When I started Hey Little Engine, I wanted to answer the question, "How do you grow a business from the idea phase to something you can live off of?" I didn't want to answer it with aphorisms and platitudes, but with practical, repeatable advice from real entrepreneurs who had been there.
But the reality is not everyone remembers exactly how they did it. There are many stumbling blocks on the road to success, and in hindsight, we tend to forget them. That's why I thought, "Wouldn't it be awesome if someone blogged about the process of opening their business as they were doing it, and was totally honest about the process as it happened?"
Enter Ryan. She's opening a mobile boutique in Denver called Simply Guapa. She approached me about her grand opening this weekend, so I put her on the spot. I asked if she'd be willing to blog the entire process of starting her business right here on Hey Little Engine. Lucky for us, she agreed to do it.
Since she's already completed build-out and is ready for her May 30 launch, I prompted her with a few questions to help us understand how she got to this point.
How did you get your start, and what made you finally decide to make this a reality?
Simply Guapa has been in the works for year – it has slowly evolved to its current state, but has taken years of figuring out how to turn this crazy vision into something that could be real and sustainable. I think that’s part of what I love about it – while I’m just actually opening my mobile boutique this month, I’ve had this vision whirling around in my head for years and it’s such a part of me and my own growth and evolution as a person.
Ironically, although I consider Latin America to be my main inspiration at this point, I made the ultimate decision to make this dream into a reality while traveling through Turkey with my sister for my 30th birthday. Simply Guapa had been based on one buying trip to Guadalajara and a few jewelry parties, but there had been a lull for a few years as other life events got in the way. My sister Caroline and I were in the amazing region of Cappadocia in central Turkey. It’s always those kinds of trips that inspire me beyond belief and get me thinking about how to live an alternative lifestyle – one centered around risk taking and adventure, with a dash of stability and balance for good measure. I was struggling with how to truly make Simply Guapa a reality, but felt like this was the trip where I wanted to commit to making this dream come to life. I had no prior connection to Turkey, but I think I was looking to Turkey to give me a sign.
We were traveling through the region of Cappadocia, and we had just visited the underground city of Kaymakli that morning and planned to check out Uçhisar Castle and hike some of the valleys that afternoon. We arrived just after a huge group of tourists, so decided to roam the town and find somewhere to grab some food. We wandered behind the castle and found a tiny little restaurant with incredible views overlooking a beautiful valley. We chatted with the owners for a while as we ate traditional menemen and drank Turkish çay, or black tea. I just got this feeling like it was now or never – I could keep talking about my dream of making Simply Guapa come to life or could commit to doing it. I was still a little fuzzy on the details, but left our meal determined to figure out how to make it all happen.
Just after that, I got that sign I’d been looking for. We stumbled upon this shop with incredible jewelry and spent the next four hours chatting with the owner about Uçhisar, his family business, and my plan to open a shop in the U.S. We left with our bellies full of wine and tea, bags full of jewelry, and a plan to stay in touch via WhatsApp in the future. And that’s when things really started happening!
Why do you think you feel compelled to start a business rather than just working the job your currently have?
I enjoy my current job, I really do. (I do learning and development work for an educational nonprofit.) Simply Guapa didn’t come about as a result of lack of job satisfaction. I have itchy feet and severe wanderlust – always have! I often wish I could be more drawn to routine in my life, but I try to live by the philosophy that you’re not able to grow or learn as a human being if you’re not constantly challenging your thinking or way of being.
I’ve lived in and out of Latin America since I was 16, and those experiences inspired me to think about alternative ways to live this crazy life and build community. When I think of the moments in my life where I’ve been the most inspired or motivated it’s hands down when I’m 100% out of my comfort zone and forced to get my hands dirty, dig deep, and figure things out with no road map.
Have you done any businesses before?
