By combining beauty with technology, Melody McCloskey is empowering stylists everywhere with the right business tools. As the co-founder and CEO of StyleSeat, an online marketplace for beauty and wellness services, Melody is working to change the beauty industry. In 2009, a bad haircut inspired Melody to start StyleSeat with Dan Levine. Six years later, over 200,000 beauty professionals in nearly 15,000 cities, successfully use the platform she built.
Read our interview with her to learn more about how Melody started StyleSeat, her experience as a woman in technology, and advice she has for you!
Her Agenda: What inspired you to start StyleSeat?
Melody McCloskey: The beauty industry is a fascinating industry with a lot of challenges, particularly in the way that beauty professionals don’t have a lot of tools to help run their business. They are artists that are passionate about their work and their clients, but they don’t have as much knowledge about how to run a large business, how to acquire clients how to retain clients, how to market to them or what referral strategies they should use for an analytical platform. They don’t have as much of those tools, and so building that for them is a really exciting idea for me, especially given that there are millions of them and that it is a billion dollar industry in the US.
Then, on the consumer side, which is my exposure to the beauty industry, I was frustrated with the fact that there was no simple way to find a great beauty professional. You can go to review sites, or check with girlfriends, but beyond that there aren’t many tools, and I want to see photos of their work and I want to read recommendations from their clients. And, so at Styleseat we do both. We are the business platform for the beauty professionals and then we are also a really great discovery and booking app and website for the clients. And I love that we get to combine two in our business.
Her Agenda: How did you go about approaching investors with your idea?
Melody McCloskey: It was not an easy process. I had a lot of “no’s” in the beginning of the business. Some of the factors were the fact that it’s a female centered industry and the vast majority of investors are male so they just didn’t understand that booking beauty services is a growing industry.
One of the challenges in raising money is that investors didn’t know much about it. The first capital that we brought in was really from founders who knew me and were interested in the problem that we were trying to solve, so those early investors were Travis Kalanick, who is the CEO of Uber and Garrett Camp, who started Uber. A handful of people who were like “alright, this is not an industry that I get but I understand you and I know that you live and die for this business and we believe in your vision.” And as we grew as a company, and we were able to execute and grow our metrics, that is when larger investors were able to come to the table and say “you know we might not know that much about this industry, but we understand that this is a meaningful business and that it is a growing tremendously.” So, in the beginning it was really hard, and then more recently as the numbers are able to speak for themselves, its become an easier conversation.
Her Agenda: What has been your biggest challenge so far since creating StyleSeat?
Melody McCloskey: The first year and a half was incredibly hard for both me and my co-founder Dan Levine, just because neither one of us had any money when we started the company and we were just living off of credit cards, but we believed in the business. Even though it was incredibly hard –it was the hardest period of my life, and I don’t know if I could do it again–but one thing that was beneficial about it is that it taught us to be incredibly, incredibly focused. And so, while it was tough, it taught us how to be incredibly disciplined and that has been to the benefit of the company even now.
Her Agenda: What has been the most rewarding experience since launching StyleSeat?
Melody: The impact that we’ve been able to have on the lives of other beauty professionals is the most rewarding.
We grew the average stylist revenue by 70 percent in the first year, so we almost doubled the revenue in the first year of using Styleseat. The fact that we empower beauty professionals to not only be artists, but improve their revenue and support their families doing what they love is incredibly rewarding.
A couple of years ago, I was calling customers out of the blue because I wanted to know what they thought about Styleseat and I called this woman and she immediately bursted into tears when I talked to her. She said, “I have been in this industry for ten years, I have always had to be a hairstylist in addition to another business. I’ve never been able to fully dedicate myself to this industry because I have a family, I have to support them.” She is a paralegal assistant, and she said “since Styleseat, my revenue has grown so much that I would be able to leave that job and be a stylist full time and do what I love for a living.” She was crying, and she said she just wanted to say thank you and that was so powerful and unexpected. That was the first time, I had really heard a meaningful story coming from a customer and I still think about that all the time and that is why we work so hard and do what we do and try to build a business around this so we can impact the lives of these stylists.
