Having grown up in what he calls the “left-brain world” and earning a B.A. in economics from UCLA, serial entrepreneur and Butterfly Loft Salon co-owner, David Thurston, says his career today is a huge departure from where he started. While he once believed he’d spend his entire life practicing law or accounting, Thurston says, “I didn’t realize that there was a world out there where you could actually make a good living not doing those things.”
Thurston shares how he broke into the beauty industry, creating a whole new approach to educating stylists, and the birth of his most recent undertaking—Pulp Riot.
THE FIRST FORAY
After graduating from college, Thurston landed his first corporate gig as an environmental litigation consultant in San Francisco. He worked there for eight years, but ultimately decided the indus- try just “wasn’t his vibe.” He explains, “It was left-brain, and I’m a very right-brain, creative, artistic person.”
In an effort to change fields, Thurston reconnected with an old family friend, Ted Nelson. At the time, there was only one other person in the world who owned more hair salons than Nelson, Thurston says. Nelson wanted to launch a new hair product line and have Thurston follow in his empire-building footsteps. The result of this partnership became the brand Level6.
Thurston admits that they “went crazy,” releasing 21 different products ranging from shampoos and conditioners to styling aids. “I was learning everything by myself; it was all brand new to me,” he says. He learned how to raise money to fund the company, find manufacturers, design packaging and sales by being thrown into the beauty industry—without prior experience.
And the road to success was fraught with potholes. “Once you spend all this money to get your product together, now you’ve got to try to succeed at something that’s most likely going to fail,” Thurston says. “You have to go out and do samples, be told ‘no’ all the time and be on the road all the time. Those are some of the challenges that I faced early on, but as you can imagine, they served me very well when I created my company Pulp Riot. I had gone through it all before, but I learned by making mistakes and learning the hard way.”
After taking the brand across the country and working on Level6 for a decade, Thurston says the company plateaued. “I didn’t see it going where I wanted it to go—and that’s really what led me to open my salon, Butterfly Loft.”
WITH FLYING COLORS
When Thurston traveled across the country for Level6, he had the opportunity to visit thousands of salons and develop a rapport with countless owners and stylists. He caught a firsthand glimpse into what successful salons were doing right—and where they missed the mark. Thurston says this was invaluable when it came to opening his own salon, the Encino, California-based Butterfly Loft Salon & Spa, with his wife, Alexis Thurston, in 2010.
Rather than creating relationships with stylists and never seeing them again while he was on the road, Thurston says the goal for Butterfly Loft was “to have a home base where I could create a family of artists, and through that develop long-lasting relationships and use it as a platform for something bigger.”
The Butterfly Loft Salon started with 25 hair stations, which Thurston thought was way too many at the time. But over a period of four years, and after four expansions, the salon has grown to house 70 hair stations. And there is a long waiting list of stylists who want to work at the salon when space becomes available.
Social media was just beginning to become a vital marketing tool for businesses when the salon first opened. “With Butterfly Loft, we realized there was a big social-media revolution happen- ing in the beauty industry,” Thurston says. The Butterfly Loft Salon quickly gained a large online presence, and Thurston says he soon recognized that he and his stylists were the ones educating, inspiring and influencing the industry. “It used to be the product companies doing that. All of a sudden, overnight, it was us.”
Thurston noticed that other stylists in the industry were also becoming more influential than giant multi-million dollar corporations. “Early on I saw that and thought, ‘What would it be like if we all joined forces?’” He hatched the idea for an educational team of high-powered stylists—something completely unheard of at the time. “None of them were classically trained in hair ... Rather than [one stylist] teaching for three hours, we thought maybe these stylists could each teach for 30 minutes. Butterfly Circus was born.”
Butterfly Circus holds educational events across North America, and typically involves six to seven 30-minute demonstrations. So rather than hearing one instructor speak for hours, shorter sessions amounting to the same length of time as an average seminar offered a crash course at an accelerated pace. It didn’t take much convincing to get stylists interested in attending. Thurston spread the word in 2014 by posting about it on Instagram, and in three seconds, it sold out.
“That’s why I called it a circus. [Instead of] this person over here on the tightrope and this one on the trapeze, for us it was this person teaching cutting, this person styling and this person inspiring. You put it all together and it becomes the Coachella music festival of hair!”
