Retail entrepreneurs are a diverse group. Some are serial entrepreneurs, launching business after business. Others are creatives who have turned their crafty hobbies into side hustles.
There is one thing that many retailer entrepreneurs have in common: passion. And that passion is sometimes the fuel for starting a business in the first place.
These seven retailers found opportunity through their passions and turned them into successful businesses. They’ve shared their insights on how to turn side projects to DIY products so that fledgling entrepreneurs can start their own retail business.
The passion: Fashion and “dressing for success”
The product: Fashion-forward women’s apparel
For Robin Barrett Wilson, founder of robin b., her passion for fashion spans beyond looking and feeling good. It’s about empowering women.
The former tech executive realized that there was a double standard for men and women in the workplace. “Over the years, an unwritten dress code has emerged,” she says.
Women are held to higher standard in the workplace than men, and there are different rules for women, especially when it comes to dressing.
She had a hard time finding clothes that were suitable for her career and her personal style. She had to choose between sacrificing quality for affordable options, or breaking the bank on high-end attire. So, in 2015, Wilson opened her first boutique in Rhode Island. Two years later, she launched her first designs.
“Having the brick-and-mortar store has been like having a built-in focus group on a daily basis,” she says. “The ability to interact in-person and get feedback on my designs has tailored my approach to designing and the way I run my online business.”
Direct customer feedback, in-person, is some of the most valuable data a retailer can get — and it’s free. But don’t approach every interaction as a chance to conduct a customer survey. Have meaningful, authentic interactions, and then solicit feedback. Customers can smell a lack of authenticity from a mile away; so lead every interaction with genuine interest.
The most important thing to remember? Do something with the insights. It’s easy to ask customers to share opinions, but the real payoff is when you take action based on the information.
“I make sure to listen to my customers and employees,” Wilson says. “Their feedback is more valuable than you could ever imagine, and it can help make something that was good become great.”
The passion: Fitness
The product: Protein shaker bottles and cups
Chris Gronkowski has always been passionate about fitness — it practically runs in the former NFL player’s blood. A disruption in his workout routine led to a problem, and opportunity, realized. He reached for his shaker bottle for some water, and it was warm.
After that workout, he went on a fruitless search for an alternative that would keep his water cold. “That’s when the Ice Shaker was born,” he says.
Gronkowski wouldn’t settle for a subpar product, so a lot of research and development went into the product. “After months of prototypes, we found a supplier that could manufacture what I was looking for,” he says.
All that work that went into product development is a large part of Gronkowski’s success — and it’s a great lesson for any entrepreneur who wants to turn a passion into a big retail business.
With proper research and development, you’ll have more data-backed rationale on why your idea is great, and how you can improve it. Conduct market research, hold focus groups with variations of your product, and test out a few small-batch options to kick-start your product development.
Despite all the research, sales were dismal for the ecommerce company when it first launched. In-person sales changed everything.
“The second people saw our product, they were hooked!” he says. “The Ice Shaker sells extremely well at fitness expos. These fitness expos put us on the map.” In fact, the retailer sold more than $85,000 in products in its first six months of being in business.
Product development contributes greatly to that positive in-person experience, but another part of Gronkowski’s success is how attuned he is to his target audience. The reason he’s so successful at in-person selling is because he’s getting in front of his perfect customer.
Once you’ve defined your target, you can research industry events that they’d be interested in attending.
The passion: Save the Elephants, a mission to protect elephants in Kenya
The product: Women’s, men’s, and kids’ apparel and accessories
Sarah Salbu and her aunt C. Miller went on a trip to Africa together, where they witnessed firsthand how ivory and poaching trade is putting elephants in serious danger.
Realizing the lack of awareness back home in the States, they knew they had to do something on the elephants’ behalf. Even though the two women already had full-time jobs, their burning passion for the elephants inspired the creation of their retail business, Ele and Phant.
The company has humble beginnings — a family member created a graphic from a photo as their first design, and a friend designed the company’s logo. They ordered a bunch of samples and sifted through them in Miller’s dining room.
