Deborah Imber had no idea when she offered to cut the hair of children in her daughter’s nursery that that would be the start of a business which is now training other mums who have taken a career break from hairdressing.
Deborah had been working as a self-employed barber in the City when the barber’s chair she rented was given to someone else. Her daughter Ellie continued to go to nursery in the City and Deborah noticed that the children there needed a haircut. She offered to cut their hair. The feedback she got from parents was very positive and several suggested she set up a business. It wasn’t until the following year – 2007 – however, that she started Tots Crops in earnest. “I knew that parents working in the City were time poor and that many hairdressers didn’t know how to cut children’s hair. It wasn’t set up as a business, though. It had to fit round Ellie,” says Deborah, who is a single mum. Initially she was working two days a week which, she says, gave her the perfect work life balance.
Ironically, Deborah never liked cutting children’s hair before she started Tots Crops. “I thought why spend 30 minutes cutting a child’s hair and getting £10 when you can cut adults’ hair faster and get more money,” she says.
They sometimes misbehaved as well. However, in a nursery setting they were calmer, listening to their key worker. “It’s exciting for them,” she says. They get given an ipad to play with as Deborah realised that if they had something to hold onto they were less likely to get involved in the haircut. They are also given raisins or breadsticks and the emphasis is on fun. In the early days Deborah used to sing to them. They have a special gown and Deborah has designed a special comfortable chair for them with somewhere to put their feet, an arm rest and straps which the children can do themselves. “They know the routine now and they love it,” says Deborah. She has also designed a set of raindrop characters, the Tots Crops Septuplets, who model different children’s hairstyles.
A creative mind
She admits that she wasn’t very business-minded when she started. “I had to learn how to be a business person,” she says. Initially she listened to other business people and thought they understood Tots Crops better than her because of her lack of business knowledge. They suggested, for instance, that she franchise the business. She spent three years trying to do just that before realising that hairdressing doesn’t lend itself well to the franchise model. It was only when she met another “creative”, Simon Woodruffe, founder of Yo! Sushi at The Times Power in partnerships competition where Tots Crops was a winner, that she felt anyone understood what she was trying to do. He told her it was fine to admit she had made a mistake and to change things.
She then spent a year piloting a new simple membership model whereby she would train hairdressers up, contact nurseries in their area, each of which they visit every six weeks, and provide administrative help, including help with filing their accounts. In return they could choose to do as much or as little work as they wanted to.
Deborah developed a training course for mums who had taken a career break to have children. She says she knows what that is like and how your confidence can suffer and the training is designed to give them the feeling that they are experts in their field given that Tots Crops is fairly unique. “Automatically they feel more in charge,” she says, adding that most salon jobs involved long hours and weekends and are difficult for mothers of young children.
She says working at Tots Crops gives the mums a new skill set which they can use if they decide to move on once their children start to grow up. All her trainees – she has trained nine so far – have hairdressing qualifications. She is holding an introductory day on 27th November and so far has four trainees signed up. She hopes to take on several more by January. Most of the training will be done online, via a course she has just finished writing and for which she will now seek external accreditation, and there is a day’s practical training in central London. Currently the hairdressers she has trained work in nurseries in London and her clients include nursery chains such as Bright Horizons and Kids Unlimited.
“I’ve got the online course done which means people around the country can train. I’m ready to scale up now,” says Deborah.