Friday, May 20, 2011

An Interview with...Anne Woodall

Once a week I post  interviews with interesting Knitting Professionals about their insights on their experience of working in the Knitting industry.  I’ve noticed that everyone makes their living in a slightly different manner bringing their own unique presence to the Knitting world. 

You can find Anne here

Anne will be hosting a special IRISH Knitting Tour that will be leaving from Toronto   Sept 26th - Oct 6th, 2011. You can find all the details here.

Tell me how you got into the business of running a yarn store.
After 12 years of teaching, I found myself in a new town and in a new school board, so at 42 I was at the bottom of the seniority list. In 1996, after what had been nearly the hardest year of my teaching career, I was laid off saw it as an opportunity to put into action what I had been telling my grade 8 guidance classes all along: have courage, be flexible, be prepared for change. I had been a commercial knitter for different yarn stores on Vancouver Island back in the 80s and had kept up my love of knitting ever since. It seemed like a good idea as there was very little competition for the middle market in the yarn industry in our city.

How long have you been in business?
It will be 15 years in September.

Do you run the store by yourself, or do you have employees? If you do, how many people work at your shop?
I have 4 great part time employees and 4 or 5 knitters who contribute samples and do custom work for customers.

How did you choose the yarns that you carry in your shop?
When I opened, the store was an independently owned franchise of the WOOL-TYME store in Nepean/Ottawa. It was an absolute blessing to have Theresa deVries's experience in placing those initial orders.  It was the best of all possible worlds: I had the support at opening, but the freedom to change and build product lines as I came to know my customers and the local market more.

What have you done to create a sense of community in your store?
I’m a teacher at heart, therefore we have lots of classes which are also the basis of a lot of community: they foster loyalty, commitment to the projects, they are worth a hundred times more to us in sales than the price of the class membership represents. 
I’m also a writer, so the obvious way to connect with my customers is through a newsletter which I’ve been writing regularly nearly since we opened. With the advent of the Internet, the newsletter went electronic and has grown to be a monthly publication, sent to customers and friends around the world. It’s an amazing community building tool as we recently had a knit along featuring the February Lady Sweater and we had participants from across Canada, the US and even a lady from Britain who visits us every time she comes to Kingston to visit her family here. I’ve been writing a blog, and using another site to share free patterns. Our latest endeavor is to organize an Irish Knitting Tour next Sept. Even those who can't join us are excited and looking forward to following us around via the blog.

What is the biggest lesson that running a yarn shop has taught you?
One of the best things I brought away from an entrepreneur's course I took at the local college when I was contemplating opening the store was that those who begin a business based on their hobby no longer have a hobby. GET A NEW HOBBY or some other sort of distraction.
A few years into the shop,  I began writing more seriously and although I’m definitely not a workaholic, over a period of 3 years I completed  a novel, which is available here on- line.
Later, I was writing more for the store’s newsletter and blog, so again, I was left looking for a new hobby. I discovered rug hooking, which although it falls into my business world in that we sell rug hooking supplies and give lessons, I still consider it what I do for fun.

What is your favorite part of what you do running the shop?
Teaching - It’s who I am. That being said, as a craft person I’m a bit strange in that I also love the bookkeeping/business building side of things.

We've seen many cycles in the yarn industry of the market increasing and then falling again. What are your thoughts on where things might be headed now?
When I opened the store, I counted 7 yarn retail outlets within our city limits that had sold off their inventory, for different reasons, within the last 18 months. Add to that the fact that the yarn world was at a real low point and you can just imagine what my first 5 years were like.  I think that the best thing about the yarn industry as it is now and in the future, is that the Internet has been an amazing equalizer and energizer. Before, if a knitter didn’t have a fanatic knitting friend, they often fell into an on again, off again cycle of wanting to knit. With Ravelry and Facebook connections, Knitting Olympics, not to mention the phenomenon of the super bloggers among knitters, your customers can be energized, challenged and excited about all knitting, 12 months of the year.

Did you do a formal business plan?
Yes, but only because it was the final project for the entrepreneurs course that I was taking at the college. Actually, I got so caught up with planning the opening of the store that I wasn’t able to fulfill the course requirements on time, so I "failed" the class, but I still had a great plan that the bank liked and at least provided me with a list of questions to ask myself as I was jumping in.

Do you have a mentor?
As I mentioned before, at the beginning, the store was a franchise of the WOOL-TYME store in Ottawa. Theresa deVries, the franchiser  was invaluable in the help, support and experience that she was able to share at the beginning. After 5 years, our agreement changed and we now have a wonderfully cooperative arrangement  where we meet occasionally to exchange ideas. I’ve also stayed in touch with Mark, the prof in the entrepreneurs program that I took. He’s a fountain of business and marketing knowledge and wise too.

Do you have a business model that you have emulated? 
No, although Theresa and I had/have quite similar views of what we would like our stores to be to the community.

What impact has the Internet had on your business?
It would be impossible to overestimate the impact that the Internet has had on my business. Has it brought me more business? Probably, but mainly it has made it easier and more enjoyable to connect with my customers, whether they are around the corner, or needing a knitting question answered when they’re on holiday in Florida, on assignment in Mali or on duty in Kandahar.

How do you maintain your life/work balance?
It’s my first priority so it isn’t hard to maintain it. I schedule ½ an hour each  day for reading – anything that I want, work related or not. I try and get in 5 hours of exercise a week, whether it’s yoga at the gym, a brisk walk after supper or a walk to the bank. And I never knit on Sunday, that’s my day for rug hooking. Once I’ve fulfilled these obligations to myself I fit in everything else I need to do around it. That being said, it’s a whole lot easier now that we’re empty nesters.

How long did it take for you to be able to support yourself?
I didn't have money to invest when I opened the store and we had a young family.  It was entirely done through bank loans and a line of credit, which is a very expensive way to open a business, but I also don’t think that I would be where I am today if I hadn’t gotten into it at the level that I did. Some of you may or may not want to hear this, but after 15 years, if it wasn’t for my husband’s salary, I still wouldn’t be able to support myself entirely, never mind my kids. It looks as if by the time I get the whole debt done with, I’ll be at an age to be looking at the next phase of my life.It's not a smart financial move, opening a bricks and mortar store, but sometimes it's just what you've got to do for your soul.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in running a yarn store?
The third year I was in business I wrote a piece for Knitters’ Forum, comparing the store to a fourth and extremely demanding child. I would definitely say that that analogy still stands. It is way more than a job. It will always be more than a job, no matter what level of success you achieve. You should be prepared to ask and accept help from anyone who is willing to give it to you. If you have a life partner, they too should be prepared for this extremely demanding new member of your family, and for the financial drain that such a move will have on your joint income. That being said, and despite the very difficult time that I had for the first 5 years, the store has ironically offered me a certain amount of flexibility to be there for my kids when they really needed me, time that I would never have been able to give them if I was under the very strict demands of a teaching position.

It has challenged me to try new things, to rise with the ups and survive the downs. It has given me a chance to teach all I want, without having to deal with marking or recess duty. It has opened up lots of opportunities for me and my family, and as I look to the future, it gives me a something to continue working at - if I choose to, or sell - if I choose, or share with a partner in the future - if I choose. It’s hard but if your personality is such that you like independence, flexibility and accepting responsibility for your own happiness, you’ll love it.

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