Interview: Akin Barber & Shop

Leith Matthews talks about founding the lifestyle-driven barbershop


Leith Matthews arrived in Dubai 10 years ago and set about changing the emirate’s entrepreneurial landscape.
ITP Media Group

Dubai was a different place a decade ago, but rather than be discouraged by what he perceived to be missing Leith Matthews relished the prospect of filling those gaps. Having initially come to Dubai to work in the hospitality sector, his first venture was Make, a café and co-working space: “I was able to get a good understanding of what was working really well and what was missing potentially. Back then, I was working with these top five star hotels but we didn’t have independent restaurants. It was all chains. I remember before I started Make, the only place where we’d go for breakfast was Lime Tree on Beach Road or Paul. Those were the two only options.”

After Make, Matthews worked on a few digital projects but he could feel the F&B market changing: “I believed in Dubai but I could see that the F&B scene was getting super complex and super competitive. It was so uncertain. Even as a consumer you didn’t know where was the next thing that was going to be popular but you knew it was coming.”

He also knew that he missed having a physical space where he could interact with people. Inspiration for what to do next came while he was visiting another scene-changing concept: “I was sitting in Tom & Serg one day and said ‘What do we need right now?’ It was crystal clear. I had been here for so long and I’d never had that great experience with grooming. I was going to barber shops where someone would trim my beard and my stubble. That was relatively new to me but I got into the habit of doing it on a regular basis. However, I would never get my hair cut there. I’d get my hair cut at a top end salon which was quite expensive. I didn’t want to spend less because you just weren’t guaranteed that same sort of attention.”

For Matthews, it became clear that he had to elevate the beard grooming experience. For him it was about being able to offer clients a more natural or hipster beard. He explains: “The local offering back then was much more precise. I’d had a few experiences just with my simple stubble. If you weren’t careful you could get really lined up and that was not what I was looking for.”

There was a gap in the mid-scale approach to male grooming. Matthews wanted to create the kind of place that would appeal to him and his peers: “We elevated the experience by putting more of an understanding and an emphasis around a groomed but natural style of beard. Then the aim was to also offer a great quality haircut without the top end salon treatment.

In terms of pricing, Matthews also aimed to be somewhere in the middle but for him it was the service that was going to set Akin Barber & Shop apart from the existing offering: “The price positioning was a little bit more expensive for the beard and less expensive for the haircut with an experience which was more on point for this community that I was thinking about. We weren’t looking to go to a five star hotel to get our hair done. At the same time, you’re not looking to go to a very basic barber shop.

“I think that our pricing is really spot on. I definitely observed at the beginning and I could feel where the clients were coming from. Some would come in and they were used to paying AED 300 (US $100) at Toni & Guy for example and then I would see other guys who had to take into account that this is a trade up, it was more expensive. I could even feel that they were coming in with a little bit of skepticism but I was always confident that the experience would win them over. I’ve always held the belief that if you try it once, you’ll probably never go back to a street level barber shop.

Akin Barber and Shop

“Now, including tax, it’s AED 175 ($48) for a haircut and it’s AED 85 ($23) for a beard tune up. You could if you wanted to get a beard tune up for AED 50 ($14) and a haircut for AED 75 ($20). When I first came to Dubai I realised very quickly that a cheap haircut is very expensive mistake to make. I don’t try to save money on a haircut. That being said, I think our pricing is correct and of course the valet parking, the coffee, VAT, top products, our great staff, everything.”

In addition to adding value, Matthews wanted to create a brand that would speak to a like-minded group of people who would also see going to a barber shop as a social activity: “This community is looking for where they get their coffee, where they buy their clothes and where they buy the cocktails at night. All of these touch points should be fitting into that lifestyle. Back then there were no brands or venues that were doing men’s grooming that people could relate to. When we go into coffee shops and post photos, we’re telling our story. That part of it wasn’t being done. So it was a conscious decision to create a lifestyle brand.”

Still, it was important to strike the right balance when it came to setting the tone: “It wasn’t too complicated and it wasn’t basic but it was real and it was authentic. We created a community authentically, not as a marketing ploy.

“We were part of the change where for a long time that relationship between the customer and barber, the divide was too great sometimes. Now with Akin barbers, they’re going to the same places you do on the weekend. They know exactly the same music, the food, the venues, the lifestyle is the same. So the conversations now that are happening within the space are real conversations and they’re engaging and rewarding for everyone in the space.”

Akin Barber and Shop

In the beginning, finding the right staff was a challenge. Dubai wasn’t attracting a slew of hip barbers at the time: “I did my trips at the beginning. Through Europe, in New York and then was advertising as best I could. What I found is that it was very difficult to get people. With good quality barbers, they are very much motivated by salary yes, but they’re also motivated by ‘Where am I working? What’s the scene? What’s the vibe? How does it relate to my personal brand?’ So at the beginning, before we had anything, it was really hard. The guys will talk to you but they’re not willing to make the jump until they see what you’re doing.”

Once Akin was up and running, the recruitment process became much easier and soon barbers started contacting them: “With Akin, especially with the design and delivery of how we did it, we were getting people from all around the world saying ‘This is cool. We like it. What is it? How would how would work if we would come here?’ So then it flips.”

Akin’s unique aesthetic became its calling card. Matthews had worked with the design team on a previous project: “I met architects through Make and they had since created a firm called Anarchitect. I think they’re an extremely important part of our success. It was a concept I’d never done before. I knew where I was coming from and I knew what I wanted to deliver but it was a collaborative process. They listened and created something really beautiful. I personally have always thought that it was the completely right design at the right time.

