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Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Rosemarine Textiles on Sourcing & Acquiring Retailers

What can you do with avocado pits, onion skins, and discarded flowers? Meghan Navoy uses them as plant dyes for her sustainable textile studio Rosemarine Textiles. Navoy started the Detroit-based business in January 2018 after learning about the environmental impact of the wedding and events industry. At the time, Navoy was planning for her own wedding and decided to make a sustainable alternative by creating wedding napkins and tablecloths using natural plant dyes. Today, Rosemarine Textiles offers home goods and accessories such as pillows, bandanas, and scrunchies made from sustainably and ethically produced fabrics and plant dyes like chestnuts, indigo, and red onion skins. Q&A with Meghan Navoy, Founder of Rosemarine Textiles Hello Alice caught up with Navoy to discuss using content to connect with customers, why trade shows are worth it, and how to be a profitable business without sacrificing your soul. How did you get into natural plant dyes? I went to school in New York for textiles. I was really interested in learning about climate change and the impact of the fashion industry and the textile industry and exploring different alternatives to that. I heard a talk from Liz Spencer who was talking about her natural dye practice, and that was the first time I’d ever heard about it. I immediately became obsessed with the concept of dyeing fabrics with different plants.  A couple of my friends and classmates decided to do this project. I can’t believe it even actually worked! We had the right amount of support from the school: They had this balcony and gave us the funding, and we organized this entire natural dye garden. Now there’s a club that takes care of it, and people grow all different types of plants there. The fashion design department can use it; the textile design department can use it. Everyone at the school can experiment with natural dyeing in the garden right now. That’s so cool! It sounds like studying textiles and learning more about the environmental impact of the fashion industry made you want to use more sustainable materials for your brand. Definitely, we learned a lot about what direction the industry was moving in to figure out ways to utilize less water or how to recycle synthetic fibers. There was a big focus on regenerative practices and learning more about how the industry is trying to become better when I was at school. What was the deciding factor to expand your offerings beyond weddings and events? I realized my customers were not necessarily brides but more florists and event planners. My customer was interested in not just purchasing something for their clients, but they also wanted to get something for themselves. How do you source your materials such as your plant dyes and textiles?  I try to source my materials from as many small woman-owned and minority-owned businesses as possible. I work with a couple of different natural dye vendors who sell the powdered version of the plant dyes. I also grow some of my own plants in my garden, like Japanese indigo and marigolds that I use for dyeing. We came out with a line of pillows this year, and I knew that I didn’t want to use a polyester fiberfill pillow insert, and I also didn’t want to use down because of animal cruelty concerns. So I found this amazing company in upstate New York that hires developmentally disabled adults to make GOTS-certified organic cotton inserts. It’s a family-run company, and they’re so nice, and they provide opportunities to people who may have difficulty getting another type of job. It’s a lot more expensive than polyester inserts, but you can sense the difference when something’s a quality, handmade item. I also work with a California-based fabric importer that’s family-owned. It’s a bunch of cool hippies in California that are lovely to work with. It feels good to know that my business is working with people who are just so lovely, and we have a personal relationship.  The patchwork pillow is dyed using acacia wood, logwood, chestnut, and wattle. How do you go about designing your pieces? Do you design based on what you like or on what connects with your customers? A lot of things that have been the most popular are just when I’m experimenting on my own at my studio, coming up with new ideas. I’d post a picture of it on my Instagram stories or include it in my blog, and it’d get a huge response of people being interested like, “Oh, are you going to offer that? Are you going to make that?” It’s really helpful to have that immediate feedback. I'm making something for me but then seeing what resonates with my customers as well. [Hello Alice Guide: Establish Your Social Media Presence] How did you get the word out about your business? Instagram has been one of my main platforms. I also have an email newsletter that I send out once or twice a month, which I like because things can get easily lost in social media, and newsletters are a better, organic way to connect with people. I started a YouTube channel this past year, which is a really fun medium to show more about what our process is, how everything’s made, and the human side of the product. [Hello Alice Guide: Create Your YouTube Channel] Does selling through different platforms like Etsy also help with getting your brand out there? As a small business owner, I try to get as many potential customers looking at my business as possible. I don’t want to spread myself too thin on too many different platforms, but Etsy has been a really great community that has supported me so much. I’m glad to have both my main website and my Etsy because the downside of Etsy is whenever you buy something, you don’t say, “Oh, I got this from Rosemarine Textiles.” People just say, “I got this on Etsy.” When you have your own website, I can have my blog and other content that live alongside my products — it’s more than just the shop. Your products are also sold in many retailers. What was the process of finding those retailers? In the beginning, I made a list of all the stores that I wanted to sell at. I made a template, and I cold emailed people, but that was only marginally effective. I highly recommend using a wholesale platform called Faire. That’s how a lot of my stockists found me.  In August 2019, I did my first ever trade show, which was scary and a huge commitment because it’s a pretty big investment. But I did a Kiva loan, so I could afford to go there. I also did the Shoppe Object tradeshow in New York, and that was a huge game-changer because I got to talk to so many different stores. I got orders from ABC Carpet & Home and Anthropologie and all of these exciting retailers. My wholesale business is doing well right now, so I don’t have to do trade shows anymore, but I would recommend it. I know people say, “Well because there’s the internet, are trade shows even worth it?” But if you find one with a really good fit for your brand that seems highly curated, it can be worth it. In your advice to entrepreneurs, you had said that there are ways to be a profitable, sustainable, and ethical business. Could you expand on that? I’m a textile artist, but I’m also interested in the business side and human rights. It’s disappointing sometimes when you hear of small businesses that you think are really cool, but then they treat their employees badly. I feel like it’s a false system of scarcity that you have to follow in a textbook way around your business when you can make sure that people are paid fairly and source materials that are not exploitative. You can make your own decisions about your business and not worry about taking your heart and soul out to be a business owner. What’s the biggest business lesson that you’ve learned so far? I learned that you personally know what's best for your business. Lots of different people will say, “Oh do this or don't do that,” but at the end of the day, you as a business owner know what your vision is and you know the direction that you want to go in.  Also, especially on social media, there is a strong sense of overnight success for a lot of people. When I was first starting my business, I wanted to be one of those shops that when they do a shop update, everything sells out in like five minutes. But my friend told me that growing your business is less of an overnight success, but more like a slow burn over many years where your brand slowly gets bigger and bigger. Things are rarely an overnight success — it’s better to focus on cultivating your slow burn than hoping for a random viral moment. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Sep 10, 2021 • 6 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

How Home Beis Became a Successful Food Brand

As soon as Scherise Merritt clocks out of her 9-to-5 marketing job, she’s running her thriving food brand, Home Beis. The new Brooklyn-based company serves as a central resource for all your cooking and dining needs, from all-purpose seasonings like her signature House Blend to essential kitchen goods such as aprons and serving boards. Merrit first started making sodium-free spice blends for her grandmother, who was suffering from diet-related illnesses. “I come from a Dominican family, and it’s very hard to find good quality and fresh ingredients to make food that my grandparents made back home,” she explains. “I saw that the things that we use that are in our supermarkets are very high in sodium or not organic and not very good for us.” When she couldn’t find what she was looking for, Merritt turned to her kitchen and concocted her own. The spices were a hit with family and friends, who encouraged her to sell the seasonings. A few years later, in 2020, she launched her first line of sodium-free spice blends. Q&A with Scherise Merritt of Home Beis Hello Alice caught up with Merritt about the importance of starting small when launching a business, selecting a name for your brand, and how Instagram Reels can bring awareness to your products. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Where did the name “Home Beis” come from? When I think about food, I think about my home and the memories that I create with family and friends. The kitchen is the center and the soul of our homes, and we usually spend time in the kitchen. No matter where you go, no matter where you move, that feeling of home is always connected to food.  I wanted to urge people to enrich and improve their home base and the place they call home. I wanted to be very intentional with the name of the brand because the brand is all about creating and enriching memories around food. And what better way to do that than by focusing on your home base and how to improve that? Was coming up with the name difficult?  The word “base” was already taken, so it was hard to create a name that stayed with people and that they remembered. Then I realized that the word “beis” is also another way to use “base.” That’s where I made it a little bit more unique. I even played around with other names I think that people remembered that were quirky.  But then I finally sat with myself and thought about something that was intentional and thought about, “Okay, what am I selling? What does that mean for people? What do they connect food with?” And then I jotted down all of the words that had to do with what I was selling. Then that’s how I came up with “Home Beis.” [Hello Alice Guide: Name Your Business] What was it like to launch a new brand during the pandemic? It was challenging, but it also ended up being great for my business because my brand is a food brand. Everyone was home at that time and was trying to find inspo for cooking, especially if you didn’t know how to cook. So in a way, it was great for my brand because I was able to receive more eyeballs on my social media, site, and product. It was challenging because a lot of the containers that I was trying to source for the products were very hard to find at that time. I had found a particular lid for the spice blends, but I could no longer find it to finish creating inventory once we were launching. I ended up having to pivot and go with a different kind of lid, which ended up working best for me because the new lid had ridges. When you’re cooking and your hands are slippery, it’s better to have a lid to have some kind of rigid lock on it because it’s easier to open, and they’re non-slip.  