Specialization: Is being the best at one thing too limiting?


Specialization in the beauty industry isn’t a new thing. I started my career as a color specialist. For two years, all I did was formulate and apply hair color. All the other professionals were specialists, too. We operated in pods–groups of four stations scattered around the salon floor like little islands.

Logistically, this worked out well. Colorists and texture specialists worked directly below our ventilation system, right next to our dispensary. Barbers worked near our built-in central vacuum system. Stylists worked in the coldest area of the shop, where the heat from the blow driers and styling tools was offset by the freakishly overpowered A/C. (That was actually not by design, but a convenient accident. Our A/C system was wonky in that spot.)

The specialists at each pod were extensively trained in their specialties.

Of course, the salon had a great reputation for delivering quality services, but the salon owner liked the fact that client theft by a departing employee would be nearly impossible. Clients who see one professional for all of their services will follow that professional anywhere, but when their beloved stylist leaves a specialized salon, that client is not likely to abandon her colorist and barber and nail tech and esthetician and massage therapist to follow them.

The owner’s concerns about client theft were unfounded though. Employee turnover was incredibly low. During my employment at this particular salon, we only lost one employee (to retirement).

Our employee retention was due to the specialist system–the employees were doing what they truly loved, every single appointment.

However, when the salon owner decided to sell the business and take up missionary work overseas with her pastor husband’s church, the specialists were at a loss. The new owner didn’t like the specialist system and intended to make the salon more traditional.

Barbers who had been cutting hair exclusively for ten or fifteen years would now have to figure out how to color and style it.

The specialists weren’t at all confident about the future of the salon, and almost all of them left to start a new salon founded on the specialist system they had grown accustomed to.

With so many professionals working independently now, becoming a specialist hardly feels like a viable choice since choosing to specialize would seem to narrow your client pool considerably. But would it really?

Professionals who are equally skilled in all aspects of the beauty trade are hard to come by.

We all have technical strengths and weaknesses, and if you’re honest with yourself, you know what those strengths and weaknesses are.

Even in this new “age of independence,” a lot of specialists pop up in all facets of the industry–nail technicians who only perform nail enhancements, cosmetologists who only perform hair extensions, and estheticians who only apply permanent makeup. We even have lash specialists and waxing specialists. Specialty salons exist now also, where their only services are brows, blowouts, or nail art. Even new graduates are choosing to specialize temporarily as they master skills they’re not as proficient in.

Specialization isn’t as limiting as it seems on the surface.

For a long while, I felt like I had to be great at (and love) every aspect of my job, but I knew what my exceptional skills were. Eventually, I abandoned those services I didn’t like or didn’t perform well and chose to focus on those I excelled at.

The Pros

Confidence. I no longer had to cringe through services I hated, hoping like hell I wouldn’t screw up.

Recognition. Becoming an expert in a specialty made me a sought-after professional by clients who valued my skills. 

Compensation. Clients who value expertise were willing to pay higher rates for it, so I began making more money than before.

Efficiency. Since I was performing the same services every day, I was able to work faster, turning out beautiful work in less time, with less stress.

The Cons

Rigidity. Some professionals need variety in their life. They need flexibility and love doing things that may be a little outside their comfort zone. If you’re one of those people, specializing might be too confining.

Stagnation. When you commit to a specialty for a long time, you run the risk of losing proficiency in other skills. Should you need to expand your skill set, you could be looking at an uphill battle.

Competition. Unless you’re an extremely skilled specialist, you run the risk of losing your clients to the convenience of a “jack of all trades” professional. Of course, it could be argued that those clients don’t truly value your special skills if they prioritize convenience over expertise, but it’s still a concern.

Dependency. Some highly specialized professionals require the assistance of others to perform complementary services. For instance, if you specialize in hair extension installation and maintenance exclusively, you may require another professional to cut and color for you.

Is specialization right for you?

Before you start deleting lines off your brochures, consider the following:

Which services do you dread? In this industry, passion matters. Be honest with yourself and list the services you aren’t fond of. If you’re not passionate about a service, you shouldn’t be performing it.

Which services bore you? Boredom kills creativity and saps performance. If you find yourself groaning every time a facial shows up on your books, think about eliminating that service from your offerings.

Where’s your money coming from? Sometimes, specialists become specialists by accident. When 80% of your income is from clients seeking you out for a specific purpose, that’s a pretty good indicator that it might be time to consider focusing on that skill.

What if your money is coming from a service you dread or are bored by? Alas! A conundrum! Your money is coming from a service you hate and you want to specialize in something you love! What to do?

Make a choice. Do you sacrifice your top income-generator to hopefully make a name as a specialist, or do you sacrifice your passion for the income? Which do you value more? Can you afford to take that chance right now?

Remember that services can be mastered. If you love a skill so much that you want nothing more than to be an expert in that skill, work at it. Technical expertise comes with practice. Natural talent helps, but there’s not a single skill in this industry that can’t be taught and mastered. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’ll never be good at something, or convince you that “you either can, or you can’t.” That’s absolutely untrue.

Every professional, even top competitors, started in this industry not knowing their ass from their curling wand.

We’ve all fumbled when learning how to handle shears and combs simultaneously. Every one of us has forgotten steps, shattered polish bottles, snapped ourselves with perm rods, dropped blow driers, tripped over our cords, and screwed up a service (or twelve).

Nobody mastered this career on their first day or entered the industry an expert.

For the overwhelming majority of salon professionals, this career is chosen for the love of the job. We’re not drawn in by the money or fame. (For all but the few, both of those things are in short supply.) We deal with the bullshit and the struggle for the payoff of doing a job we’re passionate about, and many of us put up with far more than we should to facilitate that. If specializing makes sense for you and will further increase your job satisfaction, then do it. For most of us, that satisfaction is all we get by way of employment benefits, so claim it.

What about you? Are you a specialist or thinking of specializing? Is it working for you? Share in the comments!

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Beauty industry survivalist, salon crisis interventionist, tactical verb-weapon specialist, and the leader of at least a hundred workplace revolutions, Tina Alberino is known as much for her extensive knowledge as for her sarcastic wit and mercilessly straightforward style. She’s the author of the book The Beauty Industry Survival Guide and the blog This Ugly Beauty Business. When she’s not writing, educating, or consulting, she can be found overthinking everything, identifying problems people didn’t know existed, and stubbornly working to change the things she cannot accept.


  1. I have been licensed since 1986 and started out doing everything opened my own salon and found myself dreading blow dries, undos and eventually haircuts but always had a passion for color. After extensive classes with Beth Minardi I decided to specialize in color only and have never looked back! I love what I do and highly recommend specialization.

  2. Bonjour Ms. Alberino,

    I read your blog and book before I enrolled in hair school and I must say that I’m truly thankful (times one million) for your advice and expertise. I enrolled in school with the goal of specializing in men’s haircutting/barbering, but I’ve found that I also enjoy braiding and updos. I have ZERO interest in color!! I am currently brainstorming to generate ideas on how to marry the two opposing worlds of men’s hair and braiding/updos in order to have a happy and successful career.

    Thanks again for the great articles.


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