They ordered their favorites from a local print shop. “Once all of those elements were in place, and we printed up a stock of inventory — that’s when it felt real,” she says.
Ele and Phant shares its origins and brand story loud and proud. “We are constantly reminding our community why we are here,” she says. “And that’s how we’ve been telling and defining our brand story.”
At first, Salbu and Miller focused on digital presence — their website and social media channels. Now, the two are exploring in-person selling. “We researched events by talking to people in our network,” Salbu says. “We selected an event before Christmas, hoping people will be mindful of purchasing gifts.”
They’re taking a methodical approach to their first selling event. “We outlined our goals and what we want to accomplish,” she says. “We’d like to raise awareness of our brand and sell product, and we also want to get feedback on our designs.”
“We listed out all the items we’re going to need to brand our space: branded tablecloth, postcards to hand out, a poster for the backdrop, and displays for the clothing items,” she says.
These are great considerations if you’re approaching your first in-person selling event. Creating a list will help keep your team on the same page and avoid forgetting to bring something essential. Host the list on a shared Evernote notebook so anyone can access it anywhere and see the latest.
Ultimately, Sabu says it’s all about staying relevant.
We continued to talk to our friends and that always led us to new people and ideas. As long as you keep [your brand] top of mind and involving others, it will evolve. That’s how we got to where we are today.
The passion: Being a parent
The product: Baby and toddler apparel
Jessica Chappel Kremen and Lily Brown were each former full-time professionals — Brown a mechanical engineer, Kremen working in advertising — until they left their jobs to focus on raising their children.
As moms, they found a lack of children’s apparel brands that were stylish enough for their taste. “My first passion is my kids, so I knew I wanted to do something for them,” Brown says. Kremen and Brown put their heads together to create a solution. They ended up being the perfect business partners.
As a former engineer, Brown enjoys the mechanics of how things are made, and “being able to take a design all the way to a physical product.” Kremen, on the other hand, comes up with the creative concepts. “Taking [Kremen’s] ideas for children’s clothing and turning them into a reality has been a dream job for me,” Brown says.
After hosting a soft online launch with friends and family, they were officially in business. At first, Brown handmade every item — to order — at her kitchen table.
“I spend every moment of free time focused on growing this awesome business,” she says.
Though the duo runs an ecommerce retail company, in-person selling has helped them expand their reach and broaden their customer base. “In-person selling has been huge for us,” Brown says. “Being vendors at festivals and pop-up markets has gotten our products in front of larger and different audiences than we could online alone.”
Like many other retailers, it’s offered a chance for the entrepreneurs to receive feedback from customers. “The amazing responses we have gotten from customers has given us motivation and confidence to grow,” says Brown.
We knew we had something special when we heard people’s reactions.” says Kremen.
Brown no longer handmakes every order. They’ve grown their business so much that they’ve outsourced manufacturing, they work with a local seamstress, and they stock inventory.
Their commitment to high-quality, detail-oriented designs remains, despite no longer doing some of the tasks themselves. This has also allowed the company to expand their product line, offering more sizes than when they first launched.
Overall, “my best piece of advice is to love what you are selling,” Kremen says. “This has been the most exciting and rewarding professional and educational experience.”
The passion: Creating visual art; travel
The product: Fine art; designer handbags; travel accessories
Florida-based “mobile” retailer Holly Jones turned her passion for art into a whole line of products, the ART TO WEAR collection.
“I knew while growing up I wanted to be a business manager or owner,” she says. “Creating is a true personal passion — never something I thought I would do as a career.”
Coincidentally, while finishing her MBA, Jones had a landlord who was a gallerist. That relationship introduced Jones to the world of fine art.
Jones has found that when pursuing your passion as a business, you’re faced with the balance of being both the “creator” and the CEO. “Producing art is personal,” Jones says. “In the back of my mind, I have to always remember that business is not personal.”