Learning when to pivot when I was unable to find certain things that I was sourcing had taught me a lot about my brand. For the longest time, I didn’t know if I should put out the blends because I thought that everything had to be perfect all the time. I wanted the lid to be perfect, the packaging, the branding — everything. But I learned that sometimes, it’s better to put it out in the world and not be perfect than not putting it out at all. When you first launched, what marketing strategy helped you get your name out there?  On my personal social media, I’ve always shared recipes and restaurants. My personal Instagram was a big foodie account, overall, so I teased it there. I didn’t tell them what it was, but I told him that I had something that I was working on and gave them little peeks of what the product could be. I kept their attention going, and they were intrigued as to what it was that it was going to be. Then on the Home Beis Instagram account, I started putting out the flavor profiles of each blend. Two weeks leading up to the launch, I teased different items and what’s in them, and why I was inspired to create them. Two days before the launch, I let them know what was actually launching. Home Beis' spice blends You’re currently running the business while working in marketing during the day. How do you juggle between your day job and your business? I really maximize my time the best way that I can, and I try to plan everything out. What’s helpful for me is that I do drops. I’m fortunate enough that my brand has been able to grow, and every time we do a drop, it sells out. So there’s not me having to ship all the time. Once I have a drop, the products sell for less than two weeks, and they sell out. That has helped me manage both jobs and not having to do both all the time. Obviously, Home Beis is 24/7, and I still have to run social media and create content for the brand. But I maximize my time, so if I have to do something for my brand, I make sure that my weekends are dedicated to my brand. As soon as I clock out of my 9-to-5, I’m dedicating a couple of hours for my brand every single day.  Specifically for social, I make sure that I plan out the content a month in advance, so I already have my social planned out for the entire month. Then I’m just scheduling it and going live based on the time that I see resonates more with my audience and how my engagement has been with some of the posts. I make sure that I’m planning accordingly and I’m maximizing my time. What social media strategy has been the most helpful for you? I’ve found that showing your customers how to use your product or different ways to use a product and what they’re great for allows me to sell a lot of my products. I have chefs that purchase the products, but I also have a millennial audience. Some are beginner cooks and don’t know how to cook, so sometimes they buy my blends. But in my head, I’m like, Are they using it? I’m not seeing them post that they’re using it. I find that they need some inspo on how to use it, and they also want to see how easy it is to use the blends or make certain meals.  When I do Reels on different recipes that are quick and easy, my sales go through the roof. I can have maybe 10 of each product left on that given day, and the minute I put a Reel up with a quick recipe, the item sells out. I find that showing your customers how to use your products almost reminds them that your product is even in their pantry. It gives them a solution on how to use your product. It also has them coming back because there may be customers that may not have purchased the blend but seeing a particular blend used in a Reel, they’re so intrigued by what I made that they come back and purchase it. [Hello Alice Guide: Establish Your Social Media Presence] You recently launched a line of infused olive oils. How do you decide on what products to offer? The olive oil has been great. They’ve been selling out also, so it’s been great to have them, and I love how people respond to the oils. The way that I ideate which flavors to come out with first is I put out a poll on Instagram and ask, “What kind of flavors would you like to see in an olive oil?” And I put out different flavors that I was already thinking about. I use that as a survey to see what I should do next, but I also look at which blends are more popular. Our house blend, which is a garlic and herb blend, is one of our more popular spice blends. I also have a garlic salt that comes out, and it’s limited edition. Every time I put it out, it sells out immediately. So I know that my customers love garlic, and that one was one that I knew that I had to offer to them based on the things that I’ve already put out and the things they already love.   [Hello Alice Guide: Diversify Your Food & Beverage Product Offerings] What’s the process of creating your products? Do you make them at home or use a co-packer?  I do a mix of both. The spice blends are created in my small warehouse. But for the olive oils, I work with a company that makes olive oils, and I work with them to create the recipe for each oil. The olives are sourced in California, and they press them down to create the oils. Then I work with them to infuse our olive oils and ideate on what flavors to infuse the oils with.   We hear a lot from owners about the challenges of finding funding to start a business. How did you finance your business? I funded it with my salary at my 9-to-5 job. My advice to small business owners that want to start is to start up small. See how your customers react to your products, and then continue to grow your inventory. I feel like that’s been the most successful strategy for me. I started off small; I only offered three spice blends and a couple of items that had to do with kitchenware. For each blend, I started with 30 for each and didn’t want to do a large amount. I wanted to see how my consumer base reacted to the product and then use the profit from that first launch to continue growing my inventory. I have not used any of the funds that I’ve made from Home Beis. I’ve continued to invest the profits into the business. As the business grows, I continue to invest in a larger inventory. Hopefully, as it grows, I can outsource a company that can create the blends for me. Then I can focus on social media and shipping them out and not having to create them ourselves. What’s your vision for your brand? I want Home Beis to be a lifestyle brand. I want to encompass what a home is and the feeling of home, so I hope to grow our product line to offer more products. I would love it if our products could be in big department stores, whether it be Target or Walmart. My main focus is impacting customers, showing them that there is a better alternative to spices and seasoning up your food in a great way and that doesn’t require you to consume foods that aren’t that great for you, and put your health at risk, and showing specifically my community, which is Black and Brown, people of color, that there are alternatives. There are alternatives, and there are other ways that they can incorporate flavor in their food that doesn’t require loads of sodium. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Sep 6, 2021 • 7 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

How This Vending Machine Entrepreneur Found Success

When a vending machine eats your dollar, Tina Paine is the person who comes to the rescue. The vending machine entrepreneur shares the secretes to her success. "I'm there in, like, two minutes," jokes the owner of Wicked Healthy Vending, one of the fastest-growing healthy vending companies in Massachusetts. The daughter of a small business owner herself, the 60-year-old got into the vending business in 2014 after a long career working in corporate compliance. Today, Wicked Healthy has nearly 50 machines across the state with a focus on providing access to healthy snacks to disadvantaged communities. Q&A with Tina Paine of Wicked Healthy Vending Hello Alice caught up with Paine to discuss her path to vending, how she has managed her company's growth, and the lessons about contracts, professionalism, and business etiquette that she's carried from her corporate life. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. What kind of business did your dad run? My dad was a meat wholesaler in Everett, Mass. He passed away when I was 11, and we shared the same birthday. He used to bring us into the meat wholesale place, and I remember all the carcasses in the cold freezer and all the sawdust on the floor. We would go along with him when he was trying to make deals with restaurants — me and my little brother would eat the sugar cubes off the table while he was trying to get a contract. I remember he used to come home with all these papers. I would jump down the stairs to greet him and ask if I could play with his adding machine and pretend like I was working for the business. I loved it! Vending machines are everywhere, but most people rarely notice them. What did you know about the industry before you started Wicked Healthy? I didn't know anything about the industry! It's not like I wanted to be like, 'Oh geez, I always wanted to be a vending lady!' I just knew I wanted my own business. When I was searching for an idea, I found a company called Naturals2Go. That gave me a jumpstart. I bought my initial machines from them, and they supported me with training and teaching me about the business. From there, I expanded and located machines on my own. That guidance into the industry was great before I jumped into it. How exactly does your business work? I started with five machines at the end of 2013, and I was working a corporate job all the way to the end of 2018. Then I decided to focus on the business full time. I'm currently growing by about eight machines a year, although the pandemic set me back a bit. Today I have about 46 machines. I have two employees and a warehouse. Each employee is assigned their own van, and they primarily fill the vending machines. My husband recently retired, so he's helping out. There's a lot of shopping involved, a lot of purchasing, and a lot of putting away stock. As for me, I run the business, I grow the business, and I reach out to the community. Starting in July, we're starting to see a lot more interest again, so we have new locations coming up. Tina Paine and her husband, John. Was this a turnkey operation, or did you have to figure everything out with stocking, deliveries, etc.? Naturals2Go sold me an initial five machines with the credit card readers, and they had a three-day training explaining everything. You would play with the machine and learn what to do, but after that, I was on my own to grow the business and stock the machines. I actually had one machine delivered to my house so I could mess with it. At first, we went to Costco and Sam's Club and Walmart, and we were experimenting with all the snacks. I pretty much learned on the fly as I went along. How quickly did you bring on employees when you started a business? When I got to about 16 machines, I got my nephew to help. He was in his early 20s, and he hadn't found his career. It helped him, and it helped me to handle filling machines, going to the bank, going shopping. Then he left for his real job, and I hired