By Ashlee Kozel, The Dandy Lion Boutique
November 18, 2011 was the annual Christmas parade in downtown Enterprise, Alabama. Right outside what is now The Dandy Lion Boutique stood a table, lamp, email signup sheet and lukewarm hot cocoa (at best). It was freezing, and packed with a crowd of people - none of which I knew. At this point, my future Shopify store was just a twinkle in my eye.
One week before the parade, I had signed a lease for 104 South Main Street during my last month as a college student. Kim (my mom) and I thought it would be a fantastic idea to stand outside the soon-to-be Dandy Lion Boutique to collect emails and possibly meet potential customers while handing out delicious, steaming hot cocoa.
Two hours and one email later (belonging to KiKi, an intense Alabama fan who was quite possibly homeless) we figured out that "operation give-away hot chocolate while networking" was the definition of an epic Dandy fail.
On the bright side, valuable lessons will always be taught through trial and error, which always includes the possibility of failing.
In retrospect, that was just the very beginning of my crazy Dandy adventure.
Early in my business endeavor, the norm was chatting with customers for hours and catching up on full seasons of my favorite shows, with no customer interruptions. I had plenty of time, and getting to know my customers was important to me.
Weekly shipments would arrive and I'd steam, tag and carefully place the clothes on the racks, trying to make a little appear to be a lot. The store was sparse on inventory, but full of an energetic vibe and a quirky interior.
After several months, business started to really pick up and the need to hire a "Dandy Girl" arose. After a year, we employed three "Dandy Girls" and developed an extremely supportive customer base or, as we like to call them, "Dandy Lovers."
With the store's success, my attention moved toward creating a legitimate web site to compliment the brick and mortar location. This was much easier said than done (but isn't everything?).
I experimented with several online platforms, but each created nothing but frustration and tears. I was beginning to think I would never accomplish the virtual Dandy Lion Boutique, but after several failed attempts, I stumbled upon Shopify and wanted to give the site one last go.
Shopify was extremely user-friendly and my store was up and running within days.
With my renewed hope in the website, we were able to sell over four hundred chevron dresses that summer and enjoyed our first "Dandy Whirlwind"' thanks to Shopify and a viral pic on Pintrest. This spike launched our web traffic, and was the fuel we needed to sustain our increasingly successful online store.
The DLB relies heavily on personal touches, since we reach hundreds of new customers through our website and brick & mortar shop.
Our usual Dandy package comes with a handwritten, personalized thank you note; a white envelope with crazy combinations of printed and colored duct tape; and an "Official Dandy Lover" sticker. We have even gone as far as sealing the thank you notes with a hand dripped wax seal.
I am a firm believer that the smallest details make the biggest impact. I try to practice this with every aspect of my business.
Some think our crazy Dandy touches, like the bejeweled front door (seriously, it is entirely covered in jewels) are a waste of time, but it is the combination of our wild and quirky touches that make The DLB unforgettable.
Each business needs to be an experience separate from any other, and I think we have definitely accomplished that.
When you make the decision to open a business, it's like getting buckled in for a roller coaster ride. First you stand in line with excitement and zero expectations. Once you're buckled in, you are grinning with joy and enthusiasm.
Then you reach the very first drop and it may cause you to scream in fear or sob uncontrollably. But with every drop, you slowly start to raise your hands in the air and enjoy the ride because with every single drop, you will be ok, and then it becomes a thrill that you want to experience again and again.
This month, we are celebrating the second anniversary of The Dandy Lion Boutique and we have seven employees, two brick & mortar locations (the second DLB opened this past October in the historic Cloverdale neighborhood of Montgomery, AL), a rapidly growing website, and a bright, Dandy future.
Growing a business is harder than I ever imagined, but with tools like Shopify and a new generation of business owners, together we are all helping create "the new America."
The small business industry is exciting to be a part of, and the future of America is looking bright - thanks in part to new small business innovation!
Ashlee Kozel is a 24-year-old small business owner & buyer with a creative advertising degree from the University of South Florida. She was born in Berlin, Germany and lived all over the world including Tokyo, Japan, Tallahassee, FL and Bamberg, Germany.
This year, Shopify's Build A Business Competition is bigger than ever. Shopify is giving away more than $500,000 in cash, prizes and mentorship in its fourth annual competition. Contestants create a store and try to sell the most in their category for a chance to win $50,000 and a VIP trip to NYC to meet their mentor.