After a long day of running uptown and down, there’s nothing we enjoy more than catching up with a friend over a manicure. Sometimes, a quick pampering session is all that’s required to recharge and feel reinvigorated for the week ahead. So, it will come as no surprise that we’re devotees of tenoverten, the chic Tribeca salon “in pursuit of non-toxic nails.” Started by Nadine Abramcyk and Adair Ilyinsky in 2010, the pair quickly grew their clean-beauty tribe by expanding to LA and Austin.
The goal, according to Nadine, was to nix the standard nail salon formula, and create a topnotch salon experience in a space that more closely resembles a lovely apartment than the pared-down pop-in parlors synonymous with New York City. Thanks to social media, #NailArt shows no sign of slowing down, but this wasn’t always the case. In the early days, Nadine says she was petrified no one would even show up for a manicure. How did she make the jump?
Previous entrepreneurial experiences coupled with her appreciation of a good mani, helpd Nadine propel her vision from What If fantasies to IRL logistics. She stayed true to her dreams, planned smart – opening her first salon above her husband’s restaurant – and grew her business model organically, moving into product development to fulfill a demand for healthier, more natural nails.
Here, Nadine talks us through how she managed to thrive in a hyper-competitive marketplace, the importance of empowering her team, why she paused after rapid growth and how adding products helped her scale.
WHY IT PAYS TO LEARN ON SOMEONE ELSE’S DIME: Prior to starting Tenoverten, I ran another business called Mick Margo. It was a small women’s clothing and accessories store in the far West Village in NYC. I was raised by an entrepreneurial father who always encouraged me to work for myself, but get training on someone else’s dime. So straight after college I worked in the small business marketing department at American Express and then spent seven years as a publicist at TIME Magazine. I felt as though eight years in the corporate world meant I was ready to pursue my passion of owning my own store, but boy was that a steep learning curve. I was completely naïve about what I was getting into which ultimately, I think served me well because had I known quite how difficult it is to run your own business, I’m not sure I would’ve dove in the way I did.
THE BENEFITS OF STARTING A BUSINESS IN A SECTOR YOU HAVE NO EXPERIENCE IN: The thing about the nail salon industry is that most of the salons prior to ours had been opened by a manicurist which obviously comes with its benefits but approaching it from a customers’ perspective really turned the model on its head in my mind. Feeling frustrated with so many details about the salon experience as a nail enthusiast myself, there was a laundry list of things I would have approached differently and coming from a customer experience focus. I didn’t know the first thing about the beauty industry but I did have a corporate background and an undergraduate business degree so I knew how to put together a business plan backed by numbers and I had run my own business prior, albeit in a different field, so understood a thing or two about opening a retail space in New York. The thing that ultimately served me the best is that I came at it from a place of complete personal desire. I so badly wanted this nail salon to exist that I had imagined in my head and it was a simple wish list unencumbered by what I thought would be the best beauty service.
HOW TENOVERTEN CAME TO BEING: The concept of Tenoverten was brewed over many late-night pedicures that I would have with my now business partner, Adair Ilyinsky. We would sit in a salon after a long day of work and imagine what we would do differently if the place was ours. It was as serious a thought as super transparent hygiene practices to a simple uniform and clean bathrooms. We dreamt of online booking capabilities and a world where credit cards were stored so we wouldn’t have to reach into our wallets with wet nails. We wished there were a place that stayed open late hours so we could pop in after leaving our desk jobs with more polish choices and a friendly staff that might even remember us by name when we walked through the door. I am not a beauty junkie at heart, and a manicure was the only beauty service I would regularly indulge in so I felt frustrated that this experience we dreamt of wasn’t out there among the hundreds of salons in New York City.
THEIR SWEET SPOT: We felt there was a gap between the corner nail salon concept and the spa manicure that you could get at a Bliss type spa. The price points, service style, booking and hygiene practices of those two types of salons couldn’t be more different – could we create something in the middle? That’s what we aimed to do. And while I was still running my boutique, we would meet late at night and on weekends to brainstorm how to bring our concept to light. My father in law was in commercial real estate at the time and helped my husband get a prime retail space on the corner of W Broadway and Reade St in Tribeca to open a restaurant. It was in a terribly rundown but landmark building and I went to see him one day during the time that Adair and I were talking about the ‘what ifs’ for our dreamy business idea. And that led me to ask ‘what if’ we rented the second floor of that corner. We could afford the rent and create a destination nail salon that was truly relaxing and a bit separated from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. We asked the landlord to include that space and signed a lease shortly thereafter. It was exactly a year from the time we came up with the idea to the time our first salon doors opened in December of 2010.