Dan, who is the husband of a woman from my corporate job. When it got to about 32 machines, I was looking to leave my office job because the business was getting to be too much. That's when I hired Tricia, who I found through my local Facebook community group. The hours are great for working moms or working dads because it's all in the morning. You do your vending, you're done by 1 or 2 p.m., and pick up the kids. Tricia's been working out great. Wow, it sounds like you've had great hiring experiences! I've been very, very lucky! Thankfully, I have my big Italian family to fall back on. My other nephew — he's in his 30s — is actually helping me shop right now. Some might be under the impression that a vending machine is a vending machine — that they're interchangeable. But your entire business is about countering that notion, right? Oh, absolutely! We're a value-added partner. This is just more than providing one vending machine. It's a lot about community, too. I try to go into disadvantaged communities that want to have me in their location, so I can get healthier options for them. We have some YMCAs that are more financially disadvantaged, and that's where I try to get involved. It's really important to me to feature woman-made products in my machines, too. I kind of want to start a Women in Vending group! Interesting! Have there been obstacles as a woman vending machine entrepreneur? Yes, definitely. Typically, this is an old boys' club type of business. A lot of the vendors that have been established for years are still out there. I joined a local vending association, and the whole board is men. I can't seem to get any communication from them. However, the tides are turning because a lot of the decision-makers out there are women, and a lot of locations are looking for healthier options. Some of the old vendors are throwing in a couple of Baked Lays in their machines and calling themselves healthy, but I don't think that's going to fly. Companies and organizations are really moving to healthier options for their employees or customers or clients, and they're going to be seeking out the ones that are truly committed. They're going to look for somebody like me. What were some of the big lessons you learned as a first-time business owner? The actual vending business is a really simple concept, but it's hard work. The biggest thing I learned is that when someone wants my services, I need to ask the correct questions to make sure that the location is profitable for me. Initially, when I heard a potential location had 100 employees on-site, I was jumping at the opportunity. But that could be a slow location! For example, I had a gas company where 100 employees were all drivers, which means they were out all day and not buying snacks. That more sophisticated understanding means that I have to turn some customers down. That's a big shift. In the beginning, I didn't want to say 'no.' What lessons did you bring from the corporate world that have helped you with your business? Everything you do in life is a lesson for later. I was a senior manager in regulatory in the mutual fund industry, and I have a lot of background in legal compliance. That means contracts. The thing is, a lot of vendors out there operate on handshakes; they think it's really cool not to have a contract. I'm not one of those people. Being able to do a contract, just having the wherewithal to be professional in my writing and my business plans — it's definitely helped. Even though I have two employees, we have staff meetings. I try to run things the way I would if we were a business of 100 people. We're a small group, and we're like family, but at the same time, I tried to put structure around it. That's legitimized me and given me business; I differentiate myself a little bit maybe because of that structure. You've said that your advice to other entrepreneurs is to not isolate yourself. What inspired that comment? When I worked in the corporate world, you could talk to someone over the cube. You're chatting about this idea you had, or you don't agree with your boss or something. Whatever it is, you can talk to somebody about it. But now, I'm by myself, and I'm working 15 million hours a day. I realized that I felt alone in a way. So, what do I need to do? I joined the chamber and the WBENC. I started to go take some classes. I was feeling like I was on an island, but it was my own island. Now I really feel better. I want to be around other entrepreneurs to share ideas, and I want to be around other women supporting women. Really, I wanted to grow as an entrepreneur, because you're not gonna learn everything by yourself. That's why it was important to me. You've ironed out a lot of the kinks with your business over the years. What challenges are you still working on? I have a lot of growth opportunities that are out there, and that's actually a challenge because I don't know what I'm dealing with yet. I don't know if I'm going to need 20 machines or 100 machines. It's going to be challenging to get that other employee scheduled in while also trying to be efficient and not have to buy an additional vehicle. And this is silly, but if you'd asked me what I dislike about what I do, I would have to say the nature of the business. Every so often, I'll get a call at 7 o'clock at night from somebody whose dollar is stuck in the machine because it's jammed or pennies were put in the machine. It's not like back in the day where we can just be like, 'Write to us, and we'll send the money!' I'm there in, like, two minutes. It's so funny that after all these years and with high-tech machines the dollars still get stuck! Oh, absolutely! The more high-tech something is, the more sensitive it is. One thing is off just a little bit, and everything will shut down. But that's just the nature of the business, and every business has its thing. Anything else you'd like to share about your journey as a vending machine entrepreneur? I'm glad I did it, and it challenges me every day. Like, I'm doing pitch competitions, and I become a nervous wreck before I do one. But every time I do it, it challenges me to be better and more confident. The business has definitely helped me in a lot of ways that staying with my corporate job would never have. Also, I'm 60, and I can still see 10 years to my horizon with the company. I'm not sure if I want to sell it to family or one of my employees, or maybe just kind of step back into a higher role. My daughter's looking to have her first child, so that will come into play as well. I'm mostly trying to balance time. Somebody saw me working so much and gave me some advice: 'Stop being a crappy boss to yourself.' That was a lesson that stuck with me. I'm not going to be a crappy boss to myself! For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Aug 31, 2021 • 7 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Meet the Circus Performer With a Big-Tent Approach to Entrepreneurship

Katherine Tesch never intended to start a business. But while Tesch was working at the circus, doing everything from aerial silks performances to stilt acrobatics to fire poi, people started asking for lessons.  Over time, she built a healthy client base from around Tucson, Arizona, and a “For Rent” notice outside an empty warehouse felt like a sign that it was the right time to start a full-time circus education program.  “It started to become my main focus, and I realized that this needs to be more of an official thing,” Tesch says. “At some point, we got a space, and I registered our LLC.” That was in 2015. Since then, Tesch has grown The Circus Academy of Tucson to provide classes on the circus arts to kids and adults, including acrobatics, stilt walking, and juggling. Some clients hope to perform seriously, while others are one-off groups there for bachelorette parties. Hello Alice caught up with Tesch to discuss finding the perfect location for your business, building a team, and tailoring your offerings to a wide range of customers. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. How did you get into the circus? I was a ballet dancer. I went to dance school in high school. Then I went to college, and I saw a circus, and I thought it was the coolest thing. I started following them around, and they noticed I wasn’t going away and started training me. I eventually started performing for them. Have you had experience starting a business before? Were there any resources that helped you gain insight into owning a business? I had no experience. Starting a business was a huge learning curve. I learned everything by Googling it, doing research, figuring it out, and talking to whoever I could. Over the years, I’ve realized that there are resources — I just didn’t know about them. There’s a Women’s Business Center here that has resources for learning more on how to do this the right way. How did you build your student base? Initially, I had a few people that reached out because they saw performances. Then it was a lot of word of mouth. That was the primary thing. We then started taking the kids to community events to do performances, going to places that were geared towards kids and families, and reaching those audiences. That was a major marketing push. We’ve never done much marketing. When we moved into our building, it’s on a major intersection. So, we have a huge sign on a major intersection. That’s kind of our main marketing now. Yeah, location is so important! What was the process in finding the right spot for your business?  For us, the right location is super key because we have specific needs. We teach circus, so we need to have a large open space with tall ceilings. What we have is a warehouse. I spent months and months searching. Since the building is on a major intersection, I’d always see this building, and I’m like, ‘Man, that would be such a cool place, but there’s no way I’m ever going to get it.’ Coincidentally, when I was looking, they put up a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window. I called, and it all worked out. How did you fund the business? I started with no funding. I had some personal savings of $10,000, and then my parents loaned me about $10,000. I had a student base already, so that was my strength.  When we found our building, I created a business plan and went to them. I essentially told them I have no funding, but I have a student base, and we are going to pay our rent. And they took the leap. That was the thing that made it possible. They believed in me, and they were like, ‘We like you. Your business plan was great. Yes, let’s try.’ They let me rent the building, essentially having no funding.  [Hello Alice Guide: Bootstrap Your Business] How did you build your team? My team is filled with my students. Right now, I have two full-time people. One of them joined me when she moved to Tucson for college. She had already been performing at a youth circus in her hometown. She came in, she took some classes for a while, and I realized she was really good, so she came on as a team member.  My other full-time person also was a student. She came in recreationally and started training, and she was super awesome and dedicated. She was a school teacher, so she has a background in education. Recently, this past summer, she was like, ‘I’m ready. I want to do it full time.’ So she moved into our full-time staff.  Other than that, most of our team members are youths who have graduated and teams that want to increase their participation. [Hello Alice Guide: Hire Your First Employee] Circus training can be scary for a lot of people. How do you communicate to your students who are afraid or nervous that it’ll be safe? A huge part of our mission is to have a really supportive environment. We move into everything really slowly; it means a lot of scaffolding. Everything starts close to the floor. If the student is experiencing a lot of fear, we always take a step back. If the kid is upset or fearful, I would never push them to keep going. We always take a step back and then start moving forward again, and usually, that works.  