29 February 2024

Up Close & Personal with Sophia Hilton

In an exclusive interview with Estetica Magazine, we delve into the world of Sophia Hilton, a multifaceted talent who wears the hats of a hairdresser, salon owner, educator, and social media maven with unparalleled finesse.

Recognized as the International Hair Influencer of the Year in 2023, the story of Sophia Hilton is an inspiring journey of passion and innovation. Join us as we uncover her remarkable insights into the hairdressing industry and how she empowers fellow hairdressers to flourish and strengthen their businesses.

What’s happening with Sophia Hilton these days? It’s been quite a journey!

Over the past couple of years, my primary focus has been on the business side of things. I’ve always had a passion for problem-solving, addressing the issues that cause people the most discomfort. I enjoy finding practical solutions that can make people’s lives happier. Now, I’m delving into the business world because I see it as a continuation of what I love. I’m pinpointing the sources of people’s sleepless nights and pain, and I hope to alleviate those concerns. My approach to education remains practical, but I’m also considering the emotional aspects of business. While many have prepared me for the financial side, with spreadsheets and all, no one prepared me for the sleepless nights and emotional challenges that come with it. Our industry is highly emotional, driven by creativity and passion, and I aim to provide more support in that regard. That’s where my focus has been lately.

You were one of the first ones in our industry to focus on mental health problems. So, why and when did you decide to talk about these issues openly, and what has been the response? Because it is a risky thing to discuss in public… you know opening up about it on social media can lead to criticism as well.

Yeah, I believe it feels safer for me to be vulnerable because if I tell you about something I’m struggling with, something I’m not good at, or something I’ve failed at, you can’t say it now (laughs), right? Because I’ve already admitted it. I’ve always felt, even when I was younger, that it’s safer to expose my weaknesses because then no one else has anything to say. I’ve already said it before they could. So, it’s quite natural for me to share those aspects. I also owe a big thank you to my boss, Sally Brooks, because during the seven years I presented on stage with her, she was very honest. She would explain when something went wrong and then provide solutions on how to correct it, which I found extremely helpful. Even when I was teaching color, I would sometimes accidentally drop color on the hair, and I would say, ‘Let’s figure out how to fix that.’ Sometimes it happened accidentally, and sometimes I did it on purpose to teach a lesson. So, I want to bring that same vulnerability to my Instagram. I think I carry that same openness into my business courses as well.

Do you think that nowadays, especially with all the history on Instagram over the last ten years, people value authenticity more than, you know, the perfect lives of other people?

I must admit, when I attend events, that’s what I get celebrated for. It’s usually a mom with two small businesses who’s trying to balance everything. She comes up to me and says: ‘OMG, thank you – Instead of looking at you and thinking you’re someone I could never be, I look at you, and you tell me the truth that things are also difficult for you. I don’t feel so isolated; I don’t feel like I’m not good enough. You make me feel like I’m good enough, and that makes me happy‘.”

Announcement of Sophia Hilton being named the ‘2023 International Hair Influencer of the Year,’ in front of her salon in London’s East End.

Sophia Hilton, you are one of the most unique voices in the industry nowadays, especially when it comes to content creation. Did you study this at some point in your career, or is it something you pursued on your own?

Well, when I was working at Brooks & Brooks, I knew from the beginning of my hairdressing career that I would struggle with being on the salon floor five days a week because my brain craved variety. After a couple of years there, I started going into the office and asking my boss, Sally, for any tasks I could handle – I just needed to do something different. I began by going through the website, identifying spelling errors, and even offering to rewrite the diary to make it neater – I was eager to prove my value. Around that time, social media was just emerging, and I suggested handling the salon’s social media accounts. So, I took the initiative and started the social media account myself, experimenting with it. Looking back, my early attempts were probably terrible. However, we were working with a large company that charged us £600 per month to manage our social media. I proposed to Sally, ‘Why don’t you have them teach me instead, and we can still pay them £600 a month?’ Surprisingly, they agreed, which, in hindsight, was a bit of an odd decision on their part. This gave me the opportunity to learn hands-on for a few months. Over the past 12 years, I’ve continued to exchange my hairdressing skills for social media advice. The friend who helped me in the beginning is still my advisor today. She regularly reviews my page and provides guidance. I find this story interesting because it shows that if you leverage your skills in your trade, you can negotiate valuable opportunities. I’ve never deleted anything from my Instagram, so if you scroll back far enough, you can see my journey. People often ask if they should delete their old content when they join my social media course, and I advise against it. It’s fascinating to look back and see the pictures taken with incorrect lighting or some of the horrendous colors I created – it’s all part of the learning process, and it’s good!

