For many, life has a way of handing us an idea right when we take a moment to pause. For Harlem, New York native, Jammie Waldron, it wasn’t until he quit his job at Pottery Barn and took a vacation that the idea of running his own retail business struck him. While browsing a home shop in D.C. with his partner, Tyler Trinh, they shared an aha-moment that was the exact push they needed to rush home to Harlem in search of a brick-and-mortar space. It was then that Harlem Heirloom, a home decor and gift shop, was born.
Located in a former barbershop, Harlem Heirloom is only 200 square feet, but for Jammie, the shop’s small size felt relatable and similar to most pint-sized New York City apartments. More than just offering unique pieces from around the globe, Jammie and Tyler’s goal was to create a space that would inspire those who browsed with decor ideas for their real life (and often compact) spaces. Jammie’s penchant for balancing small spaces with high style continues to bring customers back to Harlem Heirloom’s ever-changing offerings — where no piece is ever stocked twice. Today, he’s joining us to talk shop (literally), and share more about his unique path to retail, the challenges they face, and what he learned after working with some of the world’s largest fashion and lifestyle brands and publications. –Sabrina
Photography by Lauren Kallen and Jeff Hirsch.
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I worked every retail job possible- in literately every position- before I was 25 years old. I knew that I couldn’t work for someone else again. That’s just not how I envisioned working until retirement. Tyler and I were on a vacation in Georgetown, D.C in September of 2014 when we stumbled upon this cute home decor store and thought,”We could totally do that!” At the time, I wasn’t working, as I had just decided a month earlier to turn what was a hobby into a company (Harlem Soap). So luckily, I had time to figure out exactly what it would take to open Harlem Heirloom. Two months later, we had keys.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
I’ve been a Visual Merchandiser for most of my career. Before opening Harlem Heirloom, I was the Visual Merchandiser for Pottery Barn Kids. However, my background is in fashion, as I studied at Parsons and had been an accessories department merchandiser for H&M for 3 years prior. I got my first look at merchandising while working the Oscar De La Renta showroom and interning as a teen at the Teen Vogue offices.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
A former boss once told me, “In business, you can’t be everything to everybody,” and that has always stuck with me. Do what you know will work (or has worked) and stop trying to create everything you think people want. You have to do one thing and do it right.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The hardest part of opening Harlem Heirloom was securing the lease to the store. We’re both very young (Tyler was 24 and I was 26 when we opened), so our landlord was very hesitant to lease the space to us. Tyler’s Mom actually gave us the money for the initial rent and my aunt Yolanda was our realtor, who ended up getting us amazing lease terms. It definitely helped having family there to support us with our best interests at heart.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned would have to be marketing, marketing, marketing! People will buy anything as long as they know it exists. Harlem Heirloom is on a fairly quiet avenue, foot traffic-wise. However, our customers love us and we always hear “OMG, I didn’t know you guys were here.” Guerrilla marketing with flyers and press write-ups have been our best marketing so far. For this 2016, we want to push marketing twice as hard.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
Luckily, we haven’t had any major failures because we have a lot of friends in business who have advised us of those woes before we reach them. We’ve always been willing to listen and are grateful to learn from other people’s mistakes, such as the time I spent sales tax to buy new merchandise. My friend Melissa said to me, “Jammie, I hope you’re transferring your sales tax into a separate account weekly.” By having a conversation with someone who had been through it already, I was able to catch myself before failing.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
I’d answer emails! I am so bad with replying to emails. I wake up every day to about 75 emails from customers, bloggers etc. It just never seems like there is enough time in a day to answer them all!
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Having no personal time and no days off. When you work for yourself, you have to work twice as hard – if not three times. Initially, we closed on Mondays so that we could have a day off, which worked for us because we could go to the beach during the summer and it seemed like the slowest businesses day. However, once we entered fall we realized Mondays were some of our busiest days, so we decided to stay open seven days a week.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re proudest of) in your business experiences?
My most proud moment to date would be not going broke! Seriously, I knew I could do it, but you’re just never sure. Over one year later, I can say that we’ve made it successfully. We have an actual store to show for all of the hard work and sacrifices! Every day I turn the corner of 116th to open the store, see our awning and think to myself, “Is this is still real?”
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
The book of life! I don’t really read books. Hustling and hard work is all I know. I grew up in the south Bronx and most of my peers haven’t made it out. You have to apply life lessons when doing anything and give it your all. Whatever it is you don’t know, someone around you does- or you need to change the people you surround yourself with. As W. Clement Stone said, “You are a product of your environment,” so choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you?
Yes. I’ve quit every job I have ever had. I worked for Target once doing store planning for soft lines and I hated it. The commute was long, the pay was terrible, and ultimately I wasn’t happy, so I went to work one day and over my lunch break I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. So I quit. Soon after, I started what I thought at the time to be my long-term career at H&M, but that was also short lived. I think you have to work for happiness.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
They should consider their finances, evaluate their life, and the overall brand they’re trying to launch. Starting a business can be really expensive, so if you are seeking investment capital or a loan, your personal finances and credit will need to stand the test. Evaluating your life and what sacrifices you are willing to make [is important]. Lastly, brand your product or service so that it’s something someone would want to buy into. Make sure it’s perfect before taking that big step.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
The hardest thing would have to be deadlines. When you work for yourself, you do not have to answer to anyone and no one’s checking to see if your work has been done. You are the only one accountable for your failures, so you have to work for your successes.