Belfast Telegraph

Entrepreneurs are enjoying the beautiful life with their new business

Katie Stevenson and Sarah Graham started doing hair extensions in their bedrooms. Now the firm is thriving with eight staff

By Lindsay Fergus

Two young entrepreneurs are proof of the power of social media after building up a beauty business through Facebook while they were at university.

Katie Stevenson and Sarah Graham even found the name for their business thanks to a competition on Facebook.

Such has been the success of their venture, which started in a room of their parents' homes three years ago, that they had to move to their own commercial premises in Dundonald three months ago. Bella Vita now has hundreds of clients, and is quickly heading for 1,000 as it attracts more customers through social media, walk-ins and by word-of-mouth.

Among its clients are former Miss Northern Ireland Meagan Green and Debbie Armstrong, wife of former Northern Ireland football star Gerry.

Joint owner Katie, 23, explained: "When we were at university we saw a gap in the market for affordable high quality hair extensions which young girls could afford so we decided to go over to London about three years ago to do a course.

"There were no courses here, and it was quite expensive but we decided to risk it and see what happened. We thought we will just do each other's hair, not really think anything would happen."

The friends, who met at school, set up a Facebook page advertising hair extensions and the response Katie said was "overwhelming".

In fact such was the demand that Katie and Sarah were putting in 12 hour days trying to juggle a degree and a growing business.

Katie studied film and photography at Queen's University, Belfast while Sarah did clinical physiology specialising in cardiology at University of Ulster, graduating this summer.

"I would go to a lecture and have to rush out to do someone's hair so I was juggling between the two things," said Katie.

"We both made salons in our own homes, we decorated two rooms, one in my house in Holywood and Sarah lived in Dundonald.

"We were lucky enough that our parents allowed us to do these rooms up with little salon chairs, mirrors, etc.

"We built so many clients up it just came to a point where we could not do it from home anymore. We had to expand and take on staff and it just wasn't working anymore as there were clients waiting in our homes on sofas – it got a bit cluttered.

"We planned for the salon and we eventually got there. It's been open three months."

Bella Vita, meaning 'it's a beautiful life', offers a wide range of beauty services including its own branded Bella Vita hair extensions.

Katie believes it is the high quality of the product and price point that has been key to their success.

"Most of the high quality hair extensions that you can get are around £600 to £800 – we are charging £160 to £350."

Other services include hair styling, colouring, gelish nails, high definition brows, spray tans, professional make-up application and 3D eyelashes.

However, the graduates must be doing something right because they now employ eight people and the business is open seven days a week.

Bella Vita is also about to enhance its services by bringing on board an ageing specialist while Katie and Sarah are also planning to raise their profile further by exhibiting at hair and wedding shows.

It definitely is a beautiful life for the dynamic duo.

Finding a niche market is a massive step towards success

The multi-billionaire Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, has just published a book with some tips for entrepreneurs. As an ‘entreprenerd’ and business book geek, I had to read it.

When a billionaire who has done it many times, and is close to people such as Elon Musk, another co-founder of PayPal and Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, you should pay attention.

I was expecting serious fireworks, but his tips are very straightforward:

  •  Entrepreneurship is not a lottery, so you should plan. You should know what you are doing and not be too dependent on iteration and experimentations
  • Work only with people you know and like
  • Create a cult culture with a focus on purpose and full buy-in by all
  • Never outsource recruitment
  • Focus, focus, focus
  • Ignore selling at your peril l It’s not only about the product
  •  Focus on durability, not growth
  • Friction kills
  • Design is important

Nothing earth-shattering there, and if truth be known, Hidden Champions of the 21st Century says the same, says more and is much more relevant to small businesses (it’s also written by a German).

Thiel does have one point that sticks out. The key question he asks is: what valuable company is nobody building?

Why step into a crowded space? If you want to create

and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

In the real world outside economic theory, every business is successful exactly to the extent that it does something others cannot. You want to build a monopoly.

Monopoly is the condition of every successful business. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.

To create an economy, you need to be 10 times better, you have to be able to control or create a niche, you have to create a brand, and you need to be able to scale. And that is the key message of the book. Step away from the red ocean into the blue ocean. Focus on being unique or focus on the unique opportunity. Diversification as the only option.

Which is what La Bella Vita Hair and Beauty and James Street South have done. Not sure if they are 10 times better, but they do have a niche and a (local) brand. Next challenge hopefully is to scale.

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