So, if you had to select a couple or three key messages to share with people looking to make progress in social media, what would they be?

Firstly, I understand that not everyone is comfortable with putting their face out there on social media. I respect that. Being an influencer or content creator isn’t suitable for everyone, as it involves living a more exposed life. However, even if you prefer not to appear on camera, it’s essential to include a picture of your face every six posts. It doesn’t matter if it’s a subtle background shot while you’re mid-haircut; it helps contextualize your portfolio. Over time, I’ve learned that when people look at your portfolio, they want to connect with the human behind it. While some incredibly creative individuals like Angelo Seminara can let their work speak for itself, most people aiming to build a reputation need to show their face. It’s a crucial aspect. Secondly, you need to understand your audience. Many people spend a lot of time engaging with fellow hairdressers on social media, even if they have no intention of becoming educators themselves. They observe educators interacting with other hairdressers and believe they should do the same. I always ask, ‘Who’s paying your bills?’ The answer is your clients. So, remember that the primary audience you’re communicating with is your clients. Unless you’re planning to transition into the education sector, there’s no need to focus on impressing other hairdressers who aren’t your main source of income.

Did you analyze your audience before starting, or is this an ongoing process?

I encourage people to become more specialized in what they do. For example, if a salon specializes in vivid hair colors, it can establish a strong reputation in that niche. While it’s essential to be proficient with various hair types, if you want to be known for something specific, you need to consistently focus on that specialty. However, in my case, I’m currently building an audience more focused on business. This shift has slowed down my growth because many of my hairdresser followers have become less engaged with the content. I’m actively working on attracting more business-oriented followers because I find that appealing. It’s crucial to recognize that when you change the content you share, you often need to grow a new audience. If rapid growth is your goal, sticking to a consistent theme is essential. Currently, I’m going through a change, but what matters most to me is pursuing what I’m passionate about, rather than just increasing my follower count. It’s significant. To put it differently, you can check all the right boxes to amass a large following, but do you genuinely want that kind of following? You can talk about topics that don’t align with your true self, but if you have to spend two hours a day on your phone, wouldn’t you prefer to discuss something you’re genuinely interested in? Authenticity and enjoyment should be prioritized over conforming to what you believe is necessary for fame. You don’t want to be tethered to a device projecting a persona you don’t resonate with. I certainly don’t want that.

What platforms or tools do you use on a daily basis nowadays?

Well, I actually teach a ChatGPT course. I think many listeners might believe they have a decent understanding of what AI and ChatGPT are, especially in terms of how they can benefit their businesses. However, I don’t think they realize just how much it can help, maybe not even 20% of its full potential, until they delve deeper into it. This is something I’ve noticed while teaching the course. People often think, ‘Okay, I can use it for a social media post or something similar.’ But then I introduce them to the various ways it can be applied. For example, creating lesson plans for your assistants. Let’s say you have a client who’s leaving, and you want to provide her with instructions on how to use a specific product. I can generate a comprehensive step-by-step guide in a matter of seconds, and it will appear as if I personally wrote it out. I can then send that email to her immediately. There are countless other applications as well. I can strategize my meetings for the next six months based on various topics and criteria. It’s a multifaceted tool that offers far more than just ‘writing a caption’ or ‘copying and pasting a letter.’ It’s about strategic thinking and implementation.

