What do you do if your father goes bankrupt when you're ten years old, you flunk your HSC exams, sell SIM cards and shoes for a living and end up broke at 20? You do pretty damn well for yourself if you ask Asif Rajan, 28-year-old hairstylist and owner of two Mumbai salons drawing over 4,000 clients and a six figure monthly income.
Amid the funky purple walls and thumping house music at Asif - The Salon in Bandra, Rajan - wearing Diesel jeans and silver Dolce&Gabbana sneakers - gulps coffee while snipping, layering, colouring and talking. At 28, he looks the part of a young, successful entrepreneur with a penchant for branded clothes and sports bikes (he owns one).
But in quintessential Mumbai style, his has been a riches-to-rags-to-riches saga.
"We were a well-to-do family in Bandra. I was given the best of everything. Suddenly, our lives fell apart when my father became bankrupt while I was in the 5th standard," said Rajan whose childhood dream of becoming a pilot came crashing down. With abysmal marks like ½ out of 100, he was denied admission to most city colleges. Eventually he got into Rizvi but failed to pass his HSC exams. He dropped out.
"I didn't want to study any further because I had to earn to support my family," he said. He landed a couple of odd jobs like a sales executive for SIM cards and a Reebok shoe salesman in Dubai on a 5 dirhams per hour wage.
His tryst with hairdressing began when an acquaintance got him a job at a parlour's cash counter. He earned Rs 3,000 a month and the bonus of a life-changing decision. "After closely observing the hairstylists, I was inspired by how they could change people's looks in the matter of an hour and gain their clients' respect," said Rajan, who started cutting his family's and friends' hair at home.
"This was when I realised what I wanted to do with my life." Along with a friend and several loans, he opened a less-than-modest salon called Hair Mischief in Bandra in 2000. It closed down in eight months.
Unable to afford the exorbitant training fee demanded by the city's top salons and armed only with a handwritten CV and an ironclad determination, he was finally hired as a trainee at Juice salon by the biggest name in hairstyling, Adhuna Akhtar.
"At Juice, I worked from 8:30 am to 8:30 pm - washing five chairs, mirrors and the dummies' heads, cleaning the backwashes and sweeping hair off the floor," Rajan recalled. He had to his credit only one actual haircut during his 28 days at Juice. Realizing that he wasn't getting to where he wanted to be, Asif quit.
After a 9-month stint at the reputable Nalini and Yasmin salon, Rajan's confidence and clients were directly proportional in their growth.
He was then hired by Makeover salon at Carter Road where he swiftly sharpened his scissors and skills to be made partner at the age of 23. "I dedicated my life to my work. I stopped partying, drinking and going out with friends," says the self-learned stylist whose 7-day workweek took a toll on his health in 2003.
"My thumb stopped working and after five injections the doctor warned me against cutting hair." So what did he do? "I popped painkillers and did 15 haircuts and seven colourings soon after."
Cut to 2005. Basking on a beach in Koh Samui, Thailand, Rajan impulsively decided to start his own salon. The day after he returned from Thailand, he quit Makeover, rented a space in a classy glass building in Bandra and hired a contractor along with three stylists to start Asif's Salon. Within five days of it opening, he recovered his rent of Rs 60,000. 2007 saw the launch of the second 'Asif- The Salon' in Lokhandwala and 2008 kick started with HeadStart - Asif's hair academy where he already has three students. "I want to pass on my knowhow to those who will make money for me."
"Being a drop-out I had no idea how to run a business in Mumbai," admits this admirer of the great Vidal Sassoon. He likens his success to that of Readers Digest -"they sell only through word-of-mouth, not through newsstands". With gross earnings of Rs 6-8 lakh a month, celebrity clients like Katrina Kaif and Abhay Deol and the privilege of being Schwarzkopf's Indian brand ambassador, Rajan's rise to fame illustrates the massive potential of the hairstyling profession for college graduates…and drop-outs.
Take 24-year-old Meera Singh Rathore, senior stylist at Juice. After passing her 12th, she never went back to college. But that does not stop her from earning approximately Rs 80,000 a month today. "Hairstyling is so much better than a 9-5 desk job," said Rathore, whose weekly schedule is always full of appointments. "A salon has young energy and a cool vibe. We are all in our 20s so we chill after-hours at the salon, go for movies and party together."
Rajan too treats his stylists as friends. He has been dating one of them for a while now. "We unwind after work with drinks at Zenzi, party at China House and go for beach picnics on special occasions," he said.
From Rs 350 for his first haircut to his current rate of Rs 1,250 per haircut, Rajan has certainly snipped and styled his way to success. But this ambitious go-getter wants to reach for the stars. "I want to get to Hollywood," he says. "And I will."