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the challenge

Vanessa McWilliams travels Alberta visiting people who need wigs. Her business, Confident Curls, provides an in-home alternative to what can be an uncomfortable retail experience. Here she is with her son, Justin, 4.Laura Leyshon/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

Vanessa McWilliams already has a mission statement: "I'm a bald girl trying to change the world." So says the founder of Confident Curls, a Calgary-based mobile wig service. What she needs now is a better business plan.

Ms. McWilliams started her company three years ago to create an alternative to salons for trying on wigs. The salon experience can be uncomfortable for bald people, she says, because they stand out from the clients with hair and often suffer the indignity of being asked to try on wigs in the back room.

"I thought, you know, there has to be a better way to go about getting a wig," she says.

Her struggle to find cool tresses began 20 years ago when, at the age of nine, she was diagnosed with alopecia, or hair loss. "I was 12 when I got my first wig and it was horrifying," she says. "The wigs back then were uncomfortable, short and curly, more mature styles. And they were way too big for me." She was teased and bullied at school.

Now the 30-year-old mother of two is helping others. She travels Alberta visiting clients – giving them a shoulder to cry on if that's what they need – and finds them the perfect wig. "I can make you look smokin' hot, or we can just have coffee," she says. "I know what it's like to have to purchase a wig. I know what it's like to have to wear one. I know what it's like to watch your hair fall out."

She buys her wigs wholesale from Jon Renau, a brand known for quality. She has several hundred customers, many of whom have lost hair from chemotherapy. Some of her clients travel to see her, and she also "meets" customers online using Skype.

She recently added a consultant in Red Deer, who is paid on commission for what she sells. Now Ms. McWilliams wants to add more wig sellers.

She doesn't have a lot of capital, but she's rich in determination. "I want to get as far as I can and reach as many people as I can," she says. "Come hell or high water, I'm going to make it go."

The Challenge: How can Ms. McWilliams structure her business so she can hire associates in other cities and earn a good salary?


Matthew Grimes, assistant professor, department of strategic management and organization, University of Alberta School of Business, Edmonton

I applaud Ms. McWilliams's passion and determination. She has identified a real customer problem for a tightly defined customer segment.

The growth challenge for any retail business is a function of the potentially high fixed costs associated with such growth. If she were to stick with a mobile-based solution, with staff driving to see clients throughout Canada, this would require substantial capital and labour investments. Then there is the potentially high advertising costs of building up consumer awareness in those markets.

These challenges lead me to two points of advice. First, the Internet offers the ability for mass customization alongside an anonymous purchase process. Building a website capable of handling that sales process could be done at a fraction of the cost of establishing a national sales force. While there are clearly a number of competitors in the online wig market, there are also clearly still opportunities to improve upon these offerings. The second point of advice would be to look for opportunities to develop strategic partnerships with medical professionals willing to offer "free advertising" to potential clients at the point at which they are experiencing relevant symptoms.

David Bayda, business services manager of the small-business information service Business Link, Edmonton

Because she is dealing with a very niche market, Ms. McWilliams needs to investigate the total market size for her product to determine growth potential.

It will be critical for her to assess the reasons behind her current business success. Is it because of the personal understanding and care she takes with her clients one-on-one? If she is looking to bring on more sales associates, then that personal touch may be hard to replicate. The strength of her business comes from the desire to help people she can identify with. Outside associates may not have that same approach. If her intentions are to continue hiring more associates, she'll need to establish a way for her current business model to work across a much larger geographic area, one where she most likely won't have as much control and personal contact.

She'll also need to ensure that she has detailed contractual agreements and training materials for the consultants. If she can develop a strong training program and clearly lay out expectations, she will have a better chance of success with consistency in customer service.

The fact that she is starting with one sales associate on a trial basis is very smart. This experience will give her the opportunity to learn what is and isn't working, with a lot less risk. Other avenues she may want to explore include online sales or selling complementary fashion accessories.

Juanita and Joanna Wright, owners, Wright Spa Mobile Beauty Services, Toronto

Ms. McWilliams might want to expand her niche beyond bald people. The celebrity market is good because celebrities like to be in their own space and a lot of them wear wigs. She should also try selling hair extensions, pieces or half-wigs.

She should focus online and pay for a good company that does SEO (search engine optimization). That's the most important thing, getting connected with people who would use her services – cancer foundations and hospitals, making a relationship with doctors and nurses on the wards. Using Skype, she could make suggestions to people, send them options and then have a really good return policy.

Eventually she could have a network of consultants out in the field, but she should build a track record of making money first.


Make connections

Start building relationships with cancer foundations, doctors and nurses.

Expand your niche

Investigate new products to sell, including hair extensions, pieces or half-wigs.

Find customers online

Hire a good SEO consultant to connect with people who need your services.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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