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The Priority of Pampering Employees

Alissa Bayer, MBA ’04, arrived in Austin from San Francisco in 2002 to pursue a business degree. She served as a venture capitalist fellow at McCombs, giving her the opportunity to work closely with the partner of a local venture capital firm. Upon graduation she started a business of her own, opening Milk + Honey spa in 2006.

Bayer now operates two locations of Milk + Honey Spa in Austin and is opening another within the next year. Milk + Honey was named the top day spa in Texas by Les Nouvelles Esthétiques and offers a full range of spa treatments from massages to waxing to nail therapy. She and her husband are the proud parents of four-month-old twins.

McCombs Today spoke with Bayer about her professional and educational experiences.

How would you describe your MBA experience at McCombs?

In a nutshell, it was challenging, invigorating and full of opportunity. I’ve fully appreciated it because I was 30 years old when I started the program, so I had a nice, long period in between college and going to business school. It was a complete treat to be back in school and in an academic environment. If I would’ve put that much effort into my undergrad education, it would have been a completely different experience.

What career path did you take upon graduation?

After graduation I just started finishing up my business plan for opening a spa that I started working on as part of my independent study with Professor [John] Doggett. For me, a business plan is not a formal piece of paper but really just going through the whole process of really making sure it’s a good business and what I wanted to focus my energy -- and a good chunk of our life savings -- on.

What led you to the spa industry?

I saw an opportunity in the Austin market. There are a lot of great spas in Austin now, but at the time there just weren’t that many options. I studied entrepreneurship and took a lot of finance classes, but when looking at different career opportunities I knew I wanted to do something on my own. One day I woke up and decided I wanted to do something that made people feel good. In didn’t matter if it was the spa industry or something else, but it was important to me that whatever I was going to focus my energy on would be making a positive difference. I don’t feel like I need to change the world, but something as simple as providing an environment where people can go and relax for a few hours works for me.

How has the business adjusted during the recession?

I feel lucky that when things started to slow down and people started to get more conservative with their money, I already had an established business. I don’t know if I would have still had the courage to open a spa in the downturn, but you can’t really predict what’s going to happen. There’s never going to be a good time.

In fact, our business thrived during the recession. We really stayed on top of things and made sure we provided great customer service for our clients. We made sure we didn’t raise prices, and we got really creative in the way we market ourselves. Luckily the beauty industry tends to do better when the economy is down. It’s kind of a nice pick-me-up. When you look at your 401(k) numbers dropping, a $35 manicure can actually cheer you up quite a bit!

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

We’ve been awarded three years in a row as one of “The Best Places to Work in Central Texas.” We’ve received many awards, but the thing that means the most to me is being recognized by our employees for being a great place to work. At the end of the day, for me, business isn’t just about creating a profit and increasing shareholder value. It’s about increasing value for the employees and communities as well. Increasing value all-around can come in different forms other than just straight profit. We want to create a place where our 125 employees enjoy going to. It’s the most important thing to me.

How do you create a positive workplace environment?

From the beginning I’ve always looked at the employees and the team as my client. If they’re confident, happy, well-trained and motivated, they’re going to do their job well. Happy clients make a happy shareholder, and it makes a nice virtuous circle. It’s a big point of priority of my team and myself to make sure that the staff is happy. We offer benefits that a lot of companies in the industry don’t offer and put a lot of effort into their well-being. It’s really just about making it a priority. Some companies do it as an after-thought, or it happens on accident. Just like great customer service for the paying clients, we spend just as much time thinking about our own employees.

What keeps you motivated every day?

I’m not motivated each day! I don’t believe that everyone can be. My energy and motivation flows, but for me, I’m just very organized and goal-oriented. If I start finding myself becoming less motivated, I look at the goals that I’ve put together. I do it at the beginning of the year and check it throughout the year and break it down into bite-size, manageable pieces. You might not accomplish everything, but if you’re whitlling away at it, that gives me momentum and a sense of accomplishment. Allowing myself the freedom to not be motivated constantly is a good thing.

What business challenges keep you awake at night?

Nothing really keeps me awake at night. In all jokes of sleep-deprivation of having babies aside, I stopped a long time ago. During the first six months of the business everything kept me up at night. I left a sandwich board outside one night about a month after we opened, and so I got in my car and drove downtown and brought the sign back in. My brain wouldn’t shut off. At some level you have to trust that what you’re doing is working and if something is bothering me, I will address it during the day.

What pieces of business wisdom have you tried to abide by in your career?

During business school I learned to analyze and really plan before making a decision. I do my due diligence before deciding on the bottom line so that once I make a decision I’m confidant with it.

The most practical advice I had was to “hire slow and fire fast.” Make sure you have the right people on your team. Take your time. Don’t make any hiring decisions out of fear or feeling that you have to get someone in right away because you have a position to fill. As soon as you know it’s not a good fit and that it's not a situation that can be remedied in any way, go ahead and part ways so you can get the right person in your company.

What innovations do you see ahead within the spa industry?

There are always things going on in the industry -- new products, new machines or techniques, but I think the reason we’ve been successful is because we’ve avoided a lot of the trendy things. We’ve stuck to classic facials and providing the best massage possible. We do manicures and pedicures, but no acrylics. Our strategy is to stick to the basics and do them really well.

What’s your advice for students that aspire to launch a startup?

The most important thing is just to conduct your research and do your due diligence to know what you’re getting yourself into - and to do it. There are a lot of people that have ideas and talk about opening their own business but very few people turn it into a reality. It’s about not getting overwhelmed by the enormity of the project and taking everything one piece at a time.

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