I first met Mark when I moved to Berkeley in 2013, back when he was a one chair shop. I was badly in need of a haircut, and he started me off with a great one. Not quite as short or styled as I have it now, but its safe to say that he inspired me to clean up my mop of hair a bit more. His shop, his style and personality stuck with me, and when I was thinking of people to feature, he popped back in my head. Sat with him through a haircut and this is what came of it.
How did you get started cutting hair?
The inspiration behind it was going to a barbershop in my early 20’s back in New Zealand. Just seeing a similar set-up to this, just seeing two young men and the music that was playing, there was no TV, just the music, and you could just really see the enthusiasm in their faces. That’s what resonated with me, the passion they had, the dialogue they were having with their clients. And that’s what planted the seed for me, in my early 20s’s. Fast forward, 18 years later I get laid off by the mortgage industry and that memory has always resonated, “What is the next chapter for me after I get laid off? Where do I go, the bank, or do I seize the opportunity to do something different on my own, and become my own boss and live that American Dream, it’s now or never.” I looked up trade schools, on how to become a barber, then got myself into one of those schools.
Give me a rundown of your education and work history, what experiences led you to running your shop?
So my degree is in Business Administration, I got my bachelors. I got that in 1991. I went right into working in the insurance industry. My dad was in sales, for as long as I can remember, from our days back in New Zealand, worked door-to-door sales, vacuums and those kind of products, and then he got into insurance. And that’s how I got into insurance all those years later. And then I got into retail banking, and the last one was in mortgage banking here in California when I moved out here. And then I got laid off in 2008 when the housing market crashed. So that was when I started looking into the next stage. Initially I had always had the hopes of becoming a barber, so I was in such a rush to get started that I didn’t do the research on the differences between the licenses, from a barbers to a cosmetologists license. The barber’s license primarily lets you use a straight blade, focuses more on how to cut men’s hair. So I ended up at a beauty school, and they told me it was all one in the same, so I signed up and a quarter way through I realized it was a totally different thing, but I felt that since I was already in there it was to my advantage to finish it off, with the understanding that I would be a more diverse barber. Because I would understand different tools like scissors and how when you cut hair it reacts and lays different ways. So that allowed me to understand the business side of the industry at an early stage. I got to work at some hair shows, met some prominent figures in the industry. Then after that I went to barber school which was a two month crossover program since I had already got my license as a cosmetologist. And then they had an extension certificate to become a barber instructor, and legally the state of California doesn’t require you to have a certification anymore to be an instructor, but I wanted the extras hours. So I invested in the 600 extra hours saying on paper that I could teach.
Tell me about your first mentor.
Probably the biggest and most influential person I didn’t meet until 3 years into my journey. It was a small, two chair shop in Pleasanton. Barber Dan is his name. He’s been cutting hair for 40 plus years. It was his fourth shop that he had owned. He showed me the essence of barbering, before it became popular. He’s seen the trends come and go. So it was there that I learned everything I do in here, gentleman’s etiquette, the etiquette of traditional barbering, a lot of the classic techniques. It was under him that I… I credit a lot to him, for being the person who steered me in this direction. I knew I wanted to be a barber, but at the time I hadn’t defined one type of barber that I really wanted to be until I worked with him. His style embodied the type of movies that I liked, what type of music that I listened to. All those things resonated through my experience with him.
So that led you to a more traditional approach to barbering rather than a more modern or urban approach?
I mean, barbering is barbering, but the essence of what I learned from him, gentleman’s traditional barbering, is the service aspect of it. Really focusing in on being the counselor, the therapist, the style coach, and all those other things, given my great experience the haircut annd shave being secondary to that. Really building those relationships with your clients.
What influences your barbering?
Right now, with barbering being so trendy and popular, because of social media, there’s a tendency for everyone to be pigeonholed to just one style, like the side parts, which are classic, beautiful and timeless, but at some point it may change into something else because trends come and go. But I have a preference to stay within this genre, of what’s timeless, so it’s still the classic movies like your James Dean, and your Frank Sinatra, and that timeline still, from the 30s 40s 50s to the 60s. I like to stay within that because I feel the haircuts will still stay true, they will stand the test of time, the classic man’s haircut. It’s a haircut you’re guaranteed to go into an interview with and it will always be top-notch. It won’t be “Whoa, what’s going on with this fusion mohawk thing?” hahaha! So I have a preference to say, and I talk about the timeline… Barbering has been around for centuries. If you think about a parallel line, a flat horizontal line, it may go up a little bit, but it won’t deviate like a wave. At some point when trends do come and go, like this, it will have to cross this plane, of traditional styles. As long as you can adapt a little bit, you should have a long prosperous career.
There was a point in barbering when it died down, when the Beatles came about in the 60s, because barbers couldn’t adapt to the longer styles. So traditional barbering pretty much died and in replacement came the salons. Barbers were kind of the ones killing it too, for one they didn’t stay up to date with the trends, so they could stay relevant, but at the same time there weren’t enough mentors to say, “Let me hand down traditions, the information, and how it should be done,” so that it will sustain for several more centuries. So through Barber Dan, he showed me “This is how you teach a client, this is how you do these haircuts, this is how you service, this is how you run your business.”
Why do you cut hair?
