When Josh Wood, one of the world’s premier hair colourists and founder of Josh Wood Colour completed his hairdressing one-year YTS training course in Barnsley, Yorkshire, the salon where he was training let him go saying: “hairdressing is not for you and we are not keeping you on.” This is one of those statements, like a record executive in the early 60’s saying “The Beatles have no future in show business” that will go down as one of the worst predictions ever made. Josh just knew right from the start that he did not ever want to cut or style hair; that the only thing that he wanted to do in his life was colour. His steely drive and determination went all the way back to those early days where he upped and left home, moving first to Leeds and then to London aged 18 and joined Vidal Sassoon where he had the best training that the world had to offer at the time and where he was to stay for 12 years, becoming the busiest colourist at Sassoon.
It was this foundation that gave him the ability to launch his own brand along with his partner and co-founder Jonathan, which is currently on track to be the next big brand that everyone’s heard of. Since its February debut, it’s expanded into more than 350 Boots stores and will sell in over 500 by the end of the year. In less than eight months it’s become one of the top three colouring brands at the pharmacy and beauty retailer and was nominated as its ‘favourite buy of the month’ in August. There are now plans to launch in America by the end of this year with a national retailer there that has shown commitment to the brand.
I had the good fortune to sit down with Josh recently to discuss his career, and it got me wondering about what makes a great founder and, more broadly, what does it take not just to lead a brand but also to live it?
When thinking about founders they are often either jacks of all trades or masters of one and very rarely can they do both. Josh Wood does not fit neatly into either category. On the one hand, he has spent his entire career as a specialist hair colourist; as he says, “I’ve done one thing all my life.” But alongside this is a breadth of insight and commercial acumen on display to anyone who speaks to him. What he does share with all of the best founders, however, is a vision, tunnel or otherwise, that involves a genuine and deeply held sense of connection with the brand, the product and most importantly of all, the consumer.
This is in part I believe because his has been a lifetime spent listening. For many people, your hairdresser knows nearly as much about your hopes, fears and dreams as your significant others, and so it goes for Josh. When establishing his eponymous brand, he already had a lifetime’s worth of market research up his sleeve gained from working as a colourist in the UK’s and the world’s leading salons going all the way back to the 1980s, with clients ranging from Elle Macpherson and Jerry Hall to David Bowie. He established his own salon in 1999 which he ran until 2009 in order to plan the next part of his journey. It is exactly the same as Charlotte Tilbury and Pat McGrath – for all three, product development started with a deep understanding of the consumer whose need’s they were looking to fill, rather than a product they were looking to sell.
This is why Josh Wood Colour launched in Boots and sells like an FMCG product at a mass-market price point. Walk into the Josh Wood salon, the Atelier, in Holland Park which Josh opened in 2011 and you know that you are in a building of world-class stylists and colourists where everyone is treated like a VIP (if you look carefully, you may even be seated right next to one). Three days a week when Josh is not travelling to clients, or on an editorial shoot or working on the brand, he’s there working as the Creative Director. The whole point of the range is to offer women from all walks of life the chance to experience the quality and care that goes into the salon itself at a price they can afford. As Josh himself says, “it’s high-low, but with no compromise on quality.”
Putting the customer first in Josh’s case ultimately meant understanding who they were and where they shopped. The brand has a lovely Instagram account (of course!) but it understands that its target customer is defined more by an emotion or a perspective than by a generational label and that pureplay ecommerce might not be the only way to reach them. It’s a different approach from that of Glossier, but it’s still underwritten by the same bone-deep respect for the consumer.
Crucial to all of this has been decades of preparation. Josh started to piece together the necessary skills to launch a brand a long time ago. P&G had been following his career when they invited him to serve as the creative director of Wella, an experience which gave him a unique insight into product manufacturing. He was then joined by L’Oreal to come and do the same as creative director of the professional colour brand, Redken. He told me that when his salon The Atelier launched, in 2011, he was already working toward creating the brand, planning more than half a decade in advance.
The cherry on top is that It’s even environmentally conscious too – Josh is focussed and committed to reducing the brand’s environmental impact – recyclable packaging, 99% vegan products and mostly everything manufactured in the UK besides the permanent colour products which are manufactured in Italy.
Obviously, not everybody can be Josh Wood but the lesson from his life is the same as that from so many other inspirational founders and entrepreneurs; when you respect the customer, you win. Living a brand isn’t so much a case of using its products all the time (although it certainly helps) but of carrying its values out to the world. Josh founded his company because he believed that women wanted, and deserved, better. What put him in the position to do so was a lifetime of hard work and dedication to his craft. He told me that when his training salon declined to keep him on, he decided that “rather than laying down and feeling defeated, I thought ‘I’ll show them’.” He certainly has.