What A Cracked Mirror Taught Drybar Execs About Managing Meteoric Growth

A broken mirror at one of Drybar's Manhattan locations sent founder Alli Webb over the edge. But the fallout provided important lessons in letting world-class teams do what you hired them to do.

A few months ago, Alli Webb stepped into a Drybar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan—one of the few dozen blowout-only hair salons that Webb and her brother, Michael Landau, have rapidly built into a small empire. Webb had reason to be happy. Her business, which she’d begun on a lark in 2007, was raking in $22 million in annual sales; her private equity partners in the business were seeing so much growth that they were beginning to recommend that Webb and Landau be realistic about relinquishing some control in their organization, leaving more of the micromanaging to the various teams they had hired. But then, Webb saw the crack.

Drybar cofounders Michael Landau and Alli Webb.

At the rear of the Upper East Side Drybar, a crack ran through a large, customer-facing mirror. What was infinitely frustrating to Webb was that the last time she had been in this store, the same mirror had been cracked in the same place. How had months elapsed without the mirror being repaired? Was this the image Drybar was projecting to Manhattan’s Upper East Side? “It just kind of goes to the perfectionist in me,” Webb explains now. “I walk in a shop, and I want everything to be perfect.”

“I had a fit,” Webb recalls. She sent out a bunch of emails—to the assistant manager, to the manager, to anyone remotely related to operations at the Upper East Side store. And Webb being the boss, people sprung into action immediately. The maintenance department hastily replaced the mirror, at a cost of approximately $4,000.

This might seem like a happy ending to the story. But soon Webb’s COO called her to explain something. The crack Webb had just seen in the mirror in fact wasn’t the same crack that she had seen months prior. That original mirror had already been replaced—again, at the cost of thousands of dollars—but the second mirror cracked in the same place. Realizing that there must be some underlying structural reason for an identical crack to spring up a second time, people Webb had hired were already investigating what was going on. As the COO told Landau, “I know Alli wants it fixed immediately, but we can’t keep spending $4,000 to fix a mirror.” Instead, the COO said, he'd put a team of people on it to investigate the deeper cause.

What they discovered was a New York problem. A subway train ran directly underneath, sending vibrations up in such a way as to make the mirror particularly vulnerable. The current installation was insufficient—it would require different insulation or bracing to prevent the problem from happening again.

For Webb and Landau, it was a lesson in learning when to let go. Two people can’t possibly run a 2,000-person organization themselves. “We never meant this to be the big business it is today,” explains Landau, almost apologetic for the lingering micromanagerial tendencies of himself and his sister. “One thing Alli and I have had to grapple with as we grow is, ‘How do you manage to scale an organization? How do Alli and I evolve now that we can’t touch every detail and get to know every employee, and have to delegate responsibility?’” (Landau himself recently stepped down as CEO, acknowledging that the company has grown so large that his own entrepreneurial skill set is less relevant.)

Webb and Landau have had to slowly, painfully train both themselves and their employees on following the new chains of command that fit an increasingly massive business (Drybar opens its 35th location this week). “People still want to come to us [from various departments], and we still want to give advice,” says Landau. “But you realize that you’re such a bottleneck if everything has to go through you.” And bottlenecks are the enemy of scaling. “You want to give that input because you care so much, it’s your baby—but you have to force yourself to say, ‘Go talk to Dana...’”

“That’s tough for me,” chimes in Webb. “If somebody comes to me with a problem, if I say, ‘Just do this, this, and that,’ then they do it. But it messes up the whole system, so I have to learn to filter my feedback through regional managers to keep the chain of command. It’s a major learning adjustment for me.”

And yet she’s adjusted—or is beginning to. “I’ve gotten better about sending out those emails,” she says. “I find out what’s going on before I get upset. Usually people are already on top of things, and it’s gratifying to know we’re building a small team.” If confronted with a cracked mirror again, says Webb, "I won’t send emails to 17 people in the company about it."

And what ever became of that Upper East Side mirror? Finally delegating to the proper chain of command led to an enduring fix—and should save the company money in the long run. “It’s fixed now!” says Webb. “I was just there and it’s fixed—no more crack!"

[Images courtesy of Drybar]

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