In today’s small business profile, we’re chatting with Sarah and Svein McBean whose business Rug & Weave enjoys both a beautiful brick-and-mortar shop and an online shop. After years of traveling and dipping their toes into new cultures in far-off places, Sarah and Svein took their inspiration from all the treasures that filled their backpacks on trips back to Ontario and decided to embark on the small business journey. Powered by their curiosity and appreciation of handmade textiles, Rug & Weave brings to market treasures from Turkey, Morocco, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, just to name a few. They also strive to bring local handmade goods into their brick-and-mortar outpost that’s located in Guelph, Ontario.
It’s in this retail space that Sarah, Svein and their mighty team of three produce their signature collection of pillows. Having production in-house allows them to become even more intimate with the textures, colors and shapes that will ultimately become a piece that is treasured and admired in a new home. Let’s start the conversation…
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Sarah: I always wanted to be a doctor. I think I just loved helping people and working to find a solution to a problem.
Svein: When I was young, I was obsessed with Michael Jordan — I wanted to be in the NBA. That definitely wasn’t in the cards!
What was your career path like?
Svein: I actually studied Kinesiology in university and was along the path to do a Phd — I realized the academic and research world definitely wasn’t for me! I got a sales job after university and that’s what sparked my initial interest in business. I basically became obsessed with the idea of working for myself — my boss in that first job was extremely hard [on] me, so I needed a major change.
Sarah: After two undergraduate degrees (biology followed by business), I worked for 5 years in the athletic industry (Brooks Running) in marketing. As an avid runner I loved helping people find joy in exercise. I learned a lot along the way and my time in this industry really helped me understand the consumer, how to connect with them and build the brand.
How did you come to create your online business? Which came first — your brick & mortar store or your online business?
Sarah: We were very avid home DIY enthusiasts as we had just purchased our first home and I had always loved the creative side to decorating and design. With the renovation of our bathroom we needed a specific style of rug — a vintage kilim. We had the hardest time finding one, especially in Canada, that met our price point and style needs. So, after endless hours [of] hunting, we actually met a wonderful woman selling them on Kijiji (like Craigslist in Canada). Long story short, over some Thai food and a bottle of wine we became business partners. An ETSY store was created under a different brand name and we sold numerous kilim rugs weekly. This all started August 2015 while we both had full-time careers. Then, in January 2016, we mutually parted ways with our third partner and decided it was time to open a standalone e-commerce store. This was when Rug & Weave was born.
Our goal was always to provide the best rugs, at the best prices without sacrificing quality or uniqueness. The first month or two we didn’t receive a single sale. So, we knew we needed to do something else, other than just rugs. We decided to expand into pillows and blankets. The rest is history, really! Our e-commerce store took off to the point where we were both able to leave our careers and focus on this passion project. Fast forward to one month after the birth of our first child in July 2017, we gained access to an amazing historical warehouse space in Guelph, Canada.
This space needed a lot of TLC but we were able to create a flagship boutique store in the front with order fulfillment, office space for our staff, and event workshop hosting area in the back! We are seeing more and more new faces into our brick-and-mortar store every day and we’ve found it a great way to connect with our customers one-on-one. This spring we will be opening a large Rug Showroom attached to our retail store that will further allow customers to find that perfect rug in person!
What’s the best part of your job?
Sarah: I love the thrill of the hunt! From digging around and hunting all day for vintage textiles that we make into pillows in our warehouse to seeking out the newest styles and trends in home decor. I really enjoy curating our collections.
Svein: Definitely sourcing vintage and antique rugs! Every one is handmade and unique, so we really get to see some amazing works of art. Some that we bring into the shop date back to the mid 1800s, have incredible coloring achieved from vegetable dyes, and are even signed by the artisan!
And the hardest part of your job?
Svein: Dealing with bookkeeping and entering expenses. I always fall behind!
Sarah: Finding a balance between being at home with our almost 2-year-old son and knowing when to pull back on the business and let my husband and staff take over certain tasks. We have another boy on the way this May so this juggle will only get tougher. But, these early years only last so long so I remind myself every day to enjoy each moment.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your in-house production?
Sarah: The majority of the pillows we sell are all made in house from textiles that we source or have produced for us. Our signature collection is our ever-changing assortment of pillows from Thailand, Indonesia, India, Japan, etc. Our goal with this collection is to always provide something new and exciting. Splashes of color, pattern and texture and one-of-a-kind fabrics that tell a story and truly are a focal point on your sofa, bed or chaise.