In terms of performance, again, I never make anyone perform. It’s only if they want to. If they’re super afraid of it, I don’t make them do it. But if I feel they’ll like it or something is holding them back, I’ll give them something really small to do at first or a low-pressure environment like a community event where it’s not like everyone’s looking at you, and try to build them up that way. You also have workshops for groups, birthdays, and bachelorette parties. Does expanding your offerings help the business in any way? Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do that for the past year and a half because of COVID. But before COVID, it was a huge asset to our business because we were able to charge a lot more for those things. That was a huge part of our business. It helped us reach people that weren’t necessarily looking for a weekly class. But often, people would do it and realize they want to take classes. How has the business been since the pandemic? In the first two months, we shut down completely. We did have to shift our business model a lot. We used to do a lot of the group classes; we would have 50 people at a time in the space. After we were closed, we reopened with one-on-one instruction, which is really different than what we did before. Then we expanded into groups of four.  It’s been really different, but it’s actually been good in a lot of ways. We’re now going to try to have two groups of four at once. We feel pretty good about that, letting people social distance. Then we hope to resume some more recreational-use performing classes, so that’ll be a little bit bigger group, but they won’t use the apparatus. It’s easier to keep them farther apart. We’re trying to combine our old model with the new model — it’s the best of both of them. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Aug 24, 2021 • 5 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

How Do You Compete With National Players? Think Local

Like a lot of people in 2020, Stacy Kazos started getting her groceries, takeout, and other necessities delivered to her home to limit her exposure to COVID-19. The convenience was undeniable, but Kazos quickly discovered that many of the app-based delivery services she used were from out of town and not always offering the best value for struggling local businesses. She wanted another option that would benefit everyone in the Siouxland region of South Dakota where she's lived for decades. Today, that option is her business called The Market Delivers. Launched in June 2021, the delivery service forges intentional relationships with drivers and restaurants to provide a local-first experience that addresses many of the pain points of the national alternatives. Dozens of partners have signed up for the fledgling service, and Kazos is excited to build a business that boosts her community and helps customers, as she puts it, "eat like a local." Q&A with Stacy Kazos of The Market Delivers Hello Alice caught up with Kazos on her way back from an industry conference to talk about taking on national competitors as a small business, the value of being local, and sharing your success with the community you serve. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. What was the delivery market like in your area before your business started? Well, you have GrubHub and DoorDash and the other national delivery services. A lot of them were around, but they weren't on my radar before the pandemic. Obviously, COVID expanded that presence. What I've realized is that I do things very differently than what the national delivery services do. Right, so what are the main pain points you're trying to solve with The Market Delivers? The main thing that I wanted to solve was the last-mile representation for the businesses that need delivery services. I wanted to fully represent their business and not come in as my own brand. That started that with my logo, which is a generic barcode. Basically, I'm the white label option. I didn't want my logo or color or anything that would interfere with the business I'm serving. Also, as a delivery business, I wanted to upgrade that experience by having delivery drivers in uniforms and marked vehicles. I wanted to be sure we were identified, just like a UPS driver or any other professional business coming into a community. Those were two very big changes that weren't being addressed by the national delivery services. [Hello Alice Guide: Create a Brand Identity] I also really wanted to celebrate the local businesses and the mom-and-pop restaurants. My goal was to make eating like a local convenient! Now that I have the infrastructure for delivery and a network of drivers, I do plan to expand to delivering products that aren't just food items. The national players have a huge head start. How did you recruit both drivers and restaurants? What was your sales pitch? To be perfectly honest, it's been pretty easy with the restaurants. By the time I went in to talk to them, they recognized that delivery is simply a demand from customers now. So I came in, and they met with me — which was big, because the other companies don't have a local presence like I do. Then I told them that I only took a small percentage, which is something that they could upcharge on their menu items and be able to offer "free" delivery. So I'm giving them a delivery service that's more boutique style, but also one that's not stealing their profits. Just by sharing that, I was able to sign up 20 restaurants in the first week or two. I have 10 more to add when I get home from this trip. Two restaurants actually called me while I was on the trip that I need to add. And that last handful of restaurants I didn't approach at all — they found me on Facebook and said they want my services. Really, I just had to go in and show them there was a better way. When I would go to the businesses, the owners would be there. They knew that I was local and if a driver doesn't show up, they can call me since I live right here in town. I'm going to take care of things. I care about my community, I care about the growth, I care about people coming back after this pandemic. I realize that if our local restaurants and businesses fail during all that's going on right now, our towns are going to turn into pretty boring places full of chain restaurants and things that no longer make our community unique. They recognize that, too. As for drivers, that's also been pretty easy. I have probably 40 applications right now that I need to go through, and I have 10 drivers. Some of my drivers have lost their jobs from COVID issues, or they drive for another app and now they like the idea of having another service that's more respectable in the community. [Hello Alice Guide: Understand Your Market] Delivery drivers for The Market Delivers wear simple t-shirts with a QR code printed on the front and back. How did you develop the back end of the service, particularly the app and the payment system you're using? There are two main delivery software options that are used all over the country designed for this. I use DeliverLogic, so I didn't have to figure that stuff out myself. In seven weeks, we've done over $25,000 worth of food sales, and we've done almost 700 deliveries. That's from launching my business on June 14. A lot of it is that I went to restaurants that were desperately wanting this, and I'm offering something that so many people are wanting. It's something that already existed, but I think I've improved it in such a big way that's really making an impact for all of them. My drivers are getting paid more, customers are getting their food on time, and we have a good reputation. It's just a very good partnership all the way around. The drivers are 1099 contractors, so my business is an organization of a bunch of partnerships with businesses and drivers. Part of your success is probably due to the fact that people trust you because you're from the community! Yes, they do. They know that someone genuinely cares. You have to understand that a lot of restaurant people are not technical; they're into food, and that's their passion. So when you go in and you understand their struggles, I feel like we start at a really good place. The consumers on those apps are wondering why someone can't just bring them hot food. They don't understand the logistics and all the things that happen once they place that order. When I come in, I know all the pain points and what it takes. It's refreshing to owners to see that someone really gets it, and that makes me pretty easy to work with. [Hello Alice Guide: Embed Purpose Into Your Business] What else are you trying to do with the business and in your community? Beyond food, I did go to local mechanics and tire shops to ask if they would offer my drivers a discount. So my drivers get discounts on their car washes, tires, maintenance, and oil changes. They can also go to partner restaurants and get 10% off when they want to go dine in with their families. So it's so much more than just food and delivery. This is really about community and about working together to get through what we've been through. It feels really good making money, but my drive and my goal is about helping these businesses. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Aug 20, 2021 • 5 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Why Good Photography and Customer Service Are This Baker’s Secret Weapons

Clyde Greenhouse had never sold his baked goods until his sisters brought them to their friends and co-workers. When calls started to pour in with orders, he decided to pursue a side hustle creating custom cookie tins and gift baskets for corporate clients. In 2014, Greenhouse decided to leave his corporate real estate job and launch Kessler Baking Studio, a Dallas-based bakery that specializes in cookies, brownies, and blondies like Texas-shaped shortbreads and the “Kesslerdoodle” cookie. Since opening the shop, Greenhouse has become a must-see Dallas foodie destination and was nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker in 2020. Hello Alice talked to Greenhouse about taking a leap into entrepreneurship, the importance of using high-quality photography for your social media, and why great customer service can bring brand awareness to your business. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. How did you get into baking? It wasn't baking at first. I started culinary classes at a local junior college while I was in corporate. Then I discovered that I was more of a baker. I was more of a formula person using precise measurements versus someone that threw ingredients together. What was it like going from the corporate world to launching Kessler Baking Studio? Giving up a corporate salary and starting a business where it was just me — that was quite challenging. The first year, I struggled between trying to bake while waiting on customers. It was only a year later I had someone that could help me at the front counter. That was the biggest leap: going from a corporate environment where you had support staff to operating a business all by yourself. What did the transition into a full-time business look like? It was scary. I had saved some money that I was able to use for the business, but the first year was probably the most challenging. The leap was giving up that corporate salary and now depending solely on my business, which was in an area that's very transitional here in Dallas. It’s booming now. There's new developments in the area; there's new apartments.  