Five years ago, my mom was transitioning careers, and I was transitioning out of school. So, on a whim, I asked her to come to Thailand with me—and start a business.
My aim was to introduce her to the groups of refugee artisans I had been working with, so she could sell their handicrafts—bags, scarves, and jewelry—in the U.S market. In doing so, the artisans would receive a living wage for their work, and my mom would be able to get on a new career track.
And even though she readily agreed to the trip, I was still a little in awe when we actually got on the plane on our way to launch her new career. Ania's World of Goods, which would bring the energy of a Thai street market to the comfort of people's homes, was being born!
Traveling as a mother-daughter team was hard enough, but that first trip was just the beginning—it was the post-trip experience that turned out to be the steepest learning curve for us. As my mom has grown her company, I’ve learned many unexpected lessons about the success of any small business.
1. Understand Different Tastes
When buying samples from women's artisan groups, we quickly discovered our visions for the product line were different. My mom loves earth tones that reflect nature and calm, and I’m drawn to dizzying, neon-bright colors. When selecting pieces, we’d often look at each other’s picks with raised eyebrows and say, “Who’s going to buy that?”
It was only after my mom had her first trade show that we fully appreciated that different people are drawn to (sometimes very) different products—and that having a mix that appeals to a range of people is key to getting a variety of customers interested in your business.
2. Slow Growth Pays Off
I initially created elaborate marketing plans and PR initiatives for my mom. I wanted her to grow fast! But these plans just didn't make sense in her market, a suburban area of New Jersey. From the beginning, my mom wanted to ensure a sustainable business model, rather than make a grand entrance, only to fade away as an overnight trend.
So she started out by building her reputation in her own way, first within her circles of friends, then later branching out to businesses and holding her own fundraisers. By doing things slowly, strategically, and as she saw fit, she’s developed a loyal, and long-term, customer base.
I’ve recently taught my mom about building an audience on Facebook and Pinterest, which has been helpful in growing her brand. And while it's easy to get caught up in a social media-obsessed world, my mom has reminded me to talk to customers and really get to know them. She goes beyond small talk with her customers who willingly share their stories, establishing a stronger connection than Facebook can create.
3. Learning to Listen and Accommodate
"Can you get me a bracelet with an evil eye? An owl with rhinestones? An anklet with an anchor?” Potential customers make all sorts of requests. And when my mom gets those requests, she tries to find what the customer is looking for through one of her partner artisans or wholesalers. And if she can, she’ll not only get the item for the requesting client, she’ll stock it for later shows. It’s not always easy, but it thrills returning customers and also intrigues newcomers.
4. Treat People Respectfully and Well
Whether it’s someone who helped her move boxes or a person who’s just having a bad day, my mom always offers a small gift or a discount to people she believes deserve or need it, and her customers always remember her because of it. She chats with anyone who stops by, and she makes people feel great about themselves as she helps them find the piece or accessory that’s just right.
I've seen the smiles on people's faces when they leave her shop, and I’ve also seen that they frequently return because of the great experience they've had.
What started as a mother-daughter trip around the world has turned into a sustainable and creative business. And while I was definitely the one teaching my mom when we were traveling, she’s the one schooling me now—on loving what you do, taking the entrepreneurial spirit to a new level, and succeeding as a business owner.
Photos courtesy of Moritz Schmultz and Ania's World of Goods.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author