A lot of the work comes down to sourcing the fabrics or working with artisan weavers. Finding unique fabrics, textiles that are truly unique can be time consuming, but it’s so worth it! Once they arrive to us they are divided into collections that can be coordinated or paired together in the same space. This is when our seamstress goes to work taking the fabric sheets and transforming them into beautiful pillows.
What on-the-job tools do you use every day?
Sarah: My Mac and iPhone. Google Drive is my best friend for keeping projects organized and sharing/collaborating with the team. Visual boards help to keep our buys and product collections within our style.
How do you handle on-the-job stress?
Sarah: To be honest, our work environment at the warehouse is pretty stress-free! Everyone knows their role and does a great job at it. We have a fantastic team and really couldn’t do it all without them!
How many people make up your team? Did you hire them in stages as the business grew?
Sarah: We currently have 3 team members so with Svein and myself, our team is a total of 5 people. We started out really slow and didn’t add anyone to our team until we had been in operation for about a year and a half. Many of the employees in our team actually started in shipping and fulfillment. From that position they are really able to learn so much about the product as well as the backend systems. We are always so happily surprised to find out how much more each individual can contribute to the brand once they’ve mastered their time in shipping! For example, one of our girls had a background in English Lit and is now in charge of our blog and events. Another team member has worked her way up into our e-commerce specialist role. We truly have an amazing team and are so appreciative of all of their hard work every day.
What’s your favorite story behind a design, textile or product in your lineup?
Sarah: Our favorite design story around one of our items is our Bhujodi Pillows. We started working with a group of traditional weavers in the Kutch region of Gujarat province, India. They use only organic wool for their weavings and each blanket and shawl is done by hand. It took months to complete our first collection, and everything was so gorgeous upon arrival into Canada. The color combinations we selected turned out beautifully! The motifs across the edges of each blanket or shawl are geometric and lend to a more modern interior while still providing texture and warmth. Currently we repurpose the shawls into our pillows and provide the blankets as is — they are gorgeous draped across the edge of a bed.
Do you run a tight financial business?
Sarah: I’ll let Svein answer this one. He’s the numbers guy!
Svein: Financially, it can be tough! We started this company with an investment of only $2,000 USD, and have never taken a loan or outside investment from anyone. We always put all of our profits back into the business to buy more inventory. Antique rugs (good ones) especially are very expensive, even when buying in bulk. We’re very lucky to have reached a point that we can invest in the unique, handmade and vintage products that we really want to bring into the shop!
What life skills have been most helpful in pursuing a career as a creative and a buyer?
Sarah: As a creator and buyer I find not being afraid of taking a risk and doing something different is always helpful. It’s important to carry items that you know your customers will love but at the same time, living outside the fish bowl a little bit helps you learn a lot about your customers as well as push your business to the next level.
How do you stay inspired? And where do you get your product ideas from?
Sarah: I take the biggest inspiration from some amazing designers — Amber Lewis, Sarah Sherman Samuels — and also from the folks online that share some of the most amazing design ideas! Social media has given us such a great way to connect with each other and share beautiful spaces that so much love and attention have been put into.
Tell us about your ideal customer & how you learn more about people that visit your site? Do you use Google Analytics?
Sarah: Our ideal customer. That’s a tough one! Everyone is so different in the way they shop and look for items for their home. It’s such an emotional purchase, too. What we do love is when someone comes into the shop with photos of their space and is open to ideas and suggestions. We are by no means interior designers but we do love helping our customers style their homes with our products.
Svein: Google Analytics — yes, but we should use it more. There’s so much data to analyze that can really be helpful.
Is it difficult to maintain regular customers online?
Svein: Luckily, we have a really high return customer rate. Many of our customers come back a second or third time — we’re really grateful for that!
What tips would you offer online shop owners or those who would like to start one?
Svein: Come up with an effective social media strategy that gets people excited about your brand! Launch a campaign to get your brand out there well before you begin selling your product (we didn’t do this!). You also have to have a very unique product that differs from anyone else. There’s so many brands selling online now that you have to find a way to stand out.
And finally what’s your favorite home product that you carry?
Sarah: I’m pillow obsessed and always have been. I just love digging around for unique fabrics that we transform in our warehouse into pillows. I recall Svein getting quite upset at me when we first started dating as I’d always have way too many throw pillows on the bed or couch. I think he now has a greater appreciation for the throw pillow! :)
Svein: Our new Bhujodi pillows — we’re so proud of them! The fabric is woven exclusively for our shop in the northwestern part of India. They’re all handmade from 100% organic wool!
Image above: Svein’s favorite product — the Bhujodi pillow
All images courtesy of Sarah & Svein McBean. This post was produced in collaboration with Rug & Weave, a small business sponsor we’re proud to support! Visit their online shop here.