Small Business is American
Why You Should Support Your Local Bridal Boutique
When I was 6 years old, I started my first business (sort of). It was the 1970’s and neighborhood Christmas parties were almost expected at every household. I had the idea to cut mistletoe out of trees and sell small bunches, tied with red velvet ribbons, door to door for everyone’s party smooches. My non-paid intern (Dad) would cut the mistletoe out of the tree, and my other non-paid intern (Mom) would take me to the fabric store to buy the ribbon. The rest was left to my craftsmanship and my salesmanship, but I did have an advantage, I was 6 years old and who could resist that?
When you have entrepreneurship in your blood, it’s hard to shake. So is the taste of working for yourself. It certainly comes with hardships but for those of us who are passionate about what we do, it’s worth the fight. And the reward is not necessarily money. I guess for some it is but, in my industry, I’ve known store owners who have risked it all for their passion of everything bridal. For the experience of being a part of so many brides’ special day. For simply seeing the reaction from the bride, her family and friends, when she finds her “yes” gown, to commit to her forever “yes” partner in.
America is great no doubt but, as we have slowly switched from capitalism to “greed-ism” and big business continues to gobble up small business and with major government support going to big business, the little guy struggles more and more. That is why we need to support the Bridal Industry now more than ever.
Customer service: How many times have you called a big company and been put directly through to a human to discuss your needs? Never. Today I spent over 40 minutes waiting for someone at a bank that owed me money, but I no longer bank with. That was fun. I’ve never called a single Bridal store I sell to and experienced anything like that but with big biz we just accept it as if it’s normal for us to be treated with little or no respect. I’ll walk an extra mile to be treated well. I deserve it and you do too.
I’ve fought for the underdog and minorities most of my adult life. I’m blessed to be in an industry that is predominantly women owned. To this day, in America, women still earn less than men. To be able to dominate an entire industry is astounding when you step back and think about it. I’m here to support and lift up as many women and small business owners as I possibly can. But these women, the designers they support, and the young people they employ, can’t make it without your support. I know how many women shop at these stores, but I often wonder if they even realize what a huge impact they make when women support women? I hope they do, and I hope we all start paying closer attention to our local communities and the businesses that are there for us. I do get it, it’s very easy to sign in online and pile items into the eCommerce cart and receive it at our doorsteps. But some things, like shopping for your wedding gown, call for a much more personal, more intimate experience. I hope we never reach a point where we no longer need human experiences.
I’ve asked some of our boutique owners a few questions to let you take a peek into their worlds and to both inspire you to shop small businesses and possibly inspire you to become a small business owner yourself one day. I hope to see a resurgence of small town, customer service, America.
Heather DiMasi: White of Dublin, www.whitebridalboutiques.com
Have you ever owned any other businesses?
Heather: Yes. I owned my own law practice.
Heather: I always have loved fashion, as well as bridal fashion. I also love making people happy. I believe there is no better industry that marries fashion and happiness – most notably through the wedding dress buying experience. I love making dreams come true!
What motivated you to open other stores after White of Dublin became successful?
Heather: There were a number of factors that had to align. Some of these were the location of the new store, the need in the area for the experience, the availability of the designers that I wanted to carry, as well as a proven set of policies and procedures that could be easily replicated to maintain the high level of customer care that we already provide at White of Dublin
Did you consciously realize you were entering a predominantly women owned industry and if so, do you think it meant more to you personally?
Heather: Yes, I did. However, I can’t say that it meant something more to me personally. I am a woman. I believe that I am a strong woman, and frankly believe that I could succeed in any business if it was one that I felt passionately about.
Having such a large family, how many of your kids have worked in your store and how do you think it impacted them?
Heather: As you know, I have five children, and a daughter-in-law and a son-in-law. All of my daughters have worked or helped in the boutiques in some capacity. My son was a “go to” for opinions on stock pieces for a dude’s perspective and I loved it! My three younger girls would help serve cupcakes and/or drinks when they were little, and many times brides invited them to sit through their entire appointment and would ask their opinions. For the last few years two of my girls helped choose stock for prom and homecoming and would model for me. They also assisted with prom fittings and sales. My daughter, Gabriella, just graduated from high school this year and worked as a sales consultant for the summer. The experience made her change her declared major of criminology to focus on business and professional selling! She thinks she may want to take over running the business some day! My two youngest (13 and 16) both have expressed a continued interest in the boutiques. My oldest daughter and my daughter-in-law both worked in the shop in the early years, as well. I know I can count on all my family to help out if I need them as they all value White of Dublin, White of Raleigh and Off White.
How important is the bridal community as a whole to you?
