Search This Blog

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

My experience in an entrepreneur incubator

In 2015 my sewing business was languishing, put on a far back burner by our flourishing bed & breakfast business.   But in early summer, I read that a pop-up marketplace called SEED Ventures, part of The Oberlin Project, was going to open as an entrepreneur incubator and was currently looking for applicants.  They were especially interested in local entrepreneurs who were launching relatively new businesses specifically with an environmental sustainability development bent.

Well, my business wasn’t that new but I was kind of re-launching it, especially as I was in the process of changing my product line from the old laptop bags and so on to products more aligned with the B&B, like placemats, coasters, trivets, etc.  And clearly I was into the “triple bottom line” of profits, environment, and people practices.  What the heck, I thought, I’ll apply; what have I got to lose?  Although, to be honest, I didn’t think I’d be chosen (to be really honest, I thought I was too old, that they would want young, energetic entrepreneurs).

So, it was quite a bit to my surprise – particularly since a couple months had passed and I’d kind of forgotten about it – that I learned that I had, in fact, been chosen to participate in the incubator.  My fellow entrepreneurs consisted of:
            Sue Wilson of SudzyPup, a maker of dog soap and eventually people soap
            Corey Butler of Doki Doki Chocolate and his chocolate-covered pretzels
            Ann Mickel of Love Delivered, who handcrafts cards from found materials
            Bryon Skvor of Humble Grounds, a coffee roaster

We set up shop in a real store in downtown Oberlin using leftover furniture from the owner and things brought from home.  None of us knew much if anything about merchandising so our store layout and window display wasn’t the best, but we were learning as we went along and it looked pretty nice on opening day, October 1, and the evening reception was a big success.

Sales were a little slow but it was only October and Oberlin is not the busiest shopping spot in the world.  Toward the end of the month we had a couple of local store owners in who basically told us our layout and window sucked (they didn’t put it anywhere near that bluntly or crudely) and we didn’t have enough inventory.  So, big revamping of our displays, and by November things were starting to look really good.

Parents’ Weekend at the college was a big day for us and we all enjoyed a nice uptick in sales.  Thanksgiving was pretty good, too.  Needless to say, we were most excited about the upcoming Christmas season.  We planned an “advent calendar” of daily sales and promotions, and put on various events to bring more people into the store.  Some of these were quite successful, like the joint tasting event of Humble Grounds and The Runcible Spoon (jam).  Others, like mine, were total flops. 

The lack of success was entirely my fault, as I really didn’t want to do any events and so did not do a whole lot to advertise them.  The first was a DIY workshop where I was going to teach people to weave fabrics together to create candle mats.  I think setting the fee at $15 was a mistake – especially when the public library was offering workshops for free – and no one signed up for it.  (I was relieved.)  The second event was an offer to personalize items that people purchased; I brought my embroidering machine in and spent the day in the store, but not a single person came in.  I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised, though; I had put up exactly 2 flyers and not in the best of locations.

The holiday season was good for everyone, great for some (but not for me).  We were advised not to create too many products geared to Christmas and indeed, the few that I did make and put out didn’t do especially well.  What did do well were my white coasters embroidered with squirrels (albino squirrels are an Oberlin institution) and my trivets made from an elephant-printed fabric.  I literally could not keep these 2 items in stock which was an unusual and fun problem to have.

The pop-up closed on December 31, as planned; as far as I know, it will not open again, at least not in that location nor with the current group of entrepreneurs.  On January 21, each of us entrepreneurs gave a final presentation to SEED Ventures stakeholders (including the Oberlin Project and the Oberlin City Council) about our results, experiences, and next steps.

I had some very interesting insights and “aha” moments throughout the 3 months that have led me to completely rethink my approach to my business.  More about that in a future post.

By the way, B&F Handmade Housewares are still and ever available at!

No comments:

Post a Comment