Jun 09, 2014

Traveling Scissors Salesman Builds a Business with an Edge

Aaron Ko displays the three models of scissors he sells, including the new texturizer with a serrated blade. Photo by Oscar Ricardo Silva

Aaron Ko displays the three models of scissors he sells, including the new texturizer with a serrated blade. Photo by Oscar Ricardo Silva.

By Keneshia Colwell
For Reporting Texas

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Aaron Ko attended the University of Michigan. Ko attended the University of Washington. The story also incorrectly stated Ko worked as a scissors sharpener, when, in fact, he worked for a scissors sharpener. 

To most people, scissors are just a tool for cutting. But for Aaron Ko, they have been the foundation of a promising enterprise.

Ko, 26, is an Austin entrepreneur with an unusual business model. He spent several years developing the perfect pair of scissors for hairstylists and now travels the United States to sell his shears, going salon to salon to make his pitch in person.

Brooke Kenyon-Reppert, a stylist in Kansas City, Mo., said she was sold on the scissors after Ko let her try a pair for a week – something other companies don’t do.

“He’s confident but not arrogant the minute he walks into a salon,” she said. “He lets the product speak for itself, giving you the opportunity to test it out for days before purchasing, which I’ve never been able to do.”

She ended up buying two pairs of Ko’s Moto Shears, at $250 each, and three of her coworkers each bought one.

In January, Ko moved from the Seattle area to Austin, choosing it over Houston and Dallas, he said, because of its authentic culture.

“My agenda is not only financial, but it’s also cultural,” Ko said. “Austin is the perfect blend.”

Ko grew up in Redmond, outside of Seattle. His father was a computer engineer and his mother a hospice nurse; Ko felt obligated to pursue a college education. But in his first year at the University of Washington, indecisive about his next plan of action in life, he fell victim to drug addiction.

“I’m not ashamed to say, at age 17, 18, I had an extreme addiction to heroin,” Ko said.

Battling the drug for two years, in and out of rehab, he decided to drop out of college and pursue a career.

“I didn’t want to hurt my family and my friends … and honestly, I had to find a life for myself,” Ko said.

Ko made an impulse move to New York and said he posted a Craigslist ad, looking for work. He landed a job working for a scissors sharpener at Paul Mitchell, the hair-products company.

“With him being the biggest name in the industry at the time, I learned everything I ever needed to know about scissors,” Ko said.

After a year of working at Mitchell, Ko became disillusioned with the way the scissor-sales end of the industry worked: salespeople didn’t really know how well the scissors worked or whether they would work well for a particular buyer. That inspired him to create his own product and to sell scissors in a different way, finding out what the stylists wanted and needed.

In 2009, after quitting his New York job, Ko began traveling from city to city, on his own dime, interviewing hairstylists to find out what it would take to create a “100-percent effective pair of shears.”

He asked stylists how they wanted the scissors to sit in their hands, what kind of cut they were looking for, and used the information in his design.

A friend, Arain Mudassar, knew how to make blades with a convex edge, which gives an extra-sharp cut. He became Ko’s business partner.

They sent their design off to a manufacturer in Japan, where companies are known to make scissors that hold their edge for a long time.

With his shears in hand, Ko became a traveling salesman on a shoestring budget, sometimes sleeping in his pickup truck or at hostels.

In a Portland, Ore., hostel, he met Fabian Salazar, who was living in the hostel at the time. Salazar and Ko became friends and later, when Salazar moved to a house in the area, he let Ko stay with him when Ko was in town.

“If a hostel was giving him a place to stay, I figured he was a straight-up guy just trying to make it,” Salazar said.

“He had a great personality, wasn’t boastful about his business at all, and has an underlying passion of really just helping people,” Salazar said.

Salazar also came up with the name for Ko’s company, KO.M.G. Inc., a play on OMG.

Ko, who speaks Spanish, also has a curiosity about the world and an adventurous streak. In October 2012, he traveled to Peru and worked with gold miners for a few weeks near La Rinconada, high in the Andres Mountains, where miners work under harsh conditions for low pay.

He posted videos of his experiences online, including a YouTube clip showing him cutting a miner’s hair.

“I had been reading about the gold mining in Peru and I understood that this was a place that would be painfully hard and dangerous,” Ko said. “I really wanted to be outside of my comfort zone… I wanted to do something to give back to them and understand how they suffered.

Immediately after the trip, Ko was back on the road.

Kenyon-Reppert recalls the day he walked into her salon, asked to see the scissors she was using and then let her and her business partner try his for a week.

“The scissors just sat in my hand, giving my thumb room to be offset a little from my index finger, as opposed to being straight out, which gives me more carpal relief,” she said.

Vanessa Greene, a stylist in Seattle, said Ko’s scissors “really make my haircuts easier.”

“Physically, a good pair of shears takes less muscle and tendon movement, taking pressure off the hand,” she said. “Mentally, they make executing your knowledge of how to cut hair easier.”

Ko sells his scissors for $250, while other companies sell theirs for up to $500. He said he can sell 10 or 15 pairs in one day.

Ko also lets customers pay over time, with no credit checks or contracts, a system he says has yet to fail him.

He still drives the salon circuit in Texas, but now can afford to fly to other cities, although he still stays with friends when he can. He said he spends about $5,000 a month on travel costs while making roughly $20,000 in scissor sales.

His goal is to build enough of a clientele that he can end his traveling and develop an online-based business.

In less than three years, Aaron Ko has gone from sleeping in hostels and on strangers’ couches to growing a business with customers in a dozen states.

“I can assure you, big things are ahead,” Ko said.