Dave Crisalli knows a thing or two about running a successful franchise-based service business—he was president and CEO of Massage Envy, the largest national massage spa chain in the U.S, for 12 years before launching PROSE, a nail spa boutique brand, in 2017.
While at the helm of Massage Envy, Crisalli oversaw a period of groundbreaking growth, with more than 1,100 store openings and over $1 billion in annual system revenue. Crisalli launched PROSE a year ago with locations in Arizona, and has signed area development agreements to open boutiques in Florida, Tennessee, New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, Colorado, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Crisalli spoke with Chief Executive about what inspired him to launch PROSE, the most valuable lessons he learned as Massage Envy CEO and the importance of culture at a franchise organization. Below are excerpts from the conversation:
On what inspired him to launch his new business
The germ of the idea came from an outgrowth of my 12 years of Massage Envy. I retired from Massage Envy in early 2016. We built an incredible growth story. My team, these franchisees, we had over 1,100 units when I left and $1 billion-three in total system-wide sales. We invented a category. We built a brand from scratch. These are incredibly difficult things to achieve and they are certainly not a result of one person. People like symbols, so they point to the CEO, but our success at Massage Envy was much like PROSE is placed to be. It’s a character-driven story where the focus is around the consumer, the employee, and the franchisees. And so they’ve really built a terrific business, our team, and these wonderful franchisees at Massage Envy.
I decided to retire from the business in early ’16. We built succession into the model and I took a couple weeks off and became incredibly bored. Honestly, I wasn’t raised to live a life of leisure. It’s not how I’m wired. I deeply believe in trying to add value and contribute. So I took a few weeks off, I reflected deeply on the 12-plus years at Massage Envy and all the wonderful experiences. And I’ve always been a big believer in manicures and pedicures, and the important work that these wonderful people—we call them PROSE artists—that do for hands and feet. You might think of it as a nail salon but we kind of think about it a little deeper. All of the weight and pressure in your life is on your hands and feet, yet those poor work horses aren’t really getting the care and attention that they need.
I spent all of 2016 listening and learning to the consumer and just did a ton of empathy work myself listening to everyone from 12-year-olds all the way to 90—women, men, children, and I spent a bunch of the time with what the industry recalls as nail technicians and just really thoughtfully trying to understand can we make an impact in the space and can we create not just a better product but a better experience. I concluded that I was going to write my own job description, and I’ve had the privilege to do that, and went on a course to go build this little brand in an industry that is very old with wonderful people that do the work. The consumer loves getting their nails done but they just haven’t loved the experience for a number of reasons, so I just decided to build the brand from scratch after listening to all the opportunities and problems in the space.
Lessons from his time as CEO of Massage Envy that have proven the most valuable
My time at Massage Envy was very instructive. We had 1,100 outlets, millions of members belonging to the brand. What I think the biggest thing that I spent most of my time on was going to the customer, listening to a problem or an opportunity, unlocking it, and simplifying the experience. And so PROSE’s DNA is made up of a very focused and elegantly simple model where we just do it. We try to do a few things, we try to do them very, very well, and we just learned the recurring relationship business. We repeat that and they continue to try to just delight the consumer and the employee day in and day out.
We had a very large company with a thousand-plus units [at Massage Envy]. We had 20,000-plus employees working hard to create a culture that the team is respected and executes sharply, delivers value. That’s the same type of genetic code as what is baked into PROSE at launch is a very simple model of focusing on the consumer and the employee that does the important work, inspiring them, teaching them, and coaching constantly to try to do the best work of their career. I think that’s what motivates us every day.
The importance of company culture in a franchise business
Every brand has a culture either by accident or design, and we think about culture as everything. Culture is the air we breathe. Culture is the healthy environment we’re in. It’s the down to the chair. It, of course, is the performance side of the business, of executing sharply. Culture for us is not just the warm and fuzzy stuff. It is also the challenging stuff in terms of leading the consumer satisfaction cycle and making sure that we’re executing sharply. It’s really all of it.
So for us, because we are a franchise organization, it’s not a command and control environment. And in franchising is truly a complex ecosystem of amazing people that are deeply committed, not just financially but they really believe deeply in the brand and they’ve committed to the brand. And so getting and aligning franchisees to execute and drive value for themselves, for their franchisee, for their employees, for the consumer, requires an influencer strategy. It’s not, “Hey, this is exactly what you do in this exact situation.” It’s really a culture of influence and that’s, in a word, leadership, and so we really try to surround ourselves with really great leaders and people that care deeply about the experience for everybody. And really equipping them with tools and the analytics to execute sharply. And that’s what we’re doing here at PROSE. Similar thing, different model. That was massage. So this is hand and foot care, premium manicures and pedicures, but the executional philosophy is the same.
The keys to keeping consumers and franchisees happy
I’ve always had three focuses as a leader: people, strategy, and execution. If you come up to me any day, you can put pretty much everything that I’m doing in any one of those three important areas. In order for a franchise organization to ultimately be successful, success always begins with selection. It’s no different in a non-franchise organization, it doesn’t matter if it’s franchise-centric or not. We started with one franchise for sale ad and all came after that leap of faith. It’s picking and selecting wonderful people that have shared values and really want to go out of the way to create something great. We spend a lot of time really focusing on making sure people are the right fit and they get a vote. The franchisee gets a vote if they think PROSE is the right fit for them and we aren’t focused on making the most at or doing the most. We are focused on making the best. We’re really working hard on quality and we think when we focus on that profit follows.
So profit is not the objective. It is a byproduct of deep focus around the consumer experience and the employee experience and, of course, the franchise experience. So we create a culture of listening and learning. We are in a space where we’re rookies. We’re less than one year into a space that has been around for a half-century and clearly, there are a lot of opportunities for women, men, and children to go get manicures and pedicures. We are working hard on creating wonderful, consistent, and delightful experiences. Listening to the franchisee in this process is vital and listening to their feedback and continuing to be focused on improving the systems and the tools and ultimately the outcome is the order of the day.