Monday, September 13, 2010

SKILLED: Part One {Biggs and Featherbelle}

This is an edited transcript from an interview by Hannah Brancato with Kasey and Kelly Evick, June 29, 2010.

I met Kasey and Kelly Evick during donation-only yoga classes taught by Chris Leicht. The sisters offer their aromatic studio - home of their natural body works company Biggs and Featherbelle - for yoga instruction every Tuesday night.

As the first interview for
SKILLED: Art, Labor, and Business in Baltimore, the Evick’s story reflects the commitment that it takes to start a new business. Hearing the pair finish one another’s sentences reminded me of the important of having a partner: to share the journey, provide support, and manage the myriad of responsibilities in making, marketing, and selling products.

HB: So if you want to begin with how you got started?

Kasey: Well, we started, what seven? How many years ago?

Kelly: It’s been seven years

Kasey: Seven and a half years ago, we were just making Christmas gifts. We were sitting around the couch at our mom’s house, we both happened to be living there at the time--

Kelly: --we were broke.

Kasey: --we were broke, we were like what are we going to make for people this year? And we were reading a Martha Stewart magazine, and said, “Look at those soaps!” They were so cute, we saved the article, and we decided to make soaps. We both love the whole packaging side of it, making the names. We made body butter bars and lip balm too, and we gave it to probably ten different people, friends and all the girls in our family.

We started thinking about it more, and we did a lot of research and started thinking, “OK, we can learn more about soap making, about making products.” This also comes from us being interested in the natural health side of it. We really wanted to make soaps that were purposeful and weren’t just about scent- to help people. Kel did most of the research. Sort of developed a line and it sold. It was a real slow and organic process.

HB: Did you have other jobs when you started this?

Kelly: We had other jobs, we had to! Because it was impossible…She had a full time job as a web designer, and I was walking dogs. And then, she couldn’t handle her full time job anymore because there is that transition, where you eventually have to put more time into the business.

HB: But you aren’t necessarily making the money yet…(laughs)

Kelly: Yeah, I don’t think you ever make the money, I don’t know…

Kasey: I am still wondering when that will happen (laughs)

Kelly: Yeah, so we had to keep part time jobs. Then we waitressed, same restaurant actually, so that we were able to do the business at night and on weekends and waitress during the day. A LOT of time. Because you have to put full time into the business but you also have to pay for living, you have to make money for your living expenses.

HB: Right- and pay for the start up of the business. Did you do start up loans?

Kasey: Since I had saved up a little money from my job we used that, and then my credit card, pretty much maxed that out, used all the savings that I had. We have gotten some small loans, SBA backed loans, 10 and 15 thousand, nothing crazy-we’ve never gotten a huge sum. And then we had to borrow from our parents so we owed them money (laughs). Just little bits here and there. And then got a business credit card, maxed that out...

Kelly: Everyone we’ve ever talked to that has owned a small business says the same thing: you have to go into complete debt in order to ever make it. And it takes YEARS to even turn a profit, so I think that is where a lot of businesses fail, unfortunately, and right now its very rare for a small business to be able to get financing. NOOObody is. How many banks have we gone to?

Kasey: We’ve tried six different places and they say, “No, we aren’t doing those kind of loans anymore.” It’s just nothing.

HB: You said you got an SBA loan. So have you worked with any other business bureaus?

Kasey: We took a class through Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore, we took that class on writing a business plan--

HB: When you were starting off?

Kelly: No about three years into the business--

Kasey: --we were about three years into our business. It’s helped us write a 30-page business plan, helped us realize things and get a little more official. But it didn’t lead to much help now. I still feel like we’re on our own. There is never that clarity about what to do. When we go to look for loans, I don’t know where to look, besides searching online- you could just spend all day and you’re on one hokey site. It’s tricky. We never found that person to answer those financial questions we have, and business stuff....

Kelly: Because we didn’t come to it from a business background, we came from an art and design background, wanting to develop a product, develop and design it. It wasn’t that we came at it strategically business minded. That has been an interesting challenge along the way. Learning all the business and the finances and bookkeeping and accounting.

HB: So, I know you have started to divide up your responsibilities. How has that worked out?

Kasey: Eventually we need to get her out of the kitchen, into the office- eventually our roles need to shift again, you become more of a manager as the years go on, you’re just managing the business. We both have to start removing ourselves from daily tasks.

