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This Hamburg barber's use of social media is a cut above

Some people go to barber school and quietly go cut hair when they're done.

Jason Lape went a step further.

Sure, he went to barber school. But what Lape did next put a whole new twist on the notion of on-the-job training and demonstrated the power of social media as a marketing tool - even for a fledgling barber still waiting to give his first haircut to a paying customer.

It started with an idea: Go on a cross-country journey, stopping in 25 cities to do one-day "apprenticeships" with different barbers across the nation to learn the newest and latest hair styles and techniques.

But that would be expensive for a barber just starting out.

The solution: Raise $7,000 by auctioning off your own artwork on social media, the way they do on flash sale websites such as Gilt and Zulily.

Once that was accomplished, it wasn't enough to just go quietly on his cross-country apprenticeship. No. It needed to be documented - extensively and engagingly - on social media to build some buzz around the new barber's fledgling career.

So Lape, 34, set off on a one-month self-branding blitz; handling snakes in New Mexico, posing shirtless with elk at Grand Canyon National Park, sky coasting in Colorado – and documented the whole adventure on social media.

While he was gone, followers watched as Lape was mentored by cutting-edge barbers practicing trends that haven't yet hit Buffalo.

It was a success.

Before Lape had even returned, and before he had ever worked a day in his new field - he's renting a chair at The Razor's Edge Barber Shop on Southwestern Boulevard in Hamburg - his appointment book was filled. Lape's newfound followers lined up for appointments, eager to have him put his new skills to work on their own heads.

"The stunt worked," Lape said.

Lape's success in building a roster of clients so quickly is a testament to the power of social media, but it's also a testament to how savvy everyday people have become at branding and promoting themselves.

This is how it started: In May, Lape and a friend made a video "to get people jazzed up" about the trip. In it, he explained that he'd had enough of corporate America, had quit his job to become a barber and an entrepreneur, and was going to sell his personal artwork to finance a trip across the country to supplement his schooling with more diverse, real-world training.

"People ate it up," he said.

So, Lape put one of his paintings up for bid online each week – which built both buzz and financing – until he had raised $7,000 to finance his month on the road.

Though he could have afforded motels, Lape opted to sleep in more exciting locales – suspended in a hammock beneath trees, on the streets with homeless people he interviewed on camera. And while he chose most of his barbershop visits based on each barber's skills, some barber visits were chosen because the shops were close to a particularly photogenic location, such as the Mojave Desert or Zion National Park.

He had to keep the viewers' interest, after all.

In Chicago, Lape brushed up on the gentleman's classic scissors cut, which is all the rage in the Windy City. In Las Vegas, he picked up "the casino cut", a fade with a slicked-back top. In California, he learned how to apply his artistic background to his current trade: drawing designs in people's hair with clippers.

Following along at home was Eric Witkowski, a Buffalo actor and firefighter. He was intrigued by Lape's "big, epic adventure" and also couldn't help but notice how much Lape cares about his craft, he said.

He saw the different hairstyles Lape was capturing on camera – hairstyles he hadn't seen anyone sporting in Buffalo –  and wanted a piece of the action for himself, so he booked an appointment. He plans to take a seat in the barber chair and give Lape carte blanche.

"I want to see how he can change my look. I'm just gonna be like, 'All right, dude, whatcha got? What's your flavor for me?" Witkowski said.

A generation ago, that kind of direct-to-consumer marketing would have been impossible for a single tradesman just starting out.

"The social media tools we all have at our disposal have been a game changer," said Charles Lindsey, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management. "They've allowed a sole proprietor to have the equivalent of a small marketing department behind them at little or no cost."

Social media sites, such as Facebook and Instagram get a tradesman's brand message out and sites such as Kickstarter help them raise funds.

The average person has also gotten much more savvy when it comes to branding and self-promotion, Lindsey said. And it's not just the so-called "digital natives" - Generation-Z and Millennials. Anyone who grew up watching TV has been exposed to plenty of advertising. Entrepreneurs now simply have much greater power to mount their own publicity campaigns.

"These are exciting times to be an entrepreneur or to to pursue one’s passions," Lindsey said. "These tools give us the ability to raise money quickly, to market and educate and create awareness quickly about a product or service."

Lape's trip may be over, but the marketing of his brand has just begun. He and a pal, Russell Holt, are using the footage Lape shot during the trip and are cutting it into a documentary-style educational film with barbering tutorials, showing other barbers how to master the cuts Lape learned on the road. Lape bills himself as "America's Master Barber" (T-shirts with his logo are for sale, $10) and expects to get plenty more mileage out of his cross-country trip.

"Now I'm distinguished as America's master barber, the barber who traveled the country to learn from the best within the industry," he said. "I plan to be a household name."

But it's not all just hype, he said.

He is genuinely crazy about barbering, and soaked up everything he could from the mentors he met across the country. Throwing in the flashy antics just helped him catch customers' interest, he said.

"People buy from those they like and trust," he said. "I get people on board by being passionate."

Lape recognizes that a bit of flair can get you far, but you'd better have the substance to back it up if you want to have a lasting career. It all boils down to a bit of advice he picked up from the elderly owner of an old-fashioned barber shop in Arkansas called  Chenowith's Barber Shop.

"Traveling across the country isn’t going to help you cut hair a damn bit of good, son," he told him.

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