Life According To... Rob O'Brien

One of the founding owners of Floyd's 99 Barbershop—a Denver mainstay since 2001—Rob O'Brien talks to 5280 about the story behind the name, the ins and outs of the barbershop business, and success in Denver. Deck: After working in the concession business for two decades, Rob O'Brien and his brothers Bill and Paul opened up Floyd's 99 Barbershop in Denver in 2001; since then, the chain has expanded to 45 stores nationwide. Here, O'Brien talks about concessionaire hustling, the barbershop business, and success in Denver.

June 2010

I moved to Denver in 1992 with $3,000 and a cotton candy machine. My brother Paul and I decided that we wanted to go out on our own in the concession business. For the previous five years, I had traveled with the Harlem Globetrotters and the Ice Capades, working concessions, but I wanted to live in Denver, and we got the account to sell cotton candy for the Nuggets.

In the late 1990s, if our business got a new account in a new city, I'd have to go live there and start running it. I lived in 22 apartments in nine years. It's a young man's game. There's no way anyone my age can start a concession business. When you get older, you need more than beer money to feel successful.

We transitioned to Floyd's because I wanted to live in Denver full-time. We were looking for something to grow, and we didn't want to do food because we had been doing it for 20 years.

I was a guy who, when I wanted to get a haircut, I'd wake up on Saturday morning and go from place to place and they were all booked. My brother Paul, on the other hand, would pay $40 or $50 and make an appointment two weeks out. I said, "There's something here, there's a huge middle ground that's being ignored." People want a good haircut, but also convenience.

We're called Floyd's 99 because we were convinced we'd open up in 1999, but it didn't happen until 2001. We were trying to find a good space, and we wanted the space at Lincoln and 10th. It was between us and the Spicy Pickle for the first lease, but the landlord said, "I don't want a barbershop here. It's a dying business."

Our first location at 11th and Broadway has more to do with our success than anything. It's so central in Denver. We were in love with our concept, but we didn't realize the importance of our location. Our stores on Colfax and Leetsdale never took off like the Broadway one.

The rock and roll theme was just something we decided to do for the artwork. I think it helps that a lot of style and fashion come out of the music world.

When we started we just had a jukebox at the front desks, but then you get held captive to the emotional needs of a 19-year-old receptionist who just broke up with her boyfriend.

Today, we have our own Internet music station, so all the Floyd's are all playing the same song at the same time. It's our own unique playlist.

Our employees are the secret sauce. We've just created a place where people like to work.

We don't have a uniform, and yeah, a lot of employees are tattooed. I think that often a stylist is the only artist in most people's lives. They expect their stylist is going to be like that.

Only about 20 percent of our clientele is female. Before we opened a store in California, we hired consultants; their first suggestion was to get rid of women's haircuts because it slows us down. But it's cool to have women in there, getting haircuts next to men. And it also gives the stylists a chance to do different kinds of haircuts. It's nice to have variety.

I think so many Denver businesses grow into successful chains because the city is a single market. You can't tell where Baltimore stops and Philly starts, but in Denver you're 600 miles from other major cities. It's why companies use Denver as a test market.

Everyone has a great idea for a business, but what are you doing about it? The only difference between us and someone else is that we did it. We didn't overanalyze.

Money will come with doing things well.