What about creating images? This is a controversy in the industry nowadays. I understand it’s not your primary focus these days, especially for competitions, but…

I’m actually a huge fan of AI art. I follow some truly amazing artists. Once again, there’s a misconception that you can simply press a button, and art materializes. However, these AI artists are incredibly clever and talented. It’s a bit like suggesting that the person who designed all the graphics for ‘Lord of the Rings’ isn’t an artist because they didn’t physically draw everything themselves. Of course, they’re artists. Absolutely. It’s their creativity, their vision… They bring various elements together, crafting entirely new worlds. I think people haven’t fully grasped the potential of AI art yet.

In terms of platforms, is Instagram still the one that consumes most of your time, or are you exploring other platforms like TikTok? Have you ever wondered what would happen if Instagram were to suddenly disappear…?

Fortunately, I have nearly 6,000 people on my email list, which is quite helpful. Building an email list is a top priority for me. I do dabble in other platforms like TikTok and Facebook, but I find myself gravitating back towards Instagram because I have such a substantial audience there. I do think TikTok could be beneficial for me, but I don’t believe it’s well-suited for salons. To be honest, most salon owners in my social media groups report high engagement on TikTok but no new clients. The platform’s reach is so global that it doesn’t translate well for service-based businesses. TikTok is fantastic for selling products, fashion items, gadgets, and other instant-consumption products. However, for service-based businesses, I don’t think it’s the right fit. It often feels like a black hole for them. Let’s say there’s a random salon owner who has four stylists, a little dog, and two kids, and she’s creating TikTok videos. She won’t attract clients from her local area through TikTok. I haven’t seen it happen yet. As I mentioned earlier, TikTok works well for influencers like myself, but for the salon owners I teach, it’s not the ideal platform. In fact, Facebook tends to be the primary platform for most of my customers. The age group on Facebook aligns well with their target audience, and these users are less saturated with advertising. While I predominantly focus on teaching Instagram, many of my clients still see significant value in Facebook, depending on the age group of their clientele.

What do you do to stay up to date? Do you continue learning all the time?

I manage my social media with the help of a marketing and social media expert. While I excel at marketing campaigns and generating creative ideas to grab attention, the technical aspects are not my strong suit. My expert partner keeps track of the latest changes, like when new features or algorithms are introduced. So, I acknowledge my own limitations and form partnerships with individuals who possess strengths I lack. The media company I collaborate with typically identifies courses and assesses their value before recommending them to me. Regarding business knowledge, I am an avid reader. In fact, I’m currently in the process of compiling a book list, featuring my favorite books. I’ve rated them based on factors such as readability and explained why I like them. I take pride in my book collection, with a proper shelf for them, and I keep them well-maintained, complete with labels. I make it a practice to read the same business book around three times. After initially reading it, I might revisit it a year later. I believe in focusing on quality rather than quantity when it comes to reading. Some may boast about having read 30 books, but the real question is, did you implement any of the insights? Personally, I’d prefer to thoroughly read the same book throughout the year and ensure that I’ve taken actionable steps based on what I’ve learned. For our industry, especially, “The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It” has been an invaluable read. In many other careers, we receive promotions that involve some new responsibilities but largely build upon our existing skills. However, transitioning from being the best hairdresser in your area to becoming a salon owner requires an entirely new skill set. “The E Myth” is particularly helpful in understanding how to shift from being a tradesperson to a successful businessperson.

How does Sophia Hilton sees herself in five years? You have a salon, you’re involved in education, you have a son and a beautiful family. Who do you envision yourself becoming, and what would you like to achieve?

I find great enjoyment in keynote speaking and the notion of being a ‘thought leader.’ I relish the opportunity to develop ideas, influence how people think, and assist them in envisioning new possibilities for themselves. Whether it’s simplifying complex concepts or injecting an element of fun into them, I thrive on the challenge. I take pleasure in taking business books that my audience might not typically read and translating them into a more accessible and playful format. Our industry, while creative, tends to be less academically oriented. I believe my academic inclination allows me to bring these ideas to our industry in a way that is both approachable and lighthearted, making it easier for people to grasp. In the coming five years, I envision myself traveling the world more, though not excessively, as I’m not particularly fond of extensive travel. My goal is to help individuals cultivate new ideas and propagate them in a positive manner on a global scale.

Sophia Hilton and Sergi Bancells

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