The Related Speaker Series: Transforming the Nail Salon with Amy Ling
For over 10 years, sundays founder Amy Ling has been working to transform the world of nail salons. In addition to building a successful business – sundays currently has three locations in New York, including one at Hudson Yards, and sells products in 18 countries – she has also shown a deep commitment to turning the manicure experience into a true moment for self-care and relaxation. Her salons use only non-toxic nail products and offer special add-ons like customized guided meditations and even a love letter writing and mailing service.
In honor of International Women’s Day, we sat down for a residents’ only exclusive Speaker Series at Hudson Yards with Ling to chat about how she founded sundays, overcoming self-doubt, and why you should always trust your gut when it comes to major business decisions.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Related: So tell us about you. How did you get started in this business, what gave you the idea to start a nontoxic nail salon?
Amy Ling: I grew up in China and when I moved here, my parents always told me I should start something to help immigrants. And when your parents tell you something like that, it’s kind of like you have to do it.
10 years ago, I was working in fashion, and one day a friend of mine told me that there is a very big problem in the manicure/nail industry. I had never been to a nail salon before, but at that moment I was inspired to start one. So I went to nail school, I opened a nail salon, and then I opened another one. It was a lot of learning because I was very new. I asked tons of questions and just really tried to learn everything I could.
One of the biggest problems I discovered was that most salons use toxic chemicals. I think we’re all familiar with the smell and the headaches they can cause. But there were smaller issues too that just made the experience of getting your nails done not as pleasant as it could be, like the surgical lighting in most salons, or how they always ask you for cash and then rush you out.
And that was the opposite of what my clients were asking for, which was a relaxing experience that felt like you were taking a moment for yourself. So that inspired me, I realized there was an opportunity to fill a gap between what clients wanted and what was being offered.
I went to Columbia Business School to help me hone my skills, and after I graduated I started sundays. I think non toxic is very universal right now, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Tokyo or New York or Paris, there are a lot of people who care about what we put in our bodies.
Related: I love the passion behind what you do. It’s so inspiring. What would you say is the biggest challenge you had to overcome as a female founder getting started in this business not having owned a business before? What would you say is the hardest challenge you had to overcome and how did you get through that?
AL: I think one of the biggest challenges is that things don’t always go as you would plan it. Like I would never have expected Covid, I would never have expected I’d need to close down the whole shop. And that was very hard, we had to send all the ladies home. I thought it would last a few weeks, but it ended up lasting nine months.
So one thing I learned is that it is very important in business and in your personal life to be adaptable. I am not a digital person so I had to quickly learn how to sell products online, as well as start doing events and offering gift cards.
I guess the other very big challenge would be self-doubt. Because there were definitely times I asked myself, am I the right person to do this? Am I good enough to do this? I think that’s very common, especially when you are new to a field. I always have to remind myself that I am the person to do this and I have to trust myself enough that I can overcome the challenge.
Related: That’s wonderful advice. Do you have any tips for growing your brand?
AL: So the first week we opened sundays – it was five years ago – nobody came. This is very common for any business that just opened, but I was shocked. That was a really difficult learning curve.
But then on day five, a blogger from a site called Ecopop came in, and she loved the experience we gave her and wrote about it. And then that led to other stories from outlets like Vogue and the Wall Street Journal, and that made a huge difference.
I think it all comes down to having to trust yourself and trusting what you know will work. For me, I had to trust that there are people just like me who appreciate the same things I do, and that my customer base was out there.
Related: What’s next for sundays? Where do you see it going?
AL: I think my goal hasn’t really changed much from when I started sundays: I want to change this industry. Because I believe that nail care should be self-care and that it should be nontoxic.
The other part of that is I want to make the industry better by helping immigrants. Most salons are anonymous, unpleasant places and clients don’t know their manicurists’ names and the manicurists struggle because they may not speak very good English. That’s why we gave all our polishes numbered names, because it’s easy for the manicurists to communicate about them with the client and they don’t have to get embarrassed when they can’t pronounce or remember a longer name. It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference and helps us reach our goal of improving communication between nail specialists and clients and just overall making the experience better.
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