In May of 2017 Yobel Market opened our gorgeous new brick and mortar location in a revitalized Elementary-School-turned-community-space, called The Ivywild School. We’re right next to The Principal’s Office wine and coffee bar, where you can find ‘libations for the troubled’. There is a marketing company down the squeaky wooden floor; head in the opposite direction and you’ll land in local Bristol Brewery and their neighboring retail shop. Downstairs we have Loyal Coffee Roasters and nextdoor is the Axe & the Oak Distillery. Across the way from our boutique, the Ivywild Gym hosts events from weddings to lectures, yoga to bookclubs. Cool right? We couldn’t have asked for a better location for our little 400 square foot ethical boutique.
I get lots of people stopping in and after chatting with me for awhile. They realize my vested interest is a bit beyond that of a typical retail employee and inquire if I am the owner. When I reply that, yes I am, and then share the story of my co-founder and I's humble beginning, people are generally inspired.
I’ve come a long way from the bright-eyed passionate 26 year-old that first started marketing Ugandan jewelry at the tiny farmer’s market down the road. I’m 10 years older for one. I am now a mother to a very active toddler. I have since co-founded and directed a nonprofit initiative as a partner to the fair trade work Yobel Market has engaged. Yobel International was birthed in 2012 from the market’s surplus in order to offer men and women living in desperate circumstances the opportunity to create change for themselves and their families through businesses we trained them to envision and sustain. I have authored an internationally recognized training program, become a speaker and a writer. I have travelled to nearly 30 different nations in service of the poor and pursuit of calling. I have sacrificed my time, my health, and my family because of my desire to see justice done in the world.
The opening of our new Ivywild Boutique coincided with my resignation as Executive Director of the nonprofit I co-founded. It’s a long, difficult story, but in this season I am truly thankful to find myself working part time in a beautiful location surrounded by wonderful people. For the first time in years I feel as though ALL of my work is life giving and well within my capacity to do as a mom desiring to prioritize her young family over work. I am living life in a spacious place, one where their is permission to be present in my relationships -- where I offer my first fruits to those most important to me, rather than to strangers. *Aside: For more on this concept check out Shauna Niequist's Present Over Perfect.
I wanted to write this blog to encourage other entrepreneurs, mompreneurs, or those considering opening a business for the first time to know that it is not as difficult as you may think. I won’t try to take the role of your local Small Business Association over the next few paragraphs, but I would like to encourage you with a few tips that have led to what feels like an easier season of life-giving work for me and for my family.
1. If you can change the world with a business, rather than a nonprofit, DO IT. This is an entirely separate upcoming blog post, but businesses can operate with far fewer strings attached and far less maintenance and administration than a nonprofit can. With all that extra time, money and energy, you are able to do great good!
2. Location, location, location. They weren’t lying people. I have run Yobel Market out of 3 different brick and mortar addresses, as well as a number of pop-up spots. Be willing to pay more for better foot traffic and curb appeal. Your rent may be twice as much, but when that translates into twice as many sales you’ll be doing just fine. If you can get in on a cooperative space like we landed at the Ivywild School, you are luckiest of all. Shared utilities, parking, internet, advertising, and a multi-use facility ensure visitors and locals year-round.
3. Seasonality. It’s a thing. One location we had was hoppin’ from May-December because it drew an enormous tourist crowd. January to May, however, were DEAD. I’m talking barely-pay-your-rent-dead, a difference of $14,000 from our high month to our low. Know your area before you commit. Consider a pop-up location where you can operate a small, inexpensively furnished store from May-December. Choose to open in a part of the country that gains year-round tourism (aka the mountains). Or build it into your business plan and save, save, save for those slow months.
4. Less is More. Customers will buy more if they can clearly view your inventory. Studies show that people prefer less choices. You should not try to represent more than 15 or so brands in your store if you want to do each of them justice and maintain an established sense of your own brand. Keep it clean, keep it simple. That being said, if you have too little of an item (usually less than 3) people will overlook it and you’ll have it forever. If you are phasing-out a product, try running a flash sale or move it to a marked clearance section. Otherwise keep it well-stocked, even if that means keeping it in the back room.
5. Keep your overhead low. There are many ways to do this. Obviously rent and utilities are a consideration. Look out for baseboard heating in old buildings. It ran us $700 a month in the winter and our store was still freezing! Find a good accountant. Hire this person before you do anything else. You think they will be expensive (mine is $50 an hour) but what they will save you in the long run in money and heartache are well worth it. Man your boutique yourself to cut down on staffing costs. Create display items from found and reclaimed goods. Share internet and trash with a neighbor if you can. Trade inventory for staff parking spaces and anything else you can get away with. Clean your shop yourself. Market organically with social media and word of mouth. Use Mail Chimp or another free newsletter site.