Well, I was an entrepreneur from a young age! I would walk around trying to sell cups of water to my neighbors when I was like 5 years old. It didn’t go so well but I was hooked. I actually almost bought a retail shop in Aspen a few years ago. Things didn’t work out financially, but I knew I’d continue to try and figure out how to live the entrepreneurial lifestyle.
Why a mobile boutique?
I had the concept for Simply Guapa but wasn’t quite sure how to bring it to fruition, mainly due to the fact that it seemed like a huge risk financially to open a brick-and-mortar. Last summer I went on a road trip to Portland to visit my sister. She lives across the street from Tidbit Food Farm and Garden, which opened while I was there visiting. I was so inspired by small businesses making it happen and the essence of community that came from those businesses. I immediately knew that was my niche and mobile was the way to go to take my vision to the next level.
What would you eventually like to do with this business?
I want Simply Guapa to be a huge success! In the short-term, I’d really like to establish myself here in Denver and attract a strong customer base. When looking toward the future, I’ve thought about opening a brick-and-mortar as well as building a strong online presence. I’d also love to expand my global collections and partner with new communities of artisans in other countries. My hope is that I’ll maintain the foundational partnerships with artisan communities in countries where I have strong connections, like Mexico, and will then bring in products from other countries to spotlight seasonal collections from other regions of the world.
What are you going to sell?
I’m selling homewares, accessories, and skincare – items like textiles, jewelry, pottery, bags, rugs, candles, and small batch skincare. I have a few local vendors and bought merchandise from small artisan operations in Turkey and Mexico. My goal is to create sustainable relationships with artisans abroad so that it’s a socially conscious operation that goes back to the same communities and groups of artisans. It’s a model I highly stand behind and it supports the concept of SG being a shop that tells stories – of each item, the maker behind it, and the community or country it hails from.
How do you source everything? Were there specific cities and maybe particular shops in Latin America that you loved and that had that vibe you're going for?
I knew I wanted to start with Mexico because I have spent a ton of time traveling all over the country, and it has always held a special place in my heart. No matter how many times I've been, I'm always drawn back to Mexico by some inexplicable connection.
I lived in Xalapa and Mexico City at different points in my life and I speak Spanish, so logistically I knew that would be an easy bet in terms of navigation, local friends for support, etc. Actually, my first true buying trip for Simply Guapa was 5 years ago! My sister and I went to Guadalajara – that was back when I was only doing jewelry and would have jewelry parties to sell the items I’d sourced in Mexico. This time around, I knew I wanted to do more than just jewelry. I really wanted textiles to be a staple in Simply Guapa and knew that the Oaxaca region is known for their textiles, so I planned to spend a few days in the city of Oaxaca as well as small villages in the area to look for blankets, shawls, rugs, etc. I had a pretty good idea of the main staples I’d be looking for, but was also open to seeing what I stumbled upon and if it seemed like it would fit with the overall aesthetic I was going for in the shop.
In the future I hope to expand to other regions of Latin America – I lived in Peru after college and really love the colors and designs used in artesanía from that part of LA, so I hope to make that a buying trip at some point. I also feel as though my personal connection with some of these places really allow me to focus on bringing those stories back with each piece I buy. When I go to countries where I don’t speak the language or I’m not familiar with the culture it can feel overwhelming, and while I think that’s a great thing, I really wanted to have the ability to tell the story of each item, its maker, and where it was made. My familiarity with Mexico allows me to do that as I get off the ground.
One example that comes to mind is when I was wandering around the town of Mitla, outside of Oaxaca. Mitla is known for its Zapotec archeological site, but it’s also a little town known for handcrafted textiles. I had actually never been there before, so I spent a good deal of time wandering up and down the streets, chatting with shop owners and getting a sense for their wares. There was an elderly couple with a very tiny shop built into their home sort of on the outskirts of the village. I stopped and chatted with them for a while, and then they invited me in to show me their amazing handmade scarves and shawls. They spoke Mitla Zapotec to one another and Spanish to me, and we spent a great deal of time chatting about how indigenous languages are disappearing and how sad it is that their grandchildren can barely understand it when spoken, let alone speak it themselves. I bought pretty much the entirety of their shop and I promised I’d be back to buy from them again. Sharing those stories is the core of Simply Guapa – if and when I grow the business I always want to ensure the storytelling component remains a foundational piece.
