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A Well-Traveled Blog

The FRIDAY FIVE: Chicago Candle Factory

The FRIDAY FIVE: Chicago Candle Factory

Hey guys!

Tory here. Another installment of the FRIDAY FIVE. This blog series is just another way to offer a bit of transparency into our cool little world. Here, we will spotlight one of our amazing partners with five easyBreezy questions, so that you can learn more about their product, their story, and why we feel so strongly about having them be part of our crew. Today’s partner: Jared Wisbrod from Chicago Candle Factory (IG @chicagocandlefactory)

Chicago Candle Factory began as a sustainable art project in a kitchen, and they're proud to say they've remained one through their first stages of growth. The driving principle of this business is sustainability. Their candles are made in bottles they've salvaged from Chicago’s bars and restaurants and upcycled into functional art pieces that fill the home with pleasing aromas, warming light, and a little local flavor.

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1. How did you get into this craft?

"I got into this craft as a result of boredom, cold Chicago winters, and missing working with my hands. I started making candles in my kitchen for fun -- gave them to some friends, and they were really the ones to convince me to start selling them."

 

2. What has been the most challenging about this experience? What's been the most gratifying?

"The most challenging is time management in terms of brain power. It is hard to know exactly what to focus on because there are so many things that need your attention and you don't have enough attention to give.  

The most gratifying is that I don't have a boss. I spent my life being told by teachers that I had to do things their way. I never did. It seems like it might work out."

 

3. If you could go back in time to when you first started and give yourself some advice, what would you say?  

"If I could go back in time I would probably go farther than the start of just this business."

 

4. Name the top three things that have helped you grow your business (e.g., social media, shows)? 

"The top three things that helped my business grow has to be 1) people, 2) people, and 3) people: The people who save me the empty bottles from bars and restaurants all over the city. The people who help me make candles. The people who have stores who helped me get them in from of people. Dan Weiss at Dollop was a huge help. He let me sell my candles at all of his Dollop coffee shops, five locations, all across Chicago. That was my first year of business, and that exposure made a world of difference. Also the people at the Randolph Market, they put on a great event, and I did the Holiday Market my first year in business. It was amazing and I knew I was on to something."

5. How do you define success?

"My favorite definition of success came from someone else.  They said 'what is success, success is when your no means no, and your yes means yes.'"  

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The FRIDAY FIVE: SUSU Accessories

The FRIDAY FIVE: SUSU Accessories

Hi Kiddos!
Another installment of the FRIDAY FIVE. This blog series is just another way to offer a bit of transparency into our cool little world. Here, we will spotlight one of our amazing partners with five easyBreezy questions, so that you can learn more about their product, their story, and why we feel so strongly about having them be part of our crew. Today’s partner: Laura McMahon from SUSU Accessories (IG: @susu_accessories)

SUSU Accessories are made by the women of the Wayúu tribe in La Guajira, Colombia. These ladies are all heads of household, and they use their art of knitting to support their families. It takes years for a knitter to become a master of her craft, and often they learn by making smaller pieces like these bracelets (then move on to larger totes and bags). They practice their ancient art not only for survival, but as a sacred art of devotion. 

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1. How did you get into this craft?

"Initially, this was my cousin/business partner’s idea. Nadia came to the United States from Colombia, South America about 7 years before me, and she saw that the Wayuu art and their handbags where nowhere to be found here. She saw a business and social opportunity, since she knew first-hand about the Wayuu way of living, their struggles and how their art wasn’t being valued as it should. She and I also grew up with Zulima, who happens to be our third partner and has Wayuu family.

Once Nadia and Zuly started Susu Accessories, they brought me in, and the rest is history!"

2. What has been the most challenging about this experience? What's been the most gratifying?

"We are three professional mothers with backgrounds in Economics, Electrical Engineering, and Language Arts. We are all very driven and smart, but running a business isn’t something any of us had done before. So, while not an obstacle, we find ourselves in a constant state of learning -- both from our experiences and from others. Also front and center is being able to manage our resources in a responsible way, without losing sight of the social aspect of our enterprise. This is and always has been giving the Wayuu, our artisans and partners, their worth, as well as helping them grow as we grow.

