Making bank as a student nail technician

Student nail technician Renee Zhang, ArtSci ’23 and BEd ’24, turned her side hustle into an independent business from her bedroom.

Zhang spent her first year at Bader College in 2019 where she painted her friends’ nails for free. She experimented with shapes and colours, eventually gaining enough skill to consider doing nails professionally.

In the winter semester, when the pandemic forced Zhang to stay inside, she decided to learn how to do gel and acrylic nails as a hobby.

When Zhang entered her third year, she decided to open a business. At first, she was nervous because she didn’t have many friends coming out of the pandemic and assumed it would be difficult to build a clientele.

Eventually, word spread, and she had clients from all over Kingston. 

“Things get around so quickly I don’t even catch where people come from. There was this girl on the bus who asked where one of my clients got their nails done, and she showed them my Instagram page,” Zhang said in an interview with The Journal.

After her first few months of business, Zhang was completely booked for the next two months. This busy schedule allowed her to quit her part-time job at Starbucks and commit to being a nail technician full-time. 

Zhang offers both gel and acrylic nails with prices ranging from $35 to $50 depending on design, material, and time required.

“I try to keep the prices as low as possible because I know students want to get their nails done, it’s really hard to get them done [with] awesome designs because it’s crazy expensive these days,” Zhang said.

Originally, she didn’t have a formal booking system and told people to come to her whenever they were free. However, as school picked up, she didn’t have the time and had to plan specific time slots for her clients.

Now she estimates she works 30 hours a week on average, while balancing her teacher’s college practicum. Zhang enjoys her busy schedule. 

As a self-described extrovert she doesn’t feel socially drained after working with clients. Her favourite parts of the job are talking to new clients and learning about who they are as people. 

This is the first year Zhang has encountered competition in the nail technician field, and she said it is super awesome to see other artists. 

In fact, having another nail technician lessens the burden Zhang feels when it comes to working with her clients. Sometimes she doesn’t have enough availability to fit everyone into her schedule and she is happy someone else can provide this service. 

While most of her clients are Queen’s students, people from St. Lawrence College and neighbouring high schools have contacted her. 

“I think about if I went to [the University of Toronto], and I don’t know if I would let that many people into my house, since it’s such a big city,” Zhang said.

Her clients’ main point of contact is Instagram and Zhang uses this as an opportunity to screen potential clients based on their profiles and mutual followers.

Despite enjoying her job, Zhang’s biggest challenge is her allergy to the chemicals in the acrylic and gel nail polish. 

“One day, I woke up, and my hands were covered in rashes. They were splitting open, and I found out it was because I’m allergic to everything I use. I have to be careful about touching things with bare hands.” 

She mediates this issue by wearing gloves and making sure her workspace is sanitized. Zhang cares about her customers’ happiness and is a big advocate for clients to give her feedback during their appointments.

“I remember when I used to go to nail salons when I was younger, and you pick out a colour you realize you don’t want anymore, or they file your nail funny, but you don’t want to say anything,” Zhang said.

Zhang values good communication with her clients and gives them a space to talk and express themselves. Her business slogan is: My therapist is my nail artist—which encompasses her view of the service. Something very social, comforting, and fun.


entrepreneur, nail art, small businesses

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