Front door of Tara Swiger's new store, A Novel Yarn

Front door of Tara Swiger's new store, A Novel Yarn

Continuing my informal series on small business social media use, I thought it’s about time we look at some concrete examples. Or, more specifically, at a concrete example.

As a minor update, I’ve been told that some folks at TNNA have been following the conversation over here. I’m very glad to hear that, and I hope they know they’re welcome to comment here or elsewhere. And also, if you’ve been following along and have wanted to chime in but felt timid, please share your thoughts. More people than just me are reading them, and the more that’s said, the greater the opportunity for progress.

Now. Back when I first got really into Twitter, there weren’t very many crafts folks on there. So for the few of us getting our feet wet, it was sort of like we had our own little public instant-messaging group. It was a great way for those of us who had never met in real life to get to know each other. One such new-to-me online friend was Tara Swiger, who at the time was working in admin at a university and by night was running an online handspun/hand-dyed yarn business out of her home, called Blonde Chicken Boutique.

A few months ago, she lucked into circumstances that allowed her to leave her day job to focus on her yarn business full time. And just last week, she announced that she and her mom are partnering to open a brick-and-mortar yarn store called A Novel Yarn, in eastern Tennessee. Oh, and they’re opening the store today – just 12 days after signing the lease.

I know from following Tara’s business decisions for over a year that she’s smart and thoughtful when making those decisions, and given her fairly unique experiences this month I thought it would be fun to talk with her about social media and how her approach to it may or may not change now that her business will rely on physical, in-store customers (she’ll also continue to sell her own yarns online).

Kim: Tell me what this crazy yarn-store scheme is?

Tara Swiger

Tara Swiger

Tara: Ok, so my mom and I always look into empty shop windows, you know? And the week of [U.S.] Thanksgiving, she looked in one, called the “For Rent” number and we looked at it a week ago. Once we realized we liked the space (and it’s cheap!), we started plotting.

I love fiber artists (obviously) and have long wished there were more venues to celebrate handmade yarn. I knew any yarn store I did would have to celebrate the artistry of making yarn, because I just can’t get excited about commercial yarn, no matter how much I knit with it. It’s a matter of passion. I am passionate about getting closer and closer to the source of yarn and I love to talk about that with other people.
And what is a yarn store if not endless conversation about yarn?

The short version:
I wanted to build a space that would celebrate handmade yarn and supplies and interesting books. I thought when we started (last week) that we might eventually move to the big suppliers, but now I’ve realized that there are SO MANY indie, great indie yarns, that I could stock a huge yarn store with really fabulous handmade yarn and get to talk to people about how yarn is made all day long!

Kim: You ran Blonde Chicken Boutique for three years as an online business, working out of your home. What happens to that business with A Novel Yarn on the scene?

Tara: BCB is a completely separate business (my sole proprietorship) while ANY is a partnership with my mom. I’ll keep spinning and dyeing for BCB & will be spinning in the shop, as an “open studio”. BCB will be just one of the lines of yarn we carry and I’ll keep up the online store.

Kim: Ok, here’s the juicy stuff. Lots of brick and mortar stores have used, to some extent or another, online tools/media/whatever for their business – from putting up a basic website to selling online to spending a good deal of time interacting with people online. You’ve done the opposite: You come from having spent three years building an online-only business and using all those tools for that business, to opening a real-live store. (Here come the questions.)

How do you think your experiences online affect your approach to brick/mortar business? Or is the business experience you gained simply “business experience” regardless of the medium?

How do you plan to use online tools to promote/compliment your brick/mortar business?

Tara: Oh, that is a good one! Ok, first question: how will being online first affect [my approach to brick/mortar business]? For one thing, I come at the community aspect of a yarn store with the belief (ingrained by years connecting online), that people WANT to connect. They want to know what other people made with that yarn, they want advice on what to make with it, they want to know it comes from a real person.