The most gratifying part has been to see the results of our labor; the recognition of our brand globally; and the fact that our clients know our work and can differentiate it from anyone else’s. People now not only want a cute, unique, handmade product; they want a Susu bag/bracelet/tote that they know is fashion forward, while being made to the highest standards of fair trade."

3. If you could go back in time to when you first started and give yourself some advice, what would you say?  

"Don’t stress too much about the failures. You will get to learn a lot from them and build something better as a result of them."

4. Name the top three things that have helped you grow your business (e.g., social media, shows)? 

"--Social media for sure! We sell a lot in places like China and Thailand thanks to Instagram.

--Shows and Markets because when people get to see, touch, and try on our products, they love them. Also, our story and background resonates with the socially conscious client.

--Sales representatives our now a part of our team, and with them we have grown even further."

5. How do you define success?

"Getting paid to do what you love!"

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A rising tide lifts all boats. THE FRIDAY FIVE: with Vault Furniture

A rising tide lifts all boats. THE FRIDAY FIVE: with Vault Furniture

Since opening shop a few months ago, I’ve had people come up and ask me why I’m so transparent about our partners, about where we go to source our product, etc. It honestly never occurred to me to be cagey about this. One of our nearest and dearest partners Andrew frequently says “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and that’s how we feel about it, too. If a Big Box, or any other shop decides to pick up one of our partners, that’s simply more work for them — and we want to see that success grow.

The Friday Five series is just another way to offer a bit of transparency into our cool little world. Here, we will spotlight one of our amazing partners with five easyBreezy questions, so that you can learn more about their product, their story, and why we feel so strongly about wanting them to be part of our crew. Today’s partner: Vault Furniture (IG: @vaultfurniture)

How did you get into this craft, and is there any significance behind the name?

“Andy grew up with a passion in mechanics and carpentry. From an early age, he showed talent in construction, and as a teenager he could bring crippled machinery back to life. After high school, he attended WCC for commercial construction & welding. Unfortunately, construction had come to a screeching halt due to the recession. This led Andrew to continue his education at MIAT in the field of power generation. After working on wind turbines in North Dakota for a year, Andrew came home and met Brandilyn within the first week.

Brandilyn Dunkel has had an eye for design since she can remember. She excelled in art classes and expressed herself through fashion. It was this passion for creation and form that led her to graduate in Commercial Interior Design from Michigan State University. Similar to Andrew, her ideal job was unattainable due to the recession. So she worked as a partner in her mother's Cabinet Studio. It was here that she learned essential business skills, while she designed custom cabinetry. It was three years after graduation when she met Andrew through a mutual friend.

About two months into us dating, we went out to dinner. Neither of us were satisfied with our current jobs, and we knew we wanted to own a company someday. We had noticed a new trend of industrial furniture on the rise and were joking around about how we were in the wrong industry...Then we realized that we had all of the skills, and a barn!, where we could build furniture. That was on a Thursday night. The following Saturday, we met at Andy's family’s barn and began cleaning. And after about a year of working Vault solely on the weekends, we decided to make the move from Ann Arbor to Chicago.

We decided on Vault because we loved the idea of what a Vault is. A chamber that is typically underground or very safe/ well constructed that safely stores valuable items. Access to the Vault is exclusive to those who know and care about it. That is how we want all of our merchandise to be (and potentially a storefront): a Vault of great design. No limitation on what kind. Just a collection of all things beautiful, functional, and handmade."
 

What has been the most challenging about this experience? What's been the most gratifying?

“The most challenging part of our experience was moving here and starting everything on our own. It was definitely intimidating, and our families weren't exactly thrilled about it. Although, we had each other and we had the drive to keep going, so we knew it was going to be okay. The other challenging part is listening to our consumers’ opinions and taking them into consideration. Modifying our original designs can be difficult to do without losing personal style and integrity.  Adapting is key to small business, and if you can learn from what people say without being offended, we have found that you will create new designs and sell even more. :)”

If you could go back in time to when you first started Vault, and give yourself some advice, what would you say?  