I think it goes all the way back to when I was a kid, I used to draw a lot. I used to doodle and I wanted to be a cartoonist for Marvel. So I went to college originally in the late 80s for a fine art degree, but I had only taken one drawing class as a senior in high school, so I didn’t know the mediums, I didn’t know anything but pencil and paper. So when I got to college, I got intimidated when I saw everyone else walking around with portfolios of painting and photography. So I switched to business. But I always had that artistic side of me which I was never really able to tap into doing corporate work. So at that crossroads when I got laid off and was thinking about barbering, and sitting at my desk doing that brainstorming thing where you circle everything and that one intersecting point, barbering, included art and music and style and fashion. That’s why barbering seemed like the ideal direction for me to go, because I would be happy doing things that I enjoy. So the artistic side of haircutting I love it because it allows me to be creative and technical at the same time. It allows me the immediate gratification of being able to see my work build and develop and it’s there. Within an hour’s time this is the finished product. It’s like molding clay, that’s the canvas, hair is the canvas. To be able to see the finished product is rewarding. The greater reward is the dialogue and relationship that you create with the client, especially for the first time, and for us to be friends now from the experience you had just from you coming to get your haircut from me a few years ago, and here we can have this relationship outside of a barbershop. That’s the greatest reward for me in terms of cutting hair, is that the cutting hair part of it and the barbering is the medium that allows me to cross into someone else’s life, and get to know them, and their families, and their vacations, and their trials and tribulations, and challenges and successes, and to celebrate all these things with them. I think that’s where I look at barbering differently from most barbers. I look at the haircut and shaving part as the tool to get me into that, because that to me is the greater reward. Whereas most barbers just look at it for an exchange of this haircut for cash. “I’ll chitchat with you but really I’m just looking for you to give me cash at the end of this haircut.” But for me, I want to build a relationship past the haircut.
How do you go about cutting someone’s hair?
I base it on what the client is looking for. If he or she already has an idea of what they’re looking for, sometimes they have pictures or a haircut they already like that’s existing. If they don’t understand yet what they want, I’ll ask them general questions based on lifestyle, I’ll look at what they’re wearing at the time before I put the cape over them. So I can determine what hairstyle works for them. Ask them how much effort they’re willing to invest in product, styling at all, if they just want something easy and then I’ll go from there. And then in my mind from experience I have a template in my mind of how I start every haircut so that it’s systematic and it’s… a flow. Versus jumping around and then going, “Oh I’ll come back to this later. Let me start here and come back. ” This allows me to be efficient with my time, so that within that 45 minutes I’m happy with the product.
Have you seen your style change?
I haven’t. I think a lot of it is because I’ve found in the last three years of being in business, going into my fourth now, that a lot of what I do in here is an extension of who I am as a person. The music I listen to, the photos on the wall, how I dress and style. It’s stayed the same.
What do you see 5-10 years down the line?
Ideally, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few other locations open up. Maybe try and franchise it. And a school. Definitely would like to open a school of my own.
You seem very interested in the education side of things.
I really am! Probably because going through the schools myself I felt that there was a real void in the education part. It was pretty much students teaching other students, and you’re paying premium dollars to go to a place where you’re expecting someone with a lot more experience to teach you the ins and outs of the industry you’re about to get into.
I do teaching on the side, under my own name and brand, teaching how to do haircuts, some business type stuff in the industry. I’ve done some stuff in the past for American Crew, currently doing some stuff now for the Baxter School of California. I definitely enjoy educating.
I want to do the same in the education realm of barbering that I’ve done as a mentor, in hopes of the previous generations will appreciate the craft, the way that it was meant to be. To provide a good life for somebody, and to do it the right way.
Barbering now, a lot of people approach it with a hustler’s mentality. With hustling the connotation is quick easy money. Right? It shouldn’t be. Supposed to still treat it like a career, a job.
Do you rather see yourself expanding this space, or opening more places?
I would love maybe two other shops but expanding in here sounds more appealing. I like the idea of small intimate spaces, so two or three chairs, four chairs maximum. I would love to stay down here if I can, thinking along the lines “This is where it all started.”
You’ll build a culture over time!
I’m hoping! That’s where a lot of my efforts in social media realm is, that if I can build this place I can spend less time cutting hair, and more time branding, marketing, and building it up. So that it does provide opportunity for other barbers to come in. Like now I’ve been fortunate that in the little time I’ve been doing this, and thanks to the reviews on Yelp, my work on social media, it’s allowed me to network with a lot of the premiere barbers around the world, not just here in California. To get my name out there too. It’s a small scale, but when barbers come in here, they get to ride off of that wave. When Michael and Al came on board, they came from another shop with few to no clients, and have both been busy since their first day because of what I had built. So this is the goal, when people come here, they’ll be busy. It won’t be like other barber shops, sitting around waiting for clients to walk in.
Any closing thoughts?
I’ve been very fortunate to find a career that I love doing, working alongside people whose company I truly enjoy, while being able to make an honest living that provides for my daughter and I. That’s a blessing I never take for granted. But tomorrow is never guaranteed to any of us, and it’s possible all of this could end tomorrow. So I strive to enjoy everyday for what it brings while I’m still able to do this. If anyone was to take anything away from my “process”, it would be to trust in your own process, trust in your journey, but most importantly, enjoy the process and the journey as it happens. Be present in the moments of life and live with intent and purpose, because one day you won’t be able to anymore, and since we only get one shot at life, we might as well live it and love it all at the same time, one day at at time, as best as we can each day.
If you’re looking to get a sweet new haircut, go over to Mark’s website at https://mjsolofa.com/services/ and book an appointment!