It wasn’t hard to like Sarah Young as soon as we walked into her downtown store back in 2010, when we first moved to Portland. It was a welcoming place, full of what I’d soon know as “super cute” women’s clothing and accessories from independent makers from Portland and around the world.
The lighting was great, and the music was cool, but not loud. Sarah and her sister Becky made us feel like we had been customers for several years, not several minutes. You could tell right away that they knew their inventory backwards and forwards, and they were quickly able to pick out several great outfits for my wife – while at the same time engaging us in friendly and upbeat conversation.
They weren’t just interested in what my wife wanted in an outfit – they were interested in us, as people. While we didn’t buy anything on that first visit, we knew we’d be back again and again, as loyal customers. And that’s turned out to be absolutely true, because the SaySay Boutique is a shining example of what makes the Oregon entrepreneurial ecosystem so inspiring and powerful – a long-term small business success that happens not by the power of the product, but by the humanity, passion, faith and savvy of the person who owns and guides it.
I recently sat down with Sarah at Case Study Coffee (across the street from her boutique), to drink some locally roasted espresso and talk about SaySay Boutique, which she started nearly 11 years ago, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
There were many nuggets of wisdom for any aspiring entrepreneur, and here they are, in Sarah’s own words:
Pick the right place
(Before SaySay) I’d always worked retail as a part-time job in addition to my full time “real” job, because I loved it. I lived in Denver at the time, and I wanted to move to a town that supported local businesses, so I could start my own shop, which was Portland. The downtown wasn’t full of chains – it had small stores, food carts – and I got the sense that this community supported small business. Portland is an interesting group of wonderful people.
Pick the right target demo in a crowded market
I noticed there was a big demographic missing for women between 35-55. They can’t shop in the mall – where there’s all teen and mature stores. There was something missing for that “funky” 35-55 year old that wanted to look current but modest, but didn’t want to shop in a store where the music was at 100 decibels, and the lights were turned down way low. They wanted a place where they could actually see the merchandise, and have a more edited and curated selection so it was easy for them to choose.
You can do it without outside financing
We financed it with personal loans – just a little credit and a little faith. We were scrappy, bought a lot of used pictures, did the build-out ourselves, and saved a lot of money – we only grew as our profits allowed.
Focus on Customer Service from Day 1
On June 2nd, 2004, we opened. We had been bringing down inventory and tagging & steaming all day, and we opened the door, and a woman who worked at a local bank walked in with her daughter, and she bought $200 worth of clothing. She’s still a customer. Her daughter’s now in San Francisco with a couple of kids, but when she comes up they all come in together.
I wanted to create an experience I wasn’t getting at other places. We sell 2 things – clothing and a good time. Customer service is half of our business. You can come in and not buy anything and have a great time, and its still a good experience. It’s part of who we are.
Roll and adapt to the economic times
It was a struggle in 2009 during the recession. We had to rework our business plan, and had to learn how to be more fluid with what we’re offering. For example, we brought in socks, which we’re now pretty known for. We needed to have a price point where somebody could walk in and purchase something and still feel good about it, because they’re not working, or their partner isn’t working. And, the product is a local brand (Sock it to Me – see our recent Built Oregon piece on owner Carrie Atkinson).
Know your customers to know what to stock
It was harder at first, because we didn’t know our specific customers – we knew the general demographic, but we didn’t know their names, or how they commuted to work – by train, by bus, by bike, etc. Did they need skirts, are they working, are they moms? Now, when we go to markets, there are specific names that come to mind as we look at clothes. We try on every piece of clothing that comes in, so we know how it fits.
We developed our core group of customers – we’re all getting older, and we’re getting older with them, and our lives are changing with them, and as we get older our styles are changing, and we’re all moving in the same direction.
We keep our blinders on because we want to keep our vision pure. I shop other stores as a shopper. I don’t want to be swayed.
A ton of marketing spend isn’t the key (and social media works)
We’ve done minimal marketing – just $2,500 in 10 years. It’s just been word-of-mouth. We post merchandise pictures on Facebook once or twice a day, and we sell out of a lot of things we put up there. They might not have time to read the caption, but they see the picture and can make a quick decision.
The business needs a higher purpose
I define success as the fact that I still like to get up and come to work every day. I get bummed on office days, because it’s the floor where I really want to be. It can be a sacrifice – financial and time. But if you love it, it’s worth it. In the last 11 years I never wanted to do anything else.
Work your strengths, Mitigate your weaknesses
I believe that everyone has their strengths. I’m going to teach you your strengths, and pull them out of you. I can help you be the best, but I’m not the best at discipline. I’ve been lucky, I’ve either hired family or people I know, so I know how to work with them.
It took me a long time to learn to hire outside people to do what they are good at. To go outside the store to get what I need – accounting, taxes, etc., and create a team of people that can help me, instead of really messing it up. Those are hard things to say to yourself.
Connect the brand to YOU
“Say Say” was a nickname my girlfriends called me around 20 years ago. I wanted to have my identity in the store name, but I didn’t want it to be my name. I found out from customers that it was a very common nickname – customers have told me that.