“Find a trustworthy accountant from the beginning and a mentor who will tell you about the first steps..I.E. perfecting your business plan, business license, calculating your overheads. Also, always network and collaborate with your competitors, and not against them. Why not try to create more success for both??”

Name the top three things that have helped you grow your business (e.g., social media, shows)? 

“Social Media: Facebook, Instagram 2. Art shows: One of a Kind  3. Trade shows”

How do you define success?

“Success is being healthy and happy everyday. We consider ourselves extremely successful because we love each other, we love what we do, and we love the prospect of the future.”

 

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No Risk, No Reward

No Risk, No Reward

Most of you likely have at least heard of Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” concept. Founder of leanin.org, COO at Facebook, and former Google executive, Sandberg’s central theme is that women need to “lean in” more within the workforce — assert themselves more, take greater career risks, challenge themselves, envision a career as a jungle gym, not a ladder…..and resist the urge to please everyone (a never-ending, life-long battle for this chick).

This is definitely something I’ve been struggling with since the day I decided to go into retail and open Jaunt. If there are pressures for working women (and a fair amount of guilt - more on that in a moment), those pressures are magnified for female entrepreneurs. 

On the personal side of things, I didn’t have the slightest clue how much work would be involved to get this business off and running. Currently, I (along with Mark, obviously) spend about 10 hours per day minimum working on Jaunt — from talking about brand awareness, to figuring out new marketing tactics, to managing supplier re-ups, to scoping out new artists, to overseeing 15+ custom orders, to handling logistics with our business partners overseas. This is on top of a 35-hour consulting gig that has given me a small financial cushion to inject more money into the shop, and for that I’m eternally grateful….Oh, and then there’s the family…with four tiny kiddos to-boot, and Jingle (the cat). 

Since summer has started, I find myself apologizing profusely to my kids for being gone. I’m gone a LOT. This is where the guilt comes in. The Kids Zone is great, b/c they can come into the shop and draw, or help me clean, or stick their noses in the ever-awful iPad…or stamp price tags…but they can’t hang out there for six hours a day when customers are filing in and out. I feel the worst about being gone from my daughter, Violet. I have had a lot of conversations with her lately, in which I try to explain that I’m trying to build a business that we may someday be able to pass down to her. I want her to know that she can be smart as boss, and BE the boss, if that’s the path she chooses. Either she’ll grow up and be proud to have seen this example set for her, or she’s secretly brewing a lifetime of resentment towards me and will need a shrink until she’s 50. But her furniture will be absolutely FABULOUS. 

Either way, I have to believe that if I were not feeling this uncomfortable, this nervous, this scared about whether I’ll be able to afford the shop’s rent next month, that I have not leaned in enough. If I’m not nervous, then the stakes aren’t high enough. A few things that have helped me through:

1. An awesome support system of other working women and entrepreneurs (men and women);

2. Some lofty goals; and

3. The realization that I'm incredibly lucky to have this opportunity. 

There are massive personal and financial stakes wrapped into this little idea of Jaunt, and maybe in 10 years, I’ll be able to say “I remember when the driveway was crumbling all around us, and the toilet seat in the upstairs bathroom was broken and we couldn’t buy a replacement?.” Until then, I will watch the sun set over our crumbling driveway, and I’ll never understand how a toddler can break not one, but two, toilet seats. Maybe Violet will come with me to Home Depot this time.

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Brick and Mortar Isn't Dead, But I May Be Dying From Exhaustion

Brick and Mortar Isn't Dead, But I May Be Dying From Exhaustion

Starting a brick & mortar store has been a little bit like picking up what you think is an iced cold glass of water, then realizing you’ve accidentally scooped up yesterday’s rancid OJ. I mean, it’s still a liquid. It *would* fight dehydration if you were totally lost for dead in the Sonoran desert in the middle of July. 

It’s a simple mis-alignment of expectations. What you think will immediately be smooth, refreshing, satisfying, easy to digest….becomes a pulpy, frothy, thick sour gulp to swallow. And you may get more than you bargained for, like a raging case of desert OJ diarrhea.  It’s all fun and games until you get your monthly $X,000 rent bill, and the state immediately wants your $X,000 in sales taxes every four weeks, and you realize your displays look like total poop and half your items are priced with a nasty brown tag and a black Sharpie. Speaking of, really nice white tags on the way you guys.

