Newfoundland-born Tony Tjan: best-selling author, business mogul and nail tycoon
Posted on December 16, 2021 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments
Leaning against a damp railing on the deck of the ALT Hotel in St. John’s, a thick fog and Canadian Coast Guard vessel as his backdrop, Anthony (Tony) Tjan is smiling, relaxed, at home. Tjan dropped into the city over the American Thanksgiving holiday for a visit with friends and family, in a moment of downtime, before heading off to continue his work with Cue Ball Capital and complete the launch into Canada of MiniLuxe.
Tjan is co-founder, managing partner and chairman of MiniLuxe, the Boston-based personal care company that has been building momentum for years now with safety-centred nail salons and a product line good enough to land top celebrity endorsements. “Oprah’s Favourite Things of 2019”, as published in O magazine, for example, included a MiniLuxe nail polish gift set. The company’s products have been highlighted on daytime shows including The View and Good Morning America.
The earliest national press for MiniLuxe, however, came from its launch in the late 2000s. It drew attention for its approach to operations, including the level of compensation for staff, as it added brick and mortar locations. More recently, attention has come for company plans for an “Uberization” of services, with the aim of offering customers convenience, while doing more to recognize and empower individual nail technicians, as Tjan told Atlantic Business Magazine.
An open lane
But wait. Aren’t nail salons relatively commonplace? Why start MiniLuxe?
Tjan said, at a high level, he personally, instinctively, looks for business opportunity in areas where he sees orphaned innovation, where there is a structural or systemic bias, or a lack of technology or professional management. MiniLuxe came to be, at least in part, after a discussion where he’d registered some common biases.
“If I said you know we’ve found a great business market, up to $60 billion is spent in it a year. It’s highly fragmented, there are hundreds of thousands of independent workers, that spirit of entrepreneurship, that it had been ignored. It’s an orphaned area of innovation. Almost no technology has been applied to it, no design, and there’s been a lack of capitalization. It is the most used service in its industry that’s the least regulated and the least innovated. And if you were to just say that in a business class, people would say: sign me up for that,” he said, by way of explanation. “And then if you said, ‘Hey I’ve got a nail salon or a nail business’ and you did it the other way, all of the stigma and stereotype come in.”
The Harvard Business School graduate wondered then about the potential for applying the “Starbucks model” to a new company in the nail and personal-care industry, bringing in a strong corporate culture, design and operational systems as the foundation for a new brand.
Tjan said he and his co-founder of MiniLuxe, John Hamel, were inspired to dig deeper into the industry after the New York Times ran an exposé in 2015 from reporter Sarah Maslin Nir, looking at salons and the experiences of manicurists in New York. The investigation was given rare status, with front page placement, running over two days. Maslin Nir highlighted the working conditions and health risks faced daily at problem salons. It was everything from salon owners demanding training fees from workers before their start (and so employees were paying to work), to manicurists reporting regularly working extended hours at below minimum wage.
Maslin Nir reported experiences of burns, respiratory ailments, miscarriages. “A growing body of medical research shows a link between the chemicals that make nail and beauty products useful—the ingredients that make them chip-resistant and pliable, quick to dry and brightly colored, for example—and serious health problems,” she wrote.
Tjan said, reading, there was a gut reaction to what he considered to be an “ugly truth”: the tales of toxicity, lack of hygiene for customers through no fault of the workers, of harm happening.
“I think I’ve been driven by pursuing purpose-driven companies, companies that as my partner (operating partner in Cue Ball Capital) Mats Lederhausen would say: ‘Where the purpose is bigger than the product and product comes before the profit.’ If you get purpose and product right, the profit will follow,” Tjan said.
Then to now
As advice for owners of startups in Atlantic Canada, he said it’s worth considering the reasons why you might stay away from an “Instabrand” approach. A quick start through heavy marketing, with a big injection of ad capital, might help you get your name out and quickly boost product demand, but if the fundamentals aren’t there, or there are challenges in delivering your product—through raw supply, labour demands, shipping limitations and any number of other limits—you’re only risking a knock against your reputation and possible long-term success.
