As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Willis Orengo.
Willis Orengo is the Master Barber, Founder, and Owner at Well Connected Barbershop, a Lower East Side institution that offers barbering and braiding services. Opened in 2009, Well Connected has become one of the premiere New York barbershops offering a great cut for an affordable price. The esteemed barbershop counts rapper and record producer Big K.R.I.T., actor Omar Benson Miller, Lance Thomas of the New York Knicks, and Solomon Thomas of the San Francisco 49ers among its prestigious clientele.
Orengo recently partnered with King C. Gillette for the launch of their new Style Master; it’s designed to trim, shave, and edge. The Style Master offers flexibility needed to master facial hair style with one simple tool. The Style Master allows men to trim whiskers to the precise length of their choice, create edges around the hairline, and shave the areas of their face where they prefer no hair. This razor is fully metal and durable, featuring a slim handle, 3 combs, cordless power, and is fully waterproof. The best part: it is gentle on even the toughest of skin.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ofcourse! Thank you for having me. My passion for becoming a barber traces back to my father. He always had the freshest and cleanest haircuts. Me, on the other hand, rarely got haircuts. So, I took it upon myself to start giving myself haircuts at the age of 13. Eventually, through a lot of practice (and mistakes), I started mastering my craft.
I started my career in East New York at Next Door Barber Shop in 2004. Three months later, I left Brooklyn and moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and became head barber at Estillos Barber Shop in New Jersey. Over the years, I freelanced at Frank’s Chop Shop, Glamour Garage, and Patricia Fields and taught classes at Pacinos and Long Island’s BOCES school.
In September of 2009, I decided to open Well Connected on the Lower East Side.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
One of the challenges I faced when starting my journey of becoming a barber was getting certain styles of haircuts down. For example, fading is a technique that any barber needs to learn on all hair textures. Also, shears are very difficult on certain hair. I know I struggled to perfect these techniques but I knew that, through practice and watching other barbers, I’d eventually get better.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I felt like I was not cut out to be a barber I remembered that when I set a goal, I must complete it. To me, confidence is key in anything you do. So, as a goal-oriented entrepreneur, one thing that fueled me to keep grinding was the goals I created for myself.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Now, after all these years of working hard and blood, sweat, and tears I’ve owned Well Connected for 13 years.
I’ve been featured in over 20 magazines, 8 TV shows, and have cut and styled over 100 celebrities. I also have my own sneakers with Fila, liquor endorsements, and, to top it off, am a Gillette Barber Council member. I never thought that I would have the amazing opportunity to partner with King C. Gillette and endorse their innovative products.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the funniest mistakes I’ve ever made was giving someone a bald head. What I mean by mistake is that the guard fell off mid-cut; the customer looked like he wanted to kill me! Thank goodness for my mentor who saved the day — thanks, Steve!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It is all in the name! At Well Connected, we create relationships and a sense of community. We provide great service by being attentive to what our customers ask for. In turn, they recognize the effort we put in to achieve the look they want. Beyond our services, we genuinely care about the human relationships we have formed in our shop even more than our business relationships with customers.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
If you are following your passion, it is impossible to burn out. With that in mind, never stop looking for new opportunities. Always challenge yourself by learning ways to cut. Education in the hair industry is always changing, so it’s always good to learn new styles and rejuvenate your passion by making the craft feel new again.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I think the hardest part was gaining exposure and being recognized in a saturated market. The only person who helped most was my mentor, Steve Soto. He really taught me how to cut and style hair. But, if the industry never helped, I would’ve learned the hard way to get what I wanted.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The way I used my success to bring good to the world was by sharing my knowledge with everyone to anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur or start a career in hair and grooming. When I first started my barbering career, I didn’t have that kind of help so I want be the person who always helped and gave the answers people needed to grow.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Always be on your grind- Working 9–5 is not enough. My work schedule is more like a 9–9 because I am always trying to live up to the reputation. Never feel like you finally made it to your end goal, because that’ll keep that fire burning in you to keep pushing.
Connect and Build- Making connections and never stop building on them
Stay Consistent- Staying consistent helps guide your focus and keeps that fire burning
Confidence is Key- If you have self-confidence then you will be more likely to achieve your goals
Take Risks- Don’t be afraid to fail. Use every experience as an opportunity to learn and grow
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
There isn’t a guide to go through the emotional highs and lows of being a founder of my business. Every trial and tribulation that you go through in life is always a lesson even when plans fail. You have to learn from your mistakes and continue to try. Either you will be successful or you will be back at the drawing board trying to fix the mistakes you are going through.
One of the toughest times for me was when covid shut down the world. Right before this happened, I had a full staff of 9 people. Covid closed my doors for 3 months straight. I had to pay my rent for my house and the rent for the lease of the shop. Manhattan leases are expensive and had to be paid in full. After the closing for 3 months, I opened my doors with only 3 staff members and had a slow rotation of clients. I knew things would eventually get better, but I needed funds, so I had to dig deep and turn back to the young me, who was always hungry for work. I went back to giving out business cards and posting on Yelp, Instagram, and Google. Running into businesses in the area and giving discounts to obtain new clients. Fast forward to now I am doing better with less staff and the shop is busier than ever.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to hold an entrepreneur class on running a business in the barber industry. Most barbers want to own a shop, finally get it, and then it falls apart because they don’t have the knowledge on how to keep it afloat- they burn themselves out and burn bridges. I would love to put something together to teach them how to grow and become successful in our industry!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I am constantly posting on our social media channels with tips, advice, and the news surrounding our Barber Shop.
To keep up with me and Well Connected, you can follow the following Instagram accounts.