Next up are Hollie Pocsai and Jane LaBatte from White Elephant Vintage,, which started out as an etsy shop and has now become a real bricks and mortar store! Thanks to you both for sharing your story and advice. Be sure to check out their website here.
So…. When and how did you start your business… tell us your story! What was your first concrete step? What advice do you have for something starting out?
We always knew that we wanted to set out on a creative endeavor together. We’ve been friends for more than 10 years now, and since the beginning of our friendship we’ve been involved in creative business partnerships. Our friendship just seems to inherently be driven towards creating something together.
White Elephant started because we had been running our shopping blog, Love It A Lot, for more than a year and had made some advertising revenue. We knew we wanted to put the money towards some sort of business, but we had no idea what. We had bounced a few ideas for online stores around, but nothing really seemed to fit.
Then one day, like a lightbulb going off, we realized we should just do what we do best: thrifting. Both of us enjoyed thrifting trips, and always mourned when there was a piece that we would have to leave behind because it literally would not fit anywhere in either of our apartments, amongst all of our own personal collections. Starting White Elephant became the perfect excuse to thrift every single day, and to buy whatever we wanted without worry of it fitting in our apartments. Shopping was definitely the first step, we shopped and shopped until we had enough pieces to open an Etsy store, and then we began planning. We are so lucky that Hollie’s husband Mike is a graphic designer, because he did all the design work for us and made everything look really pretty.
What do you look for when you shop for White Elephant Vintage? Colors, shapes, a certain price point? Without giving away any trade secrets, where do you do the bulk of your buying?
There’s really no code or guidelines when it comes to sourcing pieces for White Elephant. We obviously look for items that have a good price point, and one that we know that we can garner a profit from. The pieces we choose are usually from the 40’s-70’s, with a heavy influence of mid-century design.
Our shopping trips turn out really surreal sometimes. We’ll go into a flea market or estate sale, having no concept of what the day will bring, or what pieces we’re looking for, and when we set out the day’s purchase afterwards, they’ll all seem to have a common theme running through them, whether it be colour, tone, style, or subject matter.
We try to change up where we go shopping each time. If possible, we always avoid going to the same place more than once a month. We usually just pick a direction on the map, and search Google for any flea markets or good thrifting places in that general area. Then we head that way, and stop along the road whenever something catches our eye. In general I think we keep most shopping trips within a two-hour driving radius from where we live, in Hamilton Ontario. One of our favorite towns to hit up is to Cambridge, Ontario, but that’s mainly because we’ll always have lunch at a Mongolian grill when we head that way. Shopping actually takes a lot out of us, so fueling up is imperative.
Neither of us really have anything in our background that has developed our eye. Jane went to school for English, and Hollie for Television Broadcasting. It’s kind of serendipitous that we have the exact same taste, and speaks volumes to us about our ability to do this, and the fact that we just couldn’t do it with anyone else or separately. We figure that since we’ve been friends through the phase when Jane applied a different fun fur to each of her dresser drawers, and Hollie had leopard print bulletin boards with pink flamingos on them, we’ve been able to grow from our mistakes together, and develop objective eyes together. Even though looking back, those were hideous design choices, we did had the coolest rooms out of all of our 16 year old friends.
Pricing seems to be one of the critical aspects of running any sort of retail business… any advice?
Pricing has been tricky. When we first started out we really had no idea what to charge for things, and we ended up undercharging on a lot. We had a lot of sales the first few days we were open, but most of them ended up costing us money once shipping fees and Paypal and Etsy charges were added on.
It’s hard to offer advice on this, because it’s really trial and error. If something’s not selling after a month, it’s probably time to lower the price. Sometimes when we don’t know what to charge for something we search Ebay. If it’s selling on Ebay for $5.00, we know we can’t try to list it for $30.00.
The hardest part for us has been pricing during the shopping trips. There’s been so many times when we have bought something out of pure excitement of the find, only to get home and realize that we really paid top dollar for it, and we couldn’t possibly charge any more. We’ve learned to really think about every purchase before buying it. If we’re unsure about something, we have a discussion about what we will list it for online. If it’s not worth it, we don’t buy it.
What do you find most challenging about running your vintage business? The most rewarding?
The most challenging part of running a vintage business is having to deal with the stigma of a “junk store.” Especially in our city, there are no other vintage stores around, so everyone just assumes vintage means another Salvation Army. We get friends, relatives, and even strangers bringing us boxes of junk all the time. Just last week someone brought in a big box full of votive candles from the dollar store, and a Starbucks travel mug. It’s hard, because we appreciate that they’re trying to help, but we really don’t want just anything. We have a style and an aesthetic maintain.
Being your own boss is amazing though. Before answering these questions we were watching some episodes of Mad Men, and scouring Etsy to find new jewelry for the store. Our business meetings take place over dinner, and usually end with an episode of the Hills. It’s rewarding doing what you want with your time, and realizing that everything that the store is, is because we made it that way. It’s a responsibility and an accomplishment we are extremely proud of.
How much time a week do you spend on your business? Is it your full time job?
It’s more than a full-time job, really. Hollie quit her full-time job in June of 2008 to focus on the business more, and Jane just recently acquired a new part-time job that offers more flexibility and less hours so that she can spend more time here as well. We’re both working about 60-70 hours a week right now, and usually 7 days a week, but it feels a lot better than the 40 we used to put in behind an office desk.
The thing about running an online store, and a shopping blog, and having an actual bricks and mortar store to go with it is that you are always working. There is always something you could be doing, and sometimes if you take too much downtime on a weekend, you start to feel guilty about it.
Ultimately the work is enjoyable though, so we don’t mind. We realized a long time ago that the success of our business is directly proportional to how much time we put into it. It’s all on us, so we don’t mind doing it, and have no one to blame but ourselves if things don’t turn out the way we’d like.
Can you tell us about the transition you made from being an Etsy seller to using a stand alone website and having a real store? What were some of the decision points?
Leaving Etsy was a really hard and bittersweet decision for us. We have always been giant fans and supporters of the Etsy community. Without Etsy, we wouldn’t have had the success we had that pushed us into the decision of opening a bricks and mortar store, and our shelves would be rather empty since we almost only carry Etsy artists.
We decided to leave based on the fact that we wanted to create more of a brand for ourselves. We wanted to have a one-stop destination for White Elephant. And we really love our design and branding elements, and wanted to show them off more, which we could do so away from Etsy.
As for opening the real store, we never opened it because we were wildly successful online and had an excess of money that we didn’t know what to do with. Although we had always imagined that someday, somehow, we would have a store, we never imagined having one at this point in time.
It all started last summer when we got involved with a local monthly market focusing on handmade and vintage items and got a lot of positive feedback from the patrons. We loved spending our Saturdays there, and had never had that kind of in person customer interaction before. It was really all we needed to realize that we would do well in our hometown.
We found a space on James Street North, which is the up-and-coming artists district in our city. A monthly art crawl is held each month, which brings 500-800 people out to the street, and all the galleries and shops stay open late and hold their opening night exhibits or band shows or workshops.
Nothing that we’ve done has really been about making money. It would be nice to have all of our endeavors pay off, but it’s more about our own happiness. Owning a store is something that we’ve both always wanted to do. It’s a struggle sometimes, but there’s really no higher reward than watching something that we’ve created together grow out of nothing.