Heather: The bridal community as a whole is very important to me. I believe the key relationships and partnerships are between the designers and the boutiques. If that foundation is shaken, it may compromise the community as well as the customer experience.
Erin: Miss Ruby, www.missrubyboutique.com
How rewarding has it been for you on a personal level to own a business with your Mom?
Erin: It’s been really rewarding to own a business with my Mom. Yes, it can come with its challenges – i.e. we talk about work way too much sometimes – but we also get to celebrate our success together. I have such fond memories of our first trips to Bridal Market just my Mom & I and those are some of my best memories. I don’t think these memories would be the same with anybody else. She chose to join me on this Miss Ruby adventure to keep herself busy during “retirement” and that makes me very proud. I can’t imagine building this business without her. It’s been very special to have her by my side through it all. And grateful that she’s been so supportive – this business is not easy – and I’ve had plenty of bad days and she’s been patient with me through it. And loved me at my worst. Haha!
Did you two ever consider a different business together before bridal?
Erin: We didn’t really consider another business before bridal. From my own wedding dress shopping experience, I saw a strong need for a fresh & inviting bridal shop in Milwaukee. I also had a very entrepreneurial mindset and knew I wanted to own my own business. So those two passions came together at the right time and we knew bridal was what we wanted to do.
You just recently became a Mom to beautiful baby Franklin. How proud would you be to see him, the third generation, work at Miss Ruby Bridal?
Erin: Oh Franklin, he already makes me so proud and he’s only one. Haha! I will be proud of him no matter what he chooses to do – but it sure would be special to see him work at Miss Ruby. When Covid moves along and it’s safer for him to hang out at the boutique, I’m sure he’ll be spending a lot of time here. So, we will see if it interests him. Most of all I just hope that he can see that if you have a dream and work hard you can accomplish anything. I just want him to know that no dream is too small.
Knowing you and your staff work so closely and aspire to always do your best, how much of owning a small business is about community and the relationships you make?
Erin: In my mind pretty much everything is about community & relationships with owning a small business. I started this business because I had a dream of managing something that made people feel a part of something bigger – and that they were actually part of its growth and impact to the community – not just a worker bee. I didn’t start a business to become rich. And gosh knows that probably won’t happen in this business. Haha! I wanted to create a work environment where my team felt empowered and confident. And I’ve always wanted to create a positive impact on every guest that walks through our doors as well as our community. I’m proud to say that currently we provide employment, empower our employees, have a positive impact on every guest that walks through our doors, and that we give back to the community in our volunteer efforts and charity fashion show. That to me is what owning a small business is about.
Like me, I imagine you learned as you grew. If you had one business “do over”, what would it be and how would you handle it differently?
Erin: I have learned SO much over the years. I’ve made so many mistakes and with each one I learn and do better next time. Gosh, if I had a do over? Hmmm. I can’t think of one specific do over, because the mistakes I’ve made I’ve learned from and I really needed those to learn and grow. Well maybe don’t buy every dress that you think is pretty because you’ll have a whole lot of dresses, you would wear but maybe not your customer and an empty wallet. haha! But I do think if I could go back and change one thing it would be how quickly I react to certain scenarios. I’m so passionate about this business and what we’ve created that I’m quick to react to create solutions or fixes and more often than not it’s best to sit back and take a breath, tell yourself it will all work out, and then move forward. I’ve learned to do this over time but in the beginning every mistake felt like a disaster and I freaked out and wanted a quick fix. Caring business owners can be great at figuring it all out but also great at beating yourself up when something goes wrong.
Liz Sellassie: Designer Loft, www.designerloftnyc.com
What year did you open?
Liz: We opened in 2001! Seems so long ago but time has gone so fast! When you love what you do, it’s not really work but passion and creativity hour!
What has been your hardest struggle as a woman owning a small business?
Liz: Hardest struggle as a woman and an African American business owner: Landlords, Bank Loan officers and occasionally designers. We have been so fortunate though, I cannot complain. I was lucky enough to have friends who did the first investment for our company and amazing brides and families that have supported us along the way! It is much easier now, but in the first ten years, we had designers that refused to believe we were owners or had a legitimate store when we walked in to view collections. Now we have name recognition and it makes it much easier. In the early days, we just did not look like what designers perceived as store owners.
Liz: Helping brides feel beautiful. Especially those that do not realize their true beauty. Getting a postcard or note from one of our brides telling us how much she loved her gown and how lovely it was to wear it!
Do you think being in NYC carries extra stresses or would you have to work just as hard in any city?
