Nazia Surti had a lively chat with the Influence Magazine team about the numbers 3, 30, and 3 and how they correlate to her phenomenal growth from a single kiosk to 3 stores with 30 employees in 3 years. She also dishes on threading, Burlington and the most uncomfortable places she has slept in pursuit of her dream. Nazia has an irrepressible spirit, a quick wit, a genuine zest for life and an entrepreneurial story you will never forget. She and her husband Rizwan moved from India to Canada and together they have worked 12-hour days to see their dreams come true. With a fierce determination, a keen entrepreneurial eye and the ability to work together to make the impossible possible, Nazia went from her hand-decorated kiosk in Burlington Mall to nominee for Retail-Wholesale Medium Size Business of the Year with the Burlington Chamber of Commerce in ‘06. Our team met with Nazia at her original Beauty First store in Burlington Mall to talk about business, life and lessons learned along the way.
Nazia, I know you own a spa that delivers services from threading to facials throughout three locations in Hamilton and Burlington. How did you get here?
My husband was working at Trillium College on Brant Street. And then we decided, why don’t we start our own business? We both said “Let’s invest a little bit and try to just make our own business.” I said, “OK. I’ll start with threading.” We looked up malls in Burlington for speciality leasing. So we looked at renting a kiosk at Burlington Mall. My husband said, “This will be just passing the time, right? Don’t try to take it seriously. You want to take it slow, just get yourself busy,” and I said, “OK.” And we signed just aa three month lease. We opened with a small kiosk with my one chair. I was pregnant at the time with our first child.
So take me back to the three weeks before the kiosk opened. How was that? What were you most worried about?
I was worried about the presentation of the kiosk. I was worried about what it was going to look like. How will people know it’s a threading place? I had no budget to ask somebody to come and create or do designing for me.
I had no budget. Already I spent so much, renting the kiosk and just one threading chair was a thousand dollars. Yeah, if you want a proper nice chair. I cannot compromise. So now what, now what I was wondering. I said to my husband, Let me create something. I wanted pink, pink, pink. Take me to Michael’s, the art store, so I can get started.” [Laughter.] And he says, What are you going to do at Michaels? I said, Just take me there. I bought some pink sheets, round circles, white wool and flowers. And I came home, took some crazy glue and I started folding those things and trying to make spools. I made small size and big size adding a strip to put the wool inside. I tried to hang it to show that this is a threading place. [Laughter.] If you look they are still in the store now, those pink spools.
Did it work?
So people saw eyebrows on this side and that plus the spools were hanging all over. Some people thought it was a place to get stitching done, you know, because we were just across from Stitch It. [Laughter.]
I understand you didn’t have a car at that time so getting to the kiosk was an adventure?
My husband had to be in the office at 8:30 a.m. The mall opens at 10; we have to leave the house by 7:30. So I used to come with him, he would drop me off at 8, then go to his office.
What did you do between 8 a.m. and opening time?
I used to sleep in the food court on the couch, I was so tired from being pregnant!
I think this is one of the best stories of dedicated entrepreneurship I’ve heard.
Two hours of sleep in the food court. And then I’d open the kiosk and start my 12-hour shift, all by myself. Every day standing, trying to educate people walking by about threading, that it’s hair removal.
When did you see that it was going to work?
Finally, very slowly, I started building my clientele. And then it started getting busy. I was in my seventh, eighth month, so I hired one girl … now we have two chairs. Then slowly I reduced my time. And I hired another girl because, again, it was getting busy. So I started with one chair, then two chairs and then three chairs. Tim Horton’s has lineups; we started to have a lineup for threading at the kiosk. Very, very, very busy. Then I had my baby.
After the baby, you kept growing the business?
People were asking, “Why don’t you offer more services?” And, we didn’t want to have this long lineup because it’s a walk-in service and if people cannot be served they may not wait. [Laughter.] Sometimes we would have ten people waiting. Doesn’t matter that we have three chairs. Then I hired more girls. We end up having five to six girls working for me. I was working, busy, busy, busy, only threading, nothing else. Then I started having clients crossing the border from the U.S. just to get threading here.
You’re a cross-border sensation!
We still have those clients. They say, “We cannot go anywhere else but Beauty First.”
So how did you get into a full size store?
