#Unmasked: Sheila’s Hair Studio

Published: 13 December 2022

Understanding the customer and being empathetic is at the heart of Sheila’s Hair Studio’s success 

“Sheila’s is a household name. We make people feel important and we care about them – this is part of my and my staff’s approach to business.” – Elaine Naidoo, owner of Sheila’s Hair Studio

Elaine Naidoo has had a very tough few years. She was among those who bore the brunt of the Covid-19 lockdowns from a business point of view and was later seriously ill with Covid herself. 

It all began in early 2020 when Elaine decided to open a hair studio that catered for both ethnic and Caucasian hair. As an Indian woman, she believes that she understands the needs of both markets, whether her customers are looking for treatments and wigs or cutting and styling. There was also nothing like it in her market and she had a unique business idea. 

Lockdown Level 5 

This unique selling point would have stood her in good stead as she anticipated increasing her client base, but one month after opening her shop doors, the pandemic hit. While everyone expected the lockdown to last for 21 days, businesses like Sheila’s (named after Elaine’s mother who passed away a few months before the salon opened) had to be closed for five long months while the country lived in Lockdown Level 5. 

Opening again in July 2020, Elaine experienced the general hesitancy of the public to come into the salon and have face-to-face treatments. People were struggling financially and doing their own hair and nails at home as they remained concerned that Covid was still very much a threat. 

Unfortunately, Elaine had to keep paying her rent in full, even when so many other landlords were helping their tenants by lowering their rates. This lasted for five months during which she was paying bills without earning any income. 

A series of big blows  

By June 2021, the salon was finally back on its feet. But bad luck hit yet again as the salon was raided by armed assailants who held the staff at gunpoint and stole whatever they could. 

This major setback put Elaine back to square one, with a drastic decrease in income, few customers and rent to pay. 

To ease the financial pressure, she decided to move to more affordable premises and took out a lease at Greenstone Mall. Elaine then approached Yoco, a partner of Retail Capital’s, for help and they granted her enough capital to get the business stocked and going again. In July 2021, Sheila’s had a grand re-opening which got the team excited about the future, and they all welcomed the fresh start. 

 Hard times hit yet again. Four weeks after the re-opening, Elaine contracted Covid. Her experience was life-changing: she spent two months in ICU on life support, unable to speak properly or function as normal. Even after her release from it was a long road to recovery, and she only got back on her feet in November 2021. “I am grateful to my husband and children who stood beside me and supported me through this entire episode and with their help and the grace of God I was able to overcome it,” she says.

Securing finance, again 

When Elaine was finally ready to go back to work, she applied for funding a second time, and, without hesitation was granted another round of finance. This was the lifeline her business needed and enabled Elaine to get the salon going full steam once again. The salon had made it through Elaine’s illness, and remained open, but sorely missed Elaine’s insight and her steering the ship from the front. 

Understanding her clients 

The next step for Elaine was to work out a way to recover the financial losses incurred throughout her many setbacks. Elaine made the smart choice not to increase her prices in line with her competitors. Instead, she gave serious thought to her clientele and understood that so many had lost their jobs; or, had their salaries cut and they just couldn’t afford even the smallest of luxuries like a hair treatment.

This genuine, empathetic approach proved to be a standout strategy, as Elaine and her salon quickly built up a reputation among the community for great service and good prices. Soon, Sheila’s was a household name. She says, “There was a lot of word of mouth and referrals from clients. I believe it’s because we make people feel important and we understand their unique hair needs.” 

Empowering her people 

Sheila’s finances, and Elaine’s fortunes, finally began to turn around and they were also able to offer more treatments to supplement the haircare offering. By adding nails, eyelashes and make-up to the business, Elaine opened up new opportunities for revenue and growth. Elaine has a team of eight employees who remained with her throughout Covid and her illness. These ladies are multi-skilled, the one day they may be cutting hair; the next they are doing pedis — every staff member was chosen and taught to be able to do it all. 

Elaine believes in empowering people and that is why she trains and grows her staff like she does. In her industry, Elaine has found that business owners are afraid of upskilling their teams as they may eventually leave to start their own business. This isn’t a concern for Elaine — instead, she wants to pass on her skillset and help others gain experience. 

Don’t follow the crowds, be your own person 

On considering what advice she would give to other entrepreneurs, especially given all she’s been through, she says “Don’t go with the majority, I found that this did not work for me. Be your own person and put yourself in the shoes of the client. Understand their needs, watch their body language – they are silently telling you something – and hear what they are saying to you.

“Give the best service and use great products, while always working on a professional level. If the client knows that you understand their needs and do a good job, they will come back to you and even refer you.” 

Elaine is an exemplary role model for overcoming adversity, and despite everything she has had to contend with, she has managed to keep her business afloat, retain her staff and benefit financially. And she has done all of this by being empathetic and caring, and by keeping her clients at the heart of what she does. It’s a way of working that she wants to be remembered for and has resulted in her success.

She is very thankful and grateful for making it through such a challenging time and says, “We have so much to be grateful for in this life. Each and every day. But the reality is that sometimes constant life demands, struggles and worries give more room to defeat than to a heart of thanks. Or we forget, in the midst of being busy and our daily pressures, just to pause and give thanks for all we have.”