When we first opened shop ninja-style last December, we knew absolutely nothing. Like, NOTHING. We were starry-eyed entrepreneurs who love art, love design, and loved the idea of bringing a touch of urban to the 'burbs — *and* do it in a way that was far different from the standard big-boxes. Need a custom order? Totally! Want a sanity check on a paint color before you pull the trigger? I know every BenMoore color there is, sister! Need some inspirational photos for that empty space? Here’s a 10-page Google doc of inspiration! 

Our first 40-foot container of imports came packed full of rookie mistakes. Suppliers who didn’t properly kiln dry their wood, pieces splitting on us left and right, gorgeous teak, resin, and crushed glass tables smashed to smithereens because they were packed in *corrugated cardboard.* CARDBOARD, people. I always joke that there’s no learning curve. It’s straight vertical. No job was too small, no dollar or product not worth chasing. Pretty soon, we were run ragged.

It was early March when brain agility came into play, and the mission changed. We got pickier about what we're willing to stock, even if there is SO much out there that we'd love to have in the shop. And while we will always bring in exotic pieces from overseas from suppliers who have proven their quality and craftsmanship, we now stress the importance of having an artist or craftsman from each of the 50 United States represented. So far we have 10 states and districts represented: IL, MI, WI, ME, TX, OR, TN, SC, VA, DC, and this list will continue to grow. We want to strike a balance between high quality, stylish furniture at an affordable price (NEWS FLASH: your big-boxers all import, people - they just don't bother passing the savings off to you), and supporting artists throughout the United States who are masters of their craft, and capable of producing some amazing and sometimes high-end pieces. 

So we'll keep adding and changing ingredients until that...unexpected drink...turns into something fun and refreshing with every sip. And when I see headlines like: 

Amazon is trying to chip away at brick-and-mortar stores’ last big advantage 

I instantly think of all the feedback we have heard since opening: 

“THANK YOU for opening this lovely shop.” 

“It’s *so* nice being able to see and feel it before buying it.” 

"You're like Restoration Hardware but more unique"

“Boy has this town needed something like this.” 

“Omg, what…you do custom orders? I’m sending you a Pinterest board!”

See, brick & mortar isn’t dead. At least this one isn’t, and it won’t be any time soon. Until then, we’ll ride that straight vertical learning curve to the MOON. 

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What Other People Say of You When You're Not In the Room

What Other People Say of You When You're Not In the Room

One of the things I admire most about Amazon is their brand recognition: Fast, Reliable, Has Everything. Like….I could literally order seven million, tampon-covered duvet covers on a Thursday night, and they would show up in a cute little, unobtrusive brown box first-thing Fri AM. Jeff Bezos, I’ll give you two thumbs up the moment you can LITERALLY deliver tacos to me by drone within a five-minute period. But even so, I'm still pretty impressed. 

Amazon's operations are immense, and their $6.4 billion in retail subscription services are clearly illustrative of a monstrous following. And Jeff Bezos (its founder) is notoriously protective of its brand and culture. Of brand, he says it's "...what other people say of you when you're not in the room." We think that's pretty on point.

I think about companies like Amazon, Google, McDonalds, Starbucks, Target, etc. a lot. Like, a lot, since opening the doors at Jaunt. They are so on-point with their physical branding, space planning and decor, color palette, messaging, and products that you never doubt where you are. Whether you’re in Cedar Rapids, IA, Boca Raton, FL, or Denpasar, Bali, a Starbucks is a Starbucks is a Starbucks. And those JavaChip Frappacinos??? They will destroy your Paleo diet equally well in every hemisphere on Earth.

At Jaunt, we continuously work to maintain our agility by playing a game called “We are, we are not” — a concept taught to me by an amazing neighbor who has spent decades in C-level positions throughout the corporate world. This exercise allows us to understand whether a single decision we make (i.e., should we hang this chair on the wall? Should we invest in urban onesies? Should we pivot to only US-made?) aligns with our brand, and by extension the experience we want to offer our customers. Not only does this exercise give us clarity in our overall mission, it often allows us to say “no” to certain questions we’re struggling with at any given time. 

