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Not your father’s barbershop

Alumnus Kush Kapila brings the salon to the busy professional
April 3, 2017
By Jeremy Glass-Pilon

Finding time for a visit to the hair salon can be a challenge for those with already-full schedules — including Kush Kapila, MCSc 04.

“Like everyone else, I’m a busy professional,” Kapila says. “I found the process of getting a haircut one of the more frustrating tasks that I had to do every month.”

Kush Kapila Kush Kapila, founder and CEO of Sterlings Mobile Salon & Barber in California, is re-imagining the haircare experience by giving wheels to the once-sedentary industry. Photo: Nick Abadilla

His exasperation sparked a creative idea to shape a new style out of an old business model. If professionals are too swamped to go to the salon, what if the salon came to them?

That’s the concept of Kapila’s company, Sterlings Mobile Salon & Barber Co. It all started in 2011, when he was working as a product manager for a medical device company in the Greater San Diego, Calif., area.

Recognizing the mobile trend spreading across the United States in the form of food trucks and mobile pet groomers, Kapila immediately saw potential to adapt it to the haircare industry.

After raising US$185,000, Kapila hired a manufacturer to buy an Airstream — the “Mercedes Benz of all trailers,” as he describes it. He had it retrofitted with three stylists’ stations, a waiting area and a restroom, all equipped with electricity, running water and air conditioning.

The resulting experience of sitting in the salon on wheels was almost identical to going to a salon — without the need to travel.

Although this concept had been tried in the past, according to Kapila it was never really successful. The true innovation came by teaming up with large companies and offering Sterlings Mobile’s services to their employees, along with a custom-built booking system to eliminate wait time.

“We go to the site and then the company will pay us a flat fee for being there,” Kapila explains.

“The companies see a lot of value in this for the increased retention, attraction and productivity of their employees. We provide great quality and the reliability that we’re always going to be there.”

The mobile salons keep regular schedules, so their customers know exactly when they will be coming to their workplace. For instance, Sterlings Mobile might visit company A every other Thursday and company B every other Friday. On weekends, they offer their services to country clubs and apartment complexes, and for special events.

As of now, Sterlings Mobile offers its regular services exclusively throughout San Diego, but is expanding. 

Kapila says his time at Concordia planted the entrepreneurial bug in him. “Working on my thesis was a great experience for trying to figure out something and be self-sufficient,” he says. His master’s thesis, in computational visualization and bioinformatics, was on the development of a new 3D visualization technique for protein folding.

“It gave me the skills and confidence to eventually start my business. I’m so proud of how much came out of just those two years for me.”

Much more than just haircuts

In 2016, Sterlings Mobile launched a new business model and expanded its services to provide promotional tours for large corporations. In the past year Sterlings Mobile worked with Warner Bros., Merz Pharmaceutical, Walgreens and Schick.

“A company will hire us to do a tour across the U.S. to promote their product or service,” he explains. “We get the trailer wrapped in their brand image, and then go city to city doing PR.”

Sterlings Mobile Salon & Barber - interior Kapila designed the inside of every Sterlings Mobile salon to look and feel like its brick-and-mortar counterparts. “We want people to come in and get the same kinds of experiences as if they were going to a regular salon.” Photo: David Curleigh

For instance, working with Warner Bros, Sterlings Mobile wrapped two of their trailers with — quite appropriately — promotional images from the movie Barber Shop 3. Sterlings offered its regular services to people attracted by the novelty of their trailer, across seven cities over two weeks. They even hosted special appearances from Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer to promote their upcoming movie.

For Merz and Walgreen, Sterlings provided Botox-like injections and manicures, respectively, promoting the clients’ products. As Kapila describes it, “We have a moving billboard and an experience that can be tailored to their product.”

Sterlings Mobile is now seeking to bring its services to other large companies.

Kapila plans to eventually take Sterlings Mobile national. He reports that the company is contacted every day by people from across the globe who are interested in buying their mobile salons for their regions — so he is confident the demand will continue to grow.


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