WHAT A RIOT!
Culminating everything Thurston has learned in more than a decade of innovating, teaching and building brands, Pulp Riot, his newest company that makes hair colors, garners about 97 percent of his time. Thurston recalls that when Level6 first launched, it took about a year for the company to expand state by state from California to Nevada, while Pulp Riot found its way into all 50 states and seven Canadian provinces just three days after its debut. “That’s because we built our brand before we ever released our product,” he says.
As president, CEO and cofounder of Pulp Riot, Thurston says he views the beauty industry as giant conglomerates and distributorships, while the beauty community, on the other hand, is comprised of stylists, salon owners and others with “roots in the ground.” Understanding this community—who they are and what their needs are—allowed Thurston to create products unlike other colors on the market, formulated for the very people who already viewed him as an authority in the industry, thanks to Butterfly Circus.
Pulp Riot’s launch took 11 months. The products are housed in eye-catching packaging depicting edgy street art, so it “treats stylists like artists,” Thurston says. Plus, they smell great, are vegan and contain hydrating quinoa. What makes Pulp Riot colors unique is that they are easier to apply than most on the market due to a triple-conditioner base that saturates the hair. Another point of differentiation is that the colors fade better and last longer. Thurston says that unlike greens that turn muddy or pinks that turn into salmon, they fade true to tone. “It fades into something that’s sometimes more beautiful than when it was vibrant—it fades into a pastel version of itself,” he says.
Pulp Riot has many exciting plans. This month, the company debuts a developer and lightener to marry with its color offerings. “You’re preparing the canvas (the hair) with lightener and developer to put paint on it, and that’s our color,” Thurston says. And, the company also just debuted a new line of neon colors. Pulp Riot is also expanding globally, which will provide U.S.-based artists the opportunity to travel the world and promote the line in countries overseas, including Russia and Australia.
FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
Thurston is comfortable with being the face of Pulp Riot, noting that in this day and age, authenticity is critical to a business. “If you’re not, the brand becomes really inauthentic,” he says. “That’s what the rest of the industry is struggling with.”
Thurston explains that if you were to place various beauty-company logos on one page and the faces of the owners of those companies on another, few stylists would be able to connect the logos to the faces—with just a few exceptions, such as Paul Mitchell and John Paul DeJoria. Larger conglomerates that have a high employee turnover rate for management often struggle with creating a true face of the brand. “The artists who I’ve been working with for a long period of time are my business partners of the company. We get the artists because we are artists; we understand salon owners because we are salon owners.”
Unlike other companies, Thurston creates his products and then uses them in his own salon, which he says adds another layer of authenticity. It also creates better products because he has the input of his entire team who uses them on a daily basis. He largely credits his talented team for Pulp Riot’s success. His staff helped formulate, choose and name the colors and tested them on clients—so it wasn’t all “suits and doing it in a lab,” he says.
“I’ve put in place in my salon a series of systems and the right people to run them. I think that any successful business is a complex system of people,” he says. For example, if a light bulb goes out, the right person is in place to install a new one and order more to stock the inventory. “That’s one example of a system—and there are thousands of systems that are running at my salon, with the right people running them.”
THE BIG LEAP
Thurston says a key part of his success is his ability to adapt to changing times. Advances in technology have disrupted every industry, and the beauty industry is no exception, he notes. These days, stylists can work autonomously—they can book their own appointments, rent out a space in a salon suite, run their own credit cards and market themselves online. “It has made people more independent. From a salon-owner perspective, a lot of existing salon owners try to control their artists. That’s the wrong approach. The right approach is to figure out how to make your stylists more successful working for you than they would be on their own or working at a salon down the street,” he says.
By nurturing a strong community of artists, those artists in turn have helped Thurston and his wife create and launch Pulp Riot. And there’s no telling just how far the company will go. Although he’s come a long way, Thurston remains humble about his roots.
“Everybody thought I was crazy for turning my back on my education and my career to start something new, but it’s been the best thing ever,” he says. “[Life is] like a spiral staircase. You can only see a few steps ahead of you, and you have no idea where it’s actually going. It’s crazy how when you do take a step like I took—to leave a very comfortable, well-paid corporate gig to join the beauty industry and create my own company—that that set off a whole different journey. I wouldn’t be where I am today without taking that step.”