Then suddenly, a coincidence, a store closed, at the end of its lease. But this is a huge store, we'd be moving from a 200 square foot kiosk to a 2000 square foot store. [Laughs.] Then my husband and I decided, this is a lot of investment, but if we start we are going to have a full-fledged spa. We started talking to the clients and they were happy. When the time came to close the kiosk and open the store, people went to guest services crying, “Where did the kiosk go?” Then again, I got pregnant. [Laughter.] And then, we decided to look at Lime Ridge Mall in Hamilton because they were renovating, offering new small spaces. Unfortunately there were no small spaces but they did have a larger one, 1700 square feet. I said, OK, you know what, we’re going to invest and we’re going to open another one, because we were so busy in Burlington. So before the baby was born we opened that new location. Then busy, busy, busy. Again, that is touch wood, going very, very, very well. The women from Guest Services at Mapleview Mall in Burlington were calling us saying “Why don’t you open in Mapleview?” I said, “There’s no stores available. I’ve been two years waiting and there’s nothing.” They said, “Just go and talk to them. We need you here.” We talked to them and, again, coincidence, another store came up, which is in the corner, not very visible. But, yes, it is there. So I said, we’ll start small –1300 square feet. Again, we started and it went so well. It’s still going on, all my three locations, I touch wood.
People are very happy wherever we go. We are now talking about adding a store to Oakville Place.
What do you think is so different about Beauty First compared to other salons?
Customer service, my friendly environment. We don’t try to do sales here. We are more into customer service, giving people what they need, what they want. And our process is different. I guarantee you won’t find it anywhere in Canada, forget about the city or Ontario – in Canada. The processes I created for pre and post threading or waxing, everything is my own, it is what I believe skin needs.
Also, my girls are very, very friendly. You won’t find anyone rude. And the thing is, doesn’t matter whom you go to, you will get the same customer service. Because all the girls are trained by me personally.
So from you opening the kiosk to now, how long has it been?
Three years, you’ve gone from the kiosk … All that in three years? Well, no wonder you’re up for a Chamber award! You literally worked the business for 12 hours a day.
Yeah. I did, yes, yes.
While pregnant. [Laughs.]
While pregnant. So whenever I had morning sickness, I had no washroom. I had to put up a sign, “Back in 15 minutes,” and go the washroom. Do whatever I have to, freshen up myself, then come back. And then when I come back again, a lineup. OK, we have to start taking the clients. No, I cannot have my lunch.
If I have clients, you know, I have to be starving.
Did you ever get to eat?
When my husband was done with his work, he used to get food and come and join me.
After five o’clock he would sit at the cash register, while I worked. After nine o’clock, we closed everything. By the time we reached home it was eleven, have our dinner, sleep. Because tomorrow morning, again, we have to wake up at seven, leave the home by 7:30.
And was that seven days a week for you because the mall is open seven days?
Yeah, seven days.
So your husband helped out on the cash register?
He did, every day. I had some small retail stuff for eyebrows. I trained him, “This is what you have to explain to the girls.” [Laughter.]
What a team. So talk to me a bit about having your husband involved, about that support.
Whenever I was away from the kiosk in the washroom he would talk to the customers in line saying, She’s coming. She’s coming. She just went to the washroom. She’s coming back.
I am here because of my husband. If he hadn’t supported me, I would not be here, honestly. Still one is staying home, one is coming for work. Sometimes he comes for technical things and paperwork, I come here just for training. Without him, it would not be possible.
I absolutely am inspired by that. Where do you see it going from here? Are you thinking of franchising?
Yes, we are thinking franchise. But for now, we are not in a rush because our kids are too young and it’s too much work. Not now but soon.
And so is your husband still involved full time?
Now he’s full time. He is helping me because there’s a lot of paperwork, lots of things going on. So I am on the floor doing training. Behind the scenes things, paperwork, all the technical part, he takes care of.
So how did you get your start in aesthetics?
I was always interested. Even back home, I was always into beauty. My parents wanted me to become doctor, which never happened. [Laughs.] I’m not a doctor type of person. When I see blood I get dizzy, how can I become a doctor?
We got engaged. And my parents wanted me to take the premed school exam. I said, I am not doing that. He was supporting me, telling me, “Let them do what they want. Eventually, we will do what you want.”
We came here, to Toronto. The next day I got a job. Just walking distance from the apartment where we were living, two minutes, there was a spa. I worked there because I needed to have something, right? So I was working, working. And then I found out, there is a school where the government gives a scholarship. I said, OK, that sounds good. I’ll try for that. I told my husband, Why spend $10,000 when I can do this, right? – I even passed my hairstyling licence. So I worked in Toronto for two years doing hair. And I began to have some allergies to the dye so I moved to aesthetics. I said, no more hair, only aesthetics.
So take us on the journey before you came to Canada. Because that is a leap just in itself, right?