There is always an overall vision, but it is natural and healthy for that end-vision to continuously change. It’s a delicate balance we must strike between realizing our own business goals and objectives, while aligning our products and our services with the end users who are trusting us to make them happy. I think about how we are doing this in a single town (for now…), and Jeff Bezos is doing this on a global scale. Puts things into perspective. Never stop learning, never stop changing. 

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An Agile Approach to Retail

An Agile Approach to Retail

An Agile Approach to Retail

Given our backgrounds in IT and software development, it’s tough not to draw comparisons between that world and Jaunt. In both worlds, we prefer the Agile Method. Agile is a flexible, adaptive approach where a product (software, retail store, whatever) is built rapidly and then continuously improved. Just so we don’t get too geeky about it, let’s call the key ingredient out for what it is: hustle. In software development, and in building a business, you have to HUSTLE: don’t be too precious about your concept, listen to your audience/customers, adapt when needed, and get something cool into as many hands as possible so you can revisit and refine. Don’t spend forever building in a vacuum only to find out that your concept sucks, or that you’ve lost the motivation to make it a reality. Get your idea out there. Iterate. Improve. This isn't just for retail startups!

When we first came up with the idea for Jaunt, we didn’t know a whole lot except we wanted:

  • To offer statement pieces that were different from what the big box stores could offer
  • To stay in a price range that was achievable for most people
  • To offer funky urban style out in the ‘burbs

That’s pretty much it. And we’re learning that, like art, it’s tough to engineer a compelling experience for your audience or customers but you know it when you see it (and hopefully you know it when they see it, too). So we made what felt were smart selections for our key ingredients: space, inventory, branding, customer service. We built a business model and our initial investments around those things. And we’re still trying to figure the rest out.

Every week, we review our space planning, online presence, pricing strategy, signage (or, usually, lack thereof), merchandising, technology, and partnerships, and, like good software, roll out as many updates and improvements as we can. Listening is a super-important part of these exercises; listen to your customers, your partners, and your instincts. Ask people what they think. Don't let anything be too precious that you can't change it and move on. We're still making changes on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis, and that's what makes this fun.


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Bringing the City to the Suburbs, Part 3: Building Out

Bringing the City to the Suburbs, Part 3: Building Out

Brick and mortar retail is dying. At least, that’s how many experts are reading the recent poor performance of several large retailers. Being cocky young entrepreneurs, we naturally feel like that doesn’t apply to us. We aren’t interested in building up a sophisticated storage and logistics operation, or selling mass-produced junk that you can see just as easily online as you can in person. One of the things we love about great boutiques is the discovery aspect of them: here is a piece that inspires, that you never knew even existed, that you have to see and touch in person. You just can’t do that shopping online. 

Our search for retail space in our hometown yielded a lot of choices but few contenders. Furniture takes up a lot of space but our budget was limited. There are some very important metrics for retail space dealing with inventory turnover and sales per square foot, but when you have a brand new business and no historical data it is difficult to factor these into prospective locations. Instead, we focused on locations with high foot traffic, complimentary businesses nearby, access to public transportation, and on-site amenities like window space and storage. We also found that commercial real estate should be much more of a partnership than personal real estate, though (unfortunately) not all of the property owners we met with seemed to see it that way.

After a few false starts, we found it: a former bank next door to a wine bar owned by good friends of ours, within walking distance of the train line and other shops and restaurants in downtown Arlington Heights. A perfect spot for home accessories, home furnishings, and decor (and awesomeness): lots of window space, lots of back office and storage space too.


At 5,000 square feet, it was much bigger than we’d originally planned and budgeted for. Remember what I said about it being a partnership? The owner gave us a great deal on rent and other incentives in order to fill a space that was vacant for 9 years and get us started off on the right foot. Much like personal real estate, the process and the build out took much longer than expected. We had hoped for an October opening, but ended up finishing just in time to open our doors the week before Christmas! I would say a few words about our budget during this time, but I’d start laughing so hard I wouldn’t be able to finish typing. Our landlord did cover most of the build out, though (remember: partnership!). 


