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Conversations with Mandy Nguyen

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mandy Nguyen.

Hi Mandy, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
Honestly, I could not even imagine myself liking the nails job five years ago let alone running my own nails salon. My work experience was mostly in HR and my education background was Accounting & Finance. I did practice as a nails technician on and off for a short time in the past because my husband’s family owned a nails business. It was easy to get in and out of the nails job and I was able to work with a flexible schedule to earn extra income when I had free time.

My family only moved back to the US in late 2017 after a number of years both my husband and I worked overseas. We followed our son back to the US as he was in high school and needed to get prepared for college here in the US. Back in STL, my husband continued his professional job and I went back to work as a nails technician while thinking of what I would like to pursue in the long term.

After several years without practicing, I came back to the entry-level of the nails job. However, I felt differently doing the nails job this time. I began to appreciate nails arts, like the new techniques and new technologies in the nails business industry. Perhaps, it was because I just got out of the stress from my previous job as an HR Director in the corporate world, so I felt much more relaxed working as a nails technician whose job really focuses only on one thing that is making nails look great. I am blessed that I am a fast learner and a good researcher. I updated my knowledge and improved my skills to catch up with the current nails trend pretty quickly. I think the key factor contributing to my quick achievement is that I enjoy what I do.

With that being said, there were a lot of limitations and frustrations when I worked for other nails salons. My husband and I strongly felt the gaps in many business aspects including customer service, products, promise vs. delivery, work environment as well as the employee morale across many nails salons that we knew. I wanted a place where my client can really enjoy their “Me-Time”. Nails service is all about beauty and care and personal, so I would rather focus on quality than quantity. Also, I wanted a place where the working environment is well set, well organized and well managed so that the technicians also enjoy their time at work. Last but not least, I wanted a place where co-workers work as a team to focus on achieving just one mission which is “making our client’s Me-Time simply awesome!”.

Everyone has a different mindset and game plan in running their own business, and obviously as a worker, I wasn’t in the position to have a say in the shop owner’s practices. My husband and I decided to have our own shop so that I can run the business the way we believe it should be. From the bottom of my heart, if I could find a place that lives my standard and expectations (I don’t mean pay), I would prefer to work as just a nails technician. I was aware of the challenges, the responsibilities and the liability a business owner must take. Yet, it appeared that having our own business would be the better way.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It wasn’t a smooth road at all. In fact, it was the most bumpy road we had ever been through. We expected challenges and difficulties in running a nails salon since we have not run one before. However, we soon realized that running a salon wasn’t just the only thing we should have worried about. It turned out that it took two years for us to finally find a location and sign a lease. It took another six months to build a brand new shop.

The journey could have been a lot easier if we chose to acquire an existing business. We had a couple of acquisition opportunities, but we finally skipped them all. The main reasons were really that we either did not like the locations, or the existing setup, or the interior decoration, or and the existing equipment, etc., or all of the above. We already had a clear business concept and positioning, and we knew exactly what we wanted from the salon setup and decoration to equipment, products, services and pricing… We realized that the chance to find and acquire an existing establishment which is not too far from the picture we had in mind was really slim if not zero. We finally pursued the option to build a new salon from scratch and set it up the exact way we want it.

We faced numerous struggles. Below are the major ones among others:

Location lease negotiation – sometimes it took forever to hear back from the landlord or the realtor only to find out that we could not agree on the lease terms.

Architectural and engineering plan – A nails salon must be built to the state and county codes including plumbing, ventilation and exhaust system specifically required for a nails salon. Every site is different, therefore in order to estimate the construction cost of the site we really liked, we had to pay for the drawing to get the closest estimate. We actually had to pay thousands of dollars for a plan only to walk away after we failed the negotiation with the landlord.

Finding the right contractors – This is the most challenging item as we had never dealt with one before. We needed to find a good contractor and especially the one who had experience in building the nails salon. Also, that contractor must be available at the time we need to proceed with the job, otherwise we would incur much more rent for the space without business operation.

Stumbling over a bad contractor – We were not lucky to have had a terrible HVAC contractor who took our 10K deposit, showed up twice, did a minor work, left the whole project unfinished and ran away. Since we had to tear down the old system and install a brand new double unit system of heat and AC with vent and exhaust up to the code, the HVAC contractor running away had delayed the whole construction project. We had to find a replacement, paid extra for removing the bad work, delayed the opening date, and paid extra months of rent without operation.

COVID – Right after the first month in operation, we had to shut down the business due to COVID 19. The shutdown caused tremendous cash flow issues. The business was closed, but we still incurred operation costs and our business was not qualified for PPP then because we were a brand new business that did not have a tax record for the business yet! The reopening cost even more when we added all precautionary measures and protection equipment. It is a general observation in the nails business industry that a large percentage of customers still have not come back today.

Staffing – It has already been really hard to find quality technicians, especially ones who share my point of view with respect to business ethos and ethics. After COVID shutdown, it is even harder if not impossible to hire anyone.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
My major work experience was in the HR Director role for a group of advertising agencies which had business in a number of South East Asian countries. My education background was Accounting & Finance.

How do you think about luck?
Yes, we had both bad and good luck. Being cheated by the bad contractor was bad luck and COVID was bad luck. However, at the worst time we had no choice but to try to look at the bright side. Above all, our 1-month old fragile business before COVID still survives and is going strong. I would consider the slow business after the reopening (COVID) actually giving us time to conduct a proper dry run of our business concept in reality. We had the time to finetune our services and operations that add value to both the clients and our business.

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