“In Dubai there was a bit of fatigue around industrial, exposed ceilings. I think we are contemporary, quality, and craft-driven but at the same time with just the right amount of street or grunge. They encapsulated that in the design.”

The designers also had to make the space functional. A lot of research went into things that most people would consider a minor detail. Matthews explains: “In a lot of the old barbershops, the barber would have a basin in front of the chair. We looked to see what was available in the market and the whole industry had shifted to a separate washbasin and station. So we were stuck but straight away they said they would just design and produce something custom made.”

It seems that barbers around the world have taken notice: “The amount of people from around the world who have contacted me to say ‘Hey I’m starting a barber shop in Boston’ or ‘I’m starting a barber shop in London’ or wherever ‘I love the basins where can I find them, which brand did you use? I’m just like yeah we custom made them, we made them from this material.”

The Japanese-made Takara Belmont chairs are another striking feature and have become a talking point: “We knew from the start that chair alone, it just tells a story and conveys the emotion in a second. Apparently, if you buy them in Japan they have a lifetime warranty. You don’t get the same here but for the amount of use they get, they’re a proper machine. The Japanese had to build such a thing. They’re built to last.”

So, it seems, is Akin. The brand’s second branch opened in November of last year at The Beach in Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence. This time Matthews had the benefit of the experience he gained from setting up the first location which opened on Sheikh Zayed Road three years ago.

By Dubai standards, two venues in three years may be considered slow but Matthews isn’t phased: “In general I would say that I’m proud and I’m happy and grateful that the company is alive three years later. As a small business and a new business you should be happy if it does well and it survives. That’s how tough businesses is. If you survive you’re doing well. And then the other part is this Dubai mentality where because it’s been three years, people expect you to have six shops. I think based on the opportunity that is here and because we all believe in the opportunity, we all hold ourselves to quite high standards.”

Though he was a seasoned entrepreneur when he launched Akin, the fact that he was starting a business in a field that was new to him allowed him to have a fresh approach. Matthews explains: “Launching it without much prior experience gave me the opportunity to do things slightly differently. I wasn’t coming from a background where I had ingrained ways of thinking so I was able to do things from a consumer first point of view. Coming from an angle of how I would most like to experience this myself and how people like me would most like to have this experience and actually do things better or different to make it more seamless and more enjoyable. And, at the same time, balance that with a steep learning curve.

When it comes to competition, Matthews has a positive outlook: “No one’s going to live or die on someone else opening if you maintain your great quality. But I do sometimes feel that real people may be positioning themselves just slightly below us.

However, Matthews stops short of saying that the recent slew of similar concepts were inspired by his: “We hit the market at the same time as one of the other leading shops. When I thought about it, I thought that it was obvious and if I din’t do it, others would. Honestly, I don’t think people are copying. I just feel like it’s a movement. I can’t imagine the men of Dubai using anything less. We were sorely lacking for a long time.”

The fact that consumers now have more options has affected the way they spend their disposable income and what they’re willing to spend it on. Matthews says: “I feel there is more of a price consciousness in general at the moment in Dubai. So AED 25 ($7) for a haircut could make a difference to people. So while I still think our pricing is absolutely fair, I do understand the feeling in the market at the moment. We’re having a second look at our gym memberships and how many times a week we go out for dinner. All of us are thinking about these things a little more carefully and I totally respect that.”

Leith Matthews

The importance of adding value in this climate can’t be underestimated: “I hold on to the idea that businesses that offer a really good quality and really good service are the businesses that will thrive in challenging times. They know who you are, they take good care of you.”

Part of that is staying abreast of male grooming trends both regionally and abroad: “When we first started it was more of a rugged beard and I think that’s been tamed. Still a beard but with a bit more care and concern rather that the full hipster or lumberjack look. A little bit more groomed.”

The environment may be laid-back but Akin’s clientele are nothing if not discerning: “People are looking for a more elegant haircut and that’s balanced with a modern aesthetic that you might find in London or Auckland. Guys here are very precise about what they’re looking for. Whether it’s elegant, or a bit more edgy and on trend. We don’t get many people coming in and saying ‘I don’t know, just make it shorter’. Usually they know exactly what they want.”

The holistic approach to Akin’s brand values also extends to its retail offering: “We’re dealing with an educated, demanding, high quality and high expectations. They understand the products that we carry. They’ve done the research. We’re retailing brands like Davines but more importantly, we’re using on our back bar. So everyone gets a haircut using Davines which as far as I’m concerned was the best brand that we could find in the local market. Where it comes from, how it’s made, the ingredients used. We’re not cutting any corners. Other brands that we carry are a bit more niche or unknown in Dubai but they’re definitely the highest quality and match the Akin brand.

Looking forward, Matthews doesn’t rule out a further expansion but says it isn’t his current priority: “We’re positive and looking at opportunities but at the same time we’re growing organically. We’re just focused on being the best that we can be. Our barbers are very good and they have a strong following.”

In fact, with no official marketing campaign to speak of, Akin grew its client base through word of mouth and social media. Matthews recalls: “Things change so quickly. Three-and-a-half years ago, Instagram was a stronger tool than it is now. That was before advertising was allowed the platform. We did a combination of pop-up events at strategic locations which helped us to break into established communities and then followed that through with working closely with people within those communities to help spread our message. When we launched, we were really busy from day one and Instagram was able to continue that story. Personally, I don’t think Instagram is as strong anymore and there’s a bit of social media fatigue as well.”

Again, it goes back to people, with customers responding to personal brands: “The Akin Instagram is relatively still life and then our barbers with all their personality and playfulness add life and dimension. It has to be authentic.”

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