Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Stefanie Johnson, Founder and SEO of SwapIt, located in Medford, MA, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
SwapIt is a woman-owned local business in Medford, Massachusetts, USA, that shakes up the way you shop for clothes–because you don't shop, you swap. We are a membership-based store that gives our customers unlimited access to our clothing inventory through one-to-one swaps–members swap in an item from their closets and then swap out a new item from our store. They can come in as often as they want and swap as much as they want.
All of our inventory is swapped in by our members at no cost to us. We never buy or consign clothing. This creates significant savings that we are pleased to pass on to our members. We also offer our members optional upgrades like our easy and efficient Personal Swapper service that curates a selection of items based on their specific needs.
SwapIt is for anyone who needs women's clothing. We specialize in US sizes 2 - 18. Our members include women of all ages and in all stages of life, including professionals, stay-at-home and working moms, business owners, entrepreneurs, retirees, trans women, and teens. Each member brings her own personal flair to the SwapIt inventory and experience, allowing our member's unlimited swapping options, whether they want to explore new styles or stick to what they know and love.
Tell us about yourself
Before I started SwapIt, before I was a busy mom of three, I was an ambitious twenty-something climbing the career ladder of a large social service non-profit in New York City. In those days, I never cared much about what I wore, but as my responsibilities increased and involved more and more public speaking obligations and interactions with high-level donors, elected officials, and volunteers, I found myself struggling to look put together. I decided I needed to build a wardrobe that was polished yet affordable on my modest salary. Meanwhile, my organization selected me to complete a prestigious greening fellowship. I was stunned to learn that discarded clothing is one of the biggest contributors to landfill waste: The average American throws away 70 pounds of textile waste each year, and only 15% of used clothing in the U.S. gets donated or recycled. The rest goes into landfills, giving textiles one of the worst recycling rates of any reusable material.
It was hard to reconcile my need for affordable and professional-looking clothes with this new knowledge of how the clothing industry impacts the environment so negatively. The options for environmentally friendly clothing were really limited. Thrift stores are time-consuming, and I didn't like the hunt. Sustainable clothing options were often too expensive for me. We all deserve to feel great in our clothes without guilt or stress! As a third-generation entrepreneur, I became determined to build a viable business that would help women like me who struggle to balance their values with competing priorities. And so SwapIt was born.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
For me, I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But I didn't just want to take over a bagel shop or something like that. I wanted to create something innovative that would have a positive impact not just in my customers' lives but in the world. I started the Swap Membership a week before COVID hit, so that really upended everything, and I had to invest a lot of time into figuring out how I could make it work despite lockdowns, testing, quarantines, masking, social distancing, etc. So the proof-of-concept is something I'm really proud of. I started this thing without knowing if anyone would like it, much less pay for it, but it's been three years, and we have 140 members and growing who love Swapping!
What's one of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner?
Balancing my commitment to my customers and my other life commitments–as a wife, mother of three, daughter, friend, and person who wants to enjoy a full life with many interests outside of all of these things. We are not just a small business; we are a tiny business. It's just me and two hourly employees who work sporadically. Just this week, my babysitter canceled at the last minute on a day I was going into the store and meeting with prospective new members. I couldn't find alternate child care or store coverage on such short notice, so I had to cancel the appointments and keep the store closed that day. I never want to disappoint our members or prospective members, so I added an extra week to every single member's annual membership plan at no cost to them but at a cost to the business.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
First, focus on what moves the needle. I learned this from Kate Sama, who was at the time the COO of Pepperlane, a professional association of small business owners. You don't need to spend a hundred hours and a thousand dollars making your logo that doesn't move the needle. Instead, focus on things that do move the needle, like knowing what you sell and how you sell it, what's your customer's journey and what value they get from buying your product or using your service.
Second, go slow to go fast. I learned this from a good friend and mentor, Ilene Marcus. Go slow to go fast means test the waters and be methodical about your decisions before going all in. For example, we hold an annual clearance sale that is open not just to members but to anyone. The purpose of it is to help move inventory that hasn't been swapped out to make room for more desirable pieces and to get some extra cash. The first year, I held the sale for only two days because I wasn't sure how it would go, and I didn't want to invest that much time, money, or energy into it. Thankfully, it went really well, and it's now a calendar staple. Now that I know it's worth the investment, I extend the sale for four or even five days a year.
Third, swim to the wall. I learned this from a business coach, Jessica Miller. Swim to the wall means that if you're going to do something, you've got to keep your focus and give it a real go. Don't allow yourself to be distracted by shiny objects or trends. If your goal is to swim to the wall, but you stop or change course halfway there, you risk exhaustion or, worse yet, drowning. If you stay on the path you know you need to be on and give it your best effort, you'll be surprised at what you can achieve.
As you can see, I've been intentional about surrounding myself with people who are smart, supportive, creative, and successful in their own right. I've been fortunate to benefit from their wisdom, and that's my unsolicited tip #4!
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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