I bought an old 1920s bungalow, and that's where my business is located. It's on a block with a couple of other businesses that are in bungalows as well. But it was still a challenge to get noticed. Was there anything that you did to help your business get attention? Social media is something I took to first: Facebook, Instagram. One of the things that helped me was I met someone who coached me through it. She actually had a bakery business in California, and she had a thriving Instagram account on what gets people to land on your social media.  What we talked about was mostly good photography. I wasn't very good at taking photos with my cell phone, which she didn't recommend, so I've hired photographers that did photos of my product and use those. That seems to have brought more attention to my business. One of my biggest things is customer service. No matter how bad of a day I was having, I would never let my customers know that. I’m always happy to see customers, and those customers helped with the word of mouth and getting my business out there. That was something that was very crucial to growing my business: providing excellent customer service and making people feel very welcome when they walked into the bakery. Then they would come back with friends and family. Have there been any challenges you’ve faced since opening Kessler Baking Studio? As soon as things started to pick up, there were obstacles that I had not anticipated. One of the things is that the City of Dallas started building a streetcar, and the streetcar runs right in front of the bakery. The street was closed for months with very limited access. One of the other things is that earlier in 2020, I was at an event doing a pop-up and a friend messaged me that I was the semifinalist for the James Beard Award, which was a shock to me. I had no clue that it was being considered for one, and we were really hopping after that. People traveling into Dallas made this a destination, and then the pandemic started three weeks after that. There's just a number of challenges along the way, but again, it was just wanting to do something that made me happy. How did you get through those unexpected challenges? What were your solutions? When the streetcar was coming in, I really used social media. I offered special products that I normally would not do, like tarts and cakes. We really focused on cookies, brownies, blondies here, but I started offering things like specialty items that attracted people and got attention. Prior to the pandemic, we were just a retail location. We had a web presence, but not a website where you can purchase. As soon as a pandemic started, we pivoted to an online ordering system, as well as local delivery that we didn't offer before. Even though about two months ago, we started allowing people back into the bakery, we still have a lot of people that enjoy curbside pickup. Customers that really know what they want here; they found that item they enjoy, and they come back again and again for us. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Aug 18, 2021 • 4 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Michelle Tu on Going From Scientist to Serial Entrepreneur

Looking back on her childhood, Michelle Tu remembers developing her own comic book characters and painting along with Bob Ross on TV. But practical concerns overtook her creative projects as she grew up and pursued a career in science, earning an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and a doctorate in cell biology. Tu initially put that science background to work in a skincare company she founded called Cura. She also picked up candlemaking as a hobby to relax and channel her long-lost creativity on the side. Soon enough, that side hustle became her obsession, and Tu founded Modern Theory, a second business that offers chic, eco-friendly candles made with sustainability and social impact in mind. The more she invested in the candle business, the more she realized it was her true passion. So in 2020, Tu decided to close Cura for good and pursue Modern Theory full time. Q&A with Michelle Tu, Founder of Modern Theory Hello Alice talked with Tu about finding the courage to move on from a business you no longer love, finding packaging on Alibaba, and leaning on your network for the skills you might not have. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. You grew up creative but ended up becoming a scientist. Was there a particular experience that triggered your desire to ultimately pursue the creative route? Growing up, making and creating art was something that came naturally to me. But my parents immigrated to the U.S. during the Vietnam War, so there was a lot of expectation on me to do well in school and eventually find a stable, good-paying job. They wanted me to pursue the sciences or go to med school, and at first, I didn't have an issue with that. I actually really loved science! So as I entered grade school and high school, I shifted my attention so that my creative pursuits went to the wayside. I was more focused on getting good grades and trying to make my parents proud. Ultimately, I went on to pursue my Ph.D. in cell biology. Again, I love being a scientist. I could talk about stoichiometry all day! But there's still very much a part of me that loves to be creative and interested in natural things. So after I finished my Ph.D., I decided to start my own skincare company called Cura. I knew that I didn't want to sit at the lab bench for the rest of my life. I also knew that I wanted a physical product. But I quickly found out that the beauty industry just wasn't for me; it didn't actually align with a lot of my core values, and that's okay! I had to find that out for myself. I never felt that I fit in or connected with the industry on a certain level. You should be super passionate about this company you started, but I didn't feel that way. I kind of kept trucking along for a while, but I started looking for creative outlets to just help me decompress and relax. I started candlemaking as a hobby, and I loved it. It was something that was so simple, but there was still a little bit of science involved. There is something very calming to me that kept me grounded and gave me an opportunity to be creative. Then I started sharing my candles with family and friends. One day, I decided to create a super-simple website, throw my candles on there, and see what happens. My candles sold out within a weekend. That was when I got the motivation to turn this side hustle into a real, bonafide business. A lot of entrepreneurs have a similar realization where they start one thing and it's going okay, but they realize they want to do something else instead. What was that process like for you with the skincare company and saying goodbye to it? I realized last summer that I don't know if I can handle trying to run two businesses at the same time against this backdrop of the pandemic. The catalyst was this really great conversation with my mom. We talked about what actually brings us joy and what makes us happy because, again, that's what's so important, right? I asked myself: Am I excited to get up and work on Modern Theory and fulfill orders and talk to customers? Do I have that same feeling when it comes to Cura? And I realized that I really didn't! It was hard for me because I felt like I was letting others down and that I was failing in some way. That was a scary, scary thing for me that prevented me from closing Cura sooner. Ultimately it was the best decision for me, and I received nothing but support from friends and family. The worst-case scenario was only in my head. It's so important to let other entrepreneurs know that you're the one that's in control, you're in the driver's seat, and no one knows your business and what you're going through better than you. When you're an entrepreneur, it's really easy to take stuff personally. Once I got over the whole idea of thinking that I was a failure or disappointing people, I was able to let go of a burden. Now I could really focus on something that I enjoyed, and it doesn't really feel like work. At the end of the day, it feels like a fun project that I get to work on with friends, meet new people, and also make some money. Michelle Tu, founder and CEO of Modern Theory I imagine you're one of the very few candle makers who has an advanced degree. Has your science background helped you work with manufacturers and create a different kind of product? For me, what's been really helpful with my science background is my approach to data and critical thinking. There are a lot of folks in the candle business. It's very important for me to dissect the data and look at the data and see what's moving the needle and what's not. This is still a business, and I need to stay afloat. That has helped me source really good vendors and manufacturers as well. Still, it's mostly been my creative side that has really shined throughout this. Because again, the candle market is very saturated. It's the story of the product and the small difference that you're making in your branding that resonates with a lot of customers. How have you approached your sales and marketing strategy? Do you want to be a direct-to-consumer brand? A fancy boutique brand? Some mix thereof? When I started Modern Theory, I knew right away that I wanted to take an omnichannel approach, and I wanted to make sure that I made my candles accessible. So I never really focus on one specific channel. I want to be able to say that Modern Theory is in this small boutique or a bigger, well-known department store. I could see Modern Theory in a variety of retail locations but also just being sold through different channels. That accessibility was really important for me. How did you find your supplier? I did a lot of Google research to find manufacturers and vendors that I could work with domestically. That was really important to me. On the other hand, my boxes come from a vendor in China. I started using Alibaba in 2012 or 2013 to find stuff like that. It was still very much in early beta mode back then, but I tried to figure it out. I was always up at like 1 or 2 a.m. talking to different vendors because I want to be on their time zone. I think that worked out, but again, I try to mainly work with vendors in the U.S. because it is 100% easier. There are some cost issues, though, so sometimes it does make more sense to work with people overseas. What does your team look like? Do you have any advice on finding outside help? Really, I am a team of one, but I've been working really closely with some marketing consultants. I also had an intern over the summer, and she'll be returning for the fall. But again, very small team. Everyone expects you to have this enormous operation with all these folks working on different things. But when you're starting out and you're a small business, you really do have to wear all the hats. Surprisingly, I enjoy that because you understand the pain points, and you have to learn. I am by no means an expert when it comes to digital marketing, but it's something that I've had to really throw myself into and learn the ins and outs of. Still, I am thankful that I have some help, and I really lean on my network. I have a bunch of friends who are fantastic photographers, so I'll talk to them and ask if there is any way that I can work with them and barter free product. Whatever I needed, I tried to figure out a way, because a lot of times, you can negotiate with folks. I leaned very heavily on my network to find other people who could help. Networking is super important. You need to sift through your Rolodex of people to get things done, even if you don't think you can afford to. There is always a way to make it happen. Many brands these days build their product into a lifestyle where their customers are members of an exclusive community. Is that something you're interested in? That's the goal for most brands because it's so important to build that community of fans. I want to get better at that, but I don't know what the magical process is when it comes to creating that feeling. I've been slowly trying to create a small community with my repeat customers, and it's been really great. I have real connections with these people; I try to send very thoughtful, personal emails as if a friend is writing to you. Many times I get responses, and there will be customers who tell me stories about their kids or how this candle reminds them of a summer staying in a cabin with their grandparents. It's really awesome, and I try to respond to all of those messages. I love learning about people and being able to share my stories and then be able to connect with them through those stories. Hopefully, one day there will be a larger Modern Theory community where we can all share these connections. Do you see Modern Theory growing beyond a candle company to offer more products? I think so! It's always exciting when I think about that because there are so many different avenues that I can see Modern Theory going down. I want people to be able to recognize Modern Theory as a great candle company and a home goods company with high-quality products. There is potential for other lines, like hand soaps or hand creams. What I've found is a lot of people love the different scents. So again, how do I recreate the candle experience but in a different form? Expanding the line and growing it into different products is a goal of mine. I want Modern Theory to be sort of an everyday household item that people really admire. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Aug 16, 2021 • 7 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Mima Market Curates Goods from Miami Artisans

