An app that captures our changing approach to beauty appointments is making big waves. The masterminds behind Flossie Concierge talk to Rebecca Barry Hill about growing a digital business.

It's not hard to spot the women behind Flossie Concierge, the tech-start up company shaking up the hair and beauty industry. Creator Jenene Crossan and board members Sandy Burgham and Helena McMullin are sitting at a Britomart restaurant table with freshly styled hair and makeup, having just come from an appointment and photo shoot at nearby Dry & Tea.

"The pressure's on now to look like this all the time," laughs the gregarious Burgham, the former director of Max Fashions and Barkers. She works as a business coach and is director of leadership development for the non-profit organisation New Zealand Global Women, among other things.

No sooner does she say that, than Crossan jumps on her mobile phone to book a gel manicure. The 36-year-old digital entrepreneur who founded NZ Girl, youth research agency 18Ltd, and content marketing Bloggers Club, launched Flossie.com three years ago, bridging the gap between beauty salons' "quiet time" and women struggling to justify spending on their appearance, post-financial crisis.

But it's her mobile app, Flossie Concierge, that's causing the real stir - and the reason Burgham and McMullin, a former IT consultant, lawyer and investor who is part of the Hells Pizza empire, got involved.

Advertisement

Flossie Concierge works much like the taxi app Uber but for the hair and beauty industry, which in New Zealand is worth $1 billion annually. Want a haircut at 3pm tomorrow in Albany, or maybe even a chin wax, lash perm or ear candling? Just download the app on your smartphone, punch in your preferred procedures, times and locations, and voila, the app contacts the appropriate salons for availability. The salons then fire back responses and prices, which you can choose to accept or decline.

"We don't see ourselves as a hair and beauty business," says Crossan. "We see ourselves as a convenience technology company."

She says the app saves women the time and effort it would take to ring around for a last-minute appointment, and brings the salon to the customer, rather than the other way around. Like Uber, Flossie collects users' credit card details, making it a convenient - and dangerously easy - way to spend money. But in a world where everything from travel to TV is on demand, it's the ultimate accessory for the want-it-now generation.

It's a win for participating salons, too, expanding their customer base and filling otherwise empty appointments. Naturally, Flossie clips the ticket each time a booking is made. After a rapid test process (the idea came about in January and was in testing by June), Flossie Concierge went live in August. So far the app has signed up 2500 customers and 150 salons in Auckland.

Although there's no substitute for finding a great hairdresser who knows just which way your cowlick needs blow-waving, McMullin says there's virtually no risk in using services you might not have tried, as each salon has been vetted at least twice.

It hasn't always been easy convincing salons to discount their services in return for the instant marketing but with less than 25 per cent of customers making advance bookings, business owners are accepting the need for a new model.

"The customer is changing," says Burgham. "Some people are locked in an old model and say to us, 'but people book every six weeks'. But that's happening less and less. Anyone who thinks that women will continue to behave like they did 10 years ago is dreaming. The market's totally shifted."

Research and two years of experience in the market suggests customers are less brand-loyal, increasingly time-poor and consider convenience more important than cost. The rise of social media sites such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook - and the vanity they encourage - has also driven demand for professional grooming.

"Twenty years ago, you didn't get waxes, manicures, pedicures," says Burgham. "You wouldn't think about eyelash extensions, getting a spray tan or your eyebrows done."

"We're so much more visible now," adds Crossan. "There are more restaurants to go to, more events, we're out so much more. And it's not just about maintenance. Women are responding to trends, walking into salons with a picture and saying, 'I want to look like that'."

The app is now expanding into other regions, starting with Wellington, with plans to eventually take it to the US and the UK. There's also potential for the technology to be applied to any number of trades, from electricians to plumbers and dentists.

The idea for the app came at the end of last year when Crossan woke up one morning and realised nothing had been "flossied". Realising she couldn't be bothered to ring around, she knew there had to be an easier way to make bookings. She then worked on the concept with chief technical officer Steven Torrance before approaching the company's now-chair, Mike Carden, who'd sold his first tech business Sonar6 in the US for $18 million.

"I wanted someone who had been through the experience of developing something completely new in the industry. One of the loneliest things you can do in the world is to be a tech start-up CEO and do it on your own.

Some people really want to hold on to their idea and do it themselves. I just don't think that's feasible. If you want to create something that's a truly global proposition that isn't just a lifestyle toy in Auckland, you need the skills around you that you don't have."

Finding experienced businesswomen with proven insight into consumer behaviour was next on her list. She'd known Burgham for years, as they'd crossed paths through the research and retail worlds; Burgham had been thinking about becoming more active in the digital space, so the opportunity to join the team was perfect timing.

"Sandy and I can talk about everything. We catch up over lunch and gossip about the world, our lives. I felt comfortable about Sandy's feedback, we have a close relationship and I wanted a coach within the business. And I love Sandy's background."

Meanwhile, McMullin was looking to invest in another tech start-up. The quiet, more measured of the trio, she knew Flossie Concierge was it after hearing Crossan speak at an event. Crossan was equally as admiring of McMullin's legal and business background - and the fact they got along so well.

"You only put money into technology if it's done by the right person," says McMullin. "And Jenene is that person. She's so driven it's amazing. She inspires people, and she's unbelievably hard-working. The key to why Flossie has come so far so quickly is that enormous drive to make it."

Crossan says it's a more pertinent question to ask how many hours a week she's not working but after years of self-employment she's figured out how to retain a balance through regular exercise (running, mostly) and making sure she's there for her partner and their three children.

"Ask any tech entrepreneur. It's an obsession, and a lifestyle choice. You dream about it. It consumes you. These guys will hear from me at all times of day or night."

The team is already on the fifth version of the app. They've also set up a limited edition Flossie Fund, whereby anyone, customers included, can become a shareholder. Although there are similar models operating overseas, they're more focused on managing bookings at the salon end, says Crossan, whereas Flossie Concierge is a way to centralise the booking process across multiple businesses.

"It's really exciting being involved in digital," says Crossan.

"It's not like you're creating something, and you make it, and there it is and it's gorgeous. It's a constantly moving beast. You have to earn trust from customers, salons, the board, investors, the team - everyone has to feel like they're on this journey.

"It's a continual process. It's really challenging, but satisfying, too."


- VIVA