In the Land of Sweet Manicures, High Five Nails is the Pièce de Résistance

The nail industry is a dark and fairly seedy workplace that hasn’t seen any forms of innovation in the past decade. For what we know, most about it, are insensitive stereotypes that permeate in mainstream media.

Everything from Ms. Swan on MADtv to comedians like Anjelah Johnson who continue to push the narrative of the minority nail technician. And though we live in these often sad truths, much change is being made by the new guard of growing generations. Those like Heli Prilliman, founder of Lacquerbar in Berkeley, who’ve made it their mission to offer minority women-of-color technical classes in order to better that quality of life in the nail industry. Documentaries such as “Painted Nails” that tells the story of San Francisco nail salon owner Van Hoang, whose multiple miscarriages and asthma, due to prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals in nail care products, ultimately put her on a quest to bring safe cosmetics to all, produced and shot by San Franciscans Nhung Hoang Pham, Dianne Griffin, and Erica Jordan—change can be seen.

When we spoke to founder Annie Stancliffe of High Five, a nail salon that believes in equity and equality—treating technicians with dignity is embedded deep within the day-to-day. Being able to work on a livable wage and be able to thrive is what she wants. Bringing women, men, those of gender non-conforming to a space where everyone (and we mean everyone) feels comfortable, is what Stancliffe set out to do when she first opened. Though with the unfortunate coming of COVID-19 to the Bay Area, Stancliffe has had to close her brick-and-mortar for the time being and has had to figure out other creative ways to utilize her mission and physical storefront. Think: at-home-nail-kits, pop-up’s featuring women makers of all ethnic backgrounds, and so much more.

We caught Stancliffe after a successful weekend pop-up before California quickly shut it doors once again the following Monday—for Stancliffe, keeping your head up and hands ready is the name of the game.


Q

What was the genesis for opening High Five? When did you feel like it was the right time?

A

I wish I could say it’s been my lifelong dream to open a nail salon, but very frankly, the initial impetus for starting High Five was my own desperation as a consumer for a better nail salon experience. In parallel, I was shaken by the now-infamous New York times expose detailing the mistreatment of nail salon employees. And on top of all that, there’s a huge market opportunity—nail services are a $10B business in the US alone, the industry is 99% fragmented, and most salons operate at less than 50% utilization. It was just so clear to me that customers and employees alike deserved a better nail salon, and I was in business school at the time with access to tons of entrepreneurship resources and smart people. So I decided to connect the dots—build a consolidated, beloved consumer brand and create more favorable economics to provide fair pay and meaningful career opportunities for salon workers.


Q

In fact, tell us more about High Five! What does HF stand for? What does HF do for the community?

A

Our mission at High Five is to make your day so you can make someone else’s. We’re playful perfectionists who believe that positive energy is a virtuous cycle and that little things can have a big impact. We prefer a classic PB&J to Michelin stars, just like we’re into quality manis and pedis in classic shades, delivered with a dash of delight. 

Our first shop in San Francisco is designed to recall a diner—the kind of place where everyone knows your name, is open early and late, and serves old favorites done simply and well. We aim to be a fixture in the neighborhood and a positive drumbeat in your life, both for our customers and our team. 

As an example, we’re unable to open for nail services yet—still waiting on the green light from officials—but indoor retail has been approved in SF, so we recently repurposed our space for a retail pop-up featuring women-and Black-owned brands. Our neighbors The Floral Loft and Soothe Studio, also women-owned, participated as well, so it turned out to be a real block party. It felt great to open our doors and bring the community together during this very isolating time.


Q

And since we’re here, tell us more about you! What got you started in the salon / nail business?

A

I studied studio art and art history and worked in the art world in New York for years before moving to California for business school and launching High Five after graduation. Over the years I’ve dreamed of being a museum curator, a character at Disneyland, an animator, a fitness instructor, and a salesperson, to name a few. I think ultimately what all these things have in common is that I’m obsessed with designing experiences. In the context of High Five, I love considering how subject lines, color schemes, copywriting, playlists, core values, Instagram stories, and team uniforms are all intrinsically linked into one master narrative that is our brand story. In that sense, I don’t think running a nail salon is that different from designing an art exhibition—it all just comes down to knitting together salient details and telling a compelling story. 


The front of the nail shop on Hayes St. Photo courtesy of High Five.The front of the nail shop on Hayes St. Photo courtesy of High Five.

The front of the nail shop on Hayes St. Photo courtesy of High Five.


Founder Annie Stancliffe on building a business of equity for all involved. Photo courtesy of High Five.Founder Annie Stancliffe on building a business of equity for all involved. Photo courtesy of High Five.

Founder Annie Stancliffe on building a business of equity for all involved. Photo courtesy of High Five.