While working as freelancers in the Bay Area, Alexandra Cava Palomino and Raul Parra Orizondo loved going to the region's small shops that offered local goods from the community there. But when they moved to Miami, the couple saw a lack of local artisan shops. “We were inspired by different communities that were doing everything locally,” says Parra Orizondo. “We were experimenting a little bit and set up a trailer and started going to markets. But we were missing that part of having a place where people could come in.” So the couple started to look around the city for a retail space and found a spot in the Miami Shores neighborhood. What is Mima Market? In 2018, the young couple opened Mima Market, a centralized hub for groceries and goods from Miami artisans and small businesses. The brick-and-mortar also serves as an education space for the community, hosting classes on topics like keeping honey bees, kombucha making, and recycling. “We wanted to create a space that could celebrate things that were being made and grown locally by artisans and where we could learn, and other people in the community can share really valuable knowledge,” says Cava Palomino. Q&A with the Mima Market Founders Hello Alice spoke with the couple to discuss building community at your business, splitting responsibilities as co-founders, and running a business with a newborn. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Your store brings people together. How do you cultivate community at Mima Market?  Raul Parra Orizondo: We focus on sustainability, and customers just want to come in and learn about the process. We started finding farmers and buying fruits and vegetables when they’re in season and finding makers doing interesting things. For us, it was really important to have a hub to ask and talk about the environment, gardening, community, eating healthy, natural dyes. It was really important to bring in the community and have events like customers coming in to learn how to make kombucha. Alexandra Cava Palomino: We have over 100 vendors that we work with who are all local. A lot of them know each other, and then they have a network of customers they know. Then their customers will even request specific products or work with artisans. That’s what makes us unique. Because we’re such a small team, we’re really flexible and have people participate actively, like turning the store into a gallery one day or doing things that are a little bit out of the box. People in the local community see us as a place for that, which is nice.  People would come to us and say, ‘I’m starting a business, and I heard you might be able to try my products.’ Sometimes a vendor might not be ready to have their products for sale, but they know that they can come to us and get some information about where to go. So it’s really about empowering independent makers and the community at large. Since starting the business in 2018, how have things changed, especially with the pandemic? ACP: In 2018, there were a lot of farmers markets that were similar to what we were doing, but there wasn’t a brick-and-mortar shop that was all local. Since then, we saw more of a shift towards us, and that was a pivotal moment. It wasn’t just us; it was also on the minds of people.  Especially with COVID, it was interesting to see. Some people were obviously ordering online and getting products shipped to them, but there was also this real desire from people to continue to support businesses locally because they knew if they didn’t during that critical time, a lot of them wouldn’t be around once the dust settled. That was an interesting moment. A lot of businesses that we’re working with right now started at that time.  When you started Mima Market, was that your first time going into entrepreneurship? ACP: We were both freelancers. I’m an artist, photographer, and illustrator, so I have been working in magazines and freelance photography and illustration. Raul is a freelance IT specialist, so we had some knowledge of business in that way, but really nothing compared to what is needed to manage this brick-and-mortar store. We just dove into it. We’ve been learning a lot on the way, and we’re still learning all the time.  And what business lessons have you learned along the way? ACP: I would say the number one thing that we learned is that the quality of collaboration is the most important thing. You can have a network of people that you work with or a customer base and know a bunch of people. But it’s really about the quality of that connection that’s really going to be a value. For example, I can have a vendor who I work with who sells their products. If they don’t check in to see how it’s doing, or they don’t care about how it’s selling them — that makes a huge difference in how successful the product is at the store.  RPO: For me, I rely on the process of learning from other people. For example, some classes on marketing don’t really match our business needs.  ACP: Yeah, sometimes we’ve connected our vendors with other vendors who have gone through a similar situation. You can go to a general marketing class, and that might not have anything to do with your specific issue. But if you speak to someone who has gone through it and has figured it out, that could be a stronger relationship and a better way to learn.  How do you strengthen communication with your customers? RPO: For us, we’re doing things like texting with the patrons, where customers can come and meet the makers and talk to them. Also, when they go to our website and look for us, the first thing they see are the names of the makers. Usually, when you go to the market, you don’t know the person behind the product. ACP: We opened up the lines of communication. When someone is taking a workshop with someone, we’ve seen friendships happen, which is really special. We’ve also formed friendships with vendors and customers. You have to go shopping every day; that’s part of life’s everyday chores. But if they could be something that’s more meaningful and even fun, then why not? As co-founders, how do you split the responsibilities? ACP: We figured it out over time. We didn’t know in the beginning. Over time, we’ve kind of created more guidelines and structure for the business. I’m more of the organizational mind, so I’ve been writing down, ‘Okay, this is your thing for this day,’ because I like structure. Raul is definitely the big picture person and a really good motivator within the business, but also with the other people that we work with. That’s Raul’s strength — really looking at where we could go from here and looking at ways to expand the business. We’ve mostly split it up that way: I do all the social media; Raul does the financials. Over time, we figured out how to divvy things up.  We just had a baby a month ago. Raul is taking on a lot more responsibilities, as well as the employee that we work with. It’s definitely playing to your strengths. Congratulations! How is it like running the business with a new baby? ACP: In this first month, for me, it was important to step back from the business. I decided that I really wanted to have time to be at home with a baby and, you know, post on Instagram, and that was about it at least for a month or two. That’s been an interesting experience. Raul is taking more responsibilities, and he’s seeing things like, ‘This thing is not working. I’m going to change it around.’ So me letting go of that control a little bit has been a good process for the business. Anytime there’s been a change like that where you have to adapt, that means you learn a lot. What’s your vision for Mima Market? RPO: We really would like to continue empowering people, vendors, and small businesses in the area. We would like to have more education and more space where people could come, spend time, and learn and grow like a cultural center. Our space is beautiful and lovely, but it’s a little shop. It would be a great opportunity not only for the vendors that we are working with but the new vendors who are coming in. ACP: And ideally, what we have envisioned for the space in the future will also have a bit of outdoor space. That’s really what makes Miami extremely special. Most people who grow up here or really anywhere in the States, there’s a disconnect from the land, and we’re getting reinterested again. I would love for more people to see all of the things that can grow here and how to use it in your everyday life.  For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Aug 10, 2021 • 6 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Q&A with The Soapbox Project Founder Nivi Achanta

