The House of Colour's Pittsburgh franchise finds success for all seasons

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Julie Peterson's mission is to make people look good, and her first step in doing that is to define her clients by the seasons.

Some are "summers" who look best in pale shades of blue and rose. Others are "autumns" and "springs" who might be coached to go with gold for their metal jewelry. "Winters" are often the best candidates to wear black.

But nothing's hard and fast at the House of Colour studio Ms. Peterson operates in her North Side row home.

Because individual skin and hair tones are so distinct, there are various combinations and sub-categories within each season. Take Ms. Peterson. She describes herself as a "brown summer" who should wear clothes in shades of "sea green," "smoked grape," "rose brown" and "French Navy."

"I think of myself as being in the personal branding business," said the 41-year-old native of Glasgow, Scotland, who launched her venture here in 2012. House of Colour is a British company founded in 1985 that has about 150 franchises in Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa and the U.S., where there are about a dozen.

Ms. Peterson, who spent most of her career in the travel industry in Scotland and England -- and who did a two-year stint as a police officer while in her mid-20s -- landed in Pittsburgh as a result of meeting her husband, Jason Peterson, who grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, while he was vacationing in Scotland.

For a time, the couple lived in London, where a friend of Ms. Peterson became a consultant for House of Colour and invited her to have a color analysis. As soon as Ms. Peterson sat down, she said, "I was enthralled."

A few years later, settled in Pittsburgh with a young family and a working spouse, she figured the business would be ideal as something she could run from home with low overhead. Her children are now 3 and 7.

"I control my hours and availability," Ms. Peterson said as natural light filled her compact studio in a front room of her house in the Mexican War Streets district. That day, she wore a slim "sea green" dress, burgundy blazer and beige flats.

In the studio, which doubles as her office, customers sit in front of a mirror where they watch their reflection as Ms. Peterson analyzes their skin and hair tones and experiments with vibrant-colored scarves to determine which seasonal palette flatters them the most.

She then provides swatches of those colors for clients to carry in their purse or wallet and use as a guide when choosing wardrobe and makeup items.

Prices for basic services include $40 for makeup assistance, $165 for a color analysis, and $220 for a personal wardrobe consultation.

Small group sessions include lunch or refreshments. Special services include corporate events, wedding preparations, personal shopping and sessions on how to declutter a wardrobe.

To buy her franchise, Ms. Peterson invested $14,000 from personal savings. The initial fee covered training at the company's headquarters outside of London, ongoing webinars, email and Web page access, as well as startup materials, including the color scarves, a House of Colour color consultation wheel that hangs in her studio, and makeup to test on clients.

During 2013, she said, she recovered her initial investment, settled some bills and paid herself a minimal monthly salary. In 2014, she hopes to earn about $50,000.

Much of her business to date has been individual clients generated through referrals from friends and contacts in her close-knit neighborhood.

But she also has landed about a dozen corporate customers -- including American Eagle Outfitters, IBM and Crown Castle International -- for which she conducts team-building workshops and presentations focused on style and appearance.

To market the business, Ms. Peterson is active on social media sites, including Facebook and Pinterest, and engages in as much personal networking as her schedule allows.

"I think Julie is an exceptional example of someone who realizes the importance of networking," said Rebecca Harris, director of the Center for Women's Entrepreneurship at Chatham University.

Besides breakfast briefings and other events sponsored by Chatham, Ms. Harris has seen her frequently at a variety of business functions around the city.

"That means she's really looking at different networks of people," said Ms. Harris. "And in this virtual world, one-to-one personal selling is still the key. I tell business owners that if you're not out networking a minimum once a week, you're really not doing your job. And for someone with a franchise that is not a storefront, it's even more important."

Franchises in the U.S. that provide personal services were expected to grow in 2013 by 1.5 percent to about 109,000 establishments and generate nearly $88 billion in sales, according to IHS Global Insight, a business forecasting firm based in Englewood, Colo.

Overall, IHS forecast that the rate of new franchise growth would outpace total new business formations for the year.

While there should be a modest uptick in spending at personal service franchises for all of 2013, consumers have been holding back as they buy household and durable goods which they put off buying during the recession, IHS said.

Ms. Peterson is optimistic there's a demand for her color consultations because, "I help build a client's confidence and success. It's no gimmick."

Next up: Kelly Collier's class project at Carnegie Mellon University turned her into an entrepreneur.

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.

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