It has been several weeks since I shared an update about Habitation Co., my new small business and retail shop, or anything, really, on this blog. Wheredothedaysgo? Although the shop itself is not "live" just yet, I thought I would share a few of the surprising things that I have learned so far, throughout the process of building this baby from scratch. As I've mentioned before, I have scoured the ends of the internet while researching the ins and outs of starting a small business, trying to minimize the risk, overhead costs, and mistakes so many small business owners can relate to. Nevertheless, I am only a few months in and have already learned a few important things that I wanted to share simply because this space is still here, and so am I, and hey, so are you (thank you!).
Little Things I've Learned While Starting My Shop...
1. International shipping/importing is crazy expensive... Let's just say that I went back and forth with a company for a few weeks about a small order from South Africa with a shipping estimate in the triple-digits and when the box finally arrived, it fit squarely on my front porch welcome mat. I am working directly with many artists and small business owners that I met or found while traveling (not through a third party distributor) and in limited quantity, which inherently means costs are going to be higher, but I have also been able to hand-pick each item, and source unique things that you literally cannot find anywhere else in the country. And that is almost cool enough to help me swallow the giant flaming sword of outrageous import fees. It will be worth it, that I know for sure.
2. Language barriers, time zones, and spotty internet connections mean that even the simplest transactions will take three to four times as long as I think... Over the past two weeks I have re-worded an simple email with the same question "Can you send me photos of an item?", more times than Google translator. As I mentioned above, many of the vendors I am working with are people that I met while traveling abroad. The fact that I can use my native (only) language to communicate with people on the exact opposite side of the world in a matter of minutes is absolutely remarkable, but I definitely did not allow enough flexibility for basic cultural obstacles. I know that this is just part of the work, this is part of the job, and this is a huge reason I want to do what I'm doing to begin with- to connect with creatives, small businesses, and artists around the world- but this has been an exciting, though unexpected initial challenge.
3. Handmade products smell better... We visited a wool mill in Ireland where I bought a hand-knit sweater that literally still smelled like hay and grass for several months and washings later. Honestly, this was one of the main reasons I just had to have it. Similarly, when I opened a box of woven baskets last week, the whole room filled with the sweet smell of straw, so much so that when Dan walked in he asked "what smells like Christmas in here?". While working in small shops, I always dreaded unpacking the poorly labeled boxes that arrived from overseas and stunk of gritty old newspaper, oil, and plastic. As I place orders now, I am extremely picky about the items I am bringing in to the shop, what materials they are made from, how they are manufactured, and where they are coming from. I would much rather a customer open a pretty package that smells like straw, vegetable dyes, and cotton than synthetic chemicals and pollutants.
4. The world is just small enough for our biggest ideas... In our "advanced" society, it's easy for us to feel like we are ahead of the game in terms of being eco-friendly. We think the answer to living sustainably lies in fancy resource-saving gadgets and special cars, furniture, appliances, grocery stores, and more, when the reality is that most cultures have never considered there to be an alternative to "Earth friendly" practices. I have asked friends that live in other "first-world" countries how the "organic" revolution has influenced them and if people are pushing for more humane farming practices and they simply respond with "compared to what? No one here would eat something grown with crazy chemicals, that just wouldn't fly". The same goes for rural communities in India, Africa, and beyond who have used organic dyes and materials for Millenia simply because that is what has been available to them. Even now, with synthetics widely distributed, it is often more cost-effective, efficient, and safe for artisans in developing countries to use natural materials than manufactured ones. I love that when I reach out to an artist or group of artisans around the globe and I don't need to pry far into their creative processes because they are often very matter-of-fact about the materials and techniques used. In some ways, these concepts are sometimes more difficult to explain to our own neighbors than people in villages thousands of miles away.
Of course this is only the tip of the ice-berg when it comes to what I've learned while trying to start a small business, particularly one that involves using essential resources like fuel, packaging materials, and more, which I'll eventually get into in another post. I am always looking to lessen the impact and minimize our budding business's foot print, but I know that I have to draw the line somewhere and be ok with the fact that for now- today- this business simply isn't possible without using precious natural resources. My hope, obviously, is that through this business, we are able to serve a greater community of people than we could reach otherwise, and that the world is just a teeny tiny bit better, in a few small ways, through Habitation Co.