Born to humble beginnings, Jim Markham, one of the beauty industry’s biggest icons, started his career as a barber and went on to build five professional hair care companies. Most recently, he wrote an inspiring memoir and entrepreneurial self-help book, Big Lucky, in which the former celebrity stylist and award-winning serial entrepreneur takes readers through his gripping, authentic, and faith-based journey while outlining his 22 ingredients for success.
My understanding is that you have humble origins and got started as a barber. Can you tell us about your early years and how that set you on your path to becoming an entrepreneur?
I didn’t grow up knowing I would become an entrepreneur, but I always knew I wanted more than the deck I was dealt. My childhood was difficult, to say the least. I was raised by a mostly absent, alcoholic, single mother, which forced me to embrace my independence at a very young age. I was married with a child by the time I was just 15 and needed a way to support my young family. It was my mother who originally suggested I consider barbering. She said, “Uncle Clarence always did well as a barber.” I didn’t have a lot of options, so I thought, why not? I went to barber school only to find I was really good at cutting hair. I loved hairstyling from the beginning, which started my path in the beauty industry.
I began entering various hair contests across the country and kept winning. With several medals under my belt, including the National Championship and a silver medal in the Hair Olympics, I was making a name for myself and eventually started teaching others my method for cutting and styling. I was becoming very interested in products and knew to achieve the best results, it’s essential to pair the right products with proper technique. That’s perhaps when my entrepreneurial spirit began to take hold.
Jay Sebring was a very famous hairstylist until his shocking death in 1969. How did you meet him, and what was his influence on you?
I had originally read about celebrity stylist Jay Sebring in a Playboy Magazine article. Jay was charging $50 a haircut and started the first professional product line for men, which intrigued me. I was charging $5 a cut and believed my technique must be as good as his. So, I called him up. I was curious how he could get ten times the price I was charging for his Hollywood clientele and wanted to learn more about his product line.
Jay invited me to California for a friendly wager to see which of us had the best haircutting technique. He cut one half of actor Van Johnson’s hair, and I cut the other. Upon completion, his side proved superior. Although disappointed, I was eager to learn. Jay found my ambition and skills promising and took me on as a Sebring distributor and educator. I began teaching stylists across the country the Sebring technique and the importance of daily shampooing and conditioning for men, which was revolutionary at the time. Our relationship grew, and quickly I became Jay’s protégé and eventual successor. We always discussed that I would take over the business if anything ever happened to him. When Jay was tragically killed in the Manson Murders along with Sharon Tate, everything changed. While devastated I had lost my friend and mentor, I knew I had to step up. I moved to Hollywood to run the Sebring business. I took over his shop and celebrity clientele, and while a bit eerie, I lived in his house and even drove his car. It was a crazy time to be young in Hollywood, but one I look back on being a turning point where I began to take my career really seriously.
You became the personal hairstylist for a number of top celebrities, and you have developed a number of very successful hair care products. Is that all because you became a barber in your early years, or was there a deeper draw to the beauty industry?
I was fortunate to make a lot of connections in Hollywood and expand my client list to include stars like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Johnny Carson, Peter Lawford, to name a few. My celebrity clients demanded the very best results, which could only be attained through proper cutting and styling techniques paired with high-performance products. I found the product performance I wanted didn’t exist, which started me on the path of creating my own professional products. I began working with labs to create formulas that truly performed to the highest standard and then found a way to market them with great success. Those early days inspired my passion for product development, and I went on to launch four more professional beauty companies following Sebring. With each company, product performance improved along with the ingredient technology, and I grew both personally and professionally.
Can you share one of our favorite stories from your days as a celebrity stylist?
There were many great moments; however, some of my favorites were with Paul Newman. While I started out as his stylist, he and I developed a genuine friendship. He taught me so many life lessons like what to serve on a date and how to drive a race car, but most importantly, how to treat people. I can recall one time where called me up to give him a cut at his house. I was halfway through the session when he suddenly jumped out of the chair. His wife, Joanne, had just entered the house through the kitchen door. Paul immediately took the dry cleaning from her hands and swept her up into his arms. He planted a kiss on her lips and said, “Hello, lovely lady. I missed you.” I remember thinking, “Wow, if that’s how an international sex symbol treats his wife, how much more should a mere mortal like me be doing? Joanne had only been gone about an hour. I could tell Paul wasn’t putting on a show for my sake. This was the real man – courteous, romantic and respectful. I was getting a front-row seat on what a healthy marriage looked like.
You were the first-to-market with sulfate-free, color care haircare formulas. What inspired you to develop products in that way?
Following the sale of my third company, ABBA Pure & Natural, I thought I would retire, but then the unexpected happened. I received a phone call from a dear friend named Kerry telling me she had cancer. Her oncologist told her she couldn’t use products on her hair or skin that included and incredibly long list of ingredients. Even ABBA’s plant-based formulas weren’t okay. She asked me to develop a shampoo and conditioner that she could safely use. I set to work developing what became the first sulfate-free formulas. They were not only free of known carcinogens but ended up being tremendous at preserving color. We recognized a huge opportunity, as there was a huge color boom going on, yet no professional products to address preserving color life. The idea for PureOlogy was born. PureOlogy’s niche positioning drove its immediate success, and after seven years, we eventually sold the brand L’Oreal.
I made sure that I had a unique point of superiority with each of my companies to stand out from the competition. It was important that I made high-quality products, but I also ensured that each company fulfilled a consumer need. With any start-up, it is essential to find what makes a product or service unique to gain an edge and create market demand.
You’ve become a noted philanthropist with an interest in a wide array of charities. How important is it to give back?
My wife, Cheryl and I, believe strongly in supporting philanthropic causes and giving back to the community. For us, success without giving back, isn’t success. Coming from humble beginnings myself, I realize how important charitable outreach is and how it can inspire and give hope to those less fortunate. Over the years, we have supported various organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC), Serious Fun Children’s Network and City of Hope to name a few. In 2013 we were honored with the City of Hope Spirit of Life Award and raised over $1.3 million for cancer research and treatment programs.
What is your elevator pitch version of advice to entrepreneurs?
My advice to entrepreneurs is simple. You were born to win. I believe everyone is designed to win. It is a long journey to success, and you will get knocked down. I was knocked down a lot. But I always believed I would win, and I got back up. It’s when you have perseverance that when a little luck eventually does come your way, you can recognize it and seize your opportunity. I want to inspire others to have that same faith and see it is possible to succeed and triumph if you believe in yourself and always try just one more time.
You also wrote a book called Big Lucky. Tell us about it and where our readers can find it.
I recently launched my first book, Big Lucky: Serial Entrepreneur Jim Markham’s Secret Formula for Success. For years, people have asked me to write a book to tell my story and personal journey. I was hesitant, and although the book is part memoir, I decided to finally write it because I believe I can genuinely help people reach success, give them the motivation, and provide insights to show them how to do it. It’s a story of perseverance, peppered with many of my personal accounts that pull back the curtain on a bygone era while providing the tools an aspiring entrepreneur needs to catapult their career.
Grit Daily readers can find Big Luck at a 20% discount using code LUCKY20 here: https://www.shop.booklogix.com/Big-Lucky-20988-POD-BK.htm
How can our readers follow you on social media?