Having received our first shipment in early Fall, we were now officially a Real Boy. Doors open!

Next up: the real work begins.

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Bringing the City to the Suburbs, Part 2: Buying Stuff

Bringing the City to the Suburbs, Part 2: Buying Stuff

Now that we had our idea, it was time to put our money (and our time, and our sanity) where our mouth was. First question: where should we source in the first round? Google was, and continues to be, one of our best advisors in all areas of the business. We looked at global marketplaces like Alibaba and made inquiries, but ultimately decided there wasn’t enough transparency and intimacy for newbies like us. Heading to China and India likewise seemed a bit daunting. We settled on Indonesia for a variety of reasons: a good partner there (back to that in a second), ease of access, broad coverage of diverse product types, and solid craftsmanship.

A quick word on partners: if you own a business that sources products from overseas, then a reliable, trusted partner is worth his or her weight in gold. This is the person that helps you select the right suppliers, negotiates pricing, performs quality checks, distributes payments, and coordinates local shipping among many other things. Pro tip: when selecting a partner like this, make sure they aren’t compensated by any of the suppliers - only by you. We (read: Tory) also spent a lot of time putting together look books and other materials to share with our sourcing partner to communicate our brand and style: eclectic, unique pieces spanning a variety of genres from industrial to French country. 

Many Skype meetings and e-mails later, I was buying a plane ticket and Tory was strapping on her Wonder Woman bracelets to manage our four kids for a week. Just over a month after Tory had the idea for the store, I was touching down in Indonesia for the first buying trip. It was a grueling trip: slogging through Dubai, dealing with the sun and heat in Indonesia, being driven around by our partner.

Seriously. Grueling. 

Ok, maybe not so grueling. However, I soon learned much respect for anyone who is a buyer, or who performs that function for their own business. My first trip included a lot of dumb questions (by me), great questions (from our sourcing partner), and generally me making several trips to each supplier as I tried to guess what to buy and how much I needed to fill a retail space we didn’t yet have. I did have my trusty look book in hard copy provided by my brilliant business partner back home, and nightly discussions of what I found that day and where I should go next. Another pro tip: Internet speeds vary by country, so come up with some creative ways to collaborate and share large files (like pictures) if you need to. I did a lot of puttering while I waited for uploads to Google Photos.

The puttering was grueling, too.

As my first buying trip drew to a successful close, I headed back excited to hop on the next phase: finding a space. We’d soon find out that wasn’t quite as easy as we’d hoped.

Next up: putting the Store in store.

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Bringing the City to the Suburbs, Part 1: From Washington to Chicago

Bringing the City to the Suburbs, Part 1: From Washington to Chicago

Almost two years ago, after 14 years on the East Coast, my wife Tory and I moved back to Arlington Heights. We came back primarily to raise our four small children, and to be closer to Tory's family. I drove the moving truck, which was packed to the brim with acquisitions made over the years from local artists and from our travels in the US and abroad - unique things, each with their own story. 

Finding ourselves in the land of big box stores and chains, it was really tough to find similar items with which to furnish our new home. Our choices were to go high-end and pay top dollar, or make do with mass production (and lower quality). We made countless trips into the city to find cool, funky, local shops like what we'd had in DC. It was on one of those trips that my wife had an epiphany: what if we could bring one of those funky city boutiques out here to the suburbs? And we could carry the same kinds of unique, handmade things we love! And at great prices! And we could have pony rides!

Livestock aside, this wasn’t the first time the subject of opening our own business had come up. We had both worked in the Information Technology field for most of our professional careers, and we were ready to change to something more tangible, and more artistic. Having worked at startups, both my wife and I knew a little about running a business. I attended art school for a few years and she had been studying interior design, so we at least had a basic sense of style. Finally, we had in Arlington Heights a great community and a great opportunity to contribute to a fast-growing downtown area. None of these things in any way qualified us to build a furniture and home decor business, but that’s exactly what we did. All that remained was finding a storefront, filling it with furniture from……somewhere, and figuring out the finances. And making sure someone was watching the kids. And, at least initially, keeping our day jobs. Easy, right? 

Next up: Globe-hopping.

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