HOW SHE FOUND THEIR FIRST CUSTOMERS: I lived in Tribeca at the time when we opened our first salon on one of the busiest corners in the neighbourhood. I was so immersed in the design and construction of the salon that I certainly wasn’t pounding the pavement thinking of creative ways to find customers. I was more caught up in hiring the right staff, training and simply making sure we knew how to give a service. I was totally petrified that no one would show up. Luckily that busy corner and curious Tribeca moms were a perfect match and during construction, people couldn’t help themselves from inquiring about what we were building upstairs. It created a bit of a buzz along with a piece in Vogue that ran 6 months before we opened. People came in for years after that piece with the magazine clipping. I really attribute a lot of our success and early press to that one Vogue piece. I will never forget that we were supposed to be open in time for the shoot and when we weren’t, we shot it at my husband’s restaurant Smith & Mills against a wall that we thought would look similar to one of the future walls at Tenoverten so that no one would know the difference. We wore Jenni Kayne outfits and I was praying inside that we would actually get our doors open. The piece ran with no phone number and just an address with the title ‘Vogue Secret’ and I think people felt like an insider because of it when they stepped inside the salon.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CREATING RICH-IRL EXPERIENCES IN THE DIGITAL AGE: We focus so much on the customer experience at Tenoverten because that is what propelled us to get into the business in the first place. I always say, ‘we are only as good as the last manicure we gave’ and that all leads back to the experience. When you can connect with someone and get them to truly slow down, relax, take a moment for self-care or connection with a friend or illicit a moment of reflection, it is a really impactful thing. These days we have so much thrown at us from all sides so we try to have a strong connection with a client when they walk through the door from start to finish. I am always willing to pay more for a good experience and believe others will too. I also want to share a good experience with my friends and family. A good experience is something you can’t stop talking about and our business has really thrived off word of mouth in that way. Anytime someone has a not so good experience in the salons, which happens of course, we bend over backward to see how we can change or train or manage a little bit better so that the customer experience doesn’t slip.
CREATING A TWO-WAY CONVERSATION WITH CUSTOMERS: We use our own voices. We speak to our clients as though we are sharing information with our friends and we think and hope that makes us relatable as a brand. We’ve worked really hard to garner people’s trust as the safest non-toxic nail brand in the market. We remain relevant by trying to create content to educate those that are interested on non-toxic beauty. We have a long way to go, but the same questions we are asking ourselves, such as what’s the safest natural deodorant on the market or what does 8-free actually mean, we address on our website or through social media or on our retail shelves so we can share those answers with our clients.
GROWING PAINS: We achieved a surprisingly early success in the New York market and as we expanded didn’t really have roles identified so clearly for the partners. It was sort of all hands on deck all the time when we should have had defined roles from the beginning. Jaclyn Ferber, our third partner and my sister, started the Tenoverten polish line in 2013 and when that began, it forced us to redefine all of our roles internally so that we would be more productive. At the time, three years into the business, we had two open salons and scouting for a third, a product company launching and about 50 employees to manage. We went through the process of creating our own job descriptions and parsed through them to divvy up the work according to our strengths and weaknesses. Partnership is amazing when it works but can be very painful when in flux, and that was one of those moments. Once we overcame that hurdle we’ve since all stayed in our lanes and the business runs much more smoothly.
EXPANDING THE BUSINESS OUTSIDE OF NEW YORK: Jaclyn and I are from Texas so definitely have a soft spot in our hearts for the state. We were also curious to try the business model in a warm weather climate where we wouldn’t necessarily experience the seasonal fluctuations that we had in New York. We opened in LA as that was a natural fit for us since we produce all of our products in California and Jaclyn lives there so we had a partner on the ground. It also helped that it is a warmer climate to compare to the New York model. We felt we had proof of concept in New York and wanted to move into other states to see how the idea would resonate beyond our hometown.