Overseas buying trips sound like a real adventure. Have you ever had moments where things weren't going well?
My first official buying trip to Mexico this past December. I had my itinerary all planned and thought I was incredibly well prepared – ha! I arrived in Mexico City and took a cab to the bus station as I was planning to take an overnight bus to Oaxaca. I had arrived only a few days before Christmas, and completely forgot that the bus stations would be overflowing. I arrived only to find out that every single bus to Oaxaca was full. I was on an incredibly tight schedule, especially considering I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of buying options on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I talked to a few ticket agents and they encouraged me to keep checking back each hour as there was the potential that they could open up a few more routes to accommodate everyone waiting to get on a bus. I walked laps around the TAPO bus station as there was hardly room on the floor for a seat with so many people waiting to travel for the holiday. I would stop back at the ticket counter every 30 minutes, and finally around midnight after 4 hours of wandering they added some additional buses and I scored a seat on a 1am bus to Oaxaca.
In my defense, I will say I’d never been on a buying trip before nor did I truly know what I’d be buying or how much of it. As I was packing for the trip, I decided on just bringing a pack with me to avoid the hassle of having to roll around a suitcase with wheels. So my first stop was Oaxaca and the surrounding villages. I ended up buying a LOT of textiles. I planned to ship things back to the US, but I ended up buying the bulk of my merchandise on December 24th and took a bus back to Mexico City early on the 26th, so the holiday completely foiled my shipping plan. It became apparent I’d have to lug all the merchandise with me on the bus to Mexico City and ship it from there. I went to the market and bought a HUGE market bag that zipped at the top and proceeded to stuff it with blankets, scarves, and rugs. It was massive and weighed over 100 pounds. I somehow made it from my hotel to the bus station and with the help of another person got it under the bus.
Seven hours later I landed in Mexico City’s largest bus station, only to realize I had to drag this thing through the bus station to get to a taxi seguro to my friend’s house. I’d like to think I’m pretty strong, but I was sweating bullets dragging this thing through the station, and the only saving grace was the floor was marble so I was actually able to drag it. The line was incredibly long for a taxi, but luckily I’d made it and breathed a sigh of relief. I must have waited in line for 45 minutes, and as I got closer to the front I realized everyone had a ticket of sorts in their hands. I asked the guy in front of me where he got the ticket and if it was for the taxi, and he kindly reminded me that you have to buy the taxi seguro ticket before you actually get a taxi, and that the ticket stand was way back by where we got off the bus. I somewhat panicked – there was absolutely no way I was lugging this bag all the way back through the terminal and then waiting in line again for another hour to get a taxi. I decided to take my chances and see what would happen if I jumped in a taxi without a pre-purchased ticket. I assumed I’d be charged at least double, but at that point, I decided my budget could take the hit. The very lovely taxi driver helped me load my bag, shrugged nonchalantly when I told him I didn’t have a ticket, and ended up charging me the same and very fair rate to take me to my final destination.
Who do you think your customer will be?
I think the beauty in a mobile business is I have the ability to literally seek out my target audience. Much of my first few months in business will be all about understanding who loves my products and how to find those customers. I’m definitely planning to cast a wide net as I think my products and collections could potentially attract a fairly wide target customer base.
Do you have financial projections?
