Through the Eyes of the Entrepreneur: Nicole Snow, CEO of Darn Good Yarn

NOTE:  This is the first in a new series of interviews that we’ll be doing here at Disruptive Growth. We will be exploring issues that individual entrepreneurs face in starting and growing their business in Maine. The skills, attitudes and approaches that they found were successful, and even those that weren’t. It’s our attempt to give our readers a different perspective of entrepreneurship in Maine, through the Eyes of the Entrepreneur. Enjoy -DG

Nicole Snow founded Darn Good Yarn in 2008. DGY imports yarn fiber that has been recycled from waste silk in India and Nepal then distributes product in both the wholesale and retail markets. Located in Sebec, near Dover-Foxcroft, Snow successfully uses the Internet to build and manage relationships with her customers and her suppliers across the world.

The BDN checked in with her in March of 2012, but she’s had a very busy 2013. In January, Darn Good Yarn was the grand prize winner of the inaugural FedEx Small Business Grant Competition and the recipient of a $25,000 grant. Snow utilized her social media and internet experience to build a campaign to beat thousands of other competitors from across the country. More recently, Snow has been working with others, including Gov. Paul LePage, to promote “micro-businesses” in Maine.

Can you tell me about the moment when you decided to “go on your own” and start Darn Good Yarn? What was that like?
When I realized that my past employers didn’t realize all of the gifts I had to offer their organization. I knew that I had the drive, energy and passion to fuel my own start-up.

How did you get into the yarn industry?
I’ve always enjoyed creating. Prior to starting my business, while I was in college I would sculpt metal and paint in my dorm room. So for me, this business is a marriage of my two passions, which in turn fuels who I am and lends it to being a conscientious capitalistic company while expressing my creativity.

In this 2012 article, you mentioned that you and your husband started your business from savings. Often cited as the roadblock to starting a business, can you talk about how you approached this problem and the risks involved?
An interesting aspect to starting a micro-enterprise versus a “small business” is that less capital is required to “start up” in a lot of instances. I think there is a slight intimidation when someone thinks about self-funding their passion and turning it into their business. For example, I started my business with a couple thousand dollars. I had my computer already and I worked in a strict budget. So, you could look at it as a risk or as an opportunity to get an education in start-ups. Even if you start a business and you say, “Whoa, I’m in a little over my head” I say you can look at that as a self-funded business education.

What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Not to be afraid of growth and to surround yourself with people who really have your best interest in mind. I’ve met a lot of people along the way who want to mooch off of the hard work that I’ve poured into this business. I would tell individuals looking to start a business that a decent amount of your success depends on “the company you keep”.

Any advice for someone who thinks they want to get into the same industry as you?
Just because an industry like crafting and craft supplies might look cute and colorful (it is!), it is still an industry and that fact must be respected. I’ve met plenty of people who thought, “Oh that little yarn business…how cute”. But Darn Good Yarn is growing into a global brand right from my home. I’ve also seen a high rate of attrition because the love of the craft sometimes eclipses the management of the underlying business.

Recently, you’ve been doing a lot of work to promote micro-business in Maine?  Is this about getting more people to feel comfortable with starting their business?
Absolutely! The thing I love about living in Maine is the ingenuity of individuals. I look around my local community (which is rural) and I don’t see support from economic development councils but I know so many would-be micro-enterprises that need just a little boost to get them going. It’s an unfortunate missed opportunity from these organizations. So, I’m on a mission to show individuals that, “Yes! You can start a micro-enterprise or even just a side-business.” A percentage of those will turn into larger businesses, but we need to create the atmosphere of support. Take Darn Good Yarn for example. When I launched my business, I was also working two other jobs and it started in the guest bedroom of my house. I tweaked and worked hard and now I’m growing. There are lots of other Darn Good Yarn opportunities in a lot of us. So, I want to create energy and a forum for people on the edge to make the decision to launch or not.

In a recent piece on WLBZ, you talked about a “mobile business response unit” that would travel to rural area to provide public resources to gain knowledge about business? Can you tell me more about why you think this is a difference-maker?
When I had lunch at the Blaine House with Gov. LePage, I sat there and realized that there are truly a ton of resources that Maine has in-place already to assist micro-entrepreneurs. However, unless I knew about a specific program I would have no way of knowing about them out where I live. For example, I know of a business that has been running for over 60 years in the state. The owner had no idea that any of these programs were available to her business. We have these county-level economic development committees that have not done an adequate job of developing business in their own county. They’re not effective. That’s where a mobile unit comes in. If there was a unit that came to my town on say the third Wednesday of every month and this unit was equipped with a Maine “micro guru” (A term I came up with for someone who understands start-ups as they pertain to micro-enterprise and has continuous education as it pertains to micro solutions, e-commerce etc.) along with the information from Augusta of these in-place resources it would be an amazing catalyst for business development in rural Maine. The hope is that from there, the micro guru would also host a meeting with micros too so that we can have open discussions about what is and isn’t working for our businesses. In the world of micros, our survivability relies on sharing information because we can’t possibly know it all. But I think that it’s important that we have support from Augusta.

A Mobile Business Response Unit would not only be an amazing one-stop-shop for micros to launch and stay launched it would be an amazing marketing and social media outlet because it will bring small business development stories out of the woodwork that have otherwise been forgotten. These stories are important to create communities that embrace micros and eventually lead to a diversified job pool. It would create a wonderful opportunity to posture Maine as being micro friendly, which is vital for youth retention for our great state.

