I wish I had a numeric counter for the number of women I connect with that have been driven in their careers by a need to "prove" themselves in corporate America, myself included. Each of us hold ourselves to incredible standards and for various reasons, we ultimately leave a business structure that is prolific in teaching lessons and providing opportunities that enhance our abilities. These are many of the same women that I discover "launching" innovative businesses as entrepreneurs tied to the equestrian way of life. Well-developed skill sets including branding, understanding customer demographics, collaboration, the implementation of technology and quality control are becoming more prevalent within startup equestrian businesses.
Urban Sundry Limited, was launched by Barbie Coleman, a woman that fits the aforementioned description to a tee. The following interview will not only resonate with many experienced entrepreneurs, but it also offers exceptional advice to all that are thinking or already have launched their own business.
Update March 2020: Since writing this story, Barbie Coleman's small business has grown to include also include a permanent storefront at the acclaimed World Equestrian Center in Ohio.
1.) What inspired you to start Urban Sundry Limited?
If feels so cliché to explain my inspiration, but here is the truth. I’ve wanted to open my own store for much of my adult life. But first, I felt I had something to prove in the high heeled, power suit, briefcase world. I worked up and down the East Coast in public relations firms, big and small, and then I became the client, working in corporate PR for Fortune 500 companies.
In 2012 I left my last PR job. I didn’t know at the time it would be my last, but as it turned out, it was. I found myself in Columbus, OH, without a job filling my days with corgis, horse showing, gardening, volunteering and talking to executive recruiters all over the country. The “big” jobs were few and far between but I was lucky to be in the mix with phone calls, Skype, and plane rides for interviews but nothing ever seemed to be the right fit. Last April I was in my last round of interviews for a great job. I felt physically nauseous about the job I was interviewing for. I wasn’t nervous, my credentials and experience aligned. It was a perfect fit and in a place I loved but . . . I didn’t get it. They went with someone else. I was crushed . . . for about five minutes. And that’s when I knew it was time.
2.) What differentiates your retail company from other home and gift boutiques?
Our company is different for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is an absolute reflection of me. My tastes, my style, my personality is front and center for people to see which is a little intimidating to be that vulnerable. Opening a store is a very personal experience. When a customer buys something I get such a thrill! When they’re giggling over our greeting cards, taking a big whiff of the candles we carry or running their hand over the soft cotton throws, I know we’ve connected with them in some way. We have two brands: Urban Sundry and Equestrian Sundry.
What is Sundry? Sundry is defined as “various items too numerous to be mentioned individually.” Our goal is to be a resource for our customers who live the town and country lifestyle. Our buying strategy is to have “a little of a lot” so our assortment stays fresh. We have a large selection of home décor, jewelry, paper goods, things for little ones and a growing selection for the hoof, paw and claw members of the family. And, you’ll find lots of “whimsy” throughout because we like to laugh . . . a lot!
We love finding small manufacturers and makers, and we have many within our assortment. We have a mix of things from a mix of places, created by a mix of people. We carry brands we’ve admired for a long time as well as brands we’ve recently discovered.
What’s been really fun for me is working with so many makers who are also riders. You can see it in their work, their attention to detail, the passion for riding and their unadulterated love for all things horses. I’ve loved getting to know these women, supporting their businesses and introducing their products to my customers. There is a great community of Equestrian She-Bosses out there who are as supportive as they are inspiring.
3.) The “pop-up shop” concept is a relatively new trend in retail marketing. Your innovative idea of a “Tiny Store” debuted earlier this year at the World Equestrian Center. Can you tell us more about it?
The retail environment and how customers shop has changed dramatically. We have fingertip access to whatever we want. We can go online, find what we’re looking for, compare prices, read reviews, order and receive it in a few days. The news is filled with retail stores – both big and small – closing at an alarming rate. With change comes opportunity. I know that people still want to find a great store, with nice things, sold by good people. So that’s what inspires me all day long and sometimes at 3:00am. I knew I had to do something different, create an experience for my customers. I wanted to connect my downtown, urban lifestyle with my long-time passion of horseback riding and showing. I looked into the world and saw food trucks, pop-ups, tiny homes and tack shops in mobile units and it just hit me: Tiny Store.
I worked with the husband and wife design team, Bryan & Catherine Williamson at Mix Design Collective in Columbus, OH to help me transform a 6’x12’ cargo trailer. They accepted the challenge and turned my vision into something really special – shiplap walls, reclaimed barn wood, copper pipe shelving, and a few highly functional, cost effective cabinets from IKEA. My farrier also made horseshoe wall hooks for the interior. We added copper baskets globe string lights, and a few carefully chosen antiques and collected treasures for display.
So, in December of 2017 I loaded up my Tiny Store, fully merchandised, hooked it up to my Volvo XC90 and traveled to a few show barns for holiday pop-ups. We debuted in mid-February at the World Equestrian Center in Wilmington, OH and plan to be there most weeks through April. The team at WEC has been incredible to work with, our fellow vendors are equally amazing and the customers from all over the country and Canada have been really excited about our store.
And, it must be said, we adore our “Pony Moms” who have been so much fun to work with.
4.) You spent over 20 years in PR & Corporate Communications. What has been the most gratifying aspect of creating your own company and telling your own story?
Other than the obvious answer of not having to wear high heels any more, I’d have to say that what I’ve loved most is that I get to be me, every day. I know that may sound strange but I think much of the last couple of decades (and probably before that) I was busy trying to be what either I thought I should be or what I thought everyone else wanted me to be. I loved my previous life; it was an amazing professional experience. I worked with great teams, had wonderful mentors and have gained lifelong friends from each job. I have some wonderful stories to tell, experiences to share, and even a few cautionary tales. That said, what I’m doing now, is absolutely the life I’ve longed to live.
5.) Do you have specific advice you would like to share with other business owners or aspiring entrepreneurs?
There are three guiding principles that have kept me on track this past year: If it were easy, everyone would do it – It’s hard to start your own business, it really is. There are books and blogs and seminars and all sorts of things out there to inspire you, but the grit and desire, that’s on you. Find your tribe, your cheerleaders and champions, your people who do certain things better than you, and those people who give you truth wrapped in kindness. Talk to others who’ve done it the ones that have succeeded and the ones that failed. There are gems of ideas and solutions from those that came before you. Embrace the mistakes; make them early because they make you better.
Love what you do (most days) – which is different than “do what you love.” You can go online and find all those inspirational quotes and graphically pleasing Girl Boss anthems but they’ll only get you so far. Whatever you’re doing, whether it is launching a business or working for someone else, make sure you love it more than you don’t. Make sure there’s more laughter than tears and sometimes you have to be inspired simply by your ability to pay the mortgage, pay the rent and/or pay your horses board.
Best is the enemy of Better – there are so many moving parts to opening a business and innumerable decisions to make. You want everything perfect, flawless and seemingly effortless. Well, get over that . . . quickly! Decide what’s most important to you and decide what deserves your A game and what can survive with your B and C game. It can be hard to give up perfection, but you will learn that your new business is a living, breathing thing that will evolve as your move forward. Don’t get in your own way because there are plenty of other things that will.
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