Ultrafade's Rich Tran on salons, social media and success

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Rich Tran sported a bowl cut until he was 14 years old and had no intention of becoming a hairdresser.

His beginnings were humble, and not without challenge, but a positive outlook and more than a little determination have set him on a course to financial and personal success that makes him grateful every day that he chose a different road.

Born to Vietnamese parents who settled in Sydney's west when they moved to Australia, Rich grew up helping his parents with the sewing and handyman jobs they took on to make ends meet.

stylist and social media star rich tran

"It was pretty hard for them," he says. "They were in survival mode trying to make enough money to support six kids; they definitely taught me what hard work looks like."

We've arranged to meet at one of two Ultrafade hair salons Rich owns in the western suburbs of Sydney, an hour before the day's first clients arrive to have their hair transformed - a process that can take up to eight hours.

Rich arrives right on time wearing that trademark grin his followers know so well from the videos he posts on social media.

Small in stature but big on personality, Rich radiates energy and positivity. With 15 staff to manage and a fast-growing online presence opening doors to opportunities in Sydney and overseas, his busy life just keeps getting busier.

Fortunately, he thrives on connecting with people and having fun while he works.

It's a lifestyle he has actively tried to recreate since leaving high school at 15 to take on a hairdressing apprenticeship. He missed the social side of school and hanging out with his friends - after they stopped bullying him, that is.

"Because I was short in high school and my name was Rich, you can imagine all the words that rhymed with Rich that were bad," he laughs.

Sporting a bowl cut courtesy of his mum didn't help - in every school photo through primary school and the beginning of high school, Rich had that same unfortunate hairstyle. The day his sister took out the clippers and cut his hair, however, things changed for the better.

"I liked it, but she didn't have time to keep doing it, so I started to cut my own hair."

Using a blade, he fashioned his hair into spikes inspired by characters in Final Fantasy video games.

At school, instead of being made fun of, kids would ask who cut his hair. Not only was he suddenly accepted into the high school social scene, he started cutting his friends' hair in exchange for chicken burgers and lollies.

"Dude, you've got the coolest hair in school," one of his friends once said.

Rich, now 31, recently returned to his high school in Canley Vale to run a 10-week barber course.

"I'm trying to be that mentor I never had," he says.

"I made many mistakes while I was in school and went through some pretty rough things that I'm not proud of, but because I experienced that, I feel like I can go back and help them out so they don't make the same mistakes I did."

At a crossroads

Although life was looking up at school, things at home were on a downward spiral.

Drugs were a normal part of life for Rich (he'd grown up around drug use and seen his uncle overdose), but drugs, gangs and gambling began to take a toll as several family members succumbed to their lure.

"One of my brothers is locked up now because of it, but when he was younger it was so cool to see him driving nice cars and being around a group of friends. I looked up to him at that stage; it seemed like he had a sense of belonging - I felt like I wanted to be part of that."

Turning point

Rich says he could easily have continued down that path, but when they lost the house due to his mum's gambling debts it proved a turning point.

"I told myself 'this is not me'. I wanted to change, to prove to myself that I could be different. I wanted to create a life I could be proud of and be a better person."

Rich completed his hairdressing apprenticeship and got a job working in a salon. "I thought the apprenticeship was going to be easier than school, but it was honestly like being a janitor... I started from the bottom."

Despite all the hard work, Rich says the apprenticeship helped him change.

"It taught me what discipline feels like and what consistency feels like, and that you can apply that to pretty much anything you do in your life."

Rich earned $6.20 an hour during his apprenticeship and was excited to get his first pay.

On receiving his second pay he bought a PlayStation Portable. The rest of his money went on going out with his friends and supporting his mum, who remained heavily addicted to gambling.

"It was definitely draining trying to help someone who didn't want to change," he says.

One of his sisters was holding onto $200,000 from the sale of the house at the request of their mother, now divorced, so she wouldn't blow it on gambling.

In 2017, his sister gave half to Rich, urging him to put the money to good use and start a business.

ultrafade by rich

Making the cut

He opened a small hair salon between a massage parlour and funeral home in Sefton, in Sydney, and set about making enough money to pay his mum back with interest.

"I gave her back $120,000 in, no joke, about half a year. She lost all that money," Rich says.

"I don't hate her, she was a good mum and provided for us, but she's made some bad mistakes. I'm always here to forgive her, but I'm just waiting for that moment when she wants to change."

He sold the salon four years later to open a large salon in Sydney's Guildford and opened a second salon inside Bankstown Sports Club a year ago.

He is booked out six months in advance and charges $140 an hour, while his team of emerging, senior and master artists charge $90-$120 an hour for treatments and packages taking between one and eight hours.

Climbing the social ladder

Social media has been a powerful marketing tool for the business, and well worth the hours Rich puts in creating, editing and posting the content each evening after work.

"It has definitely put me on a global platform and created opportunities for our business and the team," he says.

On YouTube, Rich's videos have attracted more than 41 million views, and Ultrafade by Rich now has around 550,000 followers across Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Facebook.

The before-and-after videos showcase Rich's skill at transforming drab or damaged hair into soft waves of expertly toned tresses.

His first client on the day we visit him in the salon is Sarah Urng, who says she discovered Rich on Instagram.

"He has really good work online and can handle tough cases," says Sarah. "I feel like he always delivers results."

With the help of social media, Rich is making a name for himself as a hair magician who can turn hair from dark to light in one six- to eight-hour session. Usually, this is a process that takes place over multiple sessions.

It was during one of these marathon sessions that Rich got to know client Jenny Vo, now his wife. Jenny has been instrumental in bringing more structure to Ultrafade and setting up systems to help it scale.

Rich is becoming a sought-after speaker and masterclass teacher, most recently in Hong Kong, Canada and Los Angeles. Audiences know him through his personality-packed social media presence.

"To see them be so excited to see me in person, it's awesome - I love it. I think they get to see my passion on the platforms, and that I truly care about what I do."

rich tran with a client in his ultrafade by rich salon

Sky's the limit

Next, he and Jenny are off to Italy and taking their whole team with them.

"We have been using Limitless, a hair colour brand established by AMR Hair and Beauty, an Australian company, since they first launched last year," explains Jenny.

"Limitless is generously sponsoring our entire team to visit their factory in Italy. It's an amazing opportunity for us to see first-hand how their products are created and learn from their expertise."

Contributing to Ultrafade's success is the friendly salon vibe and positive customer experience. Their aim is to make every client feel like royalty, says Rich. He's big on staff training and says his number one rule is that clients be included in every conversation.

"I know what it feels like to be left out."

Running a business isn't all rainbows, however, and Rich says learning new things and adapting to constant change is daunting but necessary.

"It definitely scares me sometimes, but I think this business has changed me for the better. It's made me realise that if you believe in something, you can do it if you just put in the work.

"I have a quote that I follow: 'Don't dream your life, live your dreams.' I'm trying to live by that."

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Joanna Tovia is a senior journalist at Money magazine. She is the former personal finance editor of The Daily Telegraph and author of Eco-Wise & Wealthy, a book about saving money by going green at home. She has worked as a journalist in the US, UK and Australia writing about money, travel, design and wellbeing. Connect with her on LinkedIn.