Online, you have make an effort to show people that, to say “hi, I’m real and I love this work” – it’s easier to do that in person (to be effusive). And I’ve learned how much people respond to that positively, so I’m going into the “real life” yarny situations prepared to be fully myself – to be honest and transparent and to really show how much I love handmade yarn, to not temper it, the way I might in a room of non-yarnies. It’s almost… being online has taught me to be a more open person and a more genuinely human yarn-store owner than I was before the online business. It’s blurred the lines between personal passion and professionalism.

Also, the connection-thing – Ravelry has taught me how much people really love to see what other people are knitting!

Ok, your next question. Business experience (other than be-a-real-person) – I have learned a ridiculous amount of marketing stuff online. For one thing: every bit of communication is marketing. It’s giving your customers a vision/idea/feeling about your brand/store. Really understanding that saved me from feeling like I had to “market” – I just had to talk to people about what Blonde Chicken Boutique stood for and when I communicated with them (via Twitter, email, blog, Ravelry), I had to be true to that. That’s my marketing.

Knowing that, I go into the yarn store realising that I don’t need lots of marketing, that a logo isn’t as important as the customer having a consistently great experience.

And of course you KNOW that, but believing that enough to not stress about the rest of your marketing – that is key!

One more thing: Business experience is business experience. Profits and loss, taxes, ordering supplies, putting systems in place, all of this is huge in any kind of business and being online doesn’t make it any easier. Actually, you might be able to fake it longer online, because you don’t have people coming in and SEEING your mess! So, yes, I’m totally taking both the personal and biz lessons from BCB into A Novel Yarn, and I’m glad to have it!

Kim: For your online business, it’s realistic for you to have the goal of attracting customers from around the world. All you have to do is get them to your online store and have them love your product. For the brick-and-mortar store, your customers have to be in eastern Tennessee. How will you know if your efforts online are successful (i.e., how do you set goals when you can’t say, “Every person who reads my tweets is a potential customer”)? How will you alter your online strategies to attract local customers, or will you alter them at all?

Tara: I have asked myself this! I definitley worry about “wasting” time but this is what I keep in mind:

Although everyone might not be a customer tomorrow, they may eventually drive through, (we’re within two hours of a lot of the big southern cities – Asheville, Atlanta, Knoxville), yes? And if my yarn store escapades are pure entertainment for a worldwie audience that will never meet a person who’s going to East TN… well, then I’m not working on getting “customers” as much as I’m building a reputation. A reputation that will bring us the best fiber artists to feature in our gallery. A reputation that will surely offer other opportunities.

Kim: How will you determine how much time you spend online when you’re at the store? In other words, do you have a feel for how you’ll strike a balance? What advice do you have for other store owners who are wary of, or intimidated by, using online media for their business?

Tara: BCB has taught me that being visible online brings all kinds of oppurtunities. Ones that are completely unexpected and immeasurable. So while everyone I talk to might not be a customer, being around is always good.

How I’ll balance the time: I plan on being online while I’m actually working the shop, during the slow times. I don’t have internet at home, so any work online I do has definite boundaries. If I did have it at home, I’d have definite cut-off times each night!

Advice for other store owners: Be friendly, be useful, be willing to answer specific questions and if you get the specific questions more than once, answer them on your blog, then link to the blog post for future question-askers.

Remember: you are talking to people. Just people, like the people who come into the shop. You are not “broadcasting” to an unknown audience, you are talking to individuals.

Kim: What’s your response to a shop owner who says, “I don’t have time to be on the internet!”

Tara: You make time for the things that matter to you. Look at being online as another way to connect with current and potential customers. It’s cheap! Why not? Online is where your customers (granted, only some of them) are. The first rule of advertising is “go where they are.” At the very least, have a group on Ravelry and facillitate your customers talking to each other.

The real reason they should care: money. Ignoring this huge pile of knitters and publishers and big wigs is turning your back on a host of opportunities. It’s saying “no thanks, customers who want to get to know me, I’m too busy.” You wouldn’t say that in your store!

[You don’t have to be online] all day, just ten minutes a day on Twitter and maybe twenty on Ravelry. Most of these places take longer to set up than they do to keep up with.

Follow Tara’s adventure with A Novel Yarn on Twitter and at the store’s blog. I wish her all the best of luck, and I’m excited to follow her continuing adventure!

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