Meet Martha Harper, The Social Entrepreneur Who Perfected The Franchise Business Model

A version of this article previously appeared Forbes.

Isaac Singer is credited with initiating the concept of franchise territories, as a means of selling his sewing machines in the mid-1800’s. Yet many people do not realize that one of the pioneers who helped perfect the franchise business model was a woman.

In addition to creating a franchise chain which exceeded 500 locations at its peak, Martha Harper was also one of the world’s first social entrepreneurs, helping thousands of middle-class women create their own businesses and control their destinies.

Martha was born into an impoverished household in Ontario, Canada. Her parents rented her out as a domestic servant when she was seven years old, launching her career as a maid, which she pursued for the next 24-years.

One of her domestic duties was washing and cutting the hair of the affluent ladies of the household. An inquisitive child, Martha had the good fortune of working in the home of a kind-hearted physician. Although she had little formal education, the doctor indulged her curiosity, opened his library to her and taught her basic chemistry.

Creating Luck

In 1888, at the age of 31, Martha abandoned her life as a maid and risked her life savings of $360 ($9,500, in 2019 dollars) to launch her revolutionary venture, a hair salon. Her Rochester, New York landlord initially refused to rent her a storefront, insisting that a man sign the lease. At that time, only 17% of the women in American had salaried jobs outside of the home and the number of female entrepreneurs was de minimis. Undeterred, Martha sued the landlord and won, opening “The Harper Hair Parlor.”

Although it sounds pedestrian today, a public hair salon in the late 1800’s was a scandalous affair. Affluent ladies didn’t have their hair “done” in public and working-class women cut and styled their own hair. Not surprisingly, Martha’s innovative business initially floundered.

Fortuitously, her salon was adjacent to a music teacher. Even more fortunately, Rochester winters are bitter cold. Mom’s would drop off their children and then wait outside, until the lesson was completed. Seeing an opportunity, Martha invited the women in, initially just to sit, chat and warm up.

At first, the women were reticent to partake in Martha’s salon services, but over time, they became comfortable with Martha and agreed to have their hair washed and styled, in public! Martha quickly realized that a key aspect of her value proposition was providing a safe and comfortable space for women to gather and share their thoughts, outside the company of men. The genesis of the hair salon as the community hub for gossip and fellowship was born.

Leveraging her knowledge of basic chemistry, Martha commercialized a line of proprietary haircare products under the Harper Method brand. Some of her early products were originally created during her years of domestic servitude, when she cared for the hair of her wealthy employers.

Controlling Destinies

As Martha’s business flourished, she turned her attention to expansion. Not surprisingly, banks in the 1800’s would not loan a woman-led business money. Undaunted, Martha began recruiting working-class women who also wanted to control their own destinies. Rather than hire them as employees, she encouraged them to open their own salons.

She lowered their risk of failure by providing them with quality products, training, and advertising materials, all under the Harper Method brand name. In doing so, Martha created the template for the modern franchise.

With her ankle length hair, Martha became a national celebrity, one of the wealthiest women of her generation and an inspiration to women who did not want to rely on a man for their sustenance.

Social Entrepreneuring (Before It Was Cool)

Martha was also an early social entrepreneur, with a duel bottom-line. Not only did she create financial freedom for herself, but she she made it possible for thousands of working-class women to become entrepreneurs. For instance, she invented the reclining shampoo chair, but declined to patent it, foregoing millions of dollars in licensing fees, yet making the chair more affordable for aspiring women entrepreneurs. She also priced her products and franchise fees to ensure that her franchisees generated adequate income to live independently and financially secure.

Martha’s Legacy Lives On

Although the last Martha Harper salon closed in the early 1980’s (it was suitably the original, flagship salon in Rochester), Martha’s impact on the world continues.

According to the Labor Department, U.S. franchises generated $757 billion of revenue in 2018. The business model that Martha helped mold continues to offer an entrepreneurial path to women (and men) who want to control their fates, yet have limited access to capital and limited startup experience.

Follow John’s startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @JohnGreathouse

Image credit: Public Domain


John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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