Nivi Achanta knows that the world is burning. But what are we all going to do about it? That's the problem she hopes to address with The Soapbox Project, her newsletter-driven community that provides bite-sized action plans to tackle one aspect of climate change each month. Recently, Soapbox has dedicated programming to Bitcoin, fast fashion, food waste, fracking, and beyond. The idea is to deconstruct each topic into easy-to-understand parts and encourage readers to take immediate, impactful, and local action — all while (hopefully) having a good time. "A lot of people don't have close friends in their life who they can talk to seriously about social issues," says the Soapbox founder and CEO, who comes from a background in consulting. "Our community is a great place to actually share what you're thinking and what you're reading and what you're listening to — and then do something about it within your community." Hello Alice called up Achanta to discuss making social activism fun, classifying her Headspace subscription as a business expense, and building a virtual community that fosters real-world change. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. How did you choose your name? The connotation of a soapbox is that someone 'gets on their soapbox' and rants about whatever. But something has always stood out to me about that. People usually say, I'm sorry, I'll step off my soapbox now — but only after they have said something very important! So I wondered, what if you can give everyone a soapbox to amplify their own voices? It was this idea of having a platform that would allow other people to step up and say their piece and have an audience that would listen to them. What first motivated you to start The Soapbox Project? In college I pursued econ and stats because my dad was like, 'You should go to school for econ and stats.' I wasn't passionate about anything, so I just did what he told me. Then my senior year at UC Davis, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, as one does, and I decided to start this chapter of an international nonprofit called Net Impact. To be honest, I wanted to flex and just say I started something. It seemed like all of my friends around the Bay Area were starting things and doing all these entrepreneurship things. I didn't really want to become an entrepreneur, but I also wanted to do something different than just go to class. Basically, we had a bunch of members join who were really interested in very specific environmental causes, like water management and waste management. That was the first time where I sort of just laid this empty canvas out for people and let them define the vision and the goals of an organization. That was so cool to see how good I was at providing structure and then other people coming in with their own talents and their own knowledge to shape an organization. I also realized how much work is needed in the environmental and social impact space. When it came time to find a job, I was really looking for something that would pay me money. [laughs] That's when I joined as a consultant with Accenture. One of the things that appealed to me about them was that they were like, 'You can join our company and change the world!' That sounds awesome, but it was sort of a misleading proposition. I realized that most of my time was spent on very typical corporate tasks. It was a very jarring shift going from this spirit of solutions with Net Impact to following the rules and checking the boxes. I was also getting increasingly aware of other issues beyond climate. When you live in San Francisco, which I was at the time, it is very obvious that inequality is rampant and staring you in the face. One side of Market Street would be the skyscraper where I was working, and on the other side, there would be tents and very obvious drug problems. I went to work very frustrated at how I had the resources and knowledge and intention to do something positive in the world, but I really wasn't doing it. All I was doing was talking about how I wanted to do it! Then the 2018 wildfires happened, and my partner's home in Paradise burned down. That was one of the turning points for me where I was like, 'We actually really have to stop saying that we're going to do something positive and actually do it.' Soon after that, I started writing climate action newsletters. I wanted them to be bite-sized and fun and approachable for busy people because my biggest challenge was that I just felt like I didn't know what to do and where I would have the most impact. I wanted to solve that problem for other people who are like me. Did you have a model of what it would become or want to create something new? A little bit of both. Over time, it became increasingly clear to me that it's not that we don't have enough information. This world has more than enough information! Rather, it's about how to create a journey that takes people from information to action in ways that are sustainable over the long term. How do you sustain action as part of who you are? There are some models that were pretty easy to draw from, like change.org and even something like GoFundMe. Those are the types of links that you'd see when something bad is going on in the world that's very obvious and people can take action off of it. But the thing that I wanted to create is something to help us stop reacting all the time to news events. I want to help build this as a habit in your life. So the other thing that I noticed is a lot of products and services similar to Soapbox have been created. Like, there's a lot of websites that ask you where you live, what you're interested in, and they will match you with an opportunity or an event. For whatever reason, those have mostly died out. I think a lot of them have been started as side projects, and it's really easy to give up on something because it's not solvable overnight by a tech algorithm, and you really have to do the work to put people first and connect people to make it scale. The reason that I haven't given up yet is that I am not very interested in easy tech solutions. Technology is really important in enabling the solutions that I want to see, but I'm recognizing every day how hard it is to create a platform that makes social impact easy for busy people. The newsletter has a very set structure where each monthly topic is broken down into four weekly activities: Read, Listen, Act, Reflect. How did you arrive on that design?  This structure has existed since November 2019. Off the bat, I realized that there were two types of reasons that I was getting lost with other activist-oriented stuff. The first is that the information was way too dense. The second was kind of the opposite end of the spectrum where they would tell me to compost or recycle, and then I would be like, why does this matter? I couldn't find a middle ground that helped me retain the information that I was learning while not confusing the hell out of me. For me, I needed to have an action plan but know why I was taking those actions. So I signed up for a couple of other environmental newsletters. What I noticed is that they will have only the actions, like donate or sign this petition. I wouldn't do it because it just didn't seem personal enough. I cared that the world was burning, but I didn't understand how it was relevant to me or where my money was going. Then I remembered it takes 30 days to build a habit. That was my inspiration behind choosing a monthly topic and knowing that people need these reminders weekly because there's so much information in the world. So it was a combination of the knowledge of habit building along with what I personally like. You use a lot of puns and jokes in the newsletter. Why is it so important to center fun as a part of your tone, sensibility, and visual brand? I find it very hard to care about stuff that's not fun. Maybe this is the avocado toast generation of selfish millennials, but whatever you want to call it, it is what it is, and we are in a world where people won't do things unless they are convenient or appealing in some way. I try to be a good person, but if it requires walking 10 miles and volunteering at some remote place, I just won't do it. I've realized how reframing topics in my own personal life has been really important. For instance, I'm very proud of how my apartment is set up. Everything is secondhand, and before a year or two ago, I thought buying secondhand was the biggest drag in the world. Once I realized how much fun these types of sustainability actions can be, I'm looking for creative ways to set up my home, finding new recipes, and making friends. Those are the things that make me want to keep doing this work. It is not inspiring to me that the world is burning and we have to act now — that's scary, but that doesn't motivate me! If you look at the habits and the practices that people keep in their life, it's the stuff that will bring them joy and give them some amount of pleasure instead of just being depressing and scary. Which climate change is! But there's a balance to be found. How are you making this more than a side project for yourself and turning it into something that's going to scale as a business? At first, this project was very vibes-based. I was thinking that there must be a billion people like me going through the same set of struggles. A lot of that validation came from talking to people when I was at Accenture working in the office. I probably talked to 100 or 200 people at a similar career level because there are so many people that work there. I had pretty easy user research questions that I could bake into casual conversations. Very quickly, I figured out that a lot of people were in this boat. Then a couple of months ago, I stumbled upon something that was a more scientific validation of what I had been thinking all along. Basically, Deloitte put out a survey of millennials and Gen Z from 43 countries around the world. According to their survey, 75% of millennials care about climate change. Then another question asked, 'What action are you actually taking?' What I learned from that survey is only 25% of millennials were actually taking action. So then I look at the billion people in my similar age range that care deeply, have the intentions, but aren't acting upon it. That's a lot of people! That's when I realized this could be more than a content platform. Especially with COVID, people are really realizing the implications of not taking action. It's becoming clear to a lot of people that you can't wait for someone else to become part of the solution. That made me realize that this could be a business. As I mentioned, no one else is doing this. The most comparable group is the Sunrise Movement, which is an incredible movement, but again, I think that there's not enough hand-holding for people who don't know where to get started or feel like it's not their place. I know a lot of people feel intimidated to join an environmental group. I don't want to undervalue them at all, but I also think that there are not enough pathways to connect you to actions that work for you. Once I saw that the quality of actions can be improved and the quantity of people that are demanding this is huge, I realized this could be more than just a newsletter. What are some of your costs and how have you funded your business so far? A main source of funding has been savings. I actually got laid off in September, so I didn't have to make a difficult decision of like, am I going to quit? By that time I'd saved up a good amount of money, where I knew like I could live in San Francisco for four to six months. Then we moved to Seattle, and now I'm feeling much less stressed out. After I went full-time with Soapbox, we launched sponsorships for the newsletter, and then in January of this year, we actually started doing events. Then in March, we launched a membership community. I've started thinking of this as a social justice funnel: You can access the newsletter for free; if you want to get a little more engaged, you can go to an event, see if you like it and have some fun, meet some people, make some friends, take action; and then when you become a member of our community, you get access to that kind of constant engagement. Those sponsorships, events, and our membership fees are the three revenue streams. The fourth one is some one-off corporate events I've been testing. As for costs, I use Bench for accounting. It's great, but it's expensive. That 100–200 bucks is our biggest expense. Then we use Circle for the community, which is 80 bucks a month. We have some other minor software costs, but the more you grow, the more expensive those software tools get! The other costs that I try to look at as business-related costs are personal — things like my Headspace subscription for mindfulness. I was going bouldering for a bit, which is how I broke my ankle. I'm trying to consider physical and mental health as a necessary cost for my business, even though it's technically a personal cost. How are you channeling that virtual connection within your community into real-world action? A lot of people don't have close friends in their life who they can talk to seriously about social issues. Our community is a great place to actually share what you're thinking and what you're reading and what you're listening to — and then do something about it within your community. If you actually