Businesses come and come all too often across Texas. Many fail in the first year, and roughly 95 percent of small businesses fail within the first five. But here today, 10 years after opening their doors, Birds Barbershop has withstood the test of time, and has rocked out every step of the way.
They say birds of a feather flock together, and the same could be said for brains behind this creative barbershop, Michael Portman and Jayson Rapaport, two native Texans from Laredo who found their way to Austin, after pursuing careers on the coasts as Michael moved to California and Jayson to New York. I was able to sit down with Michael to learn a bit about the history of Birds between his busy schedule, and from the sound of it, things won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
“The business got started in 2006,” Portman said.“Jayson and I are both from Laredo, and he was my only friend here, and I moved to town and asked him where to do all the basic services of daily life, and haircuts came up and he didn’t really have a good answer… so we just kind of went from there.”
And from there they went to the top, creating a brand that seemingly made an immediately positive impact in the neighborhoods where Birds built their nests. It’s no surprise that the barbershop has seen such great success though. The brand created an experience unlike any other, mixing the functionality of a barbershop with the liveliness of a salon with a casual party atmosphere, bringing in an array of entertainment including the likes of artists such as Dizzee Rascal and Lykke Li. Their recipe was a success from the beginning, earning Birds the title of Austin’s Best Barbershop from readers of The Austin Chronicle — a claim to fame Birds would keep through 2015, and is the likely front-runner for this year as well.
One of the features that has been at the core of the culture of Birds has been the atmosphere which they have created for everyone who comes through the doors. Anyone who knows Birds knows about their unique aesthetics in each shop — live DJs mixing tunes, special events, as well as the complementary beer upon request — but the soul of Birds dives much deeper than the glitz and glamour. The stylists that help customers look their best have a very different business model than the average shop, in that they aren’t renting their chair.
“We’re a very employee-first culture, if I had to whittle it down to two words,” Portman explained. “I had worked for Disney and on national political campaigns, Jayson had worked on Wall Street, worked for Merrill Lynch – you know really in the system – both of us doing the fortune 500 grind-work, and I think that while we learned a ton and all of that informed our confidence to do this, there was a sense of ‘we haven’t liked most of our jobs, so how are we going to create a company but also create a place that everybody looks forward to coming to work at.”
It’s been this mindset that has helped maintain the positive, upbeat atmosphere that Birds is famous for, and what has allowed them to grow so popular in the last decade of business, boasting eight location throughout Austin, including their most recent being in the Domain’s Rock Rose. But don’t discount their image — Birds is no cookie-cutter salon, so each location will have its own look and personality.
“We’re always adapting. The core of who we are is always the same, but we’re always adapting,” Portman explained. “No two Birds are exactly alike when it comes to anything. We’ll hand-pick the artist and the look and the feel will all be predicated on where we are. The bottom line is that running a barbershop is a neighborhood business. We are the antithesis of the business that isn’t a neighborhood business — ‘It’s just another salon. It’s just another discount place.’ We want to be ingrained in the fabric of every single neighborhoods where we are, so we make a very concerted effort to do that from the very beginning.”
Now, after 10 years nestled within Austin, Portman believes Birds is ready to leave the nest and migrate east, to build a new nest in the Houston Heights, an eclectic north-west community that could use a bit of Austin flare.
“That location feels really good to us,” he explained. “When we opened our doors on South Lamar in 2007, it feels like that. And what we’ve learned from that is that there’s plenty of room to grow. We want to grow with a neighborhood instead of die with it or come in once it’s already established, so we’re trying to be in an up-and-coming area.”
But fear not, as the new location should not mean too much change for the Austin locations. The brains behind Birds are not resting on their laurels just yet. Although the daily operations have changed quite a bit for Michael and Jayson, in reflecting on their roles, Portman knows that there’s still work to be done.
“It gets easier, but it gets harder at the same time,” Portman remarked. “In the beginning I think we wore every hat. I learned how to do minor electrical work. I learned the different aspects of different toilets. So now I think the hard part is reminding ourselves that our job has changed more into believing that this is working and trying to bring this to other people… At this point, eight stores in, it’s working and so we have to force ourselves to be more bullish than we’re probably naturally inclined to be.So in that respect it’s harder, because it’s a bend against the make-up of who we are.”
Considering the role Birds has played within its communities and the impact it’s made on the lives of so many, Portman seems to be beaming with hopes for the future.
“You should work to live not live to work, and we’re big work to live people. And I think we’ve brought that work to live mentality to our business,” he responded. “When we realized that we’ve employed 160 people, and that many people’s quality of life is enabled by working at Birds Barbershop, that makes growth something very positive. At first in the beginning where you didn’t really know why you were doing it — and now I know why we’re doing it.”