Did you use any public or free resources that helped you start and/or grow your business?
I read everything I can get my hands on. And when I can’t read I’m listening to audiobooks and podcasts about my industry and business development. I find my own resources and I try to stay open and creative when absorbing them and it’s helped manage my rapidly growing business.

Recently, the news reported that you’ve grown 2,200 percent since you started. Can you talk some about your attitude toward growth?
Grow or die! I took a lot of lumps growing my business and that’s a great thing. But if my prospect wasn’t to continue growing to a place where I can delegate daily operations I would burnout and slowly smother the fire I’ve built. I think micro-entrepreneurs get spooked sometimes when “growth” is talked about. Many of us want to just have a nice lifestyle and stay local. That’s totally ok! But, if you don’t factor in growth, your business will be a struggle rather than expound as an expression of what you love. I believe that our actions, even in business, can be linked back to either the emotions of fear or love. When you don’t plan or want to plan for growth you can wind up reacting out of fear to keep your business stable. Whereas planning for growth changes the intention of how you view your business and you wind up being lovingly proactive in your business.

Did you start out thinking this was going to be big?
When you reflect on where you have come, was there a moment where you thought, wow, this is going to be huge? I’ve tried to make my own luck and push for very realistic goals given what was going on in my own life. So my growth has been manageable and scalable on my terms. So, where I am right now is pretty much where I thought I would be at this point. And I know exactly how I’m going to get to my next phase of goals too!

What’s the part of your business model that you see as the ultimate advantage?
The nimbleness of my business [is the advantage]. I have individuals that work for the Darn Good Yarn brand around the globe and each of them are micro-entrepreneurs too. So we have a little army of highly motivated individuals.

By the way, we love the video that FedEx did of DGY when you received their small business award. What did it mean to your business?
Oh wow, thank you! It was awesome! I have tried to develop a business that respects and honors its supply chain. This is one of the first times in Darn Good Yarn’s history where that message got relayed effectively. It was humbling to have the support of my business family to cast votes for me and then have the corporate board at FedEx eventually choose my business to win out of almost 4,000 nationwide businesses. The astounding aspect of winning, though, was after the video was published, the emails I got from people all over the nation who said how inspired they were by my story and how they want to start a business but just have to make the leap. That’s what got me thinking about my own state and how many individuals here are probably in the same boat and they just need that push. And the award itself was an honor and I’ve been using it as a line of credit to grow my business. Since January I’ve had yet another 60 percent growth in sales!

Do you see any advantages to doing your business in Maine?
Living in the woods and in rural Maine, the advantages come from living in serenity. My peaceful surroundings allow for me to stay true to my vision and myself for Darn Good Yarn without too much exterior noise.

Have the state’s efforts around broadband Internet access been beneficial to you? Is there more we can do to support Internet commerce companies DGY?
No and honestly that’s an issue. And for Maine to be effective it needs to provide a solution for micros in the interim. In rural communities, I propose buy-in style business centers wherein a business can pay say $500 a year to utilize a center that has high-speed internet capabilities, conference room and basic office utilities like copy and fax capabilities. The bill should not be on the taxpayer. However, initially, there should be support and organizational support of launching centers like this and the operational costs should fall on the businesses that buys in. It would operate a lot like a co-op for business owners. Also, I learned that there are possibilities for amplification for broadband in certain areas in the state. My question is, “Why has my local community not looked into this?” Again, this is an example of missed opportunity on a local level and someone coming from Augusta to my local area who is current on all-things Maine development would know about and assist in taking action on.

What were the biggest challenges that you’ve overcome in your business?
It’s a challenge that I am still facing but it’s how to continue to grow without getting taken advantage of by different layers of government that seem to overly-tax the producers making it difficult to sustain growth and continue to be a job-creator.

Did you make any mistakes along the way that have given you an opportunity to be even stronger today?
Well, this just might be my personality but I don’t feel like I’ve made any mistakes. Sure things don’t always go right, but I look at them as opportunities, as a way to rock it next go-around. Being positive and resilient is key to owning a business.

What are some of the skills that you find helpful for being an entrepreneur? Some say that sales is equally important to having an innovative or niche produce, what do you think?
Yes, I agree with that sentiment. We are all sales people if we want to admit it or not. It’s not enough to have a good widget, you must have skills that sell it, account for it, file taxes for it, hire people to support it, etc. But I find juggling all of these actions invigorating. I thrive on having too much on my plate.

Not that you have any extra time, but when you do, what are you reading?
Outliers [by author Malcom Gladwell), Forbes magazine, Inc. magazine and for podcasts, “The Accidental Creative.”

What inspires or keeps you going each day?
Knowing that I am not only providing hundreds of jobs to impoverished individuals in other countries but that I am also part of a chain in the U.S. that employs and supports individuals that work for Darn Good Yarn but also supports other micro-entrepreneurs.

Any advice for other Mainers thinking about becoming an entrepreneur?
Stay positive! There are individuals that want to see business flourish in the state. After meeting with Gov. LePage and his support, I’m on a path to try and tie all of these individuals together so that we can have an amazing web not just on-the-ground but virtually too.

What does the future hold for Darn Good Yarn?
Darn Good Yarn will continue to grow and we are launching a worldwide sales force for 2014. We are also introducing a subsidiary brand that will be announced by the end of the year but let’s just say it marries wine and Darn Good Yarn!

Jess Knox

About Jess Knox

Born in Waterville, Jess Knox is a former high-ranking U.S. Small Business Administration official in Washington. Now living in Southern Maine, he is passionate about growing prosperity via entrepreneurship, innovation and startups in Maine. These days he helps companies pursue growth through his firm Olympico Strategies as a consultant and movement-maker. He also co-founded Maine Startup & Create Week