Her Agenda: How did you meet your co-founder, Dan Levine, and what does he add to the dynamic?
Melody: I met Dan at Current TV. I was hired there to lead online distribution and we worked together very closely. I ended up leaving that job to start StyleSeat and a couple months later, I reached out to him and said I need a technical cofounder, here is what I have so far. He was thrilled by the idea of StyleSeat. We work together incredibly well, and we were excited about continuing to work together, and it has been a really successful partnership. He is incredibly brilliant and we are exact opposites. But that is to the benefit of the company. He is amazing and I am so glad I reached out to him and that he said yes.
Her Agenda: What’s been the feedback so far? Do you notice a specific demographic accessing StyleSeat more than others?
Melody: StyleSeat today is in more than 15,000 cities. So we have about 80 percent geographic covered in the United States. Chicago is our number one city, and then Atlanta and Dallas and Houston. So as you can tell, some of our biggest markets are in the south or Midwest, but then there’s also New York, San Francisco, LA and Miami. Every city is so different, like the stylist in Las Vegas are different from those in Miami or Chicago. Its fun to see markets emerge and grow, and what style is trending in different cities.
Her Agenda: What did you do before this? Were you always passionate about starting your own company?
Melody: Since moving to San Francisco, all of my friends were founders of their companies. I was always inspired by the fact that every single day they were doing something they were passionate about and able to build their lives and their livelihood around problem solving and doing things that they love. So that is what I wanted first, I didn’t always want to start a company, but I always wanted to be passionate and career driven about something that I cared about and that happened to be technology. Over the course of time, I realized that starting a company was something I had to do and when the excitement of that outweighed the fear of that, that is when I started StyleSeat.
Her Agenda: What is it like being a woman in the world of technology, typically dominated by men?
Melody: There are some ways that it is tough and others where it plays to your advantage, and I think you just have to figure out your own path. So for me, StyleSeat is very different from other companies out there and I think that plays to our favor when it comes to certain meetings or hiring. We are something that is unlike any company that people are talking to, and I think that totally plays in our favor. A way that it hasn’t played in our favor is that we are an industry that a lot of tech investors don’t understand, and so we have to figure out how to succeed and thrive and that is what we try to accomplish every day, and here we are.
Her Agenda: What piece of advice would you give to young businesswomen passionate about starting their own tech company?
Melody: Finding an amazing mentor is so important. People who inspire you and just getting their advice. My first advisor was Travis Kalanick, and he helped solved all of my initial problems, and helped me start the business so much faster. In general, having a mentor you can both talk to on a business level and a private level and discuss how you feel, is so so important. I would seek an advisor first and foremost, but also talk to as many people as you can and get as much advice as you possibly can and be great to those people, respect those relationships and work hard.
Her Agenda: If you could, what would you tell your younger self before starting StyleSeat?
Melody: I was pretty fearful before I started the company, I was nervous of what people would think, if I would fail. Could I even do it? Was I smart enough? All those questions. And before starting my company, those questions were really powerful in my head. And I wish I could go back in time and say “Girl, don’t worry about it. Just do it.” My advice to myself would be, stop worrying so much and get out there and try it, because who cares if you fail, at least you tried.
Her Agenda: What does StyleSeat mean to you? What does it represent?
Melody: StyleSeat for me right now, is my entire life. It is what I think about more than any other thing, I hope that we are and continue to be an amazing resource for the entrepreneurs and the business owners that we work with.
I also want StyleSeat to be an empowering place to women. I am not passionate about beauty or vanity, but I have had bad haircuts and good ones, and the difference between the two you feel in terms of self-esteem and what that means on a daily basis is tremendous. Everyone should find their best self be able to feel great. It is really about empowerment on any price level wherever you are, everyone should be able to feel their best and I hope that we are able to help make that happen for more women.