Work until your toes bleed, in The Boss
“A lot of franchisors are set and they won’t listen.” — Dawn Weiss, CMO of Amazing Lash Studios, with 160 units open
Tell me about your younger years.
I grew up in New York City, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants who escaped the communist regime in Hungary in 1956. My mom was 9. I was raised by Holocaust survivors, so our life was work, work, work. My dad was not in the picture. My family left a lot behind. My brother is an actor. We lived in Queens.
In Hungary, my grandmother was an aspiring ballerina before the war. The maestro came here to the U.S., and she was the prima ballerina in Hungary and asked if he would take me as a dancer, so he trained me up. I was the only child with adults, so it spurred me quickly to do what I needed to do. I stopped just short of dancing in the Nutcracker at the Met. My grandmother said you’re not working hard enough if your toes didn’t bleed, in the toe shoes. I did it five days a week, but it wasn’t my dream.
Early leadership lessons?
People in my family owned their businesses. They became furriers and were very successful until the ‘80s when people started throwing blood at women wearing furs. Women were running the businesses, that was more common in Europe and men were in the background. My great grandmother lived into her 90s, and the whole family worked day and night.
How did you connect with John Leonesio, founder of Massage Envy and former CEO of Amazing Lash, in Arizona?
I moved here because I lost a bet. I bet on a sports game, and came to Arizona State University. My boyfriend at the time, now my husband, happened to know John Leonesio through his wife, and said he had a new business. I said, Really—a massage business? I thought ‘run.’ I did this review of my resume recently and realized I have always worked for fast-track businesses in a disruptive environment. When I met with John, he said, ‘If I hire you, will we be out of business in a year,’ because that’s what my resume showed.
Why are you drawn to those businesses?
I fell into my career into sales because I had an English degree but didn’t want to teach. I think I wanted money. I was alone. My family said, ‘How could you leave New York City.
This is where the streets are lined with gold. Why would you want to go?’ Franchising became a love. I haven’t been able to walk away.
What separates the firms that grow and those that don’t?
A lot of franchisors come with a proof of concept that worked for them. A lot will veer off and a lot are closed off. You have to find the middle ground. Dave Long, today the CEO of Orangetheory, was at Massage Envy, too, with John Leonesio. The one thing with John is, nothing was off the table. At one talk that Dave Long did, he said at Massage Envy we did a lot of listening. We didn’t know the answers. We threw a lot of stuff on the wall. A lot of franchisors are set and they won’t listen. A franchisor that believes they have all the answers probably won’t make it.
Beth Ewen, editor-in-chief, learns if it’s lonely at the top and other lessons from franchise leaders, and presents their edited answers here in each issue. To suggest a candid C-level subject, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are your top leadership values?
Everybody has a seat at the table. Sometimes it’s not as cut and dried as people think. Buy-in is the second most important. Franchisors eliminate the franchisee’s voice too early or they listen too much and veer off the road. When I come to a decision, it’s their money and I’m a steward of it. If the franchisee doesn’t buy in, the consumer doesn’t buy in.
I also look at vendors, and I expect my vendors to have skin in the game. You see us at 67 locations and I say we’ll have 800—you have to be our partner. People will call all day long with this tool or that tool and that’s great, but I want someone that is listening when I call at 8 at night, someone who’s going to go through that with me.
When John Leonesio left Amazing Lash as CEO in 2016, people wondered what will my investment look like when you remove the king of franchising? But I had to prove it. How do you prove it? You eat, drink and sleep this brand as though it’s your own money.