the following interview was excerpted from the phenomenal business book, Shops that Pop!
To look at Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge and the company they’ve built, Beekman 1802, you might think they have been blessed by the gods of good business fortune. Seven years after its founding, they have indeed been blessed, not by accident or luck, but by hard work, diligence and scrupulous attention to detail. You see, Josh and Brent are just like you; they went out on a limb and invested everything they had with no alternative, but to make their business work.
Beekman 1802 was born of necessity. The two were riding high up to 2008, with well-paying jobs in New York City that afforded them the opportunity to buy an historic 60-acre farm in upstate New York for weekend getaways. However, in the same month both men lost those high-paying jobs to the recession and had to figure out how to keep their farm.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Brent said. “Then a local farmer came to us and said he was losing his place and asked if he could use ours for his herd of goats. So we were faced with no income, a million dollar mortgage, and 80 goats to feed.
We started Googling what we could make with goat’s milk and the one thing we thought would be easiest to get started in was goats milk soap. We apprenticed with a local soap maker who taught us how to make soap, started using it, and discovered it was amazing for the skin. So that was what we decided to launch with – one product, natural goat’s milk soap.”
With no plans to open a store, they took their soap to New York City and cold-called on a number of luxury stores on Fifth Avenue and got orders from Takashimaya (since closed) and Henri Bendel. But success had its price. When Anthropologie placed an order for 24,000 bars of soap and the men were still hand wrapping every bar of soap in the hallway of their farmhouse, they had to find a local building with enough space to run their wrapping and shipping operation.
In that new location, they had a small 10 by 20 foot space that could work as a storefront. “We decided if we are going to be here all day wrapping and shipping, we might as well have a little store front where we could sell something if people came in off the street,” Brent explains. And so Beekman 1802 Mercantile was born.
Though the Mercantile had humble beginnings, the team had a vision to make the storefront special. “Having worked with Bendel and Anthropologie and having a lot of experience shopping in NYC, we wanted to create an experience that kept the folksy, homespun nature of our company but gave it an urban polish.” So with their urban sophisticate style, but still on a limited budget, they crafted tables from aluminum saw horses and rough-hewn planks and installed industrial lighting from Home Depot.
Fast forward to 2016. Winning The Amazing Race in 2012 enabled them to pay off their mortgage. They also were able to invest in buying a property on Main Street in the one-stoplight town that is Sharon Springs. Today’s flagship store was established, along with a vibrant internet and media presence that includes publishing, blogs, a reality television show, and appearances on the TV shopping channel Evine. Both Josh and Brent came to entrepreneurship after forging successful careers in media, so media savvy was part of the skill set they brought to their enterprise.
Today’s Beekman 1802 Mercantile is an eclectic mix of products,from the brand’s own goat’s milk products, to home décor, lighting, fashion, and gifts. Brent explains, “Our goal in creating this Mercantile was to create a destination location, a real flagship store, that people visiting the area have to see, like when you are in Vermont, you go to Orvis or in Maine, you go to L.L. Bean.”
And the plan was not only to draw visitors to shop in their store, but to bring folks from all over to their village where all their neighbors would benefit. “So much of the community helped us when we were starting out. We didn’t know how to run a farm. We didn’t know how to make soap. We had to rely on people in our community and that is why community is such an important part of our brand.” So important, indeed, that rather than call them customers or guests, as Target famously does, to the Beekman 1802 family those who connect with the brand are called “neighbors.” The flagship store has also spawned four “pop-up” shops in Corning and Cooperstown, New York, Manhattan and currently in Boston to bring folks from these cities into their growing community of neighbors.
Brent offers some powerful advice for other retailers starting out like they did a mere seven years ago or for those established retailers eager to grow. First, you have to truly and uniquely distinguish your store. “You have to differentiate yourself in your community and make your place a destination for people with a unique experience and carefully curated products. People are shopping on Amazon, where they can find anything and it’s all cheaper. You have to offer something different and in a different way.”
Next, Brent says you have to be hungry. “Desperation is the best motivator. We literally had nothing but this property. We had to get it done. Otherwise you are not going to be willing to make the personal sacrifices you need to make to get a business off the ground.”
Finally, the Beekman Boys are uniquely blessed with media experience and social media savvy. They know that the most powerful social media is not what they post on their Facebook or Twitter feeds, but what their growing network of neighbors and friends post on theirs.
“People are craving personal attention, touch and feel and it’s fed by social media. That is why we do personal appearances all across the country, so we can have face-to-face interaction with our neighbors. Here is how it works on social media. We post a note on social media that we are doing an appearance and people come out to our event. They get a hug, take a picture, and then post it on their own Facebook page. It’s documented on social media and goes in a virtuous circle. All their friends see it and learn that Beekman 1802 is the type of brand where you can go and get a hug.”
That “virtuous circle” has done more for the company than hundreds – even thousands – of outbound posts. While NASDAQ calls Beekman 1802 one of the “fastest growing lifestyle brands in the country,” Brent bristles at that label. “We think of ours as a ‘living brand.’ Everything we put out there is inspired by the life we are living.” That is the authentic heart and soul of Beekman 1802.
In a recent retailer seminar, one of the participants – a more mature man with a long-established business – cried out in absolute frustration, “But what if I don’t want to do all these things you are telling me to do? What if I just want to stay like I am?” This man expressed the feelings that were running rampantly, but silently, throughout the entire seminar audience. Everybody felt uncomfortable, put upon, and challenged by the need to change his or her business. The retailers in the audience knew in their hearts that a dramatic transformation had to occur to keep their retail stores in business, not to mention to make them grow and thrive in the new challenging retailing environment, but the kind of transformation they needed to undertake was a very difficult thing to come to terms with. Nothing is harder than stepping out into the unknown, moving beyond the way you have done business for years, the store that you have known, that you built, that reflects your dreams and aspirations, and change it into something else.
Well, you really don’t have to do it. You can decide that your business is good right where it is, doing what it has always done before, in the same way it has always been done. The downside of that decision, however, may well be closing your doors for good, because the retailing world is changing and your customers are changing and if you don’t change with them, you will be left behind.
To get your own copy of Shops that POP! click here