The motivation to start a business is different for everyone.
Some entrepreneurs want to build the next Facebook or Uber and change the world with a disruptive new technology or business model. Others want to grow an empire and generate massive profit margins like Walmart.
But for many, the birth of a new business represents a means to express one’s personal tastes and passions – through the products that you create, curate and sell to like-minded customers.
That was the inspiration behind the launch of Cursor & Thread, a Vancouver-based fashion accessories line run by husband and wife team Stephen and Jen Bailey.
“In all of us, there is a desire for self-expression. We really wanted to put ourselves out there and see if it stuck,” says Stephen. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily about financial success more than the feeling of a job well done and learning along the way.”
Image of Jen and Stephen via Katrina Beveridge Photography
Ever since high school, Stephen (who the couple defines as the “Cursor” arm of the business) has always been connected to the fashion industry in one way or another – from launching the tiniest of his own startups to working for large corporations.
So, it was only natural that he would seek to start another creative side project later in life – after becoming the CMO for a large shoe manufacturer and the birth of his now 4 and 7-year old boys.
For Jen (the “Thread” half of Cursor & Thread), having a business meant the opportunity to leave her previous career as a biologist to pursue her love of design and sewing. Having grown up surrounded by her father and uncle’s work in designing and building custom homes, she has never been more than 10 feet away from color swatches, samples or build plans. And when her youngest son starts kindergarten next year, the fashion accessories business will become more of a full-time pursuit.
“It’s really nice to have goals and direction for my creativity,” says Jen. “When I decided to stay home with our two boys, it opened up time for me to be more creative. Now I have a totally different life!”
Pursuing Art and Ideals in Business
The vision for Cursor & Thread happened organically a little over 3 years ago. As a fashion executive and lifestyle blogger, Stephen occasionally chose to wear accessories like bow ties (created by Jen) and suspenders to express his personal style. At the time, he was blown away by people’s reactions to his accessorized fashion decisions. And as he was looking for places to buy more suspenders, the go-to vendors, and styles available seemed stodgy to him – revealing an opportunity to offer an elegant alternative.
But the business really began to take off when Jen made matching, hand-crafted bow ties for Stephen and their two boys for a wedding. Their friends and family loved her designs and since then, demand for her unique bow tie creations has grown steadily.
Jen and Stephen made the first 500 to 600 bow ties for their business by hand. “It was not a quick process and over time, we learned together some tricks on how to do it faster,” says Stephen. “But saying that we had ‘no margins’ was an understatement in the beginning.”
Today, the couple has secured contracts with local Canadian and U.S. manufacturers, and have been members of 1% For the Planet since launch, all of which reflect Stephen and Jen’s personal beliefs about how to run a business.
“I want to do things that I identify with – almost to a fault,” says Stephen. “It all depends on how you define success. I mean, would we be better off bringing in high-quality bow ties from China? The difference in margin is significantly better. And there is no shame in bringing in products from other countries. But we wanted to personally know who we were working with at every step.”
Because Stephen and Jen take so much pride in selling high-quality products and put such a big emphasis on the finer details of their business (accessories are all about the details after all), they also spent a lot of time on their brand design and packaging.
“You’d be hard pressed to find someone who says packaging doesn’t matter these days,” says Stephen. “We left no stone unturned when working with our design partners to create the right packaging to reflect who we are.”
The end result was perfectly sized and constructed boxes for shipping and showcasing their products.
Finding their first few retail partners was a bit easier as the couple had made friends and contacts through Stephen’s lifestyle blog, his day job, and their travel. “We checked in there first and we were blessed that it was off to the races immediately with some of those guys,” he says.
Connecting with Like-Minded Customers Online
The couple believes that their early success in securing partnerships with wholesalers is a testament to having built up immediate trust with key account contacts. “If people trust you and you are connected to them, it just shows in the sales. It’s amazing,” says Stephen.
Part of their journey towards building trust with customers and merchants was demonstrating that their creative self-expression has a value. “Where you want to spend your time needs to reflect a certain level of quality that you appreciate,” says Stephen. “Your customers aren’t just customers, they identify with you on other levels as with all your relationships. Part of that may be sharing the same taste in fashion, but we also connect with customers on say, being parents or having a love of culture or sports.”
After evaluating a number of ecommerce solutions, the husband and wife team chose Shopify as the platform to connect them with their wholesale accounts and like-minded customers.
“We needed a face for the company and to build trust in what we were doing,” says Stephen. “It’s important that everything is consistent and professional to help people feel comfortable investing in your business.”
And since Cursor & Thread began as a side business, using Shopify gave them the opportunity to launch and learn along the way – without breaking the bank.
“We found the platform to be much simpler and more cost-effective than any other alternative available,” says Stephen.
