A Cut Above
By Alex Daily
Michael Portman and Jayson Rapaport have known each other for their entire lives. Since their childhood friendship in Laredo, TX, they’ve maintained a close connection through college and life, even as their careers took them to opposite sides of the nation. Michael pursued marketing, working for Disney in Los Angeles, and Jayson landed in the finance world on Wall Street. The tale begins when they reconvened in the middle, here in Austin, and embarked on a new mission- crafting a business together.
The thrill of relocating to a new city is accompanied by uncertainty. This extends to even the most minute challenges like discovering the best way to accomplish simple, mundane tasks, such as grocery shopping and dry cleaning. When Michael Portman left his job at Disney in Los Angeles and moved to Austin, he turned to his childhood friend and recent Austinite, Jayson Rapaport, for guidance.
“Haircut came up in the conversation and it became apparent that it was one pole or the other,” Michael says. “We got to talking and we were thinking ‘Well, gosh, why isn’t there something more in the middle?’”
This casual conversation over beer quickly turned into the organic conception of an exciting idea. The two friends examined what they liked, disliked, and wanted to change about the haircut experience from the client’s perspective. Sure enough, it began to come together. Next, they created a business plan and attended small business fairs to obtain loans to begin the creation of Birds Barbershop.
“The best job in Austin is to make your own,” Michael says. “I’d been through the Hollywood meat grinder. Starting a barbershop, no big deal, right? If it doesn't work, it’s like a screenplay that doesn’t sell.”
That sense of bootstrapping innovation has helped navigate many entrepreneurs in their own ventures here in town, and Michael and Jayson are no exception. Because they are not barbers or experts in the field, and since the business did not grow out of a love of cutting hair, they knew they needed to create a quality product. They knew that an exceptional employee base was the way to do it. The company set out to reduce turnover as much as possible in order to generate the feeling of connection and community. “Since we are approaching from outside of the industry and coming from different backgrounds that explore the possibilities, the sky is the limit for us,” Michael says. “Here at Birds, we’re very focused on our team, so we put staff first, even ahead of the customer. The reason is because if we have a happy employee, you have a great haircut and a positive encounter, everyone walks out of the door satisfied.”
The two have set out from the very beginning to create an amazing client experience, using their different areas of expertise to achieve their success. Ultimately, they haven’t lost sight of their goal. “At the end of the day, if your heart is in the right place and if you're doing something good, no one is going to penalize for something small, like the paint scheme being wrong.” Jayson says. “Those are easy fixes, but our core is about experience. If you can get that right, you can evolve. If you're making people feel good, then you’re doing the job right.”
Over 11 years since the first store’s opening, Jayson and Michael remain the sole owners of Birds Barbershop, a salon designed to break free from the monotony of haircuts. The barbershop expanded to seven additional locations around Austin and one in Houston.
“We have always intended to provide a quality experience at an affordable price, so we’ve set out to capture the nature of a fancy-schmancy salon without the boring-ness of the same old, same old chain,” Michael says.
Each Birds location is unique, from the vibrant artwork, the quirky furniture, to the varying genres of music. However, all their salons provide the same amenities. Each location provides beer for patrons of drinking age, hosts in-house music performances, and displays paintings by local artists. As of this summer, Birds began serving locally made beer from Austin’s very own Independence Brewing Company.
“We like people to be excited to be partners with us,” Michael says. “Austin is just a really small town that’s disguised itself as a big city. Coming from Los Angeles and Jayson from New York, we see it all the time. We could have never started Birds Barbershop in any other city.”
An element of these partnerships is their commitment to the Austin community and its causes. From Health Alliance for Austin Musicians Day, Earth Day, Bike to Work Day or providing haircuts to the homeless population, Birds eagerly accepts any opportunity to be charitable.
“We’re proud to support what matters, our own people,” Michael says. “What’s really important is the stuff that matters to our team.”
As Birds Barbershop expanded, it truly embodied the concept of a “family business.” Jayson’s wife, Amy, helps survey initiative among their clientele, and Michael’s wife, Erin, assists with public relations. The two also have two sons each around the same age and undergo many similar challenges. “Were both married, and Jayson and I are married in many ways too, it’s definitely a two-family business,” Michael says.
Michael and Jayson attribute their success to each other and their differing strengths. Jayson’s background in finance and franchise ownership, as well as Michael’s branding and marketing experience allowed them to work complimentary on all aspects of their company since its inception to better serve their clients. To this day, the partners have never fought about work.
“Having a partner in life and in business is tantamount to doing this,” Michael says. “It’s just too much for anyone to bear and it makes it fun.”
“We come to work every day energized, enthused, and excited about what we’re doing today and what we’re going to do tomorrow,” Jayson says.
Part of this plan is the continued expansion into Houston. Over the next five years they hope to have ten stores open in the city while also looking for new locations in their Austin hometown.
“People are moving here for quality of life and we’re trying to enhance that,” Michael says. “We felt a real call to do this and do it right.”
Despite the size or industry, Jayson says businesses should be designed to solve problems, and Birds is their solution to the haircut industry. The barbershop altered standardized practices and introduced a new haircut experience all by asking if it was possible.
“It just never hurts to ask,” Michael says. “Just because something’s never been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
At its core, Birds remains a neighborhood barbershop with friendly hairstylists and a unique customer experience. The enthusiasm that gripped Jayson and Michael as young entrepreneurs has not diminished, but rather transformed into focus on the long-term success of their creation.
“It’s never about a short term gain,” Michael says. “It’s never about pleasing a stockholder immediately. Jayson and I stare at each other all day. We’ve known each other for 40 years, and we’ve got to look at each other for another 40. There’s no use in achieving short-term gain that may sour within a couple years. That doesn’t make sense, so we see everything through that lens.”
Even more remarkable is that Michael and Jayson have remained humble through it all. When these founders look back at the last 11 years and think about what they would change, or tell younger versions of themselves, the answer is “nothing.”
“I would tell myself zero,” Michael says. “Because all of the mistakes ended up informing what we would do down the line. I wouldn't really tell myself anything. I'd say ‘good luck.’”
To learn more about Birds Barbershop, or find a location near you, check out www.birdsbarbershop.com.
Photography by Leslie Hodge