What it takes to build a beauty school

It was a long and winding road that led Robyn Bartley and Natalie Stevens to open their own beauty training school. But they certainly haven’t looked back

The story behind the Inspiring Beauty Academy in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs is just as inspiring as its name. It’s the tale of two women with a passion for massage and beauty, of setbacks and injuries and redundancies, and two paths that eventually converged into a successful beauty academy.

“I haven’t met anyone else with whom I have as much mutual respect,” Bartley says when ask why they partnered with each other.

Stevens agrees. “We clicked. We had the same ideals, and passions. There’s definitely a large element of mutual respect, and I knew Robyn would support this venture 100%.”

Not that it was an easy road. Bartley and Stevens  have been working in the industry for years. Bartley started her career in a day spa before being asked if she’d like to give teaching a go. Stevens, on the other hand, started off as a remedial masseuse.

“I loved it,” Bartley says. “I always had a passion for massage. Then I was injured, and I wasn’t able to continue.” But there’s a buoyancy in her voice that belies her words. “Natalie and I met when we worked together at a community centre doing training programs,” Bartley explains. “We worked together for two years, until the centre was taken over.”

Stevens’ department was one of the first to be cut. She found herself out of work, with a family to support. Then Kerry Atherton from Answers2Hair rang.

“I actually thought it was for a job as a beauty trainer, but it was actually an offer to sub-lease a beauty training school,” Stevens says.

“I could see there was a gap in the industry. There were no other beauty training facilities in the area. The only option was the big institutions in the city, and what I call conveyor-belt training. Many of the students who needed that one-on-one attention really struggled. So when Kerry offered me the opportunity, I took it.”

The first thing Stevens did was ask Bartley if she’d like to partner with her in starting up this school.

It wasn’t an easy choice for Bartley, however. “I was in a stable job, and I had my family to think about. I knew what I wanted to do, but there’s always that fear of the unknown.” After much agonising, she decided to take the plunge. “And having done this, I know I wouldn’t be able to work in a role like my previous job again!” she concludes.

Not that running their business has been easy. Getting funding was one of their biggest challenges.

“We went to so many banks,” Bartley says. “Some didn’t get back to us, while others wanted a lot more paperwork and detailed proposals. All we had was a scrap paper of our costs!” ANZ directed them to the Small Business Hub during their initial meeting, and they worked on their Business Plan and Cash Flow Forecast.


“It was incredibly encouraging when we talked to Carly from ANZ, and she was genuinely enthusiastic about what we wanted to do,” Stevens says. “ANZ were doing their $2 Billion Lending Pledge to lend to small businesses, and our loan was approved.”

“We were so excited when we heard we got finance, there may have been tears!”

Getting finance proved to be the start of a difficult few months getting the business up and running.

“We’ve definitely had some ‘oh my God’ moments,” Stevens says. “There’s also the long hours, not to mention the marketing and getting our name out there.”

“Natalie’s amazing at pounding the pavement and promoting us,” Bartley adds. “I don’t know how she does it!”

Both women agree that despite some hairy moments, they never had any doubts. “Though these past four months have been a huge learning curve, everything’s flowed really well,” Stevens says. “Sometimes you just have to say ‘It is what it is’. Face the problem, and then move on.”

“I wouldn’t be able to do this without the support of my family,” Bartley says, and Stevens  echoes the sentiment. “They’ve never told me to give up on this, even though we work long hours, six days a week.”

It’s not only their families who are behind them. “Kerry from Answers2Hair also helped us a lot,” Bartley continues. “She’s so experienced, and her support and guidance this whole time has been invaluable.”

Despite their early success, Bartley and Stevens don’t have big plans for large-scale growth.

“We don’t want to be the next big school,” Stevens says. “Our goal is to keep it small and boutique - but saying that, we want to have students graduate from our academy and have others see them and say, ‘I want to train where they trained!’ And we want to be viable and sustainable, of course.”

“We wouldn’t mind being able to employ another trainer as well,” Bartley adds. “That would leave us free to focus on marketing and compliance.”

“And stop working six days a week!” Stevens says emphatically. “I miss having normal hours and five-day weeks!”

“Me too,” Bartley agrees. “But you know what? I don’t regret a thing.”