Yeah. We grew up in India. We were engaged for four years, but he was in the UK, London. We were in contact by phone. Then he came to India to marry me. He always loved Canada, always. It’s a family place. He said, I like the UK, it’s good to visit, it’s not where I want my family to grow up. I want a very peaceful place like Canada. I heard good things. And I’m like, OK, OK, OK. Doesn’t matter, just take me abroad. [Laughter.]
And we got married. We stayed only one year in India, with my in-laws. When I was staying there, I was working in a spa as well.
And what year did you come to Canada?
It was 2009.
This happened so fast for you.
It’s just, everything went so well. I got into the college, I got a job. So there was no rush. And I was working and studying. So, every day, I used to leave at six o’clock in the morning. I took the subway, and my college was two hours away. So at eight o’clock I used to reach there, all the way to Kipling, in the west end of Toronto. And then, at three o’clock I would leave to be at my job by five o’clock. I would work until ten o’clock and then go home. Good thing it was very close!
So it was two minutes’ walk for me. But I left at six o’clock in the morning and at eleven o’clock at night I was returning home. My husband used to prepare all the dinner and everything. [Laughter.] Oh, my gosh, that was good. So it was not too much stress. I knew it was a struggle time. I have to. If I want to reach there, I have to. I had no choice.
It all happened with my husband’s support. Nothing I would be doing without him, nothing. I love that.
So back to the present. What’s your favourite part of being on the floor and working with the customers?
Before, I was just working by myself. Right now, I have 30 staff. [Laughs.] My girls are amazing. So whenever I come into the store, I ask, “Any feedback on the customer service?” I talk with the customers. And they know me. Not everyone, but some of them who are coming from the kiosk, they know, “Oh, you are that lady, right? You’re that pregnant lady.” Yeah, but I’m not pregnant anymore. [Laughter.]
So they tell me, “We have seen you. From where you were and where you are now, we have seen you.” And one of the ladies actually told me, “I always give you as an example to my daughter, ‘Become like her, come on, become like her. At the age where all the girls want to go into makeup and fashion and this lady was just struggling with everything. And look at her now,’ I always tell her. And her daughter says, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’” [Laughs.] They’re not serious with their life.
How does that make you feel, being a role model?
It makes me really proud of myself, that people are looking at me and they’re inspired. Admiring me, my struggle and everything. And, yes, there was no shortcut, nothing.
Well, your story is really inspiring. And it’s so great to see that you put that work in and then look at the payoff.
So is it a challenge with your 30 staff or is that something you really enjoy, building that team?
I really enjoy it, because they are like my family. I have no one in Canada, so whenever we have get togethers, parties, they are my own family here.
And what has that been like, being so far from your family?
I thought it was going to be very bad. Initially, yes, it was. Some days it seemed really crazy, Why am I doing this, what am I doing? We never had this kind of life before, right? Struggle, struggle, struggle. I’m, like, What am I doing, just a year after getting married, this is what I’m supposed to do? You know, people go for their honeymoon and stuff and what am I doing here? But then slowly, slowly… we had enough to buy a smartphone we got an iPhone and the FaceTime was everything I needed for my family. When I got into that, I’m like, OK, I’m happy now.
What do you love about living in Burlington?
The community here, I really like the lifestyle of Burlington. I drive one signal and I’m in Burlington Mall, right? Highway to highway, 15 minutes, I’m in Lime Ridge Mall. Mapleview, five minutes. So everything is so close to me. Whenever my husband needs help with the kids, OK, “He has a fever,” or, “He needs you,” it’s a minute drive and I’m at home.
How do you feel about raising the boys here in Burlington?
Amazing, amazing. Yeah. I like Burlington, really good city.
It is a beautiful city. And as a business owner in Burlington, working with the Chamber did you reach out and tap into their resources as an entrepreneur or did you open that kiosk and just go? [Laughs.]
I just opened the kiosk. I never even knew anything about the Chamber. Then the lady from management here, Heidi, she told me, “Oh, I nominated you,” I’m like, For what? [Laughs.] What did you nominate me for? She said, “There’s a business award. And you should take part in the Chamber of Commerce, you should be a member.” Then I say, How does that work? I never had time for all this. It was just work, work, work. And then, just recently, in May, I became a member of the Chamber of Commerce. [Laughs.]
Excellent. And so what were you nominated for with the Chamber?
Medium-size business excellence.
Any final thoughts?
What a journey you’ve been on. Just thinking back to when I started, I was not serious, to be honest with you. It was just to pass the time while I was pregnant. I told you, just a three month lease I signed.
What an inspirational story, we have loved talking to you Nazia!
Thank you very much.
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