Entrepreneur

Starting Again After 30: How A M’sian Found His Barbershop Calling After Getting Laid Off

  • Ted Lee had spent all his working life in corporations until he was laid off. 
  • That was when he decided to pursue barbering seriously, a passion he’s harboured for years. 
  • He began barbering after 30 a scant few days before his daughter was born, but Ted thinks that it’s never too late to change the direction of your life.

Before starting his own barbering business in mid-2017, Ted Lee had spent most of his career as—what some would say—a corporate stooge.

He spent the last few years of his salaryman life in Jakarta, when bad luck struck: his company was axed, so he got laid off.

“My feelings were mixed when I left Jakarta. I hoped things would have worked out but they didn’t,” said Ted.

“At the same time, I was excited to be back home for good and had planned to start a business. I had some savings and a bit of layoff benefits.”

In a way, getting laid off was a blessing for Ted, as he never truly enjoyed the corporate life. But his tenure at Indonesia did help him discover what he’s turned into his full-time career.

Barbershops can be more than just simple shears.

Image Credit: Sweeney Ted

Ted used to associate “barbershop” with your local tiny shoplot, offering either number ones or twos of uncomplicated shears.

But after noticing the sleek haircut of one of his basketball mates back in Indonesia, Ted asked him where he got it, and was brought to a barbershop that opened his eyes.

“My friend had really nice hair: a combover side part slicked to the back,”  he recalled.

This was approximately 5 to 6 years ago.

Ted was drawn to the barbershop, seeing it as a revival of the quintessential American or British stores of yore, and offering the style and attention typical to salons geared towards women.

The trip proved that there was an artisanal side to barbery—a skill that can be learned and refined.

Soon, he picked up his dad’s old clippers to cut his brother’s hair, and later his friends as well, for free. He was mostly self-taught at the time.

Seeing his friends and family look and feel good thanks to his efforts made him happy, but nothing more came out of it then.

But when he was laid off, Ted found himself at a crossroads.

He flew back to Malaysia equipped with a small layoff benefit, and considered what he would like to do for months.

Instead of mindlessly jumping into a new business, Ted ensured that he polished the craft beforehand by barbering in Oven Cuttery and OTHRS Barbers.

As it so happens, the start of the barbering was a few days before the birth of his daughter, which did cause some strain.

Image Credit: Sweeney Ted

“The early days were difficult because as a new barber as you don’t earn much. However, that year plus spent at the barbershop was a necessary experience to refine and hone my technical skills.”

It was a winding road, but Ted always had the destination in mind.

“It was always the plan to eventually go into barbering full-time when I decided to take it up seriously,” he said.

The original plan was to start a business importing and distributing natural cosmetics, based on some USA principals who worked with his company in Indonesia.

“However, having decided to give barbering a real go, I felt it perfect to pair barbering with men’s grooming products instead of general cosmetics.”

As Ted worked on his barbering day job, he spent half of that time also building an online business selling men’s grooming products.

“The moment I decided it was time to take barbering full-time and have my own place was when I realised that I just had to do it instead of doubting and waiting untiI I felt I was ‘good enough’ and ‘ready’.”

He finalised his education with a barbering course to formalise those self-taught skills, and this culminated in a barbershop that is amusingly named Sweeney Ted, after a friend’s suggestion. As far as we know, there have been no decapitations in Sweeney Ted so far.

The experience was exhilarating for Ted.

A shot of Sweeney Ted’s interior/ Image Credit: Sweeney Ted

He was excited, but according to Ted, it was “a little scary being a one-man show as everything was on me now”.

“I felt very fortunate and grateful that the majority of my clientele continued to support me on my journey when I opened Sweeney Ted.”

By then though, the public impression of barbering changed to incorporate stylish cuts for men. Ted had already noticed this shift at his stints in artisanal barbershops, but he never really thought about needing to set himself apart.

“I just wanted a place to call my own and feel comfortable with myself. And, because of that, I feel the shop reflects my personality,” said Ted.

Instead, Ted wanted to focus on his clients, and provide a very personal service for everyone who stepped into his store.

“I was fortunate to cover overheads the first month. Subsequent months, it slowly got better as my clientele grew,” said Ted.

The next step for Ted is to overcome the monthly revenue plateau.

Burly Fellow on the Sweeney Todd shelves / Image Credit: Sweeney Ted

“One solution is to focus on product sales online and expand distribution network,” he explained.

To this end, Sweeney Ted is already a selected distributor for O’Douds and Burley Fellow, which Ted selected because he “really wanted to carry a range of quality men’s grooming products that were safe containing non-harmful ingredients”.

“I first started off as a stockist for O’Douds and Burly Fellow and eventually after the initial hard work marketing their products online, I approached them saying that I wanted to do more for them with regards to being able to reach out to more people. I was then fortunate to be given distribution rights in Malaysia by both O’Douds and Burly Fellow.”

Being in your 30s and starting a new life direction isn’t too late at all, in Ted’s opinion.

Image Credit: Sweeney Ted

“There are people who do that in their 40s, 50s and beyond. Personally and logically, I guess it depends on what kind of person you are and what kind of commitments you have.”

“For some people, doing what they love is the only way to go while for some people, doing what makes the most money is the most practical,” said Ted.

“Having said that, I reckon many people would have considered it irresponsible that I began barbering a few days before my daughter arrived but for me I knew that if I didn’t ‘throw the hat over the fence’ and make the leap, I probably would have ended up back in corporate and that would be the end of barbering.”

No one wants to get laid off, but Ted was able to turn an unfortunate situation into a reason to truly pursue his passion, and is proof that rock bottom is not necessarily the end.

  • You can find Ted in Sweeney Ted at:
    Level P1, The School, 72A, Jalan Universiti, PJS 13
    Petaling Jaya, Malaysia

Feature Image Credit: Sweeney Ted

 

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