands-on salon demo and professional hair tools giveaway that build customer loyalty. “We have global brands like Andis Clippers, Alfaparf, and Babyliss who have given Handsome tens of thousands of dollars worth of pro tools,” says Dominguez. “When you complete the microdose series sponsored by that company,. It’s a double brand buy-in–stylists get free education, while the brand is promoted to consumers through stylists they trust.”

From incognito mode to industry education: Handsome’s insider approach

Dominguez and her sister Nikki, a longtime stylist and nation-wide educator, originally founded Handsome in 2019. “We are built for and by stylists,” says Dominguez. “I have a cousin who entered cosmetology school at 16 and had her own hair salon by 18. This industry allows people to chart their own courses if they have the drive.”

In Texas, Dominguez originally followed a more traditional corporate path through a career in oil and gas. “I helped raise and deploy $130 million in capital and helped grow the company to over fifty employees. I was in these corporate boardroom meetings where I was also the only minority in those settings. I didn’t always feel like I was serving my own community,” says Dominguez. “At the same time, I was simultaneously watching my sister and other family members move ahead on their own terms through the beauty industry.”

On Instagram and TikTok, the surge of barber social media stars can suggest that social media simplifies stylists’ jobs. “Yes, it's true that Instagram has made social media celebrities of beauty professionals, but that’s a client-facing network. With potential clients watching, that means social media is the last place a stylist or barber would feel comfortable asking for a skill upgrade, says Dominguez. “That’s where Handsome excels. We are a community of stylists, industry education, and peer-to-peer support.”

“We're not a two-sided marketplace. For an app like Booksy or ShearShare it matters that you saturate a city to get that market flowing,” says Dominguez. “With Handsome, our platform is based around digital sharing, so we can combine marketing outreaches that are both digital and hands-on.”

For upskilling stylists, Handsome also features a convenient incognito mode. “We have the app feature, so people can ask questions they would be nervous to post publicly. Maybe it's a technique question about balayage and highlighting,” says Dominguez. “During the pandemic, there were hard-hitting posts like, ‘Hey, it’s illegal to cut hair now, but my baby needs food. Should I bring someone into my garage and cut their hair? These were the real-life questions that were happening. For stylists and beauty pros, the pandemic amplified the disparities that affect our industry.”

Backing beauty pros, backing Latinx founders

“When I first started pitching Handsome, I would take all meetings and talk about the industry to anyone. The first 80 percent of investors I pitched were older Caucasian men, and truth is, the majority of them were bald. It was very intimidating in the beginning because I could see their eyes glaze over,” says Dominguez. “I’ve changed my approach drastically since then. I won’t talk to backers who haven’t clearly invested in minority companies, in women founders, in these beauty aligned industries.”

Last year, Dominguez and her sister published an essay in TechCrunch, revealing the challenges the Native American and Latina founders faced fundraising among investors.

“When pitching Handsome — something that’s reimagining the education and community of the beauty industry — you can imagine that most VCs don’t understand the value and opportunity at hand,” wrote Dominguez. “Although beauty is a $190 billion global industry ($60 billion alone in the U.S.), investors who don’t follow this industry might have a hard time understanding how big it is, how the industry works, and how our business fits into this thriving market. Even further, investors might completely discredit our business because of the ‘beauty’ label.”

Handsome builds the careers of beauty pros

Handsome builds the careers of beauty pros

Today, the Handsome founder leads investor pitches with data. “I communicate the size of the industry. $8 billion was spent on beauty and personal appearance ads in 2021. In comparison, $4 billion was spent on online dating, as superstar apps like Tinder and Bumble reach market caps well into the tens of billions. Meanwhile, the beauty industry is more than twice as large, but the field remains wide open for a centralized career and training platform,” says Dominguez.

Dominguez dreams of shaping Handsome into a beauty industry one-stop for training, hiring, and eventually credentialed certification. “In the industry, there is no college-like pathway or universal structure for building skills, building community, and learning how to network,” says Dominguez. “In cosmetology school, they learn sanitation and some basic techniques. But so much of a stylist’s ongoing education still takes place through an uneven mix of YouTube tutorials, on-the-job training. We hope to overhaul that with Handsome.”

The founder says by launching Handsome, she is also playing a role in opening future doors for women and minority entrepreneurs. “There are few Latinx-led startups that have IPO’d and no Native Americans that are documented to have done so,” says Dominguez. “Changing the demographics of the founders you fund requires year in, year out consistency, again and again and again. That’s our plan as we build Handsome–to be part of the emerging system of tech platforms that will transform the beauty industry over this decade.”

Learn more about Handsome