Jones doesn’t have a storefront, but in-person selling has been instrumental to her success. And it’s allowed her to incorporate another passion into her business: travel. “I have been able to build my business by traveling the world, exhibiting and selling my products to fine art galleries, museum stores, and gift shops,” she says.
Though not every retailer has the luxury of traveling while growing their business, it does lend the lesson that digital interactions can’t replace in-person interactions. Being able to share your passion with potential customers, in real life, is irreplaceable. No email or Facebook post can replicate that exchange.
“My business model does not require a brick-and-mortar storefront,” she says. Jones has established a retail business through in-person selling without the overhead of maintaining a physical space — a reminder that turning your passion into a product doesn’t mean you have to invest in a store.
Merry Christmas!!!! Thank you all for your support this year. Ginger & Brown is so blessed to have such a supportive community ushering them into 2017. Spending Christmas morn packing for some lucky Brisbanites getting our gorgeous eggs, sauerkraut & kombucha this week ;) #localfood #nsw #manningvalley #pastureraisedeggs #eattheyolks #organiceggs #biodynamic #eggs #freerange #sustainable #regrarian #eco #green #natural
The passion: Real food and finding localized, sustainable food systems that employ earth-regenerative practices
The product: Pasture-raised eggs; fermented foods
Despite successes, Emily Uebergang and Sarah Groom have had moments where doubt has crept in. “Are we a legit business yet?” they would ask themselves. The doubt was never crippling.
We realized we were ‘legit’ when we decided and believed we were,” they say. “There really isn't some magical number or metric to determine this.
Taking their business seriously also opened more doors for the duo. “More opportunities came our way — like wholesale — because this mental shift changed the way we spoke about ourselves and how we presented our brand.”
Even though they don’t have a brick-and-mortar shop, in-person selling was essential for Ginger and Brown to break into their local, small-town market.
“Networks are important,” they say. “Once people started seeing us turning up to the farmers’ markets on a regular basis, and even around town just casually, it helped to build rapport.”
Get to know local store owners, attend community events, and get to know the people around you. Having a network to spread the word and get behind your brand is always easier than selling to consumers who don’t already know you.
“Selling direct has also enabled us to have better control over our story and to get direct feedback from our customers,” they say. “Being able to communicate who we are, what we do, and why we are doing it, firsthand to our customers, has also helped establish us as a trustworthy brand. And people love supporting other people who have a story and values they can relate to.”
The passion: The power of friendship
The product: Socks
When you think of a token of or symbol for friendship, socks might not be the first thing to come to mind. But for Darrius Glover, founder and CEO of Wool Fresh, it’s a perfect pair. The Army veteran feels strongly that friendship can contribute to customers’ happiness.
It’s amazing how a strong, supportive community can improve someone’s health,” he says. “At our core, we are a healthcare company, not a sock company.
The way it works is simple: For every pair of socks you purchase, Wool Fresh will send a free pair for you to give to a friend. When customers purchase from Wool Fresh they’re investing in more than just a sock, they’re investing in a friendship.
Even though most of the retailer’s sales are online, in-person events are crucial to his success. “In-person events help me understand who my customers really are. You can gather information faster in person than by communicating over the internet,” he says. “By understanding my customer, I was able to boost sales because I could empathize with their problems and suggest a solution.”
It’s also easier for Glover to communicate the brand mission through in-person sales. Because the health-first, product-second retailer is unique, consumers don’t always catch the message on the company website.
“Nothing beats selling a product in person,” he says. “I have found that a mix of enthusiasm and demonstration is the key to explaining how your product will help someone.”
DIY Products: Turn Your Passion Project Into a Business
The moral of the story? If you have a passion and want to turn it into a retail business, there’s no right or wrong approach. For some passion-motivated retailers, it’s about having an authentic story. For others, it’s about realizing a solution to a problem they face when pursuing their passions.
Regardless, the power of in-person selling is invaluable, offering the chance for you to share your brand story and get real, insightful feedback from your customers. There is no replacement for face-to-face interactions with your customers.
What passion have you turned into a product? What passion would you like to turn into a product?