WHY EMPOWERING YOUR TEAM IS THE SECRET SOURCE FOR GROWTH: We opened our Austin salon five years into our business so had pretty iron clad manuals in place by the time that salon opened. What I didn’t plan for was how hard it would be to break into the local market. We were seen as the New York business that didn’t belong and it took me really passing off the reigns to our General Manager for us to start soaring in that market. I think the micromanaging at the beginning was holding us back. We hired a local Austinite who had years of salon experience in the market and really let her run the show. I travel to Austin every couple of months and we have weekly calls and numerous daily email check ins with the salon but our GM has pure autonomy today and it’s working. I have to hold myself back from asking crazy questions like ‘please send me a picture of the desk flower arrangement this week’ or ‘are the colours displayed from dark to light’ and relinquish control a bit. I try to impart lessons from the way we manage our teams in New York so that the Austin salon is as similar experience to New York as possible. One of my favorite emails to get is from a New York customer who has visited either our LA or Texas salon and comments on the similarities between the quality of the services. We don’t want to be the Starbucks of nails in our looks but we do in the way we feel, if that makes sense.
WHY PRODUCTS ARE A GREAT WAY TO MAKE A SERVICE-BASED BUSINESS SCALABLE: We was never our intention to create products. We created the product line a couple of years into our business out of need for a safer 8-free nail polish line offering an elegant color palette. We felt that it didn’t exist so we created it ourselves. There is a lot of opportunity in the product business. We have launched 3 nail care products in the past 2 years. We’ve got 55 SKUS in our collection and those 3 nail care products comprise almost 70% of our business which is rather incredible and unexpected. We will always continue to introduce color but will focus more primarily on nail treatments going forward and replacing all the not-so-great back-bar products with our own so that we can offer a completely non-toxic manicure from start to finish with our own products. Now that we have our own 100% natural cuticle oil and polish remover we are creating a hand cream and nail dryer drops that meet our non-toxic standards.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MAKING TIME FOR FOUNDATIONAL YEARS AFTER RAPID GROWTH: I’m coming off such a hard year of reflection for the business so it’s no wonder that you picked up on it. I think you can go through life and business being very reactionary to what’s coming at you. Offers for new store fronts, partnership opportunities, events, and on and on but if the foundation of the business is at unrest then those things eventually don’t sustain you. We had started our business off as individual LLCs every time we opened a store not knowing what our business would become and we had to clean that up this past year through a roll up and restructuring process. I really had to force myself away from the day to day to focus on the company infrasctructure so that we could be poised for the kind of growth we desired in the future. It was certainly the most challenging year in the business for me personally thus far but one that I am really proud of and smarter for having experienced.
THE BUSINESS METRICS SHE PAYS ATTENTION TO: Daily sales per service. That metric speaks volumes to me and I am able to compare on a weekly, monthly and annual basis to gauge the direction of the business and hopefully redirect to avoid major pitfalls in the numbers that could affect us majorly at the end of the year.
HOW TO THRIVE IN A COMPETITIVE SPACE: There are so many amazing emerging nail salons, particularly in New York and Los Angeles so it absolutely keeps us on our toes. It’s a good reminder to stay dedicated to our mission and not veer off to follow trends. We won’t appeal to everyone – but that’s okay. We just have to offer the best we can to those that understand our brand and connect with us. We luckily haven’t seemed to have lost too many customers to these newcomers or if we do, we feel it is mostly for an occasional varied experience and then hopefully that person will find themselves back in a Tenoverten pedicure chair.
ON BUILDING CUSTOMER LOYALTY: In terms of the lifetime value of a customer, it’s honestly an area that we have a lot of work to do but we are focused on two things at the moment. The first being to create content to live on our website that is informative for our community so that they have a trusted space to learn more about non-toxic beauty and second is to pilot a loyalty program in LA which is where our newest salon is located.
HOW BUILDING THIS BUSINESS WAS DIFFERENT FROM HER FIRST: It’s entirely different this time around, mainly because I have incredible partners with whom I share every step of this journey. Also, managing a staff of now 180 employees at Tenoverten is quite different than the two employees I managed in my former venture. This time around is much more inclusive on the customer level as well because everyone loves to have their nails done while fashion felt a bit exclusionary in my former store because I only had the ability to carry women’s clothing in a certain small range of sizes or else I would have been out of business. Everyone can relate to feeling good when having their hands and feet well-manicured – I love that about this business!
By Dana Karlson
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