Liz: Being in NY does carry some extra stress- less space, higher rents, constant noise from the street. But I could not imagine doing my work in any other city. We are so blessed to have the variety of brides both domestic and international that trek to our shop and the amazing designers and staff that make their way to Designer Loft. This is the most vibrant and exciting city Both for design and for the amazing variety of brides that come to shop here! Not to mention all the button, trim, fabric and lace shops at our fingertips!
How often do you get a day off?
Liz: I get very few days off. I am corresponding with brides daily! I do take two weeks Christmas Break every year to visit my mom in Ethiopia where there is limited access to cellphones and internet and social media. That two weeks I am transported to ancient culture and amidst nature and three hour long Coffee ceremonies and just spending time with family.
Could you ever see yourself working for someone else or would you wilt without the self-satisfaction of creating your own dream that lends so importantly to so many other’s dreams?
Liz: I cannot imagine working for anyone else or any other Field. We are building a vision of how we want brides to be treated. We have helped change this industry from fighting for non- strapless gowns to gowns with color and gowns in a variety of sizes for brides to try. When we started, the store sample sizes were 6 and 8 only! We need the flexibility and open mindedness especially in this industry- I could not imagine storing that trust with another owner. We love what we do and need to be able to make decisions based not solely on numbers but also what will give us and our clients the most satisfaction!
Jenny & Marsha: Stardust Celebrations, www.stardustcelebrations.com
Why did you want to start a small business with a partner?
Marsha: I would not start a new business with just anyone. I knew I needed someone who I could trust, who was better at the things I was not so good. And it was important that I really liked the person – that we would be able to laugh together and be able to depend upon each other. Stardust was my second company and I wanted to have a partner to share the adventure! Somethings are just more fun than doing it alone.
Jenny: We wanted to start the business with a partner because we believe misery loves company! Who wants to take a long, strenuous hike all by themselves? Everything is so much better when you have your trusted partner to talk it out with, commiserate, celebrate, laugh and cry.
What advice would you have for small business partners starting out?
Marsha: Be honest about your own talents. What does the partner bring to the table? What do you bring to the table? Know how you will resolve conflicts. Be judicious about spending money and know whatever you think startup will cost – it is 3x that much! Be willing to do whatever is necessary for the business and have a partner that will do the same. Have courage and do not give up! Lastly, “You cannot do good business with bad people”. If you suspect that someone is not up to par or is giving you a run a round – know how to cope with that and if it becomes necessary – walk away from that business.
Jenny: Our best advice is to make sure you have done your homework! Know what your expenses are going to be before you start and be realistic (and pessimistic) about your initial revenue. You need to be well-funded and understand that you may not be getting paid for your efforts for quite a while. Also, you are going to learn to be adaptable. Don’t be rigid and refuse to adapt your plans and ideas when they don’t work. You have to be able to adjust your business to the market regardless of how great you thought your original ideas were.
Did you enter into the partnership with clear roles or did that evolve over time?
Marsha: Both statements are true. When we started out, we both knew our strengths, yet we knew we would evolve over time and embraced the notion that change is good for the soul of the business. Also, when one of us was exhausted with a certain aspect – we changed roles!
Jenny: Our roles were never defined – they evolved over time and, 20 years later, are still evolving.
Being that you are such good friends, did the business ever strain your personal relationship?
Marsha: No, I honestly think our friendship has become stronger. We entered the business knowing that bad things do sometime happen. We knew that at conflict arose, we would deal with it honestly and with our eyes wide open.
Jenny: The business has never strained our relationship. The trick seems to be to keep your ego out of it.
If so, what is the best advice you can give someone in that situation to refocus back to the business so that both the business and the relationship continue to grow?
Marsha: Our method of dealing with controversy is really quite simple……We usually gather all the data we can. We try to leave the drama out of the situation or our gut feelings. We each go to our corners, write up a plan of correction – then we go away and meet for sometimes a day or two – as long as it takes for us to create a plan for solution. We put a timeline together and we implement!
One thing I should mention, when day to day problems come up, we discuss possible solutions:
- If we agree on the resolution- we just do it!
- If we disagree on the resolution and one person feels very strongly about the solution- we go with the person most passionate
- If we disagree and the first option did not resolve the issue, we implement the second idea.
I guess that main thing is that we try hard to take our egos out of the situation. Both of us are smart and have great ideas, we respect that in each other. We try to do the best thing for our business at all times. After all, it is our economic security. And since we love what we do – it is also a key to our mental help.
Jenny: Each person should know their priorities. Any time we disagree each of us decides how important it is “to be right”. It’s always more important to one person than to the other and you learn how to compromise or just give in if it’s not that important to you. We’ve never had an issue that we couldn’t compromise on.