Tommy co-owns WHITEROOM Salon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with his wife Elisabeth. Elle Magazine named it one of the top 100 Hair Salons in the country. I’ve known Tommy for a long time, he’s one of my favorite friends to talk to, always game for a rambling up-all-night conversation about anything and everything. We talked about growing up, higher education, weight training, and opening a business in New York City.
01. What’s your typical morning routine? How do you get your day started?
We don’t start at the salon until noon, so we have a lot of time to work in the mornings; and on a superficial level, I wish that were my answer! But the truth is, we get up relatively early and make coffee, play with our dog Arrow and just kind of hang out and talk. Our day at the salon is built around appointments, so if ever there is a gap, that’s the time we use to get shit done.
Three days a week or so, though, I go to the gym and train. I remember reading something Richard Branson said about how going to the gym regularly is the best way to get things done outside the gym. Like, if you want to make moves in business and stay motivated and energized, go move heavy stuff around on a regular basis.
02. Can you tell me a little about your upbringing? I remember seeing you out at clubs in South Florida before we actually met, but you weren’t born in Florida, right?
Yeah, I lived in Florida for about three years before moving to New York. I was born in Mississippi, which is where all of my extended family lives, but I grew up in Louisiana, in a town called LaPlace which is about 25 miles west of New Orleans. It’s what I imagine a pretty typical suburban upbringing would be, except at the end of my block was swampland. That was a lot of fun. I loved going out into it and catching snakes. Once, I traded a snake for a bike… Or a bike for a snake. I can’t remember. But I’m sure kids in the Northwest did things that would seem wild to me.
I’ve always felt a little special being from Louisiana. It’s the only state with parishes instead of counties. We’ve got Mardi Gras. It’s one of only a few places in the country with a distinctive personality, in my opinion. But really, it was just a place to get away from. That’s important.
03. How did you get interested in cutting hair? Is that what you always wanted to do with your life?
I never thought once about doing hair until the day I decided I would. In college, I majored in History and I wanted to be a professor. I took a break after two years, because it all just felt too typical (which is just as typical). I guess I was complaining to a friend about how the time away from school hadn’t really shed any light on… anything, really. I thought I’d figure so much out, but I was really just working minimum wage jobs to pay rent to have a place to stay before I went to back to work. As depressing as that was, the idea of going back to school and locking myself back into that same mold I was trying to free myself from was almost worse.
She said I should go to beauty school. I didn’t get it at the time, but she was making a joke. The joke being that beauty school is a place for drop outs. But when she said it, this light went off. I knew it was the answer. That’s only really happened to me for three or four things in my life, where I got an idea to do something that I knew was just really going to work out for me. I’m lucky to have been able to recognize it. The next day I enrolled in beauty school. I threw myself into it completely. That’s what I do.
04. You left Brooklyn and moved back to Florida to open your own salon a few years back. The salon was seemingly pretty successful, but you ended up moving back to NYC after about a year. How did you come to the decision to leave that venture?
Yeah, the move back to Florida… Everything was going great in New York, I was busy, I was making money, I was saving money. But I was looking for something, who knows what. The same thing every 26 year old thinks they need to find, I guess.
My old boss reached out to me and said he was going to open a salon, and that I should be a part of it. And here’s the problem with looking for something so hard, you can end up jumping into something you shouldn’t. I didn’t do any research. I didn’t do any of the things I now think are really necessary in making a business decision. I lost all my savings and ended up with a fractured relationship with someone I thought of as a bit of a mentor.
All in all, it lasted less than 4 months. As cheesy as it sounds, I had to go somewhere just to see where I’d been. I’d love to call it all a mistake, but it definitely leveled my head, so for that I’m thankful.
05. You seem to be very focused on weight training and exercise these days. How did you get interested in that and what have been the benefits for you?
A couple of years ago, I started going to the gym and just doing typical bodybuilding routines. Probably what most people think about when they think of lifting weights. From there I moved into strength training specifically. I decided I didn’t give a shit what I looked like, I just wanted to know that I was the strongest.
Growing up I would watch the World’s Strongest Man competitions on ESPN anytime they were on. Strongman, in its essential form, is moving heavy objects. Really heavy. Pick up something heavy and run with it. So it rewards not only explosive strength but also speed and stamina. I’ve always wanted to be the fastest, strongest, smartest… just the best, at everything.
Then last year, I found out that there were amateur strongman competitions with weight classes. I didn’t need to be a giant to compete. This is another one of those lights that went off for me. I threw myself completely into it. I got a trainer. I took it very seriously. 4 months after I decided to try it, I placed first in a local competition. That got me an invite to the national championships, where I placed second.
The funny thing is, I feel like I’m done. That happens to me a lot too. I used to think it was a weakness, but now I’m convinced it’s a strength. I want to be the jack of all trades, and pretty damn good at all of them.
06. You opened WHITEROOM in Williamsburg with your wife last year. Things seem to be going really well. What do you attribute that to? What do you think you’re doing that other salons you have worked for aren’t doing?
Relentless enthusiasm, a stoic work ethic and a refusal to feel sorry for ourselves. The truth is, we were lucky. The salon we worked for shut down overnight and just left this void that we picked up on. We also already had clients, so the money was there. I’m not saying it was easy; it’s definitely the most, and hardest, I’ve ever worked in my entire life. We also have some amazing people that let us use them as sounding boards.
I can’t really speak to what other salons do or don’t do. I remember saying over and over how we learned what not to do from that last salon. We vowed to not make the same mistakes. I also remember very clearly when I first noticed that I was right in the middle of one of the very mistakes I vowed to avoid. I think the thing that separates people, is the degree to which they’re willing to acknowledge the data in front of them and adjust accordingly. I’ve learned to focus on progress, not perfection.
07. I imagine opening a brick-and-mortar business can be pretty difficult and stressful, especially in New York. What advice would you give to someone wanting to start that process for the first time?
Honestly? There is no advice. Don’t do it. I’m not being pompous, but you won’t know when to apply the advice until it’s too late, anyway. Then you’ll start to imagine all the advice you’ll give to people, only to realize it doesn’t even matter. You basically wander in the dark with a light that points behind you. I think the people that will actually go for it, just have to. They almost don’t have a choice. And they’ll figure it out on their own. They know who they are.
Philosophy aside, the only advice I have, and this goes for anything, is that if there isn’t a move to make, don’t make one. Let the fruit ripen and fall on its own, but have your bucket ready.
08. Are you working on anything new right now that you’re excited about?
The salon occupies most of my mental space. There are lots of little things that I get to work on. So many things to figure out. Our next move will be making a product. I’m saving up my excitement for that.
09. What is currently inspiring you and in what way? (book, movie, song, podcast, anything really…)
I can’t think of anything specific right now. These things really come in waves for me. Generally speaking, early Romantic piano music really does it for me.
10. How do you end a typical day? What do you do to unwind?
Dinner, an hour long serial drama and Scientific American.