Q

We also noticed that HF has become a workplace for empowering women in a career that can be fulfilling and creative, what was the decision behind this?

A

Most hospitality brands are customer-first, but we’ve flipped that model to be team-first. We believe you can’t create a great mani experience without first creating a great experience for our nail technicians, who we lovingly refer to as our “Techies.” Working as a nail technician can often mean unpredictable hours, tip-dependent pay, harsh seasonality, and unsafe or unpleasant working conditions. At High Five, we’ve redesigned the experience to ensure a predictable schedule, high hourly pay regardless of booking rates (with tips added as icing on the cake rather than a crucial part of compensation), on-the-job training, career advancement opportunities, 1:1 mentorship with a dedicated manager, and health insurance for full-time employees. In other words, my goal is to provide tech company-level benefits and resources to our team at High Five. The role our team plays in the community is just as important as any Silicon Valley engineer, and that should be reflected in job opportunities, benefits, and compensation. 


At the end of a long shift, when the customers have all left and I’ve sent my team home and I’m turning off the lights and locking up, it’s pretty cool to look around and know that we built this place from scratch. 

— Annie Stancliffe

Q

Now from your perspective Annie, what was the journey like starting a business, especially brick and mortar in San Francisco? Give us the 411 on how you went from A to Z.

A

Before we opened the shop, I thought a brick and mortar store would be easy compared with the “traveling circus” of our mobile mani business (more on that below). Needless to say, I was wrong. From finding a landlord willing to rent to a first-time commercial tenant, to endless zoning and permitting bureaucracy, to long lead times on materials and GC’s, truly everything about opening a physical space was harder than I expected it to be. At the same time, though, opening a physical space has also been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. At the end of a long shift, when the customers have all left and I’ve sent my team home and I’m turning off the lights and locking up, it’s pretty cool to look around and know that we built this place from scratch. 


Q

Is there anything you’d tell your day 1 self from the plethora of knowledge you have now?

A

“Everything that feels insurmountable now will seem small in the future.”



The pedicure station at High Five. Photo courtesy of High Five.The pedicure station at High Five. Photo courtesy of High Five.

The pedicure station at High Five. Photo courtesy of High Five.


The manicure station. Photo courtesy of High Five.The manicure station. Photo courtesy of High Five.

The manicure station. Photo courtesy of High Five.

Q

What about having a brick and mortar spot in SF excited you? 

A

It was always part of the plan to expand into physical stores, but we didn’t expect to do it quite so early in the business. We spent our first year in business as a completely mobile nail service doing onsite events at companies, retail stores, and private parties. Very quickly, it became clear that we needed a home base for our team, and our customers kept asking for a dedicated place to book appointments. Plus, my roommates weren’t too keen on the ever-growing inventory of nail supplies encroaching on our living space. It was hectic to keep our mobile mani business afloat while building out our first store, but ended up working out quite well as we’d already built a significant customer base in the Bay Area before ever opening our doors. 


Q

This may be a loaded question but where do you want to see the salon and nail business going in the next 5 to 10 years? What do you hope gets accomplished?

A

There’s so much to do! On the team side, I’m eager to see (or build) a better beauty school system, and scale up our model of creating sustainable careers in the nail industry, complete with fair earnings, career advancement, and safe working conditions. 

On the customer side, I’m excited to build a consolidated, beloved national brand that maintains high quality and genuine spirit even as we scale. While not in the beauty space, Philz Coffee and Sweetgreen are companies whose approach to scaling I very much admire and hope to emulate.


Q

We’d love to hear an anecdote about opening High Five if you have any? Anything that you remember to this day?

A

One of my favorite elements of the High Five shop is a glowing marquee with interchangeable letters (picture the marquee outside the Castro theater, but with rainbow color-changing lights). Around 2am the night before our opening day, I was putting up the letters in the marquee and realized we’d run out of the letter H. So in a frenzy of sleep deprivation, I scrapped together a makeshift letter H using two I’s and part of an L. If you look closely in photos from that first day, you can make out the handmade “H” in the marquee. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention!


Q

What’s a piece of practical advice and wisdom you’d pass onto another woman founder trying to open something in San Francisco?

A

Spend most of your time looking forward and down, not sideways or backwards. Every once in awhile, it’s important to look sideways at what your peers or competitors are doing and to reflect back on your own journey so far, but mostly it’s about believing deeply in what you’re doing and stepping steadfastly forward, one foot in front of the other.

Oh, and take advantage of COVID-related regulatory silver linings, like how easy SF just made it to get a sidewalk permit for your business. Up top!

// 1893 Hayes St, (Panhandle) San Francisco, wehighfive.com. Sign up for High Fives newsletter and don’t miss when they reopen. Feature photo courtesy of High Five.


In the Land of Sweet Manicures, High Five Nails is the Pièce de Résistance
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