6. Brand Identity. Know your target market. A cohesive brand and look to your brick and mortar, social media presence, and online store is imperative. Customers are easily confused and lose confidence when your branding is not consistent. I have been to many a gift shop that tries to ‘be all things to all people’, mixing kitchy T-shirts with high-end leather purses, selling loose leaf teas alongside body lotions. Don’t do it. Define your target market as narrowly as you can. Are you selling to 30-year-old, female, young professionals, or 50-60 year-old retiries? Create a “mood board” on Pinterest and add photos of displays and products you gravitate toward. Step back and observe your board from a distance. Is it cohesive in look and feel? Does each product serve the needs and price-range of your target customer? Ask yourself what 3-5 words make up the impression you want clients to have when they enter your shop. Choose up to 3 colors and 3 fonts for all of your marketing materials and stick to it. This stuff is important folks.
7. Staff with care. These lovely individuals are the first experience any customer will have with your brand. The way they dress, carry themselves, and most importantly interact with other humans is all going to communicate something about your business. Hire people you like, trust, and who have a strong work ethic, flexible schedule, and above all, hire people that others want to be around. They need to be comfortable approaching strangers and naturally others-focused. We teach our staff to be the nicest person out there, to add value to each person they encounter during the day -- including the FedEx guy and the homeless man who drops in just to chat. They need to love your product and mission as much as you do, and it is your responsibility as an owner to drive mission awareness and belief. Value these staffers and hopefully they will stick around!
8. Know what your community wants. You may have the best product in the world, but if your community isn’t asking for it, you will not be successful. Step 1 in any market research should be asking the question: “What does my community want (or need) that it does not currently have access too?” Ie: A beach town probably isn’t looking for a ski shop despite your affinity for the sport. If you can answer this question honestly and accurately by surveying your locals, you should be able to launch a business concept capable of success assuming all other things are equal.
9. Start small grow big. We launched Yobel Market with $700 and a shoebox full of crappy jewelry. I know, I know, this contradicts everything I have said so far. BUT we weren’t in it to make money at that point and we didn’t expect it to become full-time -- we were just trying to help our friends in Uganda put their kids in school. Meanwhile, we learned all this other stuff along the way. When we vacated the farmer’s market scene after 2 years of hustle and opened our first retail boutique, we did so with a $5,000 loan and $10,000 in inventory. We furnished it with found and reclaimed items, we staffed it ourselves, all while working other jobs so we could reinvest our profit into additional inventory and grow the business. In a year, we were both getting paid and able to quit our other jobs.
10. Market your bad self. Ok so this is obvious. You need to market according to a plan that will work for your business. If you choose your location well, you will have to do far less work. Offer a newsletter sign up sheet immediately and send out monthly (no more than bi-monthly) newsletters with updates on product, events, and promotions. Maximize social media. Get a twitter, instagram, and facebook account and read tutorials to learn how to use them well - in general we find that posting daily and doing so at a later time yields best results. Investing in a quality photographer and contracting a graphic designer to generate professional content for your site will return investment tenfold. If it doesn’t look good, don’t post it. Lastly, host in-store events that people actually want to come to - Art Walks, Wine Tastings, Documentary Screenings...get people in your space and build some brand loyalty by investing in your community well.
While there’s no formula because each business, location and owner has their own flare, focus and functions, these principles have become helpful guidelines as we’ve watched Yobel Market grow into this beautiful, thriving, justice oriented business. In the end, hard work, God’s grace, and a refusal to give up have been the largest contributing factors to making this endeavour fruitful. Not to mention integrity - the foundation upon which all is built. What goes around comes around, and we are thankful to say that things are definitely coming around.
How about you? Have you dreamed of opening your own space? Tell us about your concept and we will encourage you! Already have a boutique of your own? What tips would you add to this list?
Photo Credit Feature and 12: Oak & Oats Photography
Photo Credit 2: Abby Mortenson
“We need jobs, and we need a way to put our children in school.” This statement, spoken by internally displaced Ugandans, resonated with Yobel co-Founder, Sarah Ray.
If these strong, resilient, hardworking, motivated individuals had access to dignified work, they would be able to provide many things for themselves that charity would seek to do for them. Things like school fees, clean water, nutritious foods, secure housing, clothing, and transportation. Jobs sounded like a good way forward.
Yobel is proud to be the sole purveyor of Ethnotek products in the United States! Co-Owners, Clay & Emily Ross were initially drawn to this incredible company’s techno-hip bags because of their high utility features (like this camera bag designed by photographers) and strong ethic toward both people and planet. As a conscious consumer, you can feel good that Ethnotek’s slow-production materials are sourced in person from the villages where they are created. Each artisan piece is purchased directly from the person who made it, for a fair price.