Kelly: We’re managing different things. We both manage but we also do the grunt work. She’s basically the operations and business end of the whole business. Fielding all the emailing, the orders, the liaison with all the stores, she’s the business part. And we do the graphic work together--

Kasey: Yeah I do all the website updates, all the design work, we decide on stuff together but I do the nitty gritty design stuff.

Kelly: You kind of keep the business organized. And I make sure that we have products. So I have someone who works with me part time as a sub contractor. He works most of the time but since he’s a subcontractor he can come and go- like right now he’s touring with Phish for two weeks.

HB: And that flexibility probably works for you too…

Kelly: It does, because sometimes we have more work and sometimes we have less. But I’m in there making products too, so that’s what’s hard because I know Kasey needs help with the business end but I’m still in there making products.

HB: So there might be a shift where you aren’t making the money yet but if you’re both managing then you might make more money…

Kasey: Yeah, it’s always a fine line. You’re always just getting by.

Kelly: Absolutely, it is a fine line.

Kasey: You can’t always quite take that jump, you slowly transition into it.

HB: So I’m sure there have been some markers where you feel like now you have this together, another thing is settled, you’ve had success in one area…

Kasey: Getting into Whole Foods was one. Because that keeps our business afloat. Moving into this warehouse space.

Kelly: Getting Melissa to do bookkeeping, that was a huge one.

Kasey: Yeah we have a friend who helps, she works three days a week, and she’s handled all the bookkeeping now. I used to do all that and always had a stack of papers that I couldn’t get to. So that was huge.

Kelly: And then sales reps.

Kasey: And sales reps, which we just started with.

Kelly: They work independently like independent brokers and we just pay them commission on sales. They’re in territories, so we have a Mid Atlantic sales rep, we have a Midwest region sales rep (she has like six people under her), Texas, and New England. They basically try to get us new sales. So instead of us trying to get out there and knock on doors--

HB: And how did you find these people, is there an organization?

Kelly: Word of mouth.

Kasey: We found them-- One guy here we know from doing demos in stores, he was doing demos for a company he was repping, and we would see him and talk to him. Networking, I guess. We eventually decided that if we had a rep we wanted him to do it, and he knew someone in the Midwest and she knew someone in Texas.

Kelly: They are all in the natural products industry. All of our reps have close relationships with buyers from Whole Foods. That’s our main market, and that’s what we were looking for: people who already had an in with the buyers of Whole Foods because they have a really complex set up. Although they run as one big corporation they try to run on a regional and local level as much as possible, so you are actually dealing with each store, not just the big corporation.

HB: Talk more about the process of getting into Whole Foods.

Kelly: How it typically happens with Whole Foods is that they have ten regions and unless you are some huge big dog, how it usually works is that you have to get accepted in each individual region by the regional buyer and you have to pass certain standards. Once you get accepted into that region, you have to go to every single store and get your products on the shelf. That’s where we needed sales reps because it’s just impossible to do that. Because they try to let each store make all their own decisions- so that’s where it’s hard as a vendor, because your not shipping to one direct place and it gets distributed to all the stores.

HB: So you first got into the Whole Foods in Baltimore?

Kelly: No actually, Annapolis. We were really fortunate: most companies have to knock on every Whole Foods store in one region and do it many times. But (Whole Foods) had just started a local producers initiative. And in body care there really wasn’t anything, and so the manager of the body care dept in Annapolis was in other health food stores sourcing out and saw our stuff and contacted us. We were really lucky.

So we met with her in Annapolis, she took all our stuff to regional and got it accepted, then it was kind of a snowball effect- then all the other stores heard that we were local.

HB: So what are some of your sales tactics- or do you even do direct sales/craft fairs anymore?

Kasey: Yeah we do a ton. That’s how we’ve grown a lot, we’ve met a lot of people and stores. You get good feedback, really understand your products and have customers relate to it. We just did Pile Of Craft last weekend. We travel a lot for fairs.

Kelly: We are starting to slow that down a bit now.

Kasey: Yeah because of the time they take up.

HB: And do you tend to sell a lot of product or more networking?

Kelly: We sell a lot of product, but it depends on the show; there’s good and bad ones. But we’ve done enough now we try to stick to the good ones. You can sell a lot.

HB: And your product is more unique than, say, jewelry.

Kelly: Jewelry is a tough market.

Kasey: I think the most important thing with selling is having a story attached to it. People love that. We don’t always think we have a story but people say we have one- that we’re two sisters. With every product, it would just sell 20 times more to have a story with the product.