“My belief is for a real, authentic brand, it usually takes about a decade,” he said. And it was the approach for MiniLuxe.
The starting point for the company involved employee benefits including 401(k)s, flexible hours, paid vacation and health insurance. More than once during the interview in St. John’s, Tjan referred to his company’s nail technicians as “designers” or “artisans,” saying their level of skill and individual value has often not been recognized by the worst of the industry. For MiniLuxe, there was also a focus on safety, with a “clean lab” in every salon with hospital-grade disinfection protocol, complete with autoclaving. The company would also screen products for known toxins and consumer warnings, before it eventually introduced a product line of its own.
MiniLuxe started with a single salon in Tjan’s new home of Boston—“one, small studio,” as he recalls—in 2007, then grew to multiple locations around the city before expansion to other U.S. states. You can now find company salons in Texas, California and Rhode Island. The company also has its direct-to-consumer online sales for product. Meanwhile, regular use of sanitizing equipment and disinfection protocols may certainly have played a role in his recent appointment to Boston mayor Michelle Wu’s COVID-19 advisory committee.
COVID-19 hit MiniLuxe as much as any company, with a shutdown of salons as the first wave hit. “We went from a concept doing several millions (of dollars) down to zero in two weeks. We went from 550 (people) and we took the team down, within two and a half weeks we were down to six,” Tjan said, adding the rapid response led by CEO Zoe Krislock to the pandemic was essential to sustainability. He said the company tried to do right by employees as things progressed.
When it comes to the customer base, Tjan said the pandemic isolation reminded people of the importance of moments of self-care. And with that awareness, the company has been recovering. “We are thrilled to have been able to re-hire hundreds of our team members and bring back more,” he said. “We have a goal over the next four to five years to bring on thousands.”
Tjan was standing alongside Krislock and other members of the MiniLuxe team on Dec. 8, to celebrate the company’s new listing on the TSX Venture Exchange and open the market. The listing is a part of a planned push into Canada in 2022.
The company comes with more than two million individual services now completed, with a service being, for example, a manicure or pedicure. However, the standing question is: will Canadians be as impressed with MiniLuxe as their American neighbours?
Many Canadians might expect local workers and customers are better protected here. Section 16 of the Canadian Food and Drug Act specifically addresses cosmetics and essentially states no one is allowed to sell a cosmetics product (including body scrubs and nail coatings) that contains any substance that might harm the end user. And there is universal public healthcare in the mix.
However, not everyone knows there is no mandatory incident reporting under the Cosmetics Regulations and reports by industry are largely voluntary, as stated in Health Canada’s consumer product safety reports. Not everyone would know only four of 10 provinces in Canada directly regulate nail salons (as opposed to, say, having them covered under general safety standards). Meanwhile, as recently as early October, a photo essay feature published by the Toronto-based magazine The Local, “The Real Cost of a Manicure” carried echoes of the 2015 New York Times features, with reports of precarious work and labour exploitation.
Tjan said the next step for MiniLuxe, and what may make it a go-to in the Canadian market, is the “Uberization” of services. The company is shifting to become a digital-first service company, to further empower workers. The company is certifying the skill level of technicians and offering greater freedom in how technicians go about scheduling their work. For example, booking the times when they are available, rather than working assigned shifts. To that end, the company has an online platform for the scheduling.
Apart from everything else, Tjan said the pandemic has laid bare some of the nastier undercurrents of North American society. Events have included stories showing the higher risks carried by frontline and gig workers, plus racist and xenophobic attacks. He said it includes the attacks on the six women of Asian descent, among eight people who were gunned down in shootings at three spas in Cherokee County and Atlanta, GA in March 2021. The individuals killed were: Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; Paul Michels, 54; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63. As the Associated Press reported, 22-year-old Robert Aaron Long pleaded guilty to four of the murders in July, with further proceedings still to come. Long told police the attacks were not tied to race but his actions were condemned as being so, including by State Rep. Bee Nguyen, saying the shootings appeared to be at the “intersection of gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia.”
