Success at her fingertips: Shabana Karim

Founder and owner of The Nail Spa, Shabana Karim, tells StartUp how she has been able to grow her business to be a leading light in the region’s beauty industry
By Neil King
Mon 23 Dec 2013 03:07 PM

If there was ever a company which proves that beauty is not just skin deep, it’s The Nail Spa.

Founded in 2002 by Shabana Karim, the company now has nine spas across the UAE, more than 300 therapists who paint about 6,000 fingertips a day, an environmentally friendly and sustainable product range, and educational programmes for employees’ children.

More than a decade down the line, the company has also evolved to develop an umbrella company – House of Enspa, which includes not only The Nail Spa, but two other companies in its fold – and has  recently undergone a large-scale rebranding process.

And it all started when Karim noticed a gap in the market as a customer.

“The thought came about twelve years ago,” she explains. “It came at a point in my life where I’d just had a baby, having worked for several years at the Higher Colleges of Technology, teaching about businesses, how to run them and set them up.

“I thought I wanted to do something different, and one area close to my heart is beauty and nails. Looking at that market I saw there was a huge gap in terms of availability of service – so many times, the salons were closed at the times people wanted to go to them. So I looked at putting something together that gave an efficient, quick service, trained staff, and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“That’s when I came up with the idea of The Nail Spa. I wanted a place where I could put into it all the things that I couldn’t find as a customer.”

The Nail Spa was the first salon dedicated solely to hands and feet, launching in Mercato Mall at a time when – Karim admits – securing a location was more to do with ‘wasta’ (using connections or influence) than submitting business plans.

She says: “We were fortunate enough to make the right connections and introductions, which eventually meant we got an opportunity to open in Mercato Mall. And that was really our big break.”

The daughter and granddaughter of entrepreneurs, Karim explains how she was surrounded by a passion and excitement for business – traits which are evident when she talks about the secrets to The Nail Spa’s success.

She highlights a yearning to always to better – and wariness not to slip too far into a comfort zone.

“The most dangerous thing to do is to take success for granted.  We never rest on our laurels, and keep working on raising our own bar.

“We have this attitude that our competition is better than us and keep working to stay ahead of them.  We keep on our toes, working on our delivery standards, striving to exceed customer expectations and continuing to evolve to meet the needs and demands of the market.

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“Customers want treatments fast, they want them now and are also increasingly looking for value for money.”

She adds that “sheer hard work, being hands on, listening, inspiring, and keeping in touch with people at every level in the business” has added to the company’s stellar progress, asserting that “the second you relax and assume success is the very second you could lose it all”.

These foundations of her business are some of the reasons Karim has been able to lead The Nail Spa through steady year-on-year growth, continually opening new spas and increasing its number of services.

In recent months two new locations have been established in Abu Dhabi, at Eastern Mangroves and World Trade Centre Mall, and  a new menu of services has been launched as part of its rebranding.

“Our latest evolution is our recent brand refresh,” says Karim.

“We are in the business of doing makeovers for other, and after eleven years we felt it was time to have one ourselves. In this industry you’ve got to stay fresh and with the times.

“We have adopted a dynamic branding design, which encompasses a rejuvenated in-spa look, new logo and tagline, and is designed to bring the brand in line with the business it is today while reinforcing our core values.

“This visual transformation, coupled with the addition of a whole host of new products and services to its menu, is set to further amplify our success story her in the UAE.”

Part of the company’s evolution has also been the introduction of environmentally friendly products and sustainable initiatives.

Karim believes that ethical work is a vital ingredient for The Nail Spa, and explains that the business has successfully won three Dubai Chamber of Commerce CSR Labels, and applied for a fourth – certification that it has done significant and long-lasting corporate social responsibility.

She says: “We passionately believe that beauty is more than skin deep, and as such have woven this belief into everything we do.

“We love our planet and source environmentally sound products and services wherever we can. We recycle nail polish bottle and sometimes use old colour ends in art competitions and projects for our staff.

“We encourage clients to take home and keep their buffing kits to re-use on their next visit, and also have a dedicated ‘eco-warrior’ in every spa, focused on staying ecologically friendly.

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“The CSR Labels takes into consideration marketplace, customers, staff, and environment. In all four areas we work hard to ensure we are contributing as much as we can, developing a sustainable model for our business.”

The ‘staff’ aspect of the Labels is another area which Karim is keen to develop, calling The Nail Spa employees as “our greatest asset” and “the backbone of our business”.

She adds: “Their health, happiness and wellbeing are critical to creating a happy, positive environment in our spas. We therefore place huge importance on education and training.

“For example, we have a ‘beauty boot-camp’ dedicated to new start training, as well as the ongoing development of our team.

“We are also extremely proud to have developed our HOPE (Hope and Opportunity for Proper Education) programme, where the company sponsors the education of employees’ children.”

With so many developments and initiatives, it must be a tough balancing act to stay on top of everything that’s taking place. But as Karim explains, she has tried to withdraw herself from a hands-on approach to running a business.

“I’ve always tried to work on the business rather than in the business,” she says. “At the beginning I had to roll up my sleeves and help, but over time I detached myself from doing it that way.

“It took time to do that as recruiting like-minded people isn’t easy, but we’ve achieved it. So there are now a lot of people working together who are aligned with and believe in the process we have in place.

“It means that the service you get in each spa is exactly the same – we want the same standards across the board – that’s a big factor for us.”

The past decade has been successful for The Nail Spa, but its future could be even stronger.

Earlier this year Karim established House of Enspa, formed as a holding company for The Nail Spa, as well as the group’s distribution, marketing, training and franchising arm, Espai, and the latest addition to the group, Marquee – a premium chain of hair salons.

And there’s much more on the table too.

Karim says: “We really want to work on laying the groundwork for the new brands and establish them strongly.

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“Next for The Nail Spa is franchise, e-commerce, and going regional. We’ve had a lot of interested parties coming to us already.

“It’s been  a hectic few months – opening the new locations in Abu Dhabi, another one due in January, two hair salons, and House of Enspa. I just want to let them breath first and grow.”

As for the future of the beauty industry in general, Karim sees it heading in one particular direction.

“The industry is changing its focus from cosmetic to inner beauty. Things to make you feel good, which in turn make you look good. I think we’ll see more companies looking at nutrition, wellness classes, and so on.

I think there will also be a change in the time aspect of treatments. People want more services at the same time because they are short of time. In our spas we’re doing things like facials, which you can have while having a manicure at the same time.”

And when it comes to advising up-and-coming entrepreneurs, she has several words of wisdom.

“The first thing I would say is don’t do it alone,” she says.

“I am a firm believer of mentorship programmes and support for SMEs and entrepreneurs. There’s a lot that’s being done in the UAE to support them – it’s just a matter of searing for the support and knowing where to find it.

“At The Nail Spa we have our very own mentorship programme that allows us to give financial support to underprivileged girls in developing countries in order to empower the next generation of female entrepreneurs.

“I try to give advice and help to others as much as I can – even people in the same industry!

“The best advice I ever received was ‘your people are your jewels – take care of them and they will take care of your business’. I live and breathe by this.”

It seems to be working wonders for the effervescent beauty entrepreneur, and you wouldn’t bet against The Nail Spa, Marquee, Espai, and House of Enspa doing even greater things in 2014.

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