When Sebastian Jackson opened up his 8-chair barbershop, The Social Club, with his wife, Gabrielle, in 2012, they wanted to do a little bit of everything.
They cut hair for both men and women. Part barbershop, part salon. Massage therapy, nails, and all different kinds of hairstyling. They toyed with sustainability efforts, utilizing the day’s leftover pounds of hair to fertilize trees across Detroit.
“We just wanted to open a different kind of barbershop,” Jackson said, in an interview. “That didn’t really exist here in Detroit at that time.”
But within a year, the couple decided to scale back operations. The shop had overextended itself, Jackson said; they had to first prove that they could be successful as a business, before pursuing greater ambitions. One step at a time. “It actually worked against us trying to service everybody, because we didn’t service anybody,” he admitted.
But he didn’t want to give up: the couple had a prime spot on the campus of Wayne State University, where Jackson learned to cut hair in his dorm room. Money, he said, couldn’t be left on the table. “So we decided to focus on just men’s grooming and grooming in general.”
“That’s when it really picked up.”
Seven years later, the Jacksons closed on 2018 with $600,000 in the bank. Business ballooned by 50 percent from the year before, and 2019 may be even bigger, with projections of $1 million in revenue. Jackson has since inked major (though undisclosed) deals with the NFL, and the luxury watch brand, Shinola; has been recognized by Harvard Business School and the Wharton School of Business for his industry expertise; and even had a TV crew follow the couple’s work and impact in Detroit.
“For us, we’re working to create a massive amount of value, which hopefully will give us an opportunity to build a multi-billion dollar enterprise around the service, product, and content,” he says. “I would advise people who aren’t aiming to solve huge problems, to identify the people that are, and go work for or with them to solve those problem. And if you work really hard and get really lucky, and create a lot of value, the money will follow.”
Failure may have been exactly what the Jacksons needed. After scaling back, they shifted gears, transforming The Social Club into something much more than just a place to get your haircut. Because in an industry this far and wide, Sebastian stresses the need to think big—and then, bigger.
“The money will come. If you open your own barbershop, you’re going to generate $200,000, $300,000, and that’s fantastic,” he declared to me. “But what about the bigger picture? And that’s what I’ve been trying to preach. Be a part of something greater than yourself. It’s about value creation for others.”
Most people have their homes, and their workplaces. But where’s that other locale that we go to to unwind, or feel like we’re a part of something else? Where we can interact with others, or engage in activities that are not explicitly family- or work-related? Where we can go to just be?
To Jackson, that’s the barbershop.
A barbershop, he said, perfectly fits the “third place” mold, pioneered by Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame. “People need a place to belong,” he explained to me. “Third places belong because people belong to those places… In those environments, you can let your hair down all the way”—no pun intended—“to be your full self.”
“At the Social Club, we made it a point to allow for that,” he added.
In 2013, Sebastian and Gabrielle tried something new. They wanted to get back to the 3 P’s: people, planet, profit. And so they took a different approach to the people part: they hired barbers of all races, creeds, and colors to cut hair. And gradually, clientele grew.
“Through that, we started to attract all different types of people,” he said. “You had an atheist in one chair, a Christian in one chair, a black guy in one chair, a white woman in another chair, a gay guy cutting her hair, a straight guy in that first chair. You had this kind of mix of people in Detroit, and that’s not that common here.”
“But we didn’t know that in doing that,” he continued, “we were gonna actually run into the real substance that we were looking for.”
Born in Flint, raised in Kalamazoo, and living in Detroit, Jackson said he rotated between environments that displayed a spectrum of resources; some with much more, some with much less. In Detroit, he saw an immense need for spaces where people of varying identities could just talk with one other, and share ideas to better themselves. And at The Social Club, with a name that was steeped in engagement, Sebastian ended up having a front row seat.
“As barbers, we got to kind of extract from this reservoir of knowledge that existed within the minds of these kind of cultural leaders that were coming in, and we actually shared it with a wider community,” he said. “We felt that we could really leverage the relationship that we had with our clientele, and leverage them to educate our community.”
That’s when Shop Talk started. It started as a free conversation series at The Social Club, where clients heard from artists and artisans as they got their haircuts. It then attracted influencers—like R&b singer Dwele; legendary hip-hop DJ Clark Kent, and the man behind the notorious NYC Pigeon Dunks for Nike, Jeff Staple. And a national tour. Then came a 10-program deal with Shinola, which brought Sebastian and Gabrielle’s work into stores across the country. And most recently, Shop Talk went to the Super Bowl in Atlanta, with players having frank conversations about justice, current affairs, and the sports business.
“We used the barbershop as a backdrop to give the player community a voice to how they’re feeling at the time, and a place where they deemed safe,” he said. “That they could be brave and feel safe, in the barbershop, because it’s agreed upon that in this place, what you say can’t be held against you.”
Shop Talk made The Social Club a lifestyle brand, otherwise known as The Social Club Grooming Co., offering Sebastian and Gabrielle a bigger platform than ever before. It has allowed them to expand to a second location in Detroit, with eyes on perhaps many more. And now, the NFL is exploring other ways to incorporate Shop Talk into events, and partnerships.
If it was up to Sebastian, there’d be a Social Club and Shop Talk in every city in America, to foster the conversations that communities need to be having in this moment in time. All within the context of a barbershop, that third place where we can feel at home. And it’s not like those bigger goals—of sustainability, of deeper community development, of whatever’s next on the horizon—have gone anywhere.
“We’re really focused on testing new verticals right now. We’re testing what we think will drive growth the fastest in this market” he said. “We’re in the process of executing that now.”
“Like with Shop Talk,” he continued. “We realized our job is to use our role in our community as sort of the community center, to give access to our community at large to individuals who we have access to.”
“We’re building something right now that’s incredible, and I think it’s going to be huge.”