Prior to building the website, he spent a full day in a coffee shop reading about how to set it up. He then created the site using some dummy images as placeholders to fill the first page, as they only had a few products to sell in the beginning.
Photography was a big learning curve for the team. Although it was intimidating in the beginning to produce great product shots, they have learned how to do it better over time – just as they have honed their product development and distribution skills.
Stephen is now responsible for the photographs and content on the website while Jen handles the inventory, order fulfillment and invoicing.
Learning and Leading by Example
The couple’s thirst for learning plays a major role in both their motivation to soldier on in their business and in their mission to educate their kids on the value of hard work.
Before starting Cursor & Thread, they were influenced by a number of husband and wife business partnerships in their social circles.
“One couple we are friends with run the jewelry line Pyrrha together which has done so well that they recently secured a collaboration deal with HBO to create a Game of Thrones collection. Another runs the creative agency Cause + Affect,” says Stephen. “By watching them work together, we had a preview of what it would be like to run a business as a couple and as parents. So, the attraction to start our own business was very natural.”
Over the past few years, the business has taught the Cursor & Thread team a lot about their personal strengths. “And as long as we can work together, that’s a good thing because we bring different skills to the table,” says Jen.
In terms of making your business a family affair, the couple likes to follow Stephen Covey’s words of wisdom about human fulfillment being captured in the need “to live, to love, to learn and to leave a legacy." For them, the idea of running a “family business" covers all those bases.
From Stephen’s perspective, the act of starting a business is the hardest part. “But because of platforms like Shopify, it’s a lot easier than it would have been 5 years ago,” he says. “Shopify allows you to build a starter business at your own pace – and learn along the way. And it really limits the risk. If you decide to pack it in, your real loss is minimal.”
While one might argue that the time spent working on the launch of a business is a loss, Jen and Stephen contend that there are many experiential benefits to be gained.
“Our kids are really interested in our business and they like to come to the factory with us and to check out all of the equipment. They even sometimes ask to come with us on sales calls,” says Jen. “I think it’s really important for them to see me working and it’s healthy for them to learn that I have other interests. And one thing that starting from scratch has convinced us of is that we will absolutely encourage our boys to start a business at any point because the learning is just too good to pass up.”
The couple also believes that it is necessary to stay open to examples and ideas out in the world – even if it is as simple as taking a different bike route on your commute to work.
“Or, if you visit cities where you have stores but don’t have any business meetings, you’re going to come back with 10 new ideas about things that you didn’t know was happening elsewhere,” says Stephen. Although it can be hard sometimes, the couple tries not to get stuck in routines.
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Gaining Personal Rewards Through Trying Times
One of the toughest lessons the Cursor & Thread team has learned so far is that growth doesn’t always come in units and finances.
“People need to be reminded that growth is learning as well,” explains Stephen. “You really need to get your ducks in a row. But when you are starting out, you don’t even know where your ducks are – let alone getting them in a row.”
Some of their biggest challenges have come from finding a balance in working with multiple suppliers for each of their products. And it has taken them a lot of time and effort to achieve steady growth in terms of their product offerings.
“We’ve just begun selling pocket squares as a new category. And we’re starting to use a new Shopify feature to create custom orders and offer special pricing or discounts for larger orders. It’s great that we can send our customers the customized invoice (via the Order Printer app) and they can pay for it directly via Shopify,” says Jen.
And through all of the stressful moments with partners, distributors and manufacturers, the couple celebrates their personal achievement with each small, incremental success.
For example, even though the couple doesn’t have time to do trade shows, they are still steadily attaining 5 new retail accounts per year because of the great business relationships that they are making along the way.
They also gain validation for their creative work via the compliments they receive from business partners, media, and customers. “As with most small product-based businesses, praises often come from friends and family in the beginning. But what’s really exciting is when strangers buy your things and become repeat customers,” says Jen.
Image via Globe and Mail Style Advisor
The team have supplied many wedding parties, but recently felt a great sense of pride after outfitting all of the groomsmen and other members of the wedding party with neck ties for a friend’s wedding. “We overheard people complimenting them, not knowing they were ours,” says Stephen. “The groom also expressed his thanks for having something that isn’t usually his focus (fashion details) chosen for him.”
In the future, the couple looks forward to signing on more wholesale accounts and doing more product customizations, collaborations, and limited-edition runs for some of their top customers – there are already three high-profile collaborations in the works for later this year. Jen would also like to explore the wedding category a little more. But she knows that some of the ideas at the top of her list will have to wait until she has more time to dedicate to the business.
And while Jen says that “bow ties aren’t necessarily going to change the world,” she and Stephen have already begun making their personal mark on it – through their artistry and drive for creating and sharing new experiences with their children, friends and customers.
About The Author
Andrea Wahbe is a freelance B2B marketing strategist and corporate storyteller who writes about Canadian SMEs, marketing and digital media trends. Follow her on Twitter.