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Spinning Profits From Yarn

How former software engineer Laura Zander turned a hobby into a $8-million business

  • By Sandy M. Fernández
  • June 28, 2013

What did that teach you?

I had always sort of been a fly on the wall in our industry: We didn’t advertise; I didn't go to trade shows—or I did, but I didn't talk to anybody. It never occurred to me that you need to blow your own horn. The PR person they sent to sit with us taught me that. So when the piece came out, I immediately sent our vendors and every magazine in our industry a note saying, "Our industry just got a five-page article!" And it just snowballed: We got more exposure and more exposure. When I got invited to the White House two years ago, I sent out another note: "Jimmy Beans takes yarn to the White House." How great for this whole industry! 

I understand the Web played a big role in your growth, too.

One of our core purposes is to make our online customers feel like they're in the store and as if they know us; we're trying to break down that Internet barrier. So in 2007 or 2008, my husband Doug had the foresight—before Zappo's, before Amazon—that we needed to do YouTube video reviews for every single product that we carry. It was also about rankings: Google had changed their algorithm so that if someone typed in "Rowan Big Wool" and we had a YouTube video with that title, you'd see a snapshot of our video on the first page. How great is that? Now we're on Facebook, Pinterest and about to start an Instagram campaign.

What about social media?

We're not a discounter, we're not promotions-heavy: Our competitive advantage is great customer service and that we're storytellers. Our whole goal is for you to get the brands that we carry on a personal level. Social media is a terrific way to accomplish that goal. About six months ago, we set up a hot tub in our warehouse and filled it with yarn: We're kind of in the middle of nowhere, but we get a lot of people coming to visit us, so we wanted to give them a unique experience. So now they can take pictures of themselves in the Jimmy Beans hot tub. And, of course, they post those on social media. For the Olympics, we're going to fill it with red, white and blue yarn.

Jimmy Beans shows up in pretty eclectic places: You have a multi-year partnership with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association; you did goody bags for the Emmys one year. What’s that about?

We focus a lot on mainstream publicity and partnerships. I advertise in knitting magazines, but nobody's going to notice us because everyone's advertising knitting stuff. I want to advertise in Car & Driver because I can guarantee that every one of the magazine's readers knows someone who knits or crotchets or sews or quilts. And that ad is going to pop.

If someone who was starting a brick-and-mortar store asked you for three pieces of advice, what would you say?

First: cash-flow management. It sounds really textbook, but you have to get QuickBooks or some program like that and write down every pen you buy, everything that you spend money on and categorize it and look at it every single month if not more frequently. Look for patterns. At least in our industry, people just don't do that. Instead, they send in all the receipts to an accountant at the end of the year and say, "Did we make money or not?" That's one of the biggest mistakes. The second thing is, if you have employees, you have to recognize everyone. They have to know each job is as important as every other. Management was really hard for me at the beginning—I didn't know how to communicate my vision to managers who worked for me. I had to work really hard on that because they're the ones now communicating with customers and vendors. The third is customer service. The customer's always right. You have to think about how you'd want it if you were shopping. In every single situation, flip it around.