Yes and no. Because I’m selling a combination of local and global products, it became apparent that financial projections would be close to impossible for my merchandise I planned to buy in Mexico and Turkey as I built out my business plan. This summer is going to be a bit of trial and error in that department, and my hope is to have a more solid sense of what realistic expectations can be on a more detailed level in the near future. Two additional factors that help in this department are that I have a full-time job so I’m not leaning on this business to generate my income as I get going. In addition, in this type of business the majority of the investment goes in on the front end – my overhead will be incredibly low once I’m actually up and running. So as I solidify my product base and better understand margins I’d like to really nail down detailed projections going forward.
Did you do a business plan?
Yes, I did put together a business plan. Once I decided I wouldn’t be looking for investors I sort of let go of the dry, strict business plan model. I think it can be super helpful in solidifying your concept, brand, vision, timeline, marketing strategies, etc. But I do think with this kind of creative business I’ve been able to stray a bit and be a little more abstract in certain areas of defining Simply Guapa.
How are you going to handle your marketing? How have you handled any website build out, social media, marketing, etc. before your launch?
I’m going pretty scrappy in terms of my marketing campaign – really utilizing social media and word of mouth. Much of the first few months in business will be ascertaining how to best access my target customer and where to set up shop in order to be most accessible. I had high hopes of building out a website by the time I launched, but it quickly became apparent that it just wasn’t going to be feasible. So I’ll have a basic site up with information on Simply Guapa, where the truck is, any upcoming events, etc. I will be most active on Instagram and Facebook – customers can check my social media for the most current information on where I’ll be popping up for the day or events where I’ll be a vendor. Getting my shop online will be a part of phase two!
How are you going to get the word out about your launch?
I’m going to do a social media campaign on Instagram and Facebook. I’m also planning to drive around town in my truck and pass out marketing material to other small businesses, coffee shops, breweries, etc. I think it’s a great opportunity to spread the word about my launch and get to build relationships with potential partners – I want other small businesses to be excited to collaborate and have me pop up outside of their establishment! Also, I’m just a huge fan of good ol’ face-to-face relationship building.
Some people might look at that and think, "That would terrify me. What if people didn't get it?" Is there anything that intimidates you about that plan?
Oh, absolutely. I don’t doubt people will think I’m nuts, hate the concept, not understand what I’m doing, etc. It’s definitely intimidating and I totally have those freak-out moments where I’m literally thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?’ It’s really scary to be taking such a huge risk and putting myself in such a vulnerable space. Also, this may sound ridiculous, but I’m definitely an introvert by nature. I can play the extrovert game, but while I get energy from people who inspire and challenge me, it can also be overwhelming and exhausting at times. I have had many a moment of self-doubt or fear, but I try to muster up all the brave cells in my body and remember why I’m doing this and that I do believe in this idea. And as cliché as it may sound, I truly believe that I grow and learn the most when I do things I’m most afraid of. Ironic, eh? But so true, and I’m so thankful for the many challenges and intimidating pieces I’ve been faced with as a result of my venture into the land of creative entrepreneurship. It’s awe-inspiring and terrifying all at the same time and thus far I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
What keeps you up at night?
I always feel like there’s more I could be doing. Always. Plus, I’m pretty dead set on ensuring there’s still balance in my life – a full-time job, getting Simply Guapa up and running, and obviously making sure I’m still climbing some beautiful Colorado mountains with my pup!
When you say you feel like there is more you could be doing, can you be more specific? What else could you be doing that you're not doing?
Oh, this whole process can just be so overwhelming. With the excitement and anticipation there are endless unknowns and change is constant. And let’s be honest, there are times I have no idea what I’m doing or if any of this will actually pan out – that is terrifying. In order to mitigate the chance of failure it’s as if I just constantly feel as though I should be doing more. I should be more organized or have gotten more done that day. For example, initially I had high hopes of actually getting a website up to sell online by the time I opened. I decided it wasn’t in the budget and I just didn’t have the time to make it happen without sacrificing quality. I sometimes stress about shifting priorities, even when I am fairly certain I’ve made the right call and it’s something that comes with the territory when your to-do list is ever growing in a one woman operation.
Photo by Scottie Davison