by abe chu
“You know, if I listen to Taylor Swift, then I listen to Taylor Swift. I don’t hide it. I’ll roll down my windows and turn that [music] up.”
Simon laughs as he leans back. It’s the kind of statement made only by a man who’s comfortable in his own skin and wants you to know it. It wasn’t always this way for him. We’re sitting in a coffee shop just south of the Beltway in Houston, kicking back a couple of cold beverages and escaping a damp, overcast day. Simon Nguyen, founder of Hair Revolution, is relaxed and sporting a James Harden tee with a menacing, bearded silhouette gracing the front. He crosses a leg over one knee, tugging at his running shoe as if to check his laces before a race. I’ve caught him on his day off from the salon.
Hair Revolution is the culmination of many years of hard work, and I’m here to find out how it all came to be. We talk about how things began, starting with his journey as a child. Simon’s family left Vietnam in 1990 and spent three years in Indonesia. They uprooted once again in 1993, this time traveling to Texas where other members of his family had immigrated years earlier.
“I was 13 years old, and that kind of move is really tough for a kid.”
Did you speak any English at the time? “You know, we had English classes in Indonesia, and I thought I would be okay. But I still remember this incident on the plane coming over when I realized that I couldn’t really communicate.”
A friendly passenger had asked Simon where he was headed. “Houston, Texas,” he proclaimed confidently. But the man asked the question again and again, each time slower than the last, as Simon felt his stomach sink.
His family settled down in the Southeast side of Houston, where he immediately started middle school.
“They would have this thing where the teacher would go around the room and have each student read a paragraph out of the book. Oh man, that was the one thing I dreaded the most. Kids at that age, you know, they’re not really good at hiding what they’re thinking. So, when it’s my turn and I’m trying to read stuff, I’d always hear a lot of giggles.”
He’s able to joke about it now but there’s a look in his eyes that tells of the anxiety that a 35 year-old still feels when recollecting childhood pain. “That was hard. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
He looks down and fidgets in his chair briefly before looking back up.
“I don’t know. It’s kind of weird. In a sense, I wish it was different. There are moments when I wish I just had a normal upbringing where I grew up here and went to school. But there are moments where, you know what — I wouldn’t change it. It’s cool. Everything happens for a reason.”
Simon wears his emotions as plainly as the tattoos on his arms. As he tells his story, it becomes clear that these experiences have forged not only the ambition and resilience that make him successful today but also his genuine desire to make others feel welcome and accepted.
Did you have a business plan going in?
I just had one sheet. It covered what I wanted to do with my business — what I wanted to be about.
What did that one page say?
It was about building a hair salon where people could come and feel comfortable. That was so important to me. I didn’t want people to feel like they were going to this place where it’s really upscale and snobby, where you felt like you had to get dressed up because everyone’s judging you. But at the same time, you’re going to know that you’ll get great service, and we’re going to know what we’re doing.
That was enough to get you started.
It was, but that was because I already did my homework. When I first started on this path, I didn’t jump in right away. I was working at a popular salon for six years. And there were a lot of good things I learned, but there were a lot of things I knew I wanted to change and wasn’t happy about. I made up my mind that I wanted to have my own salon at some point, and that was that. I didn’t want to stick around for any longer, but I also wasn’t ready to make the jump to open up a whole salon right away. So, I started renting a booth in a shared salon space. I knew it would help me by going out on my own like that. That was part of the plan. It was an opportunity to learn certain aspects of what I wanted to do on a small scale. That experience gave me a taste of running my own business and how to manage myself. Even though it was just me, it introduced me to certain elements I really needed to understand. I did that for three years on my own. So when I started Hair Revolution, there was a little bit of a transition, but I had gotten my feet wet – I knew what I was doing.
Were there things that didn’t go as planned?
Yeah, but it’s not the things you expect when you’re getting started. Like having my brother work at the store with me — that was probably one of the biggest challenges I had on a personal level, figuring out how to work together.
You mean, how to bridge the personal and professional gap?
Exactly. He’s my younger brother, and he was 18 when he started. He tried going to college, but he didn’t really want to, so there really was no point. We figured working together would be perfect. It’s really funny how you treat your family so differently. You have this level of comfort so you can fly off the handle so easily. In the beginning, that was a problem. With my employees, I’d have restraint — even too much sometimes. But with him, some of the frustrations I had, sometimes I’d end up taking them out on him. That whole element of him being my brother and family, that really worked against him. But it’s a learning process and we’ve grown — both of us have.
So you guys are good now?
I know certain things now that I didn’t know back then. It was very easy for me to let him know, oh, he’s not doing this or that right. But then when I had time to think about it, I realized when I was his age, a lot of people used to tell me what to do and what not to do – I just didn’t listen. My parents would try to lecture me, and it kind of drove me away. So rather than taking that approach, I’m just trying to talk to him. Sometimes, just listening helps — not even talking. When I realized that, our relationship got a lot better. He’s really doing a great job. I’m passing him more and more responsibility each day. He’s grown from just making appointments and answering the phone to now running a lot of the salon operations. I’m adding more things to his list, and he’s taking on the challenge.
Any advice for younger people then? Maybe someone who is thinking about starting their own business?
The thing I try to tell people is to not procrastinate. Procrastination is one of the biggest problems that will get in the way. For a lot of us — we’re smart, we have what it takes, and we know what we need to do. The only thing that holds me back is putting things off that I know I should do. Put together a plan. Don’t wait. Don’t talk about it, be about it.
That’s a great line. So when you started out, you didn’t exactly have a five year plan in mind?
Yes and no. It’s never a sure thing. It’s really important to me to try and stay grounded. I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself. Obviously, I didn’t start a business to just do okay. I do have high aspirations, but I don’t want to get too carried away. I regularly do a self-inventory, look at my business and try to identify my strengths and my weaknesses. And each year, try to set certain goals and areas that I want to improve. I want to enjoy the ride. I don’t ever want to get to a point where I reach a goal and that’s it. I want to keep improving and just get better each day.
So, who else was “about it” with you? Who else has really helped you along the way?
Of course, my wife Regina has always been there for me. She knows how to support me. We both have really strong personalities, so we both get it. Sometimes “support” means that she needs to be direct, and sometimes it means to just not say anything.
That’s really important, too. What are you passionate about aside from work?
I really like to run. I’ve finished 3 full marathons and 5 half marathons. But if there’s one thing right now that I would say I’m passionate about in my personal life, it’s traveling. Going to see new places. Mainly outdoor, away from the city type places. Sometimes, I’ll find a half marathon somewhere, so I get to travel to that city and do the race, and then explore the city afterwards. We’re going to Santorini, Greece in May. I’ve been mapping out routes. I’m really looking forward to running along the ocean.
Okay, last question. Favorite Disney movie?
The Mighty Ducks!
#NextSeedStories offer a glimpse of the pursuit of happiness by small business owners everywhere. Share your story with us via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @theNextSeed.