HB: So for people who make and sell their own stuff and are trying to have that balance between doing something creative and the business side of things, what do you feel like you’ve learned?

Kelly: It’s hard to keep that balance. Anyone I know who’s created a full time business out of doing something creative, you come to learn that the actual creative part dwindles more and more and more. You spend less and less time doing the part you love and more time running it as a business.

HB: And you end up hiring other people for the creative part.

Kelly: Oh yeah totally. And I know a lot of crafty people would say the same thing- you are making the same design and the same product over and over and you are tired of it but you can’t be, because that’s what you’ve been working to develop and build and sell. I know we see crafters who constantly try to change their product but you kind of have to stick with it, even though you’re tired of it.

HB: Like when you get tired of it that’s when people start paying attention?

Kasey and Kelly: EXACTLY

HB: What’s your dream for the next seven years will bring?

Kelly: Oh um financial stability maybe? Because one thing is that…oh gosh, we didn’t realize how long and how much it takes to develop a business. We are still doing it, and even though we’re doing really great in Baltimore and such, it’s not enough to really make a living. We don’t even have a salary yet after seven and a half years. We want hopefully within seven more years for the business to have its own financing and for us to not be freaking out every day. It’s stressful when you have so much invested in a company both emotionally and financially, and our whole lives invested in it. We are so deep into it that you just gotta keep going, there is just no turning back. We wouldn’t turn back though, ever…

Kasey: No!

Kelly: But at the same time you aren’t seeing the real rewards. And that’s what’s interesting- people who I just meet, they think I’m rich. I’m BROKE. It’s nothing to do with getting rich, absolutely nothing. Unless you are going to be a real estate tycoon…I mean it is to make a living, but you’ve gotta have such a passion for it and love it so much. Don’t you agree?

Kasey: Mhm. Its weird how much you start focusing on the money part of it, and we didn't start the business focusing on the money, I mean some people do start businesses like that. But we were never like, “We want to make lots of money, what can we do?” And you get to a point in
business where you’re like, “OK how can we make money now with this?” And you feel bad that that is your focus. But once you’ve established a product you know that the business won’t run and you won’t be able to make the product if it doesn’t sell. But still then trying to keep the balance of focusing on the product too.

Kelly: And then the balance of your own personal life and your business life is difficult. We are finally starting to get to that point. For the first five years of our business we worked seven days a week all day and all night. Either had to waitress and then work at night or do it all weekend. You become so immersed in it, there is no line, we ARE our business, it never leaves you. I could be away on vacation, well we don’t really go on vacation… (laughs) but I will never leave it. First day I would be calling and ordering. Because it’s like a child, that is always the analogy I use. It is something you are always responsible for no matter where you are and what you are doing. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

HB: Could you imagine doing anything else?

Kasey: Not at this point.

Kelly: I could never work for someone else ever again.

Kasey: I think if I did anything else it would be to--

Kelly: --start up a new business!

Kasey: --yeah start another business, something else we want to do.

HB: What are the benefits of working for yourself?

Kelly: The flexibility . It’s good and bad, because you have to be so much more structured and organized yourself. And the pride.

Kasey: Yeah, the pride, you feel like you get such a reward for what your doing.

Kelly: You’re working for yourself.

Kasey: And you feel satisfied, we would have such a hard time working for someone else unless it was something I really cared about and wanted to help and feel a part of.

Kelly: You don’t mind working.

Kasey: You feel- I always feel lucky because you hear people say, “I just want to do something I love, something I’m passionate about.” That’s what I’m doing.

Kelly: There is not a single day that I wake up and think- I just don’t want to go to work today.

HB: So, what’s your advice to people who are starting off and trying to market their stuff and make their stuff and trying to juggle all those things?

Kelly: Really define your look, define it and stick to it. Define it and refine it. Go with that and you’ve got to stand out.

Kasey: Really create an identity, don’t be all over the place. You just want to tighten everything and fine-tune it.

Kelly: We set guidelines early on and certain criteria of what we wanted and we’ve stuck to it and its really helped up because you want people to identify you quickly. Competition is tough for everything.

You don’t have to go and look for something that’s never been done, because that is almost impossible for anyone at this point- but stick to one look.

To read more about Biggs and Featherbelle, visit their website

For more info about the “Lather Lab” yoga class email


Anonymous said...

Very cool! I like seeing what goes on behind scenes :)

Anonymous said...

Very cool! I like seeing what goes on behind scenes :)

Mags said...

I LOVE that they started from a Martha Stewart article! Amazing!