“We are a company with over 96 per cent women, over 95 per cent BIPOC, a large proportion, a very large majority is Asian-based and we have other diverse classes. It hit a nerve for many of us,” Tjan said.
He believes people in both Canada and the U.S. will be responding to companies openly supporting and acting for the benefit of traditionally marginalized populations.
MiniLuxe is Tjan’s baby but not the only company with backing from Cue Ball Capital, the firm he co-founded. Apart from the daily business, Tjan is also a New York Times bestselling author, with “Hearts, Smarts, Guts and Luck: What it takes to be an entrepreneur and build a great business” (2012), co-authored with Richard Harrington and Tsun-Yan Hsieh, and more recently “Good People” (2017).
He insists his childhood in Newfoundland and Labrador has shaped him as a businessman and entrepreneur, speaking about resilience, resourcefulness and a desire to help those around you, even quoting E. J. Pratt’s poem “Newfoundland”:
And the story is told
Of human veins and pulses,
Of eternal pathways of fire,
Of dreams that survive the night,
Of doors held ajar in storms.
“The very definition of entrepreneurship is the willingness to pursue with positivity opportunity without regard to resource, and I think if there’s a place that exemplifies that, it’s Newfoundland. Then you layer on immigrants and a resourceful mother. I think that really is the spirit,” he said.
Tjan is the son of Lisa Tjan and Dr. Eng-Tjie Tjan of St. John’s. His father was one of the first ear, nose and throat specialists in the province and served as a specialist surgeon for more than four decades.
A young Tony started in newspaper deliveries as a teenager, before getting into his first experience with personal care, selling skin care products door to door at around age 14. While still in high school in St. John’s, he was being recognized for his entrepreneurship, by then working at everything from sale of t-shirts with custom graphics to computer billing systems.
He would move to finish Grade 13 in Toronto, Ontario, before heading from there into the U.S. college system, but remained in contact with more than one childhood mentor, including his high school French teacher Valerie Pike.
“He has not wavered from his guiding principles of compassion, community, dignity for all,” Pike told Atlantic Business Magazine, saying she believes Tjan’s own passion and drive was always paired with a desire to enable success, fulfillment and better quality of life for others.
Tjan’s first big business venture was Zefer, an early internet consultancy and development firm. He recalls the start of that business, in a world where he figures the internet had fewer than 10,000 websites. The company went through the dot-com boom and eventually sold to NEC Corp., a Japanese-based conglomerate. The company ran out of road in the early 2000s.
Tjan sold his interest before then and went to work with Thomson Corp. He was a senior strategic advisor until the purchase of Reuters in 2008. “Post-that, the logical thing to do I joke was to open up a nail salon,” he said.
Tjan isn’t the only individual with Cue Ball Capital who spent his formative years in Newfoundland and Labrador. A Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador and Harvard Business School graduate, Ali Rahimtula worked as vice president in the financial institutions group at Goldman Sachs before becoming principle at private equity firm Aquiline Capital partners, eventually opting to join Tjan at Cue Ball Capital.
Tjan said, for his part, he thinks Atlantic Canadians can sell themselves short sometimes in their leadership skills and entrepreneurship.
“It’s not just Newfoundland. But we sometimes, what I’ve learned, there’s sometimes labels put on things that make one think it’s unattainable, or it’s a more elevated practice than it is,” he said. “When I use the term entrepreneurship, I would say probably the best entrepreneurs in the world might be a single mother, it might be an immigrant, it might be someone growing up in an outport who has to live off the land.”
(NOTE: This article originally, incorrectly stated Ali Rahimtula began work with Tony Tjan at Thomson Corp. He did not but does now work with Tjan at Cue Ball Capital. Atlantic Business Magazine regrets the error.)
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