Six years ago, Matt Kone was a seasoned hairdresser at one of the biggest salons in Baltimore. He had a solid base of customers, a great group of co-workers and a well-known knack for his craft. In fact, he was so successful at the job that when the salon, Lola Jones Inc., closed after more than 20 years in operation, he was offered the opportunity to take it over on his own. Instead, Kone packed up his scissors and worked for a friend for nearly a year until he could muster enough money from family, friends and bank loans to start Balance-the salon, his very own small-scale creation on Cold Spring Avenue in Roland Park.
“I had the opportunity to have a huge salon with lots of hairdressers but I thought, ‘Wait. If I’m going to do this, I want to create a place that I would want to come to everyday, an environment that will be inviting,’” Kone said. “I just wanted to create a great, small workspace where everyone could come in and feel good.”
Kone’s desire to create a positive work environment is why his average staff member’s work week is only 30 hours. It’s why his customers see art rather than advertisements hanging on the salon's walls. It’s why, to keep staff and patrons from feeling crowded, only a few stylists work on the floor at once.
By handpicking every aspect of the salon—from lighting to stylists—Kone has molded Balance into a successful sanctuary for customers and workers alike. According to stylist Bethany Ferguson, he has created “a calm, quiet environment unlike a lot of other salons,” where customers can escape the chaos of their corporate workweek world.
But entering the salon, it feels more like a trendy spa in midtown Manhattan than the work of a yoga-loving hairdresser. The small space has a modern feel to it, with exposed ceilings, track lighting and stainless steel workspaces. A single row of black-framed photographs surround the styling area. Instead of using mainstream shampoos and damaging dyes, stylists at the salon wash and groom their customers' hair with a line of all-natural products called m.o.p., or modern organic products. Instead of having hairstyle magazines or US Weekly in the lounge area, customers can read architectural books or art magazines. The differences are subtle but significant.
For example, rather than placing the salon in a high-traffic area, like a mall or downtown plaza, balance is tucked away in the corner of a small brick building just down the street from Loyola College. The small-town setting fits perfectly with Kone’s tranquil intentions for the place.
“I like the idea that this little business district is not very corporate,” Kone said. “It’s mostly small independent businesses. You have Soundscape instead of Circuit City, you have Evergreen instead of Starbucks, and you have us instead of Bubbles. It was a good place to be in terms of fitting that right niche in a small, specialized business.”
The only part of Balance that appears even remotely big-business is the number of customers that it maintains. In its fifth year of business, the salon employs only six hair-stylists and offers only hair services but generates more than $500,000 a year in revenue. Ferguson says that with Roland Park residents who love the convenience of a local salon and loyal customers from Kone’s 20-some years as a stylist, seats at Balance are rarely empty. In order to maintain a relaxed environment among the influx of patrons, Kone instituted a rule.
“To prevent the space from feeling crowded we work in shifts. You won’t see more than four of us cutting hair [at once],” Kone said. “That way the space always feels calm, it never feels like a little factory. We try to avoid that.”
But the breathing room at Balance comes at a price. A woman’s haircut at the salon can cost up to $50, up to $40 for a man. Full and partial highlights run about $100 and $80, respectively, and a blow dry is not included. These prices are similar to those at area spas, and if the salon’s appointment books are any indication, patrons think it is worth the price.
Kone thinks the chances he took on becoming a hairstylist and opening a salon were well worth it too, considering that the career choice was a complete fluke for him.
When Kone was an English major at Towson University during the early 1980s he would cut friends’ hair during free time. After graduation, one of those friends was approached by a stylist who liked her look and asked who had done the cut. When she told him that Kone had done it on the side for free, the man told her to get Kone in touch with him so that he could get paid for his skills. Kone did just that, apprenticing with the man for two years, never attending a styling school but learning from other experienced hairstylists.
“I backed into it.” Kone said. “It was a total Forrest Gump thing. I wasn’t really looking for it, but once I got into it I realized that out of all my friends, I was the only person who never complained about work. So it might have been an accident but I figured that I was in the right place.”
After his apprenticeship, Kone spent 15 years at a large salon in Mount Washington called Lola Jones Inc. When the business closed, he began making plans for his own place, but quickly realized that cutting hair and running a business were completely different enterprises.
“I knew how to cut hair, but I didn’t know anything about running a business,” Kone said. “It was a great learning experience.”
Kone relied on the business advice of trusted clients and hired an accountant to help with the legal issues of starting a business. He borrowed money from family members and friends, then sat down with his wife and pored over architectural magazines for two months to find design elements that would help to make the best use of the available room.
“We were very involved in the whole process,” Kone said. “We looked for things that we thought belonged in the space. We knew that it was a small space and we wanted to keep it as open as possible, so that’s why we have exposed ceilings. We knew that we wanted to be flexible about how we use the space, so that’s why the workspace is all on wheels. It allows us to do things here that you couldn’t normally do in a salon.”
Things like hosting seminars and having art shows. Every other month, Balance showcases the work of a different local artist, hanging his or her photography on the salon’s walls. Their latest exhibition was done by Thibault Manekin, who is the director of operations for the nonprofit organization Playing for Peace. The organization sends athletes all over the world in an effort to restore social rifts by teaching children to play sports together. Manekin and his family took photographs during visits to South Africa, Northern Ireland and Cyprus to teach children basketball moves and conflict resolution skills. On April 30 Kone wheeled away the styling chairs and mirrors to host a fundraiser for Playing for Peace during which the photographs were sold to benefit the organization.
Kone’s desire to use his business for more than basic hairstyling could be a part of its success. Balance opened in early 2000 with just one other stylist on staff, a former coworker of Kone's named Rebecca Goodman, whom he had helped to apprentice at Lola Jones Inc. Five years later, the salon has employed four additional stylists, several receptionists and an apprentice who helps with shampooing and coloring until she can become a stylist in her own right. But to Kone, the main indication of his salon’s success comes from one of his staff members.
Nikki Verdecchia was a traveling associate with Redken hair products when she came to Balance in 2002 to conduct a seminar. After touring the country with Redken’s teaching sessions, she was recruited to be an artistic director for a large chain of local spas. But in December, after working in the high-end corporate position for two years, she called Kone and asked if she could come to work at Balance.
“That was a real validation of what we’re doing,” Kone said. “It was the coolest thing to have somebody who had a whole range of opportunities and tons of experience to say, ‘[Balance] is really what fits. I can breathe here, I can work and have a life and I can enjoy my work here instead of just pounding at it.’ It was so exciting for me.”