Like the Black church, the Black neighborhood barbershop is a venerable cultural institution, one of the few remaining ethnic, hyper-masculine communal spaces where men can shoot from the hip on topics both political and profane, all the while remaining cloistered away from the probing eyes and ears of women, and men of other races.
In spite of long wait times, and limited word-of-mouth marketing, neighborhood barbershops are almost always packed with men seeking a fade and fraternization. Over the years, the barbershop’s iconic status has made it above reproach, exempt from the improvement processes that most businesses routinely undergo. However, a newly released app aims to change that.
Obinna Onungwa, 28, realized that the barbering industry, just like so many others, was ripe for technological disruption when during a trip to Africa, he struggled to find a barber.
“I was overseas in Ghana and I was clueless as to where to go to find a reliable barber. I ran into the same challenge in Nigeria and the same challenge again in Kenya,” says Onungwa, 28. “That is when I was kind of like, ‘Okay.’ It just hit home in a very personal way.”
Onungwa, who says his previous position at deal site, Living Social, opened his eyes to opportunities in tech, ultimately created the Cue App. The mobile application helps men find local barbers, and streamlines the entire hair cutting process by allowing clients to book, pay and review barbers all on their mobile device.
The greatest potential for change in the industry comes from the app’s unique queue feature which enables clients to track their barber’s real-time availability, potentially eliminating excessive wait times.
“Gone are the days when anyone wants to go to the barbershop and wait for two, sometimes upwards of three hours to get a haircut,” says Onungwa.
Still that wait for a turn in the chair, however much a nuisance, is a quintessential part of the barbershop culture.
“We go to the barbershops for much more than haircuts. It’s a fraternal space. It’s a place to get away from the headaches and the challenges of day to day living,” Onungwa says. “That being considered, I think as a community, barbers recognize that technology really is the way of the future. So it’s about having that conversation with top barbers in the industry about how to modernize the space and modernize the ways that we do business.
In many ways, the Cue App seeks to strike a fine balance between tradition and modernity– that is, preserving the barbershop’s communal significance, while using technology to systematize its clerical processes.
“I had one of my barbers tell me, everything you need is right here in this barbershop,” he says. “There is someone in this shop who knows someone that can fund you, that can develop for you, that can design for you, that can market for you.”
Onungwa regards his company as a natural extension of the barbershop itself. Resourcefulness, and a willingness to tap into the community for talent and support are the guiding principles behind Onungwa’s plan for expansion. With a bi-coastal team of four, and a group of developers based in Ghana, the founder says he is constantly on the lookout for talent that understands his vision.
In addition to pitching VCs, he is also exploring alternative forms of financing.
“I’m having a lot of very interesting conversations with athletes as well as musicians who kind of see the problem, have experienced it first hand, and see the value that can be created,” he says.
Outside of development, much of the day-to-day groundwork involves actively enlisting reputable barbers to participate on his platform, a difficult task in an industry where most marketing is limited to word-of-mouth.
“Social media is a very natural channel for us to reach new barbers but I’ve really been deliberate about staying within the culture,” he says.
Onungwa spends his days scoping out the best hair cutting talent and pitching his platform in person.
“It’s like, ‘Hi, my name is Obi,’” he says. “I was referred to you as one of the top barbers to get one of the dopest fades on the lower east side.”
Mobilizing a mom-and-pop industry is a radical step for most veteran barbers, but there is a clear monetary incentive. Once logged in, barbers can create a profile on which they provide a bio, service and price list, and examples of their work. With an option to customize promotions for clients, the Cue App could be a game changer for barbers looking to expand their clientele and their overall brand.
“The goal is to really build the world’s most comprehensive network of hair care providers period,” Onungwa says, adding that he’s already in talks with hairstylists about developing a similar app for women.
“How do we simplify this process with people who are frankly so critical to our lives?” he asks. “Hairstylists and barbers are right up there with pastors, and god parents. They are a big influence.”
The Cue App is available for download at iTunes with an Android version forthcoming. To follow the company on social media, visit their Instagram account @gogetcue.