want to make a difference, look to local transit, local housing policy, and other places where it's a matter of 100 votes, not millions of votes or campaign dollars. One of the biggest goals within our membership is to build resilient communities through local actions. Every time five people from a specific geography join our membership community, I'll spin up a local channel for them. The Seattle one right now is the most active, because I'm there. We've been having monthly in-person meetups. Last month, we did a pizza party and talked about what people are interested in to get a better sense of whether we want to volunteer at a food bank or something else. One of the coolest things that's come out of that is our community members feeling more like people who can rely on each other. For our August meetup, we're actually going on a tour with an organization called Weld Seattle that's partnering with contractors to build halfway homes and group homes for people that have just been released from prison. This idea of local action channels is what a lot of people have been looking for through the newsletter. It's the human connection that you can't really get anywhere else. What's your ultimate vision for the business? I want to create a space on the internet and in real life where anyone can take action on something that's meaningful to them in a way that works for them. I find it hard to articulate what this looks like because I really think that it is going to be shaped by the people who are joining our community. Community-led efforts are the future. My hope is that I find people that are on the ground in various geographies and giving them ownership of these local action channels. I want to give them resources to actually achieve the goals that they've been probably working on for years before I had even started this project. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Aug 5, 2021 • 10 min read
Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

Tiffany Wang Won’t Rest Until You Try Her Jackfruit Chips

Many people spent the pandemic picking up new hobbies or working on passion projects. Tiffany Wang, on the other hand, was getting ready to start Ting’s Jackfruit Chips, her San Francisco-based snack company with a social mission to end world hunger.  Wang first discovered jackfruit chips while working in Asia as a graphic designer. While not common in Western diets, jackfruit is a widely-used ingredient in desserts, savory dishes, and crunchy snacks. “A little light bulb went off in my head,” she remembers thinking when she encountered jackfruit chips. “I was like, Oh, it would be really fun to have a line of these one day — but not in a serious way. It was kind of like, This could be fun!” A few years later, Wang decided to revisit this idea and officially launched Ting’s Chips in September 2020. The direct-to-consumer brand has slowly gained popularity as Wang introduces the product to the U.S. market. Q&A with Tiffany Wang of Ting's Chips Hello Alice caught up with Wang to talk about going all-in on a business idea, getting creative with product samples during a pandemic, and finding a mission that elevates her business beyond "just" selling jackfruit chips. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Is Ting’s Chips your first business, or did you have prior entrepreneurship experience? I worked in corporate for 10 years before going freelance in design about three years ago. Throughout my years, I’ve always done entrepreneurial side projects. This is my third time launching a business, and each time the project is a little bit different. My first one ever was when I was in my early 20s, and it was women’s clothing e-commerce. The other one was a herbal medicine line.  Both of those projects I’ve done with close friends. This is the first time I’m doing this on my own. Because of COVID, I was able to do that and really focus on going it myself. And I think after having had the experience of starting and running businesses in the past, I knew what to expect in terms of that it’s never going to be easy — and that’s okay. At this point, I’ve built realistic expectations that if I’m going to start anything, it’s going to take at least five to eight years before I see traction. I’m going to have to put in a lot of work and capital if I want to make this real. So regardless of the lessons you learned in the past, it’s still going to be a very gut-wrenching experience being a solo founder. The pace of work now has become very different, and I’ve really had to become my own co-founder and my own emotional support when it comes to day-to-day operations and leaning on myself to find consistency and persistence to keep going. How is it like to launch a new business during COVID? I don’t know what it’s like to launch a CPG business outside of COVID, so my go-to-market strategy was always direct-to-consumer — selling via our website and promoting through social media. I knew that we’re not able to go to farmers markets and sample at grocery stores, and that’s okay because there are other ways to go about it. One thing that I did a little differently was I offered free samples through my website. Also, in my free time, I would walk around the neighborhood and give free samples to the people in the park down the street and talk to them about the business. That was very helpful for me to find in-store demoing through on-the-ground sampling. [Hello Alice Guide: Launch Your New Brand] It’s really cool that you’ve found other ways to demo your product. Why did you pursue those strategies? Most people have never heard of jackfruit, and even more people have never heard of jackfruit chips. There really isn’t a better way to explain what it tastes like unless you try them for yourself. These are costs that I’ve made peace with as a marketing expense — to offer free samples to people so that they can try it and, hopefully, if they like it, come back for a repeat order. [Hello Alice Guide: Scale Your Food & Beverage Manufacturing] Ting's Jackfruit Chips, a mission-driven snack company As a new business, what is the process for building brand awareness? That’s always the toughest thing. Most startups’ biggest hurdle is getting the name out there, and I think a big reason why a lot of companies don’t really make it past year one or two is because not enough people know about them. But in this case, I didn’t create this product. I tried it when I was in Asia, and so it’s already a tried-and-true product. I know that there’s a market for it. It’s just that it hasn’t been introduced to the Western market.  Your friends are going to be your number one source of word-of-mouth. And then from friends, it’s to family friends, then to colleagues. Beyond that, there’s social media. I’m not into purchasing followers. Organic reach is so much more important. I learned to lean on the customers that you have and to try to widen the net with a bunch of new customers who may or may not resonate with your brand. It’s really just been regularly posting on social media, reaching out to influencers — micro-influencers now, which is a more effective trend. A new thing that I’m starting to look into myself is press releases: reaching out to editors at new publications or lifestyle magazines that your audience is regularly reading and figuring out how to get these editors on your side. When you have news or products to share, then you can tap into your resources, editors, and PR to try to help you spread the word because a lot of publications have loyal followings. So that could be a huge, huge boon if you figure out how to work the press. You have a background in supply chain. How did you find suppliers? Do you have tips on finding supply partners? It’s tricky, especially if you’re working with international suppliers. Nowadays, the process has been made a lot easier with platforms like Alibaba and Aliexpress if you’re looking for, you know, kind of interesting gadgets. But overall, you kind of have to trust what’s going on on the other side of the line. That’s why no major decisions are made until you’ve tried the products and confirmed them as a company and talking with people overseas. There’s always a bit of a language barrier, so a tip that I have would be if you do find that the language is a bit of an issue, go to sources like Upwork and find virtual assistants who can act as an intermediary for some of those countries. It’s very helpful to get messages across and make sure nothing was lost in translation. [Hello Alice Guide: Learn About Food & Beverage Distribution] You also have a strong social mission of donating a portion of profits to fund student lunches in Cambodia. Why did you choose this cause? In 2018, I was back in Cambodia with a tour guide learning about his village. He then invited me to go volunteer in his village, where he grew up, to help teach English to K-9 students. I spent a month there and helped do a fundraiser to get the school the supplies they needed. That felt amazing, and I wanted to do that in a bigger way.  With Ting’s right now, we are allocating 2% of profits to funding the lunches at the school that I worked with in 2018. The long-term vision is creating a structure where you buy a package of Ting’s at a store, and that package also feeds a family somewhere else in the world. I wanted to bake the social mission into the business plan as early as possible, mostly because one, it drives the purpose of the brand, and two, if we expect to do this early on, then financially, we’re set up for it in the future. That helps the company and the people that it’s benefiting. That’s where the mission came from.  That’s amazing. Did you always plan to incorporate a mission with your business? When I started working on this project, I had the most simplistic idea that I want to sell jackfruit chips because they’re delicious, and I want more and more people to discover them. But it kind of grew into a bigger thing of, 'Okay, well, it seems empty to just sell jackfruit chips. If I want this to be a sustainable business in the long term, then I think something needs to be more meaningful than that.' And when I started thinking about this, I was watching a bunch of TED Talks. One of the talks was with Simon Sinek, and he talked about the principles of why you do what you do. That got me thinking about how I want to run this business and how I want to live my life.  I feel very fortunate to be able to do something like this, starting a company and having the privilege and the means to kind of create a thing on my own terms. I think the only way to show gratitude is to help people who need help. And if I have any sort of business, I should also be able to help others. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far as a business owner? Being an entrepreneur is incredibly challenging. Not in just the day-to-day, not in all of the moving pieces, but emotionally. You have to be emotionally fortified to be a business owner, because most of the time, you’re going to ask yourself, What is going on? Most businesses fail in the first few years, and there’s a reason for that. It’s really hard to shoulder things that feel like failure after failure after failure, and not let that get to you. To be an entrepreneur, I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is I really need to have my own mental health completely taken care of. It’s different for each individual, whether that be going to therapy, having a morning ritual, having a network of friends and support around to talk things over with. It is so important to have a great outlook if you want to be a successful entrepreneur because, more than likely, you’re going to be weathering blows. For more small business tips and inspiration create